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Jonathan Roldan's Blog

BAJA BEAT /
WON News Column by Jonathan Roldan

WON’s weekly Baja columnist as WESTERN OUTDOORS magazine’s Baja

Backbeat, Jonathan Roldan came to Western Outdoors Publications after writing for numerous national and international publications and has been writing for over 30 years.

He worked in radio, TV and print publications for many years and then attended law school and practiced as a courtroom litigator in the the ‘80s and ‘90s. However, having been raised fishing, diving, hiking and camping all his life, the draw of Baja and writing lured him away. He moved to Baja Mexico in 1996 where he operates a Tailhunter International fishing tours in La Paz.

Jonathan Roldan can be reached at: riplipboy@aol.com.

Noche buena and a midnight clearly
I was only going to be in Baja for a year. Has it been almost 20?

The longer I am here the more Christmas seems to change a bit. The early years were surely different.


I was living out in the “country” then. Well, 10 miles down a dusty dirt road far off the pavement in the cactus and Baja scrub in a little remote Mexican bay. Far away from the city lights, I worked for a little off-the-grid hotel that only had four rooms.


And that’s all there was out there. Today, you still have to drive down a dirt road to get there and the hotel is closed and being re-claimed by the Baja sands. As so many Mexican dreams go.


I had very little then, but I often felt like I was king of the world at times. I was only half-a-step from living outta my old Dodge van at the time with fishing rods and an old one-room adobe. “Living the dream,” as many would later tell me!


I spent most nights sleeping outside in a hammock under a weathered palapa made of sticks. Jimmy, my little dog and I lived much by candlelight and a propane stove. No phones. No electricity to speak of.


And I remember it was Christmas. In the Baja. In Mexico. So far from Christmases remembered.


I remember the brisk wind and the clear starry skies overhead where clusters of the galaxies were so thick as to appear as if a huge black canvas had been lightly airbrushed with white. With no city lights, shooters streaked criss-crossing tracers from horizon to horizon.


I wore the same faded shorts and some awfully thin flipflops that had long since lost their tread. I’m sure I smelled like fish most days which is how I earned my living for the hotel taking their few clients fishing and diving.


No one ever complained about how I looked or smelled. I was part of the landscape in my ratty straw hat and cut-off t-shirts.


Mesquite was abundant so it was often just as easy to cook over a jumbled stone firepit I had made outside my little casita on the bare ground. It wasn’t much more than a rocky rise of hardscrabble Baja dirt. But during the day, the little spot had a zillion dollar view of the beach and bay that would make a realtor drool.


But not tonight. A moonless crispy December night in Baja. I could hear the waves of the bay lightly crashing against the sands down the beach somewhere in the darkness below. With barely more than the stars above, the orange glow of my little fire fought a losing battle to penetrate the darkness.


But all is calm. My fire bright. Noche Buena. Christmas eve.


I pulled my thin flannel shirt a little tighter against the chill. Me and and Jimmy the dog. I tossed another branch of twisted mesquite into the flame.


I had come a long way from American cities and holidays past. Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned spending Christmas like this. Life takes funny turns. There’s a thin debatable line between an idiot and genius.


No tree. No carols. But, I had nature’s own magnificent light show overhead and the dancing flames of a mesmerizing campfire to hold gaze into.


Completely alone but not the least bit lonely. On Christmas. And it felt like it just couldn’t get any better.


And then, just outside the ring of flickering firelight, a shuffle of feet. A bit of laughter. Faces and smiles materializing on the other side of the orange haze of whispy smoke. The spectral ghosts of a Dicken’s Christmas?


“Que onda? Que tal, Jona! Feliz Navidad! Felices fiestas, Mano!”


It just got better.


Some of the commercial fishermen and their wives had trudged up the rise from the beach. Several packs of beer in hand and tattered beach chairs. Uninvitedly always welcome. Saw my fire. Come to join. Come to laugh. Share the warmth of a chilly evening.


My Spanish was barely elementary back then. But, some things are universal. Bridges are easily crossed with smiles, high-fives, back slaps and shared fraternal cervezas. Especially on Christmas Eve.


They already had an obvious head start on me. No formalities needed. They plopped down around the fire and it was on. No need to break the ice. I toasted and laughed and did my best to sing.


In any language…”Noche Buena” is still “Silent Night.” I had no clue about some of the other rowdy rancho songs they sang.


We whooped at the top of our lungs and lifted Tecate cans to health and family, love, life and the star-filled night. Or nothing inparticular.


You know that saying about “Dance like no one is watching and sing like no one can hear?” There’s a special child-like exhilaration attached to that.


Of all things, they started singing “Jingle Bells” in Spanish. I doubt my amigos even had a concept of a sleigh or reindeer or even snow. Ni modo…no matter! One more time with feeling from the top!


Then they asked me to teach them the song in English. Por favor!


Me leading! Oh my…ever fall over laughing? I don’t think there had ever been such a bawdy version…Christmas angels winced but couldn’t help smiling…


DOSHING TRUE DUH SNO

EN WUN WHORE’S O-PEN SLAY!

ODOR FEELS WEEGO

LOFFING OLE DUH WAY

HO! HO! HO! (Everyone jumped in on that part with gusto!)


And we laughed and snorted and guffawed and stomped our dusty feet. I stared into that campfire and thought of perhaps another chilly night in the desert many eons ago. That brought others to a spot in the desert.


Some wise guys and sheep ranchers. Amigos of different languages and cultures. Pulled in by the flame and warmth of a beckoning light.


And here we were… A bit of light in the darkness on a windswept beach knoll in Mexico. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. As primal as that. Some friends. A few beers. Laughs and smiles. A song and a welcoming campfire in the dark. Christmas Eve and all was right.


Noche Buena. Noche excelente.


EN WUN WHORE’S O-PEN SLAY ODOR FEELS WEE GO LOFFING OLE DUH WAY…indeed!


Only in Mexico! Andale and Feliz Navidad, mis amigos! God bless us everyone. Peace to you my fish brothers and sisters.


Somewhere even the angels were singing along. Once more with feeling.


Great time to visit
I have an usual method to measure the “ changing-of-the-seasons” here in La Paz. My sure-fire way to know that the warm-weather tourist season has ended is goofy, but simple.

I walk outside our Tailhunter restaurant and use the street as my measuring device.


For about eight months of the year, getting across our main street from one side to the other is an exercise in agility, patience and frustration. The long straight “malecon” that runs along the ocean-front of our city is like a mini-dragstrip. Perfect for parades. Perfect for marches. Perfect to see how fast your car accelerates.


And that’s what it’s like getting across the street. No one stops. Pedestrians beware. Cars have the right-of-way. That’s the unwritten law most of the year. There’s two kinds of folks… the” quick” and the “quicker.”


Then, about now, it changes.


The shadows get longer as the sun rises and sets at a lower angle. The bay gets breezier. And, for some reason, people and drivers slow down. In fact, there’s just less people. And using my “measuring stick” of a street, I can cross at leisure. As many times as I want. I can even stand in the middle of the street and take photos. Ho-hum....


Where’d everyone go?


About this time, except for the influx of snowbirds, tourism just slows down. There will be a spike for the holidays like Christmas, but for many areas, from November to March, Baja changes from the “land of mañana” to “the land of maybe not even mañana… maybe the — day-after-mañana.”


But, it’s a great time to come down.


Depending on your perspective, winter in Baja is either warmer or cooler!


It’s surely cooler than April to October when the legendary Baja heat sends visitors cranking on their hotel air-conditioning units or spending their waking hours at the poolside swim-up bar. Humidity is nil. Daytime air temps in the 80s are more the norm. You might even use a blanket at night. It might actually be a good idea to pack a pair of jeans or slacks and a sweatshirt! Some areas of Baja actually get “cold” by Baja standards and frost is not uncommon and you’ll see us locals in down jackets and watch caps.


Conversely, if you’re from say… the Pacific Northwest… Canada… the East Coast… you’ll find the winter months to be head-and-shoulders over shoveling snow or drying out from rain.


You’ll get a grin watching us residents “bundle up” while you saunter down the marina or beach in shorts and send Instagram selfies to your envious neighbors back home while holding icy margaritas. Bargaining for silver jewelry for your wife beats crawling under your car to put on snow chains.


Further, as I alluded to above, crowds are down.


Be the only ones in a restaurant. The hotel staff call you by name. The bartender remembers your favorite drink. No lines for attractions.


Actually find a beach where you’re not dodging beach balls or forced to listen to someone else’s obnoxious boom box. Walk downtown and around town and sit and watch and listen, immerse and discover without a time-share or t-shirt sale dogging your every move.


If you plan to fish, winter-time fishing might put a whole different spin on Baja fishing for you. Cooler waters and perhaps windier conditions might predicate completely different types of fishing for you. Winter or inshore species you hadn’t considered like yellowtail, pargo, cabrilla, amberjack and others will surprise you. Shoreline fishing and beach fishing can produce sierra, rooster fish, jack crevalle and pompano and perch.


And there’s a good chance the waters won’t be crowded and the shorelines will be deserted!


And there’s that aspect again… just not many folks around.


And that’s good. There’s opportunities for bargains and deals. Taxi drivers need fares! Negotiate to have a personal driver for all your days. Or negotiate for a better deal with the rental car agents who all work on commissions.


Restaurants, eager for patrons have deals on drinks and food. Many of the smaller hotels, and oftentimes the most charming, will often negotiate as well, especially if it’s off-line and person-to-person. Ask for a deal on an extra night or two! All they can say is “no.”


Same with tourist vendors. Alway wanted to try snorkeling? Want to do that glass-bottom boat thing? Want some horseback riding or try that off-road ATV? Ask for a deal. Winter is the perfect time.


Bottom line is that often you’ll see a whole different side of Baja and Mexico during the winter months. Even for frequent visitors who usually only show up during the peak warmer months, they find a completely different complexion to their favorite Baja locations this time of year. For many it becomes a favorite. And a hidden secret they sometimes aren’t eager to share lest the crowds come back!



Reducing the doofus quotient
This is that time of year when fishing tournaments run rampant in Baja and other parts of Mexico. Why not? In many respects, this part of the season is the best time for the “glamour” fish like marlin, sailfish, tuna, wahoo and dorado. It’s a great time to be on the water.

In fact, by the time you’re reading this, we’ll just be about a week out from the start of the 16th Annual Western Outdoor News/ Yamaha Los Cabos Tuna Jackpot Tournament. Having been an editor and staff member for WON since 2006, we really look forward to the event all year and seeing so many familiar faces and having a great time.


Western Outdoor News Editor, event director and “master of ceremonies” Pat McDonell hosts an incredible show for everyone. More than 100 teams from all over the country pile into town for the fishing party.


How can you go wrong with a tournament that has a motto, “Fish Hard Party Harder!” Check out all the details here. It’s Nov. 5th-8th: http://www.loscabostunajackpot.com/2014_coverage/preview.php


Having worked this tournament as well as many others over the years and participated as a crew-member or angler in other events, I’ve got some observations about how to enhance your tournament experience and reduce your “doofus” factor a few notches.


It’s all about attitude. Yes, this is a competition. Everyone wants to get that big check, but it’s supposed to be fun. Remember, you left the office, traffic jams and meetings back home. The sun is out. The margaritas are cold. You’re among friends. Enjoy the time.


One overly-competitive high-strung-wound-up-underwear-twisted-person on the team can ruin it for everyone on the boat and on shore. Don’t be that person. Remember, you’re not alone and you’re not the only fisherman. And there’s a lot of GOOD fishermen out there.


Respect where respect is due. Your captain and crew have probably forgotten more than you will ever know about fishing these waters. They fish more in one year than you will your entire fishing career. Remember, they are part of your team. Work together. Listen to their advice. They want to win as badly as you do!


Work out bonus and tip money ahead of time. Will they get a percentage of winnings? Extra money is a nice motivation.


If the rod goes off, work out a fair rotation with your amigos about who gets to grab the rod. Rock…paper…scissor…


Be careful of what you say on the open radio! The whole world is listening…and probably in several different languages!


If you lose or break gear, offer to replace it or pay for it. It’s only fair.


No matter how much you plan, the unexpected happens. It might be bait, luggage, food, some other jerk…Hey, roll with it. “Spit” happens, right? Some things are just not controllable. How you deal with it is the difference between an “adventure/inconvenience” or a “crisis. “


Share! I’ve seen fishing team members roll out to the boat carrying everything from bottles of expensive wine to gourmet meats and cheeses and everything in between. And then they don’t offer a thing to the captain or crew who may or may not have anything more than a rolled up tortilla and a thermos jug of water.


If your “team” has hats and shirts whether it’s “ Team Joe’s Auto Parts” or “The Reel Screamers” or “Fred’s Flatulent Fishing Fanatics,” get gear for everyone! Everyone loves swag and your captain and crew will wear them proudly.


While you’re at it, don’t forget your “land crew” either. I highly recommend family, spouses and significant others at these events. Heck, consider them for fishing, but even if not, remember them, too! They’re your support team!


These events are a social event, in many cases. Even more so than a sporting event. Fishing is just the vehicle that gets everyone down to party! Chances are this event has evening soirees and banquets. Everyone plays. No one sits on the beach. So make sure you bring in your support team as well as your captain and crew. Great fun. Great bonding! It may cost you an extra fee for the wristband. It’s worth it.


Don’t make YOUR negligence someone else’s emergency. The tournament director and staff have their hands full. He does not know where you left your iPhone. The staff does not know the name of the bar you were at last night where you left your official tournament t-shirt. Likewise, it’s not THEIR fault you accepted a “double-dog-dare” and removed your shorts in the hotel Jacuzzi and got asked to leave.


Basically, don’t be a knucklehead or the guy everyone points at. Be on time. Read your materials. KNOW THE RULES. Play fair. Be a good sport.


Hope to see you in Cabo at the Tournament! You’ll see me working the scales with Pat and Big Mike. Come say hi and introduce yourself. Giant tuna are showing up so I hope to hoist one up for you in front of crowd!


Loose ends and dangling powerlines
In my past 3 columns in the span of over more than a month, I’ve tried to give you a ground-zero view from what it’s been like here in Baja during and after Hurricane Odile, the strongest hurricane ever to hit Baja. I haven’t written much about fishing, but frankly, there hasn’t exactly been a whole lot of fishing going on!

But from the responses I’m getting via e-mails, phone and other social media, apparently, my reports are getting read and mostly doing some good. About 99.9 percent positive feedback… which isn’t too bad for one of my rambling columns, all things considered. Can’t please everyone.


Understand that these are simply one person’s perspective. We live here. We run several large businesses here. We are here working 7 days a week. We’re not part-timers or vacationers.


But, I will admit that our view is still limited. Baja is a big place. It’s 1,000 miles long. Heck, the city of La Paz is a big place. I only have first-hand knowledge of what’s going on in our particular zone of influence… and it’s a darned small zone!


I haven’t visited every neighborhood, town or hotel. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of our friends in the East Cape, nor have I visited Loreto or the Airport in Cabo San Lucas.


But, my info is good info. If I don’t hear, see or smell it, then, the information comes from those in authority or who have had some first-hand experience.


As per some of my detractors… I don’t lie. Nor did I embellish or have to embellish any of my reports. I didn’t have to. It was terrible enough and continues to be for many people.


I don’t mind if you call me names, but for Pete’s sake, do your own research before you challenge me so that it will at least be a fair debate and conversation, and we can both learn something!


I get a bit defensive when someone who doesn’t even live here in Mexico starts his e-mail by calling me a *&%# . Exhale. Take a deep breath.


Every two weeks, I have a 1,000-word column to fill and I do my best to get as much into that space as I can! And since 2006, I’ve written around 600 articles. If you can do better, please let me know or write our editor, Pat McDonell. I’m sure he’d love to hear from you! Or not! Pat’s a pretty busy guy and he’ll usually tell you to check your facts, too, before you post up an opinion.


So, let me tie up some bits and pieces and loose ends on the information front.


FLIGHTS


Huzzah to the government and the airport folks and the airlines for getting flights coming back to Cabo. It was way ahead of schedule!


The airport was supposed to be closed for months. That’s the lifeblood right there. As of Oct. 8th, Alaska Air and United were the first to bring in flights and they were met with water cannon salutes and mariachi bands! They really rolled out the red carpets!


We had clients on that flight and they told me that the new terminal is still a mess. It doesn’t even look like a terminal. But the older terminal is working well enough to take care of business. With each day, more flights and airlines are coming in. La Paz and Loreto Airports are fine.


SERVICES


I cannot say enough about the authorities — CFE (the power and electric people) and Mexican law enforcement. Muchas gracias! Talk about mobilizing and getting things done; it was like an invasion of sorts.


Working night and day, they helped get things squared away fast. They got things under control for the most part. There are still quite a few areas lacking services and they are still working at it, but all the main areas are back on the grid from what I am being told and seeing myself. A big thanks to all of them. As the CFE trucks and police rolled into various areas, they were openly cheered by everyone!


CLEAN UP


There’s still a lot to be done. But, in many areas, first-timers might not initially realize there had been so much debris. Most folks don’t have insurance down here.


Many buildings, especially in Cabo, are going to take a long time to repair, but in terms of infrastructure, trees, telephone poles, roads, trash and other manifestations of the storm, the main areas are cleared and more getting cleared out all the time, moving outwardly to the neighborhoods.


SHORTAGES


With the exception of some long lines now and then, I’ve heard no reports of any shortages of gas or food, although water services are not running in some areas outside, but are coming back bit-by-bit. Most of the big stores that were looted or closed down are now open again for business. Most hotels are up and running at least in limited capacity, if not completely open and ready for business, especially now that we have flights.


Here in La Paz, the biggest thing I keep hearing about is in the outlying city areas. Water is the most critical shortage. You can go without electricity to some degree. You can get by with candles, flashlights and gas cooking. But, you can’t make water or use a substitute.


FISHING


Normally, the fall months are some of the best fishing months of the season. The storms really put the hammer to it all this year. Without flights, weeks of vacations had to be canceled. Many outfitters, hotels and other businesses, dependent on fishing tourism, were hit hard. They’re very anxious to get going again.


From what I’m hearing, the conditions are good. After any large storm, waters can be disturbed, murky and dirty, but with each passing week, conditions appear to be improving. Thankfully, many folks who had to cancel trips are finding new dates to re-book.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has officially determined just this week, that we are in an El Niño weather event. This means that at least through the middle of 2015, waters will remain warmer than normal. This speculatively means warm-water species like tuna, dorado, billfish, wahoo and others will remain in Baja waters longer than normal.


ODILE’S ORDEAL and the AFTERWRATH
When I wrote my last column two weeks ago about making the best out’ve your situation if your vacation gets slammed by a hurricane or other natural disaster, I had no idea. As I wrote that piece, it was your typical sunny Baja day on the beach. As I closed out, it was just starting to get a little cloudy. Rain drops were starting to fall.

I used that to underscore how quickly things can change. Especially in Baja. Especially in this El Niño year.


I was just trying to get my column out. Put some words together. I had no clue just how fast things would change. How fast life itself would change.


The “bit of rain” was part of a weather cell we had been watching half-heartedly watching for several days. It was just another ho-hum rainfall that started our way with a roar, but like a dozen others this season, we expected it would eventually bend out to the Pacific Ocean. We might get a “little afternoon precipitation.”


It was an understatement of historic proportions.


In the span of less than 12 hours the storm did the unexpected and put Baja right in it’s crosshairs. By midnight, Sunday the 14th, Hurricane Odile had turned into the largest and most powerful hurricane ever to hit Baja.


It slammed into Baja with Category 3 and 4 strength winds including gusts up to 140-150 miles and hour. By comparison, Hurricane Sandy that devastated the East Coast in 2012, had winds of “only” 115 miles and hour.


Those, like us with a fishing operation in La Paz, or have businesses that are affected by weather or happen to watch weather, had at least a bit of time to get ready. Get the batteries and water. Tape the windows. Get the rain gear. Tie and chain things down. Pull our boats onto dry ground.


Most of Baja was not ready. It was the weekend. It was the start of the 4-day Independence Day weekend festivities, the largest biggest holiday in the country. Folks were in a big-time party mode. Most government officials and civil workers were long gone. Thousands of tourists had no idea either.


It was pretty bad. You’ve probably seen the photos or watched the news. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been in one. It’s like being inside a vacuum cleaner. It’s THAT loud. But add the glass breaking. Trees snapping. Our ceiling collapsed. Things shattering. It’s difficult to talk. To think.


This was my 10th big one and they are never the same. Like some perverse amusement park ride you know will end, it’s fascination, panic, awe, self-preservation and terror roller-coastering with each blast of wind.


And then it passes. It whimpers; runs outta steam; and moves on. And you sigh. And you exhale and like little Hobbits you gingerly creep out with everyone else into the light.


But, it’s not over.


In reality, it’s just starting.


The destruction is devastating. It looks like Godzilla danced on the town. Phone poles snapped in half. Giant old trees uprooted. Entire walls of buildings simply missing. Boats and yachts sunk or blown to dry land. Not a single window unbroken. Cars upended. Power lines draped limply across roads. Entire neighborhoods destroyed. Roads and bridges submerged. Hotels collapsed.


More than 30,000 tourists stranded with no immediate resources to handle them. An equal number of residents homeless.


And no water. No power. No electricity. No phones. Gasoline runs out. The brand new airport looks like it took an artillery barrage. It no longer exists.


Like being no a deserted island. No way out. No way in. No way to call home…or anyone else. No supplies.


One day post storm, it was shock and disbelief. Day two, it’s assessment.



By day 3, it was starting to get ugly. Tensions rising. Tourists are now ramping up the panic. Tourists and residents alike hit realization. And it’s nasty and ugly and scary.


The vacation has been trashed. The novelty has worn off. The margarita bar has been blown to Mazatlan. The fishing boats are sunk. And there’s no water, showers, food. Everyone is sleeping on the floor.


And worse…there’s no communications. Off the grid. That is especially terrifying . In a world where everyone has their nose stuck in a smart-phone, it’s the stone age. No way to notify family and relatives. No access to news. Still no way off the island. No airport. No planes.


In the cities, the afterwrath is worse.


Wholescale looting erupts. And it’s not just the dad trying to get some milk and tortillas for the family. Mobs break down windows, doors and metal barriers. Some gleefully. Large scale jubilant Christmas looting.


The big chain stores are attacked and emptied by the hordes. TV’s…clothes…exercise equipment…alcohol. If it’s not nailed down, it’s gone. Fighting breaks out. Police and law enforcement, already strained with the disaster are powerless. Rioters barricade streets so police cannot interfere. They don’t. They can’t.


In the neighborhoods, more looting. Assaults. Rape. Gangs roam the streets with machetes and arms. Neighbors set up their own security to protect their neighborhoods with guns, rocks and re-bar. Carjackings take palce. Fires are set to illuminate the dark. Neighbors dress in white to set themselves off from the bad guys.


Families fight off looters from the roof with bricks and chunks of concrete. One group beats back several assaults from gangs attempting to breach their walls by using sticks, rocks and baseball bats against knives and clubs.


Gunfire can be heard in the darkened streets at night. As one escaped resident told me, “It was medieval and primal. Complete lawlessness.”


The army finally rolls in and things quiet down.


Two weeks post-storm, the recovery is remarkable. The government, the phone and power companies; constructions companies and many others are still working around-the-clock to get going. The phoenix rises.


They said the airport in Cabo would be out for the rest of the year. By the time you are reading this, some limited flights might already be working. The La Paz Airport is already open.


La Paz is 95 percent back on the grid. Most of the city is cleaning up and back to normal but dealing with the huge influx of refugees. Cabo is 15 percent on the grid. Some hotels are actually back in business if somewhat limited.


Cell phones were not supposed to work for a month. They were back online in about a week.


But, it’s not over yet. Far from it. Odile’s “ordeal” continues on so many levels.


Many of those who had the least, lost the most. Or everything. The poorer areas, if not destroyed, have not been high on the list to restore services.


Many still have no water. Electricity is a flashlight at best. Or a candle. Food is scarce and many are in residences missing a roof…doors…windows…a wall. As one told me, “My family of 3 shares two buckets of water in the dark to wash, drink and cook.”


Many businesses will never recover. If it was tourist related, there’s no tourists. If the building got blown away, there’s no insurance. It doesn’t matter if your family ran it for 2 generations. And there’s no “bailout” programs here in Mexico.


Odile shattered more than just some hotels and vacations. The most powerful storm ever to hit Baja indeed.


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