Home: Playa Estucasa beachside palapa
It was Rett who had the idea to sleep without setting up the tent. Rett, who has much less success than me at suppressing her instinctual fears of small critters. So of course I was happy to go along with it, just laying out our sleeping pads and sleeping bag on top of our ever-valuable beach blanket, and having an unobstructed view of the stars outside our glassless window. The night passed peacefully, with little truck noise away from the highway, few dogs barking, and no rooster crowing (the unholy triumvirate of Baja overnight sounds). And at dawn, we could just sit up and look out to the water. And then it was relatively easy to just pack up our stuff to convert our palapa from nighttime bedroom-mode to daytime living-room mode. Thanks for the great idea, Rett!
One of the biggest (only?) challenges with living on these beaches is obtaining resources, like food and water. Unlike Santispac, this beach has no restaurants or stores, so we need to rely on visits from intermittent and unscheduled vendors, the kindness of strangers, or our own non-motorized transportation. Today we benefited from all three.
George and Penny encouraged some get-to-know-you between songs at last night’s campfire sing-along, so that meant most people on the beach knew that we were traveling by bicycle, and at least one person said he’d give us some of his water in the morning. We feel kind of bad about that, because in this place, our non-motorized status doesn’t actually put us in a much different class than people with motors; getting over the rough road and to a store is a challenge for everyone, especially if they have a larger vehicle. But when he said that he was leaving the beach to head home to the U.S. in the morning, and the gallon of water would just be unnecessary weight, we were happy to accept his generosity.
Similarly, Rett got to talking with our (now-fully-clothed) neighbors Susanna and Chant, and somehow got on the topic of one of Rett’s Baja favorites, Topo Chico, a brand of bubbly “agua mineral”. Susanna had one, that she insisted on sharing, cold from her van’s fridge! Rett didn’t need any rationalization at all to accept that generosity!
Another of our neighbors, John (who we learned last night can drive for insanely-long stretches) suffers from the tremors of Parkinson’s and thin skin, and so asked the now-experienced Rett (from her sliced foot) for help applying a band-aid to his hand. Whether in exchange or just the same general generosity, he later dropped off a couple cans of some of his beloved baked beans for us. Have I mentioned how lucky we are?
A tamale vendor came by while we were already in the middle of our boiled-egg breakfast, so we skipped her, but then I decided to splurge on a liter of grapefruit juice when the man hawking fresh-squeezed juices came by. He also had one five liter jug of water for sale, and since we already knew we were staying at this wonderful place at least another day, we decided to stock up while we had the chance.
Because in between all that, I heard some noise out on the quiet morning water, and saw black shapes with flapping wings. “Those are strange birds…?” Oh, no, they’re manta rays! Rocketing themselves out of the sea, flying parabolically through the air, and slapping back down into the water. What a show, that we could see from our front doorstep, without a boat tour, just part of morning life on this beach. Will we ever want to leave here?
That’s when George stopped by, to say hello and let us know that Ken, another long-termer, was organizing a pot-luck dinner for a couple nights from now, and wanted to know if we’d like to be part of it. Well, thank you, that sounds pretty great, but will we want to move on before then? We’ll see!
The sun heats things up really quickly here in the morning, so we took a swim, which also functions a bit as a shower in this place with no running water. And here, there aren’t even barrels and buckets to flush the toilets; there are only primitive wooden stalls over a pit in the ground. Luckily we had been able to buy toilet paper at Ana’s on Santispac, because we quickly learned that’s another important resource to have on-hand at these beaches!
In the afternoon I took off under the last mode of resource-gathering, bike-power. While Rett went to talk with Ken about the pot-luck, I headed south a few miles, not for just physical resources, but also information. To see what the beaches ahead looked like, and if we should override our preference to stay put because there might be an even better beach ahead!
I turned into Playa El Burro, a place where the palapas have grown and morphed into full house-like residences, but we had heard there were a few normal palapas at the south end. They looked full, and not nearly as nice as our current palapa, but I also noticed that there was a luxury “glamping” setup behind the row of houses, that would offer showers and WiFi, a couple resources that might have some more value to us (for a lot more money).
I got to talking to a nice guy who had been living there for 15 years, and as is now normal, he gave me the lay of the land. He said we could set up between any of the houses (which might even be better for shade/wind protection than the palapas), and then eventually even offered a stay in his own place, which would have most of the amenities of glamping, but at MX$500, be half the price.
As I was trying to wrap up my research and get on to the rest of my errands, Eduardo introduced me to Yaroslava, a very friendly young woman staying with her family at one of the palapas on a vacation from…Ukraine. I had just been talking with my parents about how odd it feels to be in this beautiful part of Mexico, living this unencumbered life, when much of the rest of the world is having their minds (if not their homes) darkened by the horrors of war, and shocked by the proof that our seemingly-peaceful 21st-century lives are still at risk of being violently upended.
So for Yaroslava, whose brothers and father were back home serving in the army, the contrast between the world she was seeing with her eyes, vs. the one she was feeling in her heart, must have been nearly mind-breaking. I don’t know if it’s a testament to her, or to this place (probably a bit of both), but it was thus amazing how cheerful and curious she remained. She said her town, outside of Kiev, was quiet and not yet directly affected, but, still! Eduardo was praising her on the strength and skill she had exhibited during her first ever kayak lesson in the morning, and I know he wasn’t just blowing smoke at a cute girl in a bikini, because when he was telling her how the wave conditions in the bay today were a perfect training ground (providing just enough challenge to force learning, but not enough to be dangerous), I heard echos of the exact things I’ve said to Rett about windy days or gravel paths on the bike.
When Eduardo started pointing out all the shapes you could see in the mountains around his beach to Yaroslava, her mother, and me (including a reclining Bart Simpson, with Yaroslava doing the English to Ukrainian translation of this weird pop-culture reference for her mom, who, yes, totally could see Bart Simpson in the rocks), I was finally able to extract myself, feeling bad because I’d probably already been away from camp and Rett for an hour, a separation far longer than we’re used to, and with no way to be in touch, she was surely freaking out.
So I pushed the bike up the direct-route rough path recommended by Eduardo to Bertha’s store back on the highway (ugh, I should have backtracked up the road, it was a lot longer, but would have been faster), where I rushed through picking up the groceries we needed, so I didn’t even do a thorough inventory of the limited-supply store, but I learned that there is at least a small restaurant there too, and pay-for WiFi if we needed it.
Back on the bike, I hustle back to our beach as fast as I could, and first checked in at George and Penny’s palapa. And there is Rett, relaxed, happy, and completely oblivious to my long absence. Why? Well, she’s learning how to play the ukulele! After Penny had endorsed George as an excellent ukulele teacher, Rett in fact took him up on the offer for a lesson, and by the time I got there, she was already trying to think of what items she could get rid of in order to bring a ukulele on her bike with her (there was even talk of being able to stuff your underwear inside!)
And George in fact was a fantastic teacher, because Rett was already able to show off her ability to remember and play all of the basic chords, with only a little bit of help. And her fretting and strumming rhythm were both excellent, far better than she had ever gotten in our brief effort to get her learning guitar. When we had begun this off-grid beach stretch, one of my concerns had been Rett’s ability to fill her days; oops, it turns out not having enough time to learn new skills would be the problem!
When Rett was done with her lesson I gave her the rundown on what I had learned. When I told her about the guy I’d been talking to, she said “Eduardo?” And then showed me a picture of a guy on the informative blog she’d been using to research Bahia Concepción. Yup, that’s him! Small world, with surprisingly few people inhabiting this place. Anyway, the answer to both of us was obvious: there was no compelling reason to leave this particular corner of paradise and the community that had welcomed us. Now that there was a pot-luck on the calendar, we’d stay at least until then. Back at our palapa, we both just laid down on our blanket and dozed for a while in the afternoon.
Around 5pm, we walked back up to George and Penny’s “Old Yeller” yellow 1977 pickup cradling their truck camper, since they had generously offered to drive us to J.C.’s Restaurant (essentially back to El Burro), where they had told us there is a fun flamenco guitarist every Thursday.
J.C.’s quickly filled up with a pile of gray-haired gringos, including Roger and his wife, our neighbors from Santispac, exemplifying the “super-small world” of Bahia Concepción within the already small-world of Baja. We were happy to see that our neighbor John also took us up on the invitation to come out. The waiter said “no menu” for tonight, but incongruously, there was a lamb curry special. Ha, this was also something Rett had seen in that blog post: one day a month a British expat comes to J.C.’s and makes a lamb curry. And by pure luck, some new friends we had just met on the beach brought us here on that very day! The world continues to shrink.
The flamenco guitarist was fun, and as good a singer as a guitarist, and the dance floor was frequently filled, somehow several times by yours truly and his far more-elegant wife.
But the true entertainment of the evening was when an unknown American woman sitting at the far end of our communal table, addressing the group, exclaimed, apropos of nothing, “…and what does everyone think of the cyclists?!” Rett and I both surprised her by waving and saying “hey, we’re (the) cyclists!” Since Rett is much less-familiar with the tropes of anti-bicycle American drivers than I am, she did not catch how the woman’s follow-up “isn’t there anywhere else you can ride?” was bog-standard code for “get off of my fuckin’ road and onto a bike path where you belong!” Thus it was perfect when Rett cheerfully and obliviously responded “well sure, but we love riding through Baja, it’s absolutely incredible, and the Mexican drivers are so nice and safe!” And then it was equally funny when the woman came over to us ten minutes later and apologized, and Rett had no idea what she was even apologizing for, since in the literal text of her words, she hadn’t even said anything bad. But for me, the apology itself unintentionally proved that my assumptions about her inner feelings toward cyclists were right on the nose!
Anyway, hopefully being able to meet some crazy Baja cyclists, and realizing that, without our bicycles, we’re indistinguishable from normal humans, will make her slightly less-angry about ones she encounters in the future. We’ve probably needed to repeat dozens of times over the last few days our stories about how riding in Baja feels like some of the safest riding we’ve ever done, to the obvious disbelief of the drivers continually questioning us. And that constant, repetitive questioning finally made me realize that drivers are really projecting their own fears from Highway 1 onto us, and then it’s that fear that ferments into anger at us. And their fear, at least, makes sense: the road is so narrow that keeping your lane-filling RV out of the cacti while an equally lane-filling semi truck roars by in the other direction with a six-inch gap must be fairly harrowing. And so feeling that same terror without any of the steel-box protection must make it even worse for us, right? But what they don’t realize is that we’re far narrower than they are, so there is more like six feet between us and those trucks. And because the road is so narrow, no one (except the rare full-on American asshole) ever tries to go three-wide with us, so we always have that gap that the drivers never have.
And so with that epiphany, I’ve been trying to give the questioners some advice that would help both them and us: just chill out like a Mexican! Part of what makes us feel dangerous to Americans and Canadian drivers (and vice-versa!) is that they feel a subconscious, cultural need to pass us as quickly as possible. That’s understandably nerve-wracking and it puts both us at risk, and again feeds that fear-into-anger pipeline for them. Instead, if they just put on their flashers, and sat on our tails for 30 seconds to a minute at 8mph, like the majority of Mexicans do, they would soon round a turn where they can see the road for a mile ahead with zero cars oncoming. No risk of a three-wide, no need to get closer than six feet from us. And then they would be much less-stressed out about the whole operation, making it a win-win for everyone.
Anyway, we aren’t actually cyclists at the moment, and with Rett in my lap we rumbled back up and down the gravel in Old Yeller’s headlights. Pot-luck Ken was having a fire in front of his palapa, so we got drawn in to the small group there for a bit on our walk back home, keeping things loud past Baja Midnight, though generously, no one came over to scold us.