Barra Vieja, Guerrero, México

The photographs are thumbnails.  

Barra Vieja is a tiny hamlet in southern México on a long strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and a vast lagoon called Laguna Tres Palos. The ocean this sand bar sits on is wild and powerful, and the breeze that blows in the afternoon rattles the groves of coconut palm that are everywhere. The land is flat, the temperature fiery and the sun almost sadistic in its insistence. The dawn is primordially tropical as the sun rises slowly above the palms; midday buzzes in bleached, electrical stillness; afternoons melt away in burnished gold. Just before the sun sails over the horizon of the Pacific it turns bright, deep fuchsia. People of the town stand at the edge of the steep beach and watch in silence as that radiant king once again bids farewell for another day.

I am the only tourist, the only guest in Barra's one, signless hotel, and the only person who speaks English. The town itself is strewn like confetti along approximately one half mile of beach front and is a couple of blocks deep. There are no street lights, sidewalks, movie houses, gas stations. The "market" consists of six tables set up in front of a small tienda from 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning. The only paved road running through here goes as far as Lomas de Chepultepec; it used to cross a river and head over the mountains to Oaxaca, but the bridge collapsed a few years ago and was never rebuilt. Without through traffic both towns feel like the end of the earth.

This afternoon I went to sit beneath my special little palapa on the beach to study Spanish, rest, and swim. It's extraordinary that even after five days here I still marvel at the expansive solitude. Turning left at the shore directly out from the hotel, facing almost due East, I go a short distance and cross the water where the lagoon empties into the sea. It is knee-deep most of the time and about thirty meters across, depending on the level of the tide. Beyond that is a long stretch of virtually empty beach which ends where the Papagayo River mixes with the Pacific. The Papagayo ("Parrot") is a big river, and about a half kilometer wide at its opening to the sea. It is perhaps three kilometers from the laguna to the river. My little palapa is along this stretch.

*   *   *

About 4:00, an old, short, leathery, Indian man trudged by in the balmy afternoon and asked if I wanted to go fishing. He introduced himself as Benito. Even though this was my first encounter with him, I knew who he was. I had met his wife, Anita, yesterday afternoon. She mentioned that Benito had seen me and wanted to take me to the Papagayo. I accepted gladly and hoped I would learn to throw a circular net like the men I had watched in the moonlight. That image stuck in my mind.

Last night from the cement-strip bridge that crosses the laguna, I saw men in boats fishing. There were three boats and each had two lights, which were really torches made from rags used as wicks and stuffed into bottles. The men were casting their large circular nets into the shallow water. I could hear the slap of the nets as they hit its surface. Their torch lights reached me across the black surface as the moon hung huge and luminous in a clear, indigo night sky.

But net fishing was not the kind of fishing we were going to do this afternoon. Instead, we waded into the turbulent channel where the ocean waves and river meet. Benito had a six inch live fish on a hook attached to a line wound around a piece of bamboo, like the cardboard kite spools of my childhood. He let out some line, swung the fish and weight over his head in a circular motion and cast out about twenty-five metes. He did this several times, each time hoping that a bigger fish would bite. One finally did but did not get caught - it only killed the smaller live bait. Benito and I went back to shore where he changed leaders to one with three hooks. He then filleted the now dead fish and put a piece on each of the hooks. We headed back to the water.

After a couple of castings the line jerked hard and we knew we had one. A young indígena ran out to help. Benito gave him the bamboo spool and tended the line, letting it out and pulling it in while the younger one reeled in or let out line according to Benito's movements. The sun was dropping and turning deep orange. We followed the fish for twenty minutes or so, watching our dancing silver prize on the water grow larger as it came closer. Benito slowly pulled on the line each time the waves rolled in. When we finally had the fish at hand he grabbed it by the tail and dragged it through the shallow water to the beach. It was gorgeous. Benito said its name is Jurel. It was about a meter long and weighed five or six kilos. To me it was a very large fish. Other Indians, like the young man, who live on the edge of the river under palapas, gathered around to congratulate the old man on his expertise. Benito thanked them and told them I brought him luck. As is typical among the indígenas who live in Barra, they pounced upon the magic of the moment and immediately ran out to see if they might have some luck this afternoon also. Benito rebaited and we headed into the water again.

At one point, he gave me the spool and showed me how to hold the line. The spool is held in the left hand, with the line strung between the little and ring fingers to the tip of the index finger of the right. Tugging the line with the index finger moves the bait ever so slightly. Benito went back to get another spool. I began casting and reeling, and soon found the rhythm. After a bit, I reeled in a ten-inch catfish, which I had not even felt on my line in the rough tide. Compared to Benito's trophy winner it was too small, so I unhooked it and set it free. Time passed.  Eventually, Benito motioned from a distance that we had to head back. The sun had gone down and it would soon be dark.

*   *   *

Chuckling, I watched the Old One tie a cord around the Jurel's tail and hang it on a slender tree trunk that he put over his shoulder. He looked so tiny with this big fish hanging down past his knees behind him. I turned back toward the river to see it in the beautiful dusk light. Knowing this initiation was an opening into my life as a member of Barra, I wanted to fix this magical moment in the catalogue of my mind. Just minutes before I had noticed there was no moon, but thought nothing of it. Now, I saw a slick white sliver in the sky. During the forty-five minutes it took to walk back to town, the day turned into a brilliant, star-filled night and the moon was again completely visible. I had had my first lesson in surf fishing on the day of the total eclipse of the moon.    


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