A close friend described Agua Verde as her favorite place on the Baja coast, and she infused it with a sense of magic and belonging for me before I even arrive. As we sail into the bay, dodging a hundred-plus foot pinnacle sticking out of the sea, we find the calmest water we have seen. We anchor on the north side of the large bay, next to a strip of white sand beach. After swimming to shore, we find an old man listening intently to the radio under the shade of his sand porch. He ignores us.
That evening, Josh calls me out to the cockpit. Someone is walking in the water, directly under the cliffs that line the cove. With the binoculars, I can see that it is the old man from the beach shack. He carries a bag of groceries over his shoulder, and uses his free hand to steady himself against the cliff walls. He walks a few steps, then leans over. My heart breaks. I jump in the dinghy and row over to him and offer him a ride. He declines, but not without a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Over the next few days, I start to chat with José. His young dog, Cascabel, starts accompanying us on our hikes up the hills, and he and Uly romp on the beach together. After a few days, I interview him about change under the patchy shade of his porch.
José is kind and thoughtful, though it soon becomes clear that his world has shrunk to the size of the little beach he calls his home. He came there almost twenty years ago, and despite not finding anyone with title to the land, or perhaps because of that, he built a little building, then moved to the only other structure on the sand, a previously abandoned shack. He likes the shack better because it doesn’t leak when it rains. The land is a little rise of sand flanked on the north and south by a beach, and steep hills on the east and west, leaving him about 10,000 square feet and six big acacia trees. When asking him about change, he couldn’t think much of change in the past, but knew that this year was hotter and drier–his little spot even more so than town, he claims. He worries about his trees.
His inability to remember might have also been because of some unknown head trauma he had as a child, it sounded like perhaps from a blow from an abusive father, which had left his short term memory lacking. In his childhood, he was teased as soon as he went to school at age nine because he struggled to read and remember, so his mother pulled him out immediately. He never went back, and after leaving Jalisco thirty-six years ago he made his way first to the port of San Carlos, in Magdalena Bay, then to Mulegé, where he learned to fish. He sat up tall and proud when he said his profession: pescador.
At age seventy-seven, his legs really bother him, so he can’t fish anymore (it takes a lot of leg muscle to stand and pull a fish up from the ocean on a hand line.) There is no family around to care for him, and he seems to have sequestered himself in his sliver of paradise. However, he has visitors: individuals and families come every year, and they cook food to share with him and give him a little money. In his stories, he often says he worked “just to eat, I just need to eat.” So now, it’s like your occupation is tourism, I say, and he laughs and agrees. Subsistence tourism, I muse, from a ramshackle one-room cabin on a tiny beach in remote Baja.
Josh and I leave him with homemade energy bars and coffee, and once we anchor in front of town, we are in for a treat: the people of Agua Verde. As soon as we get to shore, we stroll past happy pigs snorting in the mud on the beach, and we make our way over to two men sitting on a boat trailer, awaiting the arrival of the evening fishers. Chayo and Vincente show off their English, and when I ask about a restaurant in town, they tell me that the owner of “the” store, Esperanza, would perhaps cook something for us. The are relaxed and genuine with us. We walk through the salt bush, past posturing turkeys and curious goats, through the sandy dirt road of town and find the store.
“I can make fish and rice,” Esperanza tells me, “just let me know when you can come back.”
We returned at dusk for a meal on her front porch, just the two of us–and her whole family. The porch is a slab of concrete and a sparse wooden frame, but its presence and comfort come from the cheerful family. A fresh-caught jurel (yellowtail) watches us eat our fish and rice wrapped in fresh corn and flour tortillas, with a shredded carrot and cabbage salad, sour cream, and green salsa. A fifteen watt bulb lights the porch; the women pull apart or twisted together two wires to turn the light on and off. Jovial men stopped by throughout our dinner; Don Panfilo pats Josh’s shoulder as he came to sit on the porch and talk about the latest town news, and Esperanza’s husband, Miguel, sits down and jokes about free goods from Esperanza’s market. Esperanza and her two nieces smile, sweating gracefully in the still, hot air of the night. Esperanza fans herself by whirling a cloth horizontally in front of her chest (try it next time you have a dishcloth, it’s not as easy as it sounds without wrapping it immediately around your hand.) I perspire constantly in lightweight shorts and shirt, and they sit in tight jeans, never complaining about the heat.
I asked how many people live in town. Four hundred, they tell me—far more than I thought. They smile at my surprise and say yes, they live up the arroyo. How many of those are fishermen? I ask.
“All of them!” they exclaim, laughing (although they later tell me that there are all of three people who work at something other than fishing, including a teacher and the person who keeps their freshwater system working. Esperanza, despite owning the store, does not seem to consider herself one of the three earning non-fishing income.) Miguel’s family has been fishing here for at least four generations. It feels like a privilege to eat fresh pescado in the company of this generous family. This is our first night here, and we get to share his front porch.
In the morning, the pangas roll out to the beach on simple trailers, towed by pickups, and groups of two and three men aboard speed out to sea. Do they not take a day off? Josh wonders aloud. Throughout the morning, we hear the roar of old Toyota Forerunners, followed by the gurgle and growl of the panga outboards. Kids scream and giggle on the water, chasing each other around the boats and the parents.
Over the next evenings, we see the fishermen bringing in the catch of the day. They lift coolers heavy with ice and fish from the pangas and stagger over to the waiting truck by fishermen in white rubber boots. They toss fish through the air into the truck that brings ice in the morning, then returns for their fish in the evening. We can see big fish mid-flight from our boat a couple of football field lengths away. Tough work with long hours.
Fishing here is not just a way to earn a living, but a way of life for entire families and this whole town. Men, women, and children all take to the shore. The coming and going from the water’s edge is like community worship at the church of the sea, twice a day.
Is life really easier with more? The people of Agua Verde live in houses with no windows, no fans, no pavement. Their lives are open to the weather. Esperanza doesn’t even have a light switch—but she and her family are so nimble with the wires that I didn’t notice their deft “switch” until Josh pointed it out.
Agua Verde’s people, and those in Nopolo, San Evaristo, and Pardito, live at the edge of the sea, but also at the edge of society. They are separate from the sprawling and growing megacities. The fish dwindle, but the day-to-day life is simple, joyous, and deeply rooted here, in both the coastal land and the sea. As strangers, we showed up and everyone smiled at us without irony or contempt. They directed us toward home-cooked food, and once there the most honored and respected elders patted us on the shoulder like we belonged.
We stay in Agua Verde for almost a week. I interview people about climate change, and I learned that what people there think will change most in the coming years is tourism. For now, the road to the town is dirt and brings no electricity, but they know this will change soon. People bring this up with a sense of dread, but when I ask about it, they say that tourism will bring more work for the young people in town, and “that’s good, right?” People speak often about Niparajá, the La Paz non-profit deeply embedded in the fishing communities, and they talk with expressive gratitude about the courses that they offer that help them. They tell me that there are three fishing cooperatives, but I also learn that there are two cooperatives for the women as well, which surprises me.
The women I interview are thoughtful, and their answers to my questions hint to me that they know that things are changing—not everyone can be a fisherman anymore. “Thank God for the school,” Esperanza says. Starting this year, the town’s school now goes up to high school level, whereas most of the adult in town were only able to complete primary school education. Esperanza knows that education is the key for the local kids to find work in a changing world. The town knows it is vulnerable when all income comes from one source. More so than the rising sea, the singular source of income—based on exploited fish populations rapidly declining—threatens this way of life.
The afternoon we leave Agua Verde, a beat-up green kayak with two kids shows up at our boat. Soon, four more kids appear at the swim ladder, having snorkeled from shore, diving for almejas chocolatas, chocolate clams. Now we have a cockpit full of shivering, dripping boys. I throw them towels and give them glasses of fresh water. They peer into the cabin, so I offer to give them a tour, and they bashfully accept. One boy notices the stuffed animal in the v-berth, an octopus. They all notice the photo above the chart table of my dog who passed away last year, Keogh. He’s so handsome, they say in awe, lingering on the photo. They are the first people to notice it.
Soon, the kids are relaxed with us and turn the boat into a waterpark. They jump from the rails and the lifelines, showing off their splashes and chortling with the uncontrollable laughter of kids as they run up the swim ladder and fall into the water again. I ask them all if their fathers are fishermen, and they all reply yes.
“Do you want to be a fisherman when you grow up?” I ask.
“No,” they reply.
“Well, what do you want to be then?” I ask.
With water dripping from their clothes, each one of them replies the same:
“I want to be a marine biologist.”