Sunday, December 5, 2010

My Trip To San Juanico

This past week I had a remarkable experience which will be a challenge to do justice to on these pages. As regular readers know, many of the subjects for my Blog this Fall have centered around parties and other social events that have happened here, mainly among the ex-pat community. One of those events was the Paella Cook-Off (“Paella Cook-Off III”, Nov. 7th) which raised almost 50,000 pesos ($4,000 US) for charity.

These funds were going to be divided three ways. One third was going to the Internado, a residential school for children who are bussed into town for their weekly classes and returned to their homes in outlying areas for the weekends. Another third was to be a contribution to the local Optimists Club children’s fund. And the final third was designated for Caritas, a volunteer charitable organization that helps some of the poorest people living in surrounding remote areas.

Recently I was invited to accompany Shelia and Manfred (who were the organizers of the Paella event) when they joined volunteers from Caritas to go out to distribute some of the aid that was made possible by the contribution of funds their event had raised. Of course, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about some of the people and places that surround Loreto Bay, where I make my home. I also saw the potential for a Blog subject that would somewhat balance the “party, party, party” theme that has somewhat dominated these pages recently.

Part of the experience of life in a foreign country, is being surrounded by extremes in standards of living. Although within Loreto Bay we live in a homogeneous community of more or less comparable homes, mainly occupied by people from the US and Canada, fifteen kilometres away in the town of Loreto there is a much broader range of living conditions. These vary between large oceanfront residences, through middle and working class homes in the town proper, and to areas of extreme poverty on the outskirts of town.

But beyond even this range of extremes, there are isolated rancheros raising cattle near oasis in the miles of rugged desert that makes up most of this peninsula, and remote fishing settlements that are located where there is an accessible beach with some protection and good fishing nearby. These are the sort of places where the children who are the students of the Internado school system come from, and they are also the charitable focus of the Caritas organization.
                                                                                                                                                              Our destination on this day was a small bay north of Loreto called San Juanico, where a couple of dozen people in eight family groups live and subsist by fishing in the surrounding waters of the Sea of Cortez. Shelia, Manfred and I met with three local volunteers from Caritas in Loreto and we followed them about 50 km north of town where we left the highway and took the most primitive of roads east towards the ocean.

Any travel off the main highway here usually involves going through sections of arroyo, or watersheds where the occasional downpours drain surrounding hills into the ocean. After crossing through scrub brush near the highway, we entered an area of large cactus and sections of the dry gravel arroyo before coming to rocky outcrops that were at least four stories high, where the channel narrowed and we could see signs of erosion on the volcanic walls. Considering we were driving on bone dry sand and gravel, this erosion takes on more significance. When there can be years between flood events, and then they can last for only days, or possibly a week or so, the mind boggles considering the millennia of time it has taken to erode this hard rock from these infrequent deluges!

In the same area, we passed through a page wire gate that controlled free-range cattle in the area. This gate was over 6 ft. high and caught in the joints at the top of the wire mesh were wisps of dried grasses which must have lodged there the last time a torrential flood had exceeded 6 ft. depth in this restricted channel. We also saw ``Palo Blanco`` trees growing out of solid rock walls where they somehow found a source of water sufficient to support life.

After driving 15 km from the highway, we were approaching the ocean and our destination. At the end of a sandy stretch of road through the shoreline brush and mangrove we arrived at the small cluster of homes that was the fishing settlement at San Jaunico. The quality of these buildings varied considerably – there were a few newer looking plastered concrete block buildings, but others were made from plywood or corrugated fibre panels – even salvaged scrap timber and plastic canvas sheets.

When we arrived the Caritas volunteers were greeted as old friends by a couple of women in their 20’s carrying young children, Manfred, Shelia and I were included in introductions and handshakes as others joined us, including the apparent matriarch who was probably in her 60’s and the “head man” who may have been in his 50’s. Initially, I was wondering why there were no older children around, just adults and toddlers, and then I realized that all of the school aged children were probably enrolled in the Internado, getting their education in Loreto, where they lived between weekend trips back home.

After the introductions, and some discussion about what supplies we had brought them, the women gathered at the back of my car where the bags of donated clothes, shoes and bedding were opened and distributed. This process took on the look and feel of a friendly “rummage sale”, with each item being inspected and chosen by one or another, based on size and appropriateness. If an item was not suitable for any of them, they always seemed to know of someone else in a nearby ranchero or another fishing camp up the shoreline that could use it.

While the women were thus occupied, I wandered around the cluster of buildings and learned a little more about how these people were living. Several of the men were assembling fish nets, tying nylon mesh between two ropes, one of which had plastic floats spaced out along it’s length, the other with small lead weights. Based on the pile of finished nets, and the materials ready for assembly, they were going to have hundreds of feet of it ready for fishing when they were finished the job. A flock of about a dozen goats appeared from over the rocky cliffs at the south end of the beach and they were quickly marshalled into order by several of the numerous dogs that were obviously “at home” in the community.

(I had asked that the Caritas people explain to the residents that I was taking these pictures to publish in my Blog (not sure how familiar these people would be with THAT concept!) and I wasn’t just being “nosey”, so I felt reasonably comfortable taking these shots.)

There was a small structure, open on one side, facing the Ocean, inside of which there was an altar, a cross and Icon, some floral arrangements, and a decorated Christmas tree – their Church, for which, I later found out, they wanted to build some benches so they could sit for the services they performed for themselves. There was some tinsel bunting wrapped around a tree outside this Church as well – that added an incongruously festive touch to these primitive surroundings.

At the base of the rocky cliff that wrapped around two sides of the beach there was a small garden patch with 4 foot corn plants around the perimeter, and I saw tomato plants, and a row of cilantro as well as small shrub sized orange and grapefruit trees that are years from bearing any fruit. Two 40 gallon sized plastic drums stood beside the garden, holding the fresh water for irrigating the plants, a reminder that all of their water had to be hauled in. Apparently they had set up a simple water system sometime in the past, pumping water from a well and distributing it to the homes through plastic piping, but now the pump no longer worked and they didn’t have the money to replace it. These few plants were their only source of fresh fruit or vegetables (other than what they could buy or barter for) and they were sturdily protected from the healthy appetites of the goats, which, by the way, provided these people’s source of fresh milk, as well as fertilizer!

Further along the rock cliff, towards the beach the head man, Jorge, pointed out a small cave opening that went about 12 or 15 feet into the rock and was 6 or 8 feet wide and 4 or 5 feet high. I saw some tools and equipment stored inside and took a few pictures. But then, with some translation help, Jorge explained than he had LIVED in this cave for the first year he stayed here, before he was joined by family and the community began to grow here five years ago. After learning this, I looked back at the cave with new respect for the will and determination of these people – and a different appreciation for the progress that this modest collection of simple shelters represented.

Making my way down to the beach I saw the half dozen pangas pulled well up onto the shore, far from the crashing surf that was still running high after the recent strong winds. These fishing boats, despite their tired appearances and elderly outboard motors, were the most important assets of the community – providing the only means of support for the families who lived here. The fish they caught, in excess of their own needs for food, were taken into Loreto to sell and the small amount of money that provided purchased everything else that sustained them. Including their drinking water and, the vital ice they needed to store the fish between trips to town. The ice explained the numerous rusty old refrigerators that were scattered around most of the homes, lying on their backs, filled with this precious commodity that had to be constantly replenished.

In the midst of these simple homes and primitive surroundings there was one incongruous, but very important hi-tech element – solar power panels. Adjacent to most of these little buildings there was a steel mast topped by small solar panel which would charge a battery and provide enough power for low wattage lighting inside at night. I also saw another example of the inventiveness of these resourceful people, one of the boats also had a small mast mounted with a small fluorescent light fixture (covered by a clear plastic bag to protect it from water) which was connected to the outboard battery to provide a little light for night fishing. But the unique part of this equipment was the switch for the light which had been fashioned from a medical syringe, push the plunger in and the light went on, pull it out and it turned off – a foolproof, and waterproof solution that was an inspiring example of recycling!

As I made my way back to the homes, the clothing had all been distributed, along with the food hampers that Caritas had brought that contained a standard supply of basics like rice, beans, oil, milk, cereal, dried soup, some fresh vegetables, canned tuna and soap. They also had brought 20 litre bottles of water, all of which were carried off into the different homes. With our trucks now empty we were about to get things together to leave, when we were asked if we would like some fish. Of course, an offer of some filets of fresh fish is always welcome, and as this was the only thing they had that they could give us in appreciation, we of course said yes, enthusiastically! But we were wrong – they weren’t offering us some fish to take away with us, no, these women were going to prepare a meal of fish for us!

While several of them set to work in the “kitchen” of one of the larger homes, we were asked if we would like to meet Sabas Saul, the 84 year old patriarch of the community, who was quite ill in bed, in a shed-like addition on the newest and largest house. We were taken to him and introduced as he lay on a tired looking bed frame covered with bedding and quilts, dressed in several layers of clothes against the chill in the air. His wife, the matriarch we had met soon after arriving, explained his ailments to the Caritas people, and asked for simple things like antacid for his chronic stomach problem, ibuprofen to relieve muscle and joint pains. These simple over-the-counter medications obviously could only do the very minimum to relieve some of the pain and discomfort that this old man was living with, and yet they were beyond the reach of these proud people who were asking for help. The good people from Caritas assured the wife that they would see to these needs on their next visit and, with that, we left him with our good wishes and a sobering grasp of the reality of how hard this life can be at the end.

We returned to sit under the patio roof outside the other house, where there were now delicious smells of fried fish in the air. The six of us sat around the plastic table that held a towel wrapped stack of fresh warm tortillas, a bowl of fresh chopped tomato, onion and cilantro salsa, and then a large dish of golden fried fish fillets arrived out of the darkened door of this modest home. And so began one of my most memorable – and delicious – meals here in Mexico.

This simple food was delectable and perfectly prepared, but the secret ingredient that made it a meal I will not forget was the genuine hospitality of our hosts, the fine, proud and independent people who had chosen this harsh, but beautiful place to make their claim for a simple life so far away (in many ways) from everything that made up the world that I take for granted every day.

Having the privilege to participate in the simple act of giving a little to people for whom it means so much – and then to receive a delicious meal, from the people we have just provided a small supply of the basic staples of life. This day, and what I learned about decency, self-respect, and hospitality will be one of my most valuable lessons in “Living Loreto”!

(From what I have seen, I am very impressed with the good work of the Caritas organization here in Loreto. If my story has inspired you to consider making a contribution to aid in their efforts to help some of the most deserving, I would be very happy to provide you with wiring instructions to make a deposit to their bank account. Just email me (my address is at the top of this page) and I will forward the information.)