Got to know Dad in La Paz and Cabo San Lucas

A cheap vacation

We crossed the Sierra de la Victoria and skirted the Sea of Cortez, which was pretty but boring — like a lake, without surf or people.
  • We crossed the Sierra de la Victoria and skirted the Sea of Cortez, which was pretty but boring — like a lake, without surf or people.
  • Image by Mary Jane Seltzer

In April my dad and I flew to La Paz, a fishing resort near the end of the Baja Peninsula, some 750 miles south of San Diego. From there, we traveled by bus and motorboat to the cluster of rocks at the very tip of the cape — the end of California. It was for both of us a journey of the heart — and the mind.

"Some students from the first class met me and escorted me to the gate of the school, where they kind of formed two lines for me, and motioned for me to walk between them. And as I did, they applauded!"

"Some students from the first class met me and escorted me to the gate of the school, where they kind of formed two lines for me, and motioned for me to walk between them. And as I did, they applauded!"

The flight on Mexicana Airlines from Tijuana cost $114.40 round trip. I know this not because I paid for my ticket, but because the price was written on the ticket voucher that Dad gave me to keep, he said, “as a receipt.”

It was the first vacation we had taken together — really the first time in my memory that I had been alone with him for longer than a day — and I had been determined to pay my expenses. I had saved especially for it. But as we planned the trip during hasty Sunday phone calls between here and Goleta, where Dad and Mom moved recently to a sizeable tract house, I realized it was no good resisting. Dad speaks Spanish well, and has an excellent reading voice, but his one great skill is saving money — and he insists sometimes on showing how much he's saved.

There was a street named for Padre Kino, one of the great explorers and colonizers of the Southwest and another street for Emiliano Zapata, who led a peasants’ revolt.He was murdered in 1919 by an emissary of President Venustiano Carranza, whose name is now a street three blocks to the north of Zapata’s.

There was a street named for Padre Kino, one of the great explorers and colonizers of the Southwest and another street for Emiliano Zapata, who led a peasants’ revolt.He was murdered in 1919 by an emissary of President Venustiano Carranza, whose name is now a street three blocks to the north of Zapata’s.

He declined to drive his VW camper to the border because he thought it might be stolen. And so we drove my Rambler American, a nag that thieves have stolen twice but never bothered to keep. Leaving it in a lot in San Ysidro for two dollars a day, we walked across the border for a taxi to Rodriguez Field.

Sunday morning was hot, humid, and a little cloudy. Dad was wearing a cardigan, slacks, hard brown shoes, and his roadster cap, which is the color of a new brick. He is six-feet four, with thin legs, sloping shoulders, and outstanding ears. I’m thin and of medium height, and was dressed more casually than Dad. Some clothes in my denim bag, however, were dressier than his best.

Dad had asked the parking lot attendant how much we should pay for a taxi, and later asked a Mexican customs agent the same question, so that long before we reached the taxi stand he knew what we should pay. “Should we bargain with 'em?” Dad said to me in Spanish when we sighted the drivers. For my reply I drew from four years of high school Spanish and a hundred memories of Dad’s haggling with waitresses, repairmen, insurance companies, and banks. “No!” I said.

But he haggled anyway — he's more likely to dicker over prices in Mexico than anywhere. And not only from fear of being cheated; he likes to speak Spanish, and the cost of things is one topic he knows cold.

‘‘Gee, I can't wait to get to Mexico, ” he'd said as we were leaving Bob’s Big Boy in Chula Vista, his favorite chain restaurant (next to Winchell’s). “There’s nothing like the feeling you get when a phrase you've only read about in textbooks is used by a native speaker.”

Dad got us a taxi for five dollars — a buck off the official price — and, as it happened, I paid. The first thing Dad did in La Paz was to even our account. We were gathered at the back of the taxi. Dad and I, together with the driver, the hotel porter, and a bystander or two, and I had just withdrawn our luggage from the trunk when I turned around and saw that Dad was busy with his secret wallet. This is a billfold-thing that he’d bought on a previous trip. It straps onto the belt and is worn inside the pants next to the hip. It’s great for concealing travel money, but Dad used it as his only wallet in Mexico, which sometimes turned the matter of paying a bill into a public event. He noticed that all of us were looking at him, and he said in Spanish, “This is my secret wallet.”

The taxi driver laughed and said, “A secret wallet!”

“Did I say that correctly?” said Dad. “Ey, yes!” said the porter and a stranger standing by. “Well said. Perfectly said. ‘My secret wallet.’ ”

I gave the porter my bag and felt a little cheap for having no more than six pesos in coin to give him, instead of the expected ten. Dad, of course, ignored him and carried his own bag, and went to the business of checking us in. We were staying at La Perla Hotel on the bay, a place that Dad knew from his visit to this city two years ago.

From the lobby I got my bearings on La Paz. I'd imagined it to be on the west coast of the peninsula instead of on the east; and here I saw it faces north across a pale, shallow bay that opens on the Sea of Cortez. It’s a low, flat city like Los Angeles, with brown hills to the west. In a cove against the hills, English and Dutch pirates careened their ships and rested between sorties against the hated, prosperous Spanish. Today near the hills one sees a cluster of white tanks — from here they looked like hatboxes — where Mexico’s national oil corporation, Pemex, stores distillates; and to the right of these, the blue superstructure of a desalinization plant, a new source of water for this city of 80,000.

Dad specified a room away from the boulevard, and paid for both of us. The room cost about fifteen dollars a night. Dismissing the porter again with a polite “That’s not necessary, sir.” Dad led me down a long, tiled hallway, which smelled faintly of kerosene. Our room was whitewashed and rugless, with orange doors and a ceiling the color of peanut butter. There were two double beds and other standard furniture, and a plywood board where the air conditioner was supposed to fit. The shower was curtainless, which I came to like — it made the bath room seem Romanesque, with water sloshing everywhere. But initially the bathroom and everything else was depressing.

“Hey, this is kind of nice,” said Dad, trying the light switch. “No phone, I guess. Gee, I sure would like to call your mom, but they charge you fourteen bucks for three minutes. ”

“Maybe it’s worth it,” I said. I awaited the reply I knew would come.

“Hey, boy,” said Dad, who hears perfectly. “Now you’re talking in my bad ear.”

We slept that afternoon, then went down to La Terraza, a middle-priced restaurant in the hotel’s veranda, which offers a spectacular view of the bay. It was dusk, and a young woman was water skiing behind a yellow boat. I thought the restaurant was a bargain for its atmosphere, but Dad didn’t seem to notice. He was scrutinizing the menu as though it were a lease on some commercial property. “Seven dollars for a New York steak, and that’s a la carte,” he said. “Nuts to that noise. Let’s see . .

He selected an orange soda, bread, and chicken soup for a dollar fifty, and I had a couple of bottles of Superior beer at eighty cents each.

We talked as night fell. Dad told me about his youth in Brawley, where he grew up on a farm, and about the supposedly riotous days he spent in law school before he dropped out, and a little about his first years as a high school teacher. They were good stories — Dad thinks them terribly revealing of himself and his past — but I’d heard them all before and in better detail from an aunt in Los Angeles. Not that I minded hearing them again; it was wonderful being there with Dad, and there is something about sitting on a veranda at twilight, with waiters moving quietly about, that made me feel terrifically frail and rich.

The next morning I heard Dad rouse himself at his usual hour, five, and when I woke again at seven he was already gone. Two years ago he’d introduced himself to the director of an elementary school not far from the hotel, and now he’d gone to visit her school again. I didn’t expect him back all morning. I took some money from its hiding place in my toilet bag and went down to the Terraza for breakfast, and spent hours drinking coffee and reading a magazine, but never recaptured the feeling of wealth I’d had the night before.

I saw Dad enter the hotel about one o’clock, and after a moment I went up after him. “Sorry,” I said when I opened the door and startled him. He was standing in the middle of the room with his pants unhooked and his belt undone, looking in his wallet.

“Tell me about your day, ” I said. ‘ ‘Did you have a good time?”

“Aw, I had a wonderful time,” he said flatly. He was still counting pesos. “Say, I’m going to have to cash a check.”

“So tell me about it.”

“What?”

“Your day.”

“Oh. Let me get rested first.”

He removed his shoes and lay on the bed sideways with his head propped in his hand. I thought he looked rather boyish, and I felt a sudden rush of love for him — this gladness that he’d enjoyed himself. I sat on the edge of my bed and, leaning forward. I said, “How did you get into the school?”

“I guess I just walked into the office and introduced myself to the roomful of secretaries. Told them I had been a high school administrator in Redondo Beach and would like to see their operation.” “Wait. Was this the elementary school you’d visited before?”

“No, this was a secondary school — like a junior high. Anyway, a secretary took me in to see the assistant director. ” “What was he like?” I said, trying to imagine the scene.

“Young fella.”

“What was he wearing?”

“A suit. That’s the mark of position among school people here, just like it is at home.”

“Was he wearing those green-tinted eyeglasses?”

"Are you going to let me tell my story or not?” he said, and licked his lips. “You always want the journalistic details on things and I’m not going to give them to you.”

I nodded, swallowed. Then Dad turned to lay on his back. He began again, but not where he’d left off. He said the first thing he’d done that morning was to visit the elementary school, a three-story building with a courtyard, which was fenced with thin steel bars painted orange. Just as he arrived, the children had assembled in the courtyard for the school’s daily ceremony. The children stood at attention while the national flag was carried from the director’s office and paraded ’round the courtyard; then they said the national pledge; then sang the national hymn; then heard announcements from the director; then marched away to their classes, the oldest children leaving first.

“I saw the director had her hands full of details, ” said Dad, “so I didn’t bother her. I went over to the secondary school, and as I say, the secretary introduced me to some people — we talked about school business and my background in administration — until finally one of the fellas there, an English teacher, took me into his class. And boy, it sure was wonderful.

“There were forty kids in there, I guess; thirteen years old or so, boys and girls. Perfectly in order. Perfectly behaved. Say, get me a glass of water there, will you? All this talking is drying your old man out. ”

I poured him a glass of water and one for me, too, and dried the bottom of his glass on my bedspread before I handed it to him.

“This teacher really knew how to handle a class, and he was something of an artist. He drew little scenes on the blackboard and had his students work with dialogue related to each scene. He drew a store, and a park, and something else I can’t remember. He’d told me before the class that his grasp of English was kind of shaky. So, there in class, he asked me about the pronunciation of the word ‘limb,’ which he thought was pronounced like ‘lime.’ I corrected him on it, then I said that any foreign language is difficult to pronounce. In other words, I built him up in front of his class, and still felt I was offering a pretty good explanation of how to pronounce the word.”

I suggested a dictionary wasn’t a bad tool, and Dad said, “Maybe so, maybe so. ” Then he got up and slid the window open all the way — as if that would relieve the heat.

“The next class I went to,” he said, turning around, “was absolute chaos. It was run by the chairman of the department, who had spent fourteen years in Vermont or someplace; his method was to have each student stand up and talk with him for a minute. In other words, he gave all his attention to one student, so nobody got very much attention.

“Anyway, after that class was out, it was time for siesta, when everybody goes home for four hours. And just as I was walking out the door, some students from the first class met me and escorted me to the gate of the school, where they kind of formed two lines for me, and motioned for me to walk between them. And as I did, they applauded! Yeah — they went. . . .” Dad pretended to clap his hands together, without making any noise. “Just like that. Gee,” he said, “it sure made a guy feel great.”

It took an hour to cash our traveler’s checks because we waited in the exchange office that gave the best rate. By then the afternoon was beginning to cool. Dad suggested a sightseeing tour on a city bus; the fare was a dime.

This will give you a pretty good idea of what the town is like,” he said (he’d done his sightseeing on a bus two years ago). We rode past the municipal stadium, and the Church of Our Lady of La Paz, and the barracks of the Sixty-eighth Infantry Battalion. I’d bought a map earlier that day and noticed that the street names had made living, dusty institutions of Mexican history. There was a street named for Padre Kino, one of the great explorers and colonizers of the Southwest, who distributed grain and cattle among the Indians; and another street for Emiliano Zapata, a tenant farmer of almost pure Indian blood, who led a peasants’ revolt and held the battlefield against armies representing government, landowners, and the church. He was murdered in 1919 by an emissary of President Venustiano Carranza, whose name is now a street three blocks to the north of Zapata’s.

The next morning was cold and windy under a clear sky. We rose at six-thirty to catch the bus to Cabo San Lucas, the town at the end of the peninsula. The fare was $3.40, and I told Dad I’d pay my own way, but he wouldn’t have it.

“Dad,” I protested, “this is ridiculous. We’ve been here nearly three days and I’ve spent only twenty bucks of my own money.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “I want you to see these rocks at the end of the peninsula. I did two years ago and I tell you it’s something a guy ought to do at least once in his lifetime.”

I thought: So? What does that have to do with paying my own way? But I knew that it was useless to resist. I might have forced the money on him, but the day was too young to be ruined, and we had a four-hour bus ride ahead of us. Dad always wins because it’s not only easier to give in, it’s cheaper.

We crossed the Sierra de la Victoria and skirted the Sea of Cortez, which was pretty but boring — like a lake, without surf or people. And because I was sitting on the right side of the bus, away from the coastline, I missed the vista of Cabo San Lucas as we approached it. I didn’t realize we’d arrived until the bus stopped.

“Kind of hot isn’t it?” said Dad, finding me in the cafe next to the bus station. I was pouring myself a beer, dreading the thought of going outside. “There’s only one thing to do in this town,” he said, and went on about renting a launch to see the rocks at the end of the point. He added that he would pay for it — to which I made no reply — and a moment later we began our trek.

I say ‘trek’ because the wharf lay beyond 200 yards of shadeless hard dirt and sand, and the hour was noon. Behind us was a line of low pastel houses, and to the right of these, two reddish hills that looked like piles of rubble. One of them had lines of chalk on its side, which I learned later were the outlines of a new subdivision. And on the flattened crest of the other was a new hotel — the Finisterra — which looked as elegant as a Mediterranean villa.

I stood on the wharf while Dad made all the arrangements. He asked about the price, repeated his questions a couple of times, allowed himself to be led to a fiber-glass boat fitted with a blue canopy, then signaled for me to follow.

“It’s a hundred pesos for the both of us,” he said. “That’s not bad is it?”

I said it didn’t matter as long as he was paying, which made him laugh. “I know when you're teasing the old man,” he said.

Our pilot, a middle-aged man with aviator sunglasses and a cowboy hat, steered us out of the yacht harbor and past the Calmex canning factory, where workers in white boots and smocks were eating lunch in the building’s shade. Far off, the Sea of Cortez was smooth as a bedsheet, and it had that bland, colorless look that water takes on when light is directly over it. But where we were, gliding in the shade of a rocky cliff, the water was green as a river. Small yellow beaches had formed here and there against the rocks. “Take a look at that, will you,” said Dad, indicating a rock that seemed covered with pelicans. The pilot took us past the birds, who'd seen so many tourists they didn’t even twitch when we passed close enough to view the toenails on their blue-grey feet.

When we reached land’s end, the pilot turned west toward the Pacific and steered us into a wide channel between the rocks. The water roughened and the hull began to thud and slap against it. The rocks were spectacular — maybe dazzling is a better word, since they were covered with white guano — but the scenery didn't compare to the feeling of entering the Pacific — an astonishing prairie of wind and blue water and whitecaps. “Gee!” said Dad, “you can hardly take it in.”

He was right. We motored a quarter mile up the coast, bouncing off the swells. Looking straight ahead, or to the left, or off in back of us, there was no point of reference to show that we’d moved a foot. Everywhere we looked was one substance: blue and white water, and a suggestion of mist; and of course the wind, which had us shouting to each other in a twelve-foot boat.

We turned back and rounded the outermost rock of the point, and returning to the harbor, our pilot called out the local landmarks as we passed them: a washed-up tunaboat called the Santa Maria, the rock called Pierra Larga, and the beach called Playa del Amor.

I’d enjoyed the trip so much that when we docked, I let Dad go on ahead of me and tipped the pilot twenty pesos. He looked a bit confused as he took it, and not wanting to be thanked, I strode away. Just as I stepped onto the ramp leading to the beach, the pilot caught up with me. He said I owed him a hundred pesos for the trip. I stared at him. A hundred pesos, he said. The fare is a hundred pesos each.

“Wait a little minute,” I said, and turned to look for Dad, who was standing on shore, watching me with his hands on his hips.

“To hell with it,” I said in English and pulled out my wallet. I’d enjoyed the trip; it was worth every penny of five dollars; it wasn’t too much to charge for a man’s time and equipment.

“What happened?” said Dad.

“Nothing. ”

“I saw you give him some money.”

I took a deep breath — it was too hot to argue — and I explained as cheerfully as I could what had taken place.

“Well I'll be darned,’’ he said. “Here.”

He held out a hundred-peso note. (What is it about parents that makes them think gratitude is the same as love?)

“Take it,” said Dad.

I took it. “Look,” I said. “I’m going to hike up the hill and see that hotel — I ’ll see you later.”

Tonight, I promised myself. I’ll take him out to dinner; I’ll treat him to his own game. And I imagined how the evening might go as I stood on the hotel’s magnificent terrace, trying to recapture the feeling of richness. Of course, when we actually got to the restaurant, later that night in La Paz, Dad refused to let me pay. He reached across the table and turned the page on the waiter's notebook, forcing him to write a separate check.

I wondered if it would be the same with me some day, as I made a mental note on how much my own dinner was going to cost me. Ninety-six pesos for broiled fish and thirty pesos for two beers — if I remember it correctly. And I think I do.

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