Christmas In Colombia

This blog entry about the events of Monday, December 24, 2007 was originally posted on January 15, 2008.

DAYS 33-34:  I was going to title this entry “Christmas in Bogota,” just like I had titled my 2003 Christmas entry, “Christmas in Cusco” (Peru), but with my affinity for alliterations, I’ve chosen “Christmas in Colombia,” because it has a nice ring to it.  Besides, I didn’t have Christmas in the city of Bogota anyway, but in its suburbs (the name of the town escapes me) where, at Monica’s relatives’ house, I spent the holidays with my Colombian hosts’ extended family.

For those of you who don’t know, Christmas is the Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus (pronounced hey-seus) on the 25th of December, but in Colombia it is traditionally celebrated on the night of the 24th.  On the evening of Christmas Eve, families gather together for food, drink, and dancing until the stroke of midnight, when everyone stops to wish each other a Feliz Navidad — all before continuing the party until the wee hours of Christmas morning, or until you tired out, whichever comes first.  (It’s sort of like celebrating New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day.)

IT WAS JUST ME celebrating Christmas in Colombia with Monica’s family; on the early morning of the 24th, Stephanie departed for the Yucatan to rendezvous with her vacationing family, so that the four of them could, amongst the usual things to do in the Cancun area, celebrate a traditional “Jewish Christmas” together (Chinese food and a movie, of course).  The night before she left, Steph and I had said our goodbyes after a day of shopping, an evening of people watching at a Juan Valdez Café, and one last night hanging in and around the trendy Parque 93 area with Camillo — the one she’d met on the plane, not to be confused with his friend “Camillo 2,” or Camilla (Belize/Guatemala), or “Camilla 2” (who I met briefly in San Salvador).  “Damn Camill people,” Steph had joked to me.

“What does Camillo mean anyway?” I asked Camillo (1).

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he answered.  “It’s just a name.”

BUT I DIGRESS.  With Steph gone and all our new Colombian friends leaving for family holiday vacations in warmer Colombian towns as well, I was on my broken-Spanish-speaking lonesome to be with Monica’s family — not just for Christmas, but another celebration:  Hugo and Gloria’s fortieth wedding anniversary on the 24th of December.  It wasn’t so much an extravaganza but a small renewal-of-vows ceremony in a small Catholic church in their old neighborhood on the other side of town.  Where they used to live, they had a huge house with five bedrooms, a two-car garage, and plenty of friendly neighbors — some of which still live in the area.  As great a home it was, it had been sequestered by the city to be torn down to make room for the TransMileno above-ground mass transit system — which may or may not have been true; buses don’t run over their old plot of land, it’s now just an empty lot on a street corner.

“[The city gives you a lot of money for the house?]” I asked Hugo in Spanish, trying to use the past tense for “give” but only knowing the present.

“[No.  Not much,]” he answered with a sighing frown.

No matter, there was celebration to be had — and video taped by me.  For a small collection of close friends and family, a private mass was held in the church, where Hugo and Gloria, looking quite stately and distinguished, each renewed their vows.  In the end, they remained a happy couple, just as they had the past four decades.

DRIVING THROUGH AND OUT OF TOWN with Hugo at the wheel was an amusing time.  Wearing his Santa hat, he played his “Colombian music!” on the radio while waving to all the passers-by, wishing nearby strangers “Feliz Navidad!”  He was a jovial and jolly Colombian Santa Claus (picture above) spreading the Christmas cheer, proclaiming everything to be “chèvre” (great) as he had been since day one.  We eventually made it out to the suburbs, not too far out from the city, but far enough to accommodate for big houses, with big yards flanked by the mountains.  We arrived there relatively early (before sundown), and I passed the time hanging outside with Monica’s ten-year-old second cousin Mariana and her brother Victor Hugo.  As we drank beers (sans Mariana), Monica’s older sibling with the French playwright’s name became more and more social when he spoke to me about life in Colombia — plus he proudly showed off his vintage Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme

“[That’s like my father’s first car,]” I told him in Spanish. 

He laughed with enthusiasm.  “[This is one of four(?) of these cars in the whole country!]” Victor Hugo raved, being happier with it than his now-crashed BMW; fixing up his Oldsmobile was his latest obsessive hobby.

Smiles only ran in the family as the evening progressed.  Gradually, around twenty people showed up for a casual evening of family fun around the Christmas tree: drinking beers and shots of whiskey, watching music videos from Colombian pop crooner Juanes, and passing the mic around for Spanish kareoke.  Of course, it should probably go without say that salsa dancing was involved, with people pairing off, regardless of age, to sway their bodies to the infectious Latin sounds and rhythms of brass and percussion.  I danced with Monica’s aunt, who was quite forgiving with my novice skill level — but I managed to get by with multiple takes to the dance floor. 

As midnight approached, the merriment ceased momentarily for a short rosary prayer session; Christmas after all was still a religious holiday, at least in those parts (or at least in that house).  At the stroke of midnight, cheers around the room — and the entire country for that matter — sounded with wishes of “Feliz Navidad!”  Everyone greeting each other with hugs and kisses, all before food was served: a simple meal of meat and potatoes, complemented with more beer and more whiskey.  Not surprisingly, inebriation was inevitable, but all in the name of good fun (and baby Jesus).

The party continued in the early morning with a roll call by the Christmas tree, as each gift was individually distributed to its receiver.  Like a kid fearing to be picked last for a team in gym class, I waited in anticipation to see if there was anything for me — although honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything really.  Just near the end of the pile, when fifteen minutes of gift distribution went by, my name was finally called.  “Erik!” I heard Monica’s aunt announce.  Looks went around the room; not everyone knew who I was, or what my name was.

I happily accepted and unwrapped a lovely short-sleeved button down shirt from Hugo, Gloria and Victor Hugo.  They reciprocated their happiness when I gave them the gifts Stephanie and I had given them: a set of pewter coasters and an espresso cup set with service for six.  (This was the result of a long afternoon of shopping in Usaquen, wandering and wondering what to get them.)

For some, the family Christmas party went until dawn, but I only made it until about 2:30 when I jumped on the opportunity for a lift back to the city with Hugo and Gloria.  I’d had my fill of Christmas in Colombia anyway — even before dawn of the 25th. 

THE ACTUAL CHRISTMAS DAY wasn’t as crazy or celebratory; in fact, in some respects, it was just an ordinary day, a day of recuperation like New Year’s Day is in most places.  Still, many places weren’t open in the city, so most Bogotans took advantage of the warm weather with a day trip — which is what I did with Hugo and Gloria.  We drove out of Bogota again, to La Calela just on the other side of the mountains that flank the eastern part of the city.  We sat out at one of the traditional eateries overlooking the greenery around the big lake/reservoir.  After selecting freshly grilled meats prepared over a fire — chicken and wild pig — the three of us dined outside, relaxing with our food and rebajo (the beer/soda mixture). 

Other than the brief moment when I received a Christmas greeting from Steph on an unexpected cell phone call, it didn’t really feel like Christmas — those feelings were all used up the night before in Colombia after all.  (Also, I’m used to the classic image of Christmas with the snow, or at least cold weather, and it was about 70°F out.)  The rest of the rather ordinary day was a casual one, as if it was any given Sunday, with us out for a drive.  Monica’s parents showed me some of the little hamlets, including Sopo, and the green countryside of grazing cattle — it’s no wonder all the big dairy companies had a factory nearby.  On the way back to the city, we checked out the view from the mountainside mirador.  Bogota looked just like it did on my first day, only not as new — I’d been in town for a week already.

Anyway, in the end, it was an interesting Christmas in Colombia to say the least, even without the snow, cold weather, Chinese food, or movies.  I was happy to have not spent the holidays alone — and fortunately I was in good company.






Next entry: Ocean’s Three

Previous entry: I Got Shot In Colombia And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt




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This blog post is one of thirty-nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: The Central American Eviction Tour* (*with jaunt to Colombia)," which chronicled a six-week journey through Central America, with a jaunt to Bogota, Colombia.

Next entry:
Ocean’s Three

Previous entry:
I Got Shot In Colombia And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt




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