Growing up on an island, albeit a massive one, there's a number of things that always feel a little strange. For me, one of those things is crossing land borders. As an Australian travelling in the modern age I became accustomed to departing my country to arrive on a different continent, and more than likely a completely different climate as well. It always has such a jarring effect. I still remember my first time overseas - the electronic sliding doors silently parted as the stifling heat and humidity of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam suddenly overwhelmed all of my senses simultaneously. The smells were more intense and it was almost as if my skin reacted to the blast of heat in an instant. Oppressive to the unprepared, the heat was a far cry from the mild temperatures of autumnal weather back home.
The last time I'd crossed a land border on this trip was up in the Yukon in July. It was also the coldest I've been in the last seven months, so I didn't really care to appreciate the fact I was crossing the border into Canada. All I wanted in that moment were three things: dry clothes; a cup of hot tea; and that the customs lady would stop grilling me about my earning capacity as I stood shivering in the mist and rain, soaked to the core, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Thankfully this time around it was a little warmer. As Marge & I crossed the busiest land border in the world from San Diego to Tijuana, the landscape didn't radically change. In fact, it didn't change at all. It was still just as dry and just as dusty. The surrounding mountains felt the same and the Pacific remained unchanged – still as vast as ever.
Baja California - or Baja as it is lovingly known by many - is an extension of the California peninsula. Apart from the arbitrary presence of modern sovereign borders, Baja shares similar geology, flora, fauna, and countless other characteristics with its northern neighbour over the border. The peninsula extends about 1500km from Tijuana and Mexicali in the North to Los Cabos in the south and is divided into two states: Baja California and Baja California Sur, which are divided by the 28th parallel of latitude.
By its very nature as a peninsula, Baja is surrounded by water. On the west lies the endless expanse of the Pacific, while the Sea of Cortes to the east separates Baja from mainland Mexico. In the past the peninsula was attached to the mainland states of Sonora and Sinaloa before plate tectonics shifted it westward, allowing for the creation of a new body of water. As I have recently discovered the ocean surround Baja is absolutely teeming with life; whale sharks, humpback, grey and blue whales, dolphins, sea lions, and a vast array of seabirds flourish in the crystal blue waters. The landscapes down the peninsula and the archipelagos in the Sea of Cortes make you feel like you could be in New Mexico or Arizona. The stark contrast of desert hues to lively shades of ocean in beautiful blues and greens is a truly breathtaking sight.
I've spent the last month or so contemplating Baja California and its people and I've arrived at this conclusion. To me it feels like a Mexican-American, Californian-Mexican hybrid. Much in the way that Southern California is an entity unto itself, Baja feels different to the mainland of Mexico. Spanglish is ubiquitous, as are the Mexican versions of hamburguesas and hot dogs. The cultures of California and Baja California intertwine in a way that is at times almost impossible to separate. And I believe it points to the influence that climate and geography impact on the way in which people live, their view on the world, and their understanding and perception of time. There's still plenty of differences between the two, but the similarities point to how our micro world shapes who we are and how we exist within it.
Riding through the desert in Baja brought with it a return to a more simplified daily routine. It was something I hadn't really experienced since leaving Alaska all those months ago. I no longer had to worry about traffic, or whether someone was going to catch me out where I'd put my tent, or where to get my next eight cups of drip coffee. Food, water and shelter. It was a welcome return to the simple things.
Reverting to this mindset brings with it a certain clarity of thought. It gives you the good fortune to allow yourself to slip away from all the noise of modern world. For me one of the greatest pleasures was to wake up of a morning, get a fire started, boil some water for a coffee and take the time to drink in the desert colours of a morning; to take those fifteen or twenty minutes and allow all my senses to observe the world waking up (as the coffee allowed me to do the very same). In observation we learn more than any other medium. Whether it be plants, birds or people or otherwise, observation allows us to engage multiple senses simultaneously to gain a greater understanding of something, or things. We may not be able to translate that understanding to words. In fact, if we can't translate it into words then it's probably much more important than anything we can read or hear about it.
As the days passed, I felt as though the desert was slowly becoming a part of me. And me, a part of the desert. I can only imagine what people who lived here for lifetimes must feel about the place. And the silence. The silence is something I won't soon forget.
Baja also holds legendary status among the surfing community. I could see it in the eyes of the many surfers I met as I made my way down the west coast of the States. They were always keen to tell me of their exploits on the edge of the desert. Voices changed pitch, slowing their words for extra effect. Back up north in Leo Carrillo State Park Robyn & I had met a fellow Australian also named Tom. He looked me in the eyes in the late afternoon sun, his face taut with a mixture of seriousness and elation
"There's lots of good, well-known waves down there, and they're not too crowded either.
But if you go looking, you'll find some of the best waves of your life. And there'll be no one for miles. No one."
I'd heard all the rumours and the stories. And I'd had a pretty fortuitous run down the west coast of the US, so I had every reason to be excited. After a few fun surfs in Northern Baja, Marge & I entered the desert for the next stretch of fairly uninhabited road - my surfboard in tow.
It felt almost comical riding through these landscapes with a surfboard trailing along behind. And I quickly learned that while Baja is the stuff of surfing legend, it ain't overly conducive to someone towing their surfboard on a bike. My water carrying capacity was about eleven litres at most, which would last me the best part of three days if I was lucky. Most of the roads to the coast would mean a full day detour just to get to the coast. (assuming there was no soft sand - big gamble). Once I factored in a day’s return, since I wasn’t to know if there’d be anyone down there that could spare me some supplies, I was left with a day of surfing for two days of detour. No thanks. And what if it’s flat?
The legends of empty desert waves were left unfulfilled on this trip. I was still lucky enough to score an unseasonable south swell down in San Jose del Cabo with one of my best mates, including three surfs on Xmas day. I think the solid week of surf thoroughly cleaned the endless amounts of dust out of my hair for good.
I’ve been on mainland Mexico for about a week now. I was also lucky enough to spend six weeks in the state of Oaxaca four years ago. These two experiences have cemented the feeling that Baja California is an entity unto itself. It’s not California, but nor is it Mexico. It exists somewhere in between. It interweaves both worlds and left me trying to figure out exactly what Baja is. Maybe that’s the beauty of it?