Frito Bandito

Once again, I should have taken it as a warning. I’m afraid of snakes. Apparently, in addition to instilling great fear in me, they are also my personal harbinger of ill fortune. Returning from an action packed Semana Santa adventure (misadventure might be appropriate here) in the East Cape, I was looking forward to a relaxing couple of days hanging with the surfers at La Pastora beach, just north of Todos Santos town. Halfway between town and the beach, a big, fat, six-foot long rattlesnake stretched himself across the road, taking his sweet time getting to the other side. I slowed to a near standstill, but another vehicle was on my tail, I had no choice but to roll over the beast.

My last Baja serpent encounter was a year ago, to the day. I was riding my bike up the trail behind Posada Concepcion and I was stopped dead in my tracks by a coiled rattlesnake, shaking his thing at me. I looked at him. He looked at me. I asked permission to pass. He shook harder. I took a few steps back. He stopped shaking. I asked him in my sweetest voice if he could please move along so I could pass. After giving it some thought, he agreed and slithered off into the scrub. I continued on my merry but cautious way, up the hill, down the other side, off the beaten track a little further and a little further, plucking goat heads and spiky cactus balls from my tires, until I was completely off track, and lost. Picking my way back to the main trail, the air leaked out of both tires, leaving me riding on the rims four miles from home. I hiked my bike back, rolling on the rims for short sections of the descent back, praying that Mr. Rattlesnake wasn’t hiding on the side of the road ready to launch an attack. He didn’t, and my bravery was rewarded with ripe and juicy strawberries from a sweet strawberry boy back at camp.

I didn’t learn my lesson, I failed to heed the warning. On I drove to La Pastora.

There is a short, split entrance to the beach, opening onto a baseball shaped parking lot. The infield is packed sand, the outfield soft, deep sand, the hometown dugout to the left is a small camping area, and the bleacher section is a steep drop off to a baby head boulder strewn beach break. I carefully pulled my casita into the camping area, fully aware that I would have to back out just as carefully. Having spun my wheels deep into the sand twice already here in Baja, I had lost all confidence in my off-road driving ability.

Normally, the parking lot is filled with surfers. This day the surf was up, but so was the wind, making the ocean rough and choppy. The surfers had stayed home. The only other occupants were a small truck with an absentee owner, and six rental cars filled with tourists up from Cabo on a relaxing day trip to sleepy Todos Santos town. One of the vehicles was a Mexican family, stuck up to their axles, trying all means possible to free their jeep from the hungry sand. Unbeknownst to them, their was day was about to go from bad to worse.

I poured myself a cold beverage and, leaving the back door of my rig open, headed to the water’s edge where I could rest my weary bones against a dog-urine soaked, fallen palm tree. No sooner had I arrived than two Canadian guys I had met on my private beach the day before came strolling down the beach. No sooner had they made themselves comfortable when one of them asked me, “is that your puppies chasing the guy on the quad?”

“Of course. That would be my two crazy Baja babies.”

I called the dogs and made my way back to my casita where I gathered two leashes and locked up my rig. Leashed up, we slowly made our way back to the water’s edge, the puppies pulling, straining, and wrestling until it was impossible to move forward. At that instant, someone yelled, “call the cops, he’s got a gun!”

I was paralyzed, halfway between my casita and the water. Holy Crap. What do I do? Where do go? Just who has a gun? Is some gringo going postal?…

I was confused. All I could see was a man standing at the door of his car with his hands in the air and another man, about ten yards away, yelling to call the cops. But nobody was going to call the cops, we were all tourists. Even if our phones worked here in Mexico, it was unlikely that anyone knew the number to call.

I finally realized that it was the guy on the quad, the guy my puppies chased, who was armed with a pistol and robbing people at gunpoint. All I had in my hands were a couple dogs on leash and a set of car keys. All my worldly possessions were locked in my rig, so I headed in the opposite direction. The pups were still wrestling so I dropped the leashes and tried to be invisible as I made my way to the water. Thankfully, the pups followed. My hope was that he wouldn’t see me below the cliff of sand, and if he did see me his quad would not be able to negotiate the wet sand and the baby head boulders. Worse case scenario, I could throw myself at the mercy of the angry ocean.

It seemed like the gunman might have forgotten me, when a woman with her bag on her shoulder appeared over the edge of the cliff, waving her arms frantically. I wasn’t sure if she was waving me down or trying to get the attention of her family who were frolicking in the waves a half-mile to the south. I stayed rooted to my spot, hoping I was still invisible. I might have been, but this crazy woman with her bag of worldly possessions was not. No sooner had she reached me than the gunman flew over the lip of the cliff and was upon us.

The guy was a super-tweaker Mexican on an obviously stolen quad. By the looks of him, emaciated, sallow complexion with bad acne, shaking hands, and darting eyes, he had been on a serious methamphetamine bender. He told the woman to give him her money. She fumbled through her bag, pleading to please let her keep her clothes and things, when she pulled out her camera. “Give me the camera.”

“Just give him your bag,” I said, calmly but firmly.

This time, she started fumbling with the camera trying to remove the memory card.

“Give it to me!”

“Please, can I just keep…”

“Just give him the FUCKING BAG,” I said, less calmly and more firmly.

Finally, she handed everything over, he tucked the pistol in the rack of the quad and went through her bag, throwing everything on the ground but her camera, iPhone, and wallet. He then retrieved the gun and turned it on me. I held my hands in the air, nothing but a set of keys hidden amongst a jumble of dog leashes, and told him, “no tengo nada.”   (I have nothing).

He didn’t give me a second look. He turned to leave, stalled the quad twice, and after unleashing a string of expletives, sped south down the beach.

Holding my hand, the woman and I walked down the beach to her family. I repeatedly reminded her that money and cameras and phones are just things. The most important thing is that her and her family all escaped unharmed. The sound of my voice seemed to soothe her, but as soon as she reached her family, she fell into their arms and began sobbing. I walked back to the dog-urine soaked, fallen palm tree and my now warm, but still comforting, beverage.

Alone on the beach, only my three dogs to comfort me, I realized I was trembling. I was amazed that I had been able to remain calm and rational. I don’t remember feeling terrified, or even afraid that this guy would shoot me. I felt like he just wanted to scare people into giving him their valuables, nothing more. But I had not wanted to test that idea. Whenever people ask me if I am afraid to travel alone in Mexico and Central America, I always reply, “I lived in Oakland, it doesn’t get much worse than that.” I think my time there, and in dodgy neighborhoods of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London, had prepared me well. But, truth be told, this was worse.

As I sat on the beach, I pondered my immediate future – where am I going to sleep tonight? Fortunately, I had made some friends in Todos Santos and I knew my friend Anita had a gated yard where I could park for the night. I drove up the hill to her place and knocked on her door. She greeted me with a smile and asked if I would like to come in for a cup of tea.

“I think I need something stronger.”

She opened a bottle of red, we settled into her couches and I regaled her with dramatic retellings of my misadventures while s lowly draining the bottle. I slept like a rock, curled up in my little bed, surrounded by me three furry protectors, locked safely inside both my casita and Anita’s gated yard.

In the morning, we awoke to yet another beautiful Baja sunrise.

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