Aren’t you afraid to go to Baja?
“Aren’t you worried that something will happen? I mean, it’s not safe everywhere and tourists are targets.” We hear this, a lot, as we discuss our plans with people we meet and people we know. It’s valid. We can’t be naïve. Wandering around with shiny bobbles, fancy electronics and wide open pockets stuffed with local currency would be unwise anywhere, even at house parties of some of the people who are asking us that question! Dan is a very cautious and safety minded individual. He is also a physically intimidating man, with a non-threatening disposition which helps. I tend to rely a little more on my gut than he would like, but between us it makes for a good balance.
When we have been traveling in the past, and in the most unlikely of places, it has been have proven to us that there are many good people out there that can make the journey not just pleasant, but remarkable. In places like New York City and Paris where the reputation of the residents is less than hospitable we have found the exact opposite to be mostly true. It is delightful to have your fears assuaged by a friendly, unsolicited safety tip from, of all things, a French waiter or a random offer of assistance from a New Yorker in the subway. It puts a spring in our step, a smile on our faces and gives us the intense desire to continue exploring.
In today’s political climate, Mexico has been painted as the bad guy, a country of criminals, rapists, drug dealers and general ne’er do wells that just want to cross the borders illegally and take American jobs or commit their crimes on the American side of the border. Baja California has always been considered a sketchy area for American tourists to visit. Police corruption is well known and we haven’t helped matters by treating it as our own little playground of lawlessness. Much of Mexico is legitimately dangerous in terms of drug cartels, human trafficking, murder and other crime. But not all, just like here in the US there are places you know you just don’t mess around in. But the rhetoric against the people in general has reached a fever pitch. I grew up here on the border in San Diego though, and my experience has always been that the Mexican immigrants are hard working, helpful, family centered people that are often a lot kinder than their American born counter parts. Last year, when people were really being whipped up about the evils of Mexican illegal immigrants I witnessed a white woman’s car break down on one of the busiest corners in our area. She was stuck, alone, blocking traffic and I saw 3 able bodied, young white men walk right by without helping her. I also saw a Mexican laborer, legal or not I don’t know…but perceptions at the time were leaning towards all Mexican laborers are bad…run across the street, against traffic, and respectfully ask if she needed help. He single handedly pushed her car around the corner and slightly up the hill to get her to a safe spot, then continued on his way before she could get out of the car to properly thank him. It struck me at the time that his kindness was sort of extraordinary given the amount of, shall we say disrespect, that was being shown by the country at large towards his people. I actually teared up a little. My opinion of the people that went by with a quick, shifty glance at the woman in distress was not so favorable.
During this time of tension we were enticed to visit La Ventana, Mexico down in the Southern tip of Baja on the Sea of Cortez. A wonderful friend of ours, Joel Hall, had been visiting there for a couple years and singing the praises of the beauty, isolation, people, food, affordability and activities of the area so we decided to meet up with him while he was down there. We met Joel because he is bartender extraordinaire at a popular restaurant in Carlsbad near our home.
We love to go in and “talk story” with him and there is always a friendly group of locals there doing the same. Joel is the casual ringleader, making interesting introductions so that no one leaves as a stranger. He says has invited a bunch of people to go down while he’s there and claims we are the only ones who have ever done it. Apparently, when push comes to shove, people are a little afraid to go to a remote town in Baja California. The reputation of the area is that it is unsafe. Again, a typical hesitancy for Americans towards Mexico. Joel’s familiarity with it, and assurances convinced us to give it a go and we are delighted that we did.
We flew from Tijuana into La Paz, an easy and inexpensive way to get down to the tip of Baja.
There we rented a wreck, stayed the night in La Paz, which was delightful, went snorkeling with whale sharks the next day and ended up across the street from the marina for tacos and margaritas afterwards. I had just wrapped a towel around my waist and thrown a sweatshirt on and walked across the street at El Cayuco, so focused was I on the 2 for 1 margarita sign and the transcendent experience of swimming with whale sharks. We had a lovely meal, a very sweet, charming waiter, Tony, some of the best margaritas I’ve ever had (remember…I grew up in San Diego and am not exactly a millennial!) took some pictures with our waiter (I said he was charming, right?) and were on our way for the hour or so scenic drive to La Ventana.
Joel’s description of La Ventana did not disappoint, and anyone looking to go “off the grid” should check it out. A wind surfing mecca, gateway to diving in the Sea of Cortez which is like Jacques Cousteau’s aquarium, plucked fresh from the water seafood for pennies, interesting people from all over the world hanging out in a town with one mostly dirt road in and out. The bars come complete with dogs and puppies to love on if you are missing yours and rumor has it the occasional cow wanders in, so you have to be ok with a very casual dress code. It felt friendly, relaxed and the locals were helpful and non -threatening.
The second morning I went looking for my purse. I realized that I hadn’t seen it since we arrived at La Ventana. We searched our casita and the car thoroughly. THOROUGHLY!
Dan did his detective questioning “where did you last see it?” “did you have it at blank?” and we determined that I must have left it at the restaurant across the street from the marina in La Paz. Aw Geez. I didn’t even know the name of the restau…oh wait! I took pictures and I had my phone! We were still in La Ventana for a couple days so I began trying to call the restaurant. First step, find the number. Not the easiest, but after about 90 minutes I did it. Next step, call the restaurant. Well, not so good. Every time the nice lady answered she listened to me try and Spanglish my way through what I needed for about 15 seconds and then hung up. I was calling mid-afternoon so she was probably a family member looking after the place between busy times or something like that and overwhelmed by the calls. It took me until the next day, but I finally got through to someone that I could communicate with enough and was told that Tony had my purse and was waiting for me to return. He wasn’t there, but his shift coincided with our return to La Paz to fly back home in a couple days so we could drop by and pick it up.
Dan was remarkably chill about all this. He’s pretty used to my misplacing things of importance and I guess he knows by now that fussing at me about it will only spoil an otherwise great day, so that is helpful. Even though my anti-anxiety medicine was IN MY PURSE, I managed to remain calm and Joel and his buddies were pretty impressed that a female could continue to function with her handbag out of her control in another town in Baja! I told them they knew the wrong females…
We planned ahead and left 2 hours earlier for La Paz on the last day so that we would have plenty of time to stop by the restaurant retrieve the infamous “bolso Azul” or blue purse and still get to the airport. When we arrived at the still enticing locale it was not yet open for business, but we strolled in and found a lovely lady sweeping. I believe it was the poor soul that I tormented a few days before on the phone, but we were able to communicate much better in person and she told us that Tony wasn’t there for the lunch shift yet, but that she thought he had stashed the purse in the restaurant and she began to look for it. She called but could not reach him so we presumed he was on his way in. She did a pretty thorough search of the rambling restaurant and told us we would have to wait for him to get there. Shortly thereafter, with us getting a tad nervous, he did arrive and recognized us right away. Relieved hugs were given and he explained that he had taken the purse home because he was afraid something might happen to it at the restaurant. Ummmmm. As grateful for his thoughtfulness that we were, we explained that we were flying out, that I needed my passport and could we go get it? It was a little difficult because his lunch shift was beginning, he lived about 30 minutes away and had been dropped off. After a short discussion, he talked to the other people at the restaurant and agreed to hop in our rental car and take us to his home to get the purse.
Imagine! I had made a silly mistake in a foreign country known for poverty, crime and corruption and here was this humble man rescuing me in such an over the top fashion. I have left my purse in a fast food place in San Diego, been gone 15 minutes and the purse was stolen, never to be seen again! We chatted casually as he directed us back to his home in La Paz, interesting to get back and see the neighborhoods off the beaten track. He ran into the house, was gone no more than 20 seconds and came back out with the purse wrapped in a white garbage bag and handed it to me. I took it out and casually flipped through it, laughing that I had to prove to nervous Dan that my passport was really there and that we could fly out. The contents were untouched. My cash, identification, passport, anti-anxiety meds were all there. The humble honesty and goodness of this man really knocked me over. When we got back to the restaurant he would only take a small tip and more hugs and then sent us on our way, feeling like we had been treated like family in Baja.
This is not the only extraordinary experience we have had with strangers while traveling. We are so lucky to encounter kindness and generosity frequently in the most unexpected places. It is one of the reasons that we are so looking forward to starting this journey as a full time endeavor. We really look forward to the opportunities to meet people, have experiences, hopefully pay it forward and let the world continue to surprise and delight us.