Have a Baja Moment! Adventures in Mulege
If it hadn’t been for my sister pushing me to come with her to Mexico and then offering free lodging in an exclusive Cabo hotel, I never would have made it to Mulege. We planned this road trip so we could take in the real Baja California and almost didn’t make it to Los Cabos because we couldn’t leave Mulege – make that, wouldn’t leave Mulege. We kept trying for a week before finishing our trip to lands end. Now, here we are back in the magic that wouldn’t let us go.
Alisabeth always pushed me into experiences I would have never had on my own. She got me aboard this Mexican shrimping trawler that was about to leave from Mulege for a night of fishing. I looked at her and she just grinned at me as the massive engine roared into life, and the ratcheting sounds of the heavy anchor chain warned us that we would soon be underway for the night; two gringas accompanied by a boat load of rough-looking marineros. She and I stood with Captain Chamula at the helm of El Joven. We gazed out on the beauty of the Gulf of California. How we had been invited aboard was still a mystery, but Alisabeth was relentless in getting me to say yes, saying it would be an experience of a lifetime. In this moment we were both feeling like we were on a National Geographic assignment, and the adventure was just beginning.
The water was glassy, and El Joven sliced through its stillness. The nightly routine began. The nets were dropped just outside the protected coastline a short time after dusk. Shrimp stayed hidden during the day and fed at night. The heavy nets disappeared below the surface. One small net called a “chango” or monkey, was used to check the catch before bringing up the two larger nets. When the count in the chango was ten or more the big nets would be hauled in.
Piloting in ‘S’ shaped patterns across the gulf, the cook called us to the galley for a light supper of sautéed onions, tomatoes, peppers and tender diced shrimp, all wrapped in a warm flour tortilla. The marineros, were respectful, but we could tell there were many questions in their eyes. Well into the night everyone took their places; two men on each side of the ship with the nets, while two men handled the winches. Groans issued from the cables being pulled taut under the weight. My first look at the bulbous nets clearing the gunwale threw me into major conflict. This was reality; this was the way shrimp got to the stores. Wrapped in neat packages, consumers never saw this devastation. At the same time a writhing mass of other living things were hauled in and dumped on deck: bottom fish, starfish, small shark, snail, shells, crab, and eels. There were whispers of an illegal sea turtle.
This was a very old form of work, men needed to feed their families, and the world wanted shrimp. Alisabeth and I felt a deep dichotomy; horrified to witness the destruction of the sea bottom. The deck crew went to work after securing the ropes and cables. With primitive wooden tools, they began to sort through the sea bottom carnage, separating the shrimp, and throwing them into large wicker baskets. The men tossed the edible fish to the side; these would become breakfast or dinner. The rest of the squirming mass became food for the sea birds.
This ritual of gathering would be done three times during the night. Sleep for the crew happened between the net pulls. We tried our best to fit into this sleep pattern. Near dawn, I slipped into the narrow passageway to the galley, trying to gather my sea legs under me, but had to use my hands pressed against the walls. The seas had definitely picked up. Everyone was still sleeping before the last net pull. On the ancient stove hot water was waiting. Using the cloth filter sown to a wire ring, I scooped dark grounds into it, poured the steaming water through and filled two cups. Slopping the coffee, I made wobbly progress to the helm. Chamula leaned back on the Captain’s chair, arms crossed. His bare feet rested on the spokes of the wheel, his knee bounced in time with the Mexican polka. With a grin, he reached for the coffee. Then without warning, he jumped up from the helm, and gave me the wheel. Shocked I exclaimed, “What?! What am I supposed to do?” Stay on course, west, he said. I called after him, “Please, don’t forget to come back.” I clutched the wheel and headed toward land.
He was busy waking the men with a gentle nudge, and didn’t find the need to reassure me. Everyone pulled on their yellow slickers and headed out on deck rubbing sleep from their eyes. I could hear the growl of the winches as they strained to pull in the nets; secretly I was thrilled being at the helm. The sky began to fill with circling birds. Their numbers increased to nearly swarm proportions. They knew the feast was certain. Finally I joined Alisabeth at the rear of the boat, to watch in utter astonishment as the mound of undesirable sea life was pushed overboard. In one swirling body the birds began to dive. With wild screeching, feathered bodies smashed into each other as they fought to get the wiggling banquet.
As the sky and the gulf waters turned blazing pink, Chamula dropped anchor. The decks were washed down, as well as the baskets of shrimp. The men pulled up short wooden stools and the cleaning of the shrimp began by ripping the heads from the bodies. Twist. Toss. Twist. Toss. The shrimp were sorted by size, and the heads went into a pile which would be given to the local fisherman for bait. Dropping anchor, the first pangas shoved off from shore headed in our direction.
After a breakfast of mouth-watering fresh fish, beans with plenty of lard, and strong coffee, we managed to crawl over the ship’s gunwale, and down into the bobbing panga without falling into the water. Back on the beach, the marineros begged us to stay. We promised our return. As we walked to the car Alisabeth asked, “An experience of a lifetime?” I sighed, still feeling the swaying decks of the Joven under my feet. “Yes, you were right. An experience of a lifetime.”
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