The more things change, the more Baja remains the same . . . or vice versa

We drove down to our house in Baja last week for the first time since Thanksgiving, 1983.

The house was still there and Gomez was still there, and except for the inevitable inroads of time, both were very much the same.

In those nearly two years the Pacific coast of the Baja peninsula, from the playa of Tijuana through Rosarito Beach and all the way to La Mision, had undergone a building boom.

Since we had last passed that way, hundreds of dwellings, from frame shacks to brick mansions, had been erected on the plateaus above that amiable shore. Many, I supposed, had been built for Americans, but most were probably the suburban homes of Mexicans; they represented the creation of a new middle class in Tijuana, and its escape to the sea.

Rosarito Beach had doubled in size, growing out from both ends between the Ensenada Freeway and the shore. We made our customary stop for lunch at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. It is a fine old hotel in the Spanish colonial style, built in the 1920s when it was thought that Mexican law would smile on gambling. But gambling was never permitted, and today the hotel's large casino rooms stand empty, their tile floors polished and inviting, as if expecting crowds of rich American gamblers any day.

A hostess with a dark Aztec face and blue eye shadow under her eyebrows and over her eyelids showed us to a table. It overlooked the swimming pool and the beach bar, a glassed-in pavilion with a long finger extending between the pool and the sea. Through its misty glass we could see the vague profiles of a few people sitting in the white wicker chairs. Red tile ran around the pool, and red and yellow callas grew beside the lush green lawn. Small colored pennants flew from the top of the bar in the ocean breeze.

I ordered enchiladas suizas and a bottle of Mexican beer, which is as good as any in the world. It seemed like old times.

"It seems to have lost some of its charm," my wife said.

"Maybe I've lost some of my charm," I said.

"Don't be silly," she said.

But I wasn't sure. There was a certain air of entropy about the place. Everything changes for the worse. Even me.

A mariachi had been playing a guitar and singing in the distance. He sensed us out and came to our table. He wore a red blouse and white pants. His black hair was silvered.

"What would you like to hear?" he asked.

I said, "La Bamba," remembering the dark-faced, gray-haired, one-eyed man who used to sing it with such passion at Hussong's Cantina, in Ensenada.

He played and sang 'La Bamba,' but without passion. Still, it was pleasant, and I was filled with memories of good times.

"The bolillos aren't as good as they used to be," my wife said, referring to the long Mexican rolls that came warm in a covered basket. She had used to take the leftover bolillos with her when we left, concealing them in her purse. They were the only things I had ever known her to steal; but of course she insisted it wasn't stealing, since we had paid for them.

"I have an idea the bolillos are as good as ever," I said. "It's just your mood."

"Maybe," she conceded; but I noticed she didn't steal one.

We drove down on Monday, after the Fourth of July weekend, and it was as if we owned the road. Much of the time no other vehicles were in sight. When we paid our dollar at the third toll gate, just outside Ensenada, it seemed a bargain.

In Ensenada, at the corner where we turn south, we found a new hospital and a new shopping center, signs of Mexico's ambition for better social services and American-style plenty.

The little farm center of Maneadero, 10 miles south of Ensenada, had grown too, encrusting out along Mexico 1 like some kind of fungus. The roadside had become a marketplace, with farmers and artisans peddling watermelons, tomatoes, salsas and trinkets under canopies of sheets. I was reminded of our own Venice.

We crossed the low mountains and turned right in our valley, to follow the Santo Tomas River for 17 miles to La Bocana--our colony at the mouth of the river.

The perilous old road through the riverbed, with its many water crossings and uncertainties, has been abandoned. We followed the new road up on the northern bank of the valley. It was high and narrow in places, and stony, but a good road, for Baja. We were shocked to see that the low mountains on either side of the river had been blackened by fire. It had evidently jumped from one side to the other, burning thousands of acres of trees and chaparral. What flood had left untouched, fire had destroyed.

But in 45 minutes we emerged at a place where a crescent beach lay between the surf and a bank of sand dunes, and Gomez's new store stood on a rise to the north of the river. In one of the great storms of a winter or two ago a single wave had crashed into the old store, washed it off its concrete floor and heaved it up the road 100 feet.

We parked in front of the store. The door was open. Gomez's dogs--somehow there are always five of them--dozed beside it, stirring apathetically as we disembarked.

I wondered if Gomez would be there.

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