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The Baja Shuffle

Once we're packed, I hop into a kayak with Liliana in front. I concentrate on my form, my rhythm—looking, smelling, breathing. Liliana points out a blue-footed booby. We paddle close and bob in the water, peering up at the bird perched on a guano-speckled rock. Its feet are actually blue. And the word booby—I couldn't have liked it more.

That afternoon we go snorkeling. Floating in a three-dimensional world, I become a different creature—breathing, yet part of the water around me, not the sky above. The fish flash by, colors and movements impossible, beautiful, and strange. I stalk one twinkly fish with such gusto that I scrape my knee on a rock and realize that I must be ruining its day.

In addition to being a patient kayak instructor, Liliana is a marine biologist. Jorge himself is a bit of a botanist: he shows us a plant called the sour pitahaya, whose fruit is made into a tart candy and whose dried flowers can be smoked by cowboys when they run out of tobacco. We light up one of the pipe-shaped flowers and each take a solemn puff. We reach the consensus that it tastes like a Keds sneaker that's been burning on a bed of twigs.

Going to sleep is wonderful here: snug in a sleeping bag and yet completely exposed, staring up at the canopy of stars, breathing in the sea air, the wind whispering through the palms. One night I see a shooting star, falling across the sky, splitting in two. From each little bundle on the sand comes an awestruck sigh. I like the feeling of being just another creature on the beach, one of a few crabs and birds and humans in the night together.

At least that's the idea. Of course, the reality—the actual sleeping—is not as good. Sand is gritty, rocks are lumpy, seagulls are screechy, dawn is early, and I've nothing good to say about mosquitoes. Our guides tell us that on very sandy beaches, stingrays can hide in the surf and nastily sting those who step on them. "Shuffle your feet," they tell us. "When stingrays sense movement they flee; they sting only if you tread on them." I instantly develop what I call the "the Baja shuffle," crouching and scuffling at the water's edge like an old, hunched-over ice skater.

So intent am I on my step-step-glide that I almost miss the huge glistening mahimahi right in front of me, big and beautiful and flopping so high it practically leaps into my arms. It must have missed a wave and gotten beached. Screaming and splashing, I head it off at the pass, frantic with thoughts of lime and cilantro. Jorge bounds over, but he shakes his head and says, "It's too big—it would be a waste." I'm exhilarated by the light and color and life that radiates from this fish. I help it swim off, and share a greedily rueful moment with Jorge.

The trip passes with mornings spent paddling and afternoons hiking or snorkeling. One day we practice a "wet exit," learning how to release ourselves and swim out when the kayak flips over. I find the idea of turning over—being submerged and suspended in the ocean while wedged in a tight space, upside down—somewhat unnerving. But I relax and wiggle and pop out of the water with a grateful splutter, and perspective suddenly makes sense again—sea, horizon, ocean, feet pointing down, head pointing up. The problem for me, as always, is getting back in: the "wet entrance." Not easy. Really not easy as the kayak bobs around and I slip and splash and maybe swear. But easy enough for Jorge, who lifts himself up and slides into the kayak with the elegant aplomb of Jackie Kennedy getting into a limo. I'm afraid my wet entrance involves a paddle, an inflatable float to stabilize the paddle, and a distinctly ungraceful grunting heave. Liliana is patient. I am funny. She is funnier (perhaps because she reaches the point of soundless weeping laughter at my efforts). I make it. We cheer. I love being able to finally do something I'm really bad at—and I'm so glad I don't have to do it again.

The exertion, the reward. Refreshed, hungry, we sit on palm tree stumps, eating tortillas and laughing at ourselves. Today, writing this, sitting in Brooklyn in the same noisy kitchen from which I started, the trip seems like a fantasy, like a play I was in once. The memory of it is physical, the same way I remember being onstage: the sense of your whole body being present, every moment conscious of your breathing, of your heartbeat (if you're nervous), even of your feet. I can recall the sensations of moving through the sea, unattached and free. Only this time, on a desert coast in Mexico, there were no critics, no reviews, and no playbills.

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