By Day Dobbert
(Continued from last month)
In a two-seater Cessna chartered out of Ensenada, I was headed
for the island of Cedros off Baja’s Pacific coast. A fishing boat
was to ferry me further west to the uninhabited Islas San Benitos,
bearing additional provisions for Bruno Vailati’s Rome-based
documentary film company, awaiting migrating killer whales—
orcas; legendary Ramon Bravo would film them free-diving. But
I and my pilot, Vicente Cuevas, were in trouble. There was no
landing on Cedros; the island was socked in, and the sun had set.
After three unsuccessful passes at the runway, Vicente banked and dipped eastward, back towards the peninsula—in darkness; by now all light had drained from the sky and we were without benefit of moon. In as casual a tone as I could muster, I asked, “Back to Ensenada?” “No, no night landing in Ensenada,” he said. “No night lights there.” I pressed on hopefully. “But in an emergency, yes?” Vicente’s succinct response left me mute. “No sufficient fuel.”
Cedros lies opposite Baja’s midriff, a scant distance across the water, but in 1972, in that wasteland of desert, there were no roads on which a small plane could land. Vicente volunteered, “Bahia Tortugas. Strip there. Workers fly out salt.” A saltern, I wondered? But how far away, and what about fuel? But I ceased speculation—and talk. My pilot needed no distraction, only a hand steady on the stick and focus on destination
I never glanced at the fuel gauge, but fixed on the falling altimeter, my point of reference with reality. A cocoon of calm enveloped me—insulation against panic? Vicente, jaws clenched, was drenched in sweat. I wanted to help but felt helpless. I dug into my tote for treats bought at the last minute, unwrapped them mechanically and broke them into bits. “Chocolate,” I said. Vicente devoured it all.
Time was a blur; we could have been flying hours or minutes. With altimeter approaching zero, our plane’s belly barely skimming the terrain below us, Vicente began circling and searching--and searching. And my attention shifted; I felt a compelling need to know the place where I might die—just that, nothing more. In the faint glimmer of our running lights—our only light in that dark night, stars lost in overcast—I looked out to shadowy forms of boulders strewn randomly over a forbidding landscape. Yet I was not beset with philosophical ruminations, or holy dread of imminent mortality. My life did not pass before my eyes in a single flash. With equanimity and in wonder, I realized I was without fear.
Then, suddenly, WHAM! From one moment to the next we hit—not tarmac, but a long disused straightaway of gravel and rubble. At what seemed ungodly speed we rocketed and hurtled, pitching and rolling, then slammed to a teeth-rattling halt miraculously not capsizing. Our plane barely at a standstill, Vicente was out like a shot, shouting at me to follow. My knees were buckling. “OUT,” Vicente shouted again; our convulsive landing had put us at high risk. I took one deep breath, slid down onto terra firma, upright, but unable to make out what I was seeing and hearing.
Here in this wilderness a hundred souls had come to greet our imperiled flight, cheering and applauding. And everywhere there were lights. Still trying to take it all in, I was introduced to a gentleman grasping Vicente’s hands, then reaching for mine—the mayor of Bahia Tortugas, Antonio Robles. He and the inhabitants of this tiny hamlet—men and woman, children and ancianos—had come out in force with every imaginable light available, aligning themselves along a narrow dirt road that led to the strip.
Having heard, then seen our plane searching in vain for the runway, they’d lit our way to safety with the headlights of ancient pickup trucks, jalopies and bicycles, and on foot with flashlights, lanterns and even sheltered candles. The memory of this sight and my gratitude to a village that saved two lives never ceases to move me profoundly.
Vicente and I next found ourselves in a warm, inviting room, sitting around a table with Antonio, his two sons and his wife, Rosi, whose enormous bowls of steaming fish soup were as fine as any bouillabaisse ever put spoon to. Our hosts’ concern for our well being was palpable, and they were keenly interested in the work that had brought me, initially, all the way from Rome, to these far-flung parts.
After our supper Vicente and I were led to the primitive hostel that had lodged the salt workers in their day, my room with cot, chair, and sink, a shared lavatory down a narrow passageway. Rosi had brought us linens and blankets, but left me with a momentito, to return with a pillow. She patted it gently in place, then enfolded me in an abrazo that I treasure to this day. I felt as cosseted as a child—lost, then found by a loving mama, embraced by goodness at every turn.
I stretched out, tensed muscles relaxing, senses heightened. I was alive and flooded with joy. I savored every breath I took. My love for the people of Baja Tortugas overflowed into an expansive love for all souls everywhere. I marveled that in the moments before our rescue I had found in me stoicism I’d never known existed. I felt invincible. And serene. Beyond the single window of my little room I saw that the stars had come out….
At first light I stripped and gave myself a cold water sponge off—not the Hilton but where I was meant to be. Vicente’s room was empty, his bedding neatly folded at the foot of his cot. I set out to find him, but now an eager young man posted nearby approached. “Vicente is with plane, checking. Everything good,” he told me, smiling. “You take breakfast now.” And breakfast too! But where?
I hadn’t long to wait. Women were emerging from their houses, gathering together and murmuring importantly amongst themselves. Hearing café, leche and Americana, I concluded that all were in agreement that Americans took milk in their coffee.
An anciana who had the milk took me by the hand to a patch by her front door and offered me a chair at a small table. She and a younger woman, her daughter, bustled back and forth, laid down cloth and napkins and what was clearly their prized tableware. A little boy peeped out from behind a curtain inside, perhaps puzzled how it was that this pale, blue-eyed stranger who arrived in the night in an airplane was taking breakfast in his garden.
Thus, congenially, we sat together, grandmother, daughter and I, the two of them chattering away but including me in their talk. I understood only the occasional word, but smiles were enough. My café leche and bolillos warm from the oven were wonderful. Passersby waved to me, gentlemen, young and old tipped their caps. Then, my messenger reappeared. “Come,” he called out from the end of the road, smiling even more broadly than before. “Now we putting fuel.” So many smiles, such kindness. The salt air was cool and crisp, the sky cerulean. It was a perfect day for flying.