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Jack Smith

Driving down to Santo Tomas Bay --always a passport to adventure

January 12, 1987|Jack Smith

BAJA DIARY--We have not been down here to our house on Santo Tomas Bay, in Baja California, for many months.

Much water has flowed down the Santo Tomas River in that time.

Romulo Gomez still has his store at La Bocana, the mouth of the river, but his wife, Delia, whom we all loved, died a few months ago.

Delia was a woman of warmth, intelligence and wit. I remember the time she turned away from her kitchen stove, in the back of the store, as Gomez dropped two live lobsters into a pot of boiling water.

She said solemnly to me, "They don't like it, you know."

Delia had a kind of charisma. Her serene good humor shone on La Bocana. Often one or another of our neighbors down here, exasperated by the sometimes elusive Gomez, has said, "If it wasn't for Delia. . . . "

Gomez languishes at his home in Tijuana these days, but he still appears at La Bocana on some weekends to reassert his patriarchal authority over the landscape. Meanwhile his middle son, Sergio, tends the store and the rental cabins, pumps water to the cistern that serves our houses and acts as his father's factotum.

Our colony consists now of nine American couples or families for whom Gomez has built brick houses on land we lease from him. We are bound by faith. None of us has ever verified Gomez's title to the land.

We drove down this time in our younger son's battered 1974 Chevrolet van. It carries a lot, but the large loading door on the starboard beam was frozen shut, and everything had to be loaded by a tortuous path around the front passenger seat. This maneuver requires the skill of a contortionist, and my wife gave vent to numerous unladylike complaints as she climbed the high doorstep and squirmed around the seat with armloads of groceries, firewood, bottled water, a case of Hidden Mountain Ranch chardonnay, and other precious cargo.

We also took our new dog, Suzie, who added a hazard to the journey by trying periodically to jump into the driver's seat. She had never traveled before. It was to be a momentous journey for her. She was to see the ocean for the first time, to see her first horse, and to be set upon for the first time by Gomez's half-wild pack of five Baja dogs.

We always forget something critical. This time it was the flashlight, the dog's papers and our passports. I had forgotten the ominous sign just before the international gate warning that fruits and pets taken across the border might not be allowed back.

We didn't foresee that we'd need our passports, although anyone is silly to travel abroad without one. For years the immigration station below Maneadero had been closed. Now it was open again.

I drove past the warning sign, which had never been taken down, and came to an abrupt stop 100 feet farther on at an ALTO sign and a blinking red light. A uniformed officer standing by a patrol car made a circling motion to show us that we had to go back and get in line.

It didn't take long. The uniformed man behind the window was taciturn and slightly officious, which is par for checkpoints everywhere. I told him we had neglected to bring our passports. He asked us where we were going.

"We have a house on Santo Tomas Bay," I said, giving it my schoolroom Castilian accent.

"You own a house there?" he said.

I caught the tone. It was a trap. I had heard that same question asked the same way at this same station years before. He was about to inform me that Americans could not own property in Baja. The implication would be unpleasant.

"We built a house," I explained, "on land we lease from a Mexican."

With an air of reluctant magnanimity, he said he would let us through, this time.

After all, I thought as we drove on, we were undocumented aliens. I wouldn't have wanted to be going the other way--entering the United States undocumented.

I soon forgot it as we crossed the low mountains and descended suddenly to the lovely Santo Tomas Valley. Our house was only 18 miles away, over a road that could range from bad to impassable. This time it was fairly good. To serve the cement plant on a point below La Bocana, the government keeps it up. They had abandoned the road in the river valley because of the seasonal floods and had cut one in the mountains on the north. It is narrow and perilous, but it had been recently graded, and for Baja it was good. The old van shook and rattled, but we made good time. We reminisced nostalgically about the good old days when we had crossed the river 22 times.

Two men were sitting in front of the store, but we drove on over the high marine terrace to our house a mile to the north. The sun had set and the sky over the bay was red with its remembered fire.

The house was dark and cozy. It smelled pleasantly of woodsmoke. I raised the curtains and the last light of the day came in. We unloaded the cool can and the water bottles and the firewood and the wine, and I filled and lighted the Coleman lanterns.

Finally I lighted a fire, opened a bottle of wine and poured two glasses. It was a familiar ritual.

We were in.

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