|The sun made the walls of the market seem red in the fading light when we pulled the Discovery into a dirt parking area in front of a small grocery market in Caborca, Sonora, Mexico. The building probably had been painted orange over 20 years before; the paint peeled and the red with yellowish-tan outline read, "MERCADO." Puerto Lobos was still over 50 miles away along a wash-board dirt road throught the desert.
"Let's just get tortillas, vegetables and rice for dinner. I think we should be able to get some fresh fish in Lobos when we arrive" Greg suggested. We had brought all the supllies needed for cooking - stoves, pots, flatware - but were relying on some genuine Lobos eats when we arrived.
We were all ready hungry as we hadn't eaten since a small breakfast at the truck stop before Nogales. The day had been long and I still thought about the old Border Patrol Officer who gave us a lecture about driving in Mexico. When I pulled up to the checkpoint, I rolled down the driver's window and smiled at the old man:
"Hi. How are you?"
"I'm fine. Where ya'll headin' and what's veeya tee-era?" He read the side of the Discovery by pulling his sunglasses off and leaning back.
"Were going to Puerto Lobos. Via Tierra is my brother's business - he's right here."
"OK. Puerto Lobos? Where 's that?" I found a particular pleasure in this question.
"It's over on the coast of The Sea of Cortez, south and east of Puerto Penasco."
"What the hell are you going this way for?" He was clearly angry, and possibly testing my nerve. "Jesus! What the hell is wrong with you kids? You ever think that a couple guys with machine guns would like to jump out of the bushes between Santa Ana and Caborca? These people out here know how to make kids like you disappear real easy, god-ammitt - they'd love to get their hands on a nice four-by-four like this to go cross country out there for their drug drops. Key-riste! You ever think about going down through Ajo and crossing at Lukeville and Sonoyta? Be a hell of a lot quicker and a hell of a lot safer - sheeezus! What the hell were you thinking? Anything?"
He seemed to have hit his climax in lecture and volume, so I had to say something at that point, "Hey, we wanted to bring the two of them down through Nogales since they've never been here before." I pointed to the backseat where Briana and Brooke sat.
"Maybe you should plan a little better. People like you disappear and die out there."
"You watch the news much? Kids take guns to school, and people get carjacked in the States. We've driven through Mexico several times and we know how to behave and how not to behave. This is no big deal."
He shifted. Somehow, I suppose I passed his test. "All right. So where'd you come from?"
"OK. Well, go on through and have a good time. But be safe and keep your eyes open."
And so we had made it alive to this market in Caborca where a small boy and girl walked with no shoes in the dirt lot in front of the store. These are obviously dangerous people here. They watched us as we entered the store - their mouths slightly opened and grinned when Brooke waved and smiled.
The inside of the store had about seven aisles of goods and a small produce section. The front had four registers with brown counter-tops. A woman in her thirties leaned on one counter while talking with two girls and a boy, each between the ages of 12 and 15. They appeared to be a family. Each one stopped the conversation and watched us walk in - Mexicans watch Norte Americanos. I'm not exactly sure why, but it usually doesn't seem as a disdainful thing. It seems like bashful curiosity. These four smiled and replied, "Buenas tardes" when I greeted them with the same phrase and a smile. The mother adjusted the grocery bags and then turned to the boy and ordered him to do something like organize the oranges or go sweep the floor; he said, "Si, mama" and ran off in front of us with his head down and a slight grin on his face.
The two girls looked away when any of us turned toward them and caught eyes. They gently giggled and turned to wipe the counter top and arrange the gum as if we were typical customers. We were evidently the only ones in the store. Brooke and I went up the furthest aisle toward the produce and Briana and Greg searched for the rice and tortillas. As we looked for the cilantro, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalepenos, It occurred to me that I hadn't practiced my vegetable words in quite some time. While I speak Spanish daily, it is always work related and things like bell peppers don't come up when talking to Daniel (my Mexican co-worker) about customers, lumber and UPS shipments.
Then Brooke asked me what the word was for onion. I paused. I saw the sign for it, and said, "Cebolla."
"Wow, you're good." She was serious. I had her fooled.
"Ok, so I saw the sign and that's the only reason I knew it." We laughed.
"How do you say, 'Where's the bathroom'? I have to go."
"Say, 'Por favor, doan day estah el banyo?' And say, 'grah see us' to thank them." I smiled with glee a little because Brooke was obviously wanting to communicate in Spanish herself. Out of the four of us, I was the only one who spoke Spanish. I walked with her to the front to ask. She grinned and quietly asked, "Dohn day estah el banyo?" and the boy smiled and pointed to the back corner and spoke in Spanish that it was through the swining door and around the corner. Brooke looked at me and her eyes were big and her mouth was gaping. The boy started to walk and he looked at here and motioned her to follow. The boy, understanding that she didn't know any Spanish, showed Brooke where the bathroom was.
It took nearly 2 hours to drive the long, dirt road to Puerto Lobos. When the sun was nearing the horizion over the Sea of Cortez, we could see a few homes and a light house at the edge of the land. There were no lights, only a few fires. Eventually, we came to a fork in the road - one direction seemed to go toward the beach and the other toward the town. Being hungry, we voted to go toward the town to find some food to complete our meal. We had been making comments about fresh fish, maybe some shrimp, and that sustained us for the 2 hour drive.
The town was completely dark, and all the roads were dirt. No building had light, and there were no lights anywhere. Nothing looked like a restaurant or store. Nearing then of the main road, we saw a man in his yard burning some branches. I got out to talk with him.
"Hay una tienda or restaurante aqui? Desemos a comprar pescados."
"No, no hay aqui." He explained that there were no commercial places to buy fish or any food for that matter. There were only homes of fishermen and fisher-families. Usually you could buy fresh fish from anyone, but it was a bad time for fish, so no one was selling. He told me that I could try to drive on the beach and see if there was anyone there to buy from. I was nervous about sharing this dismal information with my hungry friends. I asked again about a restaurant or someplace where we could eat breakfast, just to double check. No, nothing here.
I said thanks and went back to the car. I told Greg, Brooke and Briana that what we had in the car was all the food we were going to eat until we came to another town. We only had the tortillas, rice, vegetables and a bag of peanuts. No one wanted to get up in the morning and just leave, but it looked like that was going to be the extent of our Puerto Lobos adventure.
"There's no restaurant or store here. It looks like it's not fishing season right now; the guy told me that no one was selling fish right now. The best he could offer was to go down to the beach and see if anyone there can offer anything." At this point, it was sort of funny - ok, fine, we can just eat what we have and maybe walk on the beach and drive around the town in the morning and then leave for Caborca to get an early lunch.
"So what do we do?" Greg asked.
"Well, it's dark and we're hungry. We need to set up camp, eat and make do with what we have. Fishing season is over."
We drove to the north side of town and made our way to the beach. This portion of the beach had about a half dozen palapas lining the coast. We picked one and set up the tents and got cooking. The wind was blowing and sending sand into the pans of rice and vegetables. We had sand in our ears and all over our clothes within minutes, but we had to cook and eat. The wind wasn't too bad, but the sand made it nearly unbearable. For a while we made jokes and laughed about it.
All though, the moon hung as a thin crescent over the Sea and the waves rolled in and out gently. Every few moments or so, the wind would stop and I could sit quietly and breathe slowly - this was the beach in Mexico where there were no electric lights for hundreds of miles. Imagine the realization that there really were no commercial establishments here.
Upon becoming restless for food, we ate the rice too soon. It was under cooked - hard in the middle and watery. The only flavor was that of fresh bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and cilantro. The crunch of the peppers matched the crunch of the rice. We went to bed unsatisfied and covered in a thin film of wind blown sand.
I didn't sleep well either, despite having the soft sand under my tent. The wind blew all night and sent sand particles under the rain fly and straight through the mesh material of the tent roof. Every so often, I woke up to clean the sand out of my ears and hair. I'd try to zip my sleeping bag all the way up and cover my head, but I'm about six inches too tall to fit all the way inside comfortably. Plus my breath made the air hot and humid inside the bag. Nothing worked.
In the morning, the wind still blew. I cleaned out my ears the best I could and opened the tent to see the ocean. The rich blue of the water rolled and created white waves that spread out and turned the sand a dark tan color. I saw Brooke walking along the edge of the water looking at sea shells - I wondered if she was sad or bored or longed to just be home. I didn't see Greg or Briana. A short mountain range came right up to the water several miles north. The beach was empty for as far as I could see, except for the palapas and the lighthouse. Thre was a man with 2 dogs apparently cleaning the furthest palapa. I noticed that there was no trash on the sand or drowning in the breaking waves. Everything seemed so clean. I was hungry.
When I crawled out of my tent, I drank some water and sat down in one of the green camping chairs we had brought. Since I was the Spanish speaker, I was a little overwhelmed with feeling responsible. We were alone on one of these most remote expanses of pure beach any of us would ever experience - especially in a world that calls 5-star resorts and golf courses "progress." Would we just pack up and leave? Perhaps have some arguments in the car for the 50-mile stretch of dirt road? Or worse, just ride silently with the humor of it all long gone?
Greg soon arrived and we talked about what to do. The man with the 2 dogs was then at the second palapa. "Well, let's get camp packed up and let's drive around Lobos and check things out. Maybe go see the light house. Maybe see what else there is to see and get back to Caborca for a massive lunch" Greg suggested. That seemed to be the only answer, really.
Then the two dogs arrived, sniffing. Greg pointed at the man walking and said, "Maybe he can tell us something."
As the man walked toward our camp, I walked as well to meet him by the Discovery. He had on long dark green slacks, open toe sandals, maroon shirt, faded full brim hat, and an old wind breaker that read "Dodgers" in white, dilapidated embroidery. It occurred to me that he wore the clothes that so many of us Norte Americanos throw away or donate to Goodwill.
|"Buenos dias" I said and extended my hand.
"Buenos dias" he replied and shook my hand tenderly with a large smile. We stood there in silence for a bit. He seemed happy to just stand there and smile in silence.
I started the conversation, "Habla ingles, usted?"
"No, lo siento. No hablo ingles."
"Esta bien, puedo hablar espanol, pero mis amigos no hablan." So, we were limited to Spanish. (I'll translate here) "Is there a place in Lobos where we can get some breakfast?"
"No, there is nothing here like that. Only families of fishermen live here. There are no restaurants or stores. In Caborca, you can buy breakfast." He smiled still.
"While we are here, what should we see?"
"The light house is over there, and you can see the bay on the other side and look for sea shells. Lobos is very pretty and quiet. You will like walking around. There are many friendly people here - the little children will be happy to see you. They like Americanos."
"That's great. We'll do that. Thank you. Was it OK for us to sleep here last night?"
"Oh yes, yes, of course. The beach is very beautiful. It's pleasant out here at night. You can stay here for as long as you like. It costs five dollars a day for the palapa." In Mexico, I'm pretty suspicious of being told something like this - nearly everyone wants your money in Mexico. But he seemed genuine about this. I did notice he told me 'cinco dolares' and not 'cincuenta pesos' - he did speak English money.
"Is that five dollars a day per person?" I asked.
"No, no" he shook his head as if that were rediculous, then continued, "only five dollars for the palapa. Number of people is not important."
"Where are you all from?"
"Oh, we're from Arizona."
"Ahhh...! Arizona. Go diamondbacks!" He laughed, and so did I. This was January of 2002 - The Arizona Diamondbacks had just won the World Series in 2001. I found it funny that even Arizona sports made it this far into Mexico. Then he shocked me, "You four come to my house for breakfast with my family. My wife will make you a big breakfast." He smiled still.
I looked at Greg and then quickly looked back at the man, almost wanting to turn him down out of fear of 'what might happen.' I did understand that going to his house meant seeing a type of poverty none of us had ever seen before - frankly I did not know how Brooke or Briana would take it. But for his kindness and sincerity, I wanted to say, yes yes! Thank you VERY much. We would be delighted. So I replied, "Thank you very much. I'm sure breakfast with your family will be excellent. Let me ask my friends first, though."
"Yes, yes. Tell me which kind of tortillas they prefer. Corn or flour."
"Thank you very much. I'll ask them."
I turned to Greg, "You are not going to believe what he just said to me."
"Well, we like flour tortillas with some killer huevos rancheros right?"
"Yeah." Greg started to laugh.
"He want's us to come to his house and his wife will make us an awesome homemade Mexican breakfast."
"Oh....my...god." He looked so thrilled. Just when we thought the fun was ending, the adventure was beginning.
I turned back to the man, "Yes, we would love flour tortillas, thank you. Thank you very much. You have no idea how grateful we are. When shall we come?"
"Oh, let's say eleven?"
"That's fine. We will gladly pay you for the food."
"Thank you, but that is not necessary. We are friends."
"No, we'll pay you...say five dollars a person? See you at eleven."
"Ok, thank you. You can see the house from here. Right on top of the hill over there. See it?" He pointed. "It's straight up this road on the left. I'll go and tell my wife and she'll start cooking. Come at eleven."
"Ok. Again, thank you very much."
I ran to Brooke and Briana and said, "We've got breakfast!" They were delighted. "Homemade Mexican breakfast with that man. I couldn't believe it. One minute I was asking about Lobos, and then he pipes in and says that we are coming to breakfast with him and his family."
Brooke and Briana began to smile. "No way," Briana added.
"Yes way. You do prefer flour tortillas, right? He actually asked what kind of tortillas we preferred - as if his wife was going to make them right now. Can you believe that?"
Pulling into the dirt driveway, we didn't say much. Each of us were probably nervous about what we may encounter. The man came out through a door opening that only had a sheet, and no door. He waved us to park behind his truck. We passed a clean building with glass windows, a small porch and regular North American looking walls on one side of the driveway. On the other side of the driveway were two old pick-up truck campers, a boat, a surfboard leaned up against one camper - and next to it was an old, holey mattress with a nice golden retriever sitting upon it looking bored.
The building the man had walked out of was about 15 yards away from the other. Unlike the first building, the structure he came out of had no windows and seemed to be just a mere shack thrown together - corrugated tin siding, random sized pieces of plywood and the like. When we got out of the Discovery, the man greeted each of us and I'm sure Greg, Brooke, and Briana were nervous about not knowing how to speak Spanish. Two children, a boy and a girl about 9 to 12 years old, hid behind the truck and watched us walk. They had big smiles on their faces, but refused to make eye contact.
The man led us into the shack through the opening. To the immediate right, the man's wife and a teenage daughter cooked over a grill with a fire. The daughter looked at us, smiled and did not make eye contact either. She did lean closer to her mother and whisper something and they both quietly laughed. The man pulled out our chairs that were situated around a plywood table next to a large post in the center of the room. He grinned, motioned for us to sit, and said, "Sientalos, por favor."
Almost immediately, the man's wife brought four bowls to the table: fresh shredded lettuce, refried beans, fresh quartered limes, and the last one filled with pico de gallo - diced tomatoes, onions, jalepeno, and cilantro. She smiled without looking directly at any of us, picked up a lime and squeezed it over the last bowl; and squeezed that lime until there wasn't a drop of juice left in it. She rotated the lime in one hand, shook it over the pico, and these giant veins popped out of her hands. She had done this thousands of times. We looked at each other and moaned with approval, and we all said, "Gracias." Then she walked back to the grill, and brought over a plate filled with fried fish fillets along with a bowl of flour tortillas.
The man sat in a chair behind Brooke by the door, crossed his arms and laughed. "Son hace por mano." Those are hand made tortillas. "Por favor, comen. Toda comida es para ellos." I thanked him and we began to eat.
Greg made some groaning noises. "Can you pass me the pico?" Brooke asked.
"Oh, yeah, you're going to want a lot of that" Greg said. We didn't say much after that except, "God , this is great. I can't believe we are here. This is the best meal I've ever had" and so forth. I did try to talk with the man while I ate. He didn't answer much, but just encouraged me to eat more and talk less.
The man's wife would bring more fish everytime the plate had less than 4 pieces on it. And we kept eating. At one point, he motioned to the little girl and she ran out side. I had just told him that Lobos as a beautiful place. Then a part of the wall behind Greg was rising, and the girl was there propping open a window which faced the ocean. We had the fresh ocean breeze with a view to match as we ate the food. The little girl came back in and walked by Brooke with a large smile on her face, but looking at the ground. She walked into a door behind me, and hid. She never shut the door, but crouched down and peeked at us through the crack.
Brooke said, "That little girl is cute." So I turned around, and she shut the door quickly. Then slowy, the girl opened the door and I caught her looking. She shut it quickly again. When i was turned around, I noticed sand dollars on a small table in the corner. The children had colored in the star shape with crayons. I asked about the sand dollars.
"You can find them all along the shore here in Lobos" the man told me. Then he called his daughter out, and said something to her and she smiled and nodded. Then the man handed each of us one of the sand dollars saying that he wanted us to keep these since we were now all friends. Each of us said gracias again.
With our sand dollars, the man took us outside to let us walk around his place. He didn't have much to say. Briana asked me to ask him if we could take a picture of him and his family. So I did. From the inside of the kitchen, I heard his wife and daughter scream - and they screamed loudly. His wife came outside and motioned to her head that she was a wreck. We all just laughed with the man; she laughed too and agreed. We took their picture.
After walking around the yard and asking questions about Lobos for about a half an hour, it was time to get on the road. We thanked the man and his wife profusely. I told him he has a beautiful and we were very happy to have eaten. We thanked him some more.
Before i got into the Discovery, he said, "But next time you come to Lobos, you all will stay here and have a bed. My wife will cook you big meals every day. We are friends now, and that is what friends do." And so we have friends in Puerto Lobos.