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Chapter 20   Pitahaya madness



Imagine lying on your back inside a tent in the middle of nowhere and listening to two or three hours of: “Two on and one out for the Dodgers. We’re in the bottom of the sixth. Sax is up hitting two-eighty-seven. The count is three and one. Fast ball! Strike! Three and two.”

 

Baseball, for someone like myself who tends to freeze when confronted by a mass of figures, is not an easy game to decipher. However, having taken a perverse delight in trying to make sense of America’s national game, I found myself hooked. I adopted the Los Angeles Dodgers as my team. Their season was building to a dramatic climax as they struggled to clinch the National League West title. I wrote in my diary:


Sept. 28, 1983. The days are getting shorter. It was almost dark when I made camp in a wide arroyo just above a pleasant sandy beach. I quickly cooked the last of my porridge, then disappeared inside the tent to listen to the big game—The Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. It was a real thriller. 4–4 in the fourteenth when it was rained off. Disappointed, I went for a walk along the beach. The air was warm. The sea was calm. The stars were beautiful—like a million home-runs disappearing into eternity.


Before retiring to my tent for the night, I looked south and saw a glow and a flash. A car headlight? A fishcamp? I had been a week alone and was looking forward to some company.

I awoke to the sound of pit… pit… pat… pit. I couldn’t make it out. The pit-pat pace picked up till it sounded like a racing Geiger counter. There was a flash; then another, closer and brighter. A fine, cold mist seemed to be descending on my skin. Half awake, I fumbled for my torch, looked at my watch, then grabbed my tape recorder:

 
Well, that’s a real surprise at half past four in the morning. It’s raining! And all around flashes of lightning and the occasional clap of thunder. It’s a bit like being under artillery bombardment. I’m just waiting for one to strike one of the aluminum tent poles.

It was a beautiful clear night. I looked at the Milky Way before I went to bed. I could see the stars so clearly; there was no hint of this. What I’ve got to be careful of, I’ve pitched the tent in the mouth of a river, a dry river, an arroyo. If it’s raining up in the mountains there’s a possibility of a flash flood coming sweeping down that water course. I visited the grave of an English lady at the Bay of Los Angeles who was killed along with her American husband by a flash flood. They were in their car and were swept away. These things are not to be fooled with.

I’ve got nearly an hour and a half till dawn. I don’t fancy getting up and moving the tent. I don’t fancy going to higher ground with lightning flashing all around. I’ll just have to keep my wits about me, and if I hear a distant roar coming down the arroyo, I’ll probably have thirty seconds to do something quick.

[With the rain getting heavier] Well, this has really caught me out. I didn’t bring the outer covering for this tent. I just sprayed it with waterproof spray and it has obviously not worked. I can feel the water coming through. And being short of water with all this rain falling, I’m obviously feeling very silly that I haven’t thought up some idea for running water into a container. But my first priority is to get everything put away into my backpack which is waterproof—I hope!

Boy! This is really pelting. The lightning’s getting closer. I’m going to be washed away here. I don’t mind confessing this is scary. The water is pouring through the tent. I’ll be washed away inside it if this continues much longer. I have everything packed away in the back­pack, and as soon as I feel any water hitting the tent, then I’ve got to get out quick or I’ll end up in the sea, struggling inside this thing.

[Fifteen minutes later] Well, I’ve adopted the ostrich tactic. I’ve pulled myself into my sleeping bag and I’m lying on the mat, the foam pad I’ve got, and if lightning does strike the tent I just hope [chuckles] there’s enough insulation under me... I don’t suppose it will do much good. I’m a bit worried about those poles just sticking up.


It was still raining at daybreak but the lightning and the thunder were drifting away. The inside of the tent was one big puddle. I was able to suck up over a pint of water by putting my lips to the groundsheet. My sleeping bag was soaking wet but at least it was warm. Before radio reception faded, I tuned in to a Californian news station where I belatedly heard that there was a major tropical storm moving off the coast of Baja California. More worrying, there was a hurricane watch in Hawaii and another in Acapulco. I was sandwiched right in the middle.

 

Around nine o’clock it stopped raining and the sun came out. The inside of the tent became steamy hot. I crawled outside and spread everything out to dry. How different the desert was after rain. Pools of water were being rapidly absorbed by the rain-pocked sand. The normally clean, dry, sand was heavy and clinging. So was the air. There was a hot, jungle humidity. The steam visibly rose up to chase the blue-gray clouds tumbling inland. The cacti looked beautifully incongruous against such a backdrop.

 

I tried to start a fire. First problem, I’d left my matches out. I had to dig deep inside the pack to get another box which I’d carefully wrapped in polythene. Second problem, of course, everything was wet. A frustrating thirty minutes later, after I’d sacrificed strips off maps, a letter I’d written to a friend in England, and a few precious pieces of toilet tissue. I managed to stoke up a few smoky flames and get a cup of tea. No need to worry about water now, there were pools of it on the rocks.

 

Two hours of hot Baja sunshine was enough to dry out everything, including my enthusiasm for walking. I felt exhausted. Perhaps it was the stress of the night. Perhaps my “healthy” seafood/desert diet had caught up with me. I was craving something sweet. My mouth watered at the thought of a cold Pepsi and a hot apple pie.

 

I found a road, or rather a pair of tracks cut into the rubble of the desert. Because of the rain, it was hard to tell when it had last been used. I followed it for several miles, before tiring of its wide and, from a walker’s point of view, unnecessary detours around some of the steeper valleys. Also, it was too easy. It was boring. I preferred the more direct coast-hugging coyote trails. Back seeing the seabirds and the sea lions, I recovered a sense of exhilaration.


Still craving something sweet, I crested a small coastal hill, and was amazed to see a trio of camping trailers and pickups in a clearing behind a beach. Looking down, I saw two wetsuit clad gringos clambering out of the ocean on to the rocks.

 

I wandered down unnoticed as one of them, a big man with a large sandy beard, rifled through his wetsuit and pulled out his pecker to take a piss. I was laughing to myself as I walked up to say hello. The poor guy was suddenly pissing in all directions. Surprise over, we soon got to know each other in the way that offbeat travelers do.

 

“Come over to the camp and we’ll see if we can find you a beer and something to eat.”

 

I was the guest of three adventurous gringos from a remote mountain resort in Southern California. They’d been on the beach for nearly a month spearing fish and lobster, and generally saying muchas gracias to Mother Nature. They had dared to venture so far off the main highway because they had everything necessary, including the know-how, to cope with any likely situation. In their workshop of tools and spares they had generators, winches and welding gear. Their camp was well laid out. Beneath a large awning, they had tables and chairs and all the comforts of home. A trash pit had been dug fifty yards away; and just over a rise and behind a bush a portable toilet sat offering a pleasant view of the low rounded hills rising a hundred yards from the beach.

 

As I sat in the shade of the awning, drinking beer and eating apple and raisin cake, it seemed that all my wishes were coming true. The “gringos” helped me retie some of the eyes coming away from my fishing rod, oiled and serviced my reel, lent me an awl to sew up a split in my backpack, attempted to glue back the soles of my boots with a rubber compound used for plugging tires, and when it started raining again they gave me a tarpaulin to stretch over my tent. Then for dinner we had lobster, and cake, and Coke and tequila. I couldn’t believe my luck!

 

As soon as it was dark, the rain became torrential. The awning above us rapidly filled with water and threatened to collapse. They had to knock a hole in it to let the water drain. We sat drinking and talking while the mini-waterfall slowly filled a five-gallon bucket.

 

It was still raining next morning. Worried about the roads being washed out, they decided it was time to get back to the highway while they still could. Naturally I said “yes” when they asked if I wanted some food they were going to throw away. They brought over enough food to feed an army. From a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, I suddenly found myself with rice, spaghetti, potatoes, several bags of crisps and chips, bottles of tomato sauce, tartar sauce, prawn cocktail sauce and cucumber sauce, cans of fruit, fruit juice, beans, green beans, mushrooms, ham, sardines and peanuts, not to mention margarine, jam, onions, garlic, tomatoes, tortilla flour, sugar, pancake mix, syrup, and powdered milk.

 

As an afterthought, they gave me batteries, a lighter, three packs of film, a can of charcoal lighter, a waterproof poncho, the tarp on my tent and half a dozen white T-shirts proudly emblazoned with “Iran sucks.” It was beginning to feel like Christmas. I was also given a small folding stool with a toilet seat on top, some old magazines, and a selection of buckets and containers.

 

I shouted my goodbyes as they drove away. “How can I ever thank you guys?”

 

“Send us a copy of the book.”

 

“You’ve got it. Safe journey.”

 

“Same to you. Good luck.”

 

The three vehicles towing their trailers disappeared over the hill. Suddenly I was alone. The rain stopped. I started to make myself comfy. I brought up a bucket of seawater for the dishes and built a table out of some of the other stuff left behind. The toilet seat was an incredible luxury. I felt like a king on a throne as I sat and read a month old copy of Newsweek. Although I explored the beach and the rocky point, and did some swimming and fishing, I spent most of the afternoon stuffing myself. In between I had much to write in my diary:


Towards evening, the sky was a little brighter. Is this unusual weather coming to an end? Will the rain return? I sat by my campfire looking at the misty stars through breaks in the clouds. Thought of home, friends and loved ones. If they could see me now. I listened to the radio, mostly news and country music. Otherwise I could be the last person in the world.

Oct. 1, 1983. Woke to sound of rain. Raining off and on all morning. Impossible to get fire going. Whilst shaking the tarp, saw a black widow in a bush next to the tent. Killed it with a stone.

Oct. 2, 1983. Rained all night. The sand is covered with stinkbugs. Probably brought out by the rain. Threaten one and he immediately raises his rear end! I don’t mess with them. Killed a large scorpion I found under a log by impaling him with a stick.

Oct. 3, 1983. Off and on rain, but less than previous days. Washed all my clothes, final rinse in fresh water.

Oct. 4, 1983. Dry when I woke about 4:30 a.m. but soon the sound of rain on tarp. Stopped. Up for breakfast of peaches and muffins. Got lovely log fire going. Drank lots of hot chocolate. Then rain heavier, everything away then retire to tent. Maybe I’m going to need all this food to sit out this weather. I want to get back into the battle—it brings out my best. I’m not cut out for all this lazing about. I get lethargic, lazy and think only of my stomach. I wish some Mexicans would appear. The food has become a problem. I hate to waste food, but I don’t mind giving it away.


An hour after writing that, a passing panga with a pair of young fishermen pulled into the beach. In spite of the rain, the sea was almost flat calm. I invited them to join me for some hot chocolate and blueberry muffins. One of the Mexicans carried up two big lobsters by their long spiny feelers. The ugly-looking creatures expressed their displeasure by a few wicked tail snaps. I put them in an empty bucket. As a token of my gratitude I gave the Mexicans a 3 lb bag of rice and a 5 lb bag of potatoes, a pack of spaghetti and some assorted sauces.

 

“Weather permitting, we shall return tomorrow, señor.”

 

“Go with God, amigos.”

After a delicious lunch of fried lobster tail and tartar sauce I went down to the rocks to do some fishing. I caught three sweet-looking, docile, flabby pufferfish. As they all looked so similar, I wondered if I’d caught the same fish three times.

 

Gullible, guileless, gormless, at first sight this big eyed fish looks the picture of perfect innocence, God’s gift to predators. However he’s not as innocent as he looks. Behind his sweet smile lies a vicious set of chisel teeth. A small 1 lb fish is quite capable of biting a hook in half; a 2 lb specimen would have little trouble removing the end of a finger poking around for a lost hook. But, more important from the puffer’s point of view, “Eating him almost invariably causes death in agony.” His flesh is shot through with a tasteless, odorless alkaloid reputed to be five hundred times more poisonous than cyanide. A lethal dose would be smaller than a grain of salt.

 

Thousands of years before Christ, the Chinese and the Egyptians were aware of the unique danger posed by the puffer. The figure of a puffer fish has been found on the tomb of one of the Pharaohs. Yet, I was amazed how few tourists in Baja were aware of the dangers. Puffers are common all around the coast, especially in warm shallow waters. It was the first fish I ever caught in the Sea of Cortez. Luckily, I only used it for bait. Shortly before my arrival in the Bay of Los Angeles, a young Frenchman had been taken violently ill after catching and cooking a puffer. He was flown out to the States, but he died later in hospital. There is no known antidote. According to one of the medical accounts of ciguatera, pufferfish poisoning, “The poisonous flesh acts primarily on the nervous tissue of the stomach, causing violent spasms of that organ and, shortly afterward, of all the muscles of the body. The frame becomes wracked with spasms… the eye fixed, the breathing laborious, and the patient expires in a paroxysm of extreme suffering.”

 

Some species of puffer, the so-called porcupine puffers, have another trick enabling them to avenge themselves on their would-be predators. They are capable of ballooning up and erecting spines like a porcupine when threatened. Any pelican or other sea bird slithering a porcupine puffer down his throat would receive a very nasty shock. Live specimens have been found lodged in the throats of dead sharks. And Darwin, in The Voyage of the Beagle, states:


I have heard from Dr. Allan of Forres, that he has frequently found a Diodon [pufferfish] floating alive and distended, in the stomach of the shark; and that on several occasions he has known it eat its way, not only through the coats of the stomach, but through the sides of the monster, which has thus been killed. Who would ever have imagined that a little soft fish could have destroyed the great and savage shark?


With the sea so calm, I was able to enjoy fishing from a rock with my feet dangling in the warm sea. Something touched my foot. At first I thought it was a piece of sea weed. Then I felt a tightening, a muscular movement. My instinct was to kick out wildly, but instead I bent forward to see a pair of inch-thick purplish tentacles caressing my leg. I slowly lifted it up. The suckers gripped and held. A tug of war was in process with my foot as the prize. When another tentacle started to kiss its way around the back of my leg, that was enough. I stood up and pulled. The body of an octopus—the dreaded pulpo—lifted half out of the water. One look at me was enough, he let all his suckers slip and dashed back to his underwater cave.

 

Staying in one place for several days enabled me to get to know something about the other creatures sharing my patch of paradise. It soon became apparent that a system of apartheid operated on the beach. The seagulls had their patch and the crows had theirs. Only insults and threats flew between them.

 

Among the gulls, one individual stood out, or more accurately was kept out and apart by his gully companions. He was old and tatty and easily the biggest of the bunch. He had somehow lost a leg and an eye. Nevertheless, he supported his enormous seagull bulk with great dignity on his remaining leg. The younger sleeker gulls ganged up on him and chased him across the driftwood and the seaweed. But one to one he was a match for any of them. He seemed capable of opening his mouth so wide that there was nothing to attack but an enormous chasm surrounded by a beak that meant business.

 

I called him Nelson. Whenever I went down to the rocks to fish or down to the beach to swim, he’d be there. Poor old thing. I spent quite a bit of time talking to him and feeding him. He trusted me and came closer than any of the other birds. Hatred of Nelson seemed to be the only thing that united the crows and the gulls.


Oct. 5. Rain before dawn followed by a bright promising sunrise. A lovely 95% clear day. Hot again! I spread everything out to dry and took the tarp off the tent. The Mexicans returned with three more lobsters. Enjoyed some more fishing in the afternoon. The tide fell very low. My eyes popped at the number of abalone studding the rocks. For dinner I had a delicious onion, tomato, potato, abalone fry-up with Thousand Island dressing. Retired bloated to a dry, clean tent to listen to the Dodgers beat Philadelphia 4-1.

Oct. 6. No rain! Woke just before dawn, listened to radio before it fades. Floods in Arizona. So much for arid regions! If it’s a good day I should leave this afternoon.


It turned out to be a perfect day, sunny and breezy. The fishermen appeared but the surf made it too dangerous for them to land, so I waved goodbye and shouted out my thanks. It wasn’t easy deciding what to take and what to leave behind. In the end I decided to say adios to the tarp, the toilet seat, the “Iran sucks” T-shirts, the buckets, and several gallons of water. I took all the food. The weight was almost impossible. I left that camp with a bag of food and a gallon of water in each hand. The problems of affluence!

 

I pushed on a hundred painful yards at a time. The coast was fascinating walking. The retreating tide left many long patches of beach replete with large clams lying there for the taking. There were other beaches of beautiful, polished, marble-like stones full of veins and subtle colors. I had to negotiate headlands of barren red and black rock peeling and cracking in the sun. I passed several pterodactyl-sized nests perched precariously on top of sea stacks or little islets. One stony beach was white with the shrimp-like skeletons of lobster krill, a favorite food of whales often seen drifting on the surface of the ocean in bright red swarms.

 

The rain had brought out a rush of life. The mountains inland looked a kind of moldy green, and some of the valleys seemed even more densely choked with vegetation. Spiders’ webs ran in and between every bush. I got used to having spiders and webs all over me. They were a necessary evil.

 

At last, with my arms feeling like they were half way down to my ankles, I reached a deserted fishcamp and called a halt. There were shells everywhere, but I found an acceptable place to put my tent. As I was looking up at the stars, a large flying insect hit me in the face and fell inside the tent. It took half the night to chase him out.

 

Next morning I was walking along a beautiful, apparently never-ending beach when I started wishing I had somewhere clean and dry to sit down. Up ahead was what appeared to be a table. It was a cable drum. The perfect place to sit and place my pack. “Wishes are powerful things out here,” I wrote, “they seem to come true.”

 

Every new experience convinced me that something incredible was happening. It couldn’t be just a coincidence. No wonder the high and dry places of the world have been the traditional sources of spiritual inspiration. Perhaps that is why Jesus said: “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile.” [Mark 6: 31] For it is there that one senses the truth of the claim: “What things soever you desire, when ye pray, believe that you receive them, and ye shall have them.” [Mark 11: 24]

 

It wasn’t long before I was once again short of water, and therefore severely restricted in what I could eat. I was then less keen on listening to the baseball games—I couldn’t stand all the ads for beer made from Rocky Mountain spring water, or foot-long Dodger dogs made from corn fed hogs. In the midst of my despair, Baja provided yet again.

 

I was in an arroyo, hacking my way through a sprawling grove of pitahaya cactus. Something red caught my eye, a large fruit, like a cricket ball covered in spines. It had burst and the oozing red pulp was full of black seeds and ants. I knocked it off with my machete, sliced away the open part, then cut it in two and spooned out the middle. I knew the pitahaya produced edible fruits but they were bigger and better than I expected; delicious; sweet and juicy, satisfying both thirst and hunger.

 

I decided to abandon the beach and zigzag my way across the desert checking out every clump of pitahaya. The branches of the pitahaya are like thick, ribbed cucumbers covered with a profusion of stiff, dagger-like spines. They twist and turn in every direction without order or symmetry, producing impenetrable thickets sometimes as much as ten feet tall. Almost every plant bore fruits in different stages of development. The smaller fruits had a somewhat more tart, acid taste but they were still refreshing. The bigger ones were the sweetest and, as far as I was concerned, the best. When fully ripe, they are much easier to knock from the plant, and then the clusters of spines can be readily brushed off. “Look!” it seems to be saying. “I have shed my spines and fallen at your feet. Take me, I’m yours.”

 

Dr. William Butler, a contemporary of Shakespeare remarked of the strawberry: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry but doubtless God never did.” After sampling the fruit of the pitahaya I could only conclude that doubtless Dr. Butler never tried it. James Bull, the son of a Pennsylvania clergyman journeyed through Baja in the fall of 1843. He wrote:


Today we frequently stopped along the roadside to gather the fruit of the sweet petalle [pitahaya]. The fruit when ripe is of a deep red color, covered with a thick husk or shell from which also project thorns in bunches. When the fruit is peeled it almost melts in the mouth, indeed, it is the most delicious fruit that I think I have ever tasted.


The fruit of the pitahaya was so important to the Baja Indians that its appearance towards the end of the summer was a time of great joy and celebration. Much to the chagrin of the early missionaries, their new converts would up and leave the missions and go wandering through the desert eating pitahayas till they could eat no more. They would then dance, sing, and satisfy their sexual appetites in a protracted orgy of indulgence. The good padres tried to stop the excesses by warning that such conduct would whisk them away to the fires of hell, but the Indians were unrepentant. They confounded the padres by asserting that such a hell must be a fine place as there was obviously no shortage of firewood.

 

The Indians had their own vision of heaven and hell. Hell was a land without pitahayas. Whereas the slopes of heaven would be eternally crimson with big fat fruits, and in the shade of the tall cardóns there would be never-ending days of laughter, dancing, and copulation. I must say it sounded a hell of a lot better than any images of heaven propounded by the Jesuits.

 

If the padres had a bit of trouble getting aspects of their theology across, they were able to utilize some Indian beliefs to explain the mysteries of Christianity. Indeed, some of the parallels are striking! The Pericu, the main Indian tribe in the south of the peninsula, held that a great lord called Niparaja had made the earth, the sky, and the sea. He had three sons, one of whom, Cuajaip had been sent to earth as a man to help people and teach them how to live. But the ungrateful people of the earth killed him and placed on his head a wreath of thorns. They also believed that a great war had been fought in the sky when the evil Tuparan rebelled against the supreme creator Niparaja. Niparaja had triumphed in the end. He took from Tuparan the pitahayas and the fruits of the desert, cast him from the sky with all his followers, imprisoned him in a cave near the sea and created whales to guard him and keep him in his place.

 

The Indians measured their year by the season of the pitahaya. They rejoiced at its coming and lamented its passing. However, they prolonged the feast in a peculiar way. There was a “second harvest” to be gathered. The fruity pulp contains thousands of small black seeds. They pass through the digestive system without destruction. During the pitahaya season the Indians would defecate on carefully selected, large, flat rocks. When the fresh fruits were no more, these impressive deposits were broken up and the seeds picked out and ground into flour or toasted. The story is told of how the Jesuit, Father Piccolo, was presented with a sample of this flour. In blissful ignorance he baked with it, much to the satisfaction of his flock. When other missionaries met with Father Piccolo they would joke about the “second harvest” with much amusement.

 

As for the first harvest, I wandered from cactus to cactus like a lotus-eater. Some days I made hardly any progress, but it didn’t seem to matter. My diary relates something of the mood that the pitahaya season induced:


I chose to walk the inland valleys in the hope of finding more pitahayas. Soon found a grove and helped myself to the ripe, red balls of fluffy sweetness. Juice oozing out. I ate 5 or 6. Progress slow. I had to force myself to go on, leaving many behind… More pitahayas. I indulged in pitahaya madness. No detour, no risk, no tangle of thorns or spider’s web was too much trouble to get at the delicious fruits. Perhaps only the presence of the fiercely spined cholla made me hesitate!...

I walked around with a machete in my hand and a spoon in my back pocket… Made camp and indulged my fantasy—pitahaya flan. I fried up a mix of flour and water then spread the scarlet fruit on top. Hmmm! Looked and tasted great. I admired a pitahaya red sunset, then sat by my fire in the moonlight, very content with things. A good day behind me. I felt no fear; I just took great pleasure from the rests, and the bounty of the desert. Will these be the best days of my life?