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Dry Baptism: Trading faith for water and the pagan 'pitahaya.'

Soul in the Desert

On water, God and cactus fruit

By Alastair Bland

A seed of fear began to grow in my gut as I hiked along a lonely dirt road in the desert of Baja California. This was desolate country, and my drinking water was nearly gone. The previous day, I had walked from the Pacific fishing village of Los Bandoleros northward about 20 miles without meeting a soul, and by this evening I would have no water left. I needed to pick up a ride soon, or at least run into a group of--"Ah ha! People!" I exclaimed.

Two hundred yards off to my right, there sat about 20 men, women and children under a lonesome acacia tree. Parked beside them were three pickup trucks. As I drew near, several figures stood and waved to me, and I sallied forth with a fresh bounce in my step. On this good day in this good land, it looked as though I would not die after all. I could hear the folks singing to the rhythm of a guitar, and they exuded an air of hospitality and warmth--what I'd come to expect of the people in Baja California.

"Hello, friend," a smiling, smooth-faced man of about 30 said to me in Spanish as I approached. He gestured to an empty lawn chair, then asked if I wanted food. Over a cactus-wood fire, there sizzled several small fish. "Yes, please," I said. "But mostly I'm thirsty." I shook my empty milk jugs.

As a young boy handed me a plate of corn tortillas and a headless kelp bass, the man said, "It is lonely out there in the desert."

"There's hardly a soul," I agreed through a mouthful of fish and cornmeal. He nodded toward my pack. "You carry a Bible, yes?"

Suddenly the people grew quiet, and I sputtered, "Oh, that is a very heavy book to carry."

"But you are a Christian, yes?" the man asked. The semicircle of people leaned in to listen. The guitar stopped, the hot coals crackled, the surf roared distantly and the earth's gravity seemed to triple. "You pray to Jesus at night? You have faith in Him?"

I am an atheist, and what faith I have is in the old adage about the truth setting you free, so I said carefully, "I am not a Christian and, no, I do not always pray."

The people all stared at me in horror. I wished now that I was camped out on some lonely beach under a palm tree, or hiking through a mango orchard in the mountains, or even fighting the hustle and bustle of Tijuana--anything but this. The young man looked me hard in the eyes. "My friend, you will go to Hell," he said. He paused. I raised an eyebrow. "But if you repent," he continued, "you can be saved--here and now."

"Um . . ."

"You must repent your sins now!" He ordered me to close my eyes and repeat after him a verbal contract of repentance. To adopt a new religion without at least a day to think it over is crazy. But it seemed I was surrounded by crazy people, and I clearly had no choice in the matter. I took a look around at the blue sky and the free world beyond the shade of this acacia tree, then closed my eyes.

Abruptly, I was stricken with fear. I recalled an old roommate from college who had been sucked into a religious cult that performed nocturnal baptisms at the beach and went off to strange retreats in the mountains, and I became terrified for my mind and soul.

"Jesus Christo," the man began, and I followed his words through the darkness.

"Yo creo en Su poder . . ." A deep sadness washed over me, and I recalled all the things that my parents had taught me. I thought sadly of my twin brother, my relatives and my friends. I thought of the house I grew up in and the city I called home. It seemed desperately far away, and I believed that I was about to die in this barren place.

But then the man's voice stopped. I slowly opened my eyes and realized that I was still alive, healthy and sane. I gazed about me in exaggerated wonder.

The men, women and children clasped their hands and beamed in awe. "You are born again!" a woman gasped. The young man who had done his best to rob me of my soul came over and took my hands, and I stood up to accept his embrace. He gently patted my mop of hair. "You now have brothers and sisters in the town of Los Bandoleros. Just come to the church. And when you go home," he instructed me, "you must tell the people in your city about the Church of Christ."

"Of course," I lied, and we smiled at each other.

A woman handed me my milk jugs, each filled with cool water. "Thank you," I said. "Thank you." And with that I shouldered my backpack and departed into the desert, free again, with my water and my soul.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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