A Whale of a Time

Caleb has always been a reader.  He favored non-fiction, so I had the opportunity to learn alongside him when he was small.  His interests varied, but there was usually an animal book or two in the large stack we brought home from the library or purchased ourselves.  We were both fascinated with whale sharks, and he owned multiple books about this amazing animal.

IMG_5423So there was absolutely no way we were going to miss out on the opportunity to snorkel with them while we were in Baja California Sur- -even if it meant Caleb needed to wake up two hours earlier than he would have liked to during a break from school and spend hours in a cramped van with 15 strangers.  Interestingly, we had no problems locating him this time when our ride picked us up at the hotel.

We were first taken to the company “hub”.  While Steve and I checked in, Caleb located a Starbucks.  (His day just kept getting better and better).  We met our fellow snorkelers and guides and loaded onto another van for the trip to La Paz, about an hour and forty-five minutes north of Cabo San Lucas.  We scanned the Pacific Ocean on our left for humpback whales and enjoyed the beautiful desert vista on our right.  It was the best of both worlds, and the trip went quickly.

Once we arrived in La Paz, we did not mess around!  We lined up for wetsuits,DCIM100GOPROG0049310. flippers. snorkels, and masks.  In mere minutes, we were heading down the malecón toward the panga boats waiting for us at the dock.

During our walk, our guide explained that La Paz had recently moved to protect the bay where the whale sharks feed.  Mangrove trees, lining an island in the middle of the bay, were important in the creation of plankton, the whale sharks’ food source.  All boats entering the bay were chipped and monitored from shore to insure they did not violate the rules in place.  If they did, captains risked losing their boating licenses for the following year.

Due to the protections, there was a limit to the number of boats allowed in the bay at a time.  While we waited our turn, we chatted with the guide and learned that his parents lived in Guaymas.  Granted, we probably should have used this time to cover snorkeling basics, but it was much more fun to listen to him reminisce about his favorite beach bar in San Carlos and discuss other hot spots.  Hindsight being 20/20, the tips probably would have been a better idea!

DCIM100GOPROG0179375.Basically, our instructions were to jump over the side of the boat and move toward the whale shark, giving him six feet of space on the sides and front and nine feet around the tail.  That sounded simple enough.   I jumped in, not at all expecting the entire Sea of Cortez to come streaming in my snorkel.  As soon as I cleared it out, I was smacked in the face by a wave.

Some whale sharks stay in one place and feast; others like to play tag.  We had a lot of swimmers!  This meant we were constantly on the move (and constantly being smacked in the face by waves).  Cough, clear snorkel, take a breath, get hit in the face with a wave, drink some sea water, repeat.  Eventually, I abandoned the snorkel and just held my breath.

I am not complaining.  I had it much better than the guy whose wife planned thisDCIM100GOPROG0209392. outing for their second wedding anniversary.  While she gave chase to the whale shark, he was pummeled over and over by the sea, never once getting the opportunity to catch his breath and never getting further than three feet from the boat.  I have a feeling he will be planning next year’s anniversary trip, if the marriage survived this one.

Fortunately, we had one older whale shark who was not at all bothered by people watching him eat.  The sea was teeming with plankton.  He found his spot and was not moving.  I was in awe.  There could not be anything more incredible than experiencing this.  I was completely lost in the moment…

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Until I remembered the six/nine rule!  Holy crap!  It looked like I was close enough to touch this guy.  I vaguely remembered the guide mentioning that the whale shark might startle and accidentally hit a person with one of his fins.  The current that had been feeding me waves was now holding me in place under water!  Or was it moving me even closer?  (It is, of course, quite possible that I had no idea what I was doing with those flippers and causing my own problems.)  Eventually, I surfaced and made it back to the boat, only to learn that our face masks made things look closer than they actually were.

It was impossible to keep up with what Caleb and Steve were doing underwater, IMG_5421so I was very pleased to see the two of them on the boat and happy as we headed back to shore.  The trip included a delicious fish taco and fettuccine Alfredo lunch.  Wait.  What?  And the tequila shots took the taste of any salt water out of Steve and Caleb’s mouths.   And they also probably saved that one marriage.

It was an unforgettable day on the water.  The ride back was very quiet (again, thanks to the tequila).  I said a little prayer thanking God for making my son a reader and an animal lover. I also thanked him for giving me Steve, who should have learned his lesson by now but continues to let me plan our vacations anyway.

Man Overboard!

We planned a couple of special activities while we were in Cabo San Lucas.  The first was a glass-bottomed kayak and snorkeling trip to Land’s End and Cabo’s “famous” arch.  Our guides arrived a tad earlier than we expected them, and Steve and I had a moment of panic when we could not locate Caleb.  After waking his neighbors pounding on his hotel room door, Steve found him in the restaurant (wondering what all the fuss was about, no doubt).  We all loaded ourselves into the van, picked up the remaining members of our group, and headed to the beach.

Steve and Caleb must have discussed logistics and kayak assignment beforehand because the next thing I knew I was being pawned off on the guide.  The joke was on them.  Here was my chance to receive expert one on one training!  As it turned out, in addition to paddling tips, I also received a history and geography lesson of the area from our guide.  And there no fear of falling out of the kayak this time.  This trip was definitely a win-win for me!

thumbnailThe bay was full of boats:  pirate ships, pangas, sailboats, and other kayaks.  Due to the number of boats, the water was a bit choppy near the Arch, so we waited for some of the traffic to clear out before entering the somewhat enclosed area where it is located.  I was hoping for an excited reception from the sea lions who lounge in the area.  Unfortunately, we were not the first visitors of the day, and they were no longer interested.  I guess if you have seen one tourist you have seen them all!  It was at this point, Steve most likely questioned his judgment in choosing Caleb over me for the first time.  A lone male sea lion dove into the water.  Like a flash, Caleb maneuvered their kayak closer.

Meanwhile, I was benefitting once again from being with the guide.  He held us steady so thumbnail-1I could focus on taking photos.  It was a bit intimidating to think there was nothing but water, a lot of water, beyond the last rock outcropping.   Instead, I focused on how small the Arch looked.  (Of course, anything in the Pacific would look small.)  I felt immediately guilty for expecting something bigger because it truly was amazing and beautiful.  Then I wondered if I was the sort of person who would see Mt. Everest and comment on how I thought it would be taller.  This led to an internal lecture on being grateful and appreciating the miracle of nature, blah, blah, blah.

We did not have far to paddle before stopping again to snorkel.  Given that we did not pull our kayaks out of the water, I opted to stay aboard and continue to serve as trip photographer.  Honestly, I could just not get past the vision of myself splayed across the thumbnail-2kayak trying to get back in.  Yes, I have been doing some arm work.  No, I was not quite ready to power myself out of the sea onto a boat.  Sea lions look cool sprawled out on the rocks.  Me, on the back of a kayak, not so much.  Steve had never snorkeled before, so I documented this “first”.  Caleb had snorkeled plenty, but it was a terrific opportunity for a new “Insta” photo!

Everyone made it safely back on and in their kayaks, and we headed to shore.  I was preening, listening to the guide tell me what a strong, consistent paddling form I had, when we were surprised by a sudden splash.  Apparently, while I was contemplating asking the guide if he could repeat this in front of my family, one of Caleb’s flippers slipped off the back of his kayak.  In an effort to save his parents the cost of replacing it, he reacted quickly to get it back, losing his hat and sunglasses in the process.  Caleb jumped off of the kayak and into the water, without giving Steve a head’s up.  The kayak was thrown off balance, and Steve was thrown into the water.  The flipper and hat were saved.  The sunglasses and Steve’s dignity were not.

I tried really hard not to gloat on the van ride back to the hotel.  The guide did indeed inform my family of my mad kayak skills.  And I was completely dry.

Culture Shock

Caleb just finished his first semester of law school.  And by finish, I mean he spent 37 hours studying for his his Torts final alone!  If anyone was deserving, er, desperately needing a Christmas getaway, it was our boy.

thumbnailI began planning our trip in June of last year.  I chose Cabo San Lucas as our destination, knowing nothing more than the fact that this was a huge Spring Break destination for classmates in Caleb’s high school class.  He had never gone on the trip with his friends, and it seemed like having survived Contracts and Torts was the perfect reason for discovering what the draw was over his Christmas break.  And while I felt a tad guilty for being such a “typical American”, I felt Caleb needed time to just lay on the beach and soak up some sun.  We could hit more “educational” destinations after his second year- -you know, when law school gets easier.

We were warned about the “time share” guys in the airport.  We were not, however, expecting them to act like they were from our car rental agency.  Yes, we fell for it!  Twice!  It was my fault.  It seemed rude to just ignore someone telling us he was calling the shuttle, then go over a map and highlight our route and main beaches while we waited.  Ugh!  If they would just make their pitch in the first 30 seconds!  We were much quicker the second time.   And yes, I truly felt like a horrible person walking away as soon as Alamo Representative #2 pulled out the map.  Caleb was not fooled.  We found him standing next to our real shuttle driver in an even more overwhelming crowd outside the airport.  This was probably the first time of many he was wishing he had been with his friends, not his parents.

The process for picking up the car was quick and painless, and finally, we were on our way! Thanks to the map provided by Time Share Guy #1 we had no trouble.  Of course, there is only one way out of the airport, a beautiful federal highway, and lots of signs pointing us in the right direction too.  It was exciting to see the opposite side of the Sea of Cortez.  Well, when I could see it through all the hotels, condos, and I assume, time shares!

Our hotel was not on the water.  It was just two stories high.  It was purple and turquoise.  The wifi was horrible.  And I loved it!  We unpacked, regrouped, and headed into the central district to check things out.  It was hard to believe I was still in Mexico.  Nothing about Cabo San Lucas looked like the places I knew:  Nogales, Santa Ana, Hermosillo, Guaymas, Obregon.  There were no potholes in the roads.  There was no trash along the streets.  The desert seemed softer.  Waiters and shop owners spoke English.  Everyone seemed to be paying in dollars.  Music was blaring from all directions.  Almost everyone we passed on the malecón was carrying a beer or margarita.  And wearing a balloon animal hat.  What was that and where could I get one?!  Hostesses were standing in front of clubs with trays of tequila samples.  There were so many choices- -it was a tad overwhelming.

And then the “draw” became much clearer.  A restaurant sign advertising 2×1 margaritas thumbnail-1caught Caleb’s eye.  Yep.  That was where we would eat our first night.  Being an only child can be lonely at times.  But 2×1 margaritas when you don’t have to share is not one of them!

Water Therapy

Two of our favorite neighbors returned earlier this fall and began preparing their home to sell.  Sad face.  While we could not afford to buy the home, we were able to purchase the double kayak they no longer needed.  It was an impulse buy like no other.  My neighbor had barely finished his sentence, offering me the opportunity, when an excited “YES” came rushing out of my mouth.  Being a bit older, and a tad old fashioned, my neighbor asked if I wanted to run it by my husband.  Um, no thank you.

thumbnail-1Steve is not much of a kayaker.  I think it is a patience thing.  But he is kind of thrifty.  If we had the kayak, paid money for the kayak, he would use the kayak!  And I needed him to want to use the kayak 1) because it is a double  2) because it is really, really heavy and 3) because I love to kayak but am not very good at it.  I tend to worry a little about tipping over.  A buddy meant I had a built in equalizer (or life preserver).  I also obsess about sharks.  Having Steve with me meant bait.

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday we loaded the kayak in our truck and headed out to a somewhat protected cove.  As we carried/lugged/dragged it to the water, I could not help picturing the chiseled arms I would eventually have.  Woo hoo!  Maybe I would be able to wear a sleeveless top without a cardigan or work shirt one of these days!  Apparently, I was not as focused on our task as I needed to be.  Steve was pointing out obstacles in front of me and mumbling something about paying attention.

Paying attention proved to be a bit of a problem once we were out on the water.  I either thumbnailoverthought my paddling technique (or rather, lack of), or I became too engrossed in the pelicans sunbathing on the rocks, in the search for blue footed boobies, and in the tunnels carved by the sea in the rocks to remember to paddle.  We struggled finding a good rhythm.  Our paddles hit, eliciting sighs from the guy in the seat behind me.  I put my paddle in too deep, meaning I was pulling along at a slower pace.  There were numerous pleas to “just stop paddling, please”.

Regardless of my skill level, I was having a blast!  At some point, I stopped obsessing over my poor form and what Steve thought of it.  We glided across the water- -it was a clunky glide, but a glide nonetheless.  We moved in and out of the tunnels, both grateful and awestruck.  We watched pelicans dive-bomb the water for their breakfast.  We had a few tippy moments, but we knew enough not to overcorrect or panic, thereby saving ourselves from taking a plunge.  After about an hour and a half on the water we headed back to shore.  I was feeling empowered enough to think about where we should put in on our next trip.  And I could not help striking a bodybuilder pose after loading up the truck.

On the way home we discussed some of the problems we had.  We were calmer and more patient with each other.  We recognized that despite some of the issues, we had a wonderful time.  We also realized that we had a lot of time to get better and work on this together.  Buying a kayak was much cheaper than signing up for marriage counseling!  And did I mention the incredible arms I will have?!

A Day in the Life of an Outlaw

I really needed (okay, wanted) to buy a Día de los Muertos Lotería game.  The only place I had seen one was at the Super Farmacia in Guaymas.  Finding a place to park in downtown Guaymas is difficult enough, never mind that I need a spot big enough for a full-size Dodge pick up truck.  So I was feeling pretty lucky when I spotted several spaces right in front of the drugstore!  Unfortunately, I was driving on the opposite side of the street.

thumbnailI got a little panicky.  “Where in the #&!! can I turn around?” and “Oh no, someone will take my spot!” and “I’m basically driving a boat on Hot Wheel size tracks here…”  The first two streets I checked were out of the question.  They were both one way.  The third looked promising.  In fact, I was pretty sure Steve and I had turned around on that same street a week or so ago when I needed (er, wanted) a Día de los Muertos Memory card game.

As I stopped at the light, I noticed a lefthand arrow with a big red slash through it hanging right below the traffic signal.  I weighed my options as I waited for the light to change.  Once it did, I watched as two of the cars in front of me made left turns.  Hmm.  Maybe it was an old sign?  Maybe it was just a suggestion?  At the last minute I decided that I was going to follow the two cars that had turned in front of me.  They both had Sonora plates.  If I could not trust the locals, who could I trust?

Note to self:  Do not trust the locals.

I made the left and had just gotten in position to negotiate the turn that would take me back in the direction of the prime parking spots I had seen, when the Policía Municipal pulled up behind me, lights flashing.  My first thought is that they were stopping traffic to give me a little room to turn around.  Yeah, I am a dreamer.  What I thought next is not printable.

I pulled over to the side of the street, and two officers came up to my window.  They explained to me what I had done; obviously they had no idea I had completely thought this turn through.  I told them that I had just been following the two cars in front of me.  They assured me that those cars were being stopped too.  I suppressed a laugh; those drivers were long gone.  I was surprisingly calm, as in less panicked than I was thinking about not being able to find a parking space!

A Municipal Police officer is one of the lowest paid employees in Mexico. Data collected from misalario.org in May of 2017, shows that an officer can expect a monthly salary of $8,106.00 pesos.  That is roughly $438.16 in U.S. dollars.  These guys are tasked with unarguably, one of the most difficult and potentially dangerous jobs in the country, for peanuts.  As a result, there is an off the books arrangement that can, at times, be made.  Rather than accept the ticket, a lawbreaker, such as myself, can offer a  “mordida”, paid directly to the officer, thereby increasing his monthly salary.

On one hand, I understand this arrangement.  Police officers make less per month than supermarket cashiers, restaurant cooks, and taxi drivers.  A mordida puts cash money in the hands of the one who needs it most.  On the other hand, we cannot expect changes to be made a bad system if we continue to circumvent legal channels.

I handed over my driver’s license.  The officer did not begin writing any of my information down.  It has been my experience that the police will never mention a mordida.  It is up to the person receiving the ticket to bring it up.  Maybe he was waiting for me to do that.  Maybe he was just unsure of where to find the information he needed on an Indiana driver’s license.  Whatever the delay, I waited him out because I had, by this time, decided I was going to accept the ticket.  I was looking at this whole experience as something new and exciting.  I could add “getting a ticket in Mexico” to my list of other Mexican firsts:  open air markets, dolphins, hurricanes, and street vender churros.

Eventually, the clipboard, ticket, and my license were handed over to the second officer.  I chatted with the first while we waited.  He asked how long I had lived in Guaymas and complimented my Spanish.  (I could not wait to share this with my Spanish teacher!)  Finally, it was explained to me that I would need to pick up my license at the Police Department in a couple of hours.  After I paid my fine, my license would be returned.  I wavered a bit here.  Did I really want to hand my license over?  Would I really get it back?  Eh, someone else is living at the address listed on the license anyway.  I decided to just throw caution to the wind.

I waited until the officers had gotten back in their car and drove on down the road before making, what I am certain, was an illegal u-turn to head back to the main drag.  Of course, my parking spots were long gone.  I found another further up the block. (I had two hours to kill, the walk would be good for that.)  The Super Farmacia was completely sold out of the Lotería game I wanted.  Of course it was.

I showed up at the Police Department two hours later.  I paid my fine.  I received a 50% thumbnail-1discount for paying within 24 hours.  I think I probably set a record by paying it in two!  I also noticed that included in my ticket was a donation to La Cruz Roja (Red Cross) and to DIF (Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, a public institution of social assistance that focuses on strengthening and developing the welfare of families).  I actually felt pretty good about that.  My license was there, so that was a good thing too.  And really the only negative to this whole ordeal (aside from the game being unavailable) is that I will not be able to complain about my husband’s driving- – at least for a couple of weeks.

An Oasis for the Spirit

thumbnail-6Cañón de Nacapule seemed like the perfect place to flee from the unrelenting pounding of hip hop music that had been playing non-stop in our neighborhood for more than 12 hours.  Tucked away in Sierra de Aguaje range just a few miles north of San Carlos, it offered the peace and quiet we were desperately seeking.  Nacapule is a Yaqui Indian word for “earlobe”.  It is also the name of a fig tree which is found in the canyon, whose seeds feed small birds and bats.

A pot-holed, paved road gave way to a rutted, rocky, dirt one.  We were entertained by the roadrunners and jackrabbits darting in front of us as we made our way through the desert.  Signs guided us in the right direction, as the road veered off in different angles at several points.   Upon reaching our destination, we were surprised to see a barbed wire fence and locked gate standing between us and the canyon.  We decided that the risk of scooting under the fence was worth it.  Had we returned home to the party that drove us away in the first place, we were not sure we could be responsible for our actions.

In lieu of a trail map, we stumbled upon a sign warning us of the risk of death.  We thumbnail-8decided to tempt fate and proceed.  Our path into the canyon was clearly marked, wide, and flat.  Things changed rather quickly, however.  We moved forward (or what we thought was forward), maybe on the trail.  But then again, maybe not.  Signs had fallen over in the rocky soil, and rocks, painted with arrows, had been deliberately moved.  At points, huge boulders blocked our path, requiring more climbing than hiking.  Sometimes there was more than one way to get from point A to Point B.  It did not appear that one route was any less challenging than the other; you know, “Expert hikers go this way, big babies go that way.”

I am the person who trips when there is nothing in front of me.  Even in the grocery store, my husband provides a play by play of all “potential” obstacles I may encounter.  So when I was not watching my feet closely, hugging the sides of a ledge or grabbing a branch to steady myself, or deep in prayer (making all kinds of “deals” should I come through this hike without one clumsy episode), I was aware that my surroundings had completely changed.

thumbnailCañón de Nacapule is truly an oasis in the middle of the desert.  There are at least five “ojos de agua”, some permanent, and others that are filled by the summer rains.  The canyon also boasts a waterfall.  It has its own ecosystem and microclimate that attracts a wide variety of birds, reptiles, and mammals.  The water source is responsible for unique flora including: towering palm trees, flowering plants and bushes, fig trees, and cacti.  Some of its species are endemic only to this area.

The canyon is about a mile long, and by this point we had thumbnail-2traveled maybe 1/3 of a mile.  Yes, I know what you are thinking.  Based on the struggle so far, it seems we really should have been done by this point.  I could not agree more.  Our next challenge was a rope ladder, drilled into the canyon wall.  Once we reached the top, we were greeted by incredible views of the canyon.  It was here we lost the trail.  Kind of.  There were two signs offering us  different choices for further hiking, but nothing beyond the signs was especially clear.  Caleb thought he knew which way to go, but it involved mountain goat skills that I was not sure I possessed at this point.

thumbnail-1On a different trip (one that did not require sneaking under a fence), we were able to reach the back of the canyon, primarily because there were other people to follow along the way.  Caleb had been correct in the direction he thought we should go.  I had right been too.  It did take mountain goat skills.

Cañón de Nacapule offers stunning views, unexpected surprises, and the opportunity to push oneself beyond what is believed possible.  We were not always certain we were following the intended path, surely giving new meaning to the “road less traveled”.  Scrabbling along on all fours over boulders, testing for footholds in smooth inclines, I found myself celebrating my accomplishments more so than the beauty of what was around me… For me, this is the real power of nature.

 

Live Life like Someone Left the Barn Door Open

thumbnailWhile I know very little about horses, I am always up for a horse ride.  Horses seem pretty smart to me; they know that  I have no idea of what in the heck I am doing.  Granted, most of my rides have been pretty tame.  The horse follows the one in front of him on a trail so well known, he could walk it in his sleep.

Except my horses always seem to be the ones that stand around a lot, laughing at me while I mentally run through my options.  Do I squeeze?  Do I pull the reins?  Do I swat?  Yeah, usually, I am just rescued by the professional—or my son.  My horse is also the one that experiences technical difficulties.  I have spent more time leaning 45 degrees in the saddle because of equipment malfunctions that I am too embarrassed to mention.  (As if The Leaning Rider of Horses is a thing, and no one notices.)

Steve does not ride, so it is up to me to accompany Caleb and our guests on the trail.  Our first ride was a two hour trip into the desert and back.  Hidden throughout areas of the desert are “ojos de aqua”, or deep holes that fill with rainwater, creating mini ecosystems within a larger one.  The hole we were searching for was filled by a waterfall no less.  I rode Mariachi, who was preoccupied with the smorgasbord on the side of the trail.  The guide had discussed the horses’ snacking habits prior to the trip.  I knew I was not supposed to let him munch on the trees and grasses.  But, kind of like me at a Pizza Hut Buffet, no one was going to get between this guy and his lunch.  This meant the guide was paying a lot of attention to me (and my lack of ability).  Caleb actually moved  a spot or two in line to distance himself from the troublemaker and obvious amateur.

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The set of Catch 22 in San Carlos, Sonora.  The movie was based on the novel written by Joseph Heller.

While it was apparent that these horses knew the route, they were not nearly as programmed to follow one another.  We did not move through the desert nose to tail.  This allowed riders more time to focus on the beauty of the desert than the bathroom habits of the horse in front.  I experienced moments of solitude which allowed for quiet time to reflect on nature and my place in it.

I had never been allowed to trot or gallop on a guided horse ride in the U.S.A.  On these trips, however, our horses were encouraged to pick up the pace.  I am still on the fence about whether or not that is a good thing.  I am pretty sure I looked like a rag doll in the saddle, and I felt like a bowl of Jello.  But I did not care!  I opened my eyes wide, let out a “WHOOP”, and pretended to chase an old time stagecoach robber.  I was at the end of the line, in my own world, and oblivious to the coaching (or reprimands)  I was receiving at this point.

Our next horseback ride passed right through the set for the movie Catch 22.  Part of the old airstrip is still visible.  Some of the buildings that served as the base are still standing.  Many of the stones used to build them have disappeared over time, probably serving a more functional purpose in someone’s actual home today.   Since I had never read the book, Catch 22, I needed to watch the movie, especially knowing now that it was filmed in my own backyard.  I watched long enough to say, “Yep, I have ridden my horse through that arch,” before falling asleep.  Then I read the synopsis published on Wikipedia instead.

thumbnail-2I loved watching my mom ride.  The smile never left her face.  Her joy was pure.  Her laugh while her horse ran across the desert was beautiful music- -and she even looked like she knew what she was doing.   At the end of the day that is what is most important about experiences like this.  It is not how well you handle your horse or how competent you look doing it.  It is about being able to let go, if even for just an hour or two, and living life in the moment.  It is about leaving insecurities and worries at the ranch.  It is about appreciating what you are seeing, even if you happen to be looking at it from a 45 degree angle.