Relief Caravan Mission to Mulege Area – Part 2

……and now the “fun” part of what we did on this mission trip! A few of us managed to extend the three day trip to what turned out to be eleven days. Please read on as I take you back to Day 1 after we arrived in Guerrero Negro on January 14, 2010.

The name of the city comes from the whaling ship – the Black Warrior, which was shipwrecked in 1858 in nearby waters. Guerrero Negro is the largest town located in the Municipality of Mulege and is the point of entry to the Mexican State of Baja California Sur. This city of 20,000 is basically a support town for one of the world’s largest systems of salt water evaporation ponds. It produces over three million tons of … …salt each year and employs over 1,000 local people. Thanks to Hannibal, we got a tour of the saltworks and mine. Beautiful natural crystals are extracted from almost 50,000 acres of wetland on a coastal lagoon and form our common table salt. The mine is located in a site of extraordinary beauty and was pivitol in the development of the region. Working areas of more than 200 kms of dikes and roads, 50 kms of channels and 45 kms of main cargo routes, the mine uses the most modern machinery and technology in the field. The monstrous harvest machines collect 2000 tons of salt per hour and load it to special tractor trucks consisting of three gondola cars of 60 ton capacity. Our farmboy from Saskatchewan was intrigued and bold enough, to ask for a ride on one of these mammoths – he was promptly invited to join the driver, sitting beside him high in the cab of his machine. The salt is transported in 6500 ton boats to Isla de Cedros (70 miles off shore) where it is shipped to the rest of the world. The tour was an amazing experience and beyond description. We left the site, clutching our chunks of sea salt as souvenirs of our visit and, were taken to the area where the salt is stockpiled and awaiting shipment. Here, we were able to climb the “mountain” of salt and get some photos, before going on to our next adventure.

It was now dark and we were hungry. Juanita Patron, a counsellor for the City and a politically motivated activist for womens’ rights in the region, invited all 16 of us for dinner. She and her family treated us royally, as we dined under the stars that night in her front yard. We stuffed ourselves with some of the best fish tacos we had ever tasted and came away a few hours later, tired but happy and ready for bed. Friday morning came an hour too early, as we made the time zone adjustment to our watches, and headed back to Juanita’s for breakfast. After a time of sharing and prayer, we were ready for the major activity of the day – San Jose de Magdalena – the residential school visit (see Part 1 of the story). We used the RV as our mobile kitchen and did stop regularly for food and refreshments. Otherwise, our stops were only long enough to take scenic photographs, get more fuel for our gas-guzzling motorhome and, of course, regular toilet breaks. The scenery was spectacular, in spite of the twists and turns in the too narrow highway. We saw the Vizcaino desert – a terrain devoid of human life but featuring miles and miles of cactii of many varieties but, most notably, the saguaro, cirios and the now protected, barrel cactus with their crimson tops. We viewed the devastation of the hurricane which ripped through the area in September 2009 – toppling buildings, uprooting trees and exposing roots that were dried up and now useless. We visited some of the more historical and scenic areas. At Santa Rosalia, we stopped long enough to view the the Mission, the Park and Museum. Santa Rosalia is a port city with a population of about 10,000. Here, a regular ferry connects with Guaymas, Sonora on the other side of the Gulf of California. We visited the Santa Barbara Parish Church – a metallic structure arguably designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). At San Ignacio we saw orchards of date palm trees, sporting their yield of semi-ripened fruit. If only we had more time to really see it all – but there was so very little time and such a busy schedule to maintain. As we continued down the highway, we watched the scenery glide by – and finally, after our afternoon at San Jose de Magdalena residential school, we were on our way back to Guerrero Negro, and to our beds at the Cowboy Motel.

In the morning, we were back at Juanita’s where we left Odessa (our Shih-Tzu) in our parked motorhome and were picked up for our whale watching tour. It was a perfect day – no clouds, no dust storms, no wind – and although not hot, it was a pleasant morning. We found ourselves back at the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, where we toured the Salt Mine. We learned that Laguana Ojo de Liebre forms part of the lagoon complex located in the Vizcaino Zone. The lagoon is protected by the local authorities and has been converted in a natural reserve. In 1972, Mexico was the first nation in the world to create a gray whale sanctuary in Laguana Ojo de Liebre. Gray whales come from the cold northern waters of the Behring Sea and the Arctic Ocean to the warm waters of Baja California to fulfill their biological cycle. It is here that they mate, give birth and nurture their young for three months before returning to their Arctic summer home in one of the most extraordinary migrations in the world. A whale watching indurstry has developed around the whales in the lagoon. We were excited and eager – wearing our fluorescent orange life jackets, we boarded the two boats. Again, Hannibal had friends in “high places” who happened to be doing a whale count that day and we were invited along for the “free” ride. Hannibal is an amazing guy to have along on just such an excursion and today we are happy that he is our friend. As we left the harbour and headed out towards the open water, our spirits soared with
anticipation! Would we be fortunate enough to see any of these legendary beasts of the deep? It was still fairly early in the season, being only the end of January and the newborn calves would be sticking close to their mothers and their mothers would be wary. We didn’t have to wait too long. After half an hour of speeding along in the Fisheries vessels, we saw our first whale -just the top of a back, then another and yet another. Everyone was excited and calling out. First, we look here,  then there, and back again. We are all eyes and ears – poised with our cameras and ready to snap. Unfortunately, there are more shots of only water with a small section of a whale’s back than there are of the animal itself but it does not dampen our enthusiasm or our need to keep snapping. Someone cries out that there’s a baby with its mother – I missed seeing that spectacle!  Tim, came equipped with a video camera and we are relying
on his excellent footage to supply us with the action pictures we missed. We did manage, however, to get some excellent snaps of each other and the passengers in the second boat. We also got pictures of eagles, seals resting on a buoy, sea pelicans, seagulls and other sea birds. We passed by a tugboat loaded with salt on its way to Isla de Cedros. And then, it was over almost as soon as it began – two hours later, we were heading back to the dock. It was now midday and most of the group had to head home to Vicente Guerrero. We drove back to the Cowboy Motel, had lunch in the courtyard and said our good-byes to Erma and the gang. Abram and I decided to spend a few extra days on
one of the beaches beyond Mulege with Hannibal and Nancy for some R & R. We were surprised by Warren and Jorge’s decision to join us. By then it was about 4:00 p.m. as we stopped at the City Park and Bird Sanctuary in Guerrero Negro first. It was dark when we arrived in Mulege. We spent the night there – Jorge, Warren, Hannibal and Nancy
at the Hotel Mulege and Abram and I  (and Odessa) in our motor home in the hotel parking area. It was another very full day and we were tired.

Mulege is only about 40 miles south of Santa Rosalia. It is one of the prettiest towns in Baja California Sur. The village is situated between two hills, in a valley provided with life by a stream that runs until it joins the estuary which flows to the sea. Edged by huge palm trees, orchards and fences where bougainvilleas of all colours tangle, we see it after the September 2009 hurricane. Its path of destruction is evident everywhere – houses levelled, vehicles overturned, trees uprooted and debris scattered about – all mute evidence of what happened here only a few short months ago. People still talk about the storm and are quick to point to the still visible piles of rubble and debris in the midst of some re-building.

After breakfast and a brief tour of the town, we head eastwards beyond Mulege and on to some of the most specacular beaches in the world. Among the locals of Mulege, the Gulf of California is known as the Mar de Cortes (Sea of Cortez). Here the stream that runs through Mulege, opens up and joins its waters with that of the bountiful Sea of Cortez. A treasure of rich diversity of plant and animal life can be found living within its crystal clear waters. And, Hannibal just happened to know someone in Mulege who had a boat and he was taking us fishing that afternoon!  We pick up Hannibal’s friend and head towards Playa de el Burro, our destination for the day. What a sight to behold! The beach is covered in soft white sand and the water is emerald green. A number of huts and cabins dot the wide crescent beach, flanked by a nearby small cafe. We were told to park in an area which, according to Hannibal’s friend, belonged to him and his family. We would be safe there and could park as long as we chose to stay for free. What a perfect spot and the price was right! There were sea birds everywhere – feeding and squawking, or just sitting in the sun preening themselves. We felt as if we had just come home. We wanted to stay here forever! But Hannibal’s friend had readied the boat – fishing gear, a pail or two, a bottle of hot sauce, some salt and pepper, a sharp knife, and, of course, our sun screen – and we were off. What a day, what a ride and what memories! The sea breeze was warm, the ocean waters teeming with kaleidoscopic tropical fish, dolphins and whales swam around our boat, and lovely white sandy beaches – miles of it! This is paradise and we revel in it as we glide across the surface of the water. Half an hour later, we come to shore and get out of the boat. Hannibal’s friend has come to do ome clamming. Everyone joins him as he leads them to a bay in the water. “This is where the chocolate clams are”, he tells them. I stay on shore and snap pictures and watch everyone busily at work. Soon, a pail full of clams and two large scallops in shell are harvested. “I had no idea that they looked like that”, I tell Hannibal’s friend as he patiently shows and explains to me how the scallop is extracted from the shell. This is truly amazing to me, as I watch and learn. Once on the boat again, we begin to fish. This is no ordinary fishing tackle that we are given – it is no more than a plastic spool with some line wrapped around it and a hook attached to its end!  Each of us is given one for our own use. We try our hand at it – and keep on trying! No luck for any of us, except Jorge. He caches one fish. All others (about 6) are caught by our trusty fisherman but he is the only one who uses a rod and reel. Finally, he sets it aside and uses our model of tackle and you guessed it – he catches a fish or two more! There is no disputing the fact that he is the true fisherman of the lot. We head homewards but first, we have to sample some of the fresh caught clams. Our host prepares them, then passes them all around. I taste my first ever raw clam – I had to be polite – and with all the hot sauce and seasoning, it didn’t taste too bad! It was getting dark, so reluctantly, we headed for our camp on the beach. Our host filleted the fish and said good-bye. Warren & Jorge drove him back to Mulege and Abram began to fry our supper over our campfire. What a feast we had that night! It was dark – pitch black before we knew it. With no street lights, we had to rely only on the stars. There were millions of them and as we sat around our campfire, we didn’t want to say good night. Hannibal and Nancy pitched their pup tent on the beach; Warren curled up in his sleeping bag on the beach; Jorge (our city boy) slept in Warren’s truck and Abram and I slept in the motor home. Morning came and at the crack of dawn, I was up and snapping pictures of the sunrise. Then breakfast and after some deliberation, Warren and Jorge decided to return to Vicente Guerrero – duty called! Hannibal and Nancy took the boat and were gone for the day while Abram finally, sets up his easel and begins to paint. Before the end of the day, he has my birthday present made!  It was hot and so relaxing – to be miles away from everything that keeps us so busy. We knew that it couldn’t last but we were savouring the moment. In the morning, we began our trek homewards but first, we had to spend a night at Playa de Santispac. This was a busier beach – mostly RVers with no permanent cabins and beach huts – a restaurant close by and everything else you needed delivered to your door. We bought propane, a hammock, woven blanket, fresh prawns, scallops, silver jewelry, fresh fruit, vegetables, freshly baked empenadas and pasteries – and we could have bought even more. Abram sat at his easel once again, and painted another seascape – for Erma, this time. The sun was hot, the water so inviting and we did not want to leave but we knew that we must. The next morning we began our trip
westward and homeward. It wasn’t long before there was a change in the weather – wind, a duststorm and then rain. Slowly, we made our way homewards. Then we heard news of a big storm that came from the north. Ensenada was hit hard earlier in the week and the storm was moving southwards. There were rumors and reports of bridges being washed out and major flooding throughout the region. We decided to spend a night at Nuevo Rosarito where we visited with a lay pastor and donated the balance of toys and toques that we had brought. The night was dark, cold and windy and then the torrential rain began. All through the night and into the next day, it rained some more. We came to the first washout along the highway – the men determined it would be safe to cross over, so we pressed onwards. More rain, more wind until we came to Guerrero Negro. We planned to drive to Juanita Patron’s place and possibly park in her yard overnight as it was much too stormy to continue travelling after dark. We did just that – the
wind howled, and the rain came down in torrents but somehow we managed to sleep. By morning, we were ready to travel onwards, inspite of the news that more bridges were washed out and we would not be able to travel beyond El Rosario. We spent another day, some driving, some waiting and mostly just wondering how we would get home and what would we find once we got there. The news we got was not good – a total of seven bridges were washed out, people were stranded, supplies were running low. It was now Saturday and 24 hours had passed and we were still waiting in a lineup of  traffic that stretched as far as one could see, south of El Rosario. Everyone was milling about,
some vehicles were parked, others were passing or trying to pass to get to the beginning of the lineup. Hannibal wandered about, wearing his yellow fireman’s jacket and in the absence of any official direction from anyone, began to take charge. Soon he came back to tell us that help was on the way, and so we waited some more. Finally, the local police arrived, the military arrived and the Federales arrived – they came out of their vehicles, looked around, and then got back into their vehicles and left. There were no barricades, no flashing lights, no signs or warnings ahead of
us, nothing preventing us from proceeding, except that suddenly there was no highway where the bridge once stood. The bridge remained intact in the middle but was demolished on either approach. We stayed close to our RV and continued to wait. I knit a toque while waiting and prepared meals as required. We were self-sufficient and the
inconvenience experienced by us was minimal, unlike so many others around us. We spent the night in the lineup and actually slept until daybreak. In the morning, a large truck arrived and the construction of a ramp in the side of a hill was begun. It was a truck for hire to transport any smaller vehicle across the river bed to the other side for a fee. The vehicle to be transported would drive up to the “ramp” and drive on to the deck of the large transport truck for delivery across the riverbed. A new lineup formed – lighter weight vehicles willing to pay to get across. We continued to wait as our MH was too large for transport in this fashion. Suddenly, overhead we heard a chopper – it circled several times and then flew off back to where it came from. We learned later, that the governor of Northern Baja, was
in the helicopter viewing the damage firsthand. Later yet, Hannibal told us that a caterpillar tractor was being used to pull larger vehicles across and we quickly joined the new lineup. In time, it was our turn – we braced ourselves for the ride, praying for God’s protection on Erma’s MH. We would not have made it on our own as the water was too deep and the riverbed too soft. We would have stalled and then got mired down in the mucky riverbed, like so many others who already tried and had to be towed out. We were told that the fee for the tow was 800 pesos but Hannibal  told us that “he would take care of it.” After a quick phone call to whomever, we were told to go and paid nothing. Once again, Hannibal saved the day with his contacts along the way. Finally, it was good to be on our way and so much closer to home.

In El Rosario, we stopped at Mama Espinosa’s Restaurant for some fish tacos and a short visit with Mama Espinosa, re-fuelled at the Pemex and were on our way. Although, it had stopped raining by then, there was much water along the highway and what were once fields, were now small lakes. We returned to Erma’s complex Sunday night about 8:00
p.m.after dropping Hannibal and Nancy off at their place, and were so glad to be home. Then, the stories of the storm and its aftermath egan to pour in on us – we were glad that we missed it all and yet, it would have been another worthwhile experience!  Maybe next time!

Emily Toews

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