12/11 – 12/16
Everyone tells you to stay out of Sinoloa. Supposedly, it is one of the major cartel havens. For various reasons we found ourselves in Mazatlan, the largest city in the state. There, on Saturday morning, I sat with a cold blade held up against my throat. The man in front of me held my chin firmly and said something that I could not understand. When I didn't respond, he jerked my head to the side. I could feel the steel scrape a few whiskers from my face along with a bit of skin. As he pressed it harder near my Adam’s apple, I felt a small drop of blood build up.
Just a few days before, we had been in San Carlos, a small gringo expat town set on an amazing coastline. We had left our little secluded beach in El Colorado early the morning of the eleventh after I defecated in the ocean due partially to a lack of proper facilities in the town, but also because I find it liberating.
We needed to be in Baja to meet Soph's parents and the only way to do this in time was by boat. The plan was to get a ferry out of the next town to the south, Guaymas. We were calling every day to find out when the next boat left, and every day they would say something like "maybe in a few days, maybe next week. Call tomorrow again my friend."
We decided to try our luck down at the docks and see if we could hitch a ride on a fishing boat. This is apparently normal in port towns. We started at the dock office. They sent us to a couple of guys who told us to try the sailboats at slip C. There we met a scraggly old salty dog named Garth who wasn’t very friendly but put me in his van and dropped me off a mile down the road at the boat repair yard and said, “Ask around for Peter. He’s a son of bitch, but maybe he can help.” The yard smelled like flammable chemicals, cigarettes, and stale beer. It quickly became evident that nobody knew anybody by name, but did know boat names. I did not have this information. As I was leaving, somebody that I had spoken with earlier was talking with Peter and made an introduction. He said he could take us, but there was no room for the bikes. Nobody offered me a ride back to the docks where Soph was, so I walked, defeated.
In the northern part of Sinaloa there is a city called Los Mochis. Nearby is a port town called Topolobampo that also had a ferry. We decided to ignore the advice of the internet, US government travel advisories, friends, and most of the people we had met in Mexico and take our chances with Sinaloa in hopes that the ferries were more reliable there.
On Thursday we called the port and it sounded like a boat was leaving on Friday. We got up early and rode to Guaymas for the 8:00 bus to Los Mochis. Thirty kilometers in the morning, a 6 hour bus ride, fifty clicks to Topolobampo, and then a midnight ferry that would have us in La Paz late Saturday afternoon.
We didn't know if we could get our bikes on the bus, so we waited until we'd convinced the driver to take them before booking the boat. Both of our phones ran out of credit that morning and it took a few hours to sort out from the bus. Eventually I got in touch with the terminal and was informed that there were no boats going out of Topo for 10 days. They said Mazatlan had one leaving on Sunday though. We rode the bus all the way down the Sinaolan coast that day. 13 hours in all. Then we had a short ride into town to our hotel.
At first glance, Mazatlan is Mexico's answer to South Beach. Lights, thumping bass, highly detailed grooming, and hustlers selling anything that anyone is willing to pay for. Our meal that night could only be described as meat-centric and a possible contributor to the country’s relatively high obesity rate.
Saturday morning I went for a wander and was surprised to see a quiet and well-kept town in a state with such a rough reputation. I sat at a farmers market and watched vendors peddle kombucha. A local woman tried to sell me an organic brownie. Fisherman wearing tall yellow boots jumped into little blue boats. Others came in and hustled oysters to the seafood shops.
I walked more than twenty five kilometers. On a small mountain I got a view of the city and the ocean. I had some ice cream. I took a wander through old town, a historic district with colonial homes and churches that had been impeccably restored. “No place painted in pastels can be that dangerous,” I told myself.
Which brings us back to the knife at my throat. I could tell the kid was an amateur. He was sweating a bit. So were my palms, but I kept my brow dry to not show my fear. Part of me wanted to say "I’ll pay you whatever I need to, just don't cut me." But I had been in a similar situation before and knew that this approach ended in extortion. All I could do was sit there, and let him think it through.
I honestly don’t know how people shave on a daily basis. If it takes 10 minutes a day; that is an hour each week with Sundays off. This is two full days of a man’s year spent mowing his own chin. Imagine it, standing in front of a mirror for two full days, no sleep, no going to the bathroom, just shaving. My personal preference is to let the beard grow until my mustache touches my upper lip, which I find unbearable. Then I buzz everything off. This cycle works out to be thirty five days long or thereabouts.
I have never had a straight razor shave at a barber shop in the states. It tends to happen in foreign countries because I don’t speak the language and I simply do my best to tell them to get all the hair off of my face. The kid ran the clippers for about 2 minutes and I thought that was it. Then he pulled the blade out. There were a few scratchy spots at the end, but with minimal blood, I was happy. I find the whole experience of having my face lathered, shaved, sprayed with alcohol, and then brushed off with horse hairs comically luxurious. Still, at two bucks, why not?
Sunday morning we go the aquarium and zoo. It is exactly like the states except I am the tallest person there and I have no idea what anybody is saying. We chat with a man named Alfredo who speaks some English. I get a kick out of these discussions because we are both speaking in our weak language. “Ohhh Detroit. Motor Seetee! I love RoboCop!” We have ceviche in old town, and get on the ferry. Soph sat on our bed that we setup on the back of the boat while I put my feet up in the lounge. There, a stout man in a blue clown costume led the room in a massive game of trivia. There were a few TV’s on the walls that featured fit young men in their underwear striking each other with ninja kicks and swift punches. There was much bloodshed, but nobody watched it. They were fixated on the clown.
I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. On stationary ground, a toilet in a men’s room will typically become an absolute mess by the end of the day. It starts with a bit of dribble on the floor. The problem compounds itself as it forces one to stand further and further away from the bowl which only causes more urine to splash on the ground. Before you know it you’re throwing a Hail Mary. Think about this and then consider that toilet swaying side to side in the Sea of Cortez. At four in the morning when you see that the puddle is in the corner of the stall behind the toilet you simply don’t have the mental capacity to think anything other than, “Well shit, the floor is askew. Must be my lucky day.” Then the boat lists starboard. Next thing you know you’re watching the whole mess lurch toward your very thin and very exposed sandals. You engage all of your core muscles to finish the job and jump back at the last possible second.
The next morning I was picking mango out of my teeth and dwelling on the fact that here I was having so much fun in Mexico and loving everyone that we had met so far and being amazed at how it all looked just like life in America and wondering how our illustrious news media had gotten it so wrong. Then it hit me. In the United States, through films and disgruntled Fox News commentators, we are taught that all brown people, all of them, that wear cloth on their faces, are terrorists. An early observation I made in Mexico was that not only do many construction workers carpool together in the beds of pickup trucks, but they also tend to wear bandannas over their faces to keep the desert dust out.
The strained relations between our people is a simple misunderstanding. I can only imagine some poor middle class gringo soccer mom hoping for a week-long vacation with cheap margaritas and awkward conversation with Spanish speaking locals in which she just can’t accept that they do not understand English even when she raises her voice and her surprise when she sees six men riding in the back of a 1997 Toyota pickup with zip ties holding the rear-view on, mismatched doors, and a chicken head for a hood ornament. Cradled in their arms; nail guns, hammers, and trowels. On their faces; bandannas. Terrorists….. Murderers…. Rapists. She jumps on the first flight back to Maybury, gets on TravelAdviser.com, and proceeds to write a detailed account of her experience that is complete with inappropriate capitalization of various adjectives and action verbs. Word spreads, and before you know it we have a crisis of diplomacy.
How true…how true…lo sinto mucho
Hi Chris, it’s Lee Benson. Terrific post from Sinaloa! Just terrific. I think your first calling is as a writer. Your lede was brilliant. Hope all is well and continues to be. Merry Christmas to you and Soph.
Thanks for the kind words. Merry Christmas to you as well. Look forward to catching up next year.
Wow, it worked on me! True to your point about popular assumptions of foreign lands, I was sure you were held at knife point by bandits. For the first time, just a little purterbed by your disgressions, and the usual abrupt end of your piece, I re-read the post, then grinned to myself at how I had taken the path of least resistance. How often that path leads to misunderstanding…thanks for another great read!
Having traveled Mexico extensively, usually solo, eschewing tourist traps and seeking authenticity, I concur with your observations.
Well, I think I concur. I haven’t been in Mexico since the White House became so venomous. So, does that makes your Mexico and the Mexico in my not so distant memory different? I don’t know. But, what I do know is a friendly handshake is different than spitting on a person, especially a person you barely know.
It will be very interesting to read about your experiences; I hope they are as positive and affirming as mine were. But that said, to a significant degree, I believe that the attitude you emanate is the attitude you’ll receive from others. And unfortunately, I couldn’t explore Mexico with the same attitude of open-minded equanimity as I did a few years ago. Nowhere close. But then again, I can’t travel anywhere, including North America, with the same attitude of open-minded equanimity as I did a few years ago.
Good luck – to you, and all of us . . .
The cliff hanger…..but presume your head was not separated from your body in Sinaloa..
You had me wondering how the assault worked out, im a biweekly shaver at best.
I really enjoy following your blog, living vicariously i suppose. God bless and Mele Kalikimaka!!!