As promised, photos that go with this blog:
I stopped by my post office box today to find out I had a package waiting for me. I wasn’t expecting anything, but I was hoping that it might be addressed from The North Face. And it was.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the beginning of this story, you can read it here.
Immediately, I grew very excited. After all, they sent me something apart from a letter telling me to piss off.
Minding the warning that I shouldn’t open the box with a knife or box cutter, I gently sliced the seam and wondered what color my replacement garment would be. Black, maybe? That’s a safe bet, a neutral color that everyone likes. Or maybe it could be orange – I love orange.
It was cornflower blue, the very same color as my beloved yet deceased predecessor. In fact, it was the exact material. My old jacket sent back to me.
My excitement flatlined, and I knew, walking out to my car, that I would find a note inside from North Face telling me that I could keep what was left of my jacket and go directly to hell. At that point, I would have preferred them to keep the jacket and send me nothing.
Upon further inspection, I pulled out a sheet of paper explaining that they had sent me a bottle of Revivex from Gore Tex to re-waterproof the outer lining. And, to my utter amazement, the inside of the jacket had been entirely re-seamed.
Honestly, the condition it left me in was laughable. My dad got to see it, actually, and it truly looked like a wild animal had gotten to it. The inside was gutted, and the part of the lining that wasn’t torn from the jacket and pooled into a ball in the bottom of the washer was clinging lifelessly to the inner hems, taping glue cracked and powdery hanging on every edge.
From a business perspective, I imagine it took more labor and money to bring this jacket back to life than it would have to send me something else they had in stock. I never really considered that they would take the time or effort to do it, but they did, without explanation or confirmation that anyone read my story that I was so very proud of.
In a way, having a brand new inside is like placing an 80-year-old’s skin on a 17-year-old’s body. By the time it wears out for good, the outside will have been around tenfold longer than is probably appropriate.
I’ve taken the steps to reproof the outside of my brand new, ancient pullover (did I mention that it’s a pullover? They don’t make them like that anymore.) Now I just have to wait for it to rain.
Our last two days of the trip were the long stretch back home. We drove 40 miles down an shabby, dirt, out-of-the-way road to a town called San Luis Gonzaga to find a radio transmitter on a bird captured by Bridget that had stopped ‘migrating’ some time ago. There were some speculations between her and my father (read: a long standing bet) about why the transmitter never migrated. Was the bird dead? Did the transmitter fall off? Was the bird still alive and didn’t leave the area for whatever reason? Something else?
Bridget had an aerial map with coordinates that the transmitter had been at frequently, and we searched the area for either the bird itself, a bird carcass, or a lost transmitter. It amounted, if not on a living animal, to a needle in a haystack in a way. Until I found out what transmitters cost. And I imagined looking for a bundle of bills amounting to $4000. I would hunt around for that much money in a wetland.
We didn’t end up finding it, but not for a lack of looking. The mystery, and the bet, still stands.
After heading back on the same road we came in on (the only road out of the town), we headed back north towards the border. We stopped at a cheap motel, with water hot enough that it could flay the skin off of your body. I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on or work the outlets in the morning, only to find out that the generator was turned off during the day. Trying to wrap my brain around that one, Bridget’s voice chimed, “Yeah, why would anyone need electricity during the day?”
We stopped at a neat breakfast spot with a cozy, inside chiminea that we circled around with our morning caffeine.
Once we found the Otay Mesa border crossing, we found it much faster than the normally three hour long wait at the main crossing. We were tired, dirty, and ready for an early night and the sight of our own beds.
Bridget is a biologist that has worked with my dad previously. Working with my dad was lots of fun, but it was very nice to have some additional estrogen around. Bridget is a riot, and she added a rad dimension to the trip for me.
She was talking about a store (owned by a friend, relative, or stranger, I can’t remember) called Liquor and Produce. We couldn’t determine which came first in the store. Perhaps a produce store needed more clientele, or, because the store was in Utah, that it needed to add something more wholesome to the product list. Either way, once we discussed the random nature of those two items being sold together, we noticed lots of places and things that went together but probably shouldn’t. And now back in the US, I’m still finding amusement in the odd things that are sometimes paired together.
This last post contains more than a pair – a smattering of the random bits of the trip that I wanted to share that didn’t fit anywhere else. It’s my liquor, produce, spaghetti, and blankets (bonus points for those who got the Mitch Hedberg reference).
First, a few more photos of The Hotel California, including the dreaded room 13 that Bridget and I shared, and some photos of the hotel in San Quintin that I had kite surfed at with my dad that we revisited:
A snack I found on the trip up but was too grossed out to try:
A giant cactus (notice the two, itsy, bitsy humans standing at the base – it’s that freaking tall):
Some random birds (the one of the quail was taken by Roberto Carmona):
Salt, salt, everywhere. No wonder I felt all fat and swollen the week I was there. Plus, I added salt to my food – out of respect for the company, of course. Here is salt that we saw in its many forms, and a little bit of its effect on the environment:
Tonito, one of the resident coyotes, caused quite a havoc finding his daily meals. Here are a few of the gifts he left in his wake:
We got to hang out with some very friendly Pronghorns that were bred as part of a repopulation program. Though they had alfalfa to last for a millennia, they clearly had the taste for human blood. And my sweatshirt:
An example of liquor and produce – The Ecology and Workplace Safety Office. Because nothing goes quite as well together as shorebirds and wetland ecology, and paramedics and firetrucks:
There are very strict rules at the bunkhouse. My personal favorite is rule 2d – No drinking liquor in the rooms – uh, wish I would have read that at the outset. Oh, secondly, no scandals. Scandalous behavior is only allowed off the premises, please and thank you!
This one lacks a bit of the actual weirdness of a beak’s true flexibility. Still, nature rocks:
I really loved the people I met. Definitely changed the whole tone of the adventure:
Ending out lineup is a video of one of my favorite people from the trip, Martin. He works at the Exportadora, and was the one who allowed us to go out on the whale count. His spanish was nearly impossible to understand, but what I did understand was hysterical.
I had heard that Martin was the security manager at the Salt Company, but evidently there was another Martin, a Martin Garcia who was Martin’s boss. Martin commented (and this had to be translated for me) that his boss looked amazingly like Squidward from SpongeBob Squarepants. I never got to confirm or deny that, but I did get a sampling of Martin’s impression of him. And Martin, if you’re reading this, I know you asked me not to put this on YouTube. You didn’t say anything about Blogspot, mi palomilla:
The only proper way to end this post is to go eat a freshly made salad and three fingers of whiskey. Oh, and make sure not to do it in your rooms, or cause a scandal doing so.
We woke up early, had breakfast, and geared up to head to our last capture site of the trip. Everyone had been happy, well-fed, upbeat, and the entire trip went off without a hitch thus far. Which, of course, means that we were due for a snag. And that came in the form of an untimely flat tire.
The Isuzu Trooper that we spent most of the journey in, the same vehicle that Roberto and Victor broke down in on the way from La Paz, had held up fairly well since the breakdown. Despite Roberto’s ballsy driving, not shying away from the nastiest of dirt roads or tight corners, we had yet to experience any issues once the car actually made it to Guerrero Negro. It was a miracle that a flat tire was all that was to come. Although “flat” wasn’t terribly accurate.
More like shredded.
The sight of what once was our tire was fairly disconcerting, until I realized what our ‘new’ tire looked like. I envisioned driving on tacks with an inner tube, and feared plunging into a ravine somewhere, mounds of salt preserving my rotting corpse. To my delight, it held up nicely, and I didn’t have to worry about seagulls picking at my remains.
After changing the flat with the bare minimum tools to do so (I took the lug nuts off, thank you very much) we hopped in our cars and back down the road.
On the day of the last capture, I decided to remain out of the fray to at least try and capture some of the process on video. While it doesn’t convey the true chaos and adrenaline, it gives you an idea of what happens right before the net fires, through the events of the data circle.
This particular day didn’t quite go as planned (I found that is usually the case.) We had barely decided on a spot for capture, and were merely hoping for success rather than expecting it.
We had all rounded up and were put in three groups. One group was to walk across the net area to the other side of the dike we were on, one group was to stay close behind the detonation point, and one would remain on the near side of the dike’s edge.
I was placed in the first group, and we were all headed out to cross the net area when birds started pouring in unexpectedly. Everyone dropped to the ground where they were at and waited, nobody even close to their intended positions. Victor, chief net detonator, actually had to crawl military style to get to the detonator. Very covert. It was a stroke of luck, but one that came before we were ready.
The videos (two of them, due to photobucket restrictions) begin from there, and they sum up the few hours to follow, from the birds arriving, the net being fired on through the end of the capture day:
Once we got back to the bunkhouse and washed up, Bridget and I went out shopping. We ended up buying some delicious snacks and some Oso Negro vodka (which came with a set of bonus Stanley screwdrivers, which I hope Bridget has put to good use around her house) and we proceeded to drink it with mango and pineapple juice. That lead to the bigger expedition of late night pool playing. Those of us who were still standing headed out to karaoke until, if I recall correctly, close to 4am. And yes, I sang. And also yes, it was in spanish.
Needless to say, it was difficult to wake up the next morning. We all had a final breakfast together in the bunkhouse dining room and said our goodbyes. It was so great to meet and work with all of those people, and sad to say goodbye.
We headed out on our 2-day drive home, stopping in a town on the other side of the Baja coast to look for a lost bird transmitter. More on that, and the last installment of Guerrero Negro, entitled Liquor and Produce (courtesy of Bridget), to follow soon.
Our second bird capture was one I would be present during. Due to the logistics and the location of the first capture, my team was herding birds south and ended up too far away from the net’s location to see what we had caught until we hiked back down shore. Or, in my case, hiked back north returned to get the deathtrap of a truck we were driving that our team left and then drove it back down the beach.
The area of the second capture was a fairly wide beach that the biologists had scouted the day earlier. Around high tide, the birds would fly in and be pushed to shore towards the net, and compressed further by the two teams on the shore. We would get there while the tide was low to set the next, back off while the tide came in, and wait for the birds.
Lupillo and I got along really well, standing by the deal we made that he was to only speak english and I was to only speak spanish. He behaved as most of the other students did – as though his english was much worse that it actually was. He needed a little prodding, and my refusal to speak to him unless he spoke in english helped (more accurately, I put my cupped hand up beside my ear and yelled that I couldn’t understand him if he was speaking spanish. Obnoxious, but effective.)
Each of the pairs had a radio, and I was relieved to find out that Lupillo was in charge of ours. I was learning that my spanish comprehension left a little to be desired, even without lots of static, cursing, and ancient motorola 2-way radios with spotty batteries.
Walking to our post, Lupillo picked up an object on the ground that I would have never identified as something interesting, and handed it to me. The discussion that followed, each in our second languages, was fraught with details I missed. But I did understand the most important part – that the seemingly boring object was a shark’s egg casing.
My first question was painfully strung together in spanish, telling Lupillo that I thought sharks had live births. He explained (most of it was in spanish – we gave each other mulligans, occasionally, when we were too frustrated to go any further and had to resort to our native tongue) that certain sharks do lay eggs, and others have eggs that hatch inside of them and the birth is then live. I suppose I could look on animal planet to get full details if I really wanted to. Aside from being certain that it was a shark’s egg sac, I was pretty happy with being uneducated.
We got to our position, slugging through the mud with our rubber boots. Most of the biologists had boots that came all the way up their legs, like chaps, and the rest of us had knee-high galoshes. At first, I wasn’t sure I needed them, but was extremely thankful for one of the employees of the salt company for forcing me to take them with me to the site.
Lupillo threw his backpack down in the muddy marsh and plopped himself down after it. Looking up at me, and wondering if I was going to stand and wait until the tide came in, he motioned for me to sit.
The muddy slop, when walking, fully covered my feet and was at least a few inches deep. I did a quick mental play-by-play and noted that I was wearing my last semi-clean pair of jeans, as well as pondered their absorbency level. Realizing there was no other choice, and regardless of what patch of land I sat in, or how gently I sat, that I would be wet, cold, covered in mud, and crawling in bog-critters. So I closed my eyes and sat. And the mud and water oozed up around my legs, butt, and back, and started soaking into my clothes.
After a few minutes of adjusting to muck-sitting, we started our “language lessons” we had begun the day before. They included regional and uncommon words and phrases, especially those that were never taught in english/spanish classes. For instance, a giant derogatory remark against women in Mexico is to refer to her with the spanish word for ‘fox’. It can also be used between friends as a joke, sort of like ‘bitch’ or something similar. Of course, I tried to explain that calling someone a ‘fox’ in english is quite a compliment, although somewhat outdated. By the look on his face, my explanation was hazy at best.
Lupillo, out of either nervousness or boredom began nibbling on little nubs of this succulent plant that was growing all around us. He handed one to me, and i bit into it. It was the consistency of a grape, and very salty. I found myself unconsciously grabbing them while we talked, biting into them, and throwing them aside. Sort of like swamp sunflower seeds.
After a few hours, the tide was coming in, and coming in fast. I had to go to the bathroom at this point, and knew I needed to go quick before the net was detonated and we all had to run and help. Feeling embarassed, I mentioned that I had to pee, and was at a loss for where to go. A fleeting thought was to just GO since I was already sitting in a puddle of mud. But Lupillo told me not to worry, to walk about 15 feet behind us. I stood up to ask how that was going to help, since we were in a flat marsh field with a highway on one side and a beach of people on the other. Lupillo smiled and waved me on and announced, in spanish, into his 2-way radio:
“Sharon is going to pee, everyone, so all of you look at the ocean.”
I had to wonder what was worse: having a few people spot you peeing from far away, or a whole entire team of biologists getting an announcement outloud on their 2-ways that you’re peeing and that they should look away.
About five minutes after, we got a fuzzy radio transmission, that many birds were in range of the net but some were too small a species and would be killed or injured if the net was set off. So again, we’re left to wait.
After a long silence, Lupillo grabs my hand and his backpack with the other, and pulls me up and towards the direction of the net. I walk cautiously behind him, crouching as he does. We get to a dry, sandy patch close to the beach when he slowly sets his backpack on the ground. I do the same. Then over the radio comes “tres, dos..”
I didn’t hear an ‘uno’ over the sound of the net detonating and the resulting chaos of people running towards the net to get the birds. I started running as Lupillo did, but even with bare feet, he was to the net long before I was.
Once there, half the people pick up the edge of the net that’s in the water and slowly walk it into land, herding the birds underneath inward, so as not to lose any of them. The other half of people grab modified laundry baskets covered with fabric flaps and began filling them with birds.
I realized I was little help at this point, since I couldn’t tell the difference between the species of birds to know which ones to keep and which to release. I make sure that everyone had a basket near them to put birds in, but mostly I just stood there trying to not be in the way.
To make matters worse, my dad told me to grab the few dead or injured birds and bring them to him. I looked to see where he was pointing and noticed one, bleeding and missing a wing, that was hopping sadly on the sand. Being the sappy, uber-sensitive girl that I am, I walked over and gently cupped it in my hands and handed it to him, my eyes welling with tears. Noticing my slow pace despite everyone else’s speed to finish the task, my dad looked up at me, took the bird from me and dispatched it, and realizing he had made a mistake, quickly assigned me another job.
Once the birds were in baskets, they were carried to the car and a circle of chairs was set up. Two of us had clipboards, to transcribe weights and lengths, one person weighed, two people measured the beaks, legs and head, a pair collected and organized blood samples, and two more placed colored bands on each bird before letting them go.
The circle itself was a weird assembly line. Numbers were shouted out in spanish, and birds were passed from person to person. It was a constant flurry of talking, counting and joking, measuring birds and then eating the occasional ham sandwich, ceviche or carne asada burrito, plus apples and fresca, all packed in a freshly prepared cooler each day. We ate, we counted, we scribbled.
The weirdest thing to me was the bird-weighing, which was my job the first day. The logistics of weighing a bird didn’t really occur to me other than: a) put bird on scale and b) read weight.
What you don’t realize when you don’t work with birds at all is, how do you keep a bird on a scale long enough to weigh it without it jumping/hopping/flying away? You do so by placing said bird in a juice container, modified to place a bird inside. Do they like the juice container is another question, which after a few hours and 80 birds, I am certain I have the answer to. They don’t.
Once we did our counting, and I got a few awesome rides out of the 4-wheeler that we had, we headed back to the bunkhouse. Nallely rode on the back of the ATV with me on the way home, and if she was afraid, she didn’t show it – apart from warning me about upcoming speedbumps, yelling, “Topo! Topo!
We have one more day to catch birds, and then a 2-day ride home. The chefs at the bunkhouse are starting to warm up to me, and they know by now to give me a chocolate milk after dinner along with the students from La Paz. Then comes billiards followed by sleep and a 6:30 wake up call.
mexico continues tomorrow (sorry for the loss of continuity..)
in the meanwhile, i was sunning the savage today, and thought he might like to see himself in the mirror. instead of seeing the handsome thing that he is, he displayed dominance over the male in his reflection. i was delighted to see that he can hold his territory when necessary:
my friend mike black made this. watch it, or he’ll kill you in your sleep:
taking a break from the Mexico adventures, here’s a letter i sent to The North Face today, along with one of my favorite items of clothing:
Dear Esteemed North Face Warranty Employee:
The following story is true. If you don’t have a love of non-fiction, please pass this epic tale onto a coworker, or someone else who might enjoy such a short, but exciting read. However, don’t overlook the fact that destiny has placed this manuscript into your hands for a reason.
My Super Rad North Face Jacket and Its Untimely Demise by Sharon Farmer
Back in the 80’s, my dad, an avid outdoorsman who liked to take his family camping, purchased a super rad pullover shell from The North Face. It was sky blue, fit perfectly, and was made of a somewhat new (at the time) magical material called “Gore Tex.” He didn’t know this at the time, but that jacket would keep him warm, dry, and happy.
Until his daughter grew up. That’s where the trouble would begin.
His youngest daughter was also fond of the outdoors (growing up in Colorado, one has to be.) She liked to camp, and ski, and often stand in front of her house just for the sake of being outdoors. She recalled this super rad pullover jacket that her dad used to wear, and she called him.
“Hey, Dad. Do you remember that incredibly awesome blue North Face shell that you have? The pullover one?”
“Yup. I still have it.”
“Can I have it?”
“No. I’ve had that jacket forever. Why do you want it anyway?”
“Because, Dad! I super love it, and will wear it way more than you will. Plus, I’m super poor, and you can go buy yourself a new one if you want. In fact I think you should. Just give that one to me and get a brand new one!”
“I don’t want a brand new one, Sharon. I like that one.”
“But Dad, it’s a PULLOVER. They don’t make them like that anymore, I checked. Please, dude? I never ask you for anything. Well, I RARELY ask you for anything.”
The back and forth, dad and daughter arguing went on for a few years to the same result. The stubborn father would not relent, and kept the jacket to his selfish self, super selfish father that he was.
She didn’t know it at the time, but the nagging would slowly wear him down, and he would eventually give up, as he had like, a crapload of other North Face jackets and other outdoorsy stuff, because he spends way too much time at REI.
She asked him again, as she periodically did, despite her feeling that she would never win (she had moved to Vail, and although she was fairly equipped for mountain weather, still was in need of outerwear suitable for the rain.) This time, he gave in to her wishes, though not very agreeably. And she drove 2 hours home to get the coveted blue jacket. And her mom made her lunch.
Years later, she had moved to San Diego and took the jacket with her. They say it never rains in Southern California, but it does. It SOO does. Matter of fact, it’s raining in San Diego as this story is being typed.
She put the jacket on a week ago and noticed that the taping on the inner hood was coming undone. In a panic, she called her friendly neighborhood REI store to ask what they would use to retape the lining. They directed her to North Face’s customer service center.
She called North Face’s customer service number and spoke to a shy, but friendly man who told her to send the jacket in to their warranty address and perhaps they could retape it or send her something comparable (even though it was a PULLOVER, and they don’t make them like that anymore. Maybe I already said that. Damn shame, though. Pullovers are awesome.) She explained that it was close to, if not more than, 20 years old, so although they say there’s a lifetime warranty (she is totally aware that it’s not the buyer’s lifetime, but the standard lifetime for a super rad pullover) that she was concerned about how it would be receieved. He tried to console her and convinced her to send it anyway.
So she got it ready to send, and figured she wouldn’t want to send it dirty, since that was no way for a package to be opened, with unclean contents. SHE wouldn’t want to receive a dirty jacket from anyone. Or dirty any-clothes for that matter. So she figured she would wash it first, and then send it, as that was a way more polite thing to do.
She checked the washer after a regular wash cycle, and was shocked (and a bit devastated) when she opened the lid. Two questions rushed to her mind:
“How the hell did a cougar get into my laundry room, and why would he do this to my favorite jacket??”
Her questions would go unanswered as she stood there surveying the one piece of clothing she had fought half a lifetime to obtain. And with a sad farewell, she packaged the jacket up to send it anyway, knowing she would probably never see it again. Moreover, she expected that upon receipt of the jacket, the recipient might laugh at her, or worse, pity her misfortune. But maybe, she thought, that same someone might be awed that a super rad jacket like this still existed, and love the sight of seeing it and its cool, vintage Gore Tex tag in the hood. Or that same someone might send her another one sort of like it, as she still buys North Face gear despite the fact that she’ll still pretty poor years later. She certainly wouldn’t refuse a new jacket, she thought. Nor would she refuse a short note from the recipient of the package, even if it was only to tell her that she would never make money as a writer, nor do they think she should get a new jacket because she doesn’t deserve one. Or because lifetime warranty doesn’t cover a wild cougar/laundry room situation, and she might have more luck nagging her dad for another one, which he might only give her after another 10 years of asking.
*This story is entirely true, as the writer of the story is also the lead character, and is also ME, who is writing this side note. I can vouch for every one of the events above, except maybe for the cougar part. I didn’t see any evidence of a cougar, in particular, aside from just general speculation. In fact, I’m not even sure that cougars are native to Southern California. Despite my lack of evidence, I have labeled the contents of the inside of my jacket as “Cougar Evidence A.”
Most Sincerely Yours,
We woke up to go whale counting with census people from the reserve. I was overwhelmingly tired, and more so knowing there was no bathroom on the boat – so no caffeine with breakfast. To boot, I had these black circles under my eyes that until today, I have never seen in the mirror. I don’t believe you’re supposed to get those on vacation.
We were picked up outside of the bunkhouse by a vanload of people, some of whom were employees of the reserve. Bridget and I occupied the last two seats in the packed vehicle and headed off to the boat dock, deep inside the salt company.
We arrived, and hopped out of the van next to a giant mountain of salt. Subconsciously expecting it to be cold, I put on a few extra layers before getting out of the van. It didn’t occur to me immediately that I had to shake the feeling of the landscape being covered in white, there was no snow to be found. Snow or not, it wasn’t as warm as you’d hope the southern Baja would be this time of year.
We began to load ourselves into one of the two boats the census was using that morning. Each boat would start on a different area of the reserve, meet in the middle where each of our areas transected, and head our separate ways to finish the count.
As we were preparing to climb aboard, one of the salt company’s employees approached us and handed us a hefty sized rock, about the size of a grapefruit. He explained it was a whale’s eardrum they had found as they were trying to find a transmitter that had fallen off another animal, somewhere else in the reserve.
The boat was started up, and we headed off into the lagoon called, “The Rabbit’s Eye”. It was brisk, and the chilly water made it more so. We were rosy cheeked, bundled up in layers, and ready to spot some grey whales.
For the first few hours of the trip, the whales were sparse and fairly far from the boat. We could see them surface, sometimes with their calves, and blow water into a fine mist that hung in the air. Many of the whales were merely floating at the surface asleep, only a portion of their backs showing as they slept.
Once we headed out of the lagoon and into the mouth of the ocean, we could see and hear whales in the distance, spouting water, poking their snouts to the sky, breeching, and often behaving playfully – jumping as high out of the water as the length of their massive bodies.
We saw over 60 whales, some quite close to the boat. The prize for me, however, was a pair of dolphins that caught up to us and rode along with our boat for quite a while, staying right under the bow and then plunging forward, leaving me with a tail splash of water in my face, and smattering my camera lens with salt water droplets.
Back in town, we had a nap and did some market shopping for batteries, hot sauce, and more pork rinds. We ate a late dinner with the other biologists, as we always do, and opted for an early night. Tomorrow, we head to another lagoon in the salt works to catch Dowitchers and Red Knots with our cannon nets. It’s going to be another long, dirty, Spanish profanity-filled day of trapping birds in the sun. I need more rest than I can ever recall.
We arrived in Guerrero Negro, unable to contact or find Victor, a biology student that was organizing this project. Unsure as to where to go or what to do, we went to the salt company security office to explain who we were looking for and find out where to go.
Unable to get anything informative, we left the office and went in search of food and beer. We found Pizzeria Lizardo, in the heart of Guerrero Negro.
As are most places that we have frequented, nobody was in Pizza Lizardo. I wasn’t altogether sure that it was open. Even after entering and hearing voices from the kitchen, I was shocked to find that they were serving, despite their obvious lack of clientele, and odd and garish décor that looked as though they were just moving in. In fact, they still had a Christmas tree – no evidence of lights, tinsel, or ornaments – just dry, sad branches that erupted dead needles to the floor when touched.
We ordered Tecate Light (which is as good as it sounds) and a pizza “suprema” which included carne asada, pepperoni, mushrooms, and onions. Shortly after ordering, a woman and a child that were in the kitchen left. We chatted for a while, stomachs starting to growl, until ten minutes later when both mom and child returned with a grocery bag and headed back into the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, we heard the grinding of a dough press, and realized that they had gone to the market for some, if not all, of the items we ordered. Fresh from the grocery. Friends, THAT is customer service.
The pizza was amazing, and we finished up and headed back to the security office. Once we got there, we were able to talk to Victor, only to find that he and his professor Roberto had broken down on the highway on the way from La Paz, and wouldn’t make it until long past midnight. We made arrangements to stay at a local motel – no Hotel California, of course, but soft beds and a warm shower.
The following morning, we met everyone from breakfast. The group included several biology students from La Paz, and a few employees of the salt company that owns the land the bird captures would take place on.
The company, Exportadora de Sal, is the second largest salt company in the world, next to one in Australia. They harvest about seven million tons of salt per year. The process is complicated, and includes thousands of acres of dikes and reservoirs that have different salinity levels. The salt water goes through 2 years of stages before it’s ready to harvest as salt, and eventually it’s loaded onto trucks, and hauled to large ships to be exported. The reservoirs and the surrounding area attract a lot of wildlife, including many species of birds, antelope, and coyotes, and are a prime location for the bird studies these students conduct each month. In fact, the land Exportadora de Sal is on is part of a much larger wildlife refuge that spans to both coasts of the Baja.
After an hour of introductions, mingling, and coordination, we congregated at the salt company’s security offices (which are also home to the ecology department) and we were split into three groups to do a bird count census. My Dad went by boat, his colleague Bridget, who had been traveling with us, went with the second group, and I went with the third.
We spent the day driving to different areas of the salt fields, scouting out different birds. A student named Nallely would look through a telescope and count birds while her professor, Roberto, scrawled in a notebook. I stood by and found interesting wildlife and things to photograph, as well as search the fields for interesting things. I watched as the pumps, with their deafening roar, churned hundreds of gallons of sea water into the first segment of the salt fields. Ospreys and gulls circled above, and the employees chatted in Spanish about their neighborhood coyote, Tonito, as I found remnants of his dinner scattered throughout the parcel.
We drove, and stopped, looked through binoculars, took photos, counted, and drove some more. Both Roberto and Nallely spoke no English, so although I tried to keep up with most of what was going on, I missed more and more of the details as the day went on and I grew tired. We saw Scaups, Egrets, Ibis, Osprey, Burrowing and Barn Owls, Dowitchers, Godwits, Grebes – too many birds for me to identify or name. We also saw a handful of coyotes, and played with a penned group of pronghorns that were all too willing to nibble on my sweatshirt and fingers.
At the end of a long, windy day, we all met back up at the bunkhouse and ate dinner. I don’t recall what I ate, but after a beer and a game of pool, I was content and asleep at an earlier than respectable time.
The next morning, we dragged ourselves out of our dorm rooms and met in the cozy, wooden bunkhouse dining room for breakfast. We ate eggs with bacon, juice, and toast, and after everyone had their fair serving of coffee, we jumped into the trucks and headed to a location we had scouted Marble Godwits at the day before. After a flurry of packing, organizing, and planning, we broke into groups and discussed the plan for the bird capture.
The idea was fairly simple – we found out where the birds were, keeping the activity and the noise on the beach to a minimum so as not to scare them off. A “cannon” net was set up near the water, and while someone waited at the net’s “detonator”, the rest of us would drive to either ends of the site and walk inward to herd the birds into the net area.
After some walking, lots of radio transmission, translations, and some Spanish profanity, the birds were gradually pushed into the net area by groups of us walking in towards them, and the net was fired.
From up the beach, we heard the cannon net and saw a flock of birds leave, but from so far away, it was hard to know whether we’d been successful. After returning to the site, we found our catch to be well over the hundred mark – more birds that we needed.
For the next few hours, we circled chairs in the sand, taking birds and passing them down the line, one person weighing, one person measuring wings and beaks, one person taking blood and one person recording data.
Dusted in sand, salt, and bird shit (and some feathers and a dot or two of injured bird blood) we returned to the dorm to shower, rest, and relax before dinner. I opted to shower, and then drive the rental car through town. Knee-deep in a Mexican pork rind obsession, I picked some up along with some Tecate and some time at the terminal at an internet café.
Back at the bunkhouse, we met and talked about the day’s success, ate a plate of steak, beans and spinach, and chilaquiles, and finished up with more billiards, and a plan for tomorrow.
Bridget and I will be accompanying Martin, a local biologist, and the census that are conducting a gray whale count early in the morning, while my dad stays behind to help the birders. We expect to see several hundred if not a thousand whales, and a crisp, windy day on the ocean. My mind and body are tired, but I don’t expect to fall asleep easily.