Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Cheer Spreaders
By Michael
Bahia Magdalena, Mexico


Ah, the return of the large Pacific
bottlenose! All of the dolphins that
visited us up north seemed to be of
the smaller, faster varieties. This guy
and seven of his friends joined us
heading south from Islas San Benitos.
On Christmas Eve we bake goodies and pass them out to the people around us. We started doing this in Washington, D.C. and we’ve continued the tradition in our cruising life. We delivered cookies in La Cruz, Mexico and scones in Victoria, Canada. This year, Christmas found us anchored off Bahia Magdalena, a tiny community on the Pacific Coast of Baja California.

Bahia Magdalena is not D.C., La Cruz, or Victoria, it’s a haphazard cluster of about 80 small homes on a mile-long strip of pebbly beach. Some are close to the sandy road that runs along the high tide line, others are built up to a few hundred feet inland, before the backdrop of rugged hills becomes too steep. About 30 of the homes are government-subsidized construction, adobe cookie-cutter structures, about 20’ X 20’ and covered in stucco and bright paint. The rest of the homes are plywood and sheet-metal construction, some painted, others not.

There’s no asphalt and no sidewalks, just sand. There is no fencing, but about half the houses have one or more dogs that bark to defend canine territories. The few strays whimper and skirt furtively through invisible gauntlets.

All the men here fish for a living. Most use pangas, but some bait lobster traps set from the shore. There is a small church in the middle of the community and a school that serves about 30 kids. Discarded trucks and other machines sit rusting in heaps, not far from where they were last used. A small desalination plant produces washing water; it isn’t potable.

Though the residents are used to cruising sailboats anchoring out and cruisers landing ashore to explore in Tevas and sun hats, there are not enough of us to support enterprises that would cater to us. It’s a rough and raw place that has electricity for only six hours each day and no sewage system. It is a gorgeous and friendly place.

Anchored off Bahia Magdalena in December, the air temperature is about 80 degrees (F) and the water—so clear I can see my chain on the bottom 30 feet below—is about 80 degrees. Being Christmas Eve, I’ve been up since early morning making several batches of cookies, loaded with chocolate chips, oats, cranberries, and walnuts. The girls have been wrapping them, a half-dozen at a time and tying a ribbon around each. We’re all eager to go ashore and continue our tradition.

None of us gave much thought to the first few pangas that raced by, but we flagged down another and tossed bundles of cookies to the fishermen. “Feliz navidad!” the girls cried out with smiles. Then a panga filled with people motored by, too far away and going too fast to stop. Then another changed course in response to our waving and as it approached, we saw it was filled with families; we unloaded more bundles of cookies. Bahia Magdalena was emptying. Everyone was headed for San Carlos—a larger town that is 30-minutes away by high-speed panga—to spend Christmas with extended family. I urged the girls into our dinghy. We intercepted another panga on the way to shore. It was the last one.

We landed with our basket full of cookies to find the houses shuttered and not a person in sight.

Frances entering the small Bahia Magdalena church.
Then there was a person in sight, and another, and finally a few more, mostly single men in their homes. We decided that since we didn’t have enough goodies to feed the whole town anyway, maybe this distilled version was better, perhaps the few who were left behind on this holiday would appreciate our chocolate-chipped cheer.

And then Windy remembered the others and suggested we head up the trail.

The trail was a thin, well-worn line that started from the beach at the far end of town. It headed away from the water, into the cactus and sage. It wasn’t an obvious route, probably missed by hundreds of beachcombing cruisers before us. But late one fortuitous afternoon, just a few days earlier, we saw a young single guy, and then another, hundreds of feet behind the first, turn and head up this very trail.

Both men hunched from the burdens life had placed on them. They trudged along in fishing boots and with a rucksack slung over their shoulder. They were headed home, no doubt squatting in a makeshift camp a few hundred feet over the first bluff, out of sight of the lucky folks who belonged to the community.

Having spent years living and traveling the Baja in small planes, cars, and boats, we knew these men’s stories. These were the lonely, unattached, itinerant Baja fishermen, willing deck hands on any panga that would have them. They lived subsistence lives on the few pesos they earned, spending their days working aboard in the hot sun. They had nothing, but would all soon benefit from our foil-wrapped holiday cheer.

As we crested the first hill, I braced myself. I knew there wouldn’t be shopping carts, but I otherwise expected squalor like you’d find in the shadows beneath a Los Angeles freeway over-pass. It’s not good to live completely detached from this kind of poverty, insulated from the discomfort it provokes. I anticipated the scene would prompt a lot of questions from the girls.

But the plateau was empty, undisturbed, no sign that anyone had ever camped here. Then I realized how short-sighted my assumption had been. In this tree-less environment, nobody with any sense would set up camp in this exposed spot, unshielded from the sun and wind. The thin trail continued on, descending and curving around the hill ahead, a more hospitable site. I worried that we were intruding, descending on them, unannounced, me and three women. I would walk twenty feet ahead.

We marched on. I shouldered the load of our basket of cookies, a tidy wicker thing that looked straight out of a Pier 1 catalog, one of our kitchen towels was draped neatly over the top. I glanced back. The girls’ sun hats were new, everyone was clean.

Twenty feet ahead of my family, I rounded the next bend and spread out before me was at least a half-mile more of thin trail snaking up, down, and over rugged terrain, not an itinerant fisherman in sight. I looked back; the community that clung to the shore of Bahia Magdalena was out-of-view.

“I don’t think there’s a camp.”

“I don’t know. If we keep going though, we’ve got to get to the Pacific; it’s on the other side of this mountain.”

This is where we turned around,
basket of cookies in hand, no
assumed camp to be found.
The trail grew increasingly rugged and steep. We hiked on for another twenty minutes, finally reaching a precipice. Spread out before us was the Pacific Ocean we’d sailed upon almost a week before. It shimmered. Waves rolled in to crash on the beach hundreds of feet below. A few miles south was the entrance to Mag Bay.

The trail continued on down a steep, rocky slope, eventually ending at a rock outcropping that disappeared into the sea.

“There’s no camp.”

“No.”

“Then why the trail? Why did those guys come this way?”

Back in town, I asked one of the few souls remaining—just hours ago a recipient of a Robertson holiday cookie parcel—about the trail, about the men we saw walking it days before.

“Ah, si, si. Langosta!”

He explained that our hikers were lobster fishermen. We’d seen them on their way to harvest; they did this regularly. I asked him where these men lived and where they were now, eager to be the bearer of good tidings.

“They live here,” he said in Spanish, waving his hand at houses around us, “but they’re in San Carlos now with their families.”

“I see,” I said in Spanish, tilting my basket forward, “do you want some more cookies?”
--MR
Windy painted this for me for Christmas. It's Mag Bay
as seen from Del Viento at anchor. 
Eleanor opening a Christmas gift, earrings from her Auntie Pao
and Uncle Paul.

Looking south along the Mag Bay beach, Christmas morning.
This is our Christmas contingent, all of us enjoying cookies
aboard Gratatouille (US) along with the crews of Puna (Canada)
and Merida (Holland). For some reason, I can't for the life
of me get this picture to publish without Sytske's face being
cut off.

Hiking back to town, Del Viento and other boats at anchor.
This mini panga has its own trailer. On the
handlebars is fishing line.



2 comments:

  1. I love this! Christmas cookies for the town!
    The reason I love Christmas so very much is the giving to others. It might seem a small thing, giving out cookies but what you are actually doing is spreading joy. There is no greater calling than that!

    ReplyDelete
  2. what a great living..!
    Many greetings from greece.

    ReplyDelete

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