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Bodysnatching bat country

November 27, 2008

On the final day of the Baja 1,000 last year, gunmen invaded the place where Pablo González was being held in Ensenada, Mexico, and liberated him. Police pursued the more than 20 heavily-armed men into the night, sparking a shootout that killed two officers.
In the end, the gunmen escaped with González.
None of this mattered to González, however, because he was already dead. He was killed the previous day when the helicopter he was riding in became tangled in power lines and crashed. He and three others were tracking a truck in the famous desert race.
The gunmen who spirited González away snatched his body from the Ensenada morgue and, to the best of my knowledge, authorities never caught up with any of them. Dead or alive.
It is into this land of bodysnatchers, burly trucks and impermeable dust that Chris and I will venture this week — sans kids — to cover this year’s Baja 1,000.
It’s been almost 18 years since I’ve been to Baja. Then, I was an apprehensive, idealistic student at Prescott College and, without really knowing why, I signed up for a “block” course called A Cultural Survey of Baja California. The class was a meandering excursion down the peninsula surveying such things as gigantic cacti, awe-inspiring beaches and questionable taco stands. We also surveyed many bars, and aside from indulging in beverages that would, just north of the border, be illegal to most of us, we also sat glued to TV screens trying to read George Bush Sr.’s lips. He was on all the stations talking about the impending Gulf War, and his words were always quickly dubbed over in Spanish.
This inspired much frustration for those of us whose Spanish was limited to bathroom location or “how much does that taco cost” inquiries.
Like me.
I was the girl who took three years of French because I’d once aspired to be a Canadian Mountie … so when I entered college and realized that my life goals were quite different, I signed up for my first Spanish class. I’d been in bilingual classrooms for years, and had plenty of friends who spoke “Spanglish,” so I had the basics down. I could properly cuss people out and pegged the pronunciation … but I wasn’t really prepared for my French and Spanish to get all jumbled up in my mind and my mouth. I’d start a sentence in Spanish and conclude it in French.
So I was a bit linguistically challenged down there in Baja, and certainly wasn’t able to follow the rapid-fire translation of Dubya’s daddy as he detailed his plans for entering the Gulf. Those in our group who felt similarly challenged begged our Spanish-speaking comrades to translate the broadcasts blow by blow. We were a mostly unwashed group of chatty Americans overdubbing the overdub. I’m sure we were quite a vision in those Mexican bars.
In between tracking the goings-on back home and other sundry explorations, we discovered such things as phosphorescent dinoflagellates.
Say that five times fast.
These are the tiny marine organisms (flagellate protists [!]) that light up the waters of Bahia Concepción in Baja California Sur.
We struck camp on the beach, there, and as the sun was sinking we settled into sea kayaks and pushed off into the gentle waters.
All around our boats, the water began to sparkle. Each time we dipped our oars, the ripples exploded with color. And as the sky darkened into pink and purple, it looked and felt like we were gliding over a sea of stars.
Now, on the eve of my return to this magical land, I recall those phosphorescent waters and wonder what my experience will look like this time around. I am a different person than I was those many years ago, and this is a different trip. Originally, we covered the entire peninsula in just over two weeks … this time, we’ll be rocketing along a 1,000-kilometer race course in two days, as we follow the motorcycle racing team we’re profiling (see next week’s Free Press for the Baja 1,000 in all its dusty glory).
In the meantime, the idea that this is my own personal, but drug-free, “Fear and Loathing” is not lost on me. And though it’s unlikely we’ll find the time to leisurely float in starstruck waters … and I can’t imagine we’ll witness a reprise of the desert body-snatching debacle (though what a story that would be), I bet we’ll have a few chances to visit a taco stand or two and pose the question, “parlez-vous ingles?”
Bat country, here we come.

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