Christmas in La Paz – From House Guest to Homecoming

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By Melissa A. Bartell

The first Christmas I spent in La Paz was only a few months after my parents moved here, and I came toting a box nearly as tall as I am. The bottom third was filled with Ghirardelli chocolate chips, Celestial Seasonings peppermint tea, and Starbucks coffee in regular and decaf. The rest of the space was pillows and blankets for the casita my husband and I would be occupying.

I got the red light at customs, but the agent took pity on me, and when I said, “Oh, it’s pillows and blankets,” she believed me.

Or, maybe she was nearing the end of her shift and wanted to go home.

That was nearly twenty years ago. I’ve changed a lot in the intervening years.

So has La Paz and my relationship to it.

At first, I was a visitor – a tourist, even. Trips here were dominated by tours of the place where my stepfather worked, shopping trips to Todos Santos, and, one year, sitting in a hotel restaurant, eating tortilla soup, and watching sailboats decked with Christmas lights.

As my parents became more and more a part of local life, and made more local friends, our visits changed. Sure, we still went caroling through the sandy streets of the beach-front neighborhood where they first lived (carols sound amazing when the singers and the listeners have all been sampling homemade rompope, by the way), but we also played endless rounds of the card game Phase Ten.

One year, old family friends from New Jersey joined us for the holiday. We spent Christmas Eve listening to a streaming broadcast of the English “Lessons and Carols” service and decorating stockings, which we hung on purse stands borrowed from a favorite restaurant, and Christmas morning in exchanging gifts and memories.

A few years later, Christmas dinner was replaced by Christmas brunch, and several local friends joined us for the meal, eaten on the patio of my parents’ new house. (We hadn’t had to bring any bedding that year, but we are always required to come with coffee and chocolate. Then again, I go home with vainilla tecul and flavored salt from the farmer’s market, so I guess it’s fair.)

Christmas, 2014 was the year I brought a jar of mince pie filling, borrowed a pie mat and French rolling pin from one of Mom’s neighbors, and made the pie my mother and I both love, but isn’t a Mexican flavor profile. I brought gingerbread with me that year, which was also a new flavor for several local friends. That was the first time I experienced turkey stuffed with empanada filling, so the exchange went both ways.

It was also the year I’d brought latke mix (the traditional potato pancakes served at Hanukkah) with me to make for my parents. Christmas dinner was latkes and smoked salmon, hot tea and red wine, and leftover pie, and it was perfect in its simplicity.

Christmas, 2016, found us arriving later in the month than we’d planned, with little time for preparation. Without guests (other than ourselves) or children, there was no big meal to prepare. Instead, we spent Christmas Eve with friends of my parents I hadn’t yet met (though I’d been hearing about them for year) and Christmas morning with another set of friends. Two completely different families, but both were gracious, warm, and never once did we feel like we were crashing someone else’s celebration. (We didn’t open our own gifts until late that afternoon, back at home.)

It was some time in the last five years that I realized I no longer felt like a tourist, and that the only thing that even makes me feel like a guest is the fact that I have not acclimated to tropical temperatures, and am always too hot in my parents’ house.

When I visit La Paz, now, I have my own favorite places and people, my own personal rituals (tacos and beer at a sidewalk table, anyone?). The woman at the café closest to my mother’s house remembers my favorite drink, and I’m slowly forming my own relationships with my parents’ friends.

We still play tourist, sometimes – the whale museum is amazing – but my mother has moved past the need to entertain us, and instead we just hang out, reading, watching movies, sipping wine by the fire pit, or soaking in the hot tub.

We share morning coffee on the deck, and play new games (Bring Your Own Book!) in addition to our old standby, Phase Ten.

I’ve changed, because I’m no longer seeing La Paz through the eyes of a tourist.

And La Paz? It’s become the town where I don’t live full time, but where every trip is a homecoming.

Melissa A. Bartell is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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