South of the Border

Bienvenidos a Mexico. Bienvenidos a Ensenada.

IMG_4525 (2)_1As is often the case, your first glimpse of a new port may not be the prettiest, since the docks big enough to handle a ship the size of ours, the Imagination, tend to be out of the way (though in fairness, the main shopping area was only a short walk away.) Across from the pier is a fenced-in brown lot, perhaps awaiting future construction. Nearby is a partially complete building; a school of sorts, I later guess? Or a museum? (I hear a fellow passenger say it’s a jai alai fronton, which seems off; I spent some time in the old Hartford fronton, and the proportions for this building don’t seem right. This guy also says they’ve been working on the building for years, and as I walk past it and get a closer look, the building seems to suggest something abandoned, rather than nearing completion.)

Off the gangway on ashore, two unfortunate crew members of obviously lowly rank wear Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head costumes, then accost passengers as they leave the ship for another in the endless series of gang photographer assaults. I’ve been cruising for decades, but the intensity of this let-us-take-your-picture crap (or, “Ve vill take your picture”) has gotten out of hand. I brusquely walk by every time I see the photographers; when I debark later in the day to explore Ensenada, I accidentally cut through someone else’s photo. Oops, sorry!

Behind the loving potato couple, I spy what to many Americans might seem like the Mexico of today: three camouflage-wearing soldiers toting automatic rifles. Lovely. But once on ashore, I don’t see any other signs of a military presence, and the town feels safe and not much different than most other tourist towns. Except for the signs in Spanish. And the abundance of Farmacias targeting Americans with offers of cheap Cialis and Xanax. I feel like I’ve walked into an episode of Weeds.

Soon I have a chance to establish my bona fides as a true dumb tourist. Eager for free wi-fi, I find a local café. I ask the guy behind the counter if he speaks English. What shopkeeper in a town often overrun by Americans doesn’t? Ask if he takes dollars. Another pretty dumb question. Then I say, “coffee,” meaning I’d like one, and he motions to all the coffee-making apparatus between us with a look that says “What do you think all this is?” and says he has 25 kinds. Well, that time, I wasn’t asking a question, so I didn’t feel so stupid. I just want a coffee, you know? He brews me up a fine cuppa joe, I log onto the speedy and secure Internet service, and things are cool.

I didn’t know what to expect in Ensenada. I didn’t think it would be like the border towns where violence seems to rule the day (a few people back in Santa Fe had said I would probably want to avoid Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, or even the towns across from NM). I mean, cruise ships don’t ordinarily dock in unsafe places, right? And Baja California, as a peninsula, is somewhat distinct geographically from the larger mass of Mexico. (Historical aside: For a time during the Mexican American War, the US thought about taking BC for itself, and some fighting went on there, but the final peace treaty kept the region under Mexican control. Alto California was what the Americans were really after.)

IMG_4530 (2)_1IMG_4529 (2)_1Walking the streets of modern Ensenada, I found a nice park and a variety of shops, including, of course, Starbucks and McDonalds. On the street corners, vendors peddled touristy trinkets, but not in a pushy way. I also saw locals crowded around little food carts serving what looked like fish just off the boat. I’m sure these meals were a bargain, as were the $3 margaritas I found later in the day. Perhaps not the best tequila, but made fresh, and I loved watching the bartender squeeze the limes on the spot.

Last year, I took my first Spanish classes ever at the local community college. While I once had a facility for languages, I found that in my current decrepit, middle-aged state, remembering verb conjugations proved too much for my failing mind. I quit after 15 weeks. In Ensenada, the only thing I heard that I understood, besides the basics any Americano can decipher, was contigo (“with you”). Yeah, those classes were money well spent…

IMG_4545 (2)_1IMG_4539 (2)_1Having read that Ensenada itself did not have much to offer the tourist with only a few hours to spare, I opted for an excursion into the nearby wine country. I didn’t know Baja or any other part of Mexico had a wine country, but just a 45-minute drive took us up about 1,000 feet and into a climate that matches any in the Mediterranean. The region around Ensenada is the country’s most productive for wine. Along with fishing (which includes processing and canning, especially tuna) and tourism, the wineries are a major industry. The wines I sampled were ok. What was spectacular that day, though, was the weather—sunny, dry, maybe 80 degrees. Nice.

IMG_4580 (2)_1IMG_4583 (2)_1Back on the ship, I prepared for the one formal night of the cruise and then a full day at sea on our way back to Long Beach. This is a nautical joke, of course; the ship has to take a deliberately circuitous route and travel at about 6 knots to extend the voyage to a full day. But who cares. That day gave me time to read and to look out over the calm ocean waters and see nothing else around us. That’s why I still love to cruise, even in the midst of shutter-happy photographers and overpriced excursions and touristy ports. You can’t create that sensation of mid-ocean peace any other way.

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~ by mburgan on February 9, 2015.

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