American Sabbatical 56: 11/27/96

Baja Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in Baja..

Coming down into San Diego after our sojourn in the Anza Borrego John and I followed a sundog through the conical peaks of the outer city. The solitary rainbow spot was riding in thin clouds on the level with and about 30 degrees north of the setting sun, and it rode all the way down to the horizon. It was John’s first sundog, and the first time I’d ever seen just one, rather than a straddling pair. I hoped that it was a sign. Maybe it was. Within seconds of our arrival in Encanto the household was full of snarls and doorslams, the neighbor dogs began yapping, and the growling highway echoed up the canyons.

Traveling through the lives of old friends makes you confront your personal history, and you encounter places you’ve come through, and the might-have-beens. Some of the battles raging around us in San Diego were hostilities we’ve won through, and maybe we had some advice to share, but mostly all we could do was be there. Our brief sample of the far southwest leads us to believe that too much sunshine and manana might be dangerous for the parts of us that like to live on the edge, or loll in the sun. Emigres to the farthest shore have had a reputation for restless self-indulgence since the days of Fremont, and here were some Californians we might have become, if we hadn’t run aground in eastern Maine, and fought through it.

Baja Palm
After a week aboard a sinking household, cast in the role of liferafts to the good old days, we were suffering from exposure, and heartache. It hurts to see people you love drowning, and clutching at straws. Especially when you are the straws. The culmination of our southwesting was supposed to be a thankful weekend in Baja California, the San Diegan’s last resort. We were going to get away to Mexico.

Hannah has a schoolmate, whose parents have become friends of John and Alyce, and the whole family is working as extras in the filming of TITANIC in Rosarito, just south of Tijuana. They had invited the bunch of us down to their condo on the beach in Puerto Nuevo for Thanksgiving, and we were bringing the feast and fixings.

It took us all day Wednesday to put the pieces together, and by the time we had the ingredients crammed into the VW van it was obvious that we had to take Red Owl with us to carry the extra bodies. The Owl was stripped (we had emptied her for servicing), so the thought of a customs search didn’t daunt us, and it would be good to test her new brakes against some Mexican obstacles. John and I had picked up a fresh bird Tuesday night, but uncertain about keeping it good for two days, we’d jammed it into the freezer, and it was rock-solid when we loaded it up Wednesday night. Three coolers full of veggies and perishables, canned goods by the gallon, bags of thisandthat, the Webber grill, charcoal, lawn chairs, camping materials (just in case), and the frozen bird. We waddled down the canyon out of Encanto as the sun started warming the air Thanksgiving morning.

Neither Peggy nor I had ever been south of the border, and chasing after a crazed VW camper may not be the best way to get the feel of a new country. It’s the way a lot of gringos have done it, though, and other caravans of yankee campers were lined up at the border ahead of us. We swung out for Mexican insurance ($22.20 for four days) and a peso change, then joined the holiday surge.

The cultural divide cuts like a knife between the US and Mexico. Lowrent California is full of junkcars, tattered palms, and faded stucco, but the backside of Tijuana is a quantum drop below that. Shoddy and abandoned concrete and galvanized construction, trash and graffiti, and thick air pollution strike your eyes. It looks like a battered outpost in the Bronx. Highway Uno skirts the border for a ways, and it looks like the Marne come to Bed Sty. A 20-foot corrugated steel barrier, spray-painted in political and personal slogans, separates the joys of Tijuana from a bulldozed noman’s land of red clay with Border Patrol Bronco’s parked here and there, and the occasional surveillance vehicle with its conning-tower top filled with nightscopes and intelligence arrays. Us and Them.

Then the 1 turns south through the hillside barrios of the border city, and you are engulfed by an alien atmosphere. The very smell in the air changes. Not unpleasantly. It’s reminiscent of a sultry downtown summer in the late 50’s: unmuffled hydrocarbons with a hint of salsa, and dust. The roads are full of pedestrians, even the highways. This country moves by bus, you can flag one down anywhere. And the Mexicans are all decently dressed. If this is poverty, it isn’t in rags. But the infrastructure is astonishingly rundown. It makes New York look spiffy. We had expected colorful relief and flowery displays, but this bit of urban Mexico was drab and disillusioned. To strangers the impression of dirt, disorder, and decay is striking, but everyone we spoke with remarked on how much better things are looking, or said they hadn’t noticed the eyesores.

For all the windup we'd thought we were going to drive all day down the peninsula, but we were barely out of the metro before John veered off down a cement ramp and we were bumping along a sideroad beside the ocean. And there it was: the TITANIC. Almost full scale, almost the whole ship, totally unbelievable.. surrounded with chainlink, production compound, and film-making hoopla. The deck amidships was clogged with passengers in period dress, pushed up against the railings. The cameras were rolling. Then we were past and the looming four-stacker was just an illusory anachronism behind us.


We continued along the coast, with dry scrub hillsides to our left, and hotel condos lining the headlands to our right. White lines of surf trimmed the blue-green water and the cloudless air was a balmy 70 degrees. We’ve been pursuing September all the way from Maine, and here it was to perfection. Under lock and key. Each of these vacation spas was enclosed by high walls, and gated with full security. We turned in under the portico of a crenelated fortress in white stucco, called the Grand Baja. Welcome to Nirvana at Puerto Nuevo.

The Mexicans can work marvels with stone and cement. Centuries of stucco and masonic craftsmanship make the buildings down here a joy to behold. If the Getty reminded us how much Spanish architecture owes to Rome, the Baja says, "and the Moors, too." It could be North Africa. Romanesque arched windows, and Arab wind scoops. Moorish facades and minaret turrets. Whole Mediterranean villages in a condo-cluster. Adobe and tile may have yielded to ferrocement and fiberglass, but the local contractors still have a gift for meticulous detailing. And the construction is never over. Wherever you go workmen are engaged in some small activity, but the big projects almost never seem to get finished. Rusted steel frames may have been erected months (or years) ago, while a portion of the building is being blocked up today, and another section is mostly finished out and a business going on there. There is construction everywhere, and done jobs nowhere. Along the highway there are astonishing drystacked rubble and flagstone walls, intricately pieced together for miles, unmortared except for a few hundred yards here and there. Each craftsman must be satisfied with his small piece of the work, or he’d be heartbroken by the lack of completion. A thoroughly foreign ethos.

Grand baja

The Grand Baja is a poor man’s idea of a luxury hotel: swimming pool, jacuzzi, patio bar and grill, and tennis courts, in an interior courtyard.. front lawn with palms and lounge furniture overlooking a sunsplashed beach. Two five-story structures make up the majority of the complex, one paralleling the road, on the brow of a hill, the second about 50 yards downhill, facing the first and backing on the beachfront. Between the two are the parking lots and amenities. Both buildings are 50 yards long and the square is closed by a wall at the north end, and the back of another hotel complex to the south. The Baja is stark white, trimmed in electric blue. Here in the upscale some of that playful color we associate with Mexico is beginning to show.

When we arrive a crew of workmen in uniform drab are applying the cobalt to the accents with long-handled rollers. One of them is standing on the rooftop, having removed a row of tiles to walk the gable-edge. When he’s done painting he gets down without replacing the tiles. We see other places in the complex where tiles have been taken up and never replaced. Other workmen are patching cement here and there, with unhurried gestures. Staff is slowly sweeping in the courtyard or servicing the rooms. There seem to be a couple dozen of these employees constantly in sight moving with gentle slowness through the brilliant light.

From the parking lot to the balcony of our hosts’ condo there is a trek down and up of 85 steps, and we immediately begin carting in the feast, setting up the Webber, and building a fire, like a party of native bearers. The turkey is still rocksolid. We put Tom in the shower with the hot on full, but are warned that the water supply is erratic. These condos have no kitchen facilities, and precious little else that functions. Our hosts’ unit is a three-story stack of rooms connected by a spiral stair. To get the beds upstairs they had to be hoisted over the outside balconies (and the broken tiles are still there to prove it). But the rooms are high and airy and dazzling with reflected afternoon light off the Pacific, and the landward entrance balcony, two flights up, is sheltered from the rising wind.

Scene of the Crime

After a couple of hours the bird is ready for the Webber, stuffing prepared from creative ingredients, gallons of side-dishes potted for the Coleman stoves, and the whole crew about half lit. It takes us about five hours to cook Thanksgiving dinner in tag-team relays, between games of tennis, swimming, drawing and Jacuzzing. John mans the Webber throughout. When the lime-basted bird is finally ripped apart on the balcony we have huge appetites, and everything is delicious. Sweet potatoes and oranges, peas and corn, mashed potatoes, exotic stuffing. It is also our hosts’ son’s birthday and we top off the gorge with chocolate and cheesecakes. The three pies I baked on Wednesday stay packed up for breakfast.

The Turkey
While we are juggling the preparations we get to know our hosts, the Macintoshes, a bit. Graham is an Englishman who hitch-hiked to the Baja out of curiosity in the 70’s, and kept returning out of fascination. Eventually he trekked the entire perimeter of the peninsula and published an account of his adventures, a superb travel yarn, INTO A DESERT PLACE. Now he supplements his income with lectures and freelance while acting in TITANIC. Bonny and the two kids joined up with Graham in San Diego a few years ago, and they all have cast roles in this multi-million dollar production. They had hilarious tales to tell about the madness of moviemaking.

The Macintoshes are cast in third class, steerage, and are amused that the portrayed classism is maintained on and off the set. There is an institutional classism between leading performers and extras, in any case, and this carries down into a superiority of hard core extras vs. the occasional cast of thousands. TITANIC is not low budget. Graham with his Celtic red hair and dependability has been used in more and more scenes, while Bonny and the kids, because of their availability get lots of camera time too, and were full of movie jargon. This has been a home-schooling experience par excellence.

Graham has spent days as a floating corpse in a tank, with his costume over a wet suit, and been harnessed in for shots on the sinking stern. The whole after section of the ship hydraulically hinges up 90 degrees, and on one day it did so unexpectedly, breaking a stuntman’s leg, and producing some authentic footage. The Macintoshes relayed impressive accounts of how the crew manages herding hundreds of extras through costuming and makeup, schedules shooting, feeds the mob, and generally runs this quasi-military operation. The Grand Baja has been effectively taken over by 20th Century Fox to house extras, and daily shooting schedules for each one is posted in the lobby via fax from the set. Busses shuttle back and forth.

View from the hot tub

By law the company must provide schooling for the children and limit their daily worktime, and are also providing the funds for daycare while the adults are on the set. Most of the shooting is at night, so the Macintoshes are living like zombies, or like sailors on rotating watches. They all had Thanksgiving off, miraculously, and were delighted to have us haul in some home cooking. Bonny complained about the incompetence of the teacher provided by 20th Century, and Peggy’s eyes lit up. Here’s a career possibility that would be a lark. How about a winter in the Baja as a K-12 teacher?

I’m not sure I’d like it. Between the hierarchical horsemanure on set and the classism in Mexico my hackles would stand up too high. All the silent staff at the hotel with downcast eyes jangles me. And the abyssal disparity between rich (mostly gringo) and poor (invariably native) here insults you at every turn. You can understand why some everyday Americans come to Mexico to lord it. Even moderate northern affluence makes you a prince in Mexico, but the nouveau can be offensive in the extreme. Yahoos playing king. We’re told that parts of the tropical beach on the Sea of Cortez are like spring break year-round. To be sure there are plenty of gringos like Graham who have deep respect for the Mexicans, and an honest desire to share our wealth as best we can, but the deep inequities roil my guts.

After our feast we strolled into Puerto Nuevo, the once fishing village which abuts the hotel on the north. This is the tourist Mexico of bright lights, jumping colors, and strolling musicians. Puerto Nuevo calls itself the Lobster Capital of the World, which gave us joy. Its genesis as an attraction was a restaurant serving the once abundant California lobsters grilled and juicy. The rank scent of singed shellfish seeping out of the back alleys put us off this west coast treat, and we turned down the chance to try lobster burritos. We were turkeyed to the gills, in any case.

We eyeballed the streetmarket booths full of bright-colored fabrics, terracottas, and gewgaws. I particularly love the polychromed wooden animals, psychedelic monsters, and mythic critters, but there were no velvet Elvises, to our chagrin. We did some gifting, and tried to strike the right balance between ripoff and rollover. You are expected to haggle, but our hearts could hardly be in it when we could see the relative poverty around us. So we’d bargain down 20% and go away smiling. I could almost enjoy dickering, after years of discomfort on the toymaker’s streetcorner. But I found myself uncertain how to respond to the volunteer car-parkers directing people into empty public spaces and expecting a gratuity. Bonny said, "Why not pay them?", and I couldn’t answer.

Front page
Previous dispatch
Next dispatch
Index of dispatches