The Baja Shuffle
Published: May 2009
By Claudia Shear
Kayaking along the desert coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortés, Claudia Shear learns to feel at home
My normal environment is backstage. It's busy and buzzy, and I stare into a mirror surrounded by lights. It's exactly what I saw in the movies as a child, and I never cease to be pleased by that. I have conversations with Mitch, who does my hair, and Leah, who arranges my costumes. Going onstage can be scary, but I always know how to handle what happens there.
This is not true in the wilderness, where I don't know what's going to happen, I don't fit in, and there sure isn't anyone brushing my hair. Without mirrors or makeup, I stand on a strip of beach on a tiny island in the Sea of Cortés, my hair one big dreadlocked knot, my T-shirt stiff with salt water. I got to this island in a kayak—not a taxi, not a ferry—just by paddling myself across the water.
I spend my life looking out into rooms filled with people looking back, and I feel big. Here, I am a tiny dot, barefoot in the sand, and I feel that I'm nowhere—just water, land, and sky all around me. Back home in Brooklyn, with the trucks outside my kitchen and the phone ringing and an iced coffee in my hand, such isolation seems unreal.
Years ago, I did an Outward Bound wilderness course on Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine. It was where a Brooklyn bookaholic first met the outdoors, and the effects of that trip still linger. I spent 28 days in a febrile state of terror, trying to rock climb and sail and jump into an ocean icy with the dawn. And when it was done I begged to stay, because as Robert Louis Stevenson says, "To be afeared of a thing and yet to do it, is what makes the prettiest kind of a man."
I love the idea of a kayak—it makes no noise, disturbs nothing. Anyone can glide along in a kayak, anyone who's in fairly decent condition and isn't afraid of the water. The paddling is rhythmic, the boat itself an ancient form reinvented in Pop-colored poly. The fish, the bugs, and the birds are doing their thing, and in a kayak, I'm doing mine—I'm just one of a million creatures in nature, sliding gracefully through the water.
I want to kayak but I also want beauty, distance, difference from the everyday. I've chosen Baja California because the idea of ocean and desert and Mexican food seems too good to resist. I've also chosen Paddling South, a kayaking company run by Trudi Angell, because Trudi is a woman who, I like to say, ran off to join the circus. After kayaking during a college spring break, she paddled the entire Baja coast. Now, she runs kayak tours and raises her daughter in Loreto, a shabby, colorful town on the eastern coast of Baja.
Arriving in Loreto the night before the start of my eight-day paddling trip, I check into the Hotel Oasis, where the matchbooks say hotel oasis—right on the beach of the sea of cortez. The next morning, that's what I nervously chant to myself as I pack and repack my shorts and shirts and bandannas. This is my Bilbo Baggins moment, when I think, Why did I leave my comfy home and how do I get myself into these things?
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.
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.
Paddling South 7- to 12-day kayaking trips from $895, including food and gear. 800/398-6200 www.paddlingsouth.com
Baja Expeditions This top-notch 28-year-old company leads a variety of kayaking trips, with whale-watching and scuba-diving options.
7- to 10-day kayaking trips from $995, including food and gear. 800/843-6967 www.bajaex.com
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Oasis Forty spacious rooms and suites, right on the beach. Doubles from $88, including breakfast. Loreto, Mexico; 800/497-3923 www.hoteloasis.com
Danzante Resort If you want a more leisurely way to paddle the coast, stay at this remote, solar-powered hilltop resort 20 miles outside Loreto. Doubles from $270, including meals, unlimited kayaking, and other activities. Loreto, Mexico 408/354-0042 www.danzante.com