I know lots of you have been to Baja, so you’ll understand how my Thanksgiving trip there this week made me nostalgic about my many visits over the years.
Who knows if I ever would have gone, if a colleague at my job in Beverly Hills hadn’t insisted that I drive down with her to Ensenada. She was British, reserved, wore dresses with tiny flowers and those little Peter Pan collars and always seemed to have a stick up her, um, you know. I didn’t have a deep yearning to go anywhere with her. But, finally, I ran out of excuses, so I grudgingly agreed to drive south with her and one of her friends.
The prospect wasn’t made any more appealing by their insistence that we leave at 6 a.m. in order to miss all the traffic. In those days, the idea of voluntarily getting up at 5 a.m. seemed simply beyond comprehension. (Sort of like going out at 10 p.m. does now.) Still, somehow I’d foolishly agreed to go along, so I injected espresso into my veins and sleepily crawled into the back seat.
We drove south for 90 minutes. Then, something strange happened. We stopped just before the border and bought Mexican car insurance and pesos. And, as we drove over the San Ysidro entryway into Mexico, my stuffy coworker suddenly was taken away by aliens, and replaced by a fun-loving gal. This was a development I never could have predicted.
From that moment until the end of the trip, she was up for anything. Drink shots of tequila until you’re tipsy at 10 a.m.? Check. Spend all day in Hussong’s Cantina, enjoying the fumes of bug spray and guzzling beers as the place grows crowded around you until no one can move a muscle? Check. Flirt outrageously with the Mexican bartenders? Check. I suspect she would have been willing to do things that can’t be mentioned in a family newspaper, but no one asked her.
As predicted, by leaving at 6 a.m. we were able to arrive in Ensenada at 10 a.m. that first trip, after a breathtakingly gorgeous ride along the ocean toll road. Then, I was informed we were going to get fish tacos.
Now, in those days, no one here had ever heard of fish tacos, and they sounded disgusting. Right? But my protests were in vain, and I was dragged to a little sidewalk taco stand in the main business district of Ensenada, away from the tourist zone. There, we sat on stools, drank sweet Mexican cokes made with actual cane sugar,and watched as the taco lady fried up white fish from a bucket that her husband had just caught in the bay that morning.
She slapped them in a tortilla, added shredded cabbage and mayonnaise, handed them over and pointed to the jar of pico de gallo and bottles of hot sauce available.
Total cost: 10 cents per taco. They were the best things I’d ever tasted.
Eating and drinking. Drinking and eating. Drinking and eating and shopping. I was in a newfound heaven. I bought so many Mexican arts and crafts on that first trip that I could barely get the car door closed for the drive home.
After that, I began regularly to dream of fish tacos, and I went along whenever I was invited. A lot of tequila was consumed. And, then, one day, I finally hit the road with some different friends in a rental van, and discovered the Baja that lies beyond the end of the tourist toll road in Ensenada. A land of beautiful vistas, mountain ranges with no guard rails, cows wandering the road, unexpected washouts, bizarre cactus and friendly people. I was hooked.
Many people go to Baja to fish, but I always think it’s sad to catch and kill a huge, beautiful old fish that survived so many years — and then gloat over it. I’m always happy to get on a boat and go look at wildlife without killing it. Dolphins, whales, rays, whale sharks, schools of fish — you never know what you’ll see when you head out on the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California (but not to Baja lovers).
This trip, we’re flying down to Loreto, which is in the southern state of Baja California Sur, just for a short break over Thanksgiving. Fifteen years ago, the kids caught their first little fishes there, milked goats on one comical afternoon and have had so many adventures. The magical thing about Loreto is that the Sierra Gigante mountains come right down to the sea, creating spectacular vistas. And it’s still a small town full of friendly people.
By the time you read this, I’ll just have returned, well fed, well rested and with plenty of medicinal tequila in my body. So, see you in the funny papers.