In the Air
late September I was back on the Sea of Cortés with
my sister Alice. Six hours down from the border, in the thick
of the boojum forest, we'd cut east towards the Bahía
de los Angeles, the Bay of Angels. More boojums, sandy flats, bald sun-sizzled sierra.
At kilometer 53 we first saw the sea. "Oh my God,"
Alice said.We stopped the car to take a photograph.
Did it look anything
de los Angeles was swimming with islands: tiny guano-bright hillocks,
a massive volcanic cone, and one Angel de la Guardia
(Guardian Angel) so vast it looked like
a swath of mainland, strangely near. The town of Bahía
de los Angeles, however, was a pitiful thing, far off in the
distance, a clutch of cinderblocks like a splotch on the southern
cup of the bay.
The road descended.
A trio of vultures circled as we passed through the garbage dump.
And then, hard against the barren shore, we came to the string
of ramshackle houses and ramshackle RV parks.
Park had a room behind the office. It was fairly clean, only
three cockroaches (thumb-sized, belly-up) on the bathroom floor.
But there was no water or light until 6 p.m. The deal was, water
and light from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., and from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Twenty-
five U.S. dollars, cash in advance.
Outside, by the
water, lingered a smell, faint but rank, something not unlike
raw sewage with limburger cheese. A pack of dogs lazed in the
sand. Some tables were set up beneath a palapa. A group of Americans
was getting trashed on margaritas.
So this was it,
the famous, beloved by Baja Buffs, "Bay of L.A." Even
back in 1940, Steinbeck found it too modern, with its airstrip
and its one little airplane. When detective novelist Erle Stanley
Gardner flew in with his entourage in the early 1960s, the Casa
Díaz "this most interesting
medium-priced resort" had already been in operation
for a number of years catering to fly-in sportfishermen. Judging
by the photographs in Gardner's books, Bahía de los Angeles
had grown very little in the last thirty-odd years
these few RV parks, mom and pop groceries, a liquor store, a
scattering of houses (shacks most of them) thrown up on the hill.
It had changed in less obvious ways, however. The fishing wasn't
what it used to be. And now, with the Mexican government trying
to fight the cocaine barons, closing airstrips all up and down
the peninsula, fewer Americans were flying in. The airstrip was
still open here, but there was no aviation fuel nor gasoline, for that
matter. The last functioning Pemex station was in Cataviña,
three hours north, and even there the supply was uncertain. (Alice
and I were lucky: we'd only had to wait half an hour for the
attendant to finish having his breakfast.)
It had been a
long drive down from the U.S. border, nearly twelve hours. We'd
come to a town that was poor and dusty and ugly, but: on the
Bahía de los Angeles, one of the most stunningly beautiful
bays in the world.
If only it weren't
for that smell.
The right idea
Alice had the
right idea: kick back, read, sip a margarita. But I had an agenda.
There was a museum here here of all places
and a sea turtle research station. I wanted to interview the
woman who'd founded the museum she was an American
named Carolina Shepard and I also wanted to
interview the marine biologist who ran the turtle research station.
There were no telephones (as far as I knew), no way to know whether
they would see me or not, no way to know if they were even in
town. I had two days, that was all; then Alice had to get back
to work. I'd come so far. I felt rushed, which was all wrong
for a place like thislike wearing a tuxedo
to a picnic, or trying to rollerblade through a supermarket.
I speed-walked out of the parking lot, ni modo, no matter.
Museo de Naturaleza y Cultura was across the street from Guillermos
RV Park, up the hill behind a stark, shadeless plaza and the
municipal offices. It was a modest, square cinderblock building
with reproductions of the cave paintings decorating its walls.
A gray whale skeleton was mounted on a platform out front; mining
equipment from the abandoned mines in the nearby sierra, rusted
buckets and shovels, were displayed in back. A cactus garden
ringed the little building, each plant neatly labeled. The one
by the door said: "Lophocereus schotti, Old Man, Garambullo,
edible fruit, tea for ulcers, fish poison".
The museum was
As I walked back
down the dirt road to the municipal offices, the view of the
bay was breathtaking. But again, the ugliness of the little town:
parked in the dirt in front of the offices were two dust-encrusted
police cars, both with their windshields smashed and tires punched
flat. A policeman and another man stood by the door, huddled
in a triangle of shade, watching me.
tardes," I said, that magic incantation. Did they know
where I might find Carolina Shepard?
introduced himself and shook my hand. Happy to help! He presented
me to the other man, a fisherman with a deeply creased face,
dark as pickled walnut wood. Carolina? Oh yes! He knew where
Carolina lived; he would take me there. It was right up the hill,
behind the museum. He began to walk, with strides so large I
nearly had to jog to keep up. He wore big rubber wading boots
that slapped loudly against his calves. As we passed the little
museum, he flipped his hand as if to shoo a fly, and grinned
sheepishly. "Yo no sé nada de esas cosas,"
I don't know anything about those things.
He left me at
the gate to Carolina's garden a garden of cactuses.
It was a simple, stuccoed house with a verandah. Through the
screen window I could see a livingroom: chairs, a bookshelf with
a row of encyclopedias. No one answered the bell. I left my card
with a message. Then I walked back down the hill again, the bay
a cobalt panorama before me.
Next, the sea
turtle research station. I took the car, plowing up the long,
bumpy dirt road to the north shore. Already the light had begun
fading to sepia, shadows stretching long. I followed the signs
a little turtle through an abandoned
trailer park. The asphalt was cracked and rubbly, but the cactus
and elephant trees that had been planted (how long ago?) were
still thriving. At the end sat the turtle research station, a
thatched-roof enclosure. Sea turtle carapaces were strung up
all along its sides, huge leathery things rimed with salt and
pocked with age.
The motor of
a boat made a thin sound, far out on the water. A strong fishy
smell wafted over me; the bay, I supposed, but then I realized
it was coming from inside. As was the most curious noise: snuffly
breaths like babies with a cold. I walked right in to find three
cement tanks, their rims as high as my chest. Two were empty,
but one, painted blue, was filled with turtles. There were about
ten of them, some small as a handbag, several big as coffeetable
tops. Each turtle had a green silver dollar-sized tag affixed
to a flipper. They were swimming, around and around, bumping
their noses against the sides of the tank. I watched them swimming,
ceaselessly circling and bumping. They exhaled through their
nostrils, a little phsch! ssth. The intervals between
each breath were longer than a human's. They would put their
heads back under after a breath and circle, bump, bump. Even
in the dim, the water in their tank made crazy patterns of light,
like shattered glass. I thought of Paulino Pérez's paintings,
the light, like this, alive.
Then the turtles
saw me. They crowded close, piling one on the other, slapping
their flippers against each other, and raised their scaly heads,
snuffled, blinked, frowned like dogs hoping for
las tortugas muerden," said a sign. "Caution the
I found Alice
on the sand in front of Guillermos RV Park, fiddling with her
shortwave radio. A light breeze had carried away that sewagy
smell; the air held only a whiff of saltwater, fresh and cool.
It was really very wonderful, the shush of the sea, the
sand soft between our toes. The lighthouse on Isla Angel de la
Guardia had begun to blink. It was an inky night with many stars.
There was a message
for me, the waiter said when we sat down under the palapa outside
Guillermos. Carolina Shepard had stopped by. That put me in a
good mood; and so did dinner -- fried scallops in homemade flour
tortillas, and flan for dessert, eggy rich and laced with vanilla,
the best flan, we both agreed, ever.
But then we came
down to earth. There was no light in our room. Alice, however,
had come prepared: Chemsticks from her survival kit. She took
one out of its wrapper, snapped its top, and voilà:
phosphorescent green light.
hours," she said.
There was no
Kind of special and wonderful
At 7:45 a.m.
the sun was a ball of fire, yellow-hot light streaming in through
the window of the restaurant at Guillermos. I'd left Alice still
sleeping (the Chemstick weakly glowing). I was gulping my coffee,
shuffling through my collection of newspaper clippings, making
notes -- I was still in my tuxedo, as it were, ready to rollerblade.
But I didn't have to go anywhere. Suddenly, there before my table
like an apparition, stood a slight, red-haired woman in a gauzy
purple cotton sundress. She gave me a huge sunbeam of a smile.
Carolina Shepard she held out a slender
freckled hand Director of the Museo
de Naturaleza y Cultura.
A museum: the
audacity of it. In this tiny little town of 520 people? Where
ever did she get the idea?
pulled out a chair. "You know that old saying, one man's
trash is another man's treasure? The first American couple to
build a house here decided to go back to the U.S. after twenty
years. The people who bought the house didn't want the junk they'd
collected, so they hauled it all to the dump. I saw that they'd
thrown out things they'd picked up from the mines. So I got to
thinking, lots of things must be here. We tend to be souvenir
happy. I began asking around."
was immediate and generous: local people brought in mining equipment,
snakes and scorpions, family photographs. Indian artifacts turned
up, and leather goods from the ranches. An American couple donated
a professional collection of shells. "There are 600 species
of shells in the Sea of Cortés, of which we have 500.
It's a beautiful collection."
But if the museum
was her idea, it was built, Carolina stressed, by the efforts
of many different individuals and groups. Financing came largely
from jewelry and T-shirt sales. The city donated the land. The
town's soccer team dug the foundation; a group of marine biology
students from Glendale College in California helped with the
construction; students from the university in Ensenada assembled
a juvenile gray whale skeleton that hangs from the ceiling. A
tourist from Mexicali named Fabio and a woman visiting from Oregon
did the cave painting murals. "People just volunteer out
of nowhere. It's kind of special and wonderful."
was no naive do-gooder. When the museum opened in 1988, she'd
already been living in Bahía de los Angeles for nearly
20 years, married to a local Mexican. Plus, she'd studied marine
biology at the University of California at Berkeley. The idea
of a museum may have been audacious, but she knew what was needed
and what was possible.
were challenges. The local people didn't know what a museum was;
they'd never seen one before. "They thought it was something
for tourists. It was a hurdle to make them feel the museum was
a part of their community, their history, their Sea of Cortés.
Little by little they're warming up."
I mentioned the
fisherman who'd taken me to her house the day before. Clearly
he was fond of her, yet the museum "Yo no sé
nada de esas cosas" intimidated him. I was
reminded of Todos Santos, I said, another town with an American
community and a population of locals somewhat stunned, like deer
frozen in the headlights, by change. The big change here, it
seemed to me, was the increasing fragility of the Sea of Cortés.
A museum's raison d'etre was education. Didn't that bring
her into some conflict with the fishermen?
very diplomatic. When you live in a small town you have to be.
You know, you criticize and then when you need your car repaired,
the parts just don't come -- or you run out of gas while you're
out in your boat, who's going to help you? The local people have
a very poor economy. It's problematic for institutions to tell
people, 'you can't fish yellowtail, you can't fish turtles,'
when they need shoes. That's what they do for a living. There
are not many alternatives here, there's not much know-how.
is to educate the children. The school teachers bring them to
visit the museum. And, we're now in our sixth year of offering
kid's classes in the summer. We do arts and crafts, which is
kind of new for them because they don't get that at school. A
U.S. dive shop donated snorkel equipment for thirty kids, and
another donated wetsuits and fins. So we take the kids out. We
try to get them interested in their surroundings. We go out in
a boat, we look at birds, we pick up trash, we hike in the desert.
We're trying to get kids to think: what things affect other things?
But again, it's touchy. You can't tell them their fathers or
brothers are wrong to catch, say, turtles. But we can make them
more aware, teach them about the food chain. It's very basic,
but it's new for here."
New, after all
that had happened? I had a thick sheaf of clippings about the
factory ships that used to come into the bay, and the bait boats
that wiped out the anchovies and sardines back in the 1980s --
the entire food chain, from birds to porpoises, even whales had
been affected. Overfishing had decimated all class of sharks
and game fish, as well as clams, mussels, squid, octopus, and
of course, turtles. So few were left, that in 1990, the Mexican
government outlawed turtle fishing and trade in turtle products.
the local people haven't realized what it is to deplete a species.
It's like the U.S. was fifty years ago, this eternal optimism."
Slowly, an awareness was "coming into their consciousness,"
as she put it, most notably last year when the sea cucumber population
Four years ago,
an Asian buyer had shown up. "They were bringing in a ton
per boat per day, filled to gunnels with biomass. This went on
for about three years, a big economic shot in the arm. Local
people worked as divers, then people had to gut and cook them,
then people had to cook for the people who were working. People
buy things from the stores -- lots of trickle down. The sea cucumbers
were shipped to Los Angeles; there they filled cargo containers
to go to Japan. Now there's no product left. They wiped it out.
We don't know about the life cycles of the sea cucumber, its
maturity. We don't know how it would reproduce in captivity.
And now it's gone."
Gone: like the
"mile long schools of migrating totuaba," the "massive
aggregations," "hordes," "throngs,"
and "pileups," the waters, as Ray Cannon wrote only
three decades ago, "so full of life". Fishing, I ventured,
was not the future.
percent of the income in this town comes from tourism, which
is mostly based on natural history. Less and less is sportfishing.
We don't get the Cabo crowd; there's no jet-skis to rent, no
nightlife. You either really like this place or you don't. It's
rough. You have to come to see the birds or the whales or the
desert. Hopefully we'll see more eco-tourism. And hopefully,
the museum can help get young people to stop and think. Take
care of your economic source. Otherwise it will slowly fade."
Again: that funky
smell. The dogs lying in the sand. A boat roaring over the water.
At mid- morning the air felt hot as a furnace. The light was
a white glare. Alice and I plodded up the dirt road to the museum.
little cinderblock felt like a cool drink of water. We had to
stand still for a moment, waiting for our eyes to adjust.
the ceiling, like a fantastic mobile, was the 30 foot-long skeleton
of a juvenile gray whale -- the one assembled by the students
from Ensenada. We moved forward, past the shell collection. We
reviewed a fossil collection, and dried crabs and pufferfish
and seahorses. Then: a cabinet displaying Mexican money, bills
and old coins. There was a satellite photograph of the bay; Indian
arrowheads, a skull, and a pelican feather shawl, soft-looking
like beaver fur. Partitions zigzagged through the center of the
one big room, festooned with posters and photographs, wedged
up against cabinets and shelving. Here were photographs of the
cave paintings; there, a display of leatherwork from the ranchos.
A shelf was stocked with chunks of onyx from El Mármol;
from Las Flores and San Juan, rusted shovels and picks. And too
-- not at all subtle -- photographs from the 1960s of the turtle
fishermen "harvesting their abundant crop".
But what fascinated
me in all this jumble were the photographs of local people. Here
was Dick Daggett Jr. (1893-1969), a grizzled old man in a plaid
shirt. I knew who he was -- "a rough and ready mechanical
genius," as Erle Stanley Gardner called him. Son of a sailor
and a bajacaliforniana, Dick Daggett Jr. was the town
mechanic, in fact the only mechanic for miles. In the days before
the Transpeninsular, he was the savior of many a stranded traveler.
The story of how his father, Dick Daggett Sr., arrived in the
1880s has been told in nearly every book written about Baja California.
An English sailor on a German ship bringing machinery to the
mines, he'd had a fight with the captain, and when the ship anchored
in Bahía, Daggett escaped and hid in a cave. After three
days of searching for him the captain gave up and set sail; Dick
Sr., soon to become "the Grand Padre of the Waist of the
Peninsula," as Arthur North called him, remained to work
the gold mines. And there, in a little plexiglass case, were
Dick Sr.'s binoculars, one of the few possessions he had with
him when he jumped ship. Donado por Ricardo Daggett.
"this most interesting medium-priced resort" as Erle
Stanley Gardner dubbed it, was represented with a framed blow-up
of an article about its owner, Antero Díaz. There were
photographs of his wife, Doña Cruz Díaz, and of
the airplane of "Capitán Muñoz" -- Gardner's
gap-toothed bush pilot -- parked on the tarmac out front.
And the three
Smith boys, Memo, Nene and Nelo, barefoot, their shirts hanging
out. I recognized Nene from one of Gardner's books, a jug-eared
kid in a tattered straw hat, "an alert, intelligent lad
who... did a man's work".
I was very moved
by what Carolina had done. She'd trawled through what looked
like junk and netted treasures. And if so many people had helped
her, it was because the museum mattered.
Even to Alice.
I'd thought she was a bit bored by this homemade miscellany.
But she was calling me to come look, "Look!" She had
her finger on a photograph of Doña Cruz Díaz with
an American man, mild-faced and middle-aged, in khaki pants and
A complex situation
Things had a
way of working out today. I'd gotten my interview with Carolina
Shepard; now I was back at the sea turtle research station with
its director, Antonio "Toño" Resendiz. Someone
else had gotten to him first, however, a shaggy-haired American
with a videocamera. He was divemaster from Sacramento, eight
years in Cozumel, the American said, shaking my hand. He was
discussing plans to bring down a bus load of school kids from
California: "You make it through highschool drug free, you
get to come here and experience Baja".
good," I said.
He aimed the videocamera at the turtles. "See the turtles,
see the whales, dolphins, sea lions, pelicans. Help with the
research." He pushed the stop button. "And, it's real
the divemaster went off; they had logistics to discuss. I waited,
my elbows on the rim of the tank, watching the turtles. There
was something mesmerizing about the turtles, their incessant
circling, bumping, circling. I liked the way light played around
in the tank, quivering threads and tangles. And the turtles'
breathing, phsch! ssth. In spite of the fishy smell, and
the sign Cuidado las tortugas
muerden it was tempting to lean
down, dip a wrist into that cool blue water.
dollars!" Toño Resendiz was walking back with the
American, spitting with indignation. He was talking about the
turtle research station in Oaxaca, on the mainland's Pacific
coast. "It's all political," Toño was saying,
"Salinas' show for NAFTA." Toño had a visceral,
authoritative energy, a thick brooding brow, hair frosted silver
at the temples. "Then came the devaluation, and the peso
went from three to more than seven to the dollar. Imagine!"
He looked at
the both of us, fiercely. "Before, it was three. Imagine!"
I didn't have to.
For the interview
we went to his house, upshore at the end of a sandy road, and
we sat on the porch, which was strewn with his daughter's toys
and a tricyle.
He was forty-two
years old, Toño said, born in Mexico City. He'd studied
marine biology at the university in Ensenada. When he was only
twenty-four, he'd been given a 2,000 dollar government grant
to study the turtles in the Sea of Cortés for PESCA. "The
idea was, it's OK to fish turtles, but why not some order? A
calendar? A turtle might live for a hundred years. But what is
their life cycle? Their sexual maturity?"
Soon the government
built the trailer park and gave him more money, enough for two
assistants and a pickup truck. "My generation is the hippies,
Clinton, Enrique Krauze. We had a lot of opportunities. This
was the time of petrodollars, the boom."
I was familiar
with Mexico's economic history. True, in 1976, President Echeverría
-- "arriba y adelante México" -- had
left the country in a mire of debt and inflation. But by the
late 1970s, with the bonanza of newly discovered oil reserves,
Mexico had become a major exporter. In 1976, oil exports generated
3.6 billion dollars; by 1981, they'd soared to nearly 20 billion.
Dollars washed into Mexico like a Niagara, and President López
Portillo spent them with an abandon that made Echeverría,
by comparison, look pusillanimous. López Portillo's attempts
to "administrar la abundancia" amounted to hosing
money over the economy in a random spray: expressways, theaters,
pipelines, hotels, hospitals, loans to Cuba, workers' vacation
centers, junkets, gifts to the Sandinistas, skyscrapers, advertising,
grants for research, for graduate study abroad, concert halls,
TV shows, newspapers, airports, airplanes, archeological excavations,
tortilla subsidies, movie production, museums, metro lines. Toño
Resendiz's turtle research grants were just spare change, tossed
off like a handful of pennies. It was a time of crass excess:
politicians sported Rolexes, labor bosses hopped into private
jets to roll the dice in Vegas. The wife of one prominent politician
traveled with her baby grand piano (which on one occasion involved
having to break the roof of the hotel open and lower it down
into her penthouse vía helicopter). The son of Mexico
City's mayor bought a million dollar mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut;
López Portillo himself constructed a five mansion complex
in plain view of Mexico City's expressway. Debt piled on top
of debt, until by 1982, with oil prices falling and U.S. interest
rates rising, the spigot began dribbling dry. In February, the
peso plunged from 22 to 70 to the dollar. On Friday, August 13,
with the peso hovering around 100, the Secretary of Finance flew
to Washington, hat in hand. Mexico was bankrupt.
everything collapsed. For the next two years he survived as a
sportfishing guide. During this dark period, he met Dr. Grant
Bartlett, a biochemist from San Diego. Until his death in 1990,
Bartlett sponsored the turtle station's research, donating a
pickup truck and the equipment and shed for the laboratory.
By the early
1990s, Mexico's debt had been renegotiated. With a sweeping series
of reforms liberalization, deregulation,
privatization and finally, NAFTA President Salinas had
engineered what appeared to be a solid recovery. Dollars had
begun flooding into Mexico, and once again, Toño had his
government research grants. He still worked with PESCA; older
and wiser now, he'd joined the local ejido, and was supplementing
his income by renting out palapas to campers. He'd also learned,
as he put it, "to present an image" for the turtle
research station, garnering donations from as far afield as Germany
and Japan. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted use of
their satellite. And so, to a degree, Toño was better
able to cope with the crisis that exploded in December of 1994.
As Yogi Berra
would say, it was déjà vu all over again: devaluation,
economic depression, and the evidences of corruption crawling
out of the woodwork like worms from a burning log.
All those guys with doctorates in economics! And Clinton, he
invites them to Washington and he eats with them! White collar
criminals, they're the most corrupt. They're the ones who traffic
in drugs, in children. The jails are filled with poor people!
Rich people go free, even in the United States -- look at O.J.
out towards the water, his eyes hard and at the same time, far
away. You could hear the water from here, shush, shush...
A pair of pelicans skimmed by.
years old. If I died now it would be all right. I've done what
I wanted in life."
It hadn't been
easy. With reason, Paulino Pérez had given up on the sharks
and turned to painting. But here was Toño Resendiz, after
more than two decades, still studying the turtles. He'd weathered
what he called the "surrealismo nacional". And
not only that: Bahía de los Angeles was a world away from
Mexico City's conveniences and culture. There was no gas, little
water; the electricity flickered in from generators. The town's
first and only telephone had just been installed
in a closet-sized grocery store last year. "My
friends in Mexico City and Ensenada, they think I'm crazy."
But there was
opportunity here, and Toño's efforts had yielded a resounding
success. The Sea of Cortés is an area where juvenile turtles
feed and grow. His mandate was to gather biological, ecological
and life history information, study behavior, sexual maturity,
migration and captive caring techniques, and to contribute to
an international DNA data base. Turtles were captured, studied,
tagged, and released. So little was known. For example, where
did the loggerhead turtles come from? Once grown, where did they
go? The theory was, somewhere near Japan. It was one of Toño's
turtles, a 213 pound loggerhead named Rosita, that provided the
first hard evidence. Rosita was released off the peninsula's
Pacific coast in July of 1994. Fourteen months later, she turned
up off the shore of Kyushu, drowned in a Japanese fisherman's
net. Noting her plastic tag, the fisherman alerted a local biologist
who in turn, e-mailed a colleague, Wallace Nichols at the University
of Arizona. Because Bahía de los Angeles didn't yet have
a telephone, Nichols drove all the way down to break the news
bouncing off the walls," Nichols told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"This is the culmination of 10 years of work for him."
Toño, beaming, had handed me a copy of the newspaper article.
The theory was that Rosita had swum all the way to Japan on the
equatorial current that swings south of Hawaii. As a juvenile,
she would have made her way to Baja California on the current
that arcs north of Hawaii and down the west coast of the peninsula.
A map showed the route: two arcs like a double jump-rope spanning
the 6,500 miles of open ocean.
No wonder the
turtles were bumping their noses against the sides of the tank.
We walked over
to the laboratory, the shed donated by Dr. Bartlett. Inside,
the walls were decorated with posters of whales and turtles.
A generator powered a laptop and printer. The station also measured
seismic activity, Toño said, and tides and weather. He
had an assistant, a school teacher named Félix who lived
in a trailer by the water.
One thing had
struck me, I said. He'd not mentioned anything about the precarious
situation of the various sea turtle populations. Despite the
ban, they were still being fished. World- wide, thousands drowned
in the nets meant for tuna and shrimp. Their nests were raided,
too: a single turtle egg -- prized as an aphrodisiac -- might
sell for as much as two dollars in Mexico City. It was common
knowledge that there weren't enough PESCA inspectors to police
even a fraction of Mexico's waters, and it was also common knowledge
that most were willing to look the other way for the equivalent
of twenty dollars, or less. I understood his elation about Rosita.
But it seemed so sad, I said, that she'd swum those thousands
of miles only to die in a net.
zero patience with this kind of sentimentality. "Look,"
he said. "Illegal fishing is a problem of corruption, but
it's also a problem of poverty. How are people going to live?"
Turtles were meat, especially for poor fishermen.
A different issue
was industrial shrimp and tuna fishing on the high seas, the
fleets with factory ships, spotter helicopters, miles-long nets.
what? A bluefin tuna might sell for 18,000 dollars. Really! I
told that to some reporters and they didn't believe me. There
are cases when a single tuna has sold for 62,000 dollars. All
sorts of things die as bycatch -- turtles, dolphins, birds. But
look at what somebody is getting: thousands of dollars! What
do they care if ten turtles get caught in the net? It's a complex
I could come
back, he said, and watch him feed the turtles.
Shrimp tacos twice
For lunch Alice
and I had shrimp tacos, and big, wide-mouthed icy glasses of
limeade. The straws kept popping out, skittering off the table
onto the sand.
It was the man at the next table, one of a group of Americans.
Their four-wheel drive Ford truck with a gleaming stainless steel
camper shell the size of a small house was parked out front.
"Will ya look at that!" He raised his margarita, the
same big, wide-mouthed glass. "Serious drinking there!"
limeade," Alice said.
But their attention
was already on their waiter. "What's yer name! Igor? Eeegor!
ha ha!" And the rest of our lunch was punctuated
with their calls to "Igor! Need some napkins here! Eeeegor!
Salt!" We were on our coffee when one of them started singing,
she thinks sheez got some class
baby, yer jist a horse's ass
The wind shifted
and that smell, ranker than overripe limburger, wafted through
said one of the Americans. "Who farted?"
The smell was
worse, even a few yards down the beach. The air, away from the
little square of shade under Guillermos' palapa, was grillingly
hot. We'd walked over the dirt boat ramp to Casa Díaz
next door because we were curious about Charles Lindbergh's visit.
Alice, quite the Lindbergh expert, hadn't known about it.
was a compound like a small town in itself. The rooms, in long
shoebox-shaped buildings, framed a large open yard with a stone
chapel, a mechanic shop, a Pemex station (out of business); and
tucked along a verandah, a grocery store and the offices of the
Secretary of Tourism. Behind loomed the sierra, baking in the
No one knew anything about him in the grocery store. No one had
seen the photo in the museum, either.
One of the cashiers,
a gangly-legged boy, led us outside to an old man in a baseball
cap who was resting, hands on his stomach, in the shade under
The famous pilot? He would have visited here, Alice guessed,
sometime in the late 1960s.
the old man said, brightening. "I think we have a picture."
We followed him
around the side of the grocery and into an enormous light-filled
room, a rec room of sorts, with a shelf of paperback novels gathering
dust in a corner. Everything was dusty, the floor, the broken
down piano with its chipped keys, the stacks of misshapen cardboard
boxes. On the walls hung faded family photos (I recognized the
long-gone founders of the hotel, Antero and Doña Cruz
Díaz, from the museum), and, oddly, a large framed oil
painting of astronauts walking on the moon.
is," the man said.
It was a blown-up
black and white photograph about the same size as the astronauts
painting, of a heavy-set jowly man posing in front of a small
not him," Alice said. It wasn't Erle Stanley Gardner or
Capitán Muñoz, either.
Jr. might know, the man said. And at that very moment -- we could
see through the window -- Antero Jr. was hauling his launch up
the boat ramp.
We made our way,
painfully, back across the griddle of the open yard.
boat, gleaming white as a new refrigerator, was named the Chubasco;
the same name embroidered his shiny white cap. He was cigarette-slim
and very tan and he wore a gold chain with a gold pendant in
the shape of the peninsula, which flashed brightly.
Lindbergh's visit, he said. Lindbergh didn't like to have his
picture taken. That photo in the museum with his mother, Doña
Cruz, was probably the only one. But no, he hadn't actually met
Lindbergh. He was away at school in Ensenada at the time.
this Lindbergh business. Alice had the right idea: she collapsed
on the bed in our room. But we had only one more day before we
had to leave; I hoped to go out on a skiff the next morning and
see the islands. To arrange this, once more I trudged out into
Then, late in
the afternoon, I drove up the hill, past all the little houses
that clung to its steep slope as though by their fingernails.
The sun had slipped behind the sierra and shadow, grayly soothing,
bathed the little town and the shore far below. Angel de la Guardia
still blushed a warm rosy-pink, even as the water lightened to
a pale silvered sapphire.
It was twilight
when I woke Alice up. We went for a walk along the beach. A black
dog scurried behind us for a ways up shore, its tail between
On our way back
we took a stroll through Guillermos RV Park. It wasn't at all
like the trailer park in Todos Santos, the uniformly tall shaggy
palapas, the neat, shaded patios. This was a patchwork jumble
of construction, rickety plywood and thatch, cinderblock, a double-wide
mobile home, a fussy little cactus garden rimmed with stones.
One house looked like a barn. Along shore the spaces were spanned
with constructions, shoulder-to-shoulder. Further back, the rows
were sparser. Decks had been constructed on top of some trailers
to provide a view. There was a Winnebago hooked up, and a pickup
truck and a pup-tent strung, oddly, with Christmas lights. Most
of the spaces for transients were empty; late September was the
off-season. It was dark now, but in the dim flicker of a street
lamp, we could make out the sign nailed to one structure: FOR
SALE. Just beneath the sign, under a palapa, a man lolled on
a cot in the flickering blue-gray light of a TV.
We had shrimp
tacos again for dinner. I'd made Alice sad, telling her about
the turtles, how they drowned in the shrimp nets. But not that
a diet of Garden Burgers," she said, glopping on the guacamole.
"For about two seconds."
We almost didn't
notice that stink.
A vast, strange place
We woke while
it was still dark, our room aglow with the eery green light of
a Chemstick. Within minutes, we were dressed and outside, stumbling
our way down to the beach. Dawn appeared in an instant, a peach-colored
haze pushing up from behind the islands, still stone-dark, hulking
shapes. We found our guide, Igor Galván, pushing our skiff
down the boat ramp. It scraped over the sand and settled with
a sploosh through the limpid surf. We waded into the chill,
jelly-yellow water. The skiff rocked with our weight. And we
were off, the noise of the motor buzzing through the stillness,
obscene, like a saw.
Igor was the
son of the owner of Guillermos RV Park. Tall and hefty as a college
football player, Igor was a poker-faced, almond-eyed twenty-something-year-old
with a mustache and a goatee. He wore plaid shorts and a gimme
cap that said "J&B". He'd grimaced when I'd said
we didn't want to fish. "Eco-tour," although Carolina
had used it, seemed a tad highfalutin' a term for this place.
We just wanted to "see things," was how I'd put it,
"islands, birds, whales, you know."
The stink, limburger-sewage,
was making us gag.
Igor announced. The bloated rot-brown carcass lay on shore just
above the waterline, covered with an army of birds, pecking.
I grabbed my shirt and wadded it over my mouth and nose. Alice
buried her face in her sleeve. I leaned over the gunwales and
I thought I would but I didn't heave.
the rudder and made a wide U turn on the water, arcing out towards
the northeast. "Vamos ahora a La Ventana," he
announced. We were off to Isla La Ventana, Window Island.
The sky had turned
a fragile blue, and the clouds -- at first pearl gray, then corraline
and orange -- looked bleached and luminous. The islands beyond
were raw with sun, pale now as if they were made of nothing but
sand. Was that a mist rising off the water near the horizon,
or sun- glare? "The very air here is miraculous," wrote
John Steinbeck, "and outlines of reality change with the
moment." It was like traveling into a dream, a vast, strange
place where anything might be possible. A gull swooped over the
prow, yellow legs flat against its snow-white belly. Alice's
hair snapped back in the breeze.
Far in the distance
was a milling cloud of birds.
frenzy," Igor said. As we approached the cloud of birds,
the water appeared to be erupting in little bursts. Soon the
cawing and squawking was a cacophony louder than the boat motor.
Splash, splash, splash, it was a rain of birds falling
from the cloud, terns and gulls and geese and pelicans, folding
their wings and diving, straight like bombs. Dolphins porpoised
through the melee, squealing lustily. The whole party, fish,
birds, dolphins, roiled through the water at a fast clip. We
watched them move on, towards Angel de la Guardia.
After about twenty
minutes, we motored alongside La Ventana, a rocky island striped
white with guano. A curious rock formation, a triangle with a
hole in its center, gave the island its name. Starboard hulked
the great mass of Isla Angel de la Guardia. In between that and
these smaller islands was the Canal de Ballenas, Whale Channel.
There were more
whales here in the winter, Igor said, including two or three
killer whale pods. Dolphins stayed in the bay year-round, as
did a seal colony on La Calavera, the Skull, a puff- shaped rock
frosted like a cupcake with guano.
we were rounding La Calavera, close in along black wet rocks
draped with seaweed. The seals, some 25 or 30 with many little
pups, lay basking in the sun, massed like vacationers on a beach.
The seals were a harem belonging to a huge bear-brown male, shiny-sleek
and fat. He pushed himself up on his flippers and shook himself
like a dog. Their barks sounded like a cross between a dog's
and a duck's honk, and their little snouts were sharp and whiskered.
whales take the seals down and drown them," Igor said. "They
like to play football with them."
stood up in the boat and started barking. The whole colony rushed,
squealing with terror, slapping their fat bodies over the rocks,
plosh, plosh into the water. They stayed there, watching
us, all the little heads bobbing up and down.
swim with them if you want," Igor said. "No problem."
Igor had wanted
to fish. To go out and just look at things, this wasn't his style.
We were nearing Isla Coronado, a long squiggly-shaped island
crowned with a massive volcanic cone, when another skiff puttered
by. I recognized the fisherman who'd led me to Carolina Shepard's
house. Catch anything? he asked by raising his chin. Nah, Igor
made a thumbs down. The fisherman looked at me and Alice and
mucho," it's fallen a lot, Igor confessed when I asked
about the fishing. The grouper were almost gone. "They took
out tons." But now the commercial boats were relegated to
the sea beyond the bay. "We don't let them in, we'll run
them out. They can come in to get water and food, but that's
it." Now a skiff what the locals called
a pangamight take 15-20 dolphinfish
on a good day of sportfishing. And there were still lots of bass,
sierra, and tuna. Divers could harvest lobster, octopus, clams
and scallops although not so many
sea cucumbers as before.
were tough. "A panga costs 2,000 dollars. The motor
will cost you 6,000. It costs 35 dollars to fill the gas tank.
To cover your costs you have to work, both sportfishing and for
your own account, for one full year, all day, every day."
The going daily rate charged to sportfishermen and other tourists
was 80 dollars. "And with sportfishing," Igor said,
"sometimes you get to keep the fish as a tip."
And the tourists
who wanted to see the animals?
or three weeks, we get some people, yeah."
Now we were going
to see a very pretty beach, Igor said. We hugged the shore of
Isla Coronado. At the far end of the island rose the cone of
its volcano, nude and rubble-gray. Pelicans perched on the rocks
along the water's edge in twos and threes and fours. They watched
us with their bead-like yellow eyes, their bills tucked to their
breasts like suspicious old ladies. We'd rounded the volcano
and were heading south down the west side of the island. The
shore was ruffly now with pickleweed. Above, on the crags, a
stand of cardón cactus. The sun was warm and honey-yellow.
We passed a kayaker.
lots of kayakers." But this was the slow season, Igor said.
High season was Christmas and Easter Week.
I hadn't gotten
the impression, as in Los Cabos, that Bahía de los Angeles
was booming. True, the tiny town relied heavily on tourism --
the RV parks were evidence of that. But none of them looked new.
The one by the turtle research station had been abandoned. How
did Igor see the future?
a lot about that, he said. He'd written his undergraduate thesis
at the Technological Institute in Ensenada on developing the
area for tourism. Above all, Bahía lacked infrastructure.
"To develop tourism, you need light 24 hours a day, water
24 hours a day, otherwise there's no refrigeration, no gardens."
Two years earlier a water pipeline had broken, and for an entire
year the town's water supply had had to be brought in by truck.
Sewage was handled by septic tank; none was going into the bay
not yet. The dump right on the road into
town was an eyesore. There hadn't been any
gasoline for more than a month and a half. The airport didn't
"I was offered
a job in the Secretary of Tourism when I graduated. But I couldn't
do it." He shook his head vigorously. "Office jobs,
they're for people with clean, soft little hands, right? Four
walls, no way!" He was standing up now, angling our boat
into a cove. The water was shallow here, pea-green and placid.
This was where he belonged, Igor said: water, sun, sky.
to Mexico City once. I got lost in the airport, I couldn't find
my way out. Then I got on the wrong bus..." He rolled his
eyes. "I wouldn't go back there if you tied me up and dragged
manta rays flitted over the sandy bottom. A school of fish, striped
yellow and blue, burst past bright as a spray of flowers. The
water was brindled with anchovies. The beach was a thin neck
of sand: on this side, the pea-green cove and a view of Bahía
de los Angeles; on the other, the sparkling turquoise Canal de
Ballenas and Isla Angel de la Guardia, massive with mountains.
A songbird chirped, a white butterfly fluttered in the pickleweed.
Igor took a luxuriously
this town gets a stoplight, I'm outta here."
It seemed we
were on the water for only a short time. The throbbing of the
motor lulled me into a sort of trance, half asleep yet awake
to my surroundings, the sun playing on the water, the weave and
ripple of its surface, the flocks of terns and gulls, pelicans
gliding, serene as kites. We saw the big bear-brown male sealion
fishing -- a whiskered snout, then his tail, raggedy like a shrimp's,
arcing above the surface. The islands, even the massive Angel
de la Guardia, were empty of buildings, any sign of human life.
And this, perhaps, was what gave this vast place its feeling
of timelessness. The volcano might have erupted only yesterday.
Indians might raft by; or perhaps, a white-sailed wooden ship.
The explorer Francisco de Ulloa passed through these waters in
1539. Over the next two centuries, only three parties of explorers
sailed through this bay -- beings from the sky, the Indians must
have thought. In 1765, but two years before the Expulsion, the
Jesuit missionary Wenceslaus Linck arrived. Some of his neophytes
had reported fires on Isla Angel de la Guardia -- camp sites
of unconverted natives no doubt, in need of eternal salvation.
So Linck sailed there with a retinue of soldiers and neophytes.
They found nothing, not even a footprint, no water, no animals
Already it was
afternoon when Igor aimed the boat back towards town. The light
was harsh and it made the poor rickety buildings on shore look
haggard. "WELCOME AMIGOS" was spray- painted on a rock.
A Volkswagen bus was parked beneath a tilting palapa, the ground
around it scorched. We passed Toño's turtle research station,
then trailers, first a scattering, then denser, strewn beneath
the majesty of the sierra in an ugly clutter. In front of Guillermos,
Igor cut the motor. The silence was sudden, like a death.
What's real and what isn't
Park may have been depressing, but the food was fantastic: fish
tacos, fluffy and breaded, spiked with fresh lime and green chile
sauce. Everywhere, it seemed, were these little surprises, twists
and contradictions: a museum, a turtle that swam all the way
to Japan, Mexican fishermen named Daggett and Smith. Igor Galván
had been a surprise too, a waiter and a sportfishing guide who'd
written a thesis, who wanted more infrastructure for touristic
development, yet would take off "I'm out of here"
at the sight of a first stoplight.
complex situation," Toño Resendiz had said about
the turtles, but he might have been talking about the sea cucumbers,
or touristic development, or for that matter, the role of the
museum. "It's touchy," Carolina Shepard had said. Different
groups wanted different things.
And one of the
most different were the Americans living in the RV park. I thought
of the man we'd seen lolling on his cot, watching TV. His house
constructed on a concrete pad over the
packed dirt of Guillermos was for sale. What was
he asking? What was he offering?
What on Earth
was he doing here?
thousand dollars," he said. His name was Bob Luigi. He was
a big grizzled bull of a man with a tattoo just above his left
elbow. "But I've put 26,000 dollars into it."
expensive," I said.
on what you want. You want the air-conditioner? The microwaves
I've got three microwave ovens, the satellite dish? I mean, we
I explained that
I wasn't serious about buying. I was writing about Bahía
de los Angeles. Would he show me his place anyway? He nodded
and swung open the front door.
a generator, air-conditioner, a fireplace, hot and cold water,
and a septic tank, real deep, real good." We were in the
kitchen, a narrow hallway-like space. "Two refrigerators,
sink, stove." And too, there were the three microwave ovens.
Insulation drooped from the rafters; the cramped space was lit
with fluorescent rods that dangled from the ceiling. The main
area, dim and stale-smelling, was crammed with three lumpy old
sofas and two large beds.
your bathroom." He yanked the string to a bare lightbulb.
"Really hot water." He flipped a switch on the
wall for hydraulic water pressure and turned on the sink. "Feel
that." I had to agree my hand turned bright
red it was impressive.
The dining room
was outside, a hand-hewn wooden table and chairs shaded by the
palapa, packed in with the boat and the folding cot and the TV.
He'd built the palapa so he could watch baseball games at night.
He also watched TV in the morning. "I get the satellite
feeds," he said, "so I watch Northern Exposure
at 8 a.m. Mostly though, I watch CNN."
He was selling
because he and his brother Tom were building a house nearby.
They lived in Las Vegas, Nevada for half the year, the other
half here in Bahía. Tom appeared: grizzled but slightly
shorter and without a tattoo. He wore blue swimming trunks and
black running shoes without socks.
What was it they
liked about Bahía?
here," Tom said. "It's quiet and peaceful."
coming here for the same reason," Bob said. "To get
away from the crazy people."
What did they
do all day?
in the daytime," Bob said. "Then I sleep at night."
And besides that?
Bob said. "I like to bake cookies and cakes."
barbecues," Tom said.
Bob said, "I
like to make pizza parties. We all watch football, 20, 30 people.
We make a potluck, you know, somebody brings the buns, somebody
else brings the toppings and the ketchup, we all chip in for
the meat. Good people living here."
play chess," Tom said.
Bob said, "They
get together, go fishing, play canasta, go over to each others'
houses. All are couples but us. I had a wife, but I got rid of
her. Traded her in. Gave her some money, she went away."
go camping," Tom said.
have time," Bob said. "In the U.S. you buy stuff. Here,
you make stuff. You don't have to do anything but live and die."
Didn't they get
Bob said. "It's a totally different way of doing things."
Tom said, "Your
values change. Your attitudes change."
Bob said, "Before,
you have to work. You never have enough money. Monday you're
broke. I was in the bar and restaurant business before I retired.
I had a lot of kids, maybe a dozen of them, delivering pizzas.
That was ten years ago, and they were making 150 dollars a day.
And every Monday they were broke. Kids are making the same money
today and still, every Monday they're broke. In the U.S. you're
born a consumer. You work and spend, work and spend, that's all
they teach you. But here, you relax. You're not competing anymore."
Tom said, "You
have peace of mind. You have a comfortable, healthy life."
two doctors here," Bob said. "One is here year round,
plus a clinic. They won't give you a transplant, but they're
OK. There's a good hospital in Ensenada. Mexican insurance is
good and cheap, and here the medicines are cheaper, although
they don't always have the variety you need. I had a kidney transplant
five years ago, and I've got diabetes. I spend about 3,000 dollars
a month on medicines."
what?" Tom said. "Car insurance is 135 dollars. No
way could you get that in the U.S.! There they'd want 5,600 dollars."
Bob said, "The
baby boomers, 80 percent of them will have to retire abroad.
They can't afford to live in the U.S. They have no idea! They
don't even know it yet."
So it was cheap
to live here, I said.
They both shook
their heads no. "Nothing's cheap here," Bob said. "Everything
comes from Guerrero Negro or Ensenada. Materials are double here.
People think Mexico is cheap, but only once you're set up. It
depends on how you want to be. I've got a couch, TV, you name
it, I got it."
got a work-out bike!" Tom interrupted.
don't need all this. The key is to already own your trailer
and your boat and your car. Then you just pay your rent, insurance,
food and gas. You can live like a king on 500 - 600 dollars a
As for food,
they kept their expenses down by doing their own cooking. Bob
said, "We bring a lot of our groceries down with us from
the border. And then every Thursday at about 9:30 the produce
truck arrives. All the Americans, everyone is there. You get
what you need for the week. He has a very good selection of what's
in season. Last week he had lettuce, cabbage, carrots, limes,
garlic, string beans, corn, eggs, grapes, oranges, good peaches,
bell peppers, you name it! Full of variety, all good. For meat,
there's a couple of places here that sell good meat from the
U.S., top sirloins, New Yorks."
also buy good meat in Guerrero Negro," Tom said.
use olive oil," Bob said. "I eat really well. I use
no fats or sugars."
It sounded like
a nice life. But after all, they were in Mexico. How did they
get along with the locals?
"I get along
well with the Mexicans," Bob said. "Some of them are
drunks, but they're outcasts and no one gets along with them
anyway." The big problem in his view was the ejido,
the cooperative comprised of about 200 people nearly half the population.
"They're not educated, they're not smart. There's a very
poor education system in this town. The government hasn't provided.
My theory is that they want to keep people ignorant and poor
so they can control them. The government wants to keep wages
low. Do you know what the minimum wage for a day's work is? Thirty
And you know
how many hours a day's work that is? Ten, twelve hours! It's
ridiculous. So anybody who owns a business makes a lot of money.
Everybody else is exploited. Too many kids are born here and
there aren't enough jobs. You can't blame them for going across
the border. But then they get exploited in the U.S.
it's not like people think."
wrong," Tom said, "but every town here has a military
camp. Why? To suppress people. To protect who? We get stopped
and checked five or six times coming down from the border. They're
looking for guns."
scared of revolution," Bob said. "Like in Chiapas,
all they want is food and schooling. That's all they want! Clean
water, just basic survival."
Pemex stations are closed," Tom said. "Why? To keep
people from moving around."
about learning," Bob said. "You are what you eat. Why
does the government subsidize so much junk? The government sells
lard and sugar and flour, all cheap. And the corn oil they sell,
maybe it's not even corn oil. I've tasted it, it's terrible!
I think it's a conspiracy. There are too many young people, so
the old people have to eat junk and die."
Tom said, "The
super wealthy people own and run everything. They must educate
had arrived in Bahía about six years ago, and with that,
the tele-escuela, educational programs beamed into the
schools by the Secretary of Education in Mexico City. Hadn't
they noticed a change?
are getting smarter," Bob conceded. "There's a big
difference, especially with the TV at school. On the other hand,
the more TV they have, the more trouble they're going to have.
They watch those commercials and they see all those nice cars
and clothes. They don't know what's real and what isn't. People
in this town think all Americans are rich. They don't understand
that people have saved to retire. They think we've had all thisthe
truck, the boat, the trailer all along."
good and bad," Tom said.
that was another problem in Mexico. "They do nutty stuff,"
Bob said, "like pass on curves. The truck drivers are half
asleep. And you gotta watch out for the buses! They're nuts!
They think they're pilots. I know one lady, she said, 'if I see
a young guy is a driver, I step down. I do not get on the bus.'
That's why I drive at night it's safer, there's
no other drivers. I have really strong headlights and I can see
He'd be driving
back up to the United States soon, Bob said, because he had to
have a heart bypass operation. It was going to be dangerous because
of his diabetes. He would also have to have a vein in his leg
replaced. "I'll be back here in January, I hope."
We were standing
out on the dirt walkway between the trailer spaces. We'd shaken
hands, but Bob didn't seem to want to let me go.
He pointed to
the trailer across the way, which was boarded up. "His girlfriend
got cancer two years ago. He hasn't been back here since."
The house next door had a dust-covered truck parked under an
awning. "That guy owned a trash collection business. He
came down here every other weekend in his own plane. He was a
real alcoholic. He crashed his plane and died about a year ago."
There were a
lot of people who weren't coming back. Another was a photographer
who'd been arrested for stalking an American woman who had a
penchant for sunbathing in the nude. The Mexican marines marched
him to jail, all his cameras hanging around his neck. "The
whole town knew. He sold his trailer, he was so humiliated."
And how long
had Bob's house been on the market?
years." He crossed his arms over his chest. "I haven't
tried very hard though."
On this last
evening, I decided to take Toño Resendiz up on his invitation
to watch him feed the turtles. Near sunset, I drove out to the
turtle station with Alice. This was going to be fun, I'd convinced
her. I told her how they'd piled up close to me, slapping one
another with their flippers, heads high and hoping for a treat.
A bagful of meat thrown into the tank? I envisioned a frenzied
free-for-all. And indeed, it appeared we were in for something
special, because when we arrived, several people were standing
around the turtle tank. There was Toño's wife Betty and
their little daughter, her legs dangling over the edge. Félix,
the hefty, mustachioed laboratory assistant and school teacher,
stood next to them. The principal of the school was there too,
and his wife, and two women teachers, one from Mexicali, the
other from Todos Santos.
a bag of fish offal into the water. The stuff floated. Psch!
ssth. The turtles continued circling, bumping, circling.
The fishy smell was strong, relieved only slightly by the faint
breeze coming in from the bay.
who seemed to have all the time in the world, wanted to know
what we were doing in Bahía. In turn, I asked about their
school. There were 210 children in Bahía, of which there
were 127 in primary and 37 in secondary school. They were poor,
the principal said. A work party of volunteers had just laid
the floor for the new kindergarten, his wife said.
Did they bring
the children to see the turtle research station?
to get the kids involved," the teacher from Todos Santos
said. She had long, raven black hair and a girlish, oval face.
his family had left; we were alone now with the teachers. The
turtles pecked listlessly, tiny bites. The light was fading fast,
and the water in the tank looked gray and flat. I wondered why
the teachers were here; the turtle feeding was spectacularly
uninteresting. It turned out they all lived near the turtle station,
tienes la comunidad intelectual de Bahía," said
the principal. Here you have the intellectual community of Bahía.
Carolina," said his wife. Not counting Carolina.
The key is to
educate the children, Carolina had said, and here, strung out
around the turtle tank, were the educators themselves. I was
curious about the tele-escuela, which was meant to supplement
the scarce number of teachers in rural areas. Even Bob Luigi
acknowledged an improvement. What did the teachers think?
the teacher from Todos Santos said. They all loved it. First,
because the lesson plan was fixed in Mexico City.
the students," the principal said, gesturing with his hands.
the world to them," Félix said. "They hear about
and see things they'd never know of otherwise. Before, I'd tell
them and they wouldn't believe me! Now they see it on TV and
they say, ah ha! It's especially good for technical subjects.
Their world is much bigger now."
said, We can make them more aware. What things affect other things?
I asked, "How
said one teacher. Well. "For many of them, turtles are still
food and money."
It was almost
dark. We could still see the turtles swimming below, their flippers
fat and slick. The teacher from Todos Santos gazed down at them
I wondered, had
any of them tried turtle meat?
No one answered.
I had embarrassed them. "But it wasn't illegal until 1990,"
I offered. I'd heard from many of my friends
who'd tried it years ago that turtle was really
said the teacher from Todos Santos, soft, and spongy, very greasy.
"I had turtle
once in a sausage in a Chinese restaurant in Mexicali,"
de aleta," turtle fin soup, said the teacher from Todos
But the light
was fading fast. Within seconds, we were shrouded in murk. The
turtles were only dim shapes, more smell and sound, the snuffly
breathing, a lazy sloshing.
I think I'll bring my kindergartners here to see the turtles."
It was a pretty
voice, but in the dark, I couldn't tell whose it was. It floated
out, disembodied, like the voice of an angel.
A few weeks after
my return to Mexico City, I received a letter from Alice. Apparently,
Lindbergh had stopped at Bahía de los Angeles en route
to Laguna San Ignacio, on the Pacific coast, to see the gray
whales. This was in 1965, when Lindbergh was 67 years old and
a director of the World Wildlife Fund. He was still world famous,
although he was no longer caught in the cruel floodlights of
celebrity. To his relief, in most public places, his white hair
and middle-aged paunch let him pass unrecognized.
Alice had enclosed
a copy of one of his articles, "The Wisdom of Wildness,"
which appeared in Life magazine about two years after
that trip. It was a very personal essay. He talked about his
childhood in Minnesota and the stories his father told him about
the frontier. "Woods were full of deer, he said; the sky
was often black with duck; every lake and river held its fish.
Chipewa Indians built their tepees near his home." But by
the time Lindbergh was born, the deer were hunted out, the forests
had been felled for lumber and crop land; the ducks and fish
had become scarce. The Chipewa had been shunted onto reservations.
on his career in aviation, and how he'd chosen it because it
combined science and wilderness. He wrote about the things he'd
seen from the air, the "great bends of the Mississippi Valley;
sweeps of Western plains; Appalachian, Rocky and Sierra ridges,
dividing a continent." He'd seen such beauty: caribou galloping
over the tundra, herds of elephants in Africa, tropical jungles,
Himalayan mountaintops, and "Pacific islands set gemlike
in their reefs."
His own lifetime,
he noted, had spanned the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk
and manned-satellite orbiting. (A year and a half later, Apollo
11 would rocket to the moon.) He had devoted the best years
of his life to aviation science, technology,
progress. And yet, what had "progress" wrought? He
could see it from the air: "Stumplands appeared where forests
had been... Ditches graded marshlands; dust hazed prairies; highways
and power lines kept scarring ground from horizons to horizons.
I watched crossroads become villages; villages, towns; towns
turn into cities; suburbs spill over hills." There were
fewer and fewer wild animals, and these were too often shot and
gaffed with impunity.
If he had his
life to live over, he would have chosen a different career, one
closer to nature than science. He wrote of walking in an Indonesian
rain forest, a mystical experience in which "ages turn to
seconds," and his sense of individuality meshed into the
infinitely complex web of life all around him.
Science, he argued,
needs to be combined with the wisdom of the wild. "In wildness,"
wrote Lindbergh, "...[t]he smell of the earth, the touch
of leaves, sounds of animals calling, myriad qualities interweave
to make one not only aware but aware of one's awareness. With
stars above, a planet below, and no barrier between or after,
intuition reaches out past limits of the mind..." As an
African tribesman had told him, "God is in everything...
He is in the rivers, the grasses, the bark of trees, the clouds
and mountains. We sing songs to the mountains because God is
When I put the
article down, I had a sudden vision of Lindbergh flying over
the bay. The noise of the engine was loud. The plane soared over
a great bright emptiness.