Extract reproduced with the kind permission of Harper Collins
The Hungry Cyclist
£7.99The dictionary definition of a tachometer is the device used to determine the speed of rotation of a vehicle’s axle. The Hungry Cyclist’s definition is the average number of tacos consumed in a day while cycling in Mexico...
... and after little more than three weeks in the Baja my tacometer was moving dangerously close to triple figures, but I had yet to find out how the succulent fish I was eating day after day were getting from their comfortable ocean home into my mouth, via a guacamole and salsa-drenched tortilla.
Following the quiet coastal road close to the calm waters of Baya Magdalena it seemed like a perfect spot to make camp. The high ground ensured we would be safe if the tide came in and a rundown pair of pangas, typical clinker-built Mexican fishing boats, provided a good rest for our bikes and shelter from the sandy breeze that blew in from the sea. We had lit a small driftwood fire and begun to prepare supper when the rumble of a truck, just audible above the roar of the ocean, grabbed our attention.
‘You can hear that?’ asked Amir.
Police (federales), locals looking for easy pickings, the chances were it was nothing sinister, but not wanting to take any risks we hurriedly buried any incriminating evidence, cameras, credit cards and the majority of our cash in the loose sand and then watched apprehensively as the glow of headlights moved behind the dune towards where we were camped. The truck rounded the bend. Caught like a pair of rabbits in the headlights, we got to our feet. The doors of the truck opened and the silhouettes of six large men came towards us, their long shadows cast before them.
It soon became clear that we had pitched our tents on a spot in active use by a team of local fishermen. Working together, the six men lifted another small boat from a trailer behind the truck and after placing it with the rest they joined us around the fire.
‘Quiere café?’ offered Amir, and accepting silently the six men of various ages passed our small enamel coffee cup between them, the eight of us eyeing each other up in silence in the flickering half-light of the fire. This was an opportunity.
‘Es possible para mí voy contigo a mañana?’
A confused look spread across weathered faces starring back at me.
‘Quiero ir contigo a mañana. Es possible?’
‘A donde?’ replied the captain.
‘Porque?’ came a confused reply.
The fishermen looked at each other in confusion and Amir joined them.
‘Pues, bien – mañana a las seis.’
The captain handed me the empty coffee mug. Saying goodnight, the men followed him through the darkness back towards the truck.
‘If I understood that conversation correctly, you are going fishing tomorrow. Well, you are on your own, my friend. I have had enough boats for one lifetime.’
The last people I ever expected to spend a Valentine’s Day with were a six-man Mexican fishing crew, but shortly before six in the morning on 14 February the rumble of the fishermen’s pick-up truck woke me from sleep and my dates had arrived. The bay was shrouded in a thick mist and as the shabby truck pulled up I walked towards the burly men, who were clad in a collection of bright-coloured rubber dungarees, nylon swimming shorts, white Wellington boots and worn-out trainers from which toes protruded. With my backpacker sandals, sunglasses and figure-hugging Lycra shorts, I felt decidedly underdressed.
The captain, a short man who introduced himself as Capitán Bin Laden, much to the delight of his crew, put me to work cleaning and repairing the mountain of nylon netting stored under the panga. I had no idea how to repair a fishing net, but while the other men entertained themselves with what I guessed was Mexican fisherman’s banter, I began removing the crusty bits of seaweed and stubborn crabs that clung to this never-ending tangle of netting. After an hour my hands were an aching mess of tiny cuts and scratches, aggravated by the saline dust that coated everything I touched.
We turned over the panga and lifted it onto its flimsy trailer, folded the cleaned net and placed it into the boat, then we all bundled into the back of the rusty pick-up truck. After Gustavo, one of two large brothers, did some rewiring with his large fish knife, the multi-tool in these parts, Capitán Bin Laden successfully started the engine and we rumbled off down the beach, the suspension in the stripped-down truck a distant memory. We crossed the small spit of sand that protected the calm waters of the Bay of Magdalena, where I thought we would be fishing, and turned onto a vast, empty beach that faced the crashing open waters of the Pacific Ocean. We came to a standstill. After thoughtfully eyeing up the shoreline, Capitán Bin Laden spoke.
Initially intimidated by this burly group of rough and ready men, when each one produced a breakfast, neatly wrapped in a colourful hand-embroidered handkerchief, my fears disappeared. As each bundle was opened, a colourful spread of warm corn tortillas, refried beans, home-made salsas, bunches of bright-red radishes, fresh limes and hibiscus cordial was laid out on the bonnet. I could not have imagined a more picturesque breakfast. Under a perfect blue sky, the seven of us sat in the sand, eating breakfast and staring at the ocean. This was my kind of fishing. I felt like a real fisherman. But then the captain got to his feet, and it was time to start work.
We reversed the panga into the surf, lifted it from its trailer and the captain ordered me in, then followed along with two other men. He yanked the engine into life and we began cutting through the foaming waves of the shallows. Pointing a telling finger at the sea, like an explorer at the first sight of land, it was clear where the captain was taking us. The engine revved, the bow of the panga lifted out of the water and I held on tight. The neat coil of rope on top of the net span out behind us and on the beach the other men took the strain. Our small boat skipped over the rolling foam towards the towering waves ahead. The captain pulled on his plastic hood, the two men next to me ducked into the hull and, after taking one last look at the huge wave about to convert us into a box of matches, I did the same. Pitched at a terrifying angle, the small boat charged up the face of the wave, the engine whining in resistance as we struggled to climb the wall of water bearing down on us. The hull came down with a loud thud – we had made it over the top. But no sooner had I peeped up above the parapet, then we were charging at the next roller moving towards us. Heads down, revs up, we climbed again as water rushed over the bow of the boat until once again we heard the reassuring thump on the other side.
Rolling on the smooth swell behind the break the captain cut the revs and, turning the boat, we began bundling the net into the water, trailing it behind us as we ran parallel with the beach. After dragging some 200 metres of net behind us, we turned for the shore. All that remained in the boat was another coil of rope and it quickly dawned on me what the plan was. Back on the beach the hazy figures of the other men had one end of the huge drag net secured and we had to close the loop. The captain pushed on the tiller and pointed our bow towards the beach. He revved the engine, I ducked back into the hull, and, like a surfer catching a wave, the captain timed his run back to the beach, navigating us over the waves as they exploded behind us.
Relieved to be back in the shallows, I couldn’t get out of the boat fast enough and leaving two men to hold the rope, the captain and I dragged the panga onto the beach, before joining the others securing our end of the net. The hazy figures of the other men way down the beach, waiting on the rope like a tug-o-war team, acknowledged our readiness. The captain raised his arm and we all began to pull.
‘Vamos, vamos,’ called the crew, our hands crossing in rhythm as we pulled against the ocean. My legs sank into the wet sand, my hands slipped on the damp rope, but the first edge of net at last became visible and soon we were dragging it onto the beach. The gulls and pelicans swooping and squabbling overhead signalled our success and as the net was hauled onto the sand our catch became visible, the bright silver flashes of jumping fish catching in the bright sun as they made one last bid for freedom.
We set about collecting our catch into plastic crates. There were streamlined silver fish reminding me of mackerel; well-camouflaged bottom feeders similar to a sole or flounder; round-bodied white fish, cousins of the hake and the cod, flipping to free themselves; colourfully spotted rays with venomous tails that flapped on the sand. Slimy catfish with strange investigative whiskers wriggled in the netting while wide-mouthed monsters flashed their aggressive fins in protest at being touched and puffer fish sat inflated in complaint. The crew, of course, had their own names for everything we gathered: ratón, sierra, lisa, corvina, caballito. And nothing was wasted. What didn’t make it into the boxes was tossed to the unsure brown pelicans, with their strange flabby gullets, who waddled and jumped at a safe distance. It wasn’t long before the huge net was empty and the floor of the truck a lively harvest of exhausted marine life gasping for air. Not a bad day’s work, I thought.
‘Bueno. Otra vez.’
The boat ride had terrified me, my back ached in protest at the hard work and my hands were a tender mess of cuts and blisters, and we had to do it all over again. I alternated between waiting on the beach and taking the white-knuckle ride in the panga as the fishermen repeated the exhausting dragging process four more times before stopping for lunch, another wonderful truck-bonnet affair. Four large, still wriggling ratón, a streamlined oily fish rather like mackerel, were skilfully gutted, skinned and filleted. The raw flesh was diced with the same knife used for rewiring the truck, and after it had been mixed through with plenty of fresh cilantro and doused in lime juice, we scooped it onto crispy tostadas and into our mouths. Served with a little sliced cucumber, diced habañero and radish, fish had never tasted so good or so fresh.
We made four more exhausting drags after lunch, working our way up and down the empty beach with the expectant flock of gulls and pelicans cautiously following our every move. The sun moved across the sky, we pulled the net and the truck slowly filled with fish until at six in the evening the captain signalled we would make our last energy-sapping drag.
There was no room in the truck on the way back, and beaten up, exhausted and sunburnt I collapsed on top of the damp net in the boat with the other men as we bumped along the sand back to our camp. I smelt like a fishmonger’s bin, my hands were cut and blistered, my back was tight in complaint and my eyes and face stung with sunburn. The boat was unloaded. I said goodbye to the crew, who still had to sort their catch and get it to the market by the early hours. The truck rumbled into the distance and I collapsed on the sand by the small fire.
‘How was your day fishing?’ asked Amir, but I was already asleep.