Sunlight streamed through a thin curtain that didn’t quite cover the window. The small, spare motel room smelled of disinfectant. My head was fuzzy and my legs felt weighted to the bed. For a brief, queasy moment, that familiar feeling of uncertainty. Where was I again? Outside, engines rumbled, dogs barked and voices talked loud and fast in Spanish. Bienvenidos a México.
I was in San Luis Rio Colorado, a gridiron of dusty, palm-lined streets in the middle of the Sonora Desert. It is the closest border crossing to the Grand Canyon. I’d arrived late the night before, with only hours to spare on my US visa waiver. I had no ready-made plan for Mexico. All my attention had been on visiting the canyons of Southwest USA and covering the distance. It would take a few days to recover from the accumulated fatigue, get my bearings and figure out ‘what next?’
Days passed in a haze of bright winter sunshine, tacos and naps. It was obvious that learning Spanish was going to be key to my travels for the next couple of years. I had carried a “Learn Spanish in Three Months” book for three months, unopened. If I was going to get serious about studying, I would benefit from not having to cycle and camp every day for a few weeks. I brainstormed options and remembered the Workaway volunteering network. I signed up for a position just a couple of days ride away, helping to build an eco-tourism camp in the mountains.
I rode west on the ‘dead-dog highway’ along the border to Mexicali. There Couchsurfing legend, craft-brewer and sandboarding whizz, Mike, gave me a hearty welcome and boosted my confidence for travelling in Northern Mexico. The Workaway place was a big day’s ride from Mexicali: 100km with a 2000m climb up onto the sierra at La Rumorosa. I topped out as darkness fell, and with it cold rain. I was now doing something I’d been warned against – travelling at night in Mexico. I had no choice. There was still another 20km to reach the remote camp. Around 8pm, I found a weak cellphone signal and called the hosts. They came and met me, and we drove on muddy tracks for a kilometre or so into the hills.
On arrival we ran inside a tiny trailer as the rain hammered down. Inside we did introductions: Egdar, friendly, slightly camp, Mexican, and Boris, his surly Ukranian-Israeli partner. And me. In a two-berth caravan. In the middle of nowhere in a howling gale. The Workaway deal comprises bed and board in exchange for four or five hours work per day. Exact terms vary, but this was what was described in the ad for this position – with the proviso that they were strictly vegan and used only organic, biodegradable products on site. No problem in principle, but I was hungrier than they reckoned after a big day on the bike. The small bowl of couscous and watery vegetable stew they served was an insubstantial snack. I urgently needed calories and protein, or I wouldn’t be able to move in the morning. They offered me a few more spoonfuls of cold rice from the fridge, which I inhaled, then dug out an emergency protein bar from my pannier.
Once my eyes adjusted to the dim solar-charged lighting, I realised just how tiny the caravan was. In the ad they’d said that accommodation was basic: ‘sharing a trailer or large tent’. I asked about the tent. “It got broken in the last storm,” said Edgar. “It wasn’t tied down all round and the wind ripped it. You can sleep on the trailer floor next in front of the door. That’s alright, isn’t it?”. I looked at the wet, mud streaked floor. Moving around in the caravan was a game of human Tetris, so dossing on the floor meant being stepped on. “I’ll put up my own tent, I’m used to a bit of rain,” I said. Edgar wouldn’t hear of it – wait until tomorrow he said. He’d sleep on the floor and I could have the sofa bed where he usually slept.
Wind and rain battered the trailer all night, and an unfastened window cover clattered in my ear, robbing me of sleep. The rain continued in the morning, which turned out to be a reprieve. In Mexicali, Mike had assured me that there’s no way they’d work on a Sunday if they were Mexicans. I hoped he was right – I felt heavy with fatigue from the huge climb and my head was thick from a sleepless night. But the rain was all that prevented an early start. They didn’t care if it was Sunday, and they didn’t care that I’d cycled 100km up a mountain on a heavy bike the day before. But while the rain kept up we lingered over breakfast and talked about what they hoped to accomplish on the site. I augmented our thin rations, sharing a bag of homemade tamales that Mike had given me. When I got my coffee pot out Edgar trilled, “but it’s too early for coffee.” I just looked at him and brewed up.
The site was small and undeveloped. Shrubby manzanitas dotted the ochre earth, boulders and cobbles of various sizes were strewn about the place. Edgar and Boris’s vision of establishing an eco-tourism resort, glamping, cabañas and an event space, looked a very long way off. But I admired their optimism and they seemed determined, if a little naive. They’d bought the land at auction and had been on site for three months. They’d recently had a work-party of volunteers from Kazakhstan and an American woman. The Cossacks had put their backs into it and made good headway clearing vegetation, building paths and levelling the ground.
The rain let up around 10am and Ed and Boris were anxious to get started. I was to work with Boris digging out a septic system (while it’s true that I don’t have a pot to piss in, these lads didn’t even have a hole to shit in. I made my own cat hole in the bushes off site, as the tiny bathroom in the caravan was so cramped and within inches of the other two occupants). We took turns wielding the pick-axe and digging out the earth and moving it to other areas of the site that needed to be built up. We were aiming for a hole around four feet deep, five long, four wide. By two feet down the ground was dense shale. It was heavy work.
At lunch, Ed and Boris were keen to try a cup of English-style tea. I had a small carton of UHT milk, but I was forbidden from using it in their ceramic mugs. “You have to have it black or use almond milk,” Edgar intervened sharply. So we drank tea that tasted like cake. After lunch, Edgar asked me to help him scavenge re-usable timber from an abandoned shack nearby. We kicked and wrenched joists and jambs free of the wreckage, full of rusty nails and broken glass. Once we had a decent pile, Ed asked me to carry them all back to their site, five or six trips worth, while he started making a wooden doorstep for the caravan. I was climbing over the wall carrying the last of the heavy timbers when Boris appeared. “If you’ve finished playing with sticks, it’s time for some real work,” he huffed with a face like a slapped arse, and held out the the pickaxe.
We worked again until half an hour before sunset. Then I put up my tent in the flattest area of the site and was about to pass out when the lads shouted they were going for a walk in the hills before dinner, if I wanted to join them. I did and it was a mistake. I had nothing left in my legs and it was all I could do to hobble back to the caravan. Everyone was tired. Dinner was bread, vegetables and hummus, eaten wordlessly by dim solar light. Before I’d finished, Boris piped up petulantly, “it’s your turn to do the dishes”. While I was washing up, they started changing the table to a sofa-bed, making it clear that it was time to head to my tent.
In the morning I was more exhausted than ever, and my headache was even worse – probably dehydration. Drinking water was from a twenty-litre garrafon in the closet of the caravan and seemed to be rationed like the food. I’d filled my bottles the night before, so I used that to start making coffee and porridge in my tent. I could see Boris and Edgar were already pottering about the site doing jobs. It was 7.30am. I continued to eat my breakfast. Around 8am Boris came over, “Is something wrong?” he asked. “We do two hours of work before breakfast. If you want to eat before that, you need to start earlier so you can work at the same time as us.” I told him I’d come over to the caravan to discuss things when I’d finished eating. I’d made up my mind what I had to do.
In the caravan I found Ed making breakfast. I called Boris to come join us. I told them that it’s clearly not going to work out – their routines were not practical for me, so I had decided to leave. “We have a lot of work to do, so we have to work early,” said Edgar almost apologetically. “It’s your project, you’re invested in it. Good for you. But there’s no way I’m doing physical work on an empty stomach,” I said. “But if I eat early my stomach hurts,” whimpered Ed. “Look, that’s your preference, and an unusual one at that. It’s not an option for me. But in any case, the accommodation is very cramped, there’s no phone signal, and nowhere for me to write or study. If I even had any energy for it.” “We said in the ad it was remote,” said Ed. “Remote is fine, hungry is not,” I said. I wished them good luck, no hard feelings, and packed up. Ed seemed genuinely sorry it hadn’t worked out and wished me well. Boris, sulky to the last, just grunted and carried on working as I said goodbye.
Back on the freeway fast lorries buzzed me at close quarters. I was suffering with a pounding headache from being underfed, tired and dehydrated. But I was FREE! In El Hongo village I found a comedor where the friendly waitress fed me thick homemade corn tortillas, rice, beans, and fish until I nearly burst. I was once again without a plan. I was at the northern end of the mountainous spine of the Baja California Peninsula. The obvious options were to continue on this horrible road towards the border town of Tecate or go back down the way I came. Neither appealed. I browsed the map of available Workaway positions in Baja. One advert caught my eye, asking for people to renovate an expedition ship in Ensenada on the Pacific Coast. I zoomed in on the map, and noticed a minor road, a track really, winding through the sierra from exactly where I was to Ensenada via the town of Ojos Negros. I fired off a message to the captain of the boat, and another to a Warmshowers host in Ensenada. I didn’t want to repeat the mistake of arriving and being put straight to hard labour without chance to recover from the ride. Both replied in the affirmative almost immediately. My luck seemed to be on the turn. Except… the captain of the boat was called… Boris.
I loaded up with ten litres of water and headed out of El Hongo into the sandy sierra. This was my first experience of back-country riding in Mexico and my first night wildcamping there. The sandy road passed through ranchland, fenced-off at the road. Scrawny cattle ranged over rolling hills, rocky outcrops, a few stunted junipers and beech trees here and there. A few cars and pick-up trucks passed me on the road close to El Hongo, but soon the road became quiet. It looked a lot like Southwest USA, and I thought it would be easy to find a hideaway for the night. But in truth I was on high alert, as I always am until I get the measure of camping in a new country. Almost everyone I’d met in Mexico had been friendly, car drivers gave me plenty of room and often a wave or thumbs up. Then late in the day, a pick-up passed me with ten or more very serious-looking men sitting in the open back of the truck. I waved as they went past me up the road. None smiled or waved back. Probably it was nothing, but it made me want to be very careful about keeping out of sight that night.
I came to an unfenced area where cattle had worn paths into a thicket of bushes and tall grass. I got the bike out of sight, then walked the area looking for flat ground and checking sight-lines back to the road. I found a good spot under a tree from where I couldn’t see the road. I moved the bike there and walked back to the road to check. I could clearly see the hi-vis vest on the back of the bike. Not such a hidden spot after all. True, I was looking for it, whereas a driver would be focussed on the rough road. But it was a reject. I went back into the bushes and stomped some more. I found a more hidden spot, level but for few tough grass stalks sticking up. I weeded them out with the Leatherman tool and checked the sight-line from the road again. Perfect.
The night air was cool and there was hardly a sound bar an occasional bird or insect. There was the thinnest crescent of a waxing moon, so my camp was lit by starlight. Around 2am I awoke to the sound of a distant motor. It seemed improbable. The road was difficult to drive in daylight – the camber was all over the place, it was badly rutted where water had carved deep channels, and there were patches of deep, soft sand. Yet there it was, a truck getting closer. Although I’d taken care to ensure I was hidden a good thirty metres back from the road, I still held my breath as the truck drove past, then breathed easy as the drone of the engine receded up the hill. The rest of the night was without incident. I’d passed my first night camping in the Mexican borderlands.
I was late out of camp, still recovering from the previous big days. The riding was superb fun on the ever changing road surface, with frequent steep descents into and climbs out of arroyos (river and stream courses, dry most of the year). But the intermittent technicality made it slower going than I anticipated. I’d told my Warmshowers host in Ensenada to expect me in two days, with the proviso that I’d have to see how it went on the dirt road. By mid-morning, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to make it. There was no phone signal and no signs of habitation after I passed Rancho El Compadre at lunchtime.
Of more immediate concern, I was down to my last litre of water – not enough to camp, nor even to quench my thirst for the rest of the day. The route crossed the Rio Tijuana: a blue line on the map, a streak of grey sand and pebbles on the ground. Late in the afternoon, a signpost pointed to an eco-tourism camp, uphill off the main route, but gave no clue as to distance. I’d previously seen other signs to ranches and cabañas, usually saying 10km or more. It seemed likely that this one was a long way off too, if it was even open, or they’d say how close it was to entice visitors. Feeling like I might be making a terrible mistake, I carried on along the main route. No vehicles passed that afternoon, no arroyos had water and there were no buildings or cattle soaks.
I passed through a woodland of fragrant pines, a rarity on the Baja Peninusla, and across wind-swept sage meadows. The constant interest from the winding, bucking road kept me fully engaged. I had no mental bandwidth to spare for logistics. I just resigned myself to press on and hope for the best. I wouldn’t die of thirst in one night and I had food that didn’t need re-hydrating. At sundown I wrestled the bike up another rough climb, then began a long, fast descent through lumpy hills. It was thrilling riding, requiring full concentration not to end up tramlined in a deep rut and pitched face first into a rock.
Then I heard it. The unmistakable sound of running water. Or was it leaves in the wind? No, I’d bet my life on it, there was a stream somewhere nearby. I stopped the bike and strained to hear where it was coming from. I strongly suspect that human ears are evolved to detect the sound of running water. Even on windy days in the mountains I have located tiny runnels of meltwater buried under a foot of snow. I don’t claim any special talent, just that the sound of running water is so distinctive, so pleasing to human ears, it makes sense that it would be a useful adaptation to be able to pick it out against background noise.
I continued to descend and the water sound got louder. Around a corner, the first building I’d seen for hours, a holiday cabin, apparently derelict. Soon after, on both sides of the road, more cabañas, toilet blocks, play areas. All vacant, abandoned and broken. Rubbish and vandalism defaced parts of what must once have been a lovely family holiday resort. And at the bottom of the valley I found a shallow river running fast and clear. A suspension footbridge hung limply twisted over close to the water level, one of its rope stays cut and the wooden stanchion kicked to pieces.
I found flat ground in the abandoned resort away from the road. I set up the tent, filtered water and started to cook dinner. In the dark a couple of vehicles went by but didn’t slow down. It seemed strange after having the road to myself all day, but I was well-hidden so thought no more about it. I thought about Edgar and Boris’s project, in a place even more out-of-the-way than this, and wondered what had happened to cause this place to fail. Edgar and Boris’s vision seemed even more optimistic given the amount of infrastructure that was being left to rot here.
I packed up in sunshine warm enough to go shirtless in camp. I looked forward reaching the Pacific coast that afternoon and pictured a balmy, breezy beach and a swim. I was soon out of the sierra onto the trans-peninsular, a dangerous, twisty two-lane highway that brought me down to Ensenada. I had expected to find the warmer air as I dropped to sea level, but the reverse was true. The closer I got to the coast, the colder and cloudier it became. On the beach-front in Ensenada I might as well have been in North Wales in winter. All was grey and a bitter wind blew sand in my eyes. I circled for an hour trying to find my Warmshowers host, street naming and numbering apparently randomised.
My host Tomás was understanding about my delayed arrival. He’s on the local search and rescue team, and was curious about my route from the border. He pointed out that I had actually ended up on a section of the Baja Divide mountain bike route. Ironic, since I had decided against that route, having seen enough lonely desert for a while. Tomás told me he discourages cyclists from camping on that section, as those remote dirt roads in the sierra are used by drug smugglers and human traffickers. I told him about the vehicles that had passed in the night. Most likely they were traffickers, he said. Locals do not drive on those roads at night.
I arranged to meet Captain Boris at a giant flagpole on the malecon. His boat was moored in a secure dockyard behind a cement factory. At the security gate we collected another volunteer, Andrej, returning for a second stint on the boat. Boris struck me as a wily kind of fellow, undoubtedly a smooth operator – friendly and informal, but with his own agenda. Croatian by birth, he’d gained Canadian nationality through marriage. He spoke with an American accent with Slavic consonants, like a minor Bond villain. He and his wife, Shirley, were in a hurry to get away to visit family for the weekend, so he left Andrej to show me the ropes.
Andrej was a thirty-something German who had been travelling in the Americas for the best part of a year. He’d been on the boat for a month or so previously. He was friendly, educated and athletic. He knew the other crew members and seemed to have some kind of seniority, by dint of his conscientious and capable work. Our quarters were in the officers’ cabins behind the bridge. Andrej threw his kit bag into the first mate’s cabin, and helped me bring my bags into the chief engineer’s cabin, directly opposite.
Our new home and workplace was actually two ships moored side by side. We slept and worked mostly on a 57m pleasure boat called the Teraaka, which was sandwiched between a 60m expedition vessel, Pacific Aurora, and an enormous salt barge. The Teraaka was originally fitted out in the 1960s, but had been out of service in Ensenada marina almost thirty years now. Above decks things seemed dated, a bit shabby but basically salvageable. Below decks it was another story. The engine rooms were a mess. The guts of the enormous marine diesels were in disarray, as if in mid-autopsy. Electrical wiring and hydraulic hoses hung loosely in tangled bunches from overhead ties. Tools, spare parts, componentry and consumables cluttered work benches. Flattened cardboard cartons covered the floor to prevent slips on the abundant grease in the dim lighting.
The real chief engineer was Drago. The only actual employee on board, he was a marine engineer from Croatia, recruited by Boris to work full time at bringing the Teraaka back to life. Drago was a genial giant of a man in his late fifties. He wore a grey Basil Fawlty moustache and was never seen in anything but baggy blue, grease-stained overalls and size fourteen boots. He ran on strong black coffee and spicy cabbage stew and it was said he never left the ship. From dawn till dusk he could be found stooping in the engine rooms, tinkering and sighing. Drago was a man of few words in English; if you asked him how the engine was faring, he would purse his lips and exhale, cradling his chin with one hand and shaking his head. But despite the apparently Sisyphean futility of his work, he always gave a cheery greeting and could often be heard whistling a tune in the companionways. He was delighted when I told him I’d cycled through his home city, Rijeka, in the early days of my trip. I liked Drago.
As to the other crew, the longest serving volunteer was Jimmy, a mousy twenty-something from a small town in the American mid-west. He squinted owlishly through thick spectacles and wore a wispy blond moustache. He’d been on the boat for three months already, waiting for a replacement credit card that had got lost in the post. He slept in a dingy sty of an eight-bunk dorm below decks. Jimmy usually wore headphones and was usually stoned. He was always polite and if you got him alone he was quite personable, but he seemed to avoid interaction with everyone but Muriel, a heavy-set, frumpy African-American in her early thirties. Muriel had an electric smile when she felt so inclined, which was not often. As a fellow bookworm and writer, I hoped to get along with Muriel, but it turned out she had an emotional problem that led to her regularly flying off the handle and slamming the door. She would sometimes flat-out ignore you when you spoke politely to her, just widening her eyes and then walking away. Other times, especially if she’d had a drink, she would joke and sing Astrud Gilberto songs and act like she was an old friend. I soon learned to treat her with caution and stay out of her way.
Then there was a Swiss couple also recently arrived, who were friendly enough at the start. They’d travelled a bit in Central and South America, but everywhere I asked about they thought was overrated. They mostly kept to themselves, and went about with an expression like someone had just farted right under their noses (I promise you I hadn’t). If you met them in the gangway and said ‘good morning’, they responded eyes down, grudgingly. They answered any conversational gambit deadpan, left a pause, then resumed talking to each other in German. I found them dull and rather depressing company.
I had arrived on Friday afternoon. By the time the tour and introductions were over, work was finished for the day (hours were 9am to 2pm weekdays only). So I was free to settle in and amuse myself until Monday morning. I went on a hike with Tomás’s search and rescue group and got my bearings in the touristy downtown area. Boris and Shirley decided to prolong their visit with family, so on Monday morning we cracked on with our assigned tasks. He’d asked me to clean up and stow a few kayaks that were rotting on the lower stern deck. While the captain was away, the rest of the crew seemed reluctant to get down to it, but wanting to make a good impression I set to work while they stood talking in the galley. Eventually everyone apathetically shook a leg. With my headphones in I scrubbed and polished in the rain, until I realised around 1.30pm that I was the only one still working. In the galley, people were coming back from showers and getting ready to go ashore for the afternoon.
I took an afternoon nap in my cabin. When I awoke the ship was in darkness. Heavy rain was falling and the power was out. Crew quarters, galley and foredecks were eerily empty. I went exploring and found Drago below decks, tinkering by torchlight. “Black out!”, he said, holding his hands up as if to say he was not responsible. I followed the faint sound of music and found Jimmy having a smoke on the aft deck. Everyone else was ashore in a cafe-bar. He’d made a run for it when it looked like the rain was only going to intensify. Now they were stuck waiting out the rain getting drunk apparently.
In the morning, the rain was leaking into my cabin over my bed. Several of the other upper deck rooms were leaking too. We still we had no power, and now we seemed to be without water too. A new arrival had been added to the crew, a bearded and dreadlocked Frenchman in his late-twenties called Pierre, who was driving around USA and Central America in an old pick-up truck. The Swiss, American and French were all hungover and lethargic, and without electricity to make breakfast it was clear that no work was going to get done. Drago, resourceful as always, used a blowtorch to boil water for coffee.
Apparently black-outs were not that unusual, especially during heavy rain. I asked Muriel what usually happens, was there anyone onshore who we could talk to about it? She snapped back, “how the hell should I know? I’m not the goddam ship’s electrician! Why don’t you go tell them to just turn it on again?!” She stomped off seething with anger and wouldn’t make eye contact with me for two days. Mid-morning Boris phoned my mobile. For some reason he thought I could speak enough Spanish to explain the situation to the marina security staff. He wanted me to ask them to test the circuit breakers near our mooring. They tried, but it didn’t work, so neither did we much, bar a bit of token tidying and cleaning.
Boris and Shirley came back from LA that evening. Boris and Drago worked and shouted to each other in Croatian until late that night. By morning we had power and another delivery of freshwater. Boris called a meeting and berated us for not notifying him early enough about the power outage, and for using too much water. I’d owned up to using a few buckets to finish cleaning off the kayaks; I hadn’t thought to use the filthy-looking seawater and no one mentioned it while I filled the bucket. After the pep talk he divvied out the jobs for the next few days. I was to work with newcomer Pierre at clearing out, scrubbing down, then organising the forward hold.
Pierre and I were like chalk and cheese. He was heavy-handed, impatient and careless. He told me repeatedly that I think too much. Instead of placing the heavy fuel pumps we had to remove before cleaning the stowage, he just dropped them on the concrete deck of the barge. One cracked and leaked oil all over the deck, which he left for me to clean up. Later, when bringing on-board supplies that Boris had brought from USA, rather than carry items down the gangplank like everyone else he insisted on passing things across the gap between the dock and boat. He overreached himself and dropped the new vacuum cleaner straight in the briny. He did everything in a cack-handed hurry and became aggressive if you refused to do the same or dared suggest any other method. He picked verbal fights with everyone except Muriel, who doted on him. Hilariously, I overheard Pierre talking about recently completing a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat.
After two days in a badly mismatched work team I couldn’t wait to get out of Pierre’s company. Most of the volunteers were unenthusiastically sanding, priming and repainting the badly rusted bulkheads and funnels, tedious work from the look of it. Boris asked for a volunteer to start restoring the teak mid-deck and I seized on it. It seemed like a plumb job: outside, working at my own speed, doing something that required a modicum of skill. I spent the next week and a half happily tapping and drilling out the ugly acrylic deck plugs, and cleaning up the corroded bolts underneath. Not hard work, just hard on the knees and back. But anything was better than being stuck in a small dirty room with an irascible Frenchman.
Some jobs on the boat inevitably generated waste products. Cleaning out the engine sumps in particular was a filthy task (I was pleased to see that Pierre and one of the tedious Swiss had been detailed to crawl around in the stinking gloop in the bowels of the ship). It appeared that all liquid waste from the boat – oily water, detergent, cleaners, solvents, everything – was being dumped overboard. The Workaway advert had included an incongruous line about international maritime law and pollution, but now I felt sure that was just an arse-covering statement. Whenever you opened a tap or flushed the heads, water flowed straight out of a gunnel in the side of the boat. Boris had acted surprised and concerned when I pointed out that the cleaning products we were using were toxic to aquatic life, not to mention the oil contamination in the dirty water. He told me to pour the foul water in barrel on the foredeck – he’d see that it was disposed of next time he went to the ‘waste facility’. It seemed far-fetched, it was a thirty-gallon barrel, you’d need a crane to get it off-deck and there was no crane near our boat. In the morning the barrel was empty.
The weekend came around again. Andrej disappeared to play baseball and stay with his girlfriend. He was talking about moving on soon. Jimmy was ashore with friends from whom he was going to rent a room. I drank cheap booze and studied Spanish and wondered if I should get out too. When they were around I got on with Andrej and Jimmy, and Drago was always a pleasure, but our conversations were limited. Boris and Shirley didn’t socialise much and went away at the weekends. Was I expecting too much? Was it high-maintenance, expecting people to be considerate and civil? The work was fair and the food generous. I had a rent free place, in a unique position in the harbour, surrounded by playful sealions and amazing skies, where I was welcome to stay indefinitely. Why let my suspicions and environmental scruples spoil things? Couldn’t I ignore the bad atmosphere from the four difficult crew members and find my own niche? I resolved to give it another week and try to get to the bottom of it.
The weird vibe continued through the second week. I avoided spending time in the galley, not caring to be ignored at close quarters. I was drinking every night, and none the better for it. Friday was to be Jimmy’s last day on the boat, his credit card finally having appeared. Everyone was making lunch in the galley. Jimmy made a sandwich using an avocado off the counter. Apparently Pierre had had his eye on it, and started yelling at Jimmy for taking ‘his’ avocado. Jimmy just said he didn’t know it was his, and went and got anther from the fruit bowl and gave it to Pierre. That wasn’t good enough, and Pierre wouldn’t let it go. The Swiss and Muriel dumbly looked the other way. I came to Jimmy’s defence and Pierre rounded on me too. It was embarrassing that Jimmy should be leaving in these circumstances, the boat had been his home for three months.
With Jimmy gone and Andrej on the point of leaving, I decided enough was enough. I told Boris on Friday that I was going, but he wouldn’t accept my resignation. He was going to LA for the weekend and asked me to stay until Sunday night and talk it over again when he came back. I conceded, but when he still wasn’t back by mid-morning on Monday, I packed my things and moved off the boat into an AirBnB. The sense of relief was almost as strong as when I escaped the slave labour camp in the mountains. The AirBnB was clean and bright with a smart private bathroom, a treat as I hadn’t felt properly clean the whole month I’d been in Mexico. I had stimulating conversations with the other guests. I made more committed inroads into studying Spanish and advertised on the Couchsurfing local forum for Spanish conversation partners.
Which is how I came to meet Chema. He invited me over to his place for a chat and a drink, and introduced me to housemate, Nacho, girlfriend, Selene, and neighbour, Paope. I felt immediately at ease with them. They spoke good English and supported my efforts to learn Spanish. When he heard I was renting in an AirBnB, Chema almost spat on the floor. Amongst other things (autodidact, polyglot, student of mind, programmer-for-hire and traveller), Chema is a socialist and shares my dislike of the creeping commercialisation of civil life. Immediately he offered his couch for as long as I needed it. The AirBnB wasn’t available to renew anyway, so that settled it.
On a rainy morning in early February I transferred to Chema’s beachside house. Between marathon sessions on the Duolingo language app, I reflected on the lessons from the two false starts with the Workaway projects. The rationale had been sound. I wanted to change the way I travelled for the next leg of my journey, focussing more on learning and understanding than just mile-munching and sightseeing. That meant I needed Spanish. I also wanted to embrace Mexico as best I could; I wanted to learn to love the country, not race through it half-paranoid. I wasn’t ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater yet.
Chema was a willing and capable sounding-board for my ideas, doubts and plans. By nature, our temperaments and habits are out of synch by half a day, but we’d meet for coffee and food in the early afternoon – late lunch for me, breakfast for Chema. Inevitably the conversation would take labyrinthine turns to the philosophical. All conducted in English, of course; my Spanish still being at the level of pointing and asking. I enjoyed it immensely. During one of these two-hour caffeinated discourses I must have mentioned that I wanted to improve my outreach and communication skills, for example by talking to community and school groups as I travel. Chema put me in touch with Adriana, an English teacher at a community high-school. I passed her interview in Spanish, and she invited me to talk to her students the next morning.
The students were superb. They listened attentively for an hour while I showed them photographs from my adventures and enunciated in as slow and simple English as I was able. Predictably, they were reluctant to ask questions in English. Adriana hadn’t let on that I was learning Spanish. I surprised them by asking in Spanish “¿Alguien tiene una pregunta?”. Now the tables were turned, I would be the one to make mistakes trying to answer their questions in Spanish. My pronunciation of ‘maestro’ brought much laughter. They asked perceptive questions and I tried to show them a beautiful world of strangers willing to help foreign visitors. And to reassure them that you don’t have to be a brave, extraverted hero to live adventurously. For me it was a mind-blowing, exhausting experience.
By mid-March, even as my body remained couch-bound, my mind was returning to the road. Nacho was moving out at the end of the month, meaning that Chema was looking for a new co-renter. As de facto housemate, he gave me first refusal. It was an insane idea, which I laughed out loud at. Until, after sleeping on it and chewing it over on my daily contemplative 10km walk on the beach, trying unsuccessfully to put it out of my mind, it suddenly made blindingly good sense. I would ride to La Paz immediately! I would see the best of the Baja Peninsula that was on my doorstep before the weather got too hot to handle. Then I would come back to Ensenada by overnight bus and rent the room at Chema’s for three months.
The advantages were manifold. I’d nail Spanish. I’d finally get my blog up to date (imagine!). I’d give more school presentations. And the clincher: I would start the ride south through Mexico after dodging back into USA to finish the spectacular Great Divide Mountain Bike Route that I’d quit in the snows of winter last. I would reset my trip timeline, so that instead of riding into the hot, mosquito-plagued rainy season followed by hurricane season in Central America, I would start in the dry season and be in Central America over winter.
I consulted my brains trust of advisors. I made a weighted-preference decision matrix spreadsheet. I evaluated the opportunity costs. I budgeted it. It was a good plan. It didn’t work…
Videos from this part of my trip: