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Life’s a Beach 

Papa Fernandez’s strip of paradise

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000
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Illustration by J. Hadley Hooper

For some reason, dream paradises are often beaches. We happened on ours by accident. I was flying in a small plane toward Bahia de los Angeles, a few hundred miles south of the border on the east coast of Baja California. Immigration at Tijuana had refused to let one of our friends into the country because his hair was too long — it was 1971 — and we’d flown over to Mexicali to try our luck there. They were more relaxed, and after a little palm greasing, we took off southbound. Now we were a couple of hours behind schedule; the sepia of evening was settling over the Gulf, and it’s illegal to fly single-engine planes after dark in safety-conscious Mexico if you’re not instrument-rated. We came upon the crescent of a bay, and the oblique afternoon light outlined the tire furrows of a landing strip on the harsh terrain below us. We made a low pass to see if it looked safe, then came around and landed.

A remote airstrip in Baja California is not to be confused with any airport you’ve seen or imagined. It’s more like a little short scrap of bumpy, untended dirt road that doesn’t go anywhere. But it was enough. In the dusk we pulled the airplane off to the side and walked down to the little settlement near the water. At the foot of a rocky spine that ran along its left edge were a few tiny houses; to the right was the bay, with three or four skiffs bobbing at anchor and a row of plywood shacks. Between was a flat, open area, scribbled with tire tracks; and in the center of this was another structure, slightly larger than the others. On it was a sign in block letters: PAPA FERNANDEZ.

Over the next 10 years, we returned many times and came to know the place well. Papa was a small, wiry old fisherman who had squatted on this sterile promontory beside the Bay of San Luis Gonzaga 20 or 30 years earlier and raised his family here. Various sons and daughters, schooled up north at Ensenada or Mexicali, would come down and work in the cantina, of whose half-dozen tables we usually had our pick. The menu was mainly fish suffocated in Shake ’n Bake, and sea turtle, then unprotected, and a succulent meat that managed to mimic lamb, beef and pork all at once.

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The road down here from San Felípe was nightmarish, we learned. Barely a road at all for the last 30 or 40 miles, it was sporadically maintained by lonely souls who lived along it, pushing boulders aside or filling potholes with them, and accepting tips from the odd motorist crawling past. Virtually impassable by ordinary motorcar, it had, however, once been conquered by a semi with a refrigerated trailer that had been parked down by the bay to store fish. One of the local men had gotten drunk and crawled into the trailer, and he had died in there, whether frozen, baked or suffocated I no longer remember.

Papa’s had nothing of the conventional Mexican beach resort: no palm trees, no margaritas, no mariachis, no vendors of churros. It was the wilderness. There was no running water, and what electricity there was came from an obscure generator that kicked in at nightfall and growled on into the night. There was no communication with the outside world. There were no accommodations; we lived on the beach, unrolling our sleeping bags on the cooling sand at night, and waking to watch the blinding sun rise over a stone rampart. We got up and strolled, warming ourselves, while the shells washed ashore during the night still cast shadows longer than themselves. No one came to the hidden beach; the travelers who stopped at the cantina never guessed its existence.

The beach was all ours. We would swim in the calm, warm water of the bay, play cards, read (sometimes by moonlight). Three times a day, we meandered over the saddle for meals at the cantina, where a scratchy radio caught tunes drifting down from Punta Penasco and the occasional dusty travelers told their raucous tales of the horrible road. We explored; we climbed the local hills to survey the bay. We watched the sea and the rocks and the horizon change color as the sun moved through the sky. In the lull of evening we waited for the flash of fish jumping in the silent bay. We killed a rattlesnake once, to prevent him from killing our dog. We learned that there was another settlement across the bay, Alfonsinas. Sometimes we flew over there for lunch. Comparatively, Alfonsinas was the high-rent district; it had a much better airstrip (though high tides would sometimes cover it), and the cantina had a terrace. We considered the people there a weaker species, mere sybarites.

For various reasons we haven’t been down to Papa’s in a few years. The last time I flew past, coming up from La Paz, the runway at Papa’s was closed, and I landed and stayed overnight at Alfonsinas. When I left, I flew over the beach on Papa’s side. It was exactly the same: silent, deserted, curled up asleep beside its beloved sea. Nothing had been added, and there was nothing to take away. Paradise was not yet lost.

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