Now get this straight once and for all," Vi said through tightly clenched teeth. "I'm not going to any place that has tarantulas and spiders and scorpions, and that's final."
Perhaps I should explain. You see. my wife and I like to take an occasional impulsive vacation, just jump in the car and head out, usually toward someplace where she can catch sunlight and I can catch fish and we can both relax. This time we were 500 miles south of the border; we had been on the road for four days, the car's air conditioner had broken down, and we were no closer to a satisfactory vacation spot than when we started. We had checked out a luxury spa near Guaymas, but I bad vetoed the place as too gaudy and un-Mexican. Vi agreed, and we had continued southward.
Lunching at the Santa Anita Hotel in Los Mochis, I had been browsing through various publications that might offer a solution to the problem when my eye was taken by this passage in Norman Ford's Fabulous Mexico:
Topolobampo, Sin. A friendly, unspoiled fishing village on a bay 12 miles from Los Mochis. Fishing and skin-diving are excellent—a splendid escapist retreat. Best hotel buys: Yacht Motel. Spotless rooms, good food.
March 30, 1970
"Sweetie!" I said. "Look at this. It's perfect. And it's 12 miles away!"
I handed her the book, and of course right away she wanted to know what "Sin" meant. "It means Sinaloa," I explained. 'That's the state we're in."
"Well, if it's only 12 miles from here." my wife said, "they should know all about it in this hotel."
"Good thinking," I said, and in between the camarones and ensalada I stepped into the lobby and up to a counter where an obliging saleslady quickly sold me a dusty book called Southwestern Utopia by Thomas A. Robertson. "Thees weel tell you all about Topolobampo," the kindly lady said.
That is where the trouble started. The book had nothing but praise for Topolobampo, but it included a letter from an early visitor who wrote: "...The scorpions, when they sting, which is rare, are harmless and hardly painful: the tarantula has not yet bitten: the spider, such as bites in the States, has bitten, but the same right arm that received the bite is able to write these statements...." When Vi saw that passage, Topolobampo was out.
"Look," I said, "this letter was written in 1887. They don't have scorpions and tarantulas down here anymore. They put a bounty on them, eliminated them completely."
"You're a liar," Vi explained. "You'd go into a pit of scorpions if there were any fish there."
My next argument was a stroke of genius. "Look at that name." I said. "Topolobampo. That has to be a carefree, happy place, just what we're looking for. Why, you could play it on a drum! To-po-lo-BAM-po!"
"Everybody in the restaurant is looking at you." she said. "Let's get out of here."
The pockmarked road to Topolobampo led across reclaimed salt flats and marshes, some of them dotted with cemeteries and ghost villages, the whole area being converted into farmlands. We passed a penitentiary with big political slogans painted on its sides: ECHEVERRIA: ARRIBA Y ADELANTE. I had heard of Echeverria, full name Luis Echeverria Alvarez, destined to be the next president of Mexico, but I had no idea who Arriba and Adelante were. "Probably Echeverria's running mates." I told Vi, whose Spanish is as good as mine. As we came into sight of Topolobampo. we saw Echeverria's name cut into the side of a mountain.
The town itself was distributed loosely on a couple of hills that overlooked one of the world's spectacular bays. Imagine yourself standing atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco or Mission Hill in San Diego but with only a few hundred dwellings around you and all the rest unspoiled. No bridges, no shipping, hardly any vehicles, just some easy-striding people and a few low mountains and miles and miles of aquamarine harbor. I turned to Vi. "Did you ever see anything like this?" I said. She told me not to bother her, she was studying the terrain for tarantulas. One dusty, choking mile out of town we came upon an authentic wonder of the vacationing world. Forty feet up from the edge of the bay, huddled among the cactus of the steep hillside, was what appeared to be a large yacht or, at any rate, a small ferryboat. The naive might have thought that the vessel had been tossed there by a chubasco, the western Mexican term for a minor hurricane, but we were too sophisticated to be taken in. Instantly we knew that we were looking at a design masterpiece—a hotel disguised as a yacht! How many wanderers had sailed through this same bay and spotted this seagoing vessel up on the hillside and sworn off drinking forever?
We entered through a sliding door that led into a combination dining room and hotel desk—approximately amidships—and were greeted in Spanish by a desk clerk. My wife and I had already agreed to speak Spanish whenever we could—this being touted by travel agents as the quickest way to a Mexican's heart—and after a perusal of the dictionary I whispered, "Tiene un habitación para dos?"
The Mexican looked blank, and I felt a wave of panic. Then he emitted a loud laugh and said, "Do not worry, se√±or. I speak hexcellent henglish."
"Oh, fine," I said, almost embracing him in my pleasure at being let off the hook of my own ignorance. "Do you have a room for two?"
"Certainly, se√±or," he said. "For how long?"
"Is the fishing good?" I said.
"Do you have hot and cold running water?"
"We have hot and cold running water, hair conditioning, we serve three meals a day, our rate is $24 U.S. per day per couple American plan, there is a bar, and there are fishing boats at our dock."
"Excuse me, there is no phones."
"We will take one room indefinitely," I said. My wife tugged at my elbow. Her lips framed the word, "Wait."
"Wait?" I said aloud. "Are you kidding? This is it!"
That is how we became inmates of the Yacht Hotel. I say "inmates" because I have seen more lavish living quarters in maximum-security prisons. The hair conditioner in our room was old and rusty and sounded like a B-52 with engine trouble. For all its noise, it did hardly any useful work. The water came out of the showerhead in a thin stream, and at no time did it ever run hotter than tepid. The cold water was potable, but it tasted like a combination of peanut oil and chemicals. The fixtures were scarred and rusty, and the bathroom floor was slippery from a leaky pipe. But on the other hand the luncheon was humdrum, and a sign was chalked over the front desk: DUE TO INSUFFICIENT WATER SUPPLY WE WILL NOT BE ABLE TO HAVE WATER IN OUR SWIMMING POOL UNTIL LATER NOTICE. Seeking relief for the eyes, we strolled about the grounds. Another leaky water pipe had turned a small plot of grass into a hog wallow; behind the hotel a long trail of rusty tin cans and broken bottles led down to the aquamarine bay, and if you took more than 10 steps in any direction you were picking cactus out of your legs for the rest of the day. "Well, Mr. Temple Fielding," my wife said, "you've done it again."
"Done what?" I said. "I'm perfectly satisfied. Look out there." My gesture took in the broad expanse of the bay, about 20 miles long and six or eight miles wide. A pod of porpoises gamboled in the channel, and closer to shore schools of small fish broke from the water in silvery sheets. As we stepped into the corridor that led to the bar, we passed a picture of a man holding a 38-pound bonefish, caught in nearby waters. The old world record had been almost exactly half that size. There was another picture of some fishermen holding snook that looked to be about 30 pounds each, and a striped marlin hung from the wall. Over the bar was a monstrous rooster-fish, one of the more glamorous jacks, and when I commented on the apparent profusion of big fish in the vicinity the barman pointed out that some monstrous yellowtail—another glamorous jack—had also been caught off Topolobampo. "What more could a person ask?" I said to Vi over the only warm frozen daiquiris we had ever tasted.
"Well, let's see," she said. "Hot water, decent drinking water, a bathroom that doesn't leak...."
In a few minutes a squat, curly-haired young man sat down to join us for a drink. He introduced himself as the hotel manager, Cuauhtemoc (Temo) Vazquez, the son of schoolteachers. "How do you like our little establishment?" he said.
"We love it," I said, giving my wife the old elbow. "We came here to get away from the noise and the bustle of the United States, and that's one of the nicest things about your hotel. There are no Americans here."
"Oh, jes," he said, "they're here, but they're all out fishing. You'll see them at dinner tonight."
"Well, I'm sure they're nice quiet Americans if they've picked out this place," I said. "Anyway, I've never met a fisherman I didn't like."
"I have," Vi said.
"By the way," I broke in quickly, "I see everybody's excited about the elections. I've heard that Echeverria's a good man, but how about Arriba and Adelante?"
"Who?" Temo asked.
"Arriba and Adelante," I said. "The two running with Echeverria."
"Arribay adelante," Temo said. "That means upward and onward."
"Oh," I said.
"He's a great kidder," my wife said, pointing to me.
"Jes," Temo said. "He certainly is Well, he will get along very well with the other Americans here."
That night, forewarned but not forearmed with earplugs, we entered the tiny restaurant to a din that bounced about from wall to wall like a bingo party in Jersey City. There were three tables of Americans and each group seemed to be trying to outdo the other in sheer cacophony. Unfortunately, all were well acquainted, and each remark was being made loud enough to be heard by everyone in the restaurant and all the ships at sea. Vi and I huddled at a corner table, speaking in broad Scandinavian accents and keeping our heads close together as though we were honeymooning or engaging in some other private pursuit. Alas, our act did not work. Over the din we heard footsteps and then a loud "Hi!" that sounded as though it had been made by two blackboards being rubbed together. We looked up to see a woman of about 60, her face cracked into a broad, plastic smile, standing alongside our table. "How're you two kids tonight?" Without waiting for an answer, she screeched on: "Some of the kids at our table were wondering if you'd like to join us?" I looked across the room. The "kids" at her table were all members of the swinging surgical-stocking set, out to have a good time even if it killed them, and I would as soon have joined a group of pterodactyls. My nerves were already shot just from listening to them across the room. "Thank you very much," I said, rising to a half-standing position, "but my wife and I are kind of tired and we thought we'd just have a quiet dinner."
Instantly the plastic smile disappeared from the woman's face. She fixed me with a pair of steel-blue eyes that might have been transplanted from a timber wolf. "Well!" she said huffily, "then I'm sorry I stopped to visit with you." She pronounced it "viz't."
We spent the next few days in the warm glow of these fellow North Americans. At each mealtime they would take up their position at one end of the dining room and begin broadcasting their dirty jokes and droll stories, and we would position ourselves as far as possible from them. In the intervals I fished desultorily in the bay, catching a mess of gold-on-silver Spanish mackerel, but despite this balm both of us found our Stateside tensions unrelieved. "It's these darned people," Vi said. "They're exactly what we came here to get away from and we're surrounded by them."
"O.K., then," I said. "I've got an idea." The night before I had been leafing through a fascinating book, The Sea of Cortez by Ray Cannon, and I had come across this titillating passage:
"Even to this day, natives around the Sea of Cortez are afraid to approach some of the way-out places. Tales handed down from the logs, records and legends of seafarers told of mountainous walls of water gushing through the channels, man-eating sharks and sea serpents, cannibal Indians, wars among the fishes, fowls, and sea monsters, water that turns to blood, magic islands that disappeared and re-appeared within an hour's time, and fearsome and bewitched places where wails of anguish were heard as demons charged down island slopes in the night. Astonishing as it may seem, all of these strange phenomena are basically true and have logical explanations."
Cannon's book was also full of stories about the fishing in this same Sea of Cortez, lying just outside Topolobampo Bay, and gradually I had evolved a plan for enjoying the mysteries of the sea, catching some fish and bidding farewell to our boisterous countrymen. "We will rent the hotel's biggest boat," I said to Vi, "and we'll go around from island to island and fish and see the sights and all."
"That certainly sounds like fun, Mr. Rothschild," Vi said.
"No, no!" I said. "It's cheap. This isn't the United States."
We called in Temo for a consultation. Yes, he said, the hotel had a 52-foot yacht. We could have it for 10 days for $1,000 U.S., complete with all provisions and a crew of three. Yes, he said, there were fascinating sights to see in the surrounding waters. There was the old man who lived on the island of San José, across the gulf, and who had three wives and 40 sons, caught shark for a living and sold it to city markets as bacalao, or dried cod. If we just brought the old man some tequila for a tongue-loosener, he would entertain us for hours with his memories. And from San José we could pass on to the Island of the Sharks, and the Island of the Sea Lions, and the Island of the Cannibals, and all the other fascinating islands. Temo said that we were very lucky people to be able to cruise around the Sea of Cortez in the hotel's luxurious 52-foot yacht.
"Let's take a look at the boat first," Vi said.
"Why?" I said. "You've seen one 52-footer, you've seen 'em all."
"I haven't seen one" my wife said.
We walked down to the wharf for an inspection visit. The boat appeared to be named the AL EG O, but a closer inspection revealed that two of the letters had fallen off and the old name had been ALLEGRO. Right there I should have realized something: if a boat's nameplate is in bad shape, the rest of the boat is bound to be worse. But there are people who are qualified to study 52-foot yachts and people who are not. I am not. I strolled through the elderly craft, approving all that I saw, especially the wooden fishing chairs in the stern and the six or eight battered rods that hung in the aft cabin. I peeked into the head and saw a sink with faucets for hot and cold water, and a small-but-honest toilet. Who could ask for more? "We'll take it," I said.
""We'll talk to Temo some more," my wife said.
Temo assured us we were lucky to get such a bargain trip for only $1,000.
He admitted that the AL EG O was about to have its 44th birthday, but that only proved how seaworthy she was. He told us to think of all the other vessels made since 1926 that were now rusting at the bottom of the sea, including some big ones like the Andrea Doria. The AL EG O, with its twin diesels, cruised at 12 to 15 knots, and the chubasco did not exist that would sink her. "O.K.," I said, "we'll leave tomorrow. We'll take her for 10 days, and we'll need 10 bottles of tequila for barter with the natives, 10 bottles of wine for our evening meals, and a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of Kahl√∫a."
Mexico being Mexico, we left two days later. We had forgotten that we had told Temo to lay in the alcohol supply, and when we hauled our freshly purchased 22 bottles aboard, we found another 22 bottles already there. The captain of the AL EG O, a simpàtico 32-year-old villager named Carlos Ure√±a Olivarria, and a crewman, Carlos' truck driver brother, Raul, 38, gazed at us querulously as we loaded the second consignment of liquor aboard, but they refrained from comment. We hauled away from the wharf just after noon on a bright and clear day, and I confess it gave me great satisfaction to stand on the afterdeck and watch those noisy gringos gawk at us from the dining room. Temo waved a farewell from the balcony of the hotel, but I did not respond for fear that the obnoxious guests would think that I was waving at them. "A middle-aged man!" my wife humphed as she waved her handkerchief. "How long are you expecting your childhood to last?"
I said that another 11 or 12 years would about do it.
Our route took us directly past the town docks of Topolobampo, and I was surprised to see Capitan Carlos steer us over to the main dock and begin a series of backings and fillings that indicated he was waiting for something. The townspeople clustered alongside and gawked at us, and for the first time I realized that we were an event. Two 50-gallon drums of fuel were lashed to our deck, and we towed a 16-foot skiff, and everywhere one looked there were mangoes and papayas and bottles of liquor and case after case of soft drinks. "What are we waiting for?" I asked Carlos, but a failure of communication overcame us both. After another half an hour a tiny, very dark Mexican came running full tilt down the main street, flipped a tall package to crewman Raul and jumped aboard. He proved to be a third Ure√±a brother, Manuel, 20, and the package that delayed us turned out to contain about 100 tortillas, steaming hot. I was reminded of the old joke about the El Al airliner that doubled back to New York for the pickles, but luckily the language barrier prevented me from telling it to anyone except my wife, who said that I was a bigot.
At last we were off. Our first stop was scheduled to be an islote, or island, called El Farallon, 15 miles offshore. Temo had told us that Farallon was the third largest solid-rock island in the world, and that we should spend at least one night in its lee. But as we rocked and trembled in the din set up by the two ancient Gray Marine Diesels, we barely appeared to be making headway, and I wondered if we would reach Farallon before dark. I communicated my apprehension to Carlos, who pointed out that the AL EG O's hull had not been scraped in a long time, and she was being slowed by the barnacles that clung to her bottom. Without the barnacles, he explained, she would do a steady nine or 10 knots. I wanted to ask what had happened to the 12 to 15 knots that Temo had promised me, but I knew I was hopeless to express such a complex thought in Spanish. "Mi casa, tu casa," I said, by way of being friendly, and disappeared below to our quarters.
Almost three hours after leaving the town dock, we reached Farallon Island, and no matter how many times I reviewed the mathematics in my mind, the average came out to six or seven knots. But my annoyance was quickly drowned in the wonderment of Farallon. It was, indeed, a solid rock island, slightly under 500 feet in height, perhaps a quarter of a mile or half a mile long, and cliffed all around. There were only a few narrow strips of shoreline, made up of coarse stones; sea lions fought for every inch. Offshore, rocks that looked like old teeth stuck up through foaming seas, and I noticed that Carlos kept about 100 yards away from the nearest one. Now that we were huddled directly under the cliffs, I could identify the thousands of specks that had taken shape on the cliffside like flies. They were sea-birds—gulls and goonies and frigate birds and pelicans and another dozen or so unidentifiable species—and the yellow-white frosting that covered the whole island was guano, bird droppings. "It's beautiful!" Vi said, and somehow it was. As we watched, whole flocks of birds seemed to take turns landing and taking off, as though there were not enough room for all at once. They came wheeling down the wind and right over our boat, whistling and screaming and looking for handouts. I could make out several nests hundreds of feet up the sheer sides. "My God," I said, "suppose they fell from there?"
"They're birds, remember?" Vi said. "They'll manage."
Carlos came aft and made fishing motions, and soon we were sitting in the fighting chairs trolling a white feather and a plug on a steel line that went deep. While Raul and Carlos bemoaned the poor fishing and tried to explain that we had come at the wrong time of the year, we caught five-and 10-pound Spanish mackerel until our arms ached. We had two heavy hookups on the steel line and lost both. One of the deep-running fish snagged the 300-pound-test line on a rock and snapped it; the other pulled a set of treble hooks out of its socket. At dark the action ceased, and we were fatigued and just as glad. Tomorrow we would cross 100 miles of open water to the fascinating islands on the other side of the gulf.
As Carlos dragged the anchor looking for a hold, Vi stepped into the bathroom to prepare for dinner. "Would you see what you can do with these faucets?" she called out to me.
I twisted and yanked at the two faucets, but without result. When the AL EG O was solidly at anchor, I called Carlos in for a consultation. At first I could not believe my ears, putting the whole mix up down to another linguistic failure, but when Carlos finally said, "Màs bonito" I got the message. The faucets were dummies. They made the washroom look "Màs bonito"—more pretty. When one wanted to wash up, one dipped a bucket over the side and poured salt water into the sink. "How about the toilet?" I asked. "Is it a dummy, too?" As matters developed, the toilet was not a dummy, but it had a tendency to go dead at crucial moments, or emit an eerie blue shower of sparks from its ancient motor. These are items that a less stupid yachtsman would have checked before leaving Topolobampo, but I am not one of your less stupid yachtsmen. There were other points that I seemed to have overlooked. The crew's quarters were forward, and Vi and I were assigned to a pair of bunks between the main cabin and the stern. The kitchen—four tiny burners set into a niche in the wall—was also in our cabin, and that meant that Manuel, the cook, was in our private quarters about six hours a day. Now if you have to be joined on your dream cruise by a third person, Manuel is a long way from being the worst. He was a pleasant, kindly young man with a genuine flair for cooking. But after four years of marriage, did we have to be chaperoned? To make matters worse, Carlos and Raul and Manuel sat on the stairs leading to the main cabin and stared at us as we ate our first meal and drank our first bottle of Mexican wine (the whites are good; the reds are metallic). We endured their gaze through five or six delicious courses, slowly sipping our wine, but at last I was constrained to dig into my Langenscheidt Universal Dictionary and put together the question: "Huh?"
After much gesturing and consultation, the three brothers explained that they had never seen two people go to sea for a short cruise in the company of 44 ("cuarentacuatro") bottles of hooch. Now they were studying us to see just how many we would put away at one sitting. I tried to explain how the peculiar situation had come about but got nowhere. At last I solved the problem by digging out a bottle of tequila and turning it over to Carlos "con mi cumplimientos." The three-man crew disappeared into their quarters forward, and soon the merry sounds of Jalisco and Cielito Lindo echoed through the boat.
In an hour or so we turned out our lights and crawled into the thin slabs of bedding provided for each of us. A mysterious drip of icy water had soused the foot end of my bed, but I did not see what could be done about it at this time of the night. Probably some spray had found its way through a crack on the crossing from Topolobampo to the island. "At last," I said, as the boat rocked gently at anchor. "Just you and me and the island."
"Yeah," Vi said, "and Carlos and Raul and Manuel."
I lifted my head to see three curly black heads peering down the stairway at us. "Es hokay, Almirante?" Raul said thickly.
"Es hokay," I said. I removed a sheet from my bunk and stretched it across the areaway for privacy. Then I turned on my pocket flashlight and looked up almirante. It meant "admiral." A full moon was working its way up and beginning to shine through the open hatch to the stern. "Well, it took some doing," I said softly, "but now we are alone." From Vi's bunk there were only the sounds of heavy breathing.
By 11 p.m. I had given up on sleep and sat disconsolately on the edge of my bunk trying to figure out why a man would take such pains to punish himself. Not that the bunk had been all that bad. The moisture around my feet had warmed up until I was hardly aware of it, and I had soon become accustomed to the fact that the bulkhead was about one inch above my nose and the slightest upward movement was dangerous. Indeed, I had slept fitfully an hour or so before being awakened by the most terrifying noises. Sea lions are popularly thought to bark, and the adjective most often used to describe them is "raucous." But the truth is that sea lion racket is infinitely variable. One of them kept swimming up to the stern of the boat and emitting a sound like the entire trombone section of the Boston Philharmonic, and another made the most repulsive retching noises, succeeding in recreating Broadway and 42nd Street at midnight on New Year's Eve. Some of them screamed and some of them bawled, and some of them sounded almost human. There was one that kept grunting what sounded like "Jon" in a sepulchral voice, causing me to wake up and say "What?" and bump my head on the bulkhead several times. As though this din were not enough, the seabirds emitted a constant obbligato of screech from their perches high on the rock. I could not see what they were doing, but something about the full Mexican moon made them do it noisily.
At midnight I took a sleeping pill, precisely the sort of step I had come to Mexico to avoid, and just as its soporific effect was beginning to course through my body, I heard an untuned outboard motor and saw a brilliant white light pierce the porthole. I scrambled to my feet and out on the deck just as a small boat pulled alongside. The white light came from a lantern suspended from a short mast; apparently the three men aboard were night fishermen, and the lantern was used to attract fish. I didn't have the slightest idea how to tell them that we were sleeping, so I simply stood there clad only in my undershirt and shouted "Hola!" in an imperious manner.
"Hola!" one of them called back.
"Adios!" I said, gesturing violently away from the boat.
"Adios!" one of them said, and they gunned the engine and sped off. I crawled back into the covers and heard the outboard spitting and snapping. Apparently they were going to spend the night fishing around our boat. It wasn't so bad. They helped to drown out the sounds of the sea lions. Vi awoke at 6 a.m. and saw me sitting in a fishing chair. "How long have you been up?" she said, cheerfully.
"Seven hours," I said.
Breakfast was served. The first course was sliced papaya in heaping mounds on dishes big enough for a Chateaubriand. Then came corn flakes and milk, followed by huevos rancheros—fried eggs immersed in a sauce hot enough to melt a hole in the plate. Accompanying the eggs was a stack of hot tortillas, plus toast and butter, and accompanying everything were cavernous cups of black, strong Mexican coffee. I began to come to life. "Hokay, hokay!" I said to Vi as the last dish was cleared away. "Now we start our great adventure!" The skiff was hauled aboard and lashed to the deck; the engines were run up and checked; the anchor was hauled clear, and we were on our way across 100 miles of bounding main. At about six knots.
As we came around the head of Farallon Rock and into the open Gulf of California, the AL EG O shuddered. Long combers rolled down from the north and crashed broadside athwart our thwarts. Lying all night in the lee of the islet, we had not realized how tall the seas were running. Vi popped a Dramamine and I opened a book. When I had read the first page about six times, I turned and looked at Vi. Her hands were in a supplicatory position. The boat heaved and rocked, and chunky Raul, the erstwhile truck driver, made a beeline down the steps and through our cabin toward the stern. A few minutes later he wobbled back into sight, his normally swarthy Gauguinesque face changed into a chalky-white Modigliani. I went up to talk to Carlos. He explained that the high seas were more or less normal and that we could expect them all the way across. I asked how long it would take to get to the fascinating islands on the other side. "Doce o trece horas" Carlos answered. When I whipped out my Langenscheidt and saw that he had said "12 or 13 hours," I ducked belowdecks and knelt beside my wife. "Sweetheart," I said. "How bad do you want to see the old man with the three wives and the Island of the Cannibals and all that scuff?"
Her mouth had been hanging slightly open and her eyes had been half-shut. Her answer to my question seemed to be to open her mouth a little more and shut her eyes all the way. "Look," I said, taking her cold hand. "If you don't want to make this crossing, squeeze my hand." She squeezed faintly.
I bounded up into the cabin. "Carlos," I said. "Andele back." I pointed toward El Farallon, which still seemed to lie only a few hundred yards off our stern after an hour's sail. He looked deep into my eyes, at first quizzically, then pleasantly, and then happily. He swung the wheel sharply and the three brothers came together in the cabin to find out what was going on. The last I heard, they were cheering.
So that is my explanation of how we came to lie alongside El Farallon, 15 miles from our home port of Topolobampo, with two drums of extra fuel on our deck, fruit and foodstuffs and agua pura and 44 bottles of liquor and enough of everything to last for 10 days at sea. We fished our fool heads off, and that is my idea of a perfect vacation. To be sure, the tariff was still $100 a day, and local fishermen who had heard about the deal drove up in their long boats by the dozens to take a closer look at the gringos who had left for the great adventure across the Gulf and chickened out at the Farallon. We waved at them and gave them some of our catch and generally tried to create the impression that we were in our right minds. And looking back on it now, I firmly believe we were. I have been fishing for close to 40 years, and in the middle of our sojourn I had the day of days. The seas had turned rough again, and somehow every fish in the Gulf of California had decided to join us in the lee of the guano-covered island. I broke off seven fish on the steel line (Carlos guessed that they were groupers or giant black sea bass and that they weighed in the area of 500 pounds each) and caught at least 70 others. We didn't even have to troll to get hookups. As fast as I would cast and hook and boat a fish, Carlos would hand me his rod with another one on the end of it. We caught bonito, skipjack, Spanish mackerel, jack crevalle, yellowtail, triggerfish, sea bass, groupers and half a dozen other species, and just as the sun was bleeding down into the western horizon something thumped my white jig and punished my tired arms and my light tackle for nearly an hour. Carlos had a Mexican name for the 75-pound fish as it came over the side all silver and gold in the dusk, but its coloration and bright head stripes and falcate tail identified it to me as an amberjack, a new addition to my life list, and more welcome than a 1,000-pound black marlin.
In a few days the boat broke down, and we had to limp back into Topolobampo and hang around the hotel for two days waiting for a new part. Before that the engine caught fire and filled the cabin with choking fumes, and the toilet continued to shower sparks, and another miniature chubasco came up and tossed us around like jumping beans, and the tortillas grew a little old and chewy. But we learned to accept all this as the price of great fishing. We even made our peace with the sea lions. As the moon waned, so did their bellowing, and one of them took to coming alongside to get his back scratched with the flat side of the gaff. Three killer whales frisked around the AL EG O one day, their tall dorsal fins scything through the water, while the sea lions inched high up on the rocks and waited for the all clear. Porpoises porpoised all around us, and once we saw a great freight train of a shadow in the water—a giant ray sieving the sea for plankton. At night we enjoyed sumptuous meals, exuberant Mexican music from the boat's radio and a certain amount of liquor. We finished the trip with 31 bottles, but then no one's planning is perfect. We left 29 behind at Topolobampo, and we have been given to understand that we will be welcome back at any time. Nothing could please me more.
Oh, yes, I can hear the discerning reader say, it was a splendid vacation for you. But how about poor Vi, stranded on an ancient boat reeking with fish and fishermen, bobbing about in high seas and existing on a diet of Dramamine, and not even having the benefit of a decent bathroom? I will admit that the same question crossed my mind after the trip was over. "Tell me, sweetheart," I said, as we drove back through Los Mochis headed for the border, "did you have a nice time?"
"Oh, yes," she said, supersweetly.
I could not resist pressing my point. "Ha, ha," I said, "did you see any tarantulas?"
"Only one," she said.
I don't know what she meant by that. I had been in exactly the same places, and I hadn't seen any.