This year finds me celebrating my third Christmas and third New Year’s in South America. After two scorching Decembers in Paraguay, Christmas in Colombia was a relief. It was far from a white Christmas, but at least I celebrated it in a country that takes Christmas, i.e. Christmas commercialism, as seriously as the U.S. Every street in this country is covered by Christmas lights and decorations, even in the middle of the Amazon. Those are the reminders of Christmas that I miss from the U.S. The town that outdoes all the rest in its celebration of Christmas is Medellín. It’s famous for the 3 km stretch along the river with light installations in every shape and form: nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, candy canes, the Rat King, Christmas trees, elves, etc. Walking through this grand spectacle, I was like a little kid in a candy shop. I even took a picture with a Santa!
I spent Christmas Eve and Day with friends of a friend (= my new friends!) in the small town of Huila Palermo. While its lights did not rival those of Medellín, its novena (9-day Christmas show) did. We spent the days hiking, walking the Camino Real (the famous trail Simon Bolívar used to travel to Ecuador), discovering non-touristy touristic sites, visiting a farm, and riding on the back of a pickup truck, not to mention dancing until 4 AM.
I went to Cali for New Year’s as I wanted to bring in the New Year dancing. During the week in Cali celebrated (its fair) the Fería de Cali, aka the biggest salsa festival in the world in the salsa capital of the world. Although the week was filled with performances, concerts, and revelry, New Year’s Eve itself was much more tranquilo.
I spent New Year’s with Andrés, the Colombian whose house I’d been Couchsurfing at and his girlfriend. We set out around 11 AM for a nearby neighborhood. Andrés told me we had to pay toll. Toll for what? We walked through an alley and then right through a house, pausing for a moment to hand the house owner change. He was serious about the toll! “Whyy didn’t we go around the house?” I asked. He explained that the entrance to the neighborhood was a good distance away so the majority of people used the same shortcut. Charging 100 pesos (5¢) per person, he said the house owners make up to 60,000 pesos ($33) a day!
After the “tollbooth,” Andrés’s girlfriend took off for her parents’ house and Andrés and I went to his cousins’ house. We hung out on the balcony of the house where there was a giant speaker blaring the radio countdown over the whole neighborhood. As I looked out onto the lights-covered street, all the neighbors were doing the same thing. There was a family grilling meat and children exploding fireworks. It was like a neighborhood block party for the Fourth of July. A few minutes before 12, we toasted and hugged each other. I could tell that it was an intimate annual ceremony reaffirming the bond between brothers in a family where the parents are no longer around. As I stared out over the balcony awaiting midnight, I realized I was content; not exuberant or depressed, simply content to be spending my New Year’s Eve with new friends and grateful to still be in Latin America.
This New Year finds me still on the road, still traveling. Last year I spent four months traveling through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. This year I’ll be traveling to Venezuela and Brazil. I know the question on many of your minds is, “Pooja, when are you coming home?” The truth is, I don’t know, but I can promise it will be this year! Happy New Year’s everyone!
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