Just click on the picture to get “that Baja feeling!” We’re still looking for those heads on sticks.
I’ve been going down the peninsula of Baja for years and have yet to find those heads on sticks. Search as we may, this is all we found last trip.
A whale shark off the beach near our home at Campo Gecko, Bahia de Los angeles.
When you are in the water with them you realize how gentle these 50 foot creatures really are and how ill equipped and ungraceful we humans are in the water.
Here’s a YouTube link to this magic:
Many years ago while traveling in the backcountry of Baja I learned an important lesson that I have carried with me ever since.
Several of us were on a fishing adventure slowly making our way down the old Mexican 1 which serpentines it’s way along the backbone of this wild peninsula. We were in the middle of one of the loneness and driest places on earth, the Vizcaino Desert, when I felt a hard jolt followed by a loud clanging. My jeep coasted to a halt next to a large Boogun tree, engine still running. My son, Sam, ran up the dusty road and retrieved the driveshaft. It is amazing at how quiet and empty the desert can feel when you are broken down in the middle of it.
After a little trouble-shooting we figured that we could limp back to the village of Catavina some miles away by engaging the 4WD, which still transferred power to the front wheels. And so we began a long and tedious trek back to that little pueblo.
Upon arriving, we searched for a mechanic to help us. Actually, this place had more abandoned dwellings than occupied. But as luck would have it we found a guy who had ran out of money and was stranded there waiting for an opportunity to continue his journey North and he was a mechanic—only in Mexico.
Julio examined the shaft by rolling it on the crumbling pavement of an old abandoned gas station to check its trueness. I remember looking at a peeling mural of a map of the peninsula with a star marking our location. We were a long ways from home. The station had shut down years before for lack of traffic. Since its closure, the only fuel available was gotten from fifty-gallon drums strained through a chamois. My attention went back to Julio, who was shaking his head while examining the broken strap. We would not be traveling far without a new one.
I began to worry when he shaded his eyes from the intense Baja sun and scanned the surrounding desert. Without a word, he abruptly left us and carefully picked his way through the cacti toward a line of wrecked vehicles. I watched him disappear underneath a rusting Chevy pickup with a cholla growing up through its missing hood.
Upon returning, he told me he needed 80 pesos to pay the man who “owned” it. Sensing I did not understand, he explained that he would have to salvage the pin bearings from it and further he would need to buy a strap from another “owner” of an old Ford rusting on the other side of the road. He smiled sweeping his arms across the desert encompassing at least thirty old, rusting vehicles and said, “This is my parts department.” The parts he needed would need to be salvaged off these abandoned wrecks.
Without any further discussion, he began to work. Using the tools we always carried on these adventures and an old rickety jack, he worked for a couple hours in the sweltering heat. First, he replaced each pin bearing one by one and than slowly jacked the shaft back up in place using a cradle he had made from pieces of wood he had sent the village children out to gather from along side the road.
By now, we had attracted most of the villagers; us being the best entertainment in town. I remember my friend, Fritz, teaching the game of chess from the tailgate of his pickup.
I asked Julio at one point how he was going to balance the shaft so it would spin true when reconnected to the engine. He smiled as he propped one end on a rock and took a small hand sledge and carefully lifted it a few inches above and struck it. He did this a couple of times more with care and precision. When he finished, he proudly said, “Hecho en Mexico!” Made in Mexico!
I paid Julio less than a hundred dollars for the whole job, which got him on his way and us as well. We continued our journey south to explore many bays and beaches without names that fueled countless campfire stories to this day. Years later, I passed that jeep on to my son and it still runs and has never needed any modifications to Julio’s repairs.
When you leave the frontiers and venture down the back roads of Baja there is no Auto Club to call, no machine shops, no dealerships, or Auto Zones to stop at. You only have yourself and the kindness of strangers. These strangers, the locals, are geniuses at making do with what they have. They live by the adage that necessity is the mother of all invention. It is what surely attracts me to these lonely places over and over.
When not writing and adventuring on my moto, I work as an educational consultant here in California. Doing that work in these times is not much different. We are bombarded with an endless stream of regulations and directives from the state and federal government that cost large sums of money to implement while we are asked to do it with less.
We find ourselves spending more and more time out of classrooms meeting the needs of outside bureaucrats who claim to have all of the answers. But when all is said and done, the solutions are in the talent we have all around us. The secret to our success is the same as Julio’s; use our own talent and ingenuity to solve the problem.
We need to invest in ourselves for a change. This of course, will not make the test making companies, “consultants,” textbook publishers, software designers and outside trainers very happy in their quest for billions of our tax dollars.
But in my experience, a good teacher who makes positive connections with children will out perform any program, any time. That is were I have always put my money because I am used to betting on winners.
There are moments in our lives that define our character. Very often at the time they are happening we do not even realize it— but they do just the same. Recently, while riding across the Vizcaíno Desert in Baja on my motorcycle I remembered one of those moments that put last year into perspective.
Many years ago, I was a wild animal trainer on a movie in Brazil were I was responsible for the training of several jaguars. We had been working on this movie for over a year shooting mostly in the jungle. We shot at 55 different locations. Part of my job was to scout locations that would work for the animal scenes. This was demanding and dangerous work being that we were a long way from home and many times found ourselves in situations that we would just have to say, “Only in Brazil.”
The director, John Boorman, was brilliant but demanding. Clearly, he was a person used to getting his own way. At one point he directed us to find a location with a waterfall that would serve as a backdrop for a jaguar scene. We searched for days hiking further and further up a river, deeper into the jungle. Finally, after trekking miles, we found the perfect spot. It was a spectacular series of small waterfalls stepping down into a series of deep azure pools; each filling the next until reaching a huge pool that mirrored the surrounding jungle. The river’s mist filled the clearing with competing rainbows. But it was the rocks that were the most stunning. They were pure white except for patches of emerald green moss. It was pristine, magical.
I approached some Indians who were laundering their clothes at the edge of the pond. They laughed and gossiped loudly as they slapped their wet linens on the rocks. Through our interpreter, GuGu, they told us the place was called Piedra Blanca, the same as their village and they had lived near these falls for generations.
After showing the location to Mr. Boorman, we arranged for a meeting with their chief. The director explained that he wanted to use the falls and all the area around the pond for a movie. They did not know how movies were made and this took some time to get across. Further, he wanted to pay for the privilege to use the area. This became even more confusing as they did not have a concept of private ownership of land. But it was clear they understood the concept of money when a large bundle of Cruzados were produced. The chief slyly took them looking around confused.
Now at this point it became really confusing when Boorman explained that he wanted guards placed around the whole area and that no one was to use it as he did not want anyone marring the rocks or moss. But when more Cruzados were produced they quickly took them looking from one another bewildered. As we were leaving we saw the chief’s sons hastily clearing the laundry area. Boorman’s parting words emphasized that no one was to use the area until we returned.
We left a few days later for our next location several hundred miles away. As the year passed the film crew, from time to time, sent someone down to check on the falls and always it was guarded and as pristine as when we first found it.
We worked, moving often as the time went by but still we had not returned. At some point, I realized that we would never get back for that shot and month later we left for England.
Years later I was working on another film at Pinewood studios and ran into the associate producer of the film who had been with me when we found the falls. I asked him what he thought. He laughed and said that was how legends were born. He paused and said, “Only in Brazil.”
I often wonder about that place and those people. I wonder if they are still guarding it, waiting for our return. I wonder if generations will be guarding it waiting for the return of the strange outsiders with the big bag of money. I wonder about many things.
Very often we can find ourselves in situations where we are preforming tasks that make about as much sense as guarding those falls. When you find yourself in such a situation get out as quickly as you can. If you have the courage to do that—you, too, can have the luxury of saying “Only in Brazil” or, only in any place like it.
That’s what I did.
My name is Ken Decroo. I am a writer and an adventurer, and I’ve been wandering the Baja Peninsula for over 50 years. I keep coming back to this land and its people as though she were a mistress–she has the unique ability of reclaiming herself and keeping the core of her character, and she has been a centering, constant support for me in this high-speed, plugged-in world. It is where I write. More at Welcome!