I was only going to be in Baja for a year. Has it been almost 20?
The longer I am here the more Christmas seems to change a bit. The early years were surely different.
I was living out in the “country” then. Well, 10 miles down a dusty dirt road far off the pavement in the cactus and Baja scrub in a little remote Mexican bay. Far away from the city lights, I worked for a little off-the-grid hotel that only had four rooms.
And that’s all there was out there. Today, you still have to drive down a dirt road to get there and the hotel is closed and being re-claimed by the Baja sands. As so many Mexican dreams go.
I had very little then, but I often felt like I was king of the world at times. I was only half-a-step from living outta my old Dodge van at the time with fishing rods and an old one-room adobe. “Living the dream,” as many would later tell me!
I spent most nights sleeping outside in a hammock under a weathered palapa made of sticks. Jimmy, my little dog and I lived much by candlelight and a propane stove. No phones. No electricity to speak of.
And I remember it was Christmas. In the Baja. In Mexico. So far from Christmases remembered.
I remember the brisk wind and the clear starry skies overhead where clusters of the galaxies were so thick as to appear as if a huge black canvas had been lightly airbrushed with white. With no city lights, shooters streaked criss-crossing tracers from horizon to horizon.
I wore the same faded shorts and some awfully thin flipflops that had long since lost their tread. I’m sure I smelled like fish most days which is how I earned my living for the hotel taking their few clients fishing and diving.
No one ever complained about how I looked or smelled. I was part of the landscape in my ratty straw hat and cut-off t-shirts.
Mesquite was abundant so it was often just as easy to cook over a jumbled stone firepit I had made outside my little casita on the bare ground. It wasn’t much more than a rocky rise of hardscrabble Baja dirt. But during the day, the little spot had a zillion dollar view of the beach and bay that would make a realtor drool.
But not tonight. A moonless crispy December night in Baja. I could hear the waves of the bay lightly crashing against the sands down the beach somewhere in the darkness below. With barely more than the stars above, the orange glow of my little fire fought a losing battle to penetrate the darkness.
But all is calm. My fire bright. Noche Buena. Christmas eve.
I pulled my thin flannel shirt a little tighter against the chill. Me and and Jimmy the dog. I tossed another branch of twisted mesquite into the flame.
I had come a long way from American cities and holidays past. Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned spending Christmas like this. Life takes funny turns. There’s a thin debatable line between an idiot and genius.
No tree. No carols. But, I had nature’s own magnificent light show overhead and the dancing flames of a mesmerizing campfire to hold gaze into.
Completely alone but not the least bit lonely. On Christmas. And it felt like it just couldn’t get any better.
And then, just outside the ring of flickering firelight, a shuffle of feet. A bit of laughter. Faces and smiles materializing on the other side of the orange haze of whispy smoke. The spectral ghosts of a Dicken’s Christmas?
“Que onda? Que tal, Jona! Feliz Navidad! Felices fiestas, Mano!”
It just got better.
Some of the commercial fishermen and their wives had trudged up the rise from the beach. Several packs of beer in hand and tattered beach chairs. Uninvitedly always welcome. Saw my fire. Come to join. Come to laugh. Share the warmth of a chilly evening.
My Spanish was barely elementary back then. But, some things are universal. Bridges are easily crossed with smiles, high-fives, back slaps and shared fraternal cervezas. Especially on Christmas Eve.
They already had an obvious head start on me. No formalities needed. They plopped down around the fire and it was on. No need to break the ice. I toasted and laughed and did my best to sing.
In any language…”Noche Buena” is still “Silent Night.” I had no clue about some of the other rowdy rancho songs they sang.
We whooped at the top of our lungs and lifted Tecate cans to health and family, love, life and the star-filled night. Or nothing inparticular.
You know that saying about “Dance like no one is watching and sing like no one can hear?” There’s a special child-like exhilaration attached to that.
Of all things, they started singing “Jingle Bells” in Spanish. I doubt my amigos even had a concept of a sleigh or reindeer or even snow. Ni modo…no matter! One more time with feeling from the top!
Then they asked me to teach them the song in English. Por favor!
Me leading! Oh my…ever fall over laughing? I don’t think there had ever been such a bawdy version…Christmas angels winced but couldn’t help smiling…
DOSHING TRUE DUH SNO
EN WUN WHORE’S O-PEN SLAY!
ODOR FEELS WEEGO
LOFFING OLE DUH WAY
HO! HO! HO! (Everyone jumped in on that part with gusto!)
And we laughed and snorted and guffawed and stomped our dusty feet. I stared into that campfire and thought of perhaps another chilly night in the desert many eons ago. That brought others to a spot in the desert.
Some wise guys and sheep ranchers. Amigos of different languages and cultures. Pulled in by the flame and warmth of a beckoning light.
And here we were… A bit of light in the darkness on a windswept beach knoll in Mexico. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. As primal as that. Some friends. A few beers. Laughs and smiles. A song and a welcoming campfire in the dark. Christmas Eve and all was right.
Noche Buena. Noche excelente.
EN WUN WHORE’S O-PEN SLAY ODOR FEELS WEE GO LOFFING OLE DUH WAY…indeed!
Only in Mexico! Andale and Feliz Navidad, mis amigos! God bless us everyone. Peace to you my fish brothers and sisters.
Somewhere even the angels were singing along. Once more with feeling.