Monday, December 22, 2008

Las Posadas al Puerto // Lodgings at the Port

As you, dear reader, know well from last week’s photo journal, we just spent a wonderful week with my parents and brother in Puerto Vallarta. (If you haven't seen them already, scroll down a bit for a whole bunch of photos.)

I must admit, it was quite a change for us: For five months we’ve been immersed in central Mexico, speaking Spanish to everyone we met, eating at taco stands on the corner, checking out the local festivals in public squares.

But from almost the moment we arrived in Puerto Vallarta, things were very different: Billboards advertised golf courses in English (and only in English), our taxi driver spoke to us in English (until Chris struck up a conversation in Spanish, and then the conversation got really interesting), and when we arrived at our hotel we were suddenly surrounded by English-speaking white people everywhere. It seemed like a totally different country.

(Maybe the most fun example of the difference between Resort World and the rest of Mexico: At the resort, you throw your toilet paper into the toilet. Everywhere else in Mexico, you throw it into the trashcan next to the toilet, because the plumbing cannot handle toilet paper. It sounds gross, but you get used to it. You get so used to it that when Resort World does not have the ubiquitous sign instructing you where to put your toilet paper, you think it’s weird.)

In all seriousness, my experience felt like a disorienting cultural whiplash, and I think I finally understand exactly what people mean when they talk about “culture shock.” I don’t even want to think about what this culture shock will be like when we head back to the States next summer.

Anyway, culture shock aside, it really was a blessing to spend some time with my folks – the photos are proof of that. If these really are "Adventures Across the Border," last week we were lucky enough to have some some companions on our adventures, even if only for a short time.

One of our adventures last week was actually called an adventure in an “official” sense: On Thursday we hooked up with Vallarta Adventures, an outfit that runs eco-tours in the Bahía de Banderas (the Bay of Flags, where Puerto Vallarta is located). I was particularly obsessed with taking an eco-tour because this was a special time of year: Each year from December to March humpback whales migrate south from Alaska to Mexico, where they mate and hop around (uh, technical term) in the water to the delight of thousands of tourists like us.

Since it was early in the season, we only caught glimpses of humpback tails flipping out of the water – though they were glorious glimpses – but the good people at Vallarta Adventures know how to give you the full Bay of Flags experience. On our boat ride out into the bay, we ran into a whole group (school?) of delfines, dolphins, swimming and leaping out of the water alongside us, at least 20 or 30 of them or more, which is really a sight to see. Then we arrived at Las Marietas Ecological Reserve, a collection of small rocky islands just off the northern end of the bay, where we donned snorkeling gear and watched brightly colored fish and even a manta ray swimming around in the waters beneath us. The Bahía de Banderas is absolutely full of wildlife.

It was a long day, and at the end of it my family was worn out. But Chris and I decided we were just getting started - we had seen a sign the day before about a public celebration of Las Posadas in Puerto Vallarta’s town square. Las Posadas – translated as “The Inns” – are traditional Mexican Advent fiestas. All I knew about them was that they were based on an acting-out of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging on the first Christmas Eve (see Luke 2:7). Like most Mexican fiestas, Las Posadas are community-based. Like a vast neighborhood play, different actors play different parts: Neighborhood children and families walk around the neighborhood as if trick-or-treating, knocking on two or three pre-arranged doors, where they are told that there is “no room at the inn.” Finally they reach the last house, where the doors are opened to them – like they were finally opened to Mary and Joseph – and there is a great party inside the last house, and everyone celebrates together with food and drink.

It sounds like great fun, but not being part of a Mexican community ourselves, we were afraid we might miss out on this tradition. Not so, thanks to Puerto Vallarta. Their town-square public Posadas celebration was set to begin at 6:30.


We made our way to Puerto Vallarta’s zócalo at sundown. The zócalo in Puerto Vallarta follows the same layout as the zócalos in other Mexican pueblitos (little villages): a gazebo, called a peña, in the center of the square for live music, a large Catholic church on one side of the square (this one with a striking crown on its highest point), the municipal government building on another side of the square, and some shops and restaurants on the remaining sides of the square. There was one especially notable difference in Puerto Vallarta’s zócalo, however: It only really had three sides. The fourth side was the Pacific Ocean.

As we arrived a mariachi-looking band was playing an instrumental, Mexican-flavored version of “White Christmas” in the zócalo’s central gazebo. (Let’s say the “White” in “White Christmas” refers here to the white sands of Puerto Vallarta’s beaches.) People have already gathered for tonight’s festivities – though, in sharp contrast to most of our other activities in Puerto Vallarta, most of the people gathered here are clearly Mexican. There are lots of families.

After a few more Christmas carols, the band takes a break, then regroups to play a twenty-minute set of a different kind of music: danzón, a traditional Latin dance that is a lot like a waltz. Older couples make their way to the open spaces around the gazebo and move slowly through the dignified two-steps of the danzón. Having heard how seriously serious danzón-ers take the danzón, I am terrified to even try it. But we watch one grandpa dance with his granddaughter, and we smile. There are few places as wonderful as a people-packed Mexican zócalo, especially when there is live music.

Finally it is time for the Posadas to begin. A short, official-looking gentleman picks up a microphone and explains how the night will go down. Chris translates for me. “We will march around the zócalo, singing, in the traditional style of the Posadas, in order to preserve our Mexican traditions.” The official-looking man concludes by announcing that “after the singing, there will be piñatas for the children.” We notice that there are four gigantic colorful piñatas sitting underneath the giant Christmas tree.

Everyone begins to line up. We are given candles about the size of birthday candles, which are then lit one-by-one, along the line. By now the sun has gone down, and the candle-lit crowd is breathtaking. We are given little papers with the words of the posada “play” on it, which will later be sung responsively, half the crowd to the other half.

Three teenagers take their place at the head of the line. One is dressed in white as an angel, and leads; the other two are dressed as Mary and Joseph (Maria y Jose) and follow behind the angel, and the rest of the crowd follows them. We begin walking around the square. A woman sings from the peña (gazebo), and the crowd responds to each line in Latin: ora pro nobis, pray for us. The response isn’t hard to learn, and soon we are singing along with the rest of the crowd, making our way around the square.

Finally we reach the doors of the municipal government offices. A good chunk of the crowd rushes in, and the rest of us wait outside. After a few moments, we – the crowd outside – begin singing our lines, each side singing responsively, litany-style. What follows is a rough English translation; you can find the Spanish version here.


In the name of Heaven please grant us lodging. My beloved wife can’t go any further.


This isn’t an inn and I shouldn’t open the door, go on, you might be a thief.


Don’t be cruel; have pity on us. May God in Heaven reward you.


Move on. Don’t bother me because if I get angry I’ll club you.


We come tired from Nazareth. I’m Joseph, a carpenter.


I don’t care what your name is. Let me sleep. I already told you I’m not going to open the door.


Dear inn keeper, the Queen of Heaven requests lodging from you for only one night.


If it’s a queen who asks, why is she out at night with no protection?


My wife is Mary, Queen of Heaven and mother of the Holy Verb.


Is that you, Joseph? Your wife is Mary? Come in travelers. I didn’t recognize you.


God bless your pity and grant you happiness.


Lucky the house that protects the pure virgin, the beautiful Mary! We all sing with joy, knowing that Jesus, Joseph and Mary came to honor us. I give my soul and heart to the humble travelers, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Come in holy travelers, accept this mansion, that although my house is poor, I give you my heart. Oh thankful traveler. Oh beautiful Mary. I offer you my soul so that you can have lodging.

At the end of the last verse everyone kicks into some final lines that they all seem to know by heart, and we all make our way into the inner courtyard of the building. Everyone applauds, and then we make our way back out of the building, singing

May Heaven grant you happiness for your hospitality. Many thanks we give for the lodging you gave from your humble, loyal heart.

Back outside, the first piñata is waiting for us. It is shaped like the classic Mexican piñata, a furry papier-mâché ball with cone-shaped spikes sticking out of it (click on the link for a picture). A travel brochure I pick up later explains the piñata like this:

In the Mexican Catholic celebration of Christmas, the piñata is traditionally shaped like a seven-pointed star which represents the devil and the seven deadly sins, while the contents are the goods or blessings he is withholding. Striking the devil with faith, symbolized by being blindfolded, releases the blessings.

The short official-looking man uses his microphone to instruct the children to line up by age, youngest children first. The youngest children aren’t blindfolded; they have a hard enough time hitting the piñata as it is. But they have a good time anyway. By the time the older children make it to the front of the line, they are wailing on the piñata. Every time a new child takes up the stick to wail on the piñata, the crowd strikes up a song – “dale, dale, dale” – in the kind of sing-songy tone that makes it sound like they’re taunting the batter.

Everyone seems to be having a ridiculously good time. The man holding the rope that holds the piñata up is laughing constantly, manipulating the rope so that the piñata flies up and falls down, swings around, and generally misses the swinging stick whenever possible. A woman with a microphone who starts up the “dale, dale, dale” chants always end the chant with an irrepressible little cackle.

After what seems like an inordinate amount of time, the piñata finally breaks open, the candy spills out, and within a nanosecond fifty children have piled on top of the candy, grabbing whatever they can and wrestling away their share. When they have cleaned up everything that has fallen – including broken piñata pieces, which they then wear as hats or use to carry candy – another piñata is hoisted up into the air over the tree branch where the last one hung only minutes ago.

After the second piñata, we decide it’s time to go – we don’t want to miss the last public transportation bus back to the resort. Other posada-going families with young children are waiting for the bus too, and when the bus finally arrives we all get on together. Somehow, despite the long line of people waiting for the bus, there is plenty of room for everyone to sit down.

We return to the hotel around 9:00, full of stories to tell about our evening, but my family is nowhere to be seen. We wait and wait, making food, listening to music, watching TV, until finally one of us thinks to check their bedroom. Sure enough – they’re already passed out, fast asleep. So we finally stumble into bed ourselves, visions of piñatas dancing in our heads.


Our week in Puerto Vallarta went by quickly.

We spent loads of time on the beach – I love the waves, even when they’re small, can’t get enough of them – and some time at the pool, too, where my brother won a bottle of tequila in a TV theme song contest.

The digs at "Paradise Village" resort (yep, that's the actual name of the resort) were impeccable even by super-resort standards, and we took full advantage of our temporary luxuries, courtesy of, I'm told, our aunt and uncle (thanks guys!!).

I picked up a sweet cowboy-ish hat that I got a kick out of every time I put it on my head (see the goofy pictures), and Chris bought a lucha libre doll with a parachute and a string attached that you fly like a kite. She loved it.

And, of course, we celebrated Christmas with my family, the closest thing to a family Christmas we’ll get this year. My mom even brought us homemade Christmas cookies, which finally convinced my taste buds that it really was December, after all.

We headed home by bus on Saturday afternoon. In the taxi ride to the bus station, the taxi driver was, like everyone else we met, delighted that Chris spoke fluent Spanish, and they chatted about life as a taxi driver in a resort town. We passed by the Wal-Mart, where we did most of our food shopping and where we discovered one day, to our horror, that the baggers in the checkout line are not actually paid by Wal-Mart but live only on the tiny tips customers give them for bagging their groceries. A few minutes later we arrived at the bus station, and boarded ETN, “the most comfortable line” of buses, and for the five-hour trip back to Guadalajara we watched movies and gradually slept away all our paradoxes.

When we finally got home we dumped our luggage in our bedroom and wandered outside in search of food. We stopped at a little taco restauarant on the corner, where we got the familiar brief stares as the only white people in the room. But of course, the waiter was friendly, the aguas de horchata were huge and fresh-tasting, and the tacos al pastor were cheap and delicious. The Santa Clause with Tim Allen was playing on the restaurant's television set, dubbed entirely into Spanish.

Estamos en Mexico, otra vez.

1 comment:

Zach & Hannah Parris said...

Matt, I enjoyed this post, but this is really a shout out to Chris.

Chris, I smiled out loud when I saw the pics of you flying your lucha libre on the beach. And you look awesome in that cute top and turquoise necklace in the other pic. Love you!