Archive for April, 2011

Getting from La Paz to Stockton with 11 pieces of luggage and a pillow

Ports of Call | Posted by Admiral
Apr 24 2011

As part of the chores and planning we did during out last few days in La Paz, we talked to a fellow cruiser who had made the trip from La Paz to San Diego every month for the last year.  He and his wife went by bus which was what we wanted to do, so he gave me all the info I needed to get started:  1)  No need to buy tickets in advance.  Just get to the bus station around 8:00 am, any day of the week, and buy tickets for the 10am bus to Ensenada where we would buy a ticket for the Linea Tijuana bus which takes you to the end of the line of folks walking across the border.  2)  There will be 7 military checkpoints – no big deal.  They don’t carefully check the overhead luggage, only the checked baggage in the hold below.  They are looking for illegal drugs, excessive cash, and weapons.  3)  Be sure to take a good jacket since some of the checkpoints are high in the mountains at night.  4)  Buy sandwiches at the Subway across the street from the bus station before leaving La Paz.  5)  Take water, toilet paper, and a blanket.

So we were freed from having to meet a schedule since we didn’t have to buy tickets in advance.  This was a huge relief.  We were living on and leaving the boat in a marina located about two miles away from the “center” of La Paz cruiser life – Marina de La Paz.  It is always easy to get a taxi from Marina de La Paz, but you must call for a cab to take you from the marina we were in (Singlar).  So we got to be good friends with a couple of cab drivers.  The night before we were to leave, we called Jose the cab driver and asked him to take us to a really fine restaurant for our last dinner in La Paz – and, boy, did he ever pick a good one!  We had the best restaurant meal so far at a place called Bismark (go figure!).  The margarita was huge and VERY good.  The food was amazing and special including dessert.  The service was great, and Jose was ready to take us back right when he said he would be.

We asked him to come pick us up the following morning for the trip to the bus station, and he was right there at our curb when we walked up at 7:30 am sharp.  We had six small-to-medium suitcases, five carry-on bags, two heavy winter jackets, and a pillow!  We would not return to the boat for quite a while, and Muggs needed to bring back most of the personal stuff she had on the boat.  (So did Larry, but you’ll never get him to admit it, LOL!)  We got all the stuff into the taxi (a van – thank goodness!), and off we went.  We gave Jose a very nice tip, waved good-by, and I went up to the ticket window.  Turns out, that day, the bus going north didn’t leave until 1:00 pm!!  Oh, well, we weren’t late!  I explained our dilemma to the ticket-sales lady, and she assured me that we could leave all our things with them.  So we started handing bags through the baggage opening in the counter, and her eyes got pretty big!  “You have a lot of luggage!”  I said, “Yes, is this a problem.”  She reassured me there was no problem.  BUT, they didn’t issue any checked baggage tags at this stage.  She told us to return at 12:30 to sort out what we wanted to keep and what we wanted to check.  Mind you, all of this was in Spanish as she spoke almost no English. 

Now we had about four hours to kill, so we got a cab and went down to the cruisers’ hangout at Marina de La Paz!  We were actually early for coffee hour at 9:30.  We had breakfast at the restaurant there and then a nice morning with our friends, saying final good-bys to many folks and looking into various things like how we would get from San Diego to Stockton.  We had our computers with us, so I plugged mine in and did a search for hotel info, train info, and car rental info.  I decided that the simplest thing would be to spend the night in San Diego – we should arrive around 1:00 pm the next day – and then drive to Stockton the day after that in a rental car.  But you can’t easily reserve a rental car for different-city pick-up and drop-off on the internet.  Likewise, the hotels all had 1-800 numbers which we couldn’t call at this point.  I had the computer but not the earphones which would have allowed me to use Skype.  We would just wait and cross that bridge when we came to it.  First goal, the border!

So around 12:00, we took a cab back to the bus station, but they wouldn’t deal with us and our luggage until 12:30 as she had previously told us.  At 12:30, sharp, out came all the pieces we had handed over (all but the computers, purse, and pills).  We checked the 6 suitcases, and I took a quick “visual” inventory – red, yellow, green, small blue, small white, grey and black – and the bags were carried out of sight again.  This time we had tags, though, so all was good.  The bus loaded right on time, we had assigned seats, the bus was roomy compared to previous buses, life was good!  Off we went.

There are several rest stops provided on these bus trips.  Sometimes they coincide with bus terminal stops at larger cities, sometimes they are just roadside restaurants with bathrooms.  The bus had restrooms in the back, but you might guess that they weren’t really desireable, and you would be right!  Everyone on the bus had the take-your-own-toilet-paper drill down pat as it was necessary at all of the stops.  The bus had tp for more than half the trip, though.  Not too bad, all things considered.

There are several stops to pick up, and occasionally drop off, passengers.  If you check out a map of Baja California, you can probably guess the spots – Ciudad Constitucion, Loreto, Guerrero Negro, etc.  Our first military checkpoint was at around 7:15 pm.  It was dark.  A soldier boarded the bus and asked everyone to come out to open suitcases for inspection (in fast Spanish – mostly we “understood” what was being said by context and others’ actions).  We both went out, and every single piece of checked baggage was removed from the baggage hold, put on a table, and the owner was directed to stand by.  Then the soldier opened and looked and felt through the contents fairly thoroughly, zipped it up and returned the bag to the hold.  There were two men in the hold passing luggage in and out and two men inspecting.  The whole process was pretty quick.  I think we were the only ones who elicited even a partial smile from a soldier when they realized that so many of the pieces were ours!  They would finish inspecting a piece, and I would just stay there – I had several pieces to go yet!  Finally, they were done and gave a signal that we could re-board. 

Mindwhile, I noted that some passengers were asleep or busy with small children and did not get off the bus.  I didn’t understand this at first, but I gradually figured it out – you only needed to exit the bus if you had luggage in the hold so that you could supervise them as they handled your luggage.  They wouldn’t open any luggage until its owner was standing close by watching.  And, of course, people didn’t claim luggage that wasn’t their own.  So we soon figured that it was not necessary for Larry to get off the bus at the checkpoints, and he didn’t after the first stop.  Muggs got to do this, and she actually had a couple of very short conversations with Mexican soldiers that night.  One soldier at a very remote checkpoint was very curious about what we thought of Mexico.  With six pieces to inspect, we probably had about a five minute conversation.  He seemed pleased that we felt very positively about his country.  South of the Rosarita area,  almost none of them spoke any English, but there was a lot of English spoken at the final two checkpoints nearer to the border.  These men were always extremely respectful and careful.  As the evening and next day wore on, the inspections became more random.  That is, they would only pull about half of the luggage out for inspection.  One of our bags was in its death throes as its lining had started (long ago) to disintegrate and cover everything in it with fine, black dust.  At the third or fourth checkpoint, a soldier inspected this bag more closely than it had been previously.  His hand came out covered with the fine grit, and he looked at me quizzically.  I didn’t have a good enough vocabulary to explain this to him, and I don’t remember now what I said.  I think I said something about the bag being very old and in bad condition, but I couldn’t be more specific.  But he tasted the grit and was satisfied that I wasn’t carrying drugs – whew!  When I got back in the bus, I got out my Spanish-English dictionary and looked up the word for “crumbling” – desmenuzarse (to crumble in regards to cheese) was the closest I could find – and figured out how to use it in a sentence – “Es tan viejo – se ha desmenuzado!”  I hoped I had it right, and I repeated it over and over, coaching myself for the next inspection point.  Naturally, no other inspector looked so closely at this suitcase!  (Any Spanish-fluent readers want to help me with the grammar and vocabulary, please feel free!)

At 4:20 am, the bus pulled up to a motel and parked.  The bus drivers (there were two) got off, and we didn’t see them again for about two hours!!  Apparently, the bus had broken down, they had called for a replacement, it had arrived, and we had to change buses!!  I think this happened in Guerrero Negro, about halfway up the peninsula.  The second bus seemed more cramped, but otherwise, no big deal.  And away we went. 

There were some differences between the military checkpoints.  Some of them expected you to help open and close the suitcases, others discouraged help. Only at one station did they request we actually do the lifting and moving of the contents so they could see underneath. Some of them talked, some of them only pointed and gestured.  I made a note in my journal that at the 10:30 checkpoint that they only checked three of our bags.  At 2:10 pm on the second day, they only looked at three bags from the entire bus – including one of ours, naturally!  The odds were always good, I guess!

On the second day, we were in the northern, more prosperous half of the peninsula.  We had about three military checkpoints in daylight and were able to see the “grounds” of the checkpoints.  As you might guess, they were not luxurious.  But they had made a determined effort to spruce up the places and create the appearance of government-type efficiency and obvious support.  At one stop, there were no vehicles present with the single exception of one jeep.  There were at least six soldiers at the stop, and I wondered – where do they live and how do they get here for work every day!  Around the next bend, as we pulled away, you could see their “village” – a small hillside with homes, streets (no paving, but “curbs” of stones on the dirt), vehicles, service buildings, electric poles, other signs of real civilization.  It was definitely close enough to walk to work!  I think this is a pretty tough gig for these guys – a thankless job in the middle of nowhere, a dusty village located 2 or 3 hours’ drive from the nearest decent grocery store.  I give those guys a lot of respect.  They had the requisite photos on bulletin boards with pictures of stuff they have confiscated (like the Sheriff’s trailer at the county fair), and it was pretty major – huge quantities of very nasty guns, hundreds of rounds of ammo, stacks of cash, piles of bags of drugs.  Nothing wimpy about the work these men were doing, and they took their job very seriously while recognizing that the large majority of people passing through were innocent civilians.

Finally we were driving through the outskirts of a larger city, and I started to see signs that indicated we were in Ensenada.  Then the bus stopped and a couple got off right in front of a Wal-Mart store.  I panicked and ran to the front of the bus – “We need to get off in Ensenada.  Is this our stop here.”  One bus driver first said yes, but then they realized the confusion and reassured me that there was a real bus station where we would get off.

We pulled in to the station, and the second bus driver got off then back on quickly.  He looked back at us and said, in English, “This bus next to us is the one you need to take to Tijuana.”  So we pushed it into move fast mode and stumbled down the aisle with our heaps of carry-on.  We dropped the stuff next to the bus so Larry could gather up the suitcases in the hold while I went over to the next bus and handled the purchase of tickets.  I told that bus driver that there were two of us, and he said he had space.  I asked him how much, and it was just under 300 pesos (about $25 for two people.)  I handed him 300 pesos, and he started to try to get tickets for us from a tear-off pad he had.  He couldn’t get the tickets torn off (I guess), but he indicated that we should just get on and worry about it later.  So I got back down on the pavement to help Larry sort out luggage.  He had pulled four of our six pieces of luggage out of the hold, and was handing them to a man who was putting them in the hold of the Tijuana bus.  I ran over to the first bus and pointed to the two final pieces and ran around to the TJ bus as it started to back out of the parking spot!!  Yikes!!  I made frantic hand-gestures to the bus driver who didn’t seem to realize that his baggage hold was still open, among other things.  The bus stopped, we threw the last bits of baggage into the hold, and struggled with the five carry-ons, two jackets, and a pillow (plus my rather large, heavy purse – I never really counted that, but it was VERY heavy!).  I tripped on the stairs of the bus, and realized it was rolling again.  This bus driver was serious about his schedule!!  So we threw everything into a pair of empty seats and sat in the two seats across the aisle and let out a huge sigh of relief!!

The bus drove around the building and a couple of other corners.  We were not paying much attention as we assumed we were exiting the area, but then it came to a stop without ever getting onto a street!  Then we proceeded to take on more passengers!  And they had tickets with assigned seats!  Meanwhile, we didn’t actually have any tickets.  The first pair of folks to show up that were assigned to one of the two pairs of seats we had were kind enough to just go to the back of the bus.  The second pair made it immediately obvious that we had to move!!  So we grabbed the multiple bags from the other seats and tried to advance down the aisle.  It was immediately apparent that the aisles were really narrow.  One of our bags had “expanded” during the trip, and it wouldn’t get down the aisle without quite a bit of re-packing.  So I set it on the floor and started to push (the aisle was a few inches wider below the seat arms and seat backs.)  The bags were heavy and very difficult to push.  I actually recall picking them up a couple of inches and advancing only about six inches with each effort.  People in the back rows began to help, pulling the bags back for us with a succession of helpful hands.  We got to the back, stuffed our carry-on overhead (in order to not take up more than two seats on what apparently would be a full bus), and collapsed into a pair of seats.  No one else tried to kick us out, and so we went on to Tijuana.  After a bit, we were a little more relaxed, and something prompted me to pull down the jackets.  Except there was only one jacket!!  We had left one behind on the other bus in the overhead.  Oh well, hopefully someone else will make good use of it.  That jacket had just been purchased last Christmas when we came home in another big hurry and ALSO lost a jacket along the way!

We arrived In Tijuana never having received an actual ticket nor the change, but it would have been less than the equivalent of a dollar.  At this point, I was way beyond caring!  In Tijuana, the bus drops you off at the end of the pedestrian border-crossing line.  Our friend back in La Paz had told us to expect some men waiting there with luggage carts and that we should agree to pay them something (about $10) to help us with the luggage as we approached the border-crossing building.  So we got the luggage piled up on a tall hand-cart being pushed by a tiny, very old Mexican man who accepted 120 pesos from us, and we joined the line.  I struck up a conversation with a gal next to me, Larry and the luggage guy walked on a little ahead, but mostly things seemed as they should be for about five minutes.  Then, the luggage man started to move, albeit slowly, ahead of my line position and disappeared from sight as the line wound around a building.  Larry went ahead to stay with the luggage and I stayed behind, holding our place in line.  About ten minutes after this, Larry came back and yelled down the block to me to come join him.  So I stepped out of the line (reluctantly!) and joined Larry and the luggage man in an area near the front of the line.  The line progress was being controlled by a Border Patrol agent who let through about 50 people at a time to enter the building.  There was one “aisle” for these folks and an adjacent line marked “For Holders of I-94 Permit Holders Only”.  We had no idea what that was, but apparently very few people qualified to use that aisle since there was no line.  However, the luggage man said to us that he didn’t have a permit, but his friend did and the friend was coming.  I was very skeptical, but now I had no choice but to wait since our place in the line had been abandoned, and it was probably overall about a two-hour line.  And so we waited.  And waited.  As you can guess, no “friend” ever showed up with the required “permit”.  Our communications with the luggage man were all in broken Spanglish and incomplete, but it became apparent that we were waiting for nothing and by all rights should return to the end of the line and start over!!  Well, Larry was adamant that we would not do this.  He went up to the luggage man, got in his face and demanded his money back.  Then he insisted that we would just butt in line and go in.  I knew that the folks in line would not tolerate this, and I frantically tried to convince him that we had to play by the rules, even if it hurt, especially while we were still outside the US.  The Border Guard handling the long pedestrian line next to us saw what was going on and actually waved us through the line.  With his blessing, I gave in and on we went, somehow pulling and carrying all the luggage on our persons – we should have gotten a picture of that! 

So we entered the building only to find hundreds of people waiting in lines for the actual border agents to check passports!  We chose a line and started to wait.  A man immediately behind us in this line struck up a conversation.  He was a US citizen who had, and still, lived in Ensenada for 40 years!  He was going to San Diego for the weekend to visit his daughter, and we talked about various things.  Turned out, he had been on our bus from Ensenada and was one of the people who helped us get the carry-on luggage pulled and pushed to the back of the bus.  He was very sympathetic to our plight, and I realized that maybe we hadn’t crowded our way into the line that far ahead of the proper place, anyway!

Finally, we got to passport control where we saw different agents.  My agent welcomed me home and waved me through.  Larry’s agent asked him if he had anything to declare.  He said that he didn’t but his wife did.  This was true – we had bought a nice ring in Mazatlan that I knew we should declare but would not owe any actual duty on.  At any rate, no one actually asked me, so on we went.

Last bit of business in this building was to put ALL the luggage (and the purse!) on a conveyor belt to pass through an x-ray machine.  On the backside of the machine, we gathered up all gazillion pieces of stuff and schlepped it outside toward the trolley.  The plan was to take the trolley to downtown San Diego for a few dollars, and then a short taxi ride to a hotel.  So we sat down on the bench at the trolley station, turned on the cell phones, and I started making phone calls.  The time was 6:30 pm – we were only five and a half hours behind “schedule”.  But since “schedule” seems to be a loosely applied term in Mexico, we were actually doing just fine!  I had noted phone numbers and hotel names in the notebook, and I called the Holiday Inn on the Bay.  It sounded like it would be located close to the trolley since it passes close to the harbor up in San Diego proper.  They had a room, for a reasonable price!, and we happily reserved it, wrote down the confirmation number, and contemplated getting the luggage onto the trolley.  Larry looked at me, and I didn’t need him to say that he was tired of dealing with the luggage.  So we took a cab all the way into San Diego – welcome back to the land of serious spending!!  LOL!

At the hotel, a bellman loaded up his cart with our luggage while I went into the lobby to check in.  There was a slow-moving line, and the lady in front of me struck up a conversation.  When the bellman and Larry came up with the luggage, her eyes got big, and she exclaimed:  “You have more luggage than we do – and I thought we had  lot!”  I told her, “Yes, we have a lot, but we probably have a better excuse than you.  We’re returning from a year in Mexico and will be living here for about a year.  This luggage represents most of our personal stuff that matters.”  She agreed that that was a better excuse!  She had figured we were going on the cruise, as they would be the next day, but, obviously, we were not.

Anyway, the room was very nice and very comfortable.  I made arrangements for a rental car that could be dropped off in Stockton the next day.  We took LONG showers, went downstairs for dinner, and fell into bed.  We both got the best night’s sleep we had had in a long time.  And Larry woke up at 6:00 am, ready to go!  I think the last time that happened was in the Eisenhower administration haha!!  So we dressed, went downstairs, bought coffee at the cart in front of the elevator, and went for an early morning walk!  That has DEFINITELY never happened before, not at Larry’s behest.  The hotel was across the street from the cruise ship piers, so we went for a walk along the docks.  We were chatting and discussing logistics when Larry suggested that we take the hotel shuttle to the rental car place and bring the car back to the hotel to fill with luggage there.  We had originally figured we would check out and schlep the luggage into the shuttle bus, off of the shuttle bus, into the rental car office, and out to the car.  Don’t ask me why it took a night of good sleep to figure out that that was not necessary.  We went back, had breakfast, had the bellman come up and get the luggage, checked it with him, went off to the airport, and returned with our mood and energy in tact!  We attribute our fine, clear thinking to spending the night at a Holiday Inn!!  OK, so it wasn’t a Holiday Inn Express, but I think we showed that the “Express”-part is not always necessary – LOL!

By now, it was about noon, and we weren’t yet certain whether we would try to drive all the way home or stop somewhere along the way for the night.  We finally decided there was no obvious intermediate town to spend the night in, but we did drive Highway 1 from north San Diego County into the LA area.  Naturally, we didn’t spring for the gps with the car rental, but we did buy a map.  We had a nice drive along Highway 1 and discovered a beautiful, historically interesting state park called Crystal Cove.  It is a place where Japanese farmers leased small plots for farming during the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.  They built small cottages to live in and then lost everything, tragically, during the WWII internment.  The landowner, a descendant of the original Irvine, sold the land to the state in the late ’70’s, and it was made into a state park.  You can rent a cottage, and there is a restaurant there at the beautiful beach.  We had lunch after a nice walk down from the parking lot.  For day users, there is no close-by parking.  On the walk back, we saw something I have never witnessed before – a hawk was flying away with a mouse or similar rodent dangling from its beak!!  The animal was clearly visible – we first saw the bird when it was only about thirty feet away.  I have seen this on nature movies, of course, but never in real life.  It was a striking sight.

The rest of the drive was eventless, and we arrived at Larry’s mom’s house before 9:00 o’clock that night.  The entire trip took 61 hours start to finish, and we had a whole day (Sunday) to do nothing before Muggs had to re-enter the world of real life.  I called people I have worked for in the past on Monday, and they said they had work right now.  So I headed up to Copperopolis on Tuesday and have been hard at it ever since.  Larry will be joining his friend, Joel Tuttle, on his Tayana 42, Entre Nous, on May 2 when they will begin together to organize and complete fitting out the boat for cruising.  As the summer progresses, they will move her down the coast and spend some time in the Channel Islands.  The plan is to enter Mexico around the end of October as the hurricane season ends and to take her to La Paz where they will re-unite with our boat, Peregrine.  How they will deal with two boats in Mexico remains to be seen, but I’m sure they will figure something out!  If I get the chance, I may join them occasionally for a week or two, but that also remains to be seen.  The future is cloaked in shadows now, but certain things are certain – it revolves around boats and the wonders of an outdoor life in a friendly, foreign county.  There will be a little more money to take off some financial pressure.  There will be two capable skippers and two well-found boats and the nearly unlimited possibilities presented by the Sea of Cortez and points south on the mainland of Mexico.  Hopefully, the guys (I affectionately sometimes refer to them as Tweedledee and Tweedledum!  Don’t ask which is which!) will file occasional reports and pictures which I will pass on to you.

One final picture:

iguanaI hope I haven’t already posted this picture.  I actually don’t remember, and right now I am too tired to check – sorry!  This guy was running around the marina in Mazatlan and sunning himself on the rocks for several days.  He is about three feet long overall.

Until then, we wish you all the best in your lives and retirements many and various.  This is First Mate Muggs signing off for a while.  Hasta luego!