Adios to Baja - The Time Finally Came to Sell the House--or Surrender the Place to the Mice

Jack Smith,


Lately, many people have asked me why I no longer write of my friend Romulo Gomez and the house he built for us in Baja California.

I think it is time for me to report that my wife and I have sold the house. We found that we were not using it often enough, and a house that is not lived in tends to deteriorate. We have sold it to two young couples who, we hope, will enjoy it as much as we did.

It had been a great experience for us; it was something we shared; perhaps it helped hold us together.


It was rather a bold undertaking in the first place. A friend at The Times had told me about Gomez and the land he had for lease to Americans at La Bocana--the mouth of the Santo Tomas River, below Ensenada. My friend thought we might like to lease some land and have Gomez build a house for us. I told him he was crazy.

That night at dinner, I told my wife about it, laughing at the idiocy of it, and put it out of my mind. Months later, we drove down to Indio for the date festival, but found that we were two weeks early. I said good, we could go home and rest. My wife said we could drive on down to Baja and look at that property that was for lease.

I told her I didn’t even remember the man’s name. “Gomez,” she said. “It was Gomez.”

So you can see that it was her adventure from the start. We drove on down to Ensenada, spent the night, and the next day drove on without a map; all I remembered was that Gomez’s store was at the mouth of the Santo Tomas River, and that the river valley was about 25 miles south of Ensenada.

We crossed the winding highway through the mountains and came to a green river valley. A sign said Bahia Santo Tomas. It was an incredibly bad road, even for Baja--narrow and rocky and full of holes. It crossed the riverbed several times, making me wonder what the trip would be like when the river was up.

We passed an adobe schoolhouse, some adobe houses, a few farms and a beautiful oak grove. Finally, after 18 miles of rough going, we came out at the bay, and there was a little store. I left my wife in the car and went in. It had shelves of ketchup and beans and other staples, and beer on ice. A girl was sweeping out. I asked if she knew a man named Gomez.

“ Momento ,” she said. She went into the kitchen at the back. In a moment a man emerged. He was a tall, good-looking Mexican, somewhat older and fleshier than I. He wore a straw field hat. He said, in a melodious voice, “I am Gomez.”

It turned out to be a fateful meeting.

Gomez drove us out on a beautiful marine terrace overlooking Santo Tomas Bay. Porpoises flashed in the bay. Pelicans flew over it in formation. To the north, the rocky Santo Tomas Point gleamed like obsidian. There were only two other houses in view--both orange brick with red tile roofs. We were enchanted. There were no streets, no stakes, no lots. Only a road of two ruts leading from Gomez’s store to the fishing camp on the point. We picked out a site.

Gomez said, “You like this lot?”

We said yes, we did.

Gomez said, “This is your lot.”

He drove us back to the store, and his wife, Delia, cooked us a marvelous breakfast of chiles rellenos and fresh lobster from the bay.

I gave Gomez a check for $100, and we sealed the bargain with a shot of tequila.

In Baja, any deal that is sealed with tequila is binding.

That was more than 20 years ago.

Three months later, we drove back to give Gomez some more money and a plan I had drawn. I told him to go ahead. It was another three months before we came back. He was building our house but not on our lot. It was in the middle of the rutted road. I asked him, “Gomez, why are you building the house in the middle of the road?”

He said, “Because the road has the best view.”

We were to become familiar with that kind of logic. Months later Gomez and I were sitting on the front porch of our still-unfinished mansion, as he called it. It was considerably larger than I’d planned it. Gomez was explaining why, under Mexican law, we could not have a deed.

I asked him, “Then how will we know it’s ours?”

He said, “I will give you the key.”

I had always told him I would not consider the house finished until the toilet was in. He called us from Tijuana one day and told us the house was finished. The toilet was in. We rushed down to La Bocana and threw open our front door. The toilet was sitting in the living room.

The house had taken more than a year to build. We loved it, and my wife loved it even more than I did, but she has always been more adventurous than I. Many weekends, incredibly, when I was otherwise engaged, she drove down to the house after work on Friday nights, alone, driving the last 18 miles of horrible, unlighted, unpaved Baja road, and arrived at midnight. Sunday night she drove home. She spent most of her time housecleaning. One such weekend, she fell on the rocks above the seashore and broke her leg. Fortunately, two neighbors were with her. As soon as the cast was off, she drove down again.

But over the years the road became longer; thicker traffic had made the trip more tedious. The long delay at the border coming home was harder to bear. We realized finally that we had not gone down to the house for two years. It was either sell or surrender it to the mice.

That morning when we first agreed with Gomez to lease the lot, we discussed our fantasy on the way home in a sort of delirium. We agreed that, however bad things might go, we would never blame each other. Things were often very bad; but we never blamed each other. I think, in that sense, that house was one of the most important ventures in our lives.

People often ask me if Gomez is still alive. Sadly, his wife, Delia, died a few years ago; she was a wonderful woman. But Gomez is still alive and he has not changed. He is as exasperating as ever.

He has a code. He does not admit what does not need admitting. Thus, when a fire destroyed our bathroom cabinet, he never admitted that it was started accidentally by one of his sons. More recently, when our ancient Servel gas refrigerator finally stopped working, he did not admit that another of his sons was trying to hook a gas line to a new water heater and accidently hooked it up to the refrigerator instead. Of course, he knows that I know, but we do not discuss it. Friends must respect each other’s sensitivities.

I still see Gomez now and then. He has a daughter living in Los Angeles and sometimes comes up on business. He usually phones me and comes over for a visit. He often asks me for more copies of the book I wrote about the house, “God and Mr. Gomez.” I know he autographs them and sells them in his store at a marked-up price. He has persuaded himself that I get them free.

For a while, he had a condominium in Chula Vista, but perhaps he felt lonely there. He has moved to Tijuana, and every weekend, as he has for years, he drives down to La Bocana to supervise his property. At last count, there were 10 houses on it, so it is still not overcrowded. The road has been moved from the riverbed (we sometimes had to cross through water 20 times) to the higher bank, but it is still a bad road.

American entrepreneurs keep scheming to develop the little fishing camp on the point of the bay into a glitzy resort, but their dreams invariably subside in the Baja sand.

No, I never found out whether Gomez really owns the land. Perhaps the new owners will.