Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Lights and Highlights

Christmas in Colombia can make you forgive the country its sins. Forgive the ridiculous traffic, forgive the rain, forgive the potholes and even forgive the $2/lb cat litter. Yes, it starts in late October, but that is just a warm-up. Come December 8th with the noche de velitas (the night of the little candles), we get our first Colombian holiday of the season and day off of work. This is followed by the novenas - nine nights of gatherings with friends and family for food, wine, singing of carols and readings about the meanings and origins of Christmas - kind of like Hannukah and Christmas combined. Finally, The Day itself when utter silence wraps the cities and towns in a feeling of, "Wow, this really IS a nice place to live!" Families stay inside their homes with each other, rarely venturing out to break the peace. Or they leave the crowded cities for fincas (country homes), for the beaches, or to meet with other family in smaller towns. Either way - the city is still and the streets are (nearly) vacant. It is a time reserved for families.

Here is a description of the holiday traditions we learned about or took part in, and overall - thoroughly enjoyed:
  • Nightime ciclovia: A circuit of major avenues is blocked off from 6 pm - midnight for "ciclovia nocturna" (nightime bike routes) when people take to their wheels, whether bikes or blades or skates, and visit the various light displays the city puts on in the popular parks. Entire families head out, or groups of teenagers, or singles with their dogs, or couples - and everyone wants a picture of themselves under the sparkling lights. As you can see here - I was no exception. (Notice the safety-minded and so- attractive-pants-in-sock look I adopted:)

  •  Let's talk about the lighted parks some more. Our favorite has to be Usaquen, a small "town" just a 15-minute walk north of our neighborhood that was usurped by the big city some years ago. It looks as close to a French village as one can within a South American city of 8 million residents. The town square, overlooked by a handsome church, has been decked out in completely lighted trees, an overhead canopy of stars and - best of all - artificial snow machines that disperse soapy snowflakes at regular intervals realistic enough to turn the biggest Scrooge into a giggling 10-year old. We stumbled upon this display after visiting the Irish Pub just half a block away one night, and discovered not only the light and snow show, but also hordes of families enjoying a song-and-dance act put on by wizards in purple gowns (I have no explanation for that - just reporting the facts); characters from Puss-n-Boots, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mask and other popular-themed costumes ready for photo-ops with the fam. My favorite was Mirror Man, a man in more than just a suit of mirrors - a man whose entire body and every contour thereof from fingers to tie to socks to the divot under his lower lip, were covered in a mosaic of mirror pieces. Beneath the sparkle of the starry lights, he existed only as a reflection and sometimes disapperead. If I had my camera that night, you'd be seeing my goofy grin alongside his cool relection.  Oh, and let me not forget the food! Vendors with carts, or just people selling from their living rooms, kept us well-supplied with corn-on-the-cob, rice pudding (arroz con leche), flan, aromatica, hot chocolate, arrepas and coffee with Aguardiente (Colombia's version of the ubiquitous anise-liqueur) to keep us warm. And even though it was never chillier than, say, 52 degrees - the fake snow and spirit of the frosty season had us all believing it was a true white Christmas. The pre-teen girl standing next to me under the snow machine was all chattering teeth and bundled in a scarf to her ears.

  • Novenas -The Friday before Christmas, Tim, Samantha and I were invited to the home of the director of the animal shelter where we've been volunteering (ADA) to celebrate with their friends and family. We were told to be there from 8-10pm, and so in true American style, arrived at 8:01 to find our friends just starting to set up for the party. (Hey, we didn't mean to be so prompt; it's just that we found a cab way quicker than we'd expected!). They hadn't just stepped out of the shower or anything, but it was a full 35 minutes before others arrived. The evening started with home-made empanadas and salads, and once everyone was gathered, the music was turned off our hostess Martha made a toast to her gathered guests, and in a spirit of looking towards the new year, wished us all well and thanked us for being there to share the evening with her family. A booklet was then brought out to be read from, retelling the story of Christmas. The booklet was passed around the room in a circle, with each person reading a passage (including Tim and I - in Spanish, thank you) and a chorus of a carol was repeated between each reader.  After the readings, lively conversation and some spontaneous dancing ensued. By about 11, we caught a cab for home.

  • Christmas Eve - Just three blocks away, we noticed a church offering an 8pm mass for Christmas Eve. It wasn't the Misa de Gallo (Mass of the rooster - or Midnight Mass) that Tim was hoping for, but with my tendency to fall instantly asleep when sitting still for more than 15 minutes in a warm room past 8 pm - it was a much better option for me. It was a traditional Catholic Mass with readings, a sermon, carols we didn't recognize but the lyrics were projected on the wall and then time for quiet prayers/introspection. I wasn't raised with mass being a part of Christmas, but it is an important part of the holiday for Tim, so he was happy to find something close by. The pews were full and I think we were the only gringos in attendance, which made it nice as a cultural experience for me. Once we got home, we could see many darkened apartments of our neighbors who had already headed out of town for the holiday, but there were others who were hosting late-night dinners with friends.

  • Christmas Day - We woke to the sound of utter silence in the streets. A detour from a flood-damaged avenue nearby has been sending collectivos, chivas and honking commuters in front of our building for weeks, so the complete lack of traffic and humanity was as surprising as it was luxurious. We opened the rest of our presents and headed to a friends' for brunch. As it was Sunday, the regular ciclovia was in place and a major avenue near our apartment was closed to traffic, allowing families to walk or bike off their holiday meals. We took a leisurely walk to our friends' place, past the walled compounds of the Dutch, French and British amassadors' residences (a really lovely neighborhood!). Later, after resting our stomachs from the brunch feast, we walked to another friend's apartment for Christmas dinner. Finally, late that night, a pre-arranged embassy van came to take us all to the airport to make Samantha's red-eye back to the States.  With that, we said goodnight to our first Colombian Christmas and marveled at the completely empty highway on the way back home.

  • Day after Christmas - As Christmas fell on a Sunday this week, the embassy closed for the Monday following instead. After four hours of much-needed deep housecleaning, I took to the streets for a neighborhood stroll. The rainy season - as predicted - has seemingly ended, and we're left with what feels like Southern California weather. It was probably 70 degrees and the bright blue skies stayed all day, a rare occurence. I walked to a large, popular park nearby to find it crowded with families trying out their new bikes and rollerblades, couples feeding each other ice cream on park benches, and people lounging on blankets in the grass, shoes off. I sat on a bench and watched for quite a while before reluctantly heading back indoors.
Sunshine, tranquility, holiday good will and time off with friends and family - Colombia at Christmas certainly is doing its best to woo us!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Getting out and about

Although we've been here just over five months, this morning was the first time we packed into a cab and headed south to Paloquemao. We've been hearing about this massive wonder of fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat and fish since before we arrived, but it took Samantha coming to visit for ten days over Christmas to get around to actually going there to see for ourselves. (Side note: For those who don't know, Samantha is my 20-year old step-daughter who is visiting from college.)

Paloquemao embodies every color and smell that exist in Colombia: from the sweet and tangy smells of the alleys of fruit sellers, to the earthiness of the  tables of vegetables and sacks of potatoes, to the stinkiness of the fish and meat areas,  and finally to roses and lillies in the outdoor floral stalls that wrap around the edges of the market hall. We arrived at about 9:15, and although I'm sure the market had been in full swing a good few hours already, the hustle and busy-ness of people buying, selling and moving through the narrow aisles carrying sacks and pallets of goods hadn't slowed a single gear.

Each vendor called out "A la orden!" as we paused to appreciate the colors and choices of spices, baskets, ribbons, fresh herbs, veggies or cut flowers and their accoutrements. There was also a whole support structure for the vendors with tiny coffee stands, luncherias, and grills of roasting chickens and sausages. I got the impression that each stall was a family affair, and probably generations had been selling eggs, fish or flowers each day at this living beehive (and yes, there was also honey).

These pictures only offer a glimpse; let your imagination add the missing the sounds and smells.
I am particularly happy with my purchases, and if you forgive me a moment, may I brag about what I came home with?
Two dozen perfect pink long-stemmed roses, one bundle of white baby's breath to go with them, a large glass vase to put them in, a small vial of vanilla essence to use in a votive burner, a small bag of silver ornaments for our little tree, a ridiculously large bottle of vanilla, three meters of thin red ribbon to be tied into bows on our the tree, two large pitahaya fruits for breakfasts, a virtual bale of fresh hierbabuena (mint) and a one-pound bag of fresh mora (somewhere between a blackberry and a raspberry) to make my own aromatica (fruit and herb tea). Let's not forget the two long cab rides down there and back for three people.

Total: $30

Oh yes, we will be going back!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Gifts

Today has been the warmest day yet in Bogota! The skies are vibrant blue, only a few fluffy drifting clouds and the smell of blooming flowers wafts down the streets. It's not windy, nor wet, nor overcast and it feels as if summer is upon us and the rainy season is over.
Por ahora...

It's also the warmest day because of what we spent the day doing. Today was the Ambassador's Christmas party for the embassy community and for our invited guests: the Ayudame Orphanage and Fundacion de Quemado, a children's burn unit. The CLO (Community Liaison Office) has been organizing this event since September and many embassy employees turned out to help out. I'd like to give special recognition to the star of the show: Papa Noel.

Papa Noel hears a special request.

Does anyone recognize the man in red? I'll give you a hint:

I guess that makes me Mama Noel this year, but I was really more of a helper elf at the door, greeting and checking in our guests as they arrived. The kids from Ayudame came wearing matching t-shirts and proudly raised their hands or shouted out their names as we checked them in. I know it's cliche to talk about the darling orphans - but they really were.  I was struck by the tangible bond among them, as the older ones helped out the younger, making sure everyone was accounted for and pointing out to us who was who. The next two buses were from the Fundacion de Quemado, the children's burn ward patients. These kids ranged in age from about 2 to 15 and each brought a parent with them. An entire family of five children and their mother arrived, all of them patients, and I can only imagine that it was a house fire that struck them.

With two co-workers, we continued checking in guests as the kids, their families and guardians explored the Ambassador's residence. As the day was so warm and dry, they wandered the grounds and hillside and then came inside for treats, Santa visits and creative activites. The CLO arranged for troops of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to come as well, and they played with the Colombian kids at  long tables where they could decorate sugar cookies, make necklace, draw or decorate Christmas bags. Embassy community teenagers were on hand to help out with the little ones and each table kept the kids busy.

Pictured are two teenagers from Fundacion de Quemado showing off their necklaces, and (below) a few boys from Ayudame eyeing the dessert table and gingerbread house. The girls were sitting on the sidelines, just watching the younger ones. At first I thought they were too mature or too "cool" to want to do the kids' crafts, but when I invited them to join the table, they drew huge smiles and straight away got to work making their necklaces. I was particularly fond of Jefferson (age 15) and his mother Daisy who I finally coaxed into conversation (she admitted that her hands were all blue because she'd been painting her house). The Ambassador and his wife, plus the DCM and his wife, were wonderful hosts, circulating among the guests (the Ambassador in a Santa hat) or serving empanadas and other snacks to us all.

A Colombian dance troupe called Dejeme Ser came out to entertain us and kept up high-energy song and dance routines wearing Britney-mics and satin outfits. An embassy mother-daughter team played Christmas flute duets and another woman sang carols.  Finally, Papa Noel came out from his chair alongside the Christmas tree to deliver presents to each of our Colombian guests. He started off reading the kids' names in Spanish, but I guess the gringo accent was losing some of them, so one of the Colombian women from the CLO office took over. Each kid got a present - from dolls to soccer balls to purses - and it was great to see Tim handing them out with his helper elves. The day was still summery warm as we wound down and saw the kids off onto their buses. Tim changed (secretly) back into his usual self and we headed home. He brought with him an armful of notes to Santa with wishes written in English, French and Spanish, depending on which school the particular kids attend. Unfortunately, we can't hang these up in the CLO office on Monday for everyone to see, as the kids will be so disappointed to notice that their message didn't stay with Santa.  
All in all, a really super first Christmas party at our first post!                                                         Coming next: Bogota and nightime ciclovia.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Estamos acostumbrado a...

We are accustomed to...

For better or worse, we are now used to the following:
  • Looking both ways before crossing a one-way street
  • Hedges of blooming star jasmine that stop me in my tracks with their amazing fragrance
  • The best home-made lemonade ever, with mint or coconut or just plain (it's green - there isn't an actual lemon in the country)
  • Pulling out my cedula (national ID card) for the simplest, even cash, transactions
  • Massive thunder storms and gulley-washing rains
  • El trancon! The traffic!
  • No warmer than 67; no colder than 50
  • The flowers and plants that were blooming in July are still blooming in December
  • Thinking about what time of day it is before greeting someone (buenos dias, buenas tardes, or buenas noches)
  • Heavily armed soldiers on the street corners, under every overpass and in front of any building with a gov't official living inside
  • Scented everything (for example: vanilla-scented trash bags, cinnamon-scented floor cleaner, pine-scented toilet tank tablets)
  • Seeing street performers stacked three high juggling fire batons in front of the line of cars at the red lights
  • The nicest malls with the best food courts I've ever seen
  • Beautiful leather goods, especially shoes, boots and handbags
  • Military funerals in process each time we walk by the chapel at the batallion near our apartment and realizing that these young men are still losing their lives fighting guerillas/FARC/narcotraffickers every day 
  • No bugs
  • Appreciating the breaks of sunshine all the more when they come
  • Getting second looks in stores and on the street for being a gringa; having store owners call out the teenager who speaks English from the storeroom when they see us walk in
  • Chit-chatting with the friendly porteros (doormen) and doing our best to understand what the heck they're saying
  • Realizing that we're on a different continent
  • Christmas starts before Halloween
  • Buying OJ, milk, sour cream, mayonnaise and ketchup in a bag
  • Delicious fruits we'd never before heard of or seen
  • No national (functional) postal system!
  • In general, people wanting to try to speak English with us, as they can
  • Every radio station playing latin music (really?)
  • Sun rising and setting at the same time all year
Looking forward to adding to the list!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Our HHE has arrived!

I think the title says it all.
After over three months, our complete shipment of Household Effects arrived at our doorstep yesterday. This is the stuff that Tim packed up in late August, but I hadn't seen it since March when I left for FSI. So - are we excited to have our belongings with us?

Yes and no.

Yes - 60 more pounds of clumping cat litter arrived, plus all our kitchen stuff. I guess I should put those things in opposite order, but our lovely empty kitchen is now packed full. I was enjoying the free space in the kitchen after living with a "galley kitchen" for nearly 14 years (Tim called it a "one-butt kitchen" and swatted at me with a dish towel when I came in while he was cooking dinner). At least we now have more than four plates, four forks, four glasses etc... We also received our music collection, favorite prints for the white-on-white walls and a vacuum that doesn't suck - or that does suck - well, you know what I mean.

No - After having lived without these things since March, I'd grown quite used to being without them. The free space is wonderful and not having to dig through stuff in cupboards or drawers to find whatever it is that I'm looking for is a luxury. Also, many of the things feel like they're attached to a different life. Especially the clothes suited for a different climate, different work environment, different pastimes and hobbies.

We received about 60 boxes from the nice moving company. Not a thing was broken, not even scratched. Three champagne flutes and over a dozen glasses of all styles arrived in perfect shape; it was quite the testament to well-planned boxes and liberal amounts of tan packing paper. I know others have horror stories, but I'd like to add this happy ending to the mix to let people know it is possible.

If we may add a word or two of advice to those choosing "to bring or not to bring":
Don't bring.

This is just one couple's opinion, but I've heard it from others as well. To start, you will have to wait anywhere from 3-12 months for your things to arrive, depending if you stay at FSI for lengthy training or not, and by that time you will have acclimated to not living with these things. They may feel like interlopers in your new life, not quite fitting in and possibly cramping your new style.

What about the things that are very meaningful, irreplaceable even, that you don't want to be without? My coworker who just left Libya with only two suitcases lost all her belongings, including family photos and momentoes from her children's growing up. Her things are still in the house where she was living, or at least that's where they were left when she had to immediately evacuate. Who knows who has their hands on them now. If something is irreplaceable, you may want to consider not bringing it for fear of losing or damaging it in transit or in the event of an evacuation. It's not something we like to think of, but it happens.

So here we are, boxes mostly unpacked, kitchen cupboards stuffed ("Why do two people need 20 coffee mugs?") and clothes shoved into drawers where many of them will sit unworn for the next two years. We're already researching charity options for some of it.

If you're on a hiring register now, or if you're awaiting your clearances in the hopes of heading to FSI in the near future, may I suggest that you start garage-saleing, eBaying, Craig's Listing and giving to charity as much as you can stomach. Trim your sails now and enjoy the flavor of your new life when you get to your first post.

Just remember to pack extra cat litter - it's expensive out here!