Markus Naerheim
Markus Naerheim

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Bay of Hope - Chapter 4

4

 

Located on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur, Mexico, the town of Esperanza began as a fish camp. During the season, the fishermen left the dusty towns of the interior, slept under palapas, and went out in their pangas every day to return at dusk with their catch. Although most went home for the winter, a few stayed behind. In time, these permanent residents opened a gas station and a market; then a bar, a hotel/brothel, and a restaurant, converting the itinerate camp into a pueblo. Now that the town was established, the layer of society generally referred to as respectable showed up to provide them with the law and order, health care and consumer goods they had previously gone without. One could say that the town became officially civilized with the addition of a doctor’s office, pharmacy, police station and bank. By the time Natura established a field office in Esperanza, the lawyers, developers and real estate agents had already eroded the town’s jocular edge, much of its backwater charm, and some of its natural beauty.

Esperanza was now a town of approximately twenty thousand people with a sixty-room private resort hotel located on the rocky point at the north end of Esperanza Bay, several smaller hotels and condos, and associated businesses, including bars, restaurants, curio shops, and dive and sport fishing charters. The Mexican Government had paved the road from the main highway, built a small marina, and contributed to the construction of the one-mile Malecón beach boardwalk complete with public benches and a large dolphin fountain in front of El Cangrejo, the town’s most popular restaurant. Boasting rooftop apartments with ocean views, quaint art galleries, cozy restaurants and hip bars with retro stucco facades, wrought iron balconies, ornamental tile and clay shingled roofs, the new mixed-use development contrasted sharply with the old town that began a street back on the now anachronous Paseo Marítimo. It was in the old town one found the first hotel/brothel, La Palma, now somewhat run-down but full of charm with its neon green palm above pink script lighting up the night. Down the street was the town’s first cantina, El Paradero, a penumbral grotto with worn tables, velvet bullfighter paintings and opinionated and truculent clientele, which could be considered inviting or repellent, depending on your relationship with drinking and heated political debate. Finally, there was Consuela’s restaurant where, for more than two decades, Consuela Calaveras had been preparing Eperanza’s best local caught seafood with secret recipes that would live and die with her.

Tourism had since supplanted the wholesale fish business as Esperanza’s main economic driver, and the fishermen were none too happy about it; the locals, an aging lot, clung to the past and largely avoided the Malecón and the new generation of businessmen led by the Guadalajaran, Benicio Montalvo, who had managed to become mayor on the slim majority of the outsider vote.

While some old-timers had adapted to the new economy, setting themselves up a guides and using their pangas for dive trips and fishing tours, most of them were still subsistence fishermen. While they had the Cooperativa to ensure the sale of their catch at fair prices, they were clearly marginalized. The city government had expropriated their beach palapas in exchange for a clubhouse at the foot of the harbor breakwater adjacent to the warehouse where they unloaded and processed their catch. Meanwhile, the palapas were expanded to provide shade for tourists who were served by the fishermen’s sons and daughters working at the beachfront bars.

If any of the locals had been able to review a copy of the Esperanza General Plan, they would have learned that their town, which they felt had grown too much already, was far from maximum build out and that its sphere of influence extended deep into the desert hills; it was this rural land where Mayor Benicio Montalvo conspired to develop Nuevo Cardón, a large gated community for foreign investors that would extend as far as the dilapidated church on the hill, founded by Spanish missionaries, which marked the northwestern boundary of what the city would become. Esperanza was expected to triple in size over the next ten years; the entire existing town would be surrounded by gated subdivisions extending down the coast to the southeastern point of Esperanza Bay. In land so dry it could support neither livestock nor agriculture, there were even plans for a golf course. This land was part of the ejido system, which meant it was owned collectively: in this case by the original fishing families. The developers and the government had followed a divide and conquer policy to wrest the land from the collective owners, much as had occurred during previous development booms throughout the peninsula and on the mainland. Montalvo and his silent mainland partners had bought the subdivided plots for a pittance from those who were looking to cash out and either leave town, buy a new boat, start a small business, or live off the proceeds for as long as possible; there were still some holdouts, but at a minimum the land for Nuevo Cardón had been secured.

            In addition to the sudden growth and Esperanza’s subsequent loss of character, which included the usurpation of the ocean view by the Malecón development, the locals were also resentful of the apparent wealth of the new arrivals. While the fishing families all owned their own homes, these were simple and did not compare to the new apartments outfitted with satellite dishes, high speed internet and flat screen televisions; and boasting amenities including swimming pools, lounges and fully-equipped gyms. Unaccustomed to the boredom and decay of leisure, the fishermen could not understand why people would choose to lift weights and run on treadmills in their free time.

 Most visitors to Esperanza were either on vacation or seasonal residents who did not work at all during the week, weeks, or off-season months they spent in town; to the hard eye of the fisherman, it seemed that all they did was migrate from the pool to the restaurant to the bar, to the dive or fishing boat, and back again. And for those outsiders who had opened small hotels, the locals knew by word of mouth and their own research on the internet what they were charging per night for accommodation. It was simply outrageous when one considered that in the early days they had slept for free under palapas on the beach, and that the historic La Palma hotel charged a fraction of the new prices. But amazingly the rooms were booked, and at times when there was more demand than supply, even colorful La Palma would fill up, and the whores and their customers would use the backstairs to get to the illicit third floor. Now that money had come to Esperanza, the cost of living had gone up as well. It was a two-tiered economy with the Malecón restaurants charging inflated prices for tourists, and the small backstreet mom and pops offering two menus: one with affordable prices for the local community, and another for English-speaking customers.

Given its natural beauty, it was only a matter of time before Esperanza lost its innocence. Before, visitors came attracted by the simplicity and isolation Esperanza offered; they traveled with respect, brought with them good stories and left without a trace, precisely the sort of tourists one welcomed. Now Esperanza was shaping up to resemble any other town on the peninsula. Home half the year or more to snowbirds from the Pacific Northwest and Canada, it was a popular sport fishing resort for middle-aged men, and increasingly attracted young tourists who were tired of the blow-dried sterility and familiarity of Cabo “San Diego South” San Lucas, and thought themselves adventurous and in the know. Besides the obvious beauty of Esperanza Bay, and in spite of the changes that Esperanza had experienced, which rankled the fishermen while providing a smattering of tourist jobs for their children, the town had two saving graces: it had not been engulfed by drugs and crime like much of the mainland and the Mexico/U.S. border, and it had avoided the negligent hedonism of other tourist destinations.

 

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