Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bienvenidos a Bahia Tortugas!

Written before our dinghy went missing, but just now getting published. These are the good times that make the hard times worth it:

We arrived in Bahia Tortugas about midday. Bryan had been up most of the night steering in the high winds, but the bay was calm and sunny. During the long night, counting the hours to go, he’d predicted fish tacos and cervezas by lunchtime. So, tired as he was when we arrived, we set the anchor, dropped the dinghy, and rowed to shore right away. We beached the dinghy a little ways from the the main fishing base of operations, out of the way of all the tire tracks in the sand.

We started up the sandy road toward the town and immediately spotted a small concrete building labeled “Restaurant and Bar.” A man stood above us on the ledge of one of the open windows. He called down in friendly Spanish and we answered as best we could. It was clear he was inviting us in, but my mom taught me to shop around and I wanted to see a little more of the town before we sat down to eat.

On our way in, we’d overheard a radio conversation between a couple of other cruisers in the anchorage. They were already on shore, trying to connect via handheld VHF. One cruiser asked, “Where are you?” And the other replied, “At the intersection of the dusty road and the really dusty road. You can’t miss it!”
We walked a few blocks up and down the sandy streets. Later, Bryan and I commented to each other how surprised we were at the girls nonchalance. Not that they were unaware; they were curious and attentive to their surroundings, as usual. But they didn’t seem at all fazed by the differences in lifestyle, the unpaved streets, the cobbled-together feel of the homes and shops, the off-leash dogs on every corner. They spotted painted murals and the playground in the central plaza and tried not to stare at the after-school parade of kids craning their necks at us.

We didn’t find any other options for lunch, so we walked back down to the beachfront restaurant and climbed the steps up to the doorway. We walked over the gravel floor of the small outer room into the cement pad of the main patio area. There were no tables, no chairs, no furniture at all. My brain struggled to offer possible explanations as my mouth fought to shape appropriate greetings. Carlos, our patient host, led the all-Spanish conversation and soon we understood the story. He and his wife used to run a restaurant, but after she died, 2 years ago, he retired and now enjoys spending time with his children and making friends with random cruisers who come through. He nailed our priority immediately. “Do you want to eat?” “Well, yes…are there any good restaurants in town?” “I will take you to one,” said the former restaurateur, “It’s OK.”
On that rousing recommendation, we began the Abbott and Costello routine of Getting Directions in Mexico. With what seemed like a local law against street signs, and only a weak grasp of right and left in Spanish, I was pretty sure we could spend the afternoon following our noses around the small town without finding food. Yet we didn’t want to put ourselves into Carlos’ debt without an understanding of what he was expecting. After raising a few eloquent eyebrows in Bryan’s direction, we finally fell back on our say-yes-whenever-possible policy. We piled ourselves into Carlos’ SUV, seatbelts optional, and bounced through the town, minds rushing to keep up. He  came to a stop in the middle of the road and gestured to a building nearby. He didn’t seem to be waiting for money or a tip and we hoped we weren’t offending him as we offered only profuse thanks.
Bells on the door jangled as we walked into the empty restaurant. A woman sat bent over some work at a table near the back. “…open?” I ventured. She nodded and gestured to us to pick a spot to sit. She brought us menus and, once again, I started to translate the unfamiliar words before realizing the facing page was written in English. It was fun to spot the differences; some traditional items were only offered in Spanish.
On our way back to the boat, we passed Carlos’ place again. Again, he offered help. “Do you need water? Gasoline?” “Maybe tomorrow,” we said, and headed back for some well deserved rest.

The next afternoon, Bryan and I left the girls aboard, took in our water jugs, and filled them at his spigot. He pulled out a chair and pressed drinks into our hands, beer for Bryan and soda for me. We took in the peaceful view and relaxed in the warm breeze as we worked to communicate a bit beyond the basics. We learned about his history, his kids, where they live and work, a bit about his grandchildren, and his holiday plans. We shared a bit about our own family tree and, prompted by a simple question about the girls’ homeschooling, even delved into a discussion of the pros and cons of differing educational systems. (Don’t get the wrong idea about my Spanish skills from this story. We carried on this conversation despite the fact that I only know about a couple hundred words in Spanish.)
He asked if we ate bread or tortillas. “I bake our bread,” I said, “but do you know where we can find some tortillas?” He brightened immediately. “Don’t go to the market. You must come with me to a woman I know who makes them. They are very good. Wait…I will fry you one!” And before we could demur, he shot into his little kitchen. We sat, a bit sheepishly, listening to the thumps and clangs of extreme hospitality. In a moment, he was back, warm tortillas held in his outstretched hands—a priest with the sacraments. “These,” he said solemnly, “these are the good tortillas.” And they were.

Carlos reiterated his willingness to help us get gas and we made a plan to come in the next day. By this point, he’d made it more than clear that he wasn’t in this for the money; he just likes making new friends. But we still felt like we wanted to reciprocate somehow. We decided to invite him out to the boat for dinner and I think we got the invitation issued.
The next day, we fooled around on the boat in the morning. The fishermen put out sardine nets in the bay and we watched, fascinated, as the pelicans passed the word around the neighborhood. They came banking in like fighter jets in formation and filled the area around the net. One panquero drove around at high speed banging a stick on his hull. We found out later, this mimics the sound of the fish and leads the birds and sea lions away from the net. It must not be a fool proof system; we got to watch the fishermen free a sea lion from their huge circular net.


By afternoon, we were ready to go run our errands. We rowed in 3 gas cans and 2 water jugs, filled the water jugs again, and rode over to the gas station. Carlos chatted with the attendants while we got the fuel we needed and then drove us over to the tienda for a few things I needed for dinner. Then he took us to the tortilla house. His friend (he seemed to know everyone in town!) came to the door apologetically. “No tortillas today, sorry. Come back tomorrow.” 
We went back to his house, loaded up the dinghy with all the jugs, and tried to make it clear that Bryan was just taking us to the boat and would be back for Carlos right away. Until I reached down to help him into our cockpit, I wasn’t sure my invitations had been clear. But it worked! We’d successfully acquired a dinner guest. He and Bryan sat in the cockpit chatting, mostly in gestures, while Bryan grilled our bread and I finished up dinner down below. I’d tried hard to plan a boat-friendly menu that he would enjoy—pumpkin soup, bread, and cabbage salad—and Hannah made brownies for dessert. We didn’t find it difficult to chat despite the language barrier and talked about all sorts of things—the fishermen in the bay, the weather (“It might rain,” he said.)—even a short discussion of the similarities and differences between Catholics and Protestants. I summed up hundreds of years of church history, saying, “Different practices, but the same heart.” Given all the words I know in English, I’m not sure I’d change my answer.

The next day we woke to the sound of rain on the roof. Carlos was right. It showed no signs of letting up and I couldn’t imagine making our way through the muddy streets, even for the good tortillas. We decided to trust that he’d understand our decision to cozy up aboard for the day. Before we started to get cabin fever, a hardy cruiser rowed over. He was going in to town, rain or shine, but wanted to issue a dinner invitation and let us know that another boat had been trying to reach us on the radio. We put out a general call and heard back right away from Allouette who we’d met briefly in San Diego. The skipper and his son were traveling together and they offered us an afternoon of games for the kids and enjoyable conversation for the adults. Also brownies. We spent the afternoon with them and then headed over to Princess del Mar for a fish dinner and sailing stories. We recognized the boat as the same one anchored at the island outside of Ensenada and it was fun to meet the skipper and his adventuresome crewmate.
By the next morning, the rain had blown through and we were starting to plan for the next passage. The girls had left a game unfinished on Allouette so we rowed them over and made plans to have dinner together. Bryan and I spent a few minutes aboard another boat in the anchorage, Perusha, and then headed in to track down tortillas. The roads were muddy, but passable, if you didn’t care too much about the state of your shoes. Carlos had some friends over, so we passed by without stopping in. We wandered through the town for a bit and finally found our way to the right house. The woman who answered the door recognized us right away. We struggled a bit to communicate, but eventually we understood that we should come back at 4pm. We had no idea what time it was. In fact, the first few days in Bahia Tortugas, we had a bit of ado about the time. Some cruisers thought we’d changed time zones. Some of our devices agreed, but others didn’t. It took us a while to figure out how to ask about the time change in Spanish, but we finally managed to find out that, yes, we’d made it east into the next time zone. Anyway, we walked away in search of someone with a watch…and popsicles. Now that the rain was gone, the sun was quite warm. Within a few minutes, we ran into some other cruisers who told us it was already 4:30. Hmmm. So we walked back to the tortilla house again. This time, she said, “Come back in an hour.”
The girls and the crew of Alouette were waiting dinner for us. But we were determined. We walked around town for a little longer, not an hour, but long enough apparently. When we showed up again, a grandmother was waiting on the porch for tortillas too. We bought 2 large packages and the cook picked out the right amount of change from the handful we held out. On our way back to the boat, Carlos caught us. “Come in! Come in!” He was only mildly disapproving that we hadn’t stopped in earlier. We told him we didn’t want to interrupt his time with his friends. “You are my friends too,” he said. Feeling only a little torn between our new Mexican friend and our new cruiser friends, we sat down for a minute, ate the proffered peanuts, and drank the drinks they gave us. It seemed easier than refusing. We met the family that rents his back house and flirted quietly with the youngest member, the adorable toddler, Santiago. We planned to leave the next morning, so we said our goodbyes and reluctantly rowed away.
After dinner on Allouette we came back to a boat that needed a lot of work to be ready for sea. We were only planning a day hop to the next anchorage, but it would be a long day and we just didn’t have the energy to stay up late getting ready to leave early. “Manana!” we said, and went to bed. It was nice to be able to relax our schedule a bit from the pushing we’d done for most of the trip.

We spent the next morning tidying. Another Bahia Tortugas native, Miguel, stopped by. “It’s my birthday!” he announced, and we congratulated him and invited him aboard for a cup of coffee and a chat. He told a grand sea story with just the right amount of terror and humor. We didn’t understand every word, but caught enough to appreciate a master storyteller at work.

Meira and I rowed over to Princess del Mar to see if they’d picked up a weather report and got roped in to tea, cookies, and a round of Uno. Finally, late in the afternoon, we rowed in to give the girls a chance to say goodbye to Carlos. Every time we’d walked by, no matter what time of day, he’d been in his house. But this time he was gone. We considered walking around town a bit, but soon a flurry of cars came by. We were pretty sure some town activity had just ended and sure enough, a couple of the people we’d met the evening before walked up just then and confirmed our suspicion—the baseball game had just gotten over. Carlos came up about then and  4 or 5 younger men, all jokes and chatter (and photo bomb attempts…see the grins in the pic as evidence). We said our goodbyes and offered many, many thanks.

We took pictures and got Carlos’ address, though we’d thought that “Carlos, in the palapa by the beach” would probably suffice. And as we were walking away, he called us back and loaded us up with handfuls of bright pink mystery fruit. (We found out for sure it was cactus fruit when Meira found an overlooked spine with her tongue. No damage done.)


One of our goals for the trip is to connect authentically with people we meet along the way, to meet them in their own environment and experience as best we can a taste of their normal lives. I heard somewhere that a tourist sees what they expect to see, while a traveler sees what there is to see. We hope to come, open-minded as travelers, seeing past our cultural experience and stereotyped expectations to the truth that lays beyond. And we are so grateful for the way that the people we met in Bahia Tortugas welcomed us in, seeing past our different practices to the similarities at our hearts.


  1. This is a lovely story, Bethany. Warms this introvert's heart, knowing how difficult it might be to reach out to stranger like this--and how rewarding!

  2. I think you are amazing. I'm so glad there are folks like you, having adventures like these. :)

  3. What an amazing adventure!! I was reading this in Starbucks in Fort Collins and was absolutely transported to that little Mexican fishing village:) THAT is what traveling is all about...meeting people in their environment and sharing a common places, adventures, and experiences! Dirt roads, simple villages, relaxed sense of time, kindnesses extended, time shared...ahhh, the joys of the authentic traveler:) What a great experience for all of you. Here's to many more adventures in your memory making, newly created "unsplit pea!"