My Colombia New Years Eve

It felt like a war zone. The traditions that were part of Pasto, Colombia’s New Years celebration – so quirky and charming in the daylight – had transformed into rockets, exploding body parts and burning pyres at midnight. Yes, the body parts were made of paper mache but given a Girl Scout childhood shaped by the U.S. advertising campaign of Smokey the Bear (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires”) I was certain real body parts were going to be lost that night. Also that the entire city would go up in flames. Only later did I learn that Colombia outlawed New Years fireworks in 2009 because so many children were getting injured, but this was 2012 and we were in the southwest corner of the country where word of a ban had clearly not traveled.

The peregrine son and I had arrived in Pasto on New Years Eve day after spending Christmas in Medellin and in preparation for Pasto’s five day Festival of Blacks and Whites. We knew the town also had an  Ano Viejo celebration that resembled the ones they have in Ecuador which we’d missed in our travels there.  Ano Viejo, “Old Year” gives participants the opportunity to rid themselves of anger, grudges and failures of the old year before welcoming in the new year.

Traveling from the airport into town we ran into blockades of young men dressed as women. Symbolically they represent the widows of the paper mache effigies which will explode at midnight. They asked for coins to let us pass, part of the good-natured buildup to the evening’s celebration.

Traditionally each family creates a life-sized paper mache doll called a taitapuro or carrancho the day after Christmas and displays it outside their house until New Years Eve. Some families pose the effigy on their car and drive it around on New Years Eve Day. As midnight approaches the family recites the grievances of the past year and at midnight they burn the effigy.

Commerce and media have influenced the celebration and now there are entire markets of paper mache dolls. You can buy a whole doll or body parts to make your own. You can also now buy dolls that look like cartoon characters, politicians and movie stars.

We each purchased a doll (Sponge Bob Square Pants and Wonder Woman) and then crossed the street to a cantina and bought them beer – their last meal.

DSC00598Just before midnight we walked up to the main plaza with matches to burn our doll and that’s when the street explosions began because the more boisterous celebrants put fireworks inside their effigy. Its not enough to gently burn it, it must be blown to smithereens.

As we made our way in the dark through the funeral pyres of effigies and active blasts we were beckoned by three young women into the doorway of an apartment building for safety. And then invited upstairs to their extended family’s all night New Years celebration where we were pressed to eat food (lentil soup, a tradition that brings good luck in the New Year and 12 grapes which brings luck each month.)  And we were taught to salsa dance by the grandmother. There was much toasting of the family members and of us, as their guests…. multiple times. Somewhere in the bleary hours of the New Year I learned of another Colombian New Years tradition – wearing yellow underpants, preferably backwards. For peace and happiness in the New Year.





Ecuador: Christmas Eve Day’s Pase del Nino

A theme is emerging in my December posts about how the Christmas holidays are celebrated elsewhere. Right below my Halloween birthday, the holiday season around Christmas ranks second on my list of favorite celebrations. Sometimes I’m home for Poulsbo’s very Scandinavian December and sometimes I like to venture further afield as I did here and here to experience the festivities elsewhere. It’s interesting how religion often shapes the most exuberantly celebrated days of the Christmas season, particularly in Catholic majority countries. In Ecuador, its Christmas Eve Day. While here at home, December 24th is filled with last minute shopping and the opening of gifts, Ecuador celebrates Christmas Eve with Pase del Nino, a religious procession from the neighborhoods to a central church or plaza in the city in honor of the birth of Jesus . The day culminates at Misa de Gallo, midnight mass or literally translated as Rooster Mass.

In Cuenca, Ecuador where I landed for a Christmas, the celebration is called Nino Viajero, “the traveler child”. It’s an all day colorful procession with 50,000 participants from Cuenca and the surrounding villages and over 200,000 spectators whose route passed the hostel we were staying in allowing a close street view of everything. Cuenca claims it is the largest Pase del Nino in all of Latin America. We (my peregrine son and I) got up early for the 10AM parade start assuming it was something akin to parades back home where people stake out spots early on the parade route. We hung out alone for a couple of hours. The crowd showed up just in advance of the procession.

The pase had women and girls in colorful dresses and elaborate hats riding horses, often adorned in their own equine finery.

Everywhere there were beautiful children dressed as shepherds and angels, some in the procession and others watching with us on the street.

There were Santa Clauses and dancers. Also lively brass bands. The procession is a combination of Catholic and indigenous traditions and has lately been heavily influenced by media. There have been years when costumed cartoon characters are part of the parade.

And there were food offerings – whole stuffed pigs, slabs of beef, whole roasted chickens and fruit and vegetables adorning floats.

maxresdefaultThe parade accompanies an 1823 statue of Jesus, the traveling child. Unique to Cuenca, their statue of the Christ child was taken to Bethlehem and to Rome for the blessing of the Pope in 1961 and has since been called the traveling child. The parade ends beyond a park in the central part of Cuenca late in the afternoon giving both participants and spectators a chance to go home to prepare for Rooster Mass.



Colombia: The Hostel Christmas Mom

It occurred spontaneously without any of the pressure that normally accompanies the buildup to and carrying out of the holiday season. And it happened in the most unlikely of places – a youth hostel in what was formerly the most violent city in the world – Medellin,Colombia.

I’ve blogged previously about my do-over in Palenque and the non-ending of the world celebration in Guatemala. Also the joyful five day Festival de Blancos y Negros in Colombia. Somewhere on that trip between confirming that the world was going to keep spinning in Lake Atitlan and getting covered with espuma in Pasto, Christmas Eve and Day loomed on the calendar. And my peregrine son, Zach had joined me in Guatemala to launch his own three month backpacking trip through Central and South America. We needed a place to land for  Christmas enroute to southern Colombia.


Medellin, Colombia had been recently featured in travel publications as an up and coming place to visit and live. Formerly the 1980’s stronghold of Pablo Escobar, the head of the brutal Colombian drug cartel, Medellin had rebooted itself after the death of Escobar with a new reputation as a haven for expats and tourists. The city also knows how to celebrate the holiday season with an extravagant multi-million dollar show of holiday lights all over the city and along the Medellin River so we’d have something festive to do when the city closed down while families gathered for two days. I booked The Wandering Paisa, a hostel that sounded promising because its owners were two brothers from Seattle. It had a tiny private room with bathroom for me and a dorm for Zach allowing us to have our own age-appropriate hostel experience. I could retreat to my room with a book or sight see on my own while he hung out with the younger dorm crowd.

We arrived late on the evening of December 23rd and after dumping our backpacks, I checked out the hostel. Clearly and by a significant margin, I was the oldest guest. The group on the couch made space for me to watch Game of Thrones which they’d been binge watching all day and I’d never heard of. Someone asked if I wanted a beer and because I was sure there was no pinot grigio or pouilley fume to be had in the hostel’s tiny bar, I nursed the beer through two episodes of grisly deaths and a back story that everyone but me knew. I started feeling sorry for myself. It was Christmas and I longed for a tree, Its A Wonderful Life, caroling and hot buttered rum. Before Zach left to go bar-hopping with the hostel crowd, I told him I was going to move into a nearby hotel (one with a Christmas tree) the next day. We could meet for Christmas Eve dinner and to exchange gifts and anything else where he wanted to join me.

Late the next morning when the first of the late night crowd wandered into the kitchen, he informed me they’d discussed my plan to move at the bar the night before and decided it couldn’t happen. It was Christmas. They were young international travelers – all away from home. They needed a Christmas Mom. He promised I didn’t have to do anything; they’d do all the cooking for the Christmas feast. The Hostel Christmas Mom. Who could resist that?

On Christmas Eve Day I bought wine and table decorations. That night, all of us piled into taxis and went to the Medellin River to walk through the lights. On Christmas Day while a crew of them worked in the kitchen, I gathered mismatched tables and chairs from all over the building and decorated our makeshift long table. The Hostel Christmas Mom wasn’t about to be a slacker when it came to mothering on Christmas Day.

Everyone dressed in their cleanest, least wrinkled clothes for dinner – a non-traditional assortment of wonderful food washed down with copious amounts of wine. There were plenty of exchanged travel stories and jokes and good-natured teasing. There were multiple languages. There were toasts to the people who would be leaving the next day to travel onward and there were plans hatched by those staying on for things to do over the next few days – all with insisted invites for me to join them. No solo sight-seeing or book reading for me. It was lovely. It was a Christmas to remember. It still ranks as one of my top three Christmases. After dinner everyone left to head for the bars while I crawled into bed. The next morning I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee and couldn’t find the coffeepot among the piles of dirty dishes. And so, while my hostel children slept, I filled up the sink with hot water and began doing dishes. Because, I was, after all, The Hostel Christmas Mom.


Vancouver, Canada: A German Christmas Market

Vancouver 5I was on the hunt for a pickle ornament. Also for an infusion of my own family’s holiday German heritage. Traveling to Germany wasn’t a possibility this year but I’d spent part of December with family there a few years ago and was enamored of the country’s December street markets known as Christkindlmarkts (literally translated as “Christ child market”). While Christmas markets can be found all over Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, Italy and France, the traditions of the German Christkindlmarkt  go back to the Late Middle Ages in the German speaking parts of Europe. They were both a festive meeting place and an opportunity for townspeople to sell and buy homemade ornaments, cuckoo clocks, nutcrackers and toys with each town’s market having its own specialties.

Traditionally the markets were part of the Catholic Church’s Advent season which heralds in the Christmas birth of Christ. Today they have less of a religious connection (depending on where you are in Germany) offering locals and visitors an opportunity to mingle in an open air venue (usually a town square or plaza), listen and dance to music, eat (bratwurst, and a soft gingerbread called lebkuchen) and shop in preparation for Christmas. And because it’s cold in Germany in December, multiple stalls sell gluhwein, a hot mulled wine that comes with or without a shot of brandy in a colorful coffee mug that you can return or buy. The night time Christkindlemarkts are magical – all twinkling lights, the scent of gingerbread and the sounds of Christmas carols. If it happens to snow as it did while I was wandering the market, you’ll swear you’ve just stepped into a Hallmark card.

Vancouver Christmas 4Vancouver Christmas 3

Which brings me to that pickle ornament and my longing for a budget version of the German markets. I live in Washington State and for most anyone craving a bit of European Christmas, the default destination is usually Leavenworth. But I’d been there and since I also wanted to feel like I was traveling out of the country, I headed north by train to Vancouver, Canada for their German Christmas Market which opens on November 21st and closes on Christmas Eve.

Vancouver Christmas 2

Located outdoors on the Queen Elizabeth Plaza downtown, the Vancouver market has all the trimmings of its European counterparts. German themed food and craft stalls surrounded a large Christmas tree and festive wooden stage that held a full schedule of musical groups. There was bratwurst and lebkuchen and since it was cold in Vancouver, everyone was bundled up in northwest Gortex with hands wrapped around steaming cups of gluhwein (with and without rum). There in a display of German tree ornaments, I spotted pickles for sale.

Vancouver Christmas 1

The American legend of the pickle ornament is that families in Germany hang it as the last ornament on the tree after children have gone to bed on Christmas Eve. In the morning the first child to find the pickle receives an extra gift from St. Nicholas and the first adult to spot it gets a year of good luck. However, like the myth of Santa Claus, the German pickle tradition is the product of American marketing. No self-respecting family in Germany hangs a pickle on their tree. Traditionally in Germany it is St Nicholas (the patron saint of children, students, teachers, sailors and merchants) who brings the presents on his feast day of Nikolaustag on about December 6th. Traditionally family gifts are opened on Christmas Eve, not Christmas morning .

However, like many families who immigrated to the U.S., mine, over the generations, has succumbed to the Americanized public relations version of the holiday season. Likely the myth of the pickle was a way to sell the fruit and vegetable Christmas tree ornaments that were imported from Germany. Nonetheless, I bought one in the Vancouver German Christmas Market and hung it on my tree next to the Santa, Elf on the Shelf and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer ornaments. My pilgrimage to find a pickle was really just an excuse to re-enact a Hallmark card scene in a German Christkindlmarkt in Canada.


Poulsbo: A Norwegian Christmas at Home

I’m not Norwegian. Not one iota of Norwegian blood is in my family roots. And yet by sheer serendipity, I’ve grown up surrounded by Norwegian tradition and history. My birthplace of Hettinger, North Dakota was 68% German (mostly Catholic) and 11% Norwegian (mostly Lutheran). A fellow Hettingerite and blogger at The Prairie Blog recalls the saga of the “mixed marriage” in his family, one similar to my own family history . Despite the minority status of the Hettinger Norwegian community, my German Catholic grandmother and parents played their weekly pinochle games with Norwegians and owned businesses with them so I grew up eating lefse (only at Christmas and only with butter, sugar and cinnamon), making krumkake and going as a guest to the far better events for children over at the Lutheran church than the staid Catholic Church offered.

In both high school and graduate school, the school mascot was a Viking meaning that five years of my educational path was imprinted by fierce looking Scandinavian men in horned helmets. At Western Washington University, in order to humanize the image, they gave him a name, Victor E. Viking and a webpage.

So it was with some familiarity and a sense of comfort that I moved with my young son to Poulsbo, Washington in 1990 for a job. OleStubbOriginally settled by Ole Stubb (formerly Ole Anderson Stubbhaug) from Fordefjord, Norway, (who incidentally briefly settled in South Dakota before heading west) the town is steeped in Scandinavian tradition. Norwegian was the primary language in the community until World War II. In fact, all the elderly neighbors on the street where I lived after first moving to Poulsbo, spoke Norwegian and would regale the neighborhood gatherings with stories of Poulsbo back in the day.  The Norwegians largely settled around the bay of water now known as Liberty Bay (formerly called Dogfish Bay) because it reminded them of the fjords back home. The Swedish immigrants congregated in an area still known as Swede Hill and the Finnish immigrants in an area still known as Finn Hill.

The month of December is always a glorious reminder of the town’s Scandinavian holiday heritage. The main street’s Christmas lights go up at the end of November. The downtown stores outdo themselves with decorations giving the entire street a magical feeling, particularly after dark. The three story Sons of Norway Hall which occupies a prime main street location overlooking the park and Liberty Bay begins its preparations for the Jule Fest which occurred on December 5th this year. All day on the building is open to the public for a Norwegian crafts and food bazaar serving pea soup and rommegrot, a traditional sour cream porridge.

At dusk everyone convenes below the hall at the town’s large Norwegian themed outdoor pavilion for hot cider and hot chocolate to watch the Lucia Bride arrive by boat accompanied by…..yes…Vikings…to light the Yule Log.

Participants in Julefest hold hands and sing around the Christmas tree in Poulsbo on Saturday, December 5, 2015. (MEEGAN M. REID / KITSAP SUN)

There’s dancing by the Norwegian folk dance group, singing by a Norwegian choir and story-telling about the history of the yule log.

Throughout the month Santa greets children at his house located on the main street and horse drawn carriages promenade downtown carrying locals and visitors.

While not Scandinavian by heritage, I like to think of myself as Scandinavian by culture. December in Poulsbo brings out the kvinne in me.


Alabama’s Old Cahawba

Cawhaba 4We thought we were the only people there. We had driven down an exceedingly long rural road after turning off one of those William Least Heat Moon’s southern “blue highways” – small, forgotten, out-of- the way roads connecting rural America found on the old Rand McNally maps. Ancient oak trees dripped with Spanish moss and the few remaining decrepit structures had been long ago recaptured by humid Alabama’s version of Mother Nature. As we furtively trudged up the ghost town’s primitive road to the burial ground listening for the cry of the mythical Wampus Kat, the sound of crunching gravel announced the approach of a car behind us. “Are y’all lost?” inquired the elderly woman behind the wheel. We assured her we weren’t, showed her our pamphlet with map of the abandoned town and pointed out our destination – the segregated graveyard for slaves who once lived and worked there. “My parents are buried there,” she said and pointed to her equally elderly companion. “My sister and I were just visiting them. We used to live here.” Hmm. I was born on Halloween and have a healthy respect for ghosts. The scant information we had about this archaeological site in Alabama claimed it was a a ghost town built upon an earlier ghost town of a 16th century Mississippian Native American village. However, the possible apparition before us turned out to be a very friendly source of local stories that she shared from behind the steering wheel of her car for the next half hour before waving us goodbye to drive her sister home.

Cahaba 4The abandoned community is called Cahawba. It was the first state capitol of Alabama, a distinction that lasted seven years, from 1819 when Alabama first became a state to 1826 when the capitol was moved to Tuscaloosa. Built out of the wilderness at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahawba Rivers, the town began as a thriving river community and port for the cotton industry. Artifacts of carefully plotted streets, grand homes, hotels, churches and schools were all that remained. In our 30 minute encounter with two of the town’s former residents, they pointed out the Chinaberry trees which they said a town statute required all residents to plant to provide shade. They also explained that Osage Orange trees were planted as hedges to keep animals out of the town’s three graveyards and to reduce the cockroach population. And they talked about Cahawba’s role in the Civil War when its cotton warehouse served as a prison for over 3000 Union soldiers who lived in horrendous conditions.

But Cahawba was also a slave community with homes having slave quarters and segregated cemeteries and schools. The “Old Capitol Era Cemetery” and the “New Cemetery” were designated for white citizens while the “Cahawba Burial Ground” was the town’s graveyard for slaves. After the Civil War the town’s white citizenry left and the emancipated slave population remained turning the town into fields and gardens though even many of them eventually abandoned Cahawba. It turned out that the two women we met were from one of the families who remained and lived out their lives there. Prior to the turn of the century, a former slave resident bought the old town site for $500 and repurposed the building materials from the abandoned structures .

Cawhaba 3Today Cahawba is the Old Cahawba Archaelogical Park, an active archeological site and property of the Alabama Historical Commission. You can visit using their self-guided tour map or on designated group tours.

We never did hear the cry of the Wampus Cat said to haunt the “New Cemetery” nor did we see Pergue’s Ghost, the specter of Colonel CC Pergue, another former resident. However, our encounter with two former citizens was living archaeology and that’s much more satisfying.