Baja Tales

Lobsters, Tollbooths, and a 50-Foot Jesus

A large, strangely-proportioned statue of Jesus overlooks the Pacific Ocean near Puerto Nuevo.
Jen Villa

Every weekend, thousands of fun-seeking Americans flood across the Mexican border into Baja, California. Some are underage college students wanting to go to bars and clubs. Others are surfers intent on exploring the many surfÂ-able nooks and crannies the Baja coast has to offer. Some thirst for cheap tequila and hunger for fresh lobster, and still others are military guys looking for, well… At any rate, the majority of short-term visitors to Baja seem to be there not for the culture, but for the freedom gained by a lack of rigidly enforced rules.

That’s not to say this mentality is a bad thing, but I’m reasonably sure a cultural anthropologist would notice a distinct difference between Baja’s relatively undisturbed rural areas and its cities near the border. Clearly, everything from the border down to Ensenada is touched by the heavy hand of American influence. Not to bash my native U.S.A. or its inhabitants, but it is noticeable that places closer to the border are generally in worse condition than those farther to the south.

Although I’ve made these observations about Baja’s prevalent class of visitors, I’m aware that I, too, am a typical tequila-swilling, surf-obsessed American tourist. It was in this mode that I found myself a passenger in an SUV full of drunk gringos (save the “Texican” in the front seat), cruising north on Mex-1 from our campsite at La Fonda just north of Ensenada. Our destination was the famous “fishing village” (read: tourist locale that probably had more of the attributes of an actual fishing village before the regular deluge of American visitors began) at Puerto Nuevo, where we intended to stuff ourselves full of lobster and guzzle cheap margaritas. The conversations in the car-all boisterously loud-ranged in topic from 50-foot-tall Jesus statues to how a friend’s boyfriend closely resembles the incarcerated kindergarten teacher in Half Baked. Cacophonous laughter penetrated every cubic inch of the roomy SUV, leaving one guy rubbing his temples and rolling his eyes ruefully.

On the subject of 50-foot-tall Jesus statues: As we drove past one, we realized we had either missed the exit for Puerto Nuevo or there just wasn’t one from the northbound lanes (very likely on a Mexican highway, where uneven curves and railing-less overpasses are the norm). On and on we drove, searching in vain for the elusive offramp while the decibel level steadily rose inside the car. After a while, we realized we weren’t going to be able to turn around without going through the highway toll plaza-twice!

The 50-foot Jesus now miles behind us, we pulled our vehicle up to the tollbooth. Luckily for us, our Texican (who, coincidentally, was also named Jesus) spoke fluent Spanish. Maybe there was a way out of the double toll dilemma after all. Sure enough, after some animated (but friendly) jabber in Spanish, Jesus informed us we were off the hook. My immediate assumption was that we would be asked to drive through the toll plaza and make a U-turn back onto the southbound lanes. Nope. Apparently, that’s not how things are done in Baja Norte.

The tollbooth attendant stepped out of his cubicle and began to motion the cars in the northbound lanes behind us to move back. There were already 10 cars waiting, and that number was growing rapidly. I observed incredulously. Clumsily, the cars behind us started to back up at various different angles. The windows of our SUV now open, the clearly audible rollicking laughter from within met the confused stares of those we were forcing to move. I suppose I should have been embarrassed, but the hilarity of the situation had all but erased that reaction from all of us. We backed up our car into the space made for us and U-turned onto the highway heading south.

After a few minutes on the road, we were past the giant Jesus (again) and rolling into Puerto Nuevo. A fun-filled evening of gorging on lobster and slurping 99 cent margaritas awaited us; the smells of tasty Mexican food enveloped us, and the tollbooth fiasco drifted into subconsciousness.

Reflecting upon that incident, I wondered if we’d been given preferential treatment at the tollbooth. Does everybody get to back up traffic to make U-turns on the interstate or just obstreperous gringos in shiny new SUVs? Maybe the tollbooth attendant liked our friend Jesus, or simply wanted to be a nice guy. I had no idea. Oh well, best not to over-analyze.

With that, I resigned from my anthropologist pretense and settled back into the epicurean role of the Yanqui tourist. The intoxicating strains played by Mexican guitarristas blended smoothly with the warmth of the margaritas and food. We were all content with the state of things.


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