1: Leaving Los Angeles – Los Angeles, California and Mexico

Leaving Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California and Mexico

27 August 2002

I am sitting in front of the nose of an El Al 747. It looks like a face, the small windows its eyes and the pilots its pupils. An airport is like its own city for the amount of people passing through. The complexity of running such an operation – the planes landing, taxiing, taking off, queuing, loading, refueling, cigarette breaks – what insanity! With everyone and everything moving here, it’s a wonder anything truly gets done.

Off to Mexico today. The driver, Robert, of my Prime Time airport shuttle was 20 minutes early this morning. He knocked and rang the doorbell while I was waking in a hot shower, and he almost took off on me. On the ride to LAX, passing stand-still traffic as we zipped by in the carpool lane, he talked my ear off about travel regrets: not getting a phone number, enjoying the special moments like sitting at the owner’s table at that caf� in Italy. Regrets? Honey, I’ve had a few. Special moments? Kept jotted in a journal for future reference.

Who brought the sap?

LAX is a giant pain in the ass. And I arrived too early. I know I know, I listened to them and their “three hours” for international flights bullshit. Three hours! Who are they kidding? Sailed right through everything, even the securing and re-securing of my backpack after multiple searches was not a giant chore as “they” said it’d be.

Okay. I find it odd that I am not allowed to stow a matchbook in my checked luggage. The Mexicana Airlines clerk made me carry it on. I almost, with my somewhat uncontrollable sardonic wit, joked about my ease and ability of setting fires in the cabin. But I thought before I spoke – as I’d be on the next shuttle home after a gratis anal probe by LAX security.

According to Mexicana’s in-flight magazine Vuelo, $75,000 is how much the best suite on the Titanic would cost today. Imagine paying that much money to endure certain death (she says from the belly of a flying piece of metal).

To San Jose
I was not in Mexico even 15 minutes and I had a phone number. Of a guy. Max. I think he wanted to be my Mexican boyfriend.

I disembarked into a humid yet comfortable 95 degree San Jose del Cabo with stars in my eyes. The short 2-hour plane ride delighted me by following the western coast of the Baja Peninsula along the Sea of Cortez: a gorgeous aquamarine that makes normal blue blush with embarrassment.

The landscape was a tease. First a thirsty desert. Then azul beaches. My first impression of Baja was that it might easily be heaven.

In preparation for my trip, I frequented a great website for serious questions not filled by the guidebooks or travel forums, for example how to get from the International Airport to the center of San Jose.

A local from San Jose, presently advising me from his summer home in Montana, told me to walk to the main highway (Mexico 1) and catch either an orange and white “Urbano” (local city) bus for 5 pesos or the blue and orange for 300 pesos. He also informed me on his own of a Labor Day festival in the quieter San Jose (a giant MTV-type concert) and a few choice stops on the way to La Paz for dried mango and pitajaya (cactus fruit).

I took his advice. I adjusted my cap. I adjusted my pack. I started the walk that curved to the right from the airport toward the main highway to San Jose…

…only to be accosted by a young man who either wanted to sell me a time-share (did he not notice I was carrying my home on my shoulders?) or get me an expensive shuttle bus into Cabo San Lucas, party central. I just kept repeating that I was taking the bus.

“Oh then. It’s not a long walk to the bus stop,” he says. “And I’m sure someone nice will stop to pick you up.”

Leering smile aside I hit the blacktop, my surprisingly light and under-packed pack perched lightly on my shoulders.

Yeah, I’m traveling now.

I’m sweating like I have never sweat before. I glisten, my maroon tank top darkened by sweat. But still they schmooze. And still they try to pick me up, in more ways than one.

A honk. Three men gaze at me from the windows of a white Enterprise Rental van.

“Hey, get in!”

Am I really that hot, or is it just a white girl thing, this machismo I’ve been victim to since hitting the road that rivals Italy in its frequency? The van looked official enough, the guys all wearing white button downs. Oh what the hell. What follows is a dodgy recollection of our conversation.

“Hey, thanks guys.” I toss my pack in the third seat and sit in the middle tier. Introductions all around and I only remember one name: Max.

“Where are you headed?” asks the driver, more interested in my sweaty abs than the road.

“San Jose. A bus stop. There’s a youth hostel there I’m going to check out.”

“There’s no hostel in San Jose!”

“Actually there is, man. But if you can drop me at a bus stop that’d be grand.”

Next to me his friend says, “I’m heading to the bus too.”

I smiled as the driver started his pitch.

“San Jose!” We’re crawling along at 10, maybe five miles an hour. ’80s era Datsun 210s pass us at full speed. “San Lucas is where it’s at. Tequila, parties. You’ll need someone to show you around.”

His friend sitting next to me butts in, “Someone Mexican?”

A good chuckle is had by all and I see him pass one, two, three bus stops. At the fourth Max stops the van and scribbles a number onto a matchbook. How 1987. “You dial all these numbers when you come to Cabo and I’ll show you around, Delara.”

“Yeah, I bet you will Max.” I was opening the door.

“What is it you like to do? Smoke a little? Drink a little?”

“Max,” I say with a knowing grin, egging him on, “I like a little of everything.” I step out of the van, place my cap back on my head while sending a flirty smile his way. Payment for the ride.

“Promise you’ll call then, cause I like a little of everything too. You are a cool chica.”

I catch his leering wink and recognize him as the same guy who accosted me at the airport. Sleaze.

His friend, who I think was named Miguel, steps from the van behind me and we watch them pull away. He informs me Max is harmless. Sure, harmless like a snake.

We sit down at the stop, settled under the shade. People appear as if from nowhere from the brush behind the stop, wiping their brows.

At least I’m not the only one sweating.

Calle Obregon

The sun sets on Plaza Mijares, and its mission, Iglesia San Jose.

My bus buddy, Miguel, offered to pay my fare into San Jose. Miguel was an electrician in the US for 15 years before returning to Mexico. Originally from the mainland, he decided on Baja this time, to sell time-shares from the airport.

“Three weeks on the job, and I like it okay.”

Miguel invited me for free eats on a VIP pass on his company. Sure, I’d probably have to sit through a three-hour pitch just to eat a 4-star dinner. As it turns out I am not time-share material! I am not the type: too young, too single, and too female. Now that I know he wasn’t trying to pawn off a condo in Cabo I wish I’d taken him up on the free eats. Would they have let me in the hotel wearing hiking boots?

Miguel asked an older gentleman which stop I should take to get to Calle Obregon, the location of The San Jose Inn. This animated gentleman gave a wonderful speech, complete with eye contact and wild gesticulations. I nodded throughout his directions and smiled, as if I actually understood anything he’d said.

I must have looked convincing. A bit later, once the man left the bus, Miguel relayed the information to me in hushed tones. I was to get off at Doblado, walk down the hill and take any left, then right onto Obregon. Gotcha. Thanks buddy.

San Jose Budget Hotel Tour
I’ve mentioned that it is damn hot, right? Sweat is pouring uncontrollably down my face and stinging my eyes. I am searching for a market to buy a bottle of water before dehydration sets in or I incinerate into a pile of gringo ash on the uneven sidewalks.

My first impression of San Jose is something out of a movie. The streets are narrow and paved, no buildings taller than 3 stories, and most are squat red brick. The people walk everywhere, wiping their brows and keeping to the shade, crossing the street if need be. The sun beat down on all of us ruthlessly. I needed air conditioning.

The San Jose Inn, shouting “Youth Hostel” on its fa�ade, was hot, dirty and directly across from a construction site, whose workers informed me that I was the most beautiful thing in the world so far that day (aw shucks). All their inexpensive rooms were sold. And the woman at the desk looked at me as if I were an idiot for even trying to ask for a bed in my mundane Spanish.

Second choice: Hotel Diana, air con for $250 pesos! Alas – No hay cuarto.

Third choice: Hotel Ceci, $180 pesos for a dirty, rat infested basement room with a squeaking desktop fan. All air con rooms sold out.

Never was a choice (too much at $375 pesos): Hotel Colli, a delightful three-floor terraced hotel… no vacancy.

At this point I decided the next place I went to, I would stay no matter the cost. As long as the room was clean and had purified water and did not smell as offensively as Hotel Ceci (ew). Enter Posada Sr. Manana.

Manana is a lovely place run by a Swedish expatriate. It had everything that I wanted – central location just off the plaza, ceiling fan, bathroom and clean shower, swimming pool and, heaven! – Hammocks. This is where I am right now, as I write, on the roof of this jungle themed hotel, complete with wooden walkways and palapa roofs. It was more expensive than I’d ever expected to spend, but that is Cabo for you, at $300 pesos. I tried to talk the manager down, but she had none of it. I was getting the off-season rate.

For my first night in town, in a new country as well, it was a bargain as I had my own hammock under my own palapa roof.

I picked my room and cleaned up a bit, drank as much water as my frame could handle and set out to discover San Jose.

San Jose

Estero de San Jose

San Jose is a small town, easily walkable and just a mile from the beach. Its main beaches along the Zona Hoteleria are known for their treacherous rips, so if you want a close beach, avoid Playa de California and Nuevo Sol and head east of town to Puebla La Playa.

The main square, Plaza Mijares, is lined on the east by a pedestrian-only Calle Mijares and on the west by Iglesia San Jose, a replica of the original mission. At night this is the meeting place for locals. Out in front of the church are vendors selling tasty antijitos (a la carte appetizers). Highly recommended: rajas con queso y de elato (hot peppers and cream sauce with cheese wrapped in maize) from the vendor on the left and sopes con pollo from the vendor on the right with the tables and chairs.

With my day bag filled with camera and the rest of my “never leave withouts” (cash, passport etc…) I walked down Blvd. Mijares to the beach. To my right loomed the giant modern condos and resort hotels of the Zona Hoteleria. To my left was the entrance to the wildlife estuary Estero, San Jose’s own birdwatcher’s paradise that has a pedestrian nature walk back into town. Pirates used to hide out there. Hey, if it’s good enough for the pirates…

Upon entering the Estero I was dismayed to be fighting for walking space with earthmovers of all types. My first thought was that some evil developer had somehow managed to build his hotel on this spot. I was pacified when I saw a sign assuring that they are making the area better for the ecosystem… or whatever.

A bumpy bus ride through the unpaved suburbs of San Jose.

I decided against battling with the muddy tracked trail and headed back into town by way of a local bus.

I was the only gringo on this thing, this school bus made in the USA that now served the purpose of the local public transportation, Urbano bus. For 5 pesos I got to see San Jose.

I wanted to see where the hot and stuffy bus went. Where are all these silent, sweaty people going? Where did they call home? Certainly not this quaint city center subtly catering for tourists. My questions were answered once we turned off the Mexico 1 and into the ‘burbs.

This isn’t Tom Hanks’ neighborhood. No pavement, sidewalks, lawns, trash bins, air con, car parks or stop lights. Cinderblock square homes with the doors wide open, no glass in the barred windows to catch the breeze, any air at all, to cool off the families inside. Dogs wandering the streets, mangy as mangy gets and surely starving, picking through the heaps of trash which seemed to be everywhere. Barefoot children playing in their tan dirt mound front yards. It was in this third-world setting that I recalled my plane partner.

The young woman who sat next to me on the flight down lived and worked in Cabo San Lucas, going to Los Angeles every once in a while on business for her work in a Cabo hotel. She mentioned she had to go to Guatemala to truly understand just how good people have it in Mexico. And I had to come to Mexico to see just how fabulous the rest of us money-wasting gringos have it. If I ever complain again, smack me.

At the end of the line, out by the airport, the driver, a lovely man who spoke English and called me “mi amore” posed for photos in front of the orange sunset kissing the mountaintops behind him. He let me ride back to town for free. I can imagine not many tourists hop on the local bus to see the real San Jose.

Mi amigo, the bus driver who took me on my tour of San Jose.

My new best friend kissed my cheek as I left the bus at Calle Zaragoza to head back to the hotel for a proper wash and water refuel. The plan was to head out to find fish tacos (sold out all over town) and cerveza. Instead I followed the crowds straight for the Iglesia vendors and ate like a queen for under US$2.

Do not come to San Jose if you want nightlife. That’s its sister city 20 minutes west, Cabo San Lucas. Come to San Jose to sit on a white wrought-iron bench in the plaza, watching families congregate after mass, kids skateboard and ride bikes, to drink agua refrescos (fruit flavored juice drinks) as the stars come out.

My pulse has chilled and I can breathe.

The hammock is attracting mosquitoes as I realize I forgot to DEET my feet! So I am heading in for a good night’s sleep under the ceiling fan with my squeaking gecko roommate.

Finally, a deserved rest.