Tuesday, December 11, 2007

War and Peace - Surfing Trips to Baja

(Salsipuedes beach break on a small day...incredible to say the least)

There's been a lot in the news lately about the increased attacks on Americans traveling in Baja California, Mexico; especially that towards surfers. That being the case I thought I would share with you Devin and my story from about, well maybe 3 years ago.

On a whim, Devin and I decided we would make a long weekend out of a camping/surfing trip in Mexico. With literally about 4 hours preparation and knowledge of our plan we headed out on a trip that would be the best and very nearly the worst trip of our youth.

I had recently bought my Jeep and was a little hesitant to take it to Mexico, but after much convincing, and google image seraching of our destination, I was swayed to drive Devin and our gear down the coastline about 1 1/2 hours south of San Diego. We picked a solid little slice of heaven aptly named "Salsipuedes":

The campground in the upper left, literally on the coast cliff line, an apple orchard behind the campground and a little village that sold firewood and who knows what else on the right. Oh and in case you're wondering, translated "Salsipuedes" means "leave if you can". So our destination was set.

We got all our gear together, loaded up my car, bought some Mexican car and health insurance and headed South. Now in case you have never been to Mexico, or Tijuana in particular, from the U.S. you should know getting in is really easy, in fact...you wouldn't know you were in Mexico were it not for the gigantic sign above the freeway labeling so...that and the immediate and extreme shift from wealth to dilapidated poverty. This, to new comers, is somewhat deceiving, for it can foolishly be thought easy to return, which it is most definitely not. Anyhow, with little to no problems or bumps in the road, we made it down to our new home for the next few days.

Salsipuedes is just north of Rosarito (pictured above) but near no town of any sort. That being the case, Devin and I thought it prudent to find a store of some sort to purchase mass quantities of beer. Looking at the map, we decided to shoot for something on the way, as opposed to going all the way into Rosarito, then backtracking to our campsite. The map, while showing roads, showed no towns of any kind. We chalked that up as a misprint, and figured beer wouldn't be difficult to find in Mexico...wow, were we wrong. Only after trekking deep into the heart of Baja, did we find said beer. You'd think if we'd run into any trouble in Mexico, it would have been on our venture away from the tourist areas of Mexico, but that couldn't be further from the truth...anyhow I'm getting ahead of myself...

We got back to our site only to find there was practically no surf. I mean we're talking like 1 ft waves if we were lucky. So, some serious drinking was in order. =) The swell that should have hit the Baja coast missed it completely, leaving the camp ground virtually empty. Devin and I scored what had to be the best spot in the entire place, overlooking the Ocean and immediately next to the path that led down to the beach.

That night we hung out with the only other people at the campground, 2 other guys doing the same thing Devin and I were. We sat around our dusty fire pit and drank way too much beer and traded stories we'd heard of American surfers getting into trouble in Mexico...you know because whats better than horror stories that took place to our friends in the same place we currently found ourselves? Just as our fire started to die, a car started coming down the hill, one head light busted, old clanky metal, chains...you know the truck that mass murders drive in Horror movies...yeah that one. We couldn't see a freaking thing in the dark and we figured we were all dead as the truck slowly pulled in behind my car. The four of us had taken to complete silence in our drunken stooper as we desperately looked to each other for some kind of weapon or light saber or anything to provide protection from what had to be some evil Mexican mafia member... Slowly the driver side window squeaked down, it must have been an old school hand cranked window because that thing moved slower than imaginable.
"Quiere madera?" a small squeaky voice asked from inside.
...she wanted to sell us firewood. The small 5ft nothing 85 pound owner of the camp ground was being sweet and delivering us more firewood. Feeling like a complete idiot I gave the lady 10 dollars and she dropped what had to have been a half a ton worth of wood. We could have built a small mansion out of that much wood...or you know...build a bonfire the size of my car and sit back and cheer it on like a bunch of idiots...we chose the later ;)

That night was also a red tide. Red tide, for those of you who have never been lucky enough to see at night is really a bad name for a natural phenomenon happens for about a week every few years on some select coastlines. When the temperature is right, phytoplankton come to the surface of the water and at night emit a neon blue light when disturbed by the crashing waves. Normally this is only visible in San Diego as a dull, barely visible, burst of light when the bigger set waves break. However, with no light pollution in Baja, this effect was brilliant. The colors literally lit up the cliff side and put on a light show that I still think didn't really exist. Devin is convinced there was some sort of LSD in our beer. Blue explosions kept us awake for most of the night, only after swimming in the water and seeing our bodies light up with every step or splash of the water did we get our fill.

(a wave crashing during red tide)

The next morning I awoke to a strange sound outside the tent. It sounded as though someone was rifling through all of our camping gear and trying to steal our surfboards. I punched Devin in the face to wake him up and told him we had to go bum rush the punk taking our stuff...On the count of 3 we ran out of the tent fists wielding and ready to brawl...except that the "punk" going through our stuff was a horse. Yes, a horse. Apparently that small lady who brought us wood, also raised horses and fed them apples from her orchard. The bastards learned to equate surfers with camp food, and was looking for a nice steak or bag of doritos in our trash.

Feeling like ignorant assholes thinking everyone was out to get us in Mexico, we packed up and cowered home. About a mile out of TJ our trip that have previously been so wonderful, turned sour in about 10 minutess time.

Baja operated it's Highway system as a toll road for a while, and recently opened them up for free. However they left behind the toll collection stations and every 4 miles or so you pass through one of them. Well on the way South, we went through these with no issue or concern whatsoever. It wasn't until our return home that they would haunt us. At what had to be the last station before entering TJ, the local police (i'm assuming- you can't really distinguish between police, federalies, people pretending to be police, or just ordinary thugs) set up a check point. Not the check point you see in America. This was basically a tourist filter. They only set up station there to let the poor, P.O.S., local cars drive through with no problem, and to pull over the American tourist cars.

Driving up to this, I got a unsettling feeling and Devin must have picked up on it, for we both held our breath as we tried to pass by unnoticed. I'm not sure what it was that made us scream American money, perhaps my brand new Jeep with surfboards strapped to the top that gave it away... or perhaps it was out stupid looking faces, maybe both, but anyways a giant statured Stalin looking man waved me over to the side of the road. For a moment I thought about flooring it and making a run for the border, but that thought was a fleeting one as soon as I saw the 10 thirteen year old kids holding fully automatic assault rifles looking at us.

At this moment in your life only one word really suffices. "......Fuuuuuuuuuu$$$$$k" Devin and I both uttered it in unison and with despair.

The army of children told us to get out of the car. I told Devin not to. Stalin walked his way over like a jolly old fat bastard, pompous and arrogant. He knocked on my window. Without moving my face an inch I looked up at him from the corner of my eye...He didn't look pleased. He asked me to roll down my window. So I cracked it open about 4 inches.

You should know that I speak Spanish pretty well. In fact it is said that when I am drunk, I'm practically fluent. However when I am shitting a literal brick, like I was at that very moment, my Spanish comes out more like some ancient tongue in a mess of spitting, hesitations, and nerve. But I understood everything that was being said to me.

Stalin asked for my keys.

Now, thanks to our new found friends the night before, one thing was for sure in Mexico. Give a cop your keys, and say "adios" to your car. They "impound" it, and it's basically gone from the face of the Earth for all you know. So handing my keys over to this guy was not something I was going to do without a little fight.

"Dame sus llaves" he stammered with impatience.

"No... no gracias. "

I sounded like an idiot. I said no thank you....of all things...i mean that doesn't even make sense. And well, at that moment things elevated. They instructed Devin and I to get out of the car. I said No again, with a little more confidence...Thinking I had made a little ground...then they lowered their guns...which were previously pointed up towards the sky.

We got out of the car. I slid the keys into my pocket and walked towards Stalin. Devin was escorted the opposite direction with Timmy, the 13 year old soldier of fortune pushing him with his gun. I tell you, a giant full grown man aiming a gun at your face is more comforting than a kid with an assault rifle just looking at you. That image alone still haunts me. Anyhow, the separated Devin and I about 20 feet each on other sides of the car. I started coming to my senses and spoke with the Officer. I told him, in Spanish, that we didn't have any drugs on us, or any alcohol, or anything.
He pretended I wasn't saying anything. I figured that they must have pulled enough surfers over in their time to realize most surfers had a stash of pot the size of a small child in their car, and more liquor than a liquor store. So they were looking for it in my car, in the hopes that when they found it, our only option would be to pay the cop all the money we had on us at the time to get out....if we were lucky. Unfortunatly for us, we didn't smoke weed, nor were we alcoholics...well ok, maybe we drank a lot of beer, but at least we had the wherewithal to drink all of it the night before and dispose of the evidence.

(image: http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/mexico/20031208-9999_1n8cartels.html officers searching cars in Baja, much like they did to mine)

But NOT having drugs on you in Mexico is more suspicious than actually having it. The guys were looking everywhere in my car, our camping gear, between my seats....they even unpacked my bags, found my pants, and looked in the pockets. I was impressed with their determination. I then started to fear that they might plant something in my car and say they found it. They had been searching for a few minutes by this point and it felt as though it were a life time. Stalin was getting impatient and demanding I give him my keys. My Spanish started coming back to me and when I asked him why, or what we had done, he said that I didn't have license plates on my car, and that that was illegal and my car had to be impounded. I explained to him that it was new and that I didn't have them yet. He didn't care.

I think he was really just trying to scare me into giving him money, which I wasn't about to do. And when he realized I knew Spanish, he realized I was going to be a pain in the ass before he would get any money.

But he kept his guys at it. I couldn't really see Devin from where I was. Which was somewhat unsettling and I figured things were about to get worse before they got better. So I started stammering some blabber in Spanish to the officer. He must have understood the words embassy, father, no dinero, no drugas, or something at some point because he finally gave me one last long, hard stare.

He demanded my keys one last time, with a voice that spoke more of consequences than demands.

Practically defeated, I said no one final time and left our fate in his hands.

Thankfully he didn't want to deal with us any longer, and I guess his little troops didn't have anything to plant on us, so he let us go.

I can't tell you how lucky we were. Things could have sooo easily gone much worse. If he had actually taken my keys, we would have been stranded, or worse, arrested. Most cell phones don't work in Mexico, so getting in touch with loved ones is very difficult, even worse, they could have split Devin and I up and kept us in different areas until one of our family members was contacted and told to come down with money to let us out of jail.

What's tragic about this entire story is, what happened to us, was by no means anything bad. That's a very mild and common occurrence. We were basically just given a hard time and the standard run through trying to scare some money out of our pockets.

In reality, things are much worse. Gangs are preying on surfers, holding them at gunpoint while they either steal everything out of their cars, or take the cars altogether. Police have been reported to have shot into motorhomes demanding the people come out from inside. Once doing so there have been sexual assaults, battery, robbery, muggings, and probably worse.

See this article in the UT about a much worse encounter south of the border.

Anyhow, the camping was incredible, hard to beat. The surf, the little we found at least, was spectacular....maybe a little colder than desired, but good and uncrowded. But the risks far out weigh the rewards, and while that is something of an accomplishment in retrospect, it's something that you should be fully aware of before you attempt it yourself.


1 comment:

Markitos said...

Yea Baja is starting to suck. Ive been surfing there for years and have a boat in La Paz and Salina, Near your camp site. Most of the problems are TJ related but it's getting scary. Im Moving one boat back to San Diego And the other back to Mazatlan. Bummer