Thinking back to a ‘misguided‘ project of protecting a remote beach in Baja.
– Being saved by a paradise –
We are travelers. And travelers move on – they move in order to search elsewhere. On this round planet it is unavoidable that you eventually end up where you started out from. However, travelers do also return in other ways. Travel through this life – physically as well as spiritually – is full of repetition and coming back.
There was one place to which we returned many times. A wind-swept beach – at the end of the world, we thought – a pearl of a place in a faraway desert country. A stretch of white sand, a little island, and turquoise sea, far away, hidden behind incredible distances and endless barren desert. Not beautiful in a way that it fits a certain cliché but striking as it surpasses any conceptual cliché, beautiful beyond objective description, beautiful beyond reason. A beach, a border line: the edge between two very different phenomena: land and water, a place where you can feel the amazing perpetual conflict between two different elements and the mysterious harmony within this ceaseless exchange of energies. A place permanently exposed to the wild forces of nature yet radiating with tranquility and peace.
We used to spend our winters there at the end of this narrow sand spit, like on a boat and yet on solid ground, surrounded by the sea, only a few feet away, and in the company of pelicans, cormorants, and fish.
We found this place because we had searched for it, we had dreamed of it. When we arrived, there was surprised recognition. Was this what we had been looking for all the time? Suddenly all made sense, our restless search, this gnawing feeling of incompleteness – was the long struggle finally worth it? Oh, there was this sweet feeling of fulfillment, of satisfaction, somehow unbelievable. Why are we always suspicious when dreams come true? Does something in us already know that it doesn’t last? But it is true – now. Something in us wanted to stay forever and yet something – exactly the same that brought us there – wanted to move on.
We came back many times. It was different each time, but the mysterious spell never faded. We celebrated “our” place. We cultivated and deepened our response to it. We got attached to it. Although we thought we knew about this problem we fell headlong into the trap.
It began with a gradually growing fear of loss. Each time when we traveled to “our” beach – and it soon became an almost regular annual migration – it raised our blood pressure long before we arrived: Will everything be unchanged? Will the magic still be there? Are we going to get “our” spot? What if it had been discovered (by other seekers)? In those early stages we would have never admitted it, in fact we were deeply hurt when someone accused us of it, but we felt we owned the place. So we suffered in anticipation of loss. And then we suffered because there were of course changes all the time.
The magic remained though, the real miracle, but the details changed. And the details became gigantic. There were “other people” on this beach. They started to trash the place, tear up vegetation. Most of all “other people” didn’t understand the place, we thought. Oh, we took it so personally. How could everyone not be just in awe of this miracle? The place is extremely remote, native population is minimal. People who kept leaving traces were almost all foreigners like us.
Soon we found action was necessary. This jewel needed protection – our protection. Someone had to take up the responsibility to save this place. As there was nobody else we had to do it.
The long sand spit of the beach reaches out to a small island. At high tide it’s an island, at low tide people can drive over and camp in the tiny oasis there, but it is way too small to tolerate much human presence, the vegetation simply dies when more than ten people walk over it and the egrets always flee when the people come. So we actually started to protect the island from people. Every visitor who didn’t treat “our” place with respect and appreciation – and in the end that was almost everybody – was considered an enemy, our enemy. We put up a sign: ‘No Camping on the island‘. A holy war was on: Our war for a noble cause. The whole idea escalated to a project that lasted several years. It was a nightmare of continuous conflict, but over all it was actually successful. In the end it was an unexpected wonderful lesson of human nature.
At first, nearly everyone simply denied us, of course, the mere authority to take up this role and put up such a sign. Our job was to admit that we indeed had no authority whatsoever, and we did not claim any, but we felt, due to our great intimacy with the place, like caretakers and guardians. We tried to inform people about the threatened state of this precious piece of nature and convince them to join us, saving it from abuse.
The locals drop their garbage everywhere and burn the vegetation; they have the least respect. We hardly ever argued with them, most of them just laughed about our funny attitude. But they don’t know better, we thought. We do, we are more informed, we should know the larger context, we are aware of the problem. Doesn’t that make us responsible? Isn’t the one who understands also immediately responsible? When we see a problem, are we not the solution, part of the solution?
In this arid, uniquely sensitive desert environmental damage people do to such a place is not immediately obvious.
The typical careless visitor doesn’t see the place in the still morning hours when the heron stands on the beach in deep meditation, when the water whispers in the mangroves, the few that have not been trampled the year before. They don’t see it when the perfect magic of this little oasis is almost painfully obvious and nobody could ever escape its spell. They come in the heat of the day when the senses are numbed by wind and the glaring sun and they only see the cliché of the beach in the middle of wasteland. But when you walk or even drive on the young mangroves, they die; when you leave your trash or use the precious shade under the two trees for a bathroom, it all stays forever in this dry climate. Everyone finds it beautiful but many simply don’t care because the native locals here don’t care either and, “give me a break, it’s just desert”. The “nice people” find it very beautiful, but who is willing to consider even his very own presence a problem?
To our delight the majority of visiting gringos understood our intention immediately. Some even spontaneously helped our endless struggle to remove old trash. But it wasn’t always nice, and it took great skill and determination to do this convincing over and over again. “Who are you to make rules here? Don’t give me this environmental shit. I came here to escape from you bloody rule-makers. Get out of my way”.
One typical attraction of Baja lies in its lack of civilization. To escape the so familiar fabric of rules and restrictions at home can be such a relief. Where else can you still find beaches where you are free to do what you want, without signs and regulations and stupid rules to obey? So many come here because they hate signs and authority; and I’m certainly one of them.
But by now we are too many on this planet. There is no room left to just do what you like. We all used to run away from restrictions and spread out over the globe until there was no place left where one could pretend to be alone. Now, to look for pristine unspoiled places has a completely different meaning. The very last wild and untouched spots on this earth do not need the traditional discoverer who may not claim a place for himself but opens it up for abuse by others; the new emancipated role of a discoverer is the protector.
After some years, the first beautiful results of our effort were showing, the vegetation at the end of the beach started growing back, an osprey decided to nest on the island, and people began to take notice and came to see what was happening there. But then – as always in politics – your worst enemies are those closest to you, it was our fellow long-term visitors who started to sabotage everything. They were the ones who began pulling out the sign and who accused us of secret self-interest. What had been a wonderful new spirit on the beach turned in the end into an atmosphere of growing hostility.
A group of French-Canadians, who simply refused to even listen to our arguments, rendered us finally helpless when they turned it all into a ridiculous conflict of nationalities. We were all foreigners and only visitors at this desert place, but human conflicts have ignited over lesser issues.
One day a new French-Canadian bicyclist arrived and headed out for the island to camp. I talked to him, as I always did to newcomers, told him that he was free to camp where he wanted but that we had this project going, protecting the island, that we didn’t expect him to leave any traces but that his tent would attract others etc. etc. He congratulated us for our noble idea and immediately came back to settle down with the rest of us on the sand spit.
The “handkerchief-man”, a wild-looking guy from Quebec, who always wore something like a handkerchief on his head and who I had never talked to before, could not bear this personal insult. It came to a movie-like showdown. He addressed me as a bloody German and that he had enough of me, and he made all the moves to settle it his way right there. (Isn’t it tragically funny how we all know these moves from watching too many bad movies?) I must admit that I came very close to taking him up on his provocation, just to relieve my own built up anger. When I walked away instead, the tension was released without resorting to violence and making even more fools of ourselves, but our great project was finally dead too.
We did not return to the beach for years. We had left in theatrical tragic disappointment and thought the pain would stay with us forever. However, the healing was almost instantaneous when we let go. The pain is always in the clinging not in letting go. Moving on seemed at first like a defeat, like an aggressive act of destruction: may it all go to hell! But a moment later it all looked different. From a distance the beach looked just as beautiful as ever, as gorgeous as a million years ago before We came along to change and re-change it.
I met the handkerchief-man again. Somewhere in Guatemala I saw him and pretended not to recognize him – the old feelings fresh as ever. And a year later I saw him another time in Acapulco. It is kind of funny how we travelers meet each other on our restless paths.
Then, one day, we stopped by at our beach again. A windy day – oh how we knew these windy days – hardly anyone was there. The wind howled in the mangroves, the surf roared on the beach, and the sand was flying. Not people but the latest hurricane had reshaped everything. I sat for a while at my meditation spot and everything was okay. There were memories but the wind carried them away.
We returned another time. This time it was calm, the beach lay in the sun, stretched out, seductive like a beautiful woman. Although we knew the danger deep in our hearts we gave in without holding back. It was like a first time; there was no past that mattered.
When we parked at our old spot, ran into the water, and embraced it all again I recognized a person in the half broken palapa next door – the handkerchief-man.
It was so strange; the old grudges were still there, but I was not the same person anymore. The feelings were like an old set of clothes that didn’t fit anymore. I nodded at him when I caught his eye and he also made a minimal, but unmistakable, gesture of salutation. I dove under and swallowed water because I had to laugh. Should we run again or is this the golden opportunity to finish the lesson, to receive the final instructions?
We ignored each other for a day, there were other people on the beach. But the next morning when I came back with some Barracudas in my kayak I said: “fishing’s just as good as ever, eh”, speaking half into his direction and half to the beach in general. He waved back and nodded. During the day, Parvin found an opportunity to talk to his wife. (What would we do without our female emissaries?) She came back with the news that he had some major problems with his solar power system. “This is it” I said, “wait and see!” And in the afternoon I took a deep breath and walked over and said: ”I hear you have some problems with your solar panel, I know this stuff a little, maybe I can do something.”
It was a superb pleasure to see the smile spread out over his face. Not once did neither of us make the slightest reference to what had happened here years ago. It wasn’t even formally clear that we knew each other. It took me a while but I could repair his system. Not only was he happy, I was secretly ecstatic. Finally, this stupid burden was off my shoulders. And it was not difficult to see that he enjoyed this belated outcome of “the affair” too.
The next day when I was lying in the sand, spreading my bones out and feeling the sun penetrate deep into my soul, Parvin, without saying a word, touched my arm and pointed down to the end of the beach. There was a “wild looking guy” picking up trash from the beach at low tide – it was the handkerchief-man.
In the following days, I found it fascinating to get to know this guy. André was his name. He was brimming with life, his charm was irresistible, and he was funny. He had strong opinions, but then he was obviously capable of changing them too. I didn’t exactly become friends with him, but when I saw him sitting in the night, content, quietly watching the stars I felt very close to him in this paradise.
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010