A Happy Kidnapping In Baja

One morning, shortly after a glimmering June sunrise over the rock islands of Bahía Concepción, we broke the hearts of two little girls into a million pieces. How? We packed up camp, cleaned up their beach toys and told them that it was time, finally, to head home.

My 7-year-old niece, Samantha, missing a front tooth and all, hung her head and tried stumping us with the classic brainteaser, "Why do we have to leave?" As if yammering about "getting back to work," or "there's probably a letter from the HOA in the mailbox about weeds growing in the front yard," or, the real big one, a "mound of email to despise and delete" could possibly mean anything to her. She'd surely ask, "Why?" to every one of those answers, and the conversation would spiral.

And my daughter Chloe, not yet three, was wailing uncontrollably. So things were going really well.

I can't blame these girls, really. Here we had this placid breeze, this warm sunshine dispensing vitamin D and this perfect gold reflection off the dark blue surface of the Sea of Cortés. They'd worn their swimsuits for 72 hours straight, lived on a feast of peanut butter sandwiches and maybe watched a few rounds of Scooby-Doo on the MacBook while the rest of us enjoyed our downtime with real adult books and fresh guacamole. The rest of this story—despite featuring once-in-a-lifetime scenery, infrequently traveled roads and other lovely things—was far less dramatic than settling into the final leg of this 2,800-mile road trip with two girls who'd prefer we leave them on a remote beach in Mexico to live happily ever after.

"What I need," I declared, cutting to the chase, as the road up the Baja peninsula wasn't going to be short, easy or all that much fun unless we did something to make it so, "is a scrumptious plate of lobster burritos from Mama Espinosa's."

"Don't joke with me," my wife Brooke told me.

So I didn't.

We rolled into El Rosario saggy-eyed and stiff from hours of driving. We parked the truck, unbuckled the kids from the backseat and watched them race to a small playhouse beneath a nearby tree.

My wife looked at me, and I looked at her. She heard my stomach, and I heard hers. She read my mind, and I read hers. Let's just go inside and get some food. The zen of parenting, as we've come to discover, says: When the child is hungry, to the table she'll come. We left Chloe and Sam unsupervised to their tea party in this TotTurf-free playground in a foreign country. Partly because they'd be better off left to their own devices and partly because we were just too hungry to wait for them.

Mama Espinosa's is famous for its spirited namesake proprietor who's filled the stomachs, and therefore the hearts, of innumerable dust-covered Baja travelers going back to the 1940s. The food inside will leave me—or you—either pleasantly on the brink of comatose or hobbling sideways with the "enchilada limp," the true measure of a meal in Mexico. 

Inside, Brooke and I browsed hundreds of photographs on the walls, an only-in-Baja combination of charming local families and autographed shots of Baja race trucks. Then we noticed these square, colorful pieces of yarn art about the size of a DVD case. Ojo de Dios they're called, and they originate from a Huichol tradition on mainland Mexico in which a mother and father weave one of these together over the first five years of their child's life. Translated "God's eye," Ojo de Dios represents the power to see and understand things unknown.

Through one window I could still see the girls playing. They were fine.

We considered buying an Ojo de Dios for a moment, then sliently agreed that because they were for sale, they missed the point.

A shy girl took our order and returned to the kitchen.

Moments later, I glanced out the window again, and couldn't see Samantha or Chloe. I stood up, walked to the window and looked closer, beyond a photograph of Robby Gordon's monster Hummer mid-air, but the girls were gone.

Then a burst of laughter shot from the kitchen, and I turned to see what it was.

Two women, presumably the cocineras preciosas who presided over my craved-for lobster burritos, had corralled Sam and Chloe into the kitchen. The ladies gave the girls lollipops and everyone laughed about something together—odd, our girls don't speak Spanish, the ladies didn't speak English. If this happened back home, we'd likely be quick to scoop them up and out of the kitchen either for fear for their safety or fear they'd be bothering the workers. But it wasn't all that unusual, at least not here. Mexican women frequently approached the blonde, blue-eyed girls to smile and say hello. Sure, to a certain extent, they were being treated almost like dolls—something to be "ooh"-ed and "aww"-ed over until attention was turned elsewhere—but for some reason, we didn't see it like that. It's a culture that admires children. Back in that kitchen, the girls were getting a taste of the country that my wife and I, for as much as we traveled, never could.

Though I couldn't put my finger on it, and still can't, I liked what had happened at Mama Espinosa's, in the middle of nowhere Baja. I stood there, watched and wished an Ojo de Dios could let me in on what was so funny in there.

Mark Stephens is a father and husband living in Arizona. He writes about the people, places and things that appeal to active parents enjoying outdoor adventure in any of its forms on his blog AdventureParents.com.