December 2010 - Helen Chappell


Santa, Baby!
Helen Chappell


I think the best adult Christmas I ever spent was on the beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. I was with a man I loved madly, in a beautiful little village on the Pacific. The water was turquoise blue, the sand was white, and all around the hills rose majestically toward the open sunny skies.
And best of all, in Mexico they don’t have Christmas the way we do in the States. No tacky plastic crap, no trees, no wreaths, no stress-filled social events, at least not for the gringos.
In Latin countries, Los Tres Reyes, the New Testament three kings, come a few days after Christmas and deliver the goodies to small children. Since there were no small children around, we were spared that chore.
The sun in December in Mexico shines like June in Maryland. At home, they were struggling with cold, ice and snow, but down in Puerto Escondido, a breeze blew in from the water and we lay on the beach tanning ourselves like a pair of saurians. Roasting in the sun until I burned to a crisp, I probably lay the groundwork for the Ghost of Skin Cancer Yet to Come, but at that moment, it was worth it.
There was a tiny bookstore in town that sold English-language paperbacks, so we never went without something to read, whether it was science fiction or the preachy prose stylings of Marilyn French.
Just lie on the beach in the sun all day long, sleeping and reading and eating food from the vendors. I never caught Montezuma’s revenge from eating wherever and whatever, but it was kind of fun watching less-hearty Germans and Quebecois falling like loblolly pines in the marsh. I never said I was nice, did I? People who are having a lot of fun and Schadenfreude don’t have time to be nice. I was too busy carpé’ing that diem. Love, surf, sun and food.
And people watching. We were on the Bolivian pipeline, which is not, as you might suppose, a cocaine smuggling route, but a set of waves and currents that devout surfers followed from California, down the Pacific coast to somewhere in Chile. They all looked and acted like Sean Penn’s Jeff Spiccoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Which is to say they were an endless source of fascination and amusement.
Apparently, all they did was move up and down the coast, following the surf, which seems like a great life. If you like to surf. My personal favorite expatriot was Surfboard Savior. This relic of the 60’s had evidently followed the pipeline as far as Puerto Escondido, then couldn’t get any further.
Maybe he’d taken too many mushrooms or smoked too much Mexican green, or had some kind of epiphany, but he walked around with his shoulder-length sun bleached hair and dingy white robes, carrying his board under one arm, talking to a deity no one else could see, listening to a sound track no one else could hear.
The locals, who were pretty cynical about gringos, said he was a kind of scared crazy, which protected him from getting beaten up and robbed every five feet. Other surfers who drifted through in their vans and woodies on their way to the next wave said his parents were these really uptight rich people from Potomac, Maryland, who sent him money to stay away. It was all very Somerset Maugham, but it’s nice to meet someone who is even crazier than you are.
The water was warm and clear, and you could swim all the way around the coast to another resort if you wanted. No sharks, but lots of fishermen in the red and blue painted boats.
If we got tired of the beach, we could come ashore and lie in hammocks beneath the shade of the palm trees, sipping Coronas and tropical drinks, the kind with little umbrellas.
Christmas is prime vacation time for many Mexicans who head from the cities to the beaches, so it wasn’t just gringos strolling about the old Spanish Colonial fishing village. There were many good restaurants to cater to the touristas. We’d start with breakfast of huevos rancheros, chorizo and black coffee so strong a spoon would stand up in it.
Lunch meant tortillas and queso with a liquados to wash it down. Liquados is a wonderful blend of mango, orange, lime, lemon and banana all tossed in a blender with some ice, to be reduced to a thick fruit juice of wonderful deliciousness.
Dinner was often red snapper. I’ve never had snapper again as good as that. Fresh off the boat that afternoon, cleaned and lightly broiled in butter, it was the very essence of fish, melting in your mouth and leaving a salty tang on your tongue.
Of course, all of this was flavored highly with being in love and a couple of margaritas.
Romance tourism was the gift of that Christmas, and it was the best gift ever! I’ll never forget that Christmas night on the beach with the other gringos, where we sat on our blankets in the sand and watched people light candles and float them out to sea. The lights grew smaller and smaller as the tide carried them out to sea, then disappeared on the horizon.
That’s been many years ago, but the memory floats me back in time. Of course, things ended badly. They always do when they’re too good to be true. And Christmas turned from a beautiful prince back into a rotting pumpkin left over from last Halloween. It’s the great circle of life and death...
It’s not that I don’t like Christmas. For me, after I became an adult (note I don’t say grown-up; I haven’t quite gotten there yet) the expectations of the holiday never quite matched up to the reality you experience as a child. When you get old enough that Santa stops coming around and you are single and childless, like about 37% of America, you start to understand why Scrooge felt the way he did.
It becomes a chore to put on a happy face and make a gift list for people who buy everything they want or need for themselves. It becomes a chore to go to cocktail parties where you have to dress and put on makeup and jolly yourself along, hoping no one notices your social anxiety disorders are lurking just below the garlands and the red balls and the hearty ho-ho’s.
Lately, I find myself just grateful to have friends who love me, and will expect me for the holidays. There will be the ritual exchange of gifts, where you have to remember it’s really about the kids. But the kids will do all the decorating, and it will look and feel like Christmas.
We’ll all sit down to a good meal, fight over who cleans up and puts stuff away, and then we’ll spend the rest of the holiday lying in front of the television in a food and alcohol stupor. This is the sort of thing you can only do with people you love. For us, this is a merry Christmas.
We like it because its trauma and drama-free. Jesus would like that, especially if you sent donations to your charities so other people can get a chance to enjoy the holidays, too. That always clears my conscience and wipes out my sin of ingratitude for what I do have, as well as my sin of whining about what I don’t have.
My days of holiday drama are over. I like eating until I pass out, loading the dishwasher and passing out with my oldest friends in front of A Christmas Story for the 99th time.
Having passed through the Valley of Death and come out on the other side, just barely, I’m smart enough to know it’s better than the alternative.
But, if someone gave me two tickets to Puerto Escondido, I would so be down there on December 25th, drinking margaritas on the beach and enjoying escaping from yet another Christmas.
Feliz Navidad!