We learn that most people are reluctant to break down these barriers on their own, especially on their first night, and sometimes for days, or all of their stay; but at the same time, they are really grateful to be gently ushered into it by our efforts. People want to connect. This knowledge comes in handy when we are looking at our looming catastrophe over one Christmas week. “We’ll wing it! Let’s invent Casa Grande’s first annual Christmas Potluck.”
It takes a bit of explaining, especially to the Norwegian couple who’d never heard of the word potluck, or the concept. The rest just had to come to terms with the fact there was no going out to some nice restaurant, and that no matter what they brought, it’d be fine. They had a whole day to figure it out and procure something. Anything, frankly.
In Puerto Rico, Christmas isn’t a two-day event, as it is in the States. Here, it’s called “Three King’s Days” and it lasts twelve days, like the song says. Puerto Ricans are known for taking their merrymaking pretty seriously. Bales, the largest hardware store and lumber yard on the island, closes from Christmas Eve to January 6, every year. Try running an inn in the tropics and not needing to repair something for twelve days. Last year we got smart and went in the day before to stock up on a variety of things we might need. This time it’s too late; they close early that day to get ready for the days off ahead. Believe me, I have nothing but admiration for their priorities in this regard.
Anyway, the Norwegians are busy figuring out if they can get ingredients for meatballs at Super Descuento Morales before the store closes. The chef from Quebec scores fresh yellowtail fish at the pescaderia. The dramatic screenplay author from Denver and her daughter opt to make a sweet potato casserole, while the food writer from North Carolina is outsmarting us all, and makes a local version of green papaya salad, using up the abundance we have on the property.
That inspires Bill to harvest bananas from the property to grill with chunks of fresh coconut, and served up with rum, crummy grocery store vanilla ice cream, and cheap squeeze-bottle chocolate sauce. Si perfecto! Buen provecho!
Like all large meals in the big house, our Christmas dinner is outside on the deck. It’s the only dining room we have, so the palm fronds, the frogs, the crickets, and the stars are all a part of it. Most likely, Cesaria Evora, or the Buena Vista Social Club is playing, as my favorite iPod playlist, “Fiesta La Finca,” has over four hours of dinner-on-the-deck classics. Our big table is an old piece of plywood, and seats twelve or fourteen with no problem. Our centerpiece is a collection of candle lanterns with favorite shells and plant cuttings in old jars, somehow elegantly arranged. Maybe you have to squint to see it, or tilt your head a certain way, but we all see it. And feel it. There is elegance in the funk and coziness of a room with no walls.
The meal and the evening is more than the “fine” I’d promised them. It is great. These dozen people, from various generations, countries and states; couples, families, solo travelers, straight, gay, well-seasoned globetrotters, and first-timers, have spent the afternoon working around each other as they shared the main house’s large guest kitchen. Now they are sharing a meal—a holiday together—laughing it up and swapping stories ’round the table. Turns out Lars, the young Norwegian guy, is leaving the next day to crew on a massive, square-rigged tall ship for a multi-month transatlantic crossing; the mother/daughter combo confess to this being their first time traveling together in years, and they are trying to make it be okay. Neither of them reveals the name of their first husband/father, apparently a movie star from the sixties we would all recognize.
This is the magic of La Finca: strangers become friends, catastrophes become comedies. Dinner becomes a charade game, which morphs into folks playing music on the deck. I don’t remember if we dance that night or not—we usually do—under the inky black Christmas star-studded holy sky. At the end, over the dishes, the shy, young gay woman from Room 5, who’d been reticent about joining the festivities and nervous about what to bring, says quietly, without eve turning to me, “I think that was the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
Excerpt from La Finca: Love, Loss, and Laundry on a Tiny Puerto Rican Island
Corky Parker has had a diverse career as the creative director and cofounder of Merwin Creative, a film production company in Seattle; a small-scale sheep farmer; and owner of the eco-lodge La Finca Caribe, on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. She is a graduate of Bennington College. Her work has been covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Seattle Times, Outside, Gourmet, Adventure Travel, and Lonely Planet. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington, and her website is at corkyparker.com.