Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bienvenidos a Loreto!

Living Loreto begins again!

I am very happy to welcome you back to my version of life in a special place – Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico. After spending four months over the past summer visiting with friends and family back in Canada, I was looking forward to returning “home”, here in the Loreto Bay development, 15 km. south of the town of Loreto.

This return marks the beginning of my fourth winter Living Loreto and the third year of writing this Blog, for which, your ongoing support leaves me humbly grateful. Although I have met some of you, my readers, many more remain anonymous, but no less a real presence, bringing with you a sense of obligation. For those of you who have ventured to the very bottom of this page, you will know that I have received over 35,000 hits since starting the Blog two years ago. This is a number that I have trouble grasping, but one that I take some considerable pride in.

But with that pride there comes the sense of obligation, my commitment to putting into words the thoughts, impressions and day to day experiences that make up my life here. What I have come to realize is that by setting myself this challenge of putting down in words something relevant to my life here, I am able to view and experience things in a more involved and present way. No less than Socrates said it best; “An unexamined life is not worth living” (imagine the Blog he would have written!). So for that, I thank you - even though, I frequently feel some anxiety as the weekend approaches and it’s time to sit down and produce the next instalment.

But that is followed by the sense of relief and satisfaction that I feel when I hit the “publish” button and send these thoughts into the ether, where you can click on them, add your presence to the growing total of readers from week to week, and by so doing set up the whole process for another week. So we have a symbiotic relationship, by you coming back week after week to read these thoughts you create the obligation for me to continue to write things down and publish them. To the extent that you get some benefit from reading this, you provide me with an enhanced life experience by the act of writing about it. In fact, often I find myself looking for situations or experiences that would make a good Blog and so you become my motivation for doing things I might not have done otherwise, to have material for the next instalment.

Enough navel gazing for one piece – now to bring you up to date with my recent
return trip and first impressions as I am settling in again. I made the return drive from Calgary Alberta (north of the Montana border) in 4 days, covering just less than 4,000 km. On this trip I was accompanied by a fellow Homeowner in Loreto Bay, Grant, who wanted to experience the drive with me, in preparation for his own first trip down by vehicle next spring. Having a companion on the trip made it much more enjoyable and the time passed much faster with company – although, I’m afraid I may have tested Grant’s patience with my long rambling stories.

The border crossing into the US went smooth and easy – Grant claimed it was the positive influence that his presence added – but after my previous experience a year ago I was grateful for an uneventful passage. We continued on I-15 south through most of Montana on that first day, enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire trip, before stopping for the first night in Dillon, a small town just over 900 Km south of Calgary which was our goal distance each day.

Since this has been a regular stopping spot for me for the six or eight round trips
I have made to Loreto over the past 5 years, I did not anticipate any need for reservations until we pulled up to my regular Motel and were told they were fully booked due to the local Rodeo happening that weekend. After trying several other places in town, with the same results, we were heading back to the highway and looking at another 40 miles or so to the next town when we stopped at the last option – the Creston Motel, an older “auto-court” style operation (think Bates Motel from Psycho with a fresh coat of paint). There, we were pleasantly surprised (and a little worried) to find that they DID have rooms available – I later concluded that their location in the center of town, far from the highway, was the reason for their vacancies, and not any more ominous issues. In fact, the rooms were newly, if less than professionally, renovated, and after my initial concerns I came to appreciate their individuality after the sterile “cookie-cutter” accommodations that have become the norm along most major highways. An added feature was that this Motel was a short walk from my favourite restaurant in Dillon (confession, the only restaurant there I have eaten at) Sparky’s Garage Diner where we had excellent plates of ribs and pulled pork with the sweetest corn bread I have ever tasted.

The next day took us through Idaho, past the Great Salt Lake and into Utah where we stopped just north of the Nevada border in St. George a thriving retirement based community with emerald green golf courses in the middle of red sand desert surrounded by pristine residential developments and big box malls, many of which have sprouted during the five years I have been travelling this route. I’ll blame road construction (again!) for missing my normal exit for my regular Motel stop here, which caused Grant, who was driving at the time, to have to double back and re-
approach from the south. This resulted in our staying at a beautiful new Fairfield by Marriot high-rise Hotel with a Players Sports Bar and Grill next door – perfect for the steaks we had promised ourselves for that evening’s dinner. Our last night in the States was spent in brand name luxury surrounded by all the sparkling new amenities that the pre-boomer retirees could want for, with a year-round summer climate.

I had warned Grant that day three would be our longest, leaving St. George by 8:30
we were soon passing through one of the scenic highlights of the trip; the Virgin River Gorge, where the 4 lane divided highway curves it’s way through spectacular rock walled gorges for several miles of what must be the most expensive stretch of
highway on the entire trip. About an hour later, after covering miles of non-descript desert, we approached one of the man-made wonders of this part of the world – Las Vegas. Passing through this metropolis of money, surrounded by iconic architecture, 24 hour sex shops, and shooting ranges, creates a sensory overload after the previous few days of travelling in some of the most barren landscape in the west.

Leaving Las Vegas – no pun intended – we began the long climb through the pass to
Baker CA, where we stopped at The Mad Greek, where we had great Calamari and Greek salads before we carried on for the decent into the great State of California – again, no pun. Before reaching San Bernardino we entered the extended megalopolis that continues from central California all the way south to the Mexican border. Because Grant needed a FMM Tourist Visa we chose the Declaration and Documentation lane at the Tijuana crossing, parking in the Customs lot just across the border line.

After getting the visa at the Immigration Office, paying for it at the nearby Bank window, and returning to Immigration with the receipt and receiving numerous rubber stamps in the process we were done. This was also the first time I had entered Mexico with my new FM3 ID card, replacing the 4 year old, somewhat worse for wear, visa booklet I had previously carried. So it was with interest I saw the Immigration Officer give my laminated card a quick glance, comparing it to my Passport, and then returning it to me with a smile – no rubber stamps, and with no computer scan or record of my arrival – Quien sabe!

We returned to the car in the parking lot that was crowded with more than a dozen vehicles, many of them small trucks with assorted cargo, that were being attended to by half a dozen Customs Agents, inspecting their loads and completing forms on clipboards. I drove through this scene of organized confusion slowly and carefully, avoiding eye contact with anyone in uniform, until I reached the exit with the ubiquitous red/green light that determines who gets a more thorough inspection. Seeing that nobody was paying any attention to these two Gringos in the SUV, everyone being occupied with the everyday business of crossing the busiest international border in the world, we emerged from the Customs area and carefully merged with the chaotic 6 lanes of “nothing to declare” traffic heading south.

A couple of quick turns later (more detailed driving instructions are in my earlier
postings) we were on the “Scenic Toll Road” heading to Ensenada and few grim miles of Tijuana tenements later, we drove along the shoreline past a collection of oceanfront resorts, some occupied and others abandoned before completion, telling a too familiar story of Real Estate development in Mexico. As our distance from Tijuana increased, the tension and apprehension I had felt crossing the border diminished, until we were approaching the port city of Ensenada about 100 km south.

Because of the time and fading light, we decided to forgo the temptations of a shopping stop at Costco and pressed on to our destination of San Quintin, another 250 km further south. This proved to be a wise decision, because half an hour south of Ensenada we were diverted onto the longest detour I have experienced in my five years of driving the Baja. Did I mention that it was now raining? So for 45 minutes, from dusk to dark, we crawled along a greasy, muddy ploughed track through the dirt, beside what will be a new stretch of divided asphalt highway – some day!

By the time we finished the detour it was darker than I would normally like to drive on Mexican highways, but with nothing much before San Quintin ahead, and the prospect of the detour behind us, we carried on in some of the heaviest traffic we would see during the entire trip. The advantage of driving after dark in Mexico with lots of other cars, is that you can be pretty sure that the road ahead is clear of cattle and other unexpected events. The disadvantages include all the normal hazards of narrow road, no shoulders, poor markings and unexpected “Topes” or speed bumps that are compounded by the darkness – plus the added adventure of the possibility of oncoming vehicles, without headlights!

This was not Grant’s baptism into Mexican highway driving – he has rented cars and
driven as far as Cabo, 6 hours south of Loreto. But he confessed later, over several much needed pre-dinner beers, that the NASCAR element of passing tractor trailer units in the dark, on a rainy night, given all the previously mentioned factors, was a new experience, and one that he was not anxious to repeat. Needless to say, we arrived safely, if somewhat rattled, at The Villa San Quintin by 9:00 pm that night, over 12 hours since we left St. George, travelling over 1,000 km – and much further culturally, and we were both euphoric and finally being in Mexico after three straight days of driving.

The final day took us into the central peninsula, through the granite field around
Catavina and then back out to the Pacific coast to Guerro Negro, where we stopped for a very civilized lunch at Mallarimo, a landmark restaurant/motel I have stopped at often before. From there we crossed the peninsula, finally descending La Cuestra del Infierno (Hill from Hell) into Santa Rosalia on the eastern coast and the beautiful Sea of Cortez. Thus began our final leg, south to Mulege, on past Bahia Conception with it’s fantastic turquoise blue water and many white sand beaches and finally across the long plateau that ends as we drop down into the Loreto area, guarded on the west by the Sierra Gigante mountains and fronting on the Sea of Cortez. As the sun set on our final day of travel it highlighted the offshore islands of Coronado and Carmen and we both knew we were Home!

To travel most of the length of North America in four days, pass through some of the most beautiful, and at times, most desolate scenery, skirt huge metropolitan areas, and bypass dusty Mexican hamlets that have been unchanged in 30+ years, to arrive in gratefully familiar surroundings and feel a true sense of belonging, of being Home – THAT is what Living Loreto is really about! Bienvenidos and Welcome back!