The buzzard tucked into a dive at the last second as I simultaneously banked hard right, barely avoiding a direct prop strike. Dang! Didn’t see that coming. I removed my headphones until wife Kathy quit screeching into her voice-actuated microphone.
Flying the Mexico’s Baja Peninsula provides a great winter escape with a little added adventure. It’s a bit edgy flying over the Sea of Cortez in a small aircraft because one should always have an escape route, especially in a single-engine plane. But it’s possible to fly high enough, theoretically, to glide to either coastline from the middle. The plane has a service ceiling of 18,000 feet, but it starts sputtering enough at 16,000 that I don’t push it. Probably just as well, since this is already much higher than allowed without oxygen. But we spend a lot of time at altitude and I considered my wife’s occasional screaming to indicate healthy acuity. She’s my canary in the coal mine.
I’d also studied water landings and had picked a course that passed two islands en route in case we had to ditch and swim. There’s an abundance of info on how to survive water landings, but the bottom line is that tricycle-gear planes like my Cessna nearly always flip over hard enough to knock everyone unconscious, so it’s basically get ready to kiss your ass goodbye. At any rate, we’d made it across and had since made many happy landings on sand strips along the coast, some with Unicom radios allowing us to have fish tacos and margaritas waiting at the end of the runway.
Even the easy landings usually involved dodging vultures, frigates and pelicans. Although approaches often involve crossing the surf, the concentration of seabirds was hard to account for. The buzzards, on the other hand, were assumed to be there for the carcasses of other birds hit by aircraft.
Flying around Mexico is not cheap. Well, flying in general is not cheap, but we’ve always been comfortable living beyond our means, and with just a few poor decisions, almost anyone can afford to buy and fly a small aircraft. It’s not a whole lot dumber than owning an average-size waterskiing or fishing boat. As the saying goes: If it floats, flies or … well, let’s just say that some things are cheaper to rent. Anyway, Mexico has many fees added to private air travel. There are landing fees, takeoff fees, flight plan fees and other rather ill-defined fees usually including a bribe to the ever-present military personnel on all airstrips. This can be a tricky sort of bribe because it should be enough to make them want to protect your plane, but not enough to make them abandon their post to go get drunk.
Having always been a thrifty traveler and speaking enough Spanish to usually barter prices down from the tourist-gouging rates, it was a little painful getting accustomed to all the extra fees for flying. Like most tourists in Mexico, I relished the bragging rights on how cheap I’d gotten this or that. Flying around, however, was enough fun that it wasn’t too hard to bite the bullet on all the extra fees, until we got to La Paz. Suddenly, it seemed that all fees were doubled. Things didn’t improve much upon reaching the city. Meals, motels, everything cost almost as much as back in the U.S.
That evening, we were sitting at an outdoor patio scanning an overpriced menu and plotting our escape to cheaper pastures when an older, rather unkempt man with long grey hair sat down at the next table. He looked enough like a street person that I avoided eye contact.
He was soon joined by a young couple who were obviously happy to see him. After chatting for a while, the old man reached into a battered old satchel and pulled out a folder. He started passing around some of the most beautiful artwork I’d ever seen. He had sketches and charcoals and watercolors of such quality that even I could see that this was a man of great talent.
After his clients left, the tables had turned and now I was hoping to catch his eye while he had every right and reason to avoid mine. When he was preparing to leave, I drummed up the courage to introduce myself. While I had little doubt that he had noticed my initial reaction, he was, nonetheless, very open and friendly. He politely declined my offer to buy him another drink but didn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave or do anything else. He was completely comfortable with any stretch of silence, but patient and articulate in response to questions.
When asked, he spoke of his decades in Mexico and of the many places he had lived. He was obviously well traveled and familiar with every place I’d ever been, and many more. He had a gentle way of looking deep into a person without being invasive. As he took a sip of the melted ice in his tea glass and was again preparing to leave, I asked him what part of Mexico he liked best.
“Right here,” he replied. “That’s why I live here.”
He must have noticed the puzzled look on my face because he added “Why do you ask?”
“Well,” I said “it’s so much more expensive than the rest of the country.”
He had just stood to leave but sat back down. That gaze again — benevolent but so penetrating. Like he was inspecting the weeds and litter tangled in the farthest fence lines of my subconscious. “I’ve noticed that the less expensive it is for me to live, the more suffering I see around me. I’d rather pay a little more and see others living a better life.”
My self-esteem tucked into a nose dive, dropping down, way down, far beneath the soles of my new flip flops. Dang! Didn’t see that coming. My mind jumped to my bumper sticker at home, “Everyone does better when everyone does better.” It moved to a narrative by travel writer Paul Theroux concerning rich tourists talking down prices at local mercados just for sport, when a few pesos to the vendors might make a difference in how much their children ate that night. Sure, we can justify defending ourselves from the onslaught of scammers at typical tourist centers, but I had crossed the line flying around looking for affordable Mexico.
As I watched him walk away I realized that, while I thought I had introduced myself to him, he had, instead, introduced me to myself. It was not a pleasant introduction.
The old artist had chosen to live in La Paz, which means, “Peace.” I hope to live there too someday, wherever I may find it.
Dropping out of high school to pursue the life of a cowboy in Texas, Jim Duke eventually earned a BS in Zoology and an MS on Mountain Goat Habitat in Alaska. He enjoys remote travels to exotic locations, including Patagonia, Upper Amazon, Madagascar and mountain biking across Tibet. Largely unemployable, he works on an “as-tolerated” basis, mostly dealing with equines and compost. “Kiss My Ass” appears monthly in the RFWJ.