Christmas at sea

Contributed by Guillermo Munro Palacio, anecdote of Héctor Munro Palacio  Photo: Guillermo Munro Palacio

We set sail for shrimp in direction of Islas Encantadas precisely at noon on December 18th, 1958. The ship was the Río Yaqui, of don Julián Bustamante; on this occasion shipholder Jorge Robles, “el Pizcachas”, had to stay at port to care for his wife for whom Dr. Roberto Gracida had recommended absolute bed rest for her pregnancy. Jorge stayed to take care of his wife and small children, and his cousin Beto “El Pescado” Contreras went in his place. The engine man was Luis Irineo, the cook was “el Maestro” Moro, and in the crew we were Santos Gutiérrez, Yeto Araiza, Beto Moro, Ramón el Brevas, and myself, Héctor Munro Palacio.

It was clear we would not be spending Christmas at home and el Maestro had made preparations to celebrate Christmas dinner, as was the custom, with tamales and menudo. We had taken all the ingredients to prepare the dinner, and so it was.

Despite it being winter, we worked five days and nights in incredibly warm calm waters.

On the dawn of December 23rd, the Caterpillar engine of the Río Yaqui ground to a halt.

That same morning, at 10, Luis Moreno “el Tiracortito” received our emergency call over the radio and towed us to the nearest and safest spot, which was San Luis Gonzaga, a small bay surrounded by cliffs and a single entry; so calm that not even the coffee spilled. No tides came in, it was a beautiful and gentle spot. The only thing at that time was a straw ramada, said to belong to an American who would come to spend the winters there, yet the ramada was empty.

We anchored there on the 23rd, and at dawn on December 24, 1958, the aroma of recently strained coffee reached us. El Maestro Moro assigned each of us a task to prepare for the Christmas dinner that night, the longest and most beautiful evening in it being the day and night on which our Christ Savior Jesus was born.

On the starboard side, el Maestro Moro and I decided to clean part of the stomach for the menudo while on the port side of the stern Yeto Araiza and el Brevas did the same, though they spent more time complaining than working.

There on the boat’s hatchway (which we used as a table) Beto Moro and Santos Gutiérrez prepared the masa for tamales while Luis Irineo set to cleaning the hooves for the menudo.

Very much in his role, “El Pescado” Contreras cooked up the ingredients: beef, chile colorado, and other things that would be needed. El Maestro Moro was an expert in these necessities as he was originally from Imuris, Sonora, a pueblo which is famous for its Sonoran flavor, much as Terrenate, San Ignacio and Magdalena de Kino, Curcurpe and others in the area. El Maestro and his wife were also experts in preparing traditional buñuelos pastries. We followed his instructions to the letter.

It must have been around 10 in the morning and, as we were all occupied with what we were doing, we didn’t realize when a 16” fiberglass boat came into the bay with two North Americans on board.

They came in and alongside us; we offered them coffee. They went right to helping us with the preparations and were having a good time. The two Americans, who were about twenty or twenty-two years old, didn’t speak Spanish and we didn’t speak English. Yet, we joked through signing, gestures, and mimicking. In as much as we could communicate, we invited them to dinner that evening, which they apparently understood since they stayed through to the end.

The night fell on that precious Christmas Eve day and to all our surprise el Maestro Moro, without saying a word, had prepared two pots full of cinnamon and about a liter of 96 grade alcohol – though he pulled another out of his sleeve. We began preparing the tasty warm cups, which lifted our spirits with each drink.

Meanwhile, Luis Irineo began to wash out a small box with Fab. It was the box where we stored the gloves to pull apart shrimp and the sticks we used to select them. Seeing our curious looks, he went back inside and came out with the shiny paper from cigarette boxes. He then brought out the images of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and San Francisco Javier, both of which were never lacking on boats at that time. Luis had made an altar with what he had found on hand.

In the warmth we began to feel, and the liveliness from drink, the hours rolled on. The sun had already hidden behind the mountains of Baja California, but it was still early. Being inside that bay the sun went down much earlier. Suddenly, when the day’s light had gone, we saw what appeared to be a good size boat appear in the mouth to the bay of San Luis Gonzaga. We realized it was actually a canoe, a canoe with two crew members pushed along by two short oars. They were two young men from Mexicali, “Cachanillas”, where they didn’t use simple oars but rowing oars; the “Cachanillas” were rowing champions. You could clearly hear their oars penetrate the calm waters as they passed near us.

They were headed to a spot on the bay to spend the night and someone suggested we call out to them. We did so and waved them over. They joined us. They were shy fishermen, introverted but very decent. They were two brothers, one was Armando and the other Roberto, with the surname Cota Romero. Despite the cold, they only wore one shirt on top of the other. They were headed to San Felipe and had come from Santa Rosalía, pushed by the need that made them flee the poverty that battered the Baja California peninsula in the 50s.

We quickly prepared two cups of hot coffee for them. They were really pewter cups, particularly for use on boats as the ceramic ones broke easily. The coffee already had a drop of alcohol. One of the brothers was probably twenty-two, and the other around twenty-six, slim, leathery, strong, and tall. They were good people, without vice, exhausted from rowing for so many days.

The night rolled on while we listed to XECL from Mexicali, Christmas songs and hymns; between joking and drinks we spent a delightful evening – that night of peace and brotherly love. The translucent moonless sky was covered with millions of stars that seemed like lights of a majestic celestial Christmas tree. The light reflected in the mirror calm waters of San Luis Gonzaga bay.

Perhaps due to the nostalgia that enveloped all of us in not being with our loved ones, we all felt more human, more fraternal, more softhearted, and filled with an internal peace that is difficult to describe; an enormous peace and happiness that overcame the nostalgia of being away from our families.

Each year on Christmas, el Maestro Moro and his wife had put together a candlelight celebration in the barrio. El Maestro always helped his wife with the songs and litanies they knew. Filled with this spirit, el Maestro called us over to the improvised altar and, though being new to praying, together we said the Lord’s Prayer, three Ave Marias, and sang old hymns that didn’t have anything to do with Christmas but were the only ones we remembered.

When it came time to eat, the tamales were brought over to the hatchway, along with the recently strained coffee and cinnamon.

At about eleven, we pulled out a huge pot of menudo of pata and white bone, and filled with all the ingredients – green onion, cilantro, diced onion, oregano, chiltepín, and all the necessities. Glory and jubilation abound, encouraged by the warm drinks and the cinnamon with a little extra “piquete.”

Once around what we were using as a table, I turned toward the portside between the rigging and edge where the boss, “El Pescado” Contreras, waved me over. He said, “You and Yeto are the strongest, climb up the valance and from there lower the awning and affix it to the boat on the stern side so that the Cachanillas and Americans don’t get cold.”

We climbed up and threw down the awning – which was enormous – and drug it to the stern where we made a sturdy tent. After dining on menudo, the Cachanillas prepared to go but “El Pescado” told them to get a good night’s sleep, protected from the cold. The Americans did the same. By about midnight we were all asleep.

The next morning, upon awaking in my cot where I slept with my feet sticking out as I didn’t fit, el Maestro Moro came over and asked,

“What did Santa Claus bring you?”

“Nothing, why?”

“I think he did bring you something. Look.”

He was quite the kidder and almost never spoke the truth.

“Pick up the pillow,” he said.

I picked up my pillow and discovered that Santa Claus had left a can of Velveeta tomato sauce.

I don’t know who Santa Claus was that night, but each of use – including the Americans and the Cachanillas – woke up with a can or jar of something: Spam, green beans, Carnation milk, canned corn, peas, pumpkin, cans of Nescafé, jelly, Rosarita beans….

Nobody fessed up to the gesture and we never knew who did it. After having menudo once again for breakfast, the Cachanillas began to ready to go. We saw they didn’t have anything to cover them up. I took Yeto to the cabin and said,

“Are you in?” I had a blue hooded sweatshirt that I never wore; el Yeto had a red one. “Alright,” he replied. We gave them to the Cota Romero boys. El Maestro, who had been up before everyone, had already filled a basket with cans, Nescafé, tortillas, bread, and everything. In those days there was plenty of food; on each trip we had extra cans of corned beef, Spam, canned milk, etc. There was abundance and generosity among all the shipbuilders. El Maestro gave this to them. The Americans were also very grateful as they left.

On December 26th, Ramoncito Bustamente and Gustavito Lozoya appeared. They had departed Peñasco on December 25th in a new pick-up and made it over impassable roads, bringing us the needed parts for the Río Yaqui´s engine.

Merry Christmas!

 

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