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Posts Tagged ‘expat’

Christmas in Playa del Carmen

Posted by Tony & Cheri on December 10, 2011

It’s Christmastime again, and Mexico, like the rest of the world, is celebrating. Here in our home of Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Caribbean coast we have found that celebration is a unique mixture of holiday customs drawn from America, Europe and Mexico.

Mexico’s historical Christmas traditions have usually been centered around the religious nature of the holiday and have focused more on church, family and friends and less on the commercial rush to buy things so often seen in the United States. That’s something we enjoy. While the stores are more and more filled with holiday gifts and toys, there still does not seem to be the near hysterical feeling that one must find the perfect gift or buy the latest electronic gadget in order to make the holiday special.

Instead there is an emphasis in Mexico of taking time to enjoy people during the holidays. Schools, city offices and many businesses shut down from the middle of December until after the new year to allow people to spend more time at home.

Christmastime is made a little easier for folks by the fact that business are required by law to give a Christmas bonus called an “alguinaldo” to employees. Many employers also give a little more or give gifts to their employees, as well. A common present given to employees is a dispensa. This is a package or box of practical items for the home. It could include foods like rice or beans, cleaning products or other things used in the household. Stores like Costco and Sam’s Club will sell pre-packaged dispensas, much like fruit baskets or boxes of candy can be found on the store shelves in the US and Canada.

With the holiday vacations from work and school, people have more time for socializing. Many families host “posada” meals to gather together their friends and loved ones. Posada means “inn” and refers to the inn that had no room for Mary and Joseph. Guests ask to be admitted to the dinner but are told there is no room until they produce a statue of the baby Jesus. A traditional dish for a posada meal is Chiles en Nogada, a poblano chili stuffed with rice, nuts fruits and meat, covered in a creamy walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds. It is one of our favorite dishes in Mexico.

Of course children are a big part of any celebration in Mexico, especially at Christmas when the little ones expect wondrous gifts to appear. Traditionally it was not Santa Claus who brought gifts to good girls and boys, but the three kings, the same kings who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. However, in modern times Santa Claus has become a popularly-accepted figure, and children in Mexico now often receive gifts from both Santa on Christmas Day and from the Kings on Three Kings Day (January 6th).

It’s also common for children in Mexico to go caroling. They take a branch from a tree and decorate it with tinsel, ribbons and a picture of Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe. They then go through the streets singing. On 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen the little ones, usually accompanied by an older sister or brother (who often stand nearby talking with friends on their cellphones) go door to door or even table to table in a restaurant singing an enthusiastic but often humorously tuneless version of a Spanish Christmas carol like Peces in El Rio (Fishes in the River). They hope for a reward of a few pesos before going on to the next table.

During the weeks leading up to Christmas the town of Playa begins to decorate. At the Palacio Municipal (City Hall) a giant Christmas tree can be found right next to an large inflatable Santa Claus and a life-sized nativity scene. In fact you can find decorated trees all over town.

When we first moved to Mexico, we brought our own artificial tree with us as we had been told the Christmas tree was not a custom which was celebrated in this part of Mexico. That was true back then. However over the last five or six years the custom of having a decorated tree has caught on among locals. Fir trees are hauled in by the truckload and can be seen lined up for purchase at Walmart and Mega stores.

Living here in Playa del Carmen we have been able to continue our own beloved Christmas traditions while enjoying the slower, less commercial feel of Mexico’s version of the holiday. However we must admit, our first Christmas in Mexico wasn’t exactly idyllic.

Our first Mexican Christmas occurred only a few days after we had our grand opening as the Luna Blue Hotel. We had been working frantically for months trying to get the property ready. We finished only a few days before Christmas, and when December 24th came every room was occupied. We worked late into the evening that night to get everyone checked in and taken care of. Then we walked home to the little house we had moved into the week before (up until then we had been living in the hotel while we renovated it). We had not even unpacked yet and were sleeping on a mattress on the floor among piles of boxes.

We had not put up a Christmas tree or bought a single present. We had just been too busy and there had been no time with all the demands of getting ready for the hotel to be opened. We had been too busy to even go food shopping. There was no turkey or ham or a single candy cane to be found in our little house.

When we realized we hadn’t eaten all day we headed out to find a restaurant, but by then it was 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve and everything was closed. We finally gave up walking the deserted streets and went home to have peanut butter on white bread for our Christmas Eve dinner. Then we got a few hours sleep.

The next day we arose early to go the the hotel to clean the rooms and take care of the guests. Finally in the late afternoon of Christmas Day we finished our work and went down to the beach to swim in the warm Caribbean Sea. After a dip we laid down in the white sand side by side…and fell asleep. That nap beside the ocean was our Christmas present to each other.

Since then our Christmas celebrations have become a little less exhausting. With our wonderful staff and with the hotel now being well established we now happily have more time to enjoy the season.

We put up our tree early (Before Thanksgiving this year!) and decorate it with ornaments we have picked up on our travels around the world. A lot of the decorations are tropical themed…things like a snorkeling Santa, tropical fish, and Santa flying over palm trees. This year we also topped our tree with a large colorful mermaid.

We decorate the house and will have friends over for dinner or drinks through the holiday time. Christmas Eve we will call family back in the US and then settle down with some treats and a few favorite videos (A Charlie Brown Christmas, Love Actually, The Night of the Meek and a few others). Then we will get some sleep because…of course…we will have to be at that hotel front desk early Christmas morning. Yes…that is still part of our tradition. And afterwards we will go down to the Caribbean Sea. That too is part of our Christmas celebration now.

What we have learned living in Mexico is that how the holidays are celebrated is not as important as making sure they are filled them with love and happiness. So however you celebrate the holidays…be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Buddha’s Enlightenment Day…we wish you peace and joy.

‘LIKE’ the Luna Blue Hotel & Bar

Posted in Living the Dream, The Hotel & Bar, The Love of Travel | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

Blueprints for Adventure

Posted by Tony & Cheri on June 2, 2008

Adventure can be lived or it can be read about. In the best of times, you can do both. We have always loved reading about people who made their own path through the world. It was stories by and about such people that inspired us to set out on our own adventure and move to Caribbean Mexico.

Now we want to share some of our favorite books about travel and life in foreign lands with the readers of this blog. Whether fiction, autobiography or a mixture of both, these books are about people with a love of travel and a willingness to be immersed in the culture of whatever far flung country they might land in.

The stories share a common theme: the awareness that travel isn’t just about seeing someplace new…it is about experiencing a different way of life. We hope others will enjoy them as much as we have. Click on any picture below to go to to read more about the book.

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan by John L. Stephens.  Click here to view it on Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan by John L. Stephens (1843, but available in modern reprints). If there ever was a true life Indiana Jones, Stephens would fit the bill. A lawyer, explorer and amateur archeologist, he visited the Yucatan peninsula in the early 1800s supposedly as a travel writer but also possibly as a spy for the newly formed Republic of Texas. Stephens and his crew hacked their way through the jungle with machetes and pack mules to be among the first non-Mexicans to see the Mayan ruins. The older style of writing holds up well as Stephens’ sense of humor and humanity shine through. It is a perfect example of the lure of adventure in far away places.
Tales from Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett.  Click here to view it on Tales from Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett (1989). Buffett, the Caribbean troubadour and barefoot CEO of an entertainment and restaurant empire, has written a number of best selling books. This one is his first and our favorite. It is a volume of semi-related short stories where the main characters all have a yearning to run away to the tropics, whether it be Key West, the Caribbean islands, New Orleans, Mexico or Mississippi. Reading these stories will make you want to quit your job and head south.
Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk.  Click here to view it on Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk (1965). When we first told our friends about moving to Mexico to run a small hotel many responded by asking “Have you read “Don’t Stop the Carnival?” We had, and we still wanted to go. Wouk is famous for his novels The Caine Mutiny and Winds of War. However in the mid-1950s he decided to leave it all behind and run a small hotel in the Caribbean. His adventures, or rather his misadventures, formed the basis for this novel. Funny, sad and puzzling, it shows the difficulties for an American to adapt to life in the third world where the pain of living is countered with a never ending party.
On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan.  Click here to view it on On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan (2000). Tony Cohan and his wife abandoned life in the fast lane of Los Angeles to set up housekeeping in the expat artist retreat of San Miguel de Allende, México. He relates with great humor that difficult task that each gringo experiences in adjusting to a country that seems to stand still a great part of the time. He appreciates the beauty of a culture that puts family and friendship above earning money but suffers the aggravation of a society that puts no emphasis on efficiency or responsibility. The duality of Mexico is wonderfully portrayed in this book.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost.  Click here to view it on The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost (2004). When his wife is given a job working on a tiny island in the South Pacific, Troost thinks he is moving to paradise. However, once there he is woefully out of his element: scornful of a way of life which dresses men in sarongs, considers an old recording of the Macarena as the best music ever and dissolves in panic when the weekly beer boat delivery is late. He is also bothered by the fact that the beautiful tropical beach near his house doubles as the public latrine. However, eventually he comes to understand the locals, then to love them and finally to join them by “going native.” This memoir is an entertaining and absorbing meeting of cultures story.
In Search of Captain Zero by Alan Weisbacker.  Click here to view it on In Search of Captain Zero by Alan Weisbacker (2002). Weisbacker has lived enough lives for several people: surf bum, big time drug smuggler, television and movie scriptwriter, creator of “Miami Vice” and best selling author. At the age of fifty he decided to go looking for his long lost surf buddy and smuggling partner, Captain Zero. In a camper with only his dog for company, Weisbacker starts south through Mexico and beyond heading for the tropical jungle where Captain Zero was last seen. Along the way he ponders the zen of surfing, the differences between tourists and travelers, life in the Third World and ultimately issues of age, friendship and the meaning of life.
A Pirate Looks at Fifty by Jimmy Buffett.  Click here to view it on A Pirate Looks at Fifty by Jimmy Buffett (1999). This nonfiction work is a combination autobiography and a journal of Jimmy’s trip around the edges of the Caribbean in a seaplane to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Navigating through Central and South America, Jimmy heads from Florida to the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Amazon River. He talks about a life which led him not only to become a successful author and performer, but also took him on an endless adventure through the tropics. Jimmy’s love for life and the places it can take you is infectious and fun.
Dirty Blonde and Half Cuban by Lisa Wixon.  Click here to view it on Dirty Blonde and Half Cuban by Lisa Wixon (2005). A novel about an upper class American girl who discovers in her early twenties that her real father is a Cuban man her mother loved long ago. Determined to meet him, she travels to Cuba where she becomes entranced by the heritage she never knew she had. As she searches Havana for her father, knowing only his first name, she ends up embracing the street life of young Cubans and, like many of her new friends, becomes a prostitute for rich Europeans visiting the island. The paradox of a country proud of its revolutionary leader and despising of its own corrupt and inefficient government is an eye opener for the main character and the reader alike.
The Fire Never Dies by Richard Sterling.  Click here to view it on The Fire Never Dies: One Man’s Raucous Romp Down the Road of Food, Passion and Adventure by Richard Sterling (2001). Travel can be about many things: cooking, eating, sex, adventure, love, sailing, flying, and discovery not only of new places but of ourselves. These stories by travel writer and food connoisseur Sterling touch on all of these things and more as he journeys from the tiny pueblo of Mulege in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula (one of our favorite “secret” places), to southeast Asia, Africa, India and Europe. The author dines on exotic meals and romances even more exotic women. The stories sometimes border on the fantastic, and are presented in a Hemingway-esque style of machismo, but always with tongue in cheek and an obvious enthusiasm for the next strange place or person the world might put in his path.
Please Write for Details by John D. MacDonald.  Click here to view it on Please Write for Details by John D. MacDonald (1959). The late John MacDonald was known as the creator of the Travis McGee mystery series and one of the giants of the mystery genre. However in the late 1950’s he wrote this little novel (long out of print and available only in used editions) about a summer art school in Mexico. The plot takes a back seat to the character studies of the local Mexicans, the expats who run the school and the visiting American students who react to Mexico in many different ways. The interplay of personalities and cultures make for great reading and the portrayal of the different types of people drawn to visit or live in Mexico is right on target. We even saw a lot of similarities between MacDonald’s characters and people we have met south of the border…but we’re not naming names.

That’s our list. Please let us know if you enjoy any of the books we have recommended, and feel free to send us your own suggestions for good travel reading.

Posted in Living the Dream, Recommendations, The Love of Travel | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »