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Stories by Mike Humfreville

    Langosta - Bahía Tortugas and Punta Engenia, 1969    ( Posted December 16, 2004 )

I entered the village from the east and passed the dirt airstrip. The carcass of an old DC-3 lay on its belly there, off the side of a short runway. It hadn't made it out. Now it rested, skeleton exposed, like a great beached whale. It had been there for some time. Its flat and thin aluminum skin had been stolen for home construction. Many families had been protected by a single failure.

I spent a night in the village in a simple motel, cleaned up as best I could after a week in the forlorn desert. I walked around the small collection of homes, docks, basic wharf. I had dinner and watched the townspeople, the children hollering, playing in the dusty streets.

From the village, a northbound narrow rock and sand track wound between low hills and shallow valleys, just inland enough that the great Pacific was lost to view. The valleys were dry and filled with dead cactus, a few species still struggling to suck unavailable fluids from the earth. No rain had fallen for several years; life here relied only on the marine layer that encroached on some nights, depositing just the slightest moisture across the desert.

It was 26 kilometers between the larger village I was departing and the smaller one to which I was destined. It took me about an hour and I pulled into the hamlet, to a crowd of youngsters playing. I greeted them all and dispatched them with my only gift, crackers. They didn't like crackers. I pulled old Tortuga forward to a hillock overlooking the Pacific and the mouth to a major bay. I spotted a sole island, almost only a large flat rock in the water not far from shore. I shut the engine off and climbed out of the sweltering cab and walked toward a gathering of villagers, men and women working at a task I couldn't identify. Most of the villagers were there and helping.

I walked across the small rise where I had parked, between cactus huts and down to a ramp that had been dug into the plateau and running to the oceans edge. The villagers were shuffling large crates, passing them here and there with some apparent motive. Many pangas were bobbing in the water. I stood and watched for some time before I figured what they were doing. But they were all busy and paid me no mind, unlike the children just before. After a few moments observation and as I moved closer to the activity I began to see a pattern.

The boats were debarking lobster from traps they had just harvested. A mid-sized truck with its bed slats weaving and creaking as the truck swayed from side to side over the rocks was backing down to the shore there. It carried hundreds of empty widely slatted crates. Two dark and wrinkled men threw the crates to another onto the shore. A forth stacked the crates alongside the truck. An older, more grisly and even darker elder picked up each sea spider and placed it on a table. The table was so old it was seriously worn. It had been used perhaps for generations? He laid each lobster on the table, across a measuring ruler that had been carved into the table's wooden surface. Based on the lobster's length the elder handed the lobster to another tan man that placed in an appropriate crate, with other lobsters of like size.

I pulled up a wall and rested my backside and watched this process for quite awhile. The elder doing the measuring was clearly someone that both the villagers and the shippers trusted to have integrity. There was a sense of camaraderie floating across the small landing as debarked pangas departed and laden boats pulled to shore. The men were busy with their tasks and the women rode herd over assignments and children. Laughter and shouting was everywhere as the day wore on. This must have been the monthly, at most a weekly harvest.

At a point late in the afternoon one of the workers pulls a huge lobster from one of the panga traps. Someone surprises me by tugging at my sleeve. I turn and it's one of the shippers telling me to go hold the big bug. I don't understand, but assume I'm the simple gringo and being brought into the fold with humor. Can I really hold this big guy? Do I have a choice? I walk down the ramp to the edge of the ocean and the truck and the old table and all the warm social interaction that I have witnessed all afternoon. I am handed this harvests largest lobster. I hold it well away from my torso, no claws on this Pacific beast but I'm taking no chances. This fellow is at least 3 feet long. One of the men signs to me: do I have a camera? We dispatch a young child to my truck to retrieve a Cannon. It's here now and pointing at the lobster and me and I hear the double snap of the old SLR 35mm shutter.

I left shortly after that snap. The day was wearing into evening; there certainly were no hotels here and I had no camping equipment, and I wanted to make it back to the same rented room I'd had the night before. As I knew I was about to leave I took a moment to collect about me those moments I knew would take only heart to record, memory was not involved. With my heart I captured images of the children hustling in the dust, the square shoulders of women hefting heavy crates full of writhing and arguing-for-turf sea creatures, of men torn by their lives of trying-to-provide, hard, desert living, struggle. I recorded that I was well received into this small and remote village on the shores of the great Pacific.

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