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Violence rears its ugly head — all around you

Some of the surliest weather of the winter was slamming the West Coast the day we flew from San José Del Cabo to Portland. It was a rock 'n' roll landing, and the cabin burst into spontaneous applause.

But something was grabbing us way harder than the weather. It was a story about violence against tourists in Baja. We read it in USA Today, the only English-language newspaper we could get at the airport near Cabo San Lucas. The story painted a picture of half-empty hotels and beaches and a climate of fear as tourists were assaulted, robbed and raped along a 200-mile stretch from Tijuana south.

Even Baja's new secretary of tourism — a man who apparently never went to PR school — said it was getting scary. So word is out. About 18 million tourists visited Baja in 2007, down from 21 million in 2006.

People blamed drug gangs and "thugs" (are those mutually exclusive?). Even Mexican cops have been abducted and killed. Other cops are in with the crooks.

We'd just spent a mellow week in La Paz, which is a good 800 miles south of the Tijuana-El Rosario corridor but still Baja. We stayed in an apartment in an old resort just up from the Malecón, the bay-front promenade where people stroll and jog and skate from the time the winter sun rises over the hills until long after it sets behind the bay.

People were friendly. The only hassles we saw involved gulls. The only shots we heard were the usual New Year's Eve festivities.

In limited travels in Latin America over the years, I've never achieved more than the crudest pidgin Spanish. I have almost zero vocabulary and less grammar. But we enjoy walking and taking buses and taxis and shopping in markets where nobody speaks English. People are usually patient and generous.

If you're going to stay in a HIlton and rent a car and do nothing but tours and Americanized food at joints where everybody speaks English, why bother? Why not just go to Sunriver and save time and money?

I tried to say in a farmacia that I was looking for nail clippers, miming the use of that implement. The young woman behind the counter laughed. I must have said I wanted to cut my dedos, my fingers. Trying to buy a round-trip bus ticket to the village of Todos Santos, what I should have said was el boleta viaje redondo, but instead of viaje redondo I said viejo redondo. I turned a round trip into a round old man, an old fat guy, and the other fellow cracked up.

We ate tacos and tamales from street vendors and pescado in restaurants. We played gin and drank cervezas with limes as each night's sunset painted the western sky more luridly red than the one before. We snorkled with the acrobatic sea lions at Los Islotes and lay on the warm sand as the pelicans worked the coves of Isla Espiritu Santo. It was all good.

We didn't camp. But we talked about driving and camping our way south down the Sea of Cortez side as I used to do years ago. My wife nodded at the newspaper story and expressed a strong antipathy for assault, robbery and rape.

"That's the Pacific side," I said. "Near the border it's loco. It's safer farther down. Especially on the east side."

But the truth is I have little sense of the place now. Off your home turf you're a stranger, and there are good people and bad wherever you go.

Case in point. Back in safe, comfortable Medford, the night of our first day back, there is an awful fight at a party, a young man senselessly maimed. This happens not far from our home. It is inconceivable, as unreal in its way as the Baja violence you don't see. But of course both are quite real. In a way they are even bookends. You put such matters out of mind, and so they return as phantoms asking us to plumb our species' fathomless capacity for inhumanity.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.