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Stranded in Loreto, Baja California

2003 Max Lent

The Chubasco nearly killed us.  We were supposed to be in Cape Region of Baja California, Mexico collecting lizards.  We were supposed to have driven down the West coast of Mexico to Mazatlan and taken the ferry to LaPaz.  We were supposed to be finished with our assignment and back in Los Angeles bragging about our success.  Instead, we drove the length of Baja California on one of the worst dirt roads in the world.  Because of a rubber strike we attempted to make the trip using cheap two-ply tires supplied with our university issue truck.  One day, south of Mulege, we had two flats minutes apart.  That meant that we could fix one, but couldn't drive on.  We were stranded. 

One of our team of three stayed with our truck while two of us attempted to walk south to the next town, Loreto with our flat tire.  We knew that there were no tires to be had in Mulege so Loreto was our only choice.  Being stranded in a desert during the summer on a road not well traveled was an adventure.  Having to push a flat tire a dozen or miles south to the next town in temperatures around a hundred degrees was dangerous.  What happened next pushed our experience into the range of extremely dangerous. 

While we were pushing our tire across the desert we were aware of distance and how little we covered over time.  We came upon  a tiny poverty stricken ranch called a ranchito.  The ranchito was situated at a road junction.  Our choices were limited.  The ranchito choice won.  Huge cumulonimbus clouds forming to the south also suggested that we ought to stay put.  Either we continued on and risked dehydration and starvation or we stayed at the ranchito with the hope that a truck would come by and give us a lift to Loreto to the south. 

Approaching the ranchito time speeded up and distance came to an end.  The excitement of finding habitation took our minds off how far we had come and how far we had to go.  We were at a destination.  After meeting our hosts and explaining, mostly with hand gestures and the dozen or so Spanish words we knew, our condition, time started to slow again.  Everyone at the ranchito went back to their everyday tasks of survival.  Our novelty wore off in about an hour and we weren't interesting anymore except to the little children. 

There was nothing for us to do, but sit and wait.  To get out of the way we sauntered to the edge of the bare dirt yard and sat.  Time slowed again.  Because we were doing nothing time seemed to go painfully slow.  Our next event would be night.  If we were lucky, we might even get something to eat.  We were hungry, but didn't have the courage to ask for food from a family that had barely enough to eat as it was.  We had been offered water and we drank it.  As we sat still, time slowed and we became intensely aware of our austere surroundings.  Only the flies were busy.  The buzzed us and tried to land on our skin, in our ears, and up our noses.  They got between our eyes and our sunglasses.  If we opened our mouths they flew in causing us to cough and choke.  The challenge for the remainder of the day was to shoo off the flies.  A solution came to mind.  I took off my T-shirt and put it over my head leaving only a portion of my face visible.  I then put my blue denim work shirt back on.  With the tail of the T-shirt tucked into my work shirt and my sleeves rolled down, I exposed very little skin to the flies.  The full coverage was hot, but there was satisfaction in knowing that now the flies were frustrated.

When the family sat down to dinner they sent a couple of children out to invite us to join them.  We tried to resist and put up a fuss, but our hunger and their persistence won.  We sat at the end of a bench table and ate rice and beans.  The food was primitively prepared and not very good, but it was food and we felt lucky to have it. 

The storm clouds we saw to the south were part of a massive Chubasco or hurricane heading straight at us..  Heavy rains, water filled streams, and hurricane force winds kept us stranded at the ranchito for several days.  Without the hospitality of the family who invited us to stay in their chicken coup and fed us, we would have died.

We were isolated from our world.  No one at the ranchito spoke English.  The tiny transistor radio that hung from a post supporting the thatch roof played ranchero music most of the day.  We tried to listen carefully to hear weather reports, but understood nothing.  Mexican radio stations use some kind of echo generator for all of their spoken word announcements.  Announcers sound like they are speaking from a huge cave.  The speaker of the little radio was so poor that even if we could understand what the announcers were saying, we would not have heard them clear enough to make out what they were saying.  The radio's batteries would wear down causing stations to drift in and out. 

The storm blew on and an army truck heading south toward Loreto stopped at the ranchito and gave us permission to hitch a ride with them.  Had we attempted to roll our flat tire to Loreto we would have died because it was much further than we had guessed.  We would have run out of food and the heat would have eventually killed us.

In Loreto, we got our tire fixed and headed back north to our truck.  What we saw when we arrived frightened us.  The truck had been jacked up waiting for its missing wheel when we last saw it.  Now it was at least 20 feet from where it was.  It had been blown off its jack and to its new location by winds of the hurricane.  Our collegue was nowhere to be found.  There was no note, nothing.  We worried whether he had died in the hurricane.  We wondered if he had died trying to walk north to Mulege.  If he had made it to Mulege we were going to be upset with him for abandoning our truck and all of our belongings.

With the repaired tire on the truck we drove north looking for our colleague.  We drove slowly looking for any trace of him, hoping that we would not see a bloated body lying along side the road baking in the sun.  Out of nowhere another truck came upon us from the north.  Our colleague was waving wildly to us to stop.  The story we heard was that when the weather started turning bad he hitched a ride into Mulege.  He thought that we had been killed because he knew that two people crossing the desert on foot in such a storm could not have survived.  His story somehow made it back to Los Angles and the two of us who had walked south were reported dead.  Being reported dead is an interesting experience.  It's like an out of body experience where all those in your world know something that you don't.  It's not altogether unpleasant, it's just a little odd.

We weren't dead and we managed to drive south to the seaside town of Loreto.  Loreto experienced extensive damage from the Chubasco and as a result there was no telephone, telegraph, or radio communication to the rest of the world.  In a way it didn't matter, because, like elsewhere in Mexico, there was a religious holiday being celebrated.  What all of that meant to us was that we couldn't tell anyone that we were alive or that we were nearly out of money.

We couldn't afford lodging so we rented space in a concrete building that was under construction.  We had a roof over our heads, but not much else.  Our food supplies and our money were nearly exhausted and we had to save enough money to telephone or wire home for more money.  It was time for desperate measures. 

I hate to fish and I realize saying so will probably keep this story from ever being published in a men's or sports magazine.  However, if fishing meant eating I would do it.  In our emergency gear box we had a little fishing kit.  It was a kit designed for backpackers.  It could easily fit in a pocket because it had no fishing pole.  There was an assortment of hooks, a bobber, a lead sinker, and some crude line wrapped around a little wooden frame shaped like #.  With that I set out looking for dinner.

I had noticed on several walks around town that in the late afternoon men and boys would show up at the pier to fish.  Most only stayed for a few minutes and no more than half an hour before they caught their dinner.  If they could do it, I could do it, I presumed.

Evenings, just as the sun is setting, almost anywhere on the shores of the Sea of Cortez are beautiful.  The air is warm, the water clear, and the small of salt water is in the air.  On the pier, about a dozen men and boys in ragged clothes were fishing.  Some of the men had fishing poles.  The boys were just using line and hooks. 

I begged some bait from a man and put it on a hook and lowered my line into the water below the pier.  Following the instructions with the fishing kit, I had a sinker at the end of my line, a baited hook, and a bobber float to keep the baited hook from sinking to the bottom.  I was doing everything right.  Nothing happened.  I jiggled the line and nothing happened.  I moved from one side of the pier to the other and still nothing happened.  I felt like a failure.  I was also more than a little hungry.

A young boy of ten or so years of age came up to me and started making fun of the way I was fishing.  I didn't know enough Spanish to understand how severe his critique was, but the words very and stupid came through my mental translator several times.  The boy tried to tell me what to do, but I was also stupid when it came to following his, obvious to him, instructions.  He gave up trying to instruct me by talking to me and grabbed the fishing line from my hands.  With great agility, he wound the line back onto the # shaped holder and asked to see what else was in my fishing kit.  He was delighted to find a treble hook like the one pictured here.  He took the sinker, the hook, and the bobber off my line and replaced it with the treble hook.  What he did next amazed me.

He lowered the line with the treble hook on the end into the water near one of the pier pilings and suddenly yanked upward on the line.  This process was repeated five or six times until he snagged something.  What he snagged was a fish about half a foot in length.  I thought that the fish looked a little small for dinner, but several of them would work fine.  I was about to thank the boy for the fish and take back my line.  The boy had other plans.  He shoed me away and pointed at the the fish and the hook to direct me to pay attention.  He removed the treble hook from the fish and removed the hook from the line.  He then picked out another large hook from my kit and attached it to the end of the line. The hook was inserted through the tail of the fish forward of the tail fin.  I was pushed back and out of the way of the boy who started twirling the hooked fish over his head before releasing the line in a direction away from the pier.  When the hooked fish hit the water it swam away from the line pulling on its tail toward deeper water.  Within less than a minute the line went taut and started zipping through boy's hands.  Something had eaten the hooked fish and was rushing away from the pier.  My heart started pumping fast with the excitement.  Everyone else on the pier was so busy pulling in their own fish that they didn't take notice of our drama.  The line was pulling hard and the boy had to step back a couple of times to prevent being pulled over the edge of the railless pier.  Slowly the boy pulled the line in and brought a two foot long fish onto the pier.  He picked up a rock and hit the fish on the head to kill it and then looked up at me and smiled.  He knew that I was impressed. 

The boy gesticulated to me that it was now my turn and gave me the hook and line with an expression that said it is easy and you must now do it.  I followed the boy's instructions and caught several fish of about the same size or larger.  Killing the fish was difficult to stomach, but our stomachs were what this was all about. 

We took our string of fish to a nearby restaurant and offered them to the owner in exchange for their cooking one for us along with some rice and beans.  The fish was excellent.  The rice and beans made an excellent accompaniment.  After dinner, we walked back down to the pier and contemplated how lucky we were to be where we were and how much we missed home.  It's strange how both emotions can sometimes be present at the same time.

After several days of waiting out downed power lines, a Mexican holiday, closed offices, and bad telephone connections, we finally made contact with my girlfriend, Tina, in Los Angeles.  She wired us some money and we were soon back on the road heading toward the Cape Region to fulfill our lizard collecting mission. 

What happened next?  Well, that's another story...  Would you like to read it?  Write to the author Max Lent.

 


 
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