Gulf of California

Camping with the Seri: Shooting stars, self-caught meals, and Battle Coyote.
by -- April 7th, 2011

We spent three fun-filled days on Tiburon Island immersed in nature and Seri culture.

Day 1 – Friday

Our three day excursion with the Seri (Comcaac) started at 8am Friday with a bumpy van ride across the desert to Punta Chueca (Socaaix).  Xavier’s mad driving skills through the winding dirt roads of the desert was themed by Ted’s mix of Sufjan Stevens and Vampire Weekend.  (I still have no idea how he got us there – everything looked the same to me.)  At the village we saw the Seris’ government-built flat-roofed houses, small schools, and lots of stray dogs.  Definitely a different environment than we’d seen thus far.

Some of us got distracted…

Once out of the van and the circle of several Seri women selling jewelry, we split into two pangas and sped across the Infiernillo Channel towards Tiburon Island.  (Tiburon was where Seri bands once lived, but is now uninhabited.)  Accompanied by our six Seri friends (Alfredo, Manuelito, Clotilde, Jose Luis, Omar, and Vilma), we arrived at Tiburon and set up camp before lunch.

Sharon just couldn’t wait to eat her avocado and cheese sandwich.

While we struggled with our tents and ate our usual peanut butter and banana sandwiches, the Seri were busy collecting mussels and snails and starting a fire.  We watched the cooking process as Alfredo showed us valuable pearls as well as jewelry handmade from various natural materials including bivalve and snail shells, fish scales, black coral, and bones.  Several purchases were made (one after an intense rock-paper-scissors match) before we broke to rest/explore/fish (unfortunately a broken fishing line leaves little story to be told).

Clotilde cooking mussels and snails.
Later, Elena, Cathy, Nari, and Sharon successfully made our first dinner in the “kitchen” consisting of an open tent, travel stove, inconveniently placed lantern, and a sandy floor.  (Dinner included chicken and cheese quesadillas, pico de gallo, guacamole, and the best store-bought chips ever.)
Once it was dark, we circled up on the beach, and Alfredo shared Seri myths about the stars:
  • Milky Way = Spilled flour that a dog licked in certain places resulting in faded spots
  • Pleiades – When a girl could see five stars of this cluster she’d be ready to have a family.
  • Orion = A hunter that hunts three animals – bighorn sheep, mule deer, and whitetail deer.   Each animal has its own bright star.  The story is that this hunter killed a bighorn sheep with his sword, and its blood dripped down from the sky onto Tiburon – this is why bighorn sheep inhabit the island.  (They were actually introduced in 1975.)
  • The twinkling of a star represents the movement of an animal running.
  • The more stars a man can see means he’ll be a better warrior.
  • The Seri could tell time by the stars – they know the North Star doesn’t move, and that the sky rotates around it.  Thus they could tell time based on the position of certain stars relative to the horizon.

 

Day 2 – Saturday

The next day, early risers discovered coyotes had stolen three loaves of bread, a sleeve of Oreos, lots of vegetables, and chewed open and drank/spilled half a jug of water.  Bitter (or amused) and plotting revenge, we ate breakfast and loaded into a panga with Alfredo and Omar to explore the northern side of Tiburon.  After observing pen shell fishermen in action, we headed to a rocky beach to rest.  On the way we saw three bighorn sheep of which we’d hear the night before, perched high up on a mountain.  The rocks on the beach crawled with isopods, and tide pools were filled with hermit crabs in colorful shells.  While some of us chased a pair of red billed oystercatchers, Mateja and Kirby snorkeled off shore – they brought back pen shells which Alfredo, Omar, and Nari cut up and seasoned with lime and Tajin.

On the way to an estuary, we passed a baitball.  Pelicans, gulls, boobies, and dolphins swarmed like crazy in the water, and dolphins chased our boat as we drove by.  Click here to watch a video.  At the estuary we found mangroves, swimming crabs, and snakes.

Back at camp, Luke joined Mateja and Kirby to dive for more pen shells.  We ate them for dinner along with chili and oatmeal (yeah, weird combo, but still good).  After dinner we sat around a campfire and listened to Manuelito and Clotilde sing traditional Seri songs.

Though late at night, excitement was yet to come.  Mary and Caitlin spotted a coyote!  We proceeded to literally chase it around our campsite shouting threats, its eyes reflecting in the light of all our headlamps.  Worried we’d be left with no food the next day, we came up with a plan:  move all the food and water to the boat!  After Sharon consolidated all the food into one box, we put it on the boat.  Feeling superior to the coyotes and tired from a busy day, we went to bed (some of us on the beach).

Day 3 – Sunday

We woke up to low tide – the boat was on land.  The coyotes had jumped onto the boat and taken more bread – we felt pretty defeated.  (Why do they like bread so much?)

That morning we joined the Seri in a traditional circle dance.   Manuelito sang a traditional song as we followed Clotilde’s dance steps around a circle.  The dance represented a crow landing and hopping around fallen prey/a carcass and was symbolic of warriors’ excitement after defeating an enemy in war.  We were grateful they had shared this part of their culture with us.

Alfredo and Clotilde

After a discussion about traditional ecological knowledge, we went on a short hike to a fossilized reef/previous coastline.  Due to the large size of the shells, the Seri say the island was once inhabited by giants.

After eating lunch (and rationing our bread of course), tearing down camp, and falling into and out of boats (Elena and Luke respectively), we returned to Punta Chueca.  As soon as we unloaded the boat, about a dozen Seri women surrounded us selling jewelry and granite and ironwood sculptures.

Examples of Seri products.

Back in Kino and after all of us showered within an hour (that has to be a record), we ate dinner at the Red Snapper.   Chips, swimming crab, callo (scallops), fish, and “octopus in love” tacos, plus limonada and chalky horchata were all on the menu.  Stuffed with good food and exhausted from three full days of educational excitement, we made it up to our palapa.  Looking forward to relaxing the next day, we all crashed.  Little did we know…Rest day? Never heard of such a thing.

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