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Jonathan Roldan's Blog

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:

Trip insurance?
A lot of you are like me. You run through the airport from Point A to Point B. Run…run…run!

You got your boarding pass in hand. Your suitcase, tackle and rod tubes are in the “gentle hands” of baggage handlers. Depending on the time of day, you get to the gate and your most critical concern is getting to either Starbucks for your morning latte or to the nearest airport sports bar to wrap your hands around something icy. Let vacation begin!

You pass all the usual airport hot spots.

Nope, don’t need See’s candy. Don’t need a magazine or novel. You don’t need a t-shirt either.

And you run by the booth that says “Travel Insurance.” You give it a glance but not a second thought.

That was me for years. I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t really care either. What could possibly go wrong?

But, after a zillion miles of travel…after working here in Baja for two decades and over 1,000 fishing clients-a-year…regretfully, stuff does happen.

Honest, it’s rare! Don’t panic. You probably have a greater chance of getting in an accident on the way to the airport than something critical happening on vacation.

But, for the same reason, we all have car insurance and home insurance, you’re playing those slim odds. It’s better to have it and not need it…than to need it and not have it!

And, the longer I’m in this business, the more I see the value in it. Because stuff happens. Life happens.

I’ve seen medical emergencies like busted legs and fingers; Appendicitis; allergic reactions; heart problems; diabetic problems; heatstroke, hooks-in-fingers; inspect bites; slip-and-fall; etc.

Some are just accidents. No one’s fault. Some could have been prevented by the person or perhaps with just a little less alcohol consumption.

There are others like lost luggage; lost medications (or forgotten medications!) and then there’s canceled flights; missed flights: fender-benders and hotel problems (one hotel decided to go on strike several years ago and simply locked clients out of their rooms!).

And then there are the weather-related situations (“acts of God”) that simply happen. There are hurricanes or smaller weather-related situations that can cause part or entire vacation cancelations.

Last week there were two days when the Port Captain simply did not let any boats out of the marina because it was too rough. You just never know.

Last year, when devastating hurricane Odile that slammed into Baja with historic impact, many of the items in the list above were quite evident.

There are still folks waiting for refunds and credits and having to deal with that nightmare. Some inexpensive travel insurance can help alleviate much of that.

Living here in Baja, where facilities might not always be the best, I’ll tell you…we have medical insurance that covers us. Jill also purchased a policy whereby in the event of a serious catastrophe like storm or civil unrest, etc. and we’re sitting on our rooftop, they will basically send in the Seal Team 6 to evacuate us out.

While that might be a bit extreme for the majority, regular trip insurance is pretty economical. And it saves a lot of headaches.

Because, let me tell you…getting refunds from many operators in Mexico is non-existent or very difficult.

Many simply don’t offer any refunds. Some may take months. (Do you really want to spend all that frustrating time on long-distance calls and e-mails? How good is your conversational Spanish? ).

In extreme situations, it will probably cost you more to bring legal action even if your booking agent is American based, let alone trying to sue an operator in Mexico. Litigation in Mexico is a maze you don’t want to get into. Danger. Danger!

Airlines are big and handle things like this all the time, but you still may have to jump through hoops.

A major hotel chain like the Marriot or other international chains may give you some relief. They can be really great…or not.

Or they’ll tell you that you have to deal directly with the local hotel franchise in which case you better get ready for some anxiety time. You can pretty much forget it if you booked at Jose’s Cantina and Palapa Hotel. Good luck reaching Jose!

If you google “Trip Insurance” you’ll be surprised.

You can actually insure against all of these crisis pretty easily and even “doctor” the policy to cover only the things you need. You can individualize medical, luggage, transportation, activities, etc.

Or, you can simply get a comprehensive policy that covers everything!

Just for example, I found one online plan to cover a hypothetical trip to Mexico for one week from the U.S. I estimated the cost of the trip at $2,000 ($400 for airlines and the rest for hotel, fishing, diving, etc.).

For $72, the policy included things like:

$2000 in trip cancellation / $2000 in trip interruption

Terrorism coverage

$500 baggage lost

$200 baggage delay

$150 for more than 6 hours travel delay up to $300

$10,000 medical ($50 deductible)

$500 dental (never know when that flare up happens or you crack a tooth on ice)

$50,000 medical evacuation

And, I could adjust any of those areas for paying a bit more or a bit less!

For $500, I almost hoped they lose my bag with Walmart brand underwear, socks and my toothbrush and toothpaste!

And there are many other plans as well from a myriad insurance carriers. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of pain. Something to think about next time!

Stay or go?
You’ve been looking forward to this Baja fishing vacation for ages. You’re all set. Baja is calling you. You can taste that frosty margarita and you’ve packed and re-packed your fishing gear a zillion times.

Checklist. Passport? Got it. Toothbrush? Check. Hat and camera? Roger. Extra socks. Are you kidding? Extra underwear? Hmmmm…nah…you’ll just rinse your shorts in the sink. Unnecessary clothes add weight that could be used for packing fish on the way home!

Even more so, you’ve promised your boss, co-workers and your mother-in-law you’d bring them all some fish. However, the minute you walk out that door, you’re turning off your cell phone and e-mails.

You’re already humming Jimmy Buffet tunes.

And then, you hear the news. What? Oh no. A storm? A hurricane? Rain on my vacation? No! No! No! Please oh please no!

It starts with a little blurb on CNN or the little rolling banner at the bottom of the TV screen. But, it’s a slow news day and now your evening news picks it up, too. A dozen words of dread. You would swear they did it just to jab you.

“In other news, for you vacationers, there could be a big storm brewing 1,000 miles south of Cabo San Lucas. And now back to Joe on the scene with his story about talking monkeys…”

And pretty soon, everyone on your Facebook page is telling you about it because, of course, they all know you’re headed to Baja! They start sending you graphic images of the weather map showing the tell-tale whirling cloud clusters. As if you didn’t know.

Your e-mail box is getting pinged as well. Well-meaning or envious friends are writing.

“Hey, duuuude, I think you’re screwed. Did you know that there’s this big storm…” Man, that’s not cool.”

Whoa…underwear is really bunching up. This can’t be happening. You’re trying to get some answers and the folks who booked you may or may not be responding. Your buddies are getting into panic mode as well. Rumors are flying.

“Man, I heard from a friend of a friend who was reading online that…”

“The word around town is that…”

This is snowballing. Badly. How do you calm your beating heart and reduce the pucker factor?

Well, keep trying to get in touch with your charter or hotel or booking agent, or whoever booked you. This is where it helps to have someone who actually lives where you are going. An agent who lives in Seattle might not be much help.

Remember that they have a vested interest in you coming down. No one likes handing back refunds. So, take their opinion with a grain of salt and accept it for what it is. The good ones will give you an honest assessment of the pros and cons so YOU can make an informed decision.

Get online and look up the weather forecast yourself! It seems like the most logical thing, but many folks don’t take that first step. There are websites a-plenty including the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and many others.

Even for those of us who live here, believe me. We don’t have mystic powers. We look at those services as well. That’s how we get our weather information. So go straight to the source. If you ask us, we’re often going to give you the same information you can see for yourself.

That doesn’t mean you should discount what your outfitter, captain or charter guy says. Sometimes, there’s a lot of value to having someone simply stick their head out the window and tell you if they see storm clouds or bright sunshine!

Your nightly news might have grabbed the story, but a storm 1,000 miles away can do many things before it hits landfall. It could easily peter out. It could veer off. It could turn into a drizzle.

Don’t get worked up for no reason or without all the facts. Or for something that isn’t even a certainty.

Call your airlines. If they are flying in, chances are, it’s okay. But it’s just one more bit of fact to weigh-in.

Here in La Paz, we had something like 18 storm warnings last year in an El Niño season. Only a handful ever dropped rain on us although one of them was a doozy and became the historic hurricane Odile.

As I write this, there’s a storm warning. Blancais heading our way. Everyone is jumpy. The weather forecast changes by the hour. Angst runs high. The memory of what Odile did to us is still fresh.

It’s the second such storm in about that many weeks. The last one, Andrea, got everyone worked up. too.

When it “hit” us…there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Not a drop of rain. In four days, it went “poof!” Adios. Andrea did rain on someone’s parade way out in the Pacific, but not on Baja. We fished as usual.

With lower Baja so close to the equator, storms can just be part of life. It’s tropical. Storms blow through. With this current El Nino weather pattern, more storms than normal will be around.

Storms come up sometimes with zero notice and unleash for 15 minutes then disappear. It can be raining in one area, but 100 yards away no rain falls at all.

The weather forecast can show “rain,” but it rains in the mountains 20 miles away which are technically part of the city. In the city folks are eating ice-cream cones with not a cloud in the sky.

That’s when simply asking someone to look out the window can be worth its weight in pesos.

Get all the facts. Make a good decision before you cancel your plans and have to tell your boss you’re not bringing him any fish.

Dreams so close
Everyone has story. One of the joys of living here in Baja is finding out how other folks ended up here cast upon these frontier shores. I get asked all the time.

As interesting as some folks might think my own exodus is, I think other people have a far more compelling tale.

We’ve all heard the stories of undocumented folks who braved the fences, the coyotes, the elements, law enforcement and more to come to the U.S. I don’t want to get into the ugly politics of all that. It’s a big issue no doubt.

Jaime is a young man, I often see down at the fishing docks. We often chat. He picks up odd jobs cleaning boats and doing light maintenance around the docks. At night, he works part-time as a bartender.

“I make about $20/day when there’s work. Sometimes, there’s no work.”

Jaime grew up in Loreto. Dad took off. Mom passed away early. He had a younger brother and they moved in with a kindly tia…auntie…who had her own hard-scrabble life, but took them in.

As a kid he loved working on the fishing boats and pangas and often got invited to be an ayudante (deckhand) as he got older. He got pretty good. The extra money from the gringos helped a lot.

An older gringo with a small cruiser took a shine to the smart youngster and his fishing talents. With each passing season, Jaime fished more and more with the gringo.

From ayudante, he found himself running the boat and charters for the gringo. The bond became quite paternal. It was hard not to like this skinny good-natured-hard-working kid with the big smile.

Just after his 18th birthday, the gringo bought him a ticket to visit him in Las Vegas. Jaime had never really gone to far beyond the rusticity of Loreto so you can imagine the impression Las Vegas had on the young man.

The Gringo had a flourishing air-conditioning business there in the desert of high-rises and neon. A widower for many years, he had a big house and a big heart.

He asked Jaime to stay. Over the next few years, he taught Jaime to repair air-conditioners. He enrolled him in night courses to get his high school GED. The bright Jaime was a quick-study. He also proudly got his citizenship.

“I was so happy. It was like a dream come true to come from living in an old block and wood house in Loreto to having a job and education and being part of the a great country.” He looked wistfully away. “I was making sixty dollars hour and it was like being a king.”

He always had an interest in marine biology and planned to enroll at the UNLV.

He applied for loans and grants, but while waiting to enroll he was so motivated, “I would go to the university and just sit in on math and science classes and take a desk in the back so I could listen. It was so interesting and exciting. I couldn’t wait.”

Then, he got a collect call from his brother who was still back in Loreto.

After all those years, dad had shown up again. Kid brother was living with dad. Kid brother had gotten into some trouble and had called from jail. Dad had a heart attack and died.

Please come home to help. You’re needed.

Dutifully, Jaime packed up for a short trip back to Loreto.

In the ensuing weeks, he spent all his money taking care of his father’s funeral and affairs. He lent money to other family and friends. Everyone had a hand out. His brother’s legal woes drained the rest.

Eventually, he ended up here in La Paz at one of the larger hotels. Trying to earn enough money to go “home” to the U.S. while working as a maintenance worker wasn’t going to be easy.

And then, he got a phone call from Las Vegas.

The gringo had suddenly passed away from a stroke. There was no place to go home to now.

Jaime worked two years struggling and trying to make ends meet on Mexican minimum wage which was about $8 a day.

“I think of how lucky I had been to live in the United States and how much I missed my friend and the work. It seemed my dreams had come true.”

And then the hotel went on strike. And the doors closed. The hotel held all his funds and benefits in their accounts. And he was out of work.

It has been 7 years now. The hotel has never re-opened. He still holds hope that someone will buy the hotel and his funds will be released. Interest has been accruing and he says, “It’s enough to go back to the United States.”

But, it doesn’t look promising.

So, he bounces from odd jobs to odd jobs. His work ethic hasn’t changed and he’s creative and industrious…and hopeful.

“To me, I had it all. I’m stuck here but I still have the American dream of being better. I still want to go to school and be a marine biologist. With God’s help…

His voice trails off. He sighs.

“I have to go clean some boats,” he says. And walks off.

The news is packed with stories of those who arrive illegally and stay. Some try to do it the right way. And still the dream eludes. So close…

Prepare for the worst?
I’m often asked about what kind of gear to bring or for suggestions about gear for coming to fish here in Baja. Depending on the time of year, location, or species sought, that response can get pretty lengthy.

Given what airlines charge for travelling with your gear and just all the hassle of hauling it around, there’s a thin line between bringing too much stuff and not enough. Of course, we want to bring ALL our toys to play with, right?

There’s that old saying about “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” When that’s applied to Baja fishing that doesn’t have to be so cryptically sinister or mean anything bad.

To me, that means if you’re going to put a bait or lure in Baja waters, you never know what’s going to happen. Be prepared for the “worst” …to get your backside kicked and handed to you at any time or any place!

I’m reminded of a time when I was out on the panga perhaps almost 20-years-ago. I was personally guiding an amigo who wanted to go out and fish light tackle.

Being from Washington, the guy brought a lengthy salmon rod…small…thin…whippy and about 8 feet long. It was rigged with 20-pound test.

With my captain on the tiller, we motored out of the small bay. We had just passed over the drop-off where the turquoise waters gradually turned to the deep cobalt of the Sea of Cortez. We were still within a few hundred yards of the shore.

Anything can happen.

A few tossed handfuls of sardines and we got swarmed by a school of small dorado. My guy pinned on a bait. Fish on! Instant bendo.

On the light rod, it was a kick. I kept the fish around with chum. He caught and released 1…2…3 fish and had the biggest grin. This was exactly what he came for. “This is better than salmon fishing for sure!” he grunted between lifting and cranking.

Fish number four took a deep dive under the panga and my guy leaned hard into the thin rod as it strained in a near-parabolic arc. The drag sang.

And then it stopped. And the strain on the rod diminished although the line remained taught. Strangely the line was coming up. At a weird angle.

Suddenly, my captains started yelling, “Marlina grande! Marlina grande.”

There off the starboard side a big marlin came up through the blue. Like a big grayish-blue submarine surfacing through the depths, the marlin was laconically swimming aside us.

And it had a small dorado in crosswise in its mouth! And my guy’s hook was in the in the mouth of the dorado! And the drag started to squeal again…Oh-oh…

“What do I do?” he yelled.

I instructed him to keep a high stick and told the captain to start the motor! It’s not like this kind of thing happens to me all the time.

And there we were, now attached to a dorado… that was attached to a marlin seemingly happily making its way. It was like a big aquatic dog that has a big bone in its mouth. Not a care in the world.

My guy couldn’t set the hook. The hook was in the dorado. All he would do was hang on! And that’s what we did as the big marlin leisurely bulled through the small waves oblivious to us.

No one was gonna believe this. What could we do? Watch and grin. It wasn’t exactly under our control at this point.

After about 50 yards, the big fish started submerging on a gentle decline. In no particular hurry it was headed deeper.

The rod and reel took on the full weight of the fish.

“I can still feel the dorado shaking his head!” said my fisherman incredulously.

Wow. I figured this wasn’t going to last long. Something was going to give. I mean, 20-pound-test-line and a salmon rod is like hunting elephants with a BB gun.

Down went the big fish. Out spun the line. The rod strained, arched and doubled and looked like it was going to break as we stopped the panga. The entire front end of the rod was now in the water. I had no doubts who would win this tug-of-war!

Then…SPROING! The rod suddenly went slack. Oh no! The inevitable happened. Storybook fish gone!

All three of us momentarily exhaled in a communal shrug. Limp rod. Limp line. Happy but limp spirits to go with it.

And then the rod suddenly arched again and the line zinged tight…And we were on again!

And, in the time it took to type this sentence…a wahoo goes ballistic out’ve the water snagged on the hook and line!

WHOA!!! And before the words could barely leave our mouths. SNAP! The line cut.

And the waters went silent. And the rod went straight…again. And we looked at each other…again. And broke out laughing.

No one would ever believe this. A sardine bait became a dorado…became a marlin…became a wahoo. Became an incredible story.

You just never know what’s gonna happen when you fish Baja waters. Prepare for the “worst!” But really. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened that day.

After hours
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.

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