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October 17, 2009

Baja California: Dia Numero Cinco - Retorno a La Paz

I am alive and well and resting in the town of La Paz, on the shores of el Mar de Cortez.

Baja Day 5

I wake up this morning and I'm in the Comfort Inn in Cabo San Lucas. Cabo is the place where Mexicans on the baja peninsula go for special occasions, like a birthday party or a vacation.

The weather is nice now. It's fairly hot, but there are plenty of pools and of course, there's always the coast. (In Mexico, it's illegal for foreigners to own the land on the beach.)

Per usual, I sleep in, and get up and wander past the pool but this time, something odd occurs. I'm not the only person wandering around the hotel. Other people are here eating breakfast, swimming in the pool. Every other morning, people got up and fled like rats because we were all on our way here. Once you get to Cabo, there is no where else to go, really. This is a destination, not a stopping point along the way.

Around the pool, palm trees with coconuts. Bougainvillia. Wisteria. I wander around shooting with my long lens. The other one is broken which is killing me of course. Just killing me.

I ask where I can get a new lens and mi amigo behind the desk sends me to a place, and he gives good directions, but I get there and it's sort of like a Sam's club or something. They don't have Canon cameras or lenses in the store, of course.

So, I return to the hotel and I figure I'll look for a new lens in La Paz, or Topolabambo, or Mazatlan.

.I request a late check out because it's only about a 2 hour drive to La Paz. I use my computer to generate the appropriate registration required for the ferry at La Paz and they print it out for me at the hotel and I'm off.

I head North, out of town following Mexico 19, towards Todo Santos. The road loosely follows the Pacific coast.. I'm driving North and not taking any pictures because I'm so seriously bummed that my lens is broken. Not because of the cost, although that sucks, but more because the lens is so cheap that it breaks. In my mind, this means that I'm cheap because I can't afford the equipment I obviously need. I'd like to buy better lenses, but this is the Achilles heel of the line of cameras I own. They have a smaller sensor, so the better camera lenses don't work very well as wide-angle lenses on the Canon EOS 10D-50D series.

So I drive for a while without taking any photos because it happens to be jammed wide open at 17mm which is just nearly useless. I mean, sure, I shoot with it wide open a lot, but if you can't zoom in to 85 mm, then you lose so much. Just maddening.

And when I finally come to a place that I deem worthy of shooting, I stop and pull over and reconfigure my cameras.

Now, I'll mention here that when I pull over, I pull over. I usually look for turn outs, so that I can get safely out of the roadway. This is something that Igor doesn't do. He tends to stop in the road, near the shoulder. I never said anything to him about it, because he's crossed every continent, but this is not something I do. Because there's not much traffic here, I think he gets away with it. I like to get well off the road when I stop.

The problem with getting off the road too far or too often as that the plants down here are well defended. It's generally a fairly arid peninsula, with lots of cacti and such. Once, near Loreto, I put my leg into some green bush and it felt like I was being attacked with razor blades. So, you want to be careful getting off the road also. You have to balance each risk, as it were.

I pull over and I put my extended battery grip on the 40D with the broken lens and stow it in my backpack. I pull out the 50D with the long lens and hang this around my neck and let me tell you...if I have a wreck with this around my neck, if the accident doesn't kill me, the camera will.

I don't know how much the lens weighs, but it isn't light.

So I'm driving up the coast, shooting with my big lens, with no hands, driving down Mexico 19, which is harder. It's harder because you can't see as large of a field of view through the lens. But I'm driving and shooting and I'm feeling somewhat peckish, and as I roll past the roadside stands, I wonder which one Igor would have said we should stop at.

I learned more from him in a day or two than I'd learned in a lifetime of travel. The man is a genius. When we drove by that little sea side restaurante in Loreto, I didn't give it a second thought. I doubted it was even open. He saw it for what it was...a tiny little restaurant built literally right on the beach. I would not have stopped there. But looking back, it was the coolest place I ever stopped to eat on the entire trip. And I would have driven right past it.

I come to a little hippie commune, with big "Give Peace a Chance" signs and all sorts of dirty hippie slogans. Like just what the h3ll is that supposed to mean, anyway? Lay down your arms and hope the rest of the world doesn't kill you? I hate dirty hippies.

So I drive by the commune, but I do turn back to take a few photos because unlike most communes, this one is actually producing some crops in an irrigated field (Hippies are more fond of getting high than they are of working in the hot sun, I've noticed.)

And I keep driving north, still fairly hungry and I stop every so often to burn off a few shots with the 50D and the long lens. And I'm happy that I've managed to overcome the issue with the broken lens without coming unglued. These things happen. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Just suck it up, chin up, and move on.

I'm noticing that, as I drive, I'm seeing a lot of baja rigs rolling down the road. Some on trailers. Some headed North. Some headed South. Some going slow. Some racing like mad. So, I'm not sure what the deal is, but I'm glad to see the rigs because I'd feel sort of cheated if hadn't seen any.

Eventually, I come into a little town and the signs seem to indicate that Mexico 19 turns right, so I turn and now there's a policeman in the middle of the road, and I pull up to him and ask him "Como se llama esta ciudad?" and he says "Todo Santos".

"Muchas gracias, senor. Buenos tardes." (Because it's past noon, I tell him good afternoon. I'm very clever that way.)

And now I spy a little roadside taco stand and I'm so hungry I'm about to implode so I stop at the little stand. Igor has explicitly said that this is OK. This is perfectly acceptable. It's better to eat outside of the towns, but if you have to eat in a town, find some little roadside stand and go with that.

I pull over and park the bike and I start talking to these guys in Spanish. And my Spanish is not very good. It never has been, but it's getting better and I'm talking to these people. They actually like to see Americans trying to speak Spanish. To show an interest in learning their native tongue, as it were.

I order tres carne asada tacos con harina tortillas and then I sit there and just pound them down because I'm so hungry. And I look at what they have for desert. Nothing looks very good but it's hard to know so I try something. I point this thing and they serve it to me. It ends up being something like a piece of bread, somewhat resembling a muffin, covered in coconut, with something red in the middle. It was OK. Not bad, but not great. Not sweet enough, and a little to dry to be eating in Baja. So I asked them how much I owed them and settled up and now the old lady is laughing and telling me what I just ate.

The translation is slow to come to me, but I want to know because she thinks it's funny and now I'll wondering what the h3ll I just ate. She comes up with "Ojo de buey" which translates as "eye of the bull". I'm like...please don't tell me that I just ate a cow's eye. I don't think I can handle that. I'm not a vegetarian or anything, but eating eyes is just not really something I'm into, as it were.

But she indicates that no, that's only what they call it. It's not really a cow's eye, apparently.

And as I'm settling up for the cow's eye and my meal, a baja rig comes flying around the corner right beside me. Dust, rocks, squealing tires. Police halting traffic. This thing comes flying through the middle of town like mad. The kind of thing you see on YouTube where they lose control and go into the crowd. And almost as fast as he came into the town, he leaves and I'm left standing here thinking, "So that's what all these people are here for. It's some sort of insane road rally."

I walk around asking people what's going on exactly, and it turns out that they're running a race called the Grand Baja Sur Internacional. The track is fairly complicated, but it's from Cabo to Todo Santos to La Paz, and back, although this is a drastic oversimplification, I'm sure. Depending on who you listen to, either they do it every year and have for as long as anyone can remember, or they've never done it before and this is the first year and it will now become an annual race. It's hard to know, of course. This is the fog of war.

And I'm walking around and shooting and these racecar drivers are just insane, of course. Makes my life seem tame. They're running 118 octane petrol that costs $5.00 a liter and they're coming through town like they own the place and predictably, I'm right in the middle of it all shooting like mad.

What's fun about shooting racing cars is to get down on the ground and shoot them at their level as they come screaming towards you, which is what I did. And do you think anyone said "you'd better be careful, you might die?" Nope. Not in Mexico, my friend. If you want to stand there and touch the car as he slides through the turn, well no one's going to stop you. I promise you that. Not in Baja.

I shoot a few cars, but it's not like there's a schedule or that they all come by at once, or anything. They're spread out and there's no telling when the next one is coming.

I approach this team of guys and as I'm talking to them, one of them starts telling me in broken English that something is wrong with my nose. And I'm not clear what he's getting at, but it's the first time I've ever run into anyone in Mexico that they didn't treat me with decency. So I turn to leave, but he's still insistent that I should check the mirror and see for myself, so I lean over to look in the sideview mirror of a truck on the shoulder and then I see was he was talking about.

Let's ignore the details, the guy was doing me a favor, not being mean. So, I went back and talked to them some more. It turns out that their car is broken down so they're flying in parts from the United States, which is odd because I'd think that you'd lose the race by then, but it seems that there are many broken cars and maybe the race will take longer than a day possibly? I'm not clear.

It turns out that Baja Norte and Baja Sur are fairly distinct groups. The Americans normally race up in Baja Norte in the SCORE races like Baja Mil, etc. The locals normally race around like this in the very southern end of the state of Baja Sur.

I talk to them for some time, and they're all just as nice as could be. And as the trucks approach, we all stop to watch and listen as they pass. Listen for the sounds of the engine, the brakes, the transmission. Everyone is listening for that little weakness in the machine. But these guys come through town just like something out of a dream. It's truly a huge part of the baja culture. Racing is paramount down here.

Children here don't dream of growing up to be surgeons or rock stars or lawyers. They dream of racing cars across the desert and motocicletas through the arroyos.

They all asked me where I was from and I told them and mi amigo says this. He says "Your home is here in Baja, amigo. Everything you need is right here. Baja loves you."

And the way he said it really made it sink in. It wasn't in Spanish, it was in English. And he'd been drinking. A lot. Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, when I'm speaking to people, I don't notice if they're speaking to me in Spanish or English. Not because my Spanish is that good. It is not. I just don't notice because I'm stupid, and not that observant. So, I think he'd been talking to me in English for some time, but with the accents, sometimes I just don't notice.

But the way he said it made me think..."Wow. That's intense." And though he was drunk, he was clearly sincere. He was like, "This is the best place on earth. You would love it here." And he might be right. It's not like I would know.

I said goodbye to my friends and I headed back up Mexico 19, but I was scared to death that one of those Baja trucks was going to come flying up behind me because the last I'd seen them they were headed North on 19. They never came up behind me but I spent more time watching my mirrors than I spent watching the road for a while.

Presently, I arrived at another spot where the race (carerra) intersected Mexico 19. This time, I knew what was going on. A federale to direct traffic, an ambulance in case anyone got hurt, a fire truck just to make everyone feel better, and a few people set up on the side of the road, drinking beers and waiting on parts to be flown in from God knows where.

I stopped and shot some more photos. It's really crazy to watch them come by you and then hit the road and take off down the highway. The last car that came by clearly had something broken in his front end as one of his wheels was at the wrong angle to the car.

He pulled off the road and a team of mechanics immediately started repairing it right there on the side of the road.

I decided I'd seen enough and headed up the road toward La Paz. I think that you tend to get complacent as you drive. I know I do. After a while, it doesn't even seem like there is any inherent risk to riding a bike, which is usually the conclusion you reach right before you're killed.

North of Todo Santos, Mexico 19 splits, for a while, into a proper divided median four-lane road, which is extremely rare in Baja. I was wanting to get into the passing lane, but some guy was kind of crowding me, so I pulled over in front of him. At this point, I was following a truck pulling a trailer, with a guy right behind me, and we were all passing slower traffic in the right-hand lane. At this point, the truck and trailer in front of me decided to stop, for reasons that aren't clear to me. Although, it could have been any number of things. Cows in the road. Rocks. Sink holes. Speed bumps.

It was my fault for following too closely. I pulled out to pass because the guy was trying to squeeze me out and I forgot, for a second, that we weren't on I-70.

The guys riding on the trailer make a subtle hand signal that I should stop, in lieu of brake lights, apparently.

He's braking hard and I'm standing on the rear brakes, knowing I'm not going to be able to stop in time. I lock up the rear brakes and I've got the front one pulled in just enough that it's braking hard too, but you don't lock it up or you go down. These are the things you learn from riding bikes over the years. That right hand has to have a gentle touch or they'll be digging gravel out of you in the ER.

I have no idea what's going on behind me, I'm just trying to keep from hitting the trailer and for a moment, he lets off the brakes and I think I'm going to be OK, but then he brakes hard again and now I'm thinking I'm still going to hit him but for some reason, he decides to proceed normally down the road instead of parking, as he'd originally planned, apparently.

I just pass him on the right and wave. I mean, what can you say? It was my fault for following too closely. That's all there is to it. Plain and simple.

I stop outside of La Paz to get a Coca Cola. I don't drink Coca Cola Light down here because I hate it and regular Coke here has real sugar in it, not that crappy high-fructose corn syrup they use in the United States.

When I stop, my bike starts belching out coolant from what I assume to be an overflow valve. I'm not clear what the issue is, but I figure that so long as it's coming out of an approved opening, I'm probably OK. I've never had a bike with a radiator before, so I'm a little fuzzy on this.

I drive past the malecon, and back to the ferry at Pichilingue. Everyone talks about the ferries at La Paz, but it's in the County of La Paz. The ferries actually depart from the town of Pichilingue (Peech-uh-Leen-gay)

So I come rolling up at about six o'clock. When I was riding with Igor, we covered 400 miles a day. But when I'm alone, I have a hard time driving a hundred thirty kilometers a day. Go figure.

I show my fabricated paperwork to everyone and tell them that I absolutely have to be on the ferry to Mazatlan when it leaves and it will be no problem, I'm assured. Except that it's going to Topolobambo. Great. Whatever. So then, I go in and purchase my ferry ticket for myself, the bike, and a cabin. It's three separate tickets and I am golden. I'm all set to board and get in my cabin and crash for the night and wake up in Topolobambo.
Only now, when we start to clear customs to board the ferry, there's a problem. I don't have some paperwork that I need, apparently. Igor had this. I remember. He had some Temporary Import Permit that he'd gotten somewhere, I'm not clear where. That was why he didn't' understand what else they wanted. He went to customs and asked them if he needed any additional paperwork and then said no. So he went back, told them he didn't need any additional permission, and they sold him a ticket.

I get them to agree to take my registration papers at customs, and then I get them to sell me a ticket in the office, but when I attempt to drive onto the ferry, the new customs guy won't let me on the ferry without a Temporary Import Permit. And I'm asking him if I can't just pay him the fee, but it's no use.

And of course, the Permit office is closed Until Monday morning.

So I have to go get my ticket refunded and find a hotel in the dark and this has drastically changed my plans for this trip.

Posted by Rob Kiser on October 17, 2009 at 9:29 PM


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