The parking lot attendant waved us on toward the left side of the Baja Ferries terminal at Pichilingue, just outside of La Paz, Mexico. We were booked for the the 8pm ferry to Mazatlán, and we squinted up at a sign depicting one arrow pointing right for Mazatlán and another pointing left for Topolobampo. Vamos a Mazatlán, I said to the attendant, puzzled.
A la izquierda. Left, he repeated.
The entire Mazatlán gate was closed for remodeling; thus, the waiting area for departures to both destinations had been combined. Both ferries were scheduled to leave at the same time, and the lounge was crowded with twice the usual number of sweaty passengers, all grasping small children by the wrist, or huge, overstuffed suitcases, or backpacking rucksacks, or black trash bags stuffed with fluffy Aztec or Disney-print blankets, or several of the above. An area for bags to be checked during the voyages had been cordoned off, with luggage deposited in two lines that were somewhat distinguishable from one another—one for Topolobampo and one for Mazatlán. But no signs had been posted to indicate which was which, not even one hastily scribbled with a sharpie. So, every person who filed into the lounge that evening was left to scrutinize the two lines, look around at the seated people to see what they had done, ask one of the several staff members with walkie-talkies on their hips what the lines were for, and double-check with the two staff members in charge of the lines, who then shouted to each other above the noise of the terminal, My line is for Topolobampo…right?
This exchanged was repeated by the great majority of passengers during the two hours that remained before boarding procedures began. All staff were cordial and warm in demeanor; however, it seemed to me that a few well-placed signs would have done much to lessen the general air of chaos.
Nathan had, of course, booked a passage for Horus also, and had joined the other motorcyclists, big rig truckers, and station wagoners waiting to drive their vehicles into the cargo hold of the ship. I had in my charge my passport; a small knapsack; a nylon grocery tote bag holding both our laptops, chargers, guidebooks and a few other personal items; my Schuberth helmet, and one of two Enduristan saddle bags which we normally strap to the top of our panniers. Now, this Enduristan bag held our toiletry kit, a pouch of expensive, carefully-labelled prescriptions, (most of which we had paid for out-of-pocket), a Steri-Pen for purifying water, a first-aid kit, an inflatable solar-lamp, and a few other incidentals. Though most of these items were intended for emergency purposes and were not vital to our daily living, like our prescriptions, they did represent significant financial investment; more importantly, every item we brought with us on this trip had been subjected to a painstaking selection process in which we questioned its necessity, size, packability, durability, and so on. Nothing we carried had been an impulse buy; nothing was brought on a whim. Everything, whether or not we had yet encountered a need for it, had its place in our caravan, our Horus, our home. We had forged a bond with these objects, and it gave us peace of mind to know that when and if we needed them, they were at the ready.
I settled into one of the blue plastic seats of the lounge and, despite the heat, I was still wearing my heavily armored and poorly-ventilated motorcycle jacket. Our belongings were heaped precariously on my lap, and I didn’t dare set anything down for fear of leaving it behind. On the television, a cartoon by the Mexican National Department of Health illustrating the lifecycle of the Zika virus, and an advertisement for the Mexican Naval Academy, ran on a loop. Though it felt like an eternity, boarding procedures began promptly on schedule, and I was cleared to enter the inspection area. At the baggage scanner, I lay the saddle bag onto the conveyer belt first. If only for a moment, it was a welcome relief to liberate my hands and arms. I then sent my backpack, our flimsy grocery bag of laptops, (which I was most hesitant to relinquish), my helmet, and my motorcycle jacket through. One of the several military personnel manning the inspection area then motioned me through the metal detector. In a moment, I was on the other side and was personally handed back what I thought was all of our belongings—my backpack, our computer tote, my helmet, and my jacket were all placed directly into my arms.
Pásale. Buen Viaje, said the soldier on the other side. Go ahead. Have a good trip, he smiled and turned back to the long line behind me.
I was now in the open-air portion of the terminal, and the huge ferry loomed ahead of me. The darkening sea air felt so good on my sticky limbs that I didn’t bother to put my jacket back on. With the additional bulk that it added to what I was carrying, I didn’t even notice that our Enduristan pack was not among the pile. And just as the soldier had requested, I went forth and had a good trip.
Over the course of the eight-hour voyage, we ate a homestyle Mexican meal, enjoyed a cocktail, and chatted for several hours with another BMW rider named Bernardo. Bernardo, who had once ridden a BMW from Mexico to Alaska in four days, was from the city of Morelia and enthusiastically offered his advice on how to stay safe and enjoy our ride through Mexico. Once we retired to our sleeper cabin, we watched the movie “Joy” and drifted comfortably into sleep. The fact that I had left one of our bags at the terminal was not revealed, even to myself, until we arrived at the port of Mazatlán the next morning and sought our toothbrushes.
It was a terrible, gut-wrenching, shameful feeling. Even now, six months later, it remains in my mind the lowest point of our trip. I was so panicked that I couldn’t mentally retrace my steps from the night before; I shut my eyes, holding my head in my hands, but saw only blankness. When I finally realized that I had left it at the baggage-scanner, that it was the first and only moment I had let go of anything until we were ushered into our cabin, it was too late.
It was 8am on Sunday, in a country which, by and large, remembers to keep holy the Sabbath. Thus, Baja Ferries was closed and I couldn’t contact anyone about retrieving our bag. We passed the rest of the day into the evening miserably, in a city full of ugly, sunburned Americans and tacky restaurants where everything, from shrimp to beer to frapuccinos, is served in a frosty bucket. The following morning, Monday, I gathered up my best Spanish, (which was still shaky at the time), and called the Pichilingue ferry terminal “Reception” line. The pleasant woman on the other end asked me to describe the bag, which I did, and said that since no lost items from that trip had been found, I should email the company’s supervisor with a detailed description of the bag and the date of the voyage. I asked when I could expect a reply.
Immediately, she said.
Really? I asked.
Certainly, she said. I was skeptical, of course, but thanked her and set about writing, in Spanish, the most detailed account of any bag’s physical appearance ever written, and where exactly within the terminal I had left it.
I didn’t receive a reply immediately. So I called again at noon, described the bag again, recounted where I had left it again, and was again directed to email the supervisor. You’ll hear from us by evening, the customer service agent told me.
No evening reply. The morning after that, however, I awoke to a cheery email thanking me for patronizing Baja Ferries and specifying that no luggage had been found on the ship.
Of course they didn’t find anything on the ship! I never said it was on the ship! How many times do I have to explain that I left it at the terminal? I cried into my hands. It was now Tuesday, and I was calling again from a cafe with wi-fi near the hostel. I tried my best to remain patient and polite. It was, after all, no one’s fault but my own. I was transferred to another person, to whom I repeated my predicament, and to my utter surprise, she excused herself to personally search the terminal for my bag. She put me on hold. About seven minutes passed before she picked up the phone again. But no luck.
Is there anyone else I can talk to who might know where it could have gone? I asked.
Listen. I just looked and I can tell you that it’s not here. Now she was insulted that I wasn’t satisfied by her efforts, and she was clearly done helping me. I racked my brain for any other way to suggest that a more thorough effort be made, but I knew that the window of possibility to send the bag across the Sea of Cortez on the next ferry, which was scheduled to depart later that evening, had slammed shut.
I appreciate your help very much, I said, but I’m certain that my bag is still there. If I come back to the terminal can I look for it myself? I asked.
Of course, she answered curtly. Is there anything else I can help you with?
I barely had time to answer before she wished me a good day and hung up.
Back at the hostel, I was seated at a plastic table on the terrace researching flights with Nathan and the two Canadians who were sharing a dormitory with us. Y’know, we’re not in America anymore, one of the Canadians said to me gently. A hundred dollars is a lot of money here. Nathan agreed. The Canadian went on to describe a situation in which he himself had bribed someone in Mexico. But my gut was insistent that in this instance, bribing the Baja Ferries staff wasn't the right way to go about it. I booked a 9 o’clock flight for that evening, a hostel bed in La Paz for the night, and a flight back to Mazatlán for 2 o’clock the next day.
Upon arriving at Bermejo Hostel in La Paz around 11pm, I showered and went to straight to bed. A group of Argentinians and Germans sat in the patio chairs outside my dormitory window, smoking and talking. But they weren’t the ones responsible for keeping me awake. I was hungry; I hadn’t eaten since visiting the fish market with Nathan and the Canandians for lunch, and all the restaurants in the airport had been closed. My mind churned over the questions, What if it’s not there? What if someone took it? What if they don’t let me look? What if I just wasted $200 on plane tickets? I was nauseous with dejection. I felt foolish and alone.
Inexplicably, as I lay staring up at the plywood underside of the bunk above my head, a new thought occurred to me. One that hadn't occurred to me before, simple as it was. It wasn’t enough to tell myself over and over that tomorrow, I had a fifty percent chance of success. It wasn’t enough to remind myself that it if I didn’t find the bag, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. As I lay there, listening to spinning of my “rational” mind, I realized how convinced I was of the likelihood of disappointment. What I was really scared of was facing my own mind, my inner critic, in the event of failure. And truly, when silhouetted by the whole heap of disappointments of my entire life, this particular predicament seemed so much muddier, so much heavier, than it actually was. So why on earth was I muck-racking through the past now? Wasn’t this one mistake enough to worry about? And why had I come here if I had already decided that it was hopeless? There’s no way to explain this without sounding cheesy. But it was true. There was no point in being there⎯⎯in putting a whole sea between myself and my companion⎯⎯if I didn’t manifest the belief, in my thoughts as well as my actions, that I would achieve my goal.
By 9 the next morning, I was stepping out of my cab at the terminal entrance just as it was opening for the day. This left me three hours before I needed to call another cab and return to the airport. I spent nearly an hour searching and being led from one staff member to another, and was running out of ideas on how to make my needs seem relevant, without losing the patience of people who had little interest in helping me. As I stood asking the floor manager if there were any other hidden, dusty corners I could look into, a soldier assigned to the inspection area approached me and asked if I needed assistance. I explained my situation, and he replied, Señorita, if you say you left it here, then it certainly will be here. His assurance seemed dubious to me, but I began my rounds through the terminal again, this time with an escort, replete with combat boots and a rifle slung across his back. A soft-spoken though intimidating figure, he firmly suggested to staff that areas behind closed doors be checked again, and asked if the floor manager had checked the bodega, the staff’s break room, located in a separate building. The manager turned away and mumbled into his walkie-talkie to someone that he was going to the bodega.
The soldier and I sat down in the all-too-familiar blue plastic seats, I in my adventure shorts, and he in beige, pixilated camo. I had never been in such close physical proximity to someone carrying a gun. I looked into his face, which looked back at me with a mixture of concern and curiosity. I introduced myself and thanked him for helping me even though it wasn’t his job.
Don’t worry, he said. Stuff like this happens to everyone. I told him how awful I felt for letting my partner down, losing his trust, and making such a big mistake so early on, when we still had so far to go. To our mutual surprise, we discovered that we were the same age, nearly thirty. I asked how long he had been in the army. Thirteen years, he said, shaking his own head in amazement.
And the minimum commitment? I asked.
Twenty! he said, and laughed. Having spent nearly half his life in the Mexican army, he said, it had given him the opportunity to travel to regions of the country that he probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Yet, he was positively flabbergasted to hear that Nathan and I had given up our own home to travel, and lamented that being in the army frequently kept him away from his young daughter. I felt like I had won a friend on a most unlikely occasion. And it was the first time in days in which I wasn't thinking about myself or what I had lost. We spent half an hour together, sharing our thoughts on travel, on being Mexican, and on the problems both our native countries currently face. Then, I saw his gaze shift to a spot above my head, and was startled by a chirping and a rustling static, emanating from somewhere behind me. It was the manager, his walkie-talkie in one hand, and the Enduristan saddle bag in the other.
Like I said. Don’t worry, said the soldier, standing up and reaching for my hand. Now I was the flabbergasted one. Check inside and make sure everything is all there. And muy buen viaje!