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The Baja Shuffle

Soon I meet up with Jorge and Liliana, my trip guides, along with the three other members of the group, and we drive to our launching spot, a small harbor with a few boats. The six of us will be in two double kayaks and two singles; groups can be as large as 12, so I'm glad ours is small enough that I can get extra instruction.

As we gather at the water's edge to load the kayaks, all I can think about is having to climb into the boat in front of these people I don't know. Kayaks are narrow and stiff; it's a challenge to step in and wriggle my bottom through what is, for me, a painfully tiny aperture without doing the watery equivalent of a pratfall. I've prepared for the trip by taking some kayak lessons back in New York, but here in Baja there's no dock to hang on to—just step right up, ma'am, and splash around till you can get in. Shallow and tippy, the boats are ripe for humiliation. Oh, please, don't let me fall out, fall in, roll over, make funny noises.

I'm in. Phew. I paddle out in a two-person kayak with Jorge, who is lithe and tan. He is both kind and enthusiastic about my kayak entry. We head toward the day's campsite—Jorge doing most of the work, I suspect. Out on the glittering Sea of Cortés, we paddle past jagged dry islands dotted with fuzzy green, noble lumps of ocher in a blinding sapphire sea. Water cool, sun blazing. Jorge looks back at me the way I look at people's faces when I take them up to my roof for the view of Manhattan. "Not bad, huh?"

Unlike the wobbly entrance procedure, exiting a kayak is easy. You just glide up into the shallows and beach the boat; it's much easier to balance with one foot on terra firma. Jorge and Liliana, who is round and pretty and ready to laugh at anything, set up a small stove and cover a rickety little table with a cheery plastic tablecloth, cups of instant juice, and lime-flavored peanuts, a local favorite. As everyone stands chatting, I look around at the narrow beach and the rock of the island rising just behind it, beckoning. Then, water bottles at the ready, we set out for a hike—uphill and hot, but not unduly arduous. We trek along the dusty paths, skirting huge, baroque cacti. Lizards. Birds. Air. Heat. Pebbles. At the end of the climb is a view of limitless sea and coast, islands and sun. The sea and sky are impossibly blue, and my vision stretches out to the pelicans corkscrewing neatly from the air into the water below.

Back at camp that first night, we eat tamales, plucking them piping hot from the pot, peeling back the corn husks. They are delicious. Maybe that's why I keep doing things I'm not particularly good at, because, at the end of the day, everything feels genuine. There is no artifice to the simplest pleasures: a dive into the ocean after a paddle, a drink of water, the smell of morning coffee drifting across the beach. Jorge and Liliana get up first, to prepare breakfast, and after we eat we lift the kayaks into the sea and pack them. My least favorite part: packing what is essentially an unforgiving pointy suitcase while standing knee-deep in water. There are companies that do all this for you, sending staff on ahead to set up camps with potties and cold beverages and chairs. But for all my grumbling, I prefer to suffer a few discomforts. I can be pampered at home, backstage. The less you carry in your travels, the more civilization recedes. That, to me, is the true flavor of adventure: going far enough away to arrive nowhere.


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