I’m sure it’s happened to all of us. Just when you think you know someone, your entire perception of them gets flipped topsy-turvy. Perception is not always reality.
Many people visit their favorite places in Baja over and over. They come to know certain people…their favorite taxi driver… bartender… waiter… fishing captain. It’s like visting an old friend.
But, beyond the context of being on the water; or chatting at the bar or being driven from the hotel to the beach, we often don’t think about lives beyond the workplace when the salty fishing clothes come off. When the bar glasses are put away or after the apron and order pads are in the drawer after a long day.
Captain Hector had worked for me for a decade. Great guy. Great fisherman. Solid panga captain.
The clients always asked for him.
Every day, he came to the beach in his half-rusted mini-truck. Faded baseball hat. Khaki work pants. The fabric thin and clean, but stained from use. Pantlegs rolled up to his calves over barefeet. The standard panga captain “uniform,” if you will.
I thought I knew him pretty well. Ten years, of course!
Until one day I had to go to his house to bring him some things from one of the clients. My first time. I had called and told him I was coming to drop some things off.
Living in an outlying area an hour away from La Paz City, it’s pretty rustic. We had to dodge a few cows as we snaked and bounced through the Baja desert scrub along a road that couldn’t decide if it was gravel, arroyo or a bin of fine powdery dust.
As I pulled up the dirt driveway, some yardwalker chickens ran through the dust. A dog, presumably Captain Hectors, came up to happily check out the visitor.
The yard was hard-packed dirt surrounded partially by a thorny perimeter of cactus. The rest was a make-shift barbed-wire fence staked to the ground by an assortment of boards, tree branches and metal.
A few gnarled hearty desert trees seemed to have scratched out a living here and there providing some manner of shade.
A faded soccer ball, old tires, a half-rusted boat trailer with one axle on blocks, and plastic 5-gallon buckets held court around the casa. The battered mini-truck was parked next to the fence. Hood up. Laundry hung motionless from a 3-wire clothesline in the hot breezeless afternoon. A tired nylon cast net also lay draped over the wires to dry.
The house was grey concrete block seemingly perched on an equally gray plain concrete slab. A palm-fronned palapa roof shaded the porch. A TV with a soccer game could been seen through the open-front door.
And beautiful splashes of color added Monet-like dashes of vibrancy…
Several full vines of bougainvillea spread an umbrella of electric fuschia up one wall and then cascaded down a sloping roofline. Potted plants with cactus flowers lined the porches and walkway. Colorful bedsheets hanging in the windows caught the occasional whisp of cross-breeeze. They would have made a minimalist designer proud.
But, none more surprisingly colorful than the man I found hanging suspended in a homemade hammock between two porch columns. One leg dangling over the side. One hand wrapped around a cerveza bottle.
The man who peeked over the rim bore no resemblance to the weathered saltero who had fished for us for 10 years.
“Que onda, hermano!” said Captin Hector as he pulled slowly upright clearly doing the Mexican equivalent of “Miller time” now that the workday was done. “Wassup?”
“Hay cervezas en la hielera,” he indicated with a nod towards a battered Igloo on the porch. “There’s beer in the ice chest.”
Hector had on a pink polo shirt. A pair of nice board shorts and some styling flip flops. A clean blue Yankees baseball hat topped off the designer sunglasses on his grinning face.
Who IS this guy?
I grabbed a cold one and dragged a bleached plastic Corona chair over to the hammock. I flicked a pesky fly buzzing my head.
I plopped down. We tapped long-necks with an audible clink. ..the universal salute of the “brotherhood of brewdom.” The first chilly pour burned the back of my throat. Ahhhh… I put my feet up.
Over the next hour, I learned more about Captain Hector than I had in several hundred days on the water with him. Captain. Husband. Dad. Baseball pitcher. King of the barbecue! Not much unlike guys all over the world.
Raised on the waters around Cerralvo Island, he had been fishing since age 6 with his dads, uncles and older cousins in the same way they had fished with their fathers. First commercially. Then, he learned how to fish with the gringos.
He told me, “You get very good when food on the table depends on catching fish!” He grinned and took another swig.
He had never fished any other waters for 47 years. His “area” was defined by how far his outboard motor and liters of gas could take him. In fact, he only visited La Paz, an hour away, only a few times a year.
He had been to Cabo San Lucas or other “big cities” only a handful of times.
“Why? Everything is here. We live very simply!”
He had no desire to every fly in an airplane. He thinks the United States is a good friend, but says he doesn’t need to visit although he would like to see a real baseball game someday especially if it were “Los Yahn-kees or Los Doy-yers” Yankees or Dodgers.
“I have a satellite dish and I can now see the world while sitting in my underwear, “ he laughed.
Fishing has been good to him, but had no wish for his kids to take up the hard and unpredictable life and the whims of nature.
He is proudest of having raised three kids and put them all through college on what he earned on the water.
“Our home used to have dirt floors and that is how the kids were raised, but my wife kept everyone clean. But now one kid is a teacher. One is an accountant. One is a dentist.”
He beams but there is some sadness since all of them have moved to big cities for work and he sees them rarely. His youngest helps him at fishing, but wants to be an artist.
But his passion? Not fishing.
It’s Baseball and he says he is the best pitcher in his pueblo. All of them are fishermen. Years of throwing bait as chum has honed his arm. He is the star pitcher of the village. “Somos los campiones” We are the champions. His team of neighbor fishermen play “los rancheros” (farmers) in the neighboring pueblos.
“Ellos no tienen una chanza!” he claimed with typical macho braggodacio after another swig of beer and and did an exaggerated flex of his right bicep…his pitching arm. “They have no chance.” Another good laugh. Me too.
Some delicious spicy-sweet aromas were wafting from the kitchen. My stomach rumbled. A light afternoon breeze had started moving the bougainvillea.
“Vas a quedar por cena, amigo. Rosa esta cocinando mole de pollo muy rico Su especialidad.” Said Hector proudly. “You’re staying for dinner. Rosa is making her delicious specialty chicken mole.”
How could I refuse? I reached for another beer. No hurry. No worries. Just killing time after hours. But getting to know a friend.