A few months passed, and Jeff and I had spent our time in mainland Mexico surfing some of the country’s best waves. But it was time to take a ferry across the Sea of Cortez to the endless right-hand point breaks of Baja California. Our goal was to catch the biggest and best waves of the trip before having to cross the border back to the United States.
When the 18-hour ferry from Mazatlan dropped us and our Mercury Mountaineer (we’d named her Bessy) in La Paz, we drove directly to Todos Santos with surf on our minds. It was a small town known for its Baja charm, large ex-pat community and consistent point break. We pulled into town and noticed the hotels were a little too gringo-afied for us; a few shoppers suggested we stay at the famous “Hotel California.” And with that suggestion, we set out to find our own place to stay. We drove toward the ocean hoping for a beach bungalow and asked a surfer in his mid-60s if he knew about any affordable accommodations.
He named a few that were out of our price range, then said, “This guy Gary owns a few little huts down the road; it’s called Casa Simpatica. He’s kind of a funky guy and it’s kind of a funky place though. I’m not sure if they’re still for rent.” The way his face scrunched when he used the term “funky” made it seem derogatory.
But considering his Patagonia wetsuit and shiny beach cruiser, we thought his idea of “funky” was probably our idea of “perfect.” Jeff whipped a U-turn in Bessy, and we saw the hand-painted Casa Simpatica sign. We pulled in to find four beat-up huts next to a half-finished house. A man in his mid 70s walked out of the open-air kitchen with his little red dog following inches behind his calloused heels. A burro roamed in a fenced-in area beside his house — the sign above the fence read, “E=MC²”.
“That’s Einstein,” he said before he even asked us what we were doing on his property.
We asked him if he was renting these cool little beat-up cabins he had sitting on his poorly maintained lot. You could tell the place used to be a hot-spot for budget-seeking surfers, but it had just fallen past its prime. He told us we could rent the place for $20 a day if we wanted to clean it up and make it liveable. He gave us some spray bottles, a broom and a handful of rags, and we got to work. We showed him the fruits of our labor, and he thanked us for cleaning since his daughter would be coming to visit soon.
Once we nestled into our home for the next few days with our mange-ridden, poodle-ish dog we’d picked up in Boca de Pascuales and our shiny black lab, we noticed that this place was paradise. A no-AC, no hot water, spider-ridden, parts-of-the-wall-missing paradise. We slept well knowing that we’d spend the next few days cruising back and forth between our comfortable beach house and the surf.
We woke up the next day and loaded Bessy with the dogs, our surfboards, towels and sunscreen. We were about to take off for the surf when Gary walked outside to chat. We started talking about Puerto Vallarta (and how much better it was back in the 70s), his life as a boat captain for celebrities, how he denounced his American citizenship because of George Bush and how he purchased soccer jerseys for the Todos Santos school kids. He talked about how great his beach town was before the uppity gringos took it over with smoothies and fancy houses.
Hours passed and I could feel the wind picking up. Jeff and I started to hint toward taking off to hit the surf, but before we knew it, the wind was hard onshore and we knew our hopes of surfing for the day had passed. Gary introduced us to Einstein, who he’d trained to “come” and “speak” better than his little red dog. He’d yell, “Einstein Habla,” and Einstein would respond with a weird burro bark. He explained that he didn’t have the money to feed Einstein, but that the town’s visitors often fed him their snacks, so Jeff and I fed him the packets of trail mix we’d begun to despise after months on the road.
The next day went just the same. We woke up early hoping to make it to the surf before we were caught in a long conversation, but it happened again. We talked with Gary about his home construction, how he once tried to become a matador, how he had saved Einstein from a nearby farm and how the town locals called him “Tata Gary,” a term of endearment in Mexico. He explained how he, an ex-American, had become the town of Todos Santos’ Santa Claus in the local Christmas parade.
The wind slowly came up, and we missed another day of surf. We stayed in Todos Santos four days and never surfed that point break once. We talked with Gary for hours each day, watching the wind come up and heading down to check the surf to see that it was completely blown out.
When it came time to head north from Gary’s house, toward other more popular surf breaks, we were excited to finally get to surf again, but a bit sad to leave Gary and his very, very long stories. I gave him a bonsai tree I’d picked up on the side of the road in Puerto Vallarta and asked him to take care of it until we returned. He reminded us of how ridiculous our mangy poodle looked, and we said our good-byes.
We traveled north through Baja, stopping at some world-class breaks and surfing some of the longest waves of our lives. We crossed the border in Tijuana and drove across the United States back to our home in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. We talked about Tata Gary, Einstein and the little red dog plenty of times. We had long forgotten that we missed four days of surf and were just thinking about the conversations, the filthy but heavenly huts and that we knew exactly where we’d be staying when we returned to Todos Santos in the fall.
As with every time we return home from great travels and even better waves, Jeff and I were disappointed to be home. And in trying to see a familiar site from our three-month-long surf trip, I googled Casa Simpatica. I was directed to Gary’s Facebook page and was elated to post a picture of myself feeding Einstein trail mix. I posted the photo with a brief note explaining that our poodle looked a lot less ridiculous now, and that we couldn’t wait for him to see her again. I checked back the next day to see that a comment had been made on my picture, but it wasn’t from Gary.
“Gary has passed away on March 14,” one of Gary’s sisters commented. He’d passed away from a heart attack, just a couple of weeks after the three of us stood in his driveway yelling, “Habla,” at Einstein.
I motioned for Jeff to come see what I was reading, and we felt something way deeper than the usual post-vacation blues. A lot of wonderful people influenced our travels that year, but Gary wasn’t just hospitable, helpful or nice to us, he let us into his life, and we let him into ours. He was the first to meet our new, mange-ridden pup, and we learned about the unbelievably adventurous life of a guy the rest of the gringo community regarded as, “funky.” For the first time in all of our wave-fueled adventures around the world, we realized that it’s not always about the surf.