The owl and the pussycat.
Lying on my stomach fills me slowly with seasickness like a bath fed by a half turned tap. I turn over on the narrow metal bench and breathe in the warm, salty air steadily and look up at the stars rocking crazily back and forth above me. Jamie, lying on a bench next to me shouts out that the stars are moving and we watch the strange illusion for a while before the trickle of nausea begins again and I have to close my eyes. It is midnight and there are still thirteen more hours to go until the ferry docks in Mazatlan.
We board in La Paz, a chaotic city gulping for breath over the noisy traffic that fills every street until you reach the sea. We spend one night there swimming in the steamy heat of the place. When the sun goes down, we wander slowly down the front which has been glammed up with attractive fountains and glossy paving stones. Hundred of families mill about chatting and eating corn on the cob and icecream. Jamie queues for a hotdog, eats it and immediately goes back for a second with a small, embarrassed smile on his face. They are the Elizabeth Taylor of hotdogs, dressed up to the nines and drawing a constant crowd. The sausages themselves are individually wrapped in a slice of thin bacon then fried on a plancha and stuffed in to a cloudy, warm and chewy bun. After that the vendor heaps chopped tomatoes, onions, sometimes jalapenos, mustard, ketchup and sour cream on top. You eat the hotdog sitting down on a bench,the hot dog held above you, simultaneously taking bites and sort of pouring in to your mouth. Sometimes they serve them with slices of spicy pickled carrot that burn your mouth and leave you feeling like you ate a smoking matchstick. The experience is stellar though wrought with difficulties. Jamie is not afraid of a little challenge though and I smile proudly at him and take a photo while he queues, holding his plate out like an overgrown Oliver Twist.
He has been practising his hotdog technique throughout Baja California where we have stopped and unattractively chowed on benches in many little towns. From the swealtering, mango laden tropics of Mulege where sweat drips down the backs of your calves, squeezed out from behind your knees when you sit down, to the bleak but curiously attractive dust blown streets of Guerrero Negro, we have queued at taco stands and sought out the tiny covered wagons drifting with the scent of fried onions. In Guerrero Negro, the sky is a pale blue, the houses painted in cracked, white paint or faded pastel colours against a background of grey concrete and the sand coloured streets. Paper blows about on the road and wise looking, grimy dogs trot past us sometimes accompanying us for a while to pass the time. In the evening we festively drink margaritas in an empty restaurant and eat enormous quantities of fried fish before stumbling over potholes in the unlit streets and sniffing for pickled carrots.
Baja is unexpectedly empty of tourists though, the hotels we stop at like the Marie Celeste. Everywhere we go there is the feeling that the locals have tired of visitors and bundled them all off to a special compound then locked the doors. We reach Todos Santos after a twelve hour ride through the dusty, brown mountains, pinging off the side of La Paz and entering the town in the early evening. The roads are being dug up leaving great piles of gravel and sand to clamber over in order to reach the restaurants and shops and sliding down a large pile of grit and stepping straight in to dine feels curiously satisfying. There are little neon signs flashing abierto abierto abierto and a the Bob Marlin bar is strewn with fairy lights and cheap margarita deals but all are empty and we feel self conscious like two people stepping into a failed surprise party. The locals are wise though, they gather at the food stands in the street and eventually, abandoning the other awkward dining options, we join them for roast pork tacos and hotdogs. We sit on the stairs of a bank wondering where all the noisy Americans are and dripping sour cream in to our laps to the sound of skittering paws as one dog chases another up the street in to the darkness.
The beach is a fifteen minute walk from town over a large, bone dry hill topped with sharp, scrabbily shrubs that nip at my feet as we walk through them. The beach is also completely devoid of people. A long, golden swathe of boiling sand punched and bullied by the pounding Pacific waves and totally empty but for some tattered palm trees. We find a mummified puffer fish lying in the sand whose expression is uncannily similar to my little cat, Carmen Electra’s when she’s being held against her will by Jamie. We drop the dried fish in the sand laughing and walk to the edge of the water which slopes sharply down making the waves look even higher than they are. Jamie wades in to his knees looking warily at the looming wave sweeping in to greet him and is knocked sharply in to the water and tumbled madly about before standing up, emptying the handfuls of wet sand from his pockets and jumping back in. Each wave knocks him over in a scramble of sand scoured limbs and each time he stands up grinning wildly and leaps back in. I am wary of leaving him to read my book thinking of newspapers articles ending with ‘and he was never seen again’ but before I can resolve the indecision, a wave yanks at my ankles and knocks me over in a churning mess and deposits me some way up the beach covered in a mass of rapidly popping bubbles. I stand up gasping and start to empty sand from my shorts before another one thumps me in the back and sends me rolling. I open my eyes to see Jamie sweeping towards me, feet first laughing and begin to laugh to. Spitting out sand and saltwater, I sit in the waves gurgling happily as I am lifted and set down, lifted and set down, the water streaming from my hair and a large pelican flying back and forth in the distance.
Eventually, eyes streaming and skin aflame, we settle in the hot sand to dry off and read David Sedaris stories to each other. The drought wrecked palm trees shiver in the hot breeze and not a soul joins us. It is only sometime later that we notice that the advertised ‘lighthouse’ is actually part of a hotel complex which we had assumed to be a set of empty buildings. When we squint our eyes against the bouncing sunlight we can see people settling on sun loungers and sloping about in shorts. These must be tourists!
It is Jamie who suggests they might sell margaritas.
As we walk up the hotel, I can see there is an infinity pool cutting the sunbathers off from the beach. Their little, pink feet stick primly off the edge of the cushions and their eyes are hidden by sunglasses. No one smiles as we walk up and I sense a sort of repelled fascination emanating from within at the ragtag, sunburnt beach dwellers walking alarmingly close to the periphery. Jamie points out the double bed hanging from ropes in the shade of a palm hut on the beach. The bed hangs completely still, nobody has used it all morning. I don’t even think anyone has set a soft, pale skinned foot out of the hotel and on to the pristine beach before them. Instead, they have elected to look at the wild, beautiful beach from afar, why experience a place when you could just peer cautiously at it? In the face of this hermetically sealed lunacy, we abandon ship and iced cocktails and head back to town confident that leaving Baja California, this pale imitation of Mexico, won’t tug too hard at any of our heartstrings.
The regurgitated meat filling the sinks aboard the ferry to Mazatlan does set me thinking though. Was Baja so bad? Did we have to leave it behind? We have been unable to secure a cabin aboard and are instead presented with two plump, grey seats in a crowded, noisy lounge in which a large flat screen telly blares over the din. The seats in front of ours are broken and pushed hard back against ours putting leg room at something of a minimum. I point this out to the man in charge who pokes the seats delicately with his toes and hums in agreement. The broken seats are removed half an hour later leaving large screws sticking out of the floor which the flood of people moving in and out of the room trip over repeatedly. Ten minutes later, having taken off my shoes and socks, I will follow suit, removing a chunk of my foot in the process and bleeding all over the place. I lookup to see a fellow passenger staring at me in alarm, a grimace of sympathy on his face. I find myself grimacing back and saying aieee! to him as the pain kicks in. Jamie brings tissue for my bloody foot and I sit down with a sense of foreboding.
Nursing the throbbing toes, Prometheus babbling incomprehensibly on the tv, I stuff in some earplugs and throw a jacket over myself trying to sleep. The boat has begun a slow swaying from side to side prompting laughter as people aiming to pass through doors instead walk in to walls or slide merrily down a corridor spilling coffee The hours pass and the boats begins to roll across big, slithering waves. The broken swing door squawks loudly and slams in to the wall on each descent over and over again. I peer over the seat and Jamie who is behind me, pale and wide awake. He looks at me and raises an eyebrow. Half an hour later there are children wailing and coughing. I look at Jamie again. He is silently watching as two small girls are held sobbing over the bin next to him vomiting up their meat and tortillas. Suddenly I am glad the restaurant sold out of the rather brown looking food after thirty seconds or so of serving customers. I twitch my eyes to the ceiling and mouth I’m going up on deck to him. He is standing up, rucksack packed and shoes on before I have even got out of the seat which I understand means he is keen on the plan. This is how we find ourselves staring in wonder as the constellations above us roll majestically from side to side above the wide sea and our tiny boat.
And we sleep. As if by miracle, we sleep. I feel my eyes grow heavy listening to the sounds of the rushing waters below us and the engine rumbling through the metal floors. I wake in the night to the door clanging open as a drunken father careers on to the deck and takes a wide, uncertain path to lie on a bench and rest. Other sleepers, knees drawn up or faces draped in sweaters snore quietly and the night passes. The damp, blue light of the morning eventually disturbs my sleep and I sit up rubbing my hip which has been squashed painfully against the metal below me. Jamie sits up sleepily and looks about. The magical, rolling hush of the night has passed and people are starting to filter up on deck clutching cups of sweet coffee and cigarettes. I make a reconnaissance mission to the cafe and an unwise trip to the toilets which look post apocalyptic. I hastily back out trying to avoid looking at the slopping sinks and splattered something other briefly revealed each time the toilet doors swing open and closed. I return to the top deck with two cappuccinos and sit down next to Jamie on a bench. The coffee tastes like unlike anything I have tasted before but it is hot and sugary and brings the morning in to focus a little. I look out at the trail the boat leaves in the water behind us and realise that in a few hours we will be arriving on the mainland. It is then, I think, that our journey will really begin. I take a big sip of the pretenduccino and stand up unsteadily. My skin is sticky with salt and my eyes are puffy but I’m ready for a bit of Mexico. Vamanos!
Oddly the idea of cooking and eating didn’t concern me too much in this chapter, the sinks discouraged me somewhat….
I’m sure you understand….