Traveling Companions

Page 10 of 22

Last March, they led the entire camp to the lagoon flats after the tide had gone out. Upon the bank sat a plastic pail containing a handful of limes, a bottle of hot sauce, a knife and one very fresh octopus.

In the distance, three fishermen made their way toward the kitchen tent.

Guide Cindy Hansen was so confounded by the live cephalopod accompanied by everything necessary for lunch except a place setting that she refused to believe that someone actually intended to, well, eat it.

Instead, she suggested that the camp cook, Memo, had set out the octopus bucket purposefully to have sport with her and the other vegetarian guide, Sue Rocca.

When she finally accepted the obvious, a second emotion overcame her.

Maybe they're hungry, she said of the fishermen. I'll go back to camp and get them some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. With that, she strove off in the direction of the Skippy.

After Hansen's exit, Rocca liberated the octopus and waited for the fishermen to return.

The first one back, seeing a group of eco-tourists surrounding his lunch bucket, walked past the pail as if he'd never seen it before and headed up the beach.

The second strolled past, glanced down into the empty pail and wailed, "It's gone, man."

He, too, headed up the beach without so much as hot sauce.

The third fisherman, a handsome young man, stopped and introduced himself to Sue.

"My name is . . . al-eh-HAN-dro." His warm smile suggested that this was not the first time he had introduced himself thusly to a young, blond North American.

Once she confirmed that the octopus had in fact been taken by these particular fishermen for lunch, Rocca informed him with the sang-froid unavailable to anyone over the age of 30 that she had let the creature go.

The charming gallant replied, "It is nothing."

Rocca cleared up that misunderstanding where she stood.

Much later, in an e-mail, she considered what had emboldened her.

"I don't know what moral authority I was acting on except my own. Pretty scary, huh? I would have done the same thing if I was a guest or guide, in the USA or Japan."

Because of countless examples of precisely this sort of cultural paper cut, Mexicans and Canadians view with mixed emotions the cash that American eco-tourists deposit in their countries.

"Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States" is an old expression that still retains currency south of the American border. The Canadians have updated the sentiment. Their Labatt's beer campaign is based solely upon Canadian pride in not being Americans.

For Rocca, the issue was not clouded by her status as a guest in another country; the issue was eating meat, a form of sustenance with dire ecological implications as far as Rocca was concerned.

"I feel that because I don't eat any animal, Big Mac or calamari, that when I released the octopus, I was not being hypocritical," says Sue. "I'm sure emotions took over, the lack of respect for the exsquidedness of the animal."

A punning vegetarian biologist is unlikely to single-handedly bruise cross-border relations. The rub is that she is not single-handed. The tension arises out of the sheer number of mobile eco-tourists and the cumulative impact of their ethos.

Still, in the Baja, the signals are mixed. There is reason for hope.

On the evening of the vernal equinox, the lagoon hosted a wedding.

Peg Sullivan returned to camp with an oyster shell trimmed in lace and tiny decorative beads resembling pearls. The names of the newlyweds, Jose Francisco and Cynthia, were hand-lettered in gold ink upon the attached card.

He is the son of the Mexican fisherman who first touched the whales of Laguna San Ignacio.

She is the American who taught the son of the Mexican fisherman how to be a guide for eco-tourists.

Together with their friends, the newlyweds spent their honeymoon kayaking along the shoreline in the Sea of Cortez.

Expedition leader Neil Folsom speaks into the microphone.

"Good morning, everyone. It is 6 a.m. It is a beautiful morning and we are surrounded by gray whales."

June Covey and her husband, Neil, rush out of their cabin aboard the cruise ship Sea Bird and are astounded at what they see.

"I will always remember the first glimpse of the gray whales in Baja," says June. "The sun was hardly up and all you could hear was the blowing sounds of the whales, and they were so close to the ship. It was magical. I could hardly tear myself away when breakfast time came."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey