The Pearl of Loreto
Flying east out over the water, I look down to my left. Six-foot waves pound the long, empty beaches. It seems ideal for surfers but there are none. From the air, the ocean floor is clearly visible. Soft white near the shore, the shallow floor changes to a light blue as it slowly descends.|
Then an abrupt edge and the floor drops into nearly black water. The steepness of the drop is startling. You can actually see the ocean floor drop off a cliff into the deep ocean. I remember reading that the waters off these shores plunge to over 9,000 feet, some of the deepest water in the Pacific.
I am now flying over a shipwreck near San Jose del Cabo. There is an amusing story about one of the shipwrecks somewhere around here. This may be it. Years ago, Japanese fishermen were fishing in Mexican waters illegally. They would come in at night, set their fish traps and mark them with radio buoys, and sail back into international waters by morning.
The next night they would home in on their traps, harvest them, and then safely wait out the day once again in international waters. With only simple farmers and ranchers to worry about, they were doing well.
Now as the story goes - which may or may not be strictly true - one moonless night the simple farmers roped a buoy and dragged it a quarter mile up the beach. When the trawler came in to collect its traps, it beached itself hopelessly. The embarrassed government never reclaimed the ship and the hulk has remained there for over thirty years.
Minutes later I am flying over Cabo Pulmo directly on the Tropic of Cancer. Gently banking left, I begin the 800-mile journey northward up the peninsula. I land and refuel in La Paz. Here John Steinbeck told the tale of Kino, the pearl diver, finding a great pearl, The Pearl of the World, and the death and misfortune that followed it until this symbol of greed was again returned to the sea. Today, the city is the commercial center and capital of southern Baja. But I do not stay; today's destination is Loreto, the oldest settlement in Baja.
I arrive in the late afternoon. The small hotel is filled with American sport fishermen, a friendly and gregarious bunch who are bemused when they hear about my solitary flight across the continent. Over dinner, they tell me of the day's fishing. Most of the stories must be true as I am sharing their dinner, part of the day's catch.
Afterwards, I walk along the shore of the wide, crescent bay. Waves gently lap the rocky beach. The setting sun behind me casts a soft pink glow on the haze between the dark water and light blue evening sky. Across the bay, the light brown hills of Isla del Carmen blend with the pastels of the water and sky. Off to my right, pelicans call to each other as they dive for fish in the still sea.
It is an ancient and beautiful scene, unchanged from the time when the priests chose this location for their first mission in all the Californias.
That was in 1697, over 150 years after Cortez. At first, it was a miserable existence for both the Jesuits and their Indian disciples. The Jesuits had hoped to make each mission self-sustaining by teaching the Indians farming. But as nomads, the Indians had lived for centuries traveling constantly in search of water and food. The idea of working today for possible results in the distant future was incomprehensible to them. They were right about farming without irrigation; both they and the priests were left to a diet of insects and snakes when the crops failed, which they did regularly.
But the early priests were selfless men and they persevered. Their persistence and compassion slowly won over the land and the Indians. Within a few decades, they had established 23 missions in Baja, California, each roughly a day's journey apart.
But in 1768 the Jesuits were forced out of Baja California when their order was expelled from Spain for court intrigue. They were replaced by the Franciscans, who saw little opportunity in Baja California and abandoned the peninsula for the land above it, what we now know as the State of California. The Baja began a slow decline. By 1900, the population of Baja California, a peninsula larger than Italy, was down to 9,000. It would take the steady trickle of tourists starting after World War II to reverse the decline begun almost 200 years before.
I walk farther up the beach. Boys laugh as they turn handstands, running and diving into the water. Old men talk quietly as they fish along the water's edge. I continue walking and turn toward the town's plaza as the bells of the old mission ring the hour.
The plaza is empty, quiet. It is lined on four sides by small adobe buildings. The town offices on one side, an ancient grocery store and modern bank on another, simple homes on the other two. In the center is a small park. A gazebo, park benches. There is no grass, only dry dust that is the same light brown color of the mountains in the bay.
I walk down the street leading to the twin spires of the old mission. The street is dark and dusty. Turning the corner, I see people standing outside the church, listening quietly.
The doors to the church are open. From the dark street, the bright interior of the church is like a pearl in the center of this brown, dusty town. The entire back wall radiates brilliance. A white statue of the Virgin and Christ in the center. Paintings framed in gold and silver are on the sides. Vivid murals of the Nativity and the Crucifixion above. The altar is gilded in gold with brilliant white inlays, perhaps mother of pearl from La Paz. White flowers sit on the sides. In the middle is a gold chalice.
The bare adobe walls and domed ceiling are painted a plain white. Ceiling fans suspended from long rods turn slowly, their movement contrasting with the stillness of the people below.
The church is full. There is not an empty seat. People are standing to the sides and in the entryway. Couples, children, old people, mothers nursing babies. No one is talking. There is a sense of reverence here that I have never seen or felt before.
The priest's voice is kind and gentle. Slowly rising and then falling softly as he makes each point. The priest stands alone without a pulpit in the center of the church. Unguarded. His vestments are light green, a color that seems unworldly in this dry barren land.
He speaks with his hands folded. Not piously as if praying, but directly to the people. He spreads his arms and his vulnerability seems to implore you to trust and believe. As he speaks, I feel I am looking into what religion can be: kindness, compassion, gentleness.
Half a dozen American college kids are coming down the street swearing loudly, drinking bottles of Corona beer. They stop abruptly in front of the church. At first, they seem bewildered by the presence this church radiates. They must feel it too. They listen for what seems a long time and then walk away quietly.
The next morning, I depart Loreto and fly northward through upper Baja. I visit Guarrero Negro where the ship Black Warrior with its millions in gold lies somewhere yet to be found. At 10,000 feet, I fly along Picacho del Diablo, Baja's highest mountain and then, much lower, over Tiburon Island - where as recently as 1956 two ill-fated fishermen fell victim to the cannibalistic Sari Indians.
Soon I leave Baja for the United States. I have flown almost 6,000 miles since departing Boston for St. John's a continent away. My memories are strong: the dark fjords of Newfoundland, the brutal Sierra Madres, the deep blue waters of Baja California, miles of ocean and desert and people even more varied than the geography I flew over.
So as I fly homeward, I find it surprising that two memories overwhelm all the others: the brilliant white icebergs drifting quietly in the dark Atlantic and that gentle priest in the small Loreto church.
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