You can find Part 1 here.
There are five categories for hurricanes; most of the buildings here were built to withstand categories one and two. At its peak, Odile was a four, the largest hurricane in history to hit the Baja Peninsula. No one was ready for something this big.
On the second day the staff unbarricade the door to let us out onto a 20-yard section of walkway. The sky hangs like a low gray carpet—but it’s glorious—fresh air!
Then we take in what used to be the courtyard: palm trees beheaded or toppled, branches and stucco shards strewn, the hallway ceiling gaping like Swiss cheese. We see sky where our room used to be: 125-mph winds shattered ocean-facing balcony doors, tore out walls, and left sodden bedding hanging over railings like failed suicides.
I wish they’d let us walk on the beach, I say, my arm sweating against my husband’s. I never even got to feel the ocean.
Forty-eight hours pass in Hades. Societal norms dissolve; a few men walk around shirtless, and one girl lies on her pallet in her swimsuit, a hurricane parody of sunbathing.
You’ll sleep here again tonight, the hotel manager says.
A Mexican baby cries as if in understanding, and his mother turns her face into his soft little neck. Other guests release what lurks inside: a broad-shouldered blonde mutters about the government cutting Wi-Fi and cell phone reception to contain the panic. An angry teakettle of a man spouts about the lack of information we’ve been given, while a brunette woman with a neat sphere of hair invites us to pray.
Monday is Mexican Independence Day. In a brief moment of generosity or shrewd morale-boosting, the staff serve free beer and sparkling wine from behind a plywood bar, and we toast Viva Mexico! The sound of popping corks is shorthand for civilization.
We wait in line for three hours to take five-minute showers in the spa. Right before my husband gets a turn, the assistant manager says that the spa is closed.
But that’s ridiculous, I seethe. He’s the only one who didn’t get to go.
My husband has been wearing his sweat-soaked clothes for two days, but he shakes his head at me, embarrassed.
I lay on my little mat in the dark and lock up the beast I let escape. I wonder how much longer I can keep it in check.
Even with three meals a day, I am hungry all the time. I left my nursing daughter at home with my in-laws, and my one tie to her is pumping five times a day as if I’m feeding her memory—or her future, so we can snap back into place when I return.
The first day I pump in the bathroom, where I can tell by the tone of comments which other women are mothers, which are not. By the second day, when the toilets no longer flush and the bathrooms are lit by sink-side candles and glow sticks, I sit in the corner of the conference room with a towel draped over my chest, while a few feet away the thwarted honeymooners try not to stare.
I ask the Mexican family with the baby if they want my milk. They either don’t understand or are not interested—not that I blame them. I am Penelope knitting her shroud, undoing the work as quickly as I complete it; five times a day I pour the creamy liquid down the drain.
There is no talk of release, but two doctors among us make a list of who should be first out—a list we won’t be on: families, the elderly, the medically urgent. For the diabetic who will run out of insulin tomorrow, waiting is a matter of life and death.
But for us, it’s not the waiting that kills us, but the not knowing when. We tell ourselves that it could be worse. We’re captive here, but not kidnapped. This is the Westin, not ISIS. Our heads are safely on our shoulders.
We read our own books, then read each other’s. The first time I met my husband, he told me he loved East of Eden, my favorite book. He might as well have said that it was me he loved: he understood that storytelling is what life is made of.
But by Monday evening something curious happens: our treasured book discussion, the river that has kept us voyaging each other’s minds for years, becomes dammed up. The very act of speaking is difficult. We’ve been physically confined for two days, but now it’s our thoughts that can’t get out.
A helicopter flies overhead and we erupt into the kind of cheering usually reserved for Super Bowl touchdowns.
Several military planes flew out today, the hotel manager says. People are going home.
See? says the sphere-haired woman from beside us. Prayer works.
But the details are less shiny up close. Thirty thousand tourists are stranded on the Baja Peninsula, and no one knows how many planes are leaving or who is getting on them. Those on the doctors’ list will take a bus to the airport. They might go home today—or not.
Then the manager announces that people with undamaged cars may go if they sign a waiver. We bless our last-minute decision to put our car in the garage when we hear about the fleet of wrecked rentals on the surface lot. In the early hours of the storm, we’d tried calling Alamo, and been told that we should call the local office. By then there was no local office.
After being caged for three days, we twitch with the possibility of release. We could venture into the ravaged unknown of the post-hurricane peninsula—or stay here, where our misery is predictable. Supposedly we have provisions for ten days, but already water is being rationed, one small bottle with lunch.
Are we crazy to go?
You’re actually considering staying? my husband replies, and I realize I’d rather go anywhere with him than stay here and let my fate be determined by strangers.
We offer our back seat to other guests, but no one else is tempted. Guests whose names we never learn express concern. We wave goodbye, pilot our suitcases around piles of rubble, and cast off.
Driving away we are exuberant—free!
But the sight of capsized telephone poles and ravaged buildings wears on us, making us second-guess. The town is thrashed, thousands of lives flattened overnight.
It takes over an hour to pass through Cabo. The street is lined with parked cars, displaced bits of beach, and locals pushing shopping carts stacked with toilet paper, dog food, and flats of Ramen. Old men drag crates of water on sheets of plastic. Kids cart coolers of ice.
Some steal flatscreen TVs that will sit dark for weeks, but mostly there’s logic to the looting: meat that will rot if left in powerless stores; water and ice for survival. If it were our home—our children—we would do the same thing.
We don’t have a map and most of the street signs are down. Our smartphones are useful only as calculators and flashlights. We haven’t been able to communicate with anyone for days, and we wonder now, does the world even know what happened?
There isn’t a single working gas station on the two-hour drive north to La Paz. We eat the last of our snacks, sip our water cautiously, eye the fuel and temperature gauges. We creep around washed-out sections of road, pop-up sand dunes, power lines hanging like tangled yarn. We tell ourselves we were right to leave. We imagine getting on a plane, holding our kids.
But when we reach La Paz, it’s just a variation on the theme: power is out and the few open stores are running on generators. We’re out of pesos, credit cards are useless, and ATMs muerto. The airport is a human feedlot, hundreds of people standing, looking lost. We see no employees, no counters to buy tickets, no list to put our names on.
We drive around and around in the dark looking for food and shelter, making constant U-turns at downed trees and power lines. Tired and hungry, we are lab rats failing the experiment.
At last we find a hotel with vacancies, but inside, the clerk shakes his head no. After seeing our panic, he relents, takes 54 of our dollars, and warns us that there is no light, A/C, Wi-Fi, or hot water.
It’s still 90˚ two hours after sundown, so we relish cold showers by the light of our phones. We open the window and lie sweating on top of the sheets, trying to think cool thoughts.
We say We’re lucky we’re safe. We say At least we’re together. We try to mean it.
The next morning we stock up at Wal-Mart—an oasis in a desert of shuttered shopfronts. Back home we shun big-box stores, but without this place we’d be doomed. We walk the wide bright aisles, attempting a survival checklist, and struggle to accept that we may need this entire cartful of food, water, extra shirts, underwear, and beach mats destined for an airport floor.
When we tell him that we’re trying to call our families, the store manager walks us across sun-broiled parking lots and gives us his own coins to try three different pay phones, none of which works.
Back at the airport, hundreds more refugees have materialized, a sea of curbside humanity. Without technology, a new oral tradition is born as travelers pass along wisps of hearsay, ideas for escape. Military flights are going out. Or people have been waiting since yesterday and nothing’s happened. People are flying here from Cabo. Or Cabo is a complete wreck. There’s another hurricane coming so you better get out. Or unless you have a printed ticket, you can’t get out. We sift through stories, searching for the truth.
Finally a reliable narrator: a reporter who came over on a ferry from Mazatlán.
It’s a long ride, but no one is flying out here, he says, gesturing at the crowd.
It’s enough to convince us. But the ferry terminal is only slightly less chaotic; as we wait in line, people flood through the door. We can’t pay with a credit card, we don’t have $220 in cash—and the ferry isn’t going to Mazatlán, but to to Topolobampo, a town we’ve never heard of.
But, a ferry employee says, you can put your name on a list. You may be able to pay with a credit card on the other side.
Conspicuously absent is the promise of actually getting a seat. But we get in another line anyway, where a woman writes down credit card numbers, rubber bands bundles of IDs, and drops them into an envelope we will allegedly see when we debark—if we get on.
When we get to the front of the line, the woman asks us if we’re taking our car. We worry about rental car drop fees. $800, we hear. We could return the car in La Paz, but balk at giving up our last shred of autonomy. Or we could drive back to to Cabo, where in theory our airline is obligated to get us home.
Retracing our steps feels like giving up: we are not “going back” people. We don’t plan to move back to where we grew up; if we travel, we go somewhere new; we rarely even watch the same movie twice. Only now do we wonder if this trait is our hubris.
We decide to keep the car; the possibility of being stranded on the other side is the Cyclops we can’t bear to face. Time—never one to march along in the tropics—feels stationary as we await our fate from the ferry gods and watch ticketed passengers board in droves.
What day is it—Wednesday? Two days after our scheduled return. My husband hasn’t been able to communicate with his coworkers since before the storm, but Sorry, I can’t come in to the office feels oddly irrelevant in light of Sorry, I’m not sure how to get out of this country.
We’re still waiting, hoping the woman who holds our credit card hasn’t forgotten us, when an elegantly-dressed Mexican woman tells us she’s spoken to the ferry worker and she’s going to make sure we get aboard. Her own home in Cabo was destroyed.
All around us tourists grumble that they’ll never come back to Mexico, but the Mexicans we’ve met—the Westin staff who stayed up all night, the Wal-Mart manager who gave us his own coins, and now this stranger taking us under her wing—have been gracious and hospitable—even as their lives have been torn apart.
Ninety minutes later the ferry worker waves us forward. We find seats in our first air-conditioned room in days and watch the Baja peninsula recede behind us. I feel a swell of panic, like we’ve tied ourselves to the masthead of a ship we aren’t supposed to be on.
You think we’re doing the right thing? I say.
Doesn’t matter. My husband’s laugh is frayed and reckless. We’re doing it.
I look at pictures of our children on my phone. Before we left California, we couldn’t wait to be without them. It was a luxury to sit in the exit row, to carry on small suitcases, to doze with no kids in our arms. Now we ache for them.
And then, a miracle: in the middle of the Sea of Cortés—a body of water I didn’t know about until today—a dozen texts bloom on my screen. The kids are fine; my mother-in-law sent pictures. No commercial flights are leaving Cabo. A friend says she is praying us home, asks what we need.
Plane tickets, I reply. And a get out of jail free card with the rental car company.
Most of my replies go through. Nearby passengers make frustrated sounds; it seems that I’m the only one getting service. It feels like a gift, a break in the clouds of ignorance. And then, just as quickly, it’s gone.
We venture topside to watch the day fade away, surrounded by blue. The land we were so hesitant to leave is lost behind us; question marks loom ahead: five hours south to Mazatlán? Ten hours north to Tucson? Fifteen hours northwest to Tijuana?
But right now there is just this: golden sky and glittering sea. A toddler belly laughs as she takes overconfident steps into her father’s waiting arms. Friends clown in silhouetted pictures. The sun winks into the ocean, and all of us who have been beaten down by nature at her worst share an exalted moment of nature at her finest.
It is night when we reach land. We stand in a single line that wraps around an entire floor of the boat, and assume the now-familiar posture of waiting—an uncomfortable stance for time-treasuring Americans. Suddenly we are so tired of it all.
We introduce ourselves to a couple with a baby when we overhear that they are from the Bay Area, just like us. They tell a story about a machete-toting man demanding their hotel’s emergency rations, and I feel the swell of guilt in my throat. We have spent four days stumbling from one uncertainty to the next, bemoaning lost money and fun—but have escaped real danger. The relativity of suffering is a strange thing: knowing that other people have it worse doesn’t make our own discomfort better.
And then silver linings turn to gold: our cell phones once again become phones, and our new friend’s father finds seats on a flight to San Jose. If we can drive his family—who returned their rental car in La Paz—to Mazatlán, he’ll buy our tickets home!
It takes another hour to pay our fare, but now the waiting is charged with promise. All around us are Mexican troops with faces like granite, preparing to reverse the same trip we just completed. We wonder if they have any idea what they are getting into, and then realize that we don’t know what we left behind.
To continue reading, visit Part 3.