Highway from the Comfort Zone

Traveling in your comfort zone is a meal with no flavor – you are nourished, but the gustatory senses are left lacking; needs are met, but there is nothing truly delightful to be gained. Being in the Gulf of California has left me no choice but to leave my comfortable realm of limitations, immersing into desert heat, foreign tongues, and extensive time on boats. In these ways, I have been graced with quite a mouthful, so to speak, of reactions and revelations and reevaluations. These departures from the land of comfort, though, were ones I had mentally prepared for; my bag had been properly packed and my body had been sufficiently braced. What I could not anticipate in the slightest, no matter how many times I pondered the word “indigenous,” was the humbling and joyful sensation of speaking, laughing, and temporarily living with people of the Seri nation. The Seri, who refer to themselves as Comcáac, have inhabited an area around the Gulf of California for millennia and, over the most recent centuries, resisted multiple extermination attempts by both Spanish and Mexican forces. Their history I had read, the phrase “traditional ecological knowledge” firmly settled in my diction, but still the mere presence of our Comcáac guests brought me overwhelming reverence and gratitude. I will recount their names and abridged genealogies before a few telling interactions.

On our first voyage to Tiburón Island, we were joined by three sisters, Valentina, Mayra, and Betsabe, their father, José Ramón Torres, and another elder, Manuelito. On our second trip, this time camping on Tiburón’s eastern side, Mayra and Betsabe rejoined us along with an extended portion of the Lopez family: the brothers, José Luis and Rigo; their sister Nena’s two children, Omar and Pedro; Rigo’s wife, Rosa; three of their children, Vilma, Juliana, and Ramón; and Vilma’s daughter, Gira. Lastly, we were lucky enough to be guided and instructed by an elder named Ernesto.

For the first trip, I found myself quite shy around our Comcáac guests. I could not muster much communication, for the sense of give and take between our two cultures seemed to me imbalanced. Tiburón Island, our primary campsite, and the surrounding islands we visited once formed the cultural stronghold of the Comcáac people, yet now they live on the nearby mainland out of economic necessity. It is an unfortunate consequence of their socioeconomic capacity nowadays that access to this area, collectively called the Midriff Islands, is primarily limited to choice guests on academic excursions like ours. Accordingly, when we hiked through the inviting and prudent pasture of San Esteban, or when we sought and surprisingly found a halcyon watering hole nestled in the rocks of Tiburón, I latched onto and emulated a behavior of reverential respect I perceived in their faces, their bodies, their words.

Our second journey brought a variety of age groups and a much more social vibration to the camping experience. Indeed, much of our two-day return to Tiburón was spent mingling on the beach, sharing jokes, food, and overall conviviality. Though our guide Ernesto’s gifted us much wisdom regarding marine life, the pen shell fishery, and Comcáac history, I did not feel the same blandness, rooted in my comfortable shyness. Upon some reflection, I see that my initial reverence and unwillingness to directly engage our Comcáac guests may have derived from a subconscious subscription to the “Noble Savage” concept that indigenous groups are invariably well-suited to a harmonious lifestyle with the earth and that we have only to emulate their ways. Now, I understand what a distant pedestal that this idea can place such real and accessible human beings, people with whom we can break bread and laugh and wonder. Personally, I find the conception of the noble savage is as dangerous as the deserved environmental science student who writes this, thinking he has the knowledge and right to save the planet. What I certainly share with the Comcáac people I have met is a a spiritual connection to nature, something I seek and fleetingly grasp at. I am simply grateful to be a part of this grand procession, the intricate goings-on of life on Earth.