Christmas, island style

A memory of a Christmas spent on Mexico’s Isla Mujeres

My best Christmas was on Isla Mujeres. You could walk the island, tip to toe, in an hour.
  • My best Christmas was on Isla Mujeres. You could walk the island, tip to toe, in an hour.

At my desktop computer, I have clicked over to YouTube and typed in “Christmas music.” First up is, “Christmas Music Playlist Part Two For Your Christmas Party.” I click again. The party begins with Elvis singing “Blue Christmas.”

This playlist runs 1:02:54. I’ve told myself to cowboy up, sit here and take it. My teeth clench as I start work on a column. Christmas cheer is unrelenting as Elvis gives way to Andy Williams singing “Jingle Bells.” Going for the positive, I decide to list all the things I like about Christmas.

Number 1: No traffic, you have city streets to yourself. Number 2: Beaches are empty, which, admittedly, is much like Number 1. Number 3...

My best Christmas was on Isla Mujeres, a small island just off the Yucatán Peninsula. In those days, it was close to untouched, blighted by only one tourist hotel. You could walk the island, tip to toe, in an hour. It’s little more than four miles long, less than a half-mile wide.

The trip started in Fairbanks. It was December. Cold and dark. A pipeline friend told me he’d been there the previous winter, said it has one of the best snorkeling grounds in the world. I don’t snorkel, so it made no sense to vacation there. Not making sense is the prerogative of youth.

A couple plane rides to Mexico City. A couple bus rides from Mexico City to Caribbean shores. Thence onto a rotting, belching, clanking deathtrap, otherwise known as a passenger ferry, henceforward sailing eight miles over the bounding main into downtown Isla Mujeres.

I liked Isla Mujeres right off. Loved the weather, 80 degrees, the balmy breeze, the bathtub-warm ocean, and especially its astounding clarity. The first night is spent in a good hotel. A solid night’s rest from the trip and a good breakfast. One moves into cheap lodging on the next tide.

I came with very little money and quickly left the good hotel, the cheap hotel, and moved down the food chain to a fenced lot enclosing a forest of cement poles. The poles were used to anchor hammocks.

Soon, I’m counting pennies. One always wants to go local when traveling. It’s far cheaper to eat, sleep, and drink in neighborhoods. And it’s far more interesting. You meet people, hang out with them, spend a little time inside their lives. For me, a Hilton Hotel is a detention camp.

If I wanted to stay longer — and I did — I had to get out of the money economy and go for free. This led me to walking around working-class neighborhoods. Very quickly I spied the ubiquitous Mexican artifact, to wit: an unfinished cement-block house. This one had two rooms, no windows or doors, and no floor. No matter. It had the essentials, a roof and walls.

I moved in. Now, one of the good things about being among poor people is that they are used to the way poor people live. So, my homesteading a hovel was not taken as anything novel. Children were running in and out of the place within an hour. I was nodding to and saying good morning to adults within a day. Nobody ever bothered me.

I got a routine going. Get up early, go for a swim, breakfast out of a mercado, find coffee. I knew people in town and frequently stayed with them. The hovel was a place to take a night off from the party — a night away from all the new people, hang a flashlight from the ceiling, and spend the evening reading.

I’d been there three weeks when I came home to a man squatting in my living room. He was old, thin, frail, wearing profoundly worn blue pants and a red polka-dot shirt. The few teeth he had were the color of urine. In one hand was a bottle of tequila.

I take a can of peaches out of my backpack and offer half. “Gracias,” he says. He offers the bottle. I take a swig. “Gracias,” I say. We go through the, “¿Donde esta tu casa?” and the “Me Patricio,” and the “Me Jesus,” which causes a smile (today is Christmas).

I break out more food, start a small fire, and we move up close to it. It’s dark now, a billion-zillion stars can be seen out the window holes.

The bottle was near empty when he began to hum. Don’t know what he was humming, but it was nice, sitting there by the fire, listening to him. For no reason, which is also the prerogative of youth, I began to sing the first song that comes to mind.

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way...

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