I’m often asked what it’s like when you’re in The Real Mexico and living as the locals do, being entirely self-sufficient, exercising an immense amount of patience (what I call “Baja time,” which isn’t all that different from “island time”), and as a result, becoming surprisingly flexible, resourceful, and creative.
When the nearest major town is an hour away (and the first eight miles to the highway are all off road), you really learn to make do with what you have and appreciate the things you always take for granted.
Spending time at the Boat Ranch is sort of glorified camping. And just like camping, you’re incredibly at peace the whole time you’re there and you come home revived, wishing you had more time in the dirt and under the stars.
What makes it just a step above camping, however, are the few amenities in our community that make it a little more comfortable (especially for the ladies… because let’s face it, guys will sleep on the floor and eat tuna from a can if it means a week of offshore winds and uncrowded waves).
Take the bathroom, for instance. We have two communal bathrooms at the Boat Ranch, and you might as well label one for “Men” and the other for “Women.” The men’s version has an outdoor shower (which admittedly feels awesome on a hot day) and a urinal crafted from a large shell. It’s a fairly recent addition to the Ranch, and in fact there have been quite a few improvements since the first time I ever set foot in this surf community three years ago.
We used to have a rickety old water tower that held two reservoirs. Seriously, the thing looked like it was standing on stilts. One day last year, the tower collapsed — right on top of one of the old (uninhabited) boats. Our neighbor likened the scene to an A-bomb exploding at the Ranch. Luckily, no one was staying at the Ranch at the time and the defenseless boat was already on its way to being dismantled for firewood.
A new (and much more bomber, for lack of a better word) structure was put up in its place, and we increased our water capacity to 600 gallons between two new reservoirs.
The reservoirs only supply the residents at the Ranch. When full, they can last a couple of months with only one full-time resident using the water judiciously. But more often, when a few of us are spending time at the Ranch with our friends, the reservoirs last a few weeks at most.
With Baja California suffering the same drought that’s plaguing its northern neighbor, it truly puts our daily water usage in perspective between the dishwashing, the toilet flushing, and the showering.
When the reservoirs are empty (and sometimes, they empty at the most inconvenient times — like in the middle of a dirty dish), we buy more water from one of our neighbors on the cliff. He pulls his water truck into the Ranch and refills the reservoirs; it’s sort of a side business for him.
Is the water safe to drink? I’ll be honest, I don’t drink the water. It’s highly mineralized with a very strong taste. But I do find it safe and suitable for rinsing vegetables, washing dishes, and brushing my teeth.
The balcony below the water reservoirs belongs to a guest room that was built to accommodate friends and family. And below the guest room is a storage room for tools and other toys.
Next to the water tower is our main bathroom, or what I like to call the women’s bathroom. It was originally built to appease the wife of our longest-running resident, who has been coming to the Boat Ranch with his uncle since he was a kid. Thirty years later, he serves as our unofficial mayor and oversees any improvements made to the parcel.
Almost all of our friends who visit are surprised when they see the bathroom. Most just assume they have to relieve themselves in an outhouse (and for some of the other homes neighboring the Ranch, outhouses are the norm). None ever think they would actually get a hot shower after a surf.
We have a Western-style bathroom that’s shared by the community, and by community, that usually means two or three of us at any given time. The toilet is tied into a septic system. The shower is heated with a tankless water heater and though it doesn’t look like it from this angle, the stall can easily accommodate two people with plenty of room to spare. One of our running jokes at the Ranch is “save water, shower with your girlfriend.”
It’s a rather luxurious treat when you think about where we are, and because of all the women coming and going, it always smells lovely — rosemary shampoos, bergamot soaps, coconut lotions. Hey, it’s the little things.
We also have running water in our outdoor kitchen, albeit cold running water. We are very conscious with how much water we use day to day, as the kitchen is where we go through most of it. When you think about how often you wash your hands, or turn on the tap to rinse a glass, it adds up to many, many gallons before you even do a load of dishes. And we see it from the number of times we empty the soaking tub that sits in our sink. No water ever goes to waste in the kitchen.
The gray water flows down the sink, through a pipe, and into a 5-gallon bucket under the counter. When it’s full, we haul the bucket around and water our landscape: palms, geraniums, bougainvillea, euphorbia, cactus, and other succulents.
For a desert home we only visit a few times a year, we have a decent amount of greenery on our property. The plants are adapted to our infrequent watering, the occasional winter rainstorm, and the dense layer of fog that rolls in during the summer. It’s a perfect example of how efficient and beautiful xeriscaping can be.
Now that we’ve been here for a couple of years and gotten into a routine, we’re starting to think about our other needs — conveniences that would allow us to spend more time down south. Our neighbor just installed satellite Internet and found it to be surprisingly fast, so we might start sharing the service with him. (It’s still a mental struggle as to whether or not we want to be connected while we’re here, but truthfully, we need it if we’re going to be working remotely.)
We’re seriously looking into a solar water heating system for the kitchen, and that will be a priority this year.
We’re still undecided on putting solar panels on our roof, as we haven’t come across a huge need for power yet. At night, we light our way with oil lanterns and solar lamps, and we charge our various devices and tools with a portable power pack plugged into a 60-watt panel. For now, that suits us plenty.
The wonderful thing about being a part of this community is that we have our own sharing economy. We’ve borrowed a generator from our neighbor to run heavy-duty power tools. We have access to another neighbor’s big gas grill if we want to barbecue for a crowd. Though we’re on our own, we’re not actually alone.
I imagine that life at the Ranch isn’t all that different from life in other off-grid places. It’s simple. It’s peaceful. And once you’re here, you realize you don’t need a whole lot to be happy.