Sometimes it helps to close the door on the past so that we can start fresh and fully immerse ourselves in the future. Or at least that’s the idea behind the New Years Eve (NYE) tradition in Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries).
Welcoming the new year is done by first burning the “año viejo” or old year – a symbol of burning away all the bad that happened in the previous year, and also scaring away the bad so it won’t come in the new year.
“Año viejo” is often represented by life-size dolls or dummies, often dressed in old clothes or adorned with symbols of bad things from the year before.
In some cases, “año viejo” is dressed as people, political figures, or even family members, in an attempt to burn the bad they caused the previous year.
It is a moment to combine art and self expression with hopes for better future. Some people go to great lengths and create entire displays. For example, this one depicts the 12-day strikes (“huelgas”) and protests that occurred in Ecuador in October of 2019, spurred by the government’s announcement that they would eliminate fuel subsidies.
In most cases, people create their own smaller, personal dolls or creations with items of personal significance and burn them bonfire-style in the street outside their house just before midnight. Sometimes a creative person will create a humorous testament, recounting things that happened to their friends or family members before lighting “año viejo” on fire.
From the “año viejo” tradition, grew the “viuda” (widow) tradition, which explained why I saw a bunch of guys dressed in drag when I crossed the border into Ecuador.
As a humorous take on the tradition, some men dress as widows mourning the loss of their husband/boyfriend (themselves) who would be “burned” as part of the “año viejo” tradition.* They dress in drag and often ask for coins in the streets, usually while goofing off and having a good time.
Walking through the street after midnight, all the neighbors had fires smoldering in the streets, many playing music and celebrating with family members. I joined a couple of people dancing outside and made some new friends – an extended family that owned the restaurant where they were dancing, and lived in the same building.
I am happy to have started my new year off dancing and meeting new people, leaving behind fears, inhibitions, and self-consciousness smoldering in the past.
*If you didn’t follow the “viuda” tradition it’s because it is kind of confusing and takes some imagination. The men are assuming their partner will burn a figure of them (because they were the cause of problems during the previous year), so the men, pretending that they are actually dead from this symbolic burning and have therefore left their partners widowed, then dress as their partners and beg for coins in the streets.
**One source said the “año viejo” tradition came from the colonial times when many people died from yellow fever and their clothes would be burned at the end of the year for sanitary and spiritual purposes, to ward off the disease.
The prize for the cutest, most beautiful, quietest-without-being-boring, small town goes to … Guatapé, a small town two hours from Medellín.
When I stepped off the bus, I was greeted by a few colorful buildings and thought “how cute”. But then I began walking through the streets in search of lodging, and I realized this was a city like no other. There weren’t just a few cute and colorful buildings, but looking down every single street my eyes were rewarded with a burst of color – and not tacky colorful houses but really cute, orderly and coordinated colors that made the atmosphere of the whole town feel pleasant.
Turns out, this Colombian lakeside town of 5,000 people is known as “la ciudad de zócalos”, because of the colorful, artistic baseboard decoration on the outside of each house.
The decorative band of designs typically depicts an aspect of daily life, history, or the homeowner’s or artist’s interests.
Though sometimes they are just colorful designs accenting the colors of the house.
The town reinvented itself in the 1980’s after the construction of a dam protected it from future flooding, and the town came together with the idea to adopt this signature style throughout the whole town. The result of their unified efforts is astounding.
This quiet town, 2 hours from Medellín is a popular weekend getaway for Paisas and a common stop for international travelers.
It is quiet most days of the year, except during the approximately 12 holidays of the year – during a holiday, the population explodes from 5 thousand to up to 15 or 20 thousand as visitors flood in from Medellín or other parts of the country. On the busiest days, there isn’t enough lodging and people have to return to Medellín for the night.*
I am not at all surprised at the popularity of Guatapé as a relaxing weekend escape.
First, it is most famous for “la piedra”, which is a tall rock rising above the landscape, offering an incredible view of this interesting lake-filled region.
The town has built stairways of 659 stairs up to the top of the rock and charges an entrance fee. While the touristy part at the entrance and the top didn’t appeal to me much, many would appreciate the opportunity to buy a cold drink or souvenirs, especially those who just do a day trip to the area. Either way, the view at the top is well worth the climb. It was really unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Back down on the ground, you could do lake activities like paddle boats, kayaking, going out in big boats, or renting jet skis.
You could walk or bike to the monasteries (one for women and one for men, though only the one for men was active).
You could rent a bike and do a loop around Guatapé, which of course is something I chose to do.
And this is where I really got a sense of how chill this town is. The bike rental place rented me a bike with zero collateral. I just wrote my name on a paper and said I’d bring the bike back before 6pm and they gave me a bike and helmet and said I could pay when I got back.
I got another feel for the small town life the day I walked around town and got my haircut. In the salon, I was greeted by a mestizo guy who informed me that the stylist was finishing lunch, and as we chatted I realized he was a neighbor just hanging out there. He was proud to be a Paisa, and enjoyed explaining to me how friendly they were.
While the woman was cutting my hair, two black teenagers came in and the woman greeted them enthusiastically. Turns out they were from Guatapé, but one was visiting from Medellin where he had gone to study. The woman had an aunt-like manner with the young neighbor boys, highlighting for me that small-town feel where everyone knows everyone and looks out for everyone.
In addition to the mix of mestizos and blacks (seen all over Colombia not just in Guatapé), the majority of people tending the restaurants (and those managing my hostel) were Venezuelan – also a common occurrence throughout Colombia right now.**
Turns out that I was in Guatapé at just the right time too … I was safely enjoying small-town life during the planned protests in Colombia this past weekend (21 Nov). While some of the bigger cities experienced cases of looting or disturbances that led to curfews, things in Guatapé were calm and quiet.
I am so lucky to have experienced this little gem in the middle of Colombia! Hopefully you will one day too!
*Oxapampa, twice as large as Guatapé with an urban population of 10,000, experiences a similar phenomenon during holidays as Limeños flee to the rural city looking for a quiet, nature-filled, relaxing holiday. Ironically, in both Oxapampa and in Guatapé, this surge of tourism turns the quiet town into a busier and noisier city – though still much quieter and relaxing than Lima or Medellín.
**As a neighbor to Venezuela, Colombia has received around 1 million Venezuelan immigrants in the last two years due to the economic crisis there.
Not to be confused with Pachamama (mother earth for the Incas), Pachamanca is the equivalent to the American barbecue. Just like you might have a cookout or barbecue to celebrate a special event with friends or family, making Pachamanca is the classic way to celebrate an occasion with family and friends in many parts of Peru.
Two of my going-away parties were celebrated with Pachamanca. My host family prepared Pachamanca for a family wedding. The town of Quillazu celebrated its anniversary with Pachamanca. We celebrated the renovation of the water system in a community called Los Angeles with Pachamanca.We celebrated my friend (and the local tree expert), Alfonso’s birthday with Pachamanca. You get the idea.
Pachamanca is a typical plate originating in the Sierra (highlands) of Peru but common in most parts of the country. Even in Lima, during my first month of training I had already been introduced to Pachamanca. I couldn’t believe that so much food could fit on one plate and I couldn’t believe they expected me to eat it ALL! By my second year in service, I was serving my own heaping plate of Pachamanca and eating it all (for better or for worse)!
So what is Pachamanca? There are variations on the theme, depending on where you are, but in short, it is meat and tubers marinated in herbs and cooked in an earthen oven, often with a type of bean called “habas”. Depending on where you are the meat could be sheep or pork or chicken. Sometimes it can also include corn or plantains.
But Pachamanca is not just the food – it has a special element of the community activity of preparing it. (In the fast-paced world of today, sometimes a “pachamancero” can be hired to prepare it, and sometime it’s prepared in an oven.) But traditionally, and more commonly, it’s a community activity of preparing it, and the preparation is part of the celebration.
To be clear, I am not an authority on Pachamanca, (a real pachamancero has an expert technique for the whole process), but so that you get the idea, here’s the process I saw in Oxapampa:
First, the marinade is prepared from local herbs and the meat and tubers are marinated overnight – usually pork or chicken and potatoes (papas), yucca (yuca), sweet potatoes (camote), and sometimes my favorite tuber, pituca.
To cook Pachamanca, you start a fire and put large stones in the fire to heat up, while you dig a hole in the ground. Often the hole is lined with banana leaves. Then the hot rocks are placed in the hole. This is your oven.
The tubers (potatoes, yuca, sweet potatoes, and sometimes pituca) are added in the first layer with the hot rocks.
Often separated by banana leaves, a second layer of meat and hot rocks is created.
Then another layer separated by banana leaves contains habas (a type of legume).
Everything is then covered with banana leaves before the hole is covered up so the oven can cook.
For about an hour or so, everyone hangs out, chatting and enjoying each other’s company (often enjoying a cerveza) while the pachamanca cooks.
About about an hour or two, the oven is opened, banana leaves peeled back, and the Pachamanca emerges – deliciously roasted meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yucca, plátano, and habas.
The food is carefully collected from the earthen oven.
And finally it is all arranged mountainously on each plate.
Tis the season! It’s Navidad, and that means chocolatadas! What are chocolatadas? Apparently I didn’t really know, despite having already spent 2 Christmases here.
I thought a chocolatada was just a Christmas gathering with hot chocolate and Paneton. That’s right – hot chocolate (made from chocolate bars, milk, and cinnamon and cloves), and Panetón are the key ingredients for a chocolatada, and it is how we usually celebrate Christmas Eve here (in addition to staying up until midnight and exchanging gifts at midnight Christmas Eve).
So, since it is the Christmas season, and I wanted to reward the hard work of the 2 best water committees in our district, I thought it would be a great idea to reward them with a chocolatada in their community!
So off I went to purchase Panetón, chocolate, milk, and cinnamon and cloves. But people kept dropping comments like, “the kids will love it!”, and “the children love their dolls and cars from the last chocolatada”, and “what will you give the kids”?
So slowly I started realizing that typically chocolatadas (as organized community events) are a celebration for the kids. And you have to bring gifts. Dude, I was not prepared for that! I thought I was just planning something for all the adults that had worked hard to bring clean water to their community, but actually, when I had said “chocolatada”, their expectations were that I was throwing a party for the kids…and that I was going to bring gifts for all the kids! (Oh my.)
Well, one of the key lessons of Peace Corps is to be flexible and take advantages of unexpected changes. Luckily, my counterparts came to the rescue and found some bubbles to give as gifts to the kids, and we all pitched in to pay for them.
And, because the focus was kids, I took the opportunity to give a hand-washing lesson with my counterparts. We did an “arts and crafts” activity showing the kids how to make a portable hand washing station out of a water bottle, (and made sure that everyone washed their hands before eating).
We used the gift-giving activity as a training opportunity and the kids had to answer questions about when and why to wash their hands before receiving their gift of bubbles. (I think I was the only one who appreciated the irony that bubbles were the perfect gift for a hand-washing training).
I think after everything, it turned out pretty well, but I still didn’t really “get” the chocolatada idea, until I attended one planned by the community a few days later. Apparently, I still hadn’t learned that “Christmas is for the kids” (as everyone says), and chocolatadas too. So while I went to the celebration prepared to chat with the adults and munch on some paneton and hot chocolate…that’s not quite what happened.
When they started the party, the host welcomed everyone and gave a special welcome to me “Ingeniera” (“Engineer” is the title they call you if you have an engineering degree). And it didn’t stop there, after welcoming me, they said, only half jokingly, “and the Inginiera will help “animar” the fiesta”. “Uh-oh, what did I get myself into!?” I said to myself. It’s common – ok it’s more than common – just about every kid’s party here has a clown to “animar” the fiesta. And that’s what I thought of when they said that I would “animar” the fiesta. If you know me, you know I’m not exactly clown material.
Well, I joined Peace so that I would be forced to step out of comfort zone, so here I am. I guess there’s not much else to do, I said to myself, and I joined the 10-15 kids in the middle of the room, and started leading them to dance in a circle, and do different silly things to get them moving. Luckily Peace Corps had taught us a few interactive activities so I had a few ideas to draw from. After an hour I was exhausted (especially since I had already ridden my bike 30 minutes and uphill (and backwards through the snow) to arrive in the community)!
After an hour of the adults sitting around the perimeter of the room watching me and two other woman entertain the kids, they finally started to serve the Paneton and hot chocolate. And later, they gave out Barbie dolls and t-shirts to all the kids.
Finally, I think I understand the chocolatada…it is like a typical kid’s birthday party here, except with Paneton and hot chocolate, and all the kids get presents at the end, instead of just one!
To celebrate Independence Day of Peru, 28 of July, we headed to the 2nd most populated city in Peru – Arequipa. But, crazy as we are, we didn’t choose a relaxing vacation with umbrella drinks, enjoying the city…no, we chose the adventure vacation: 2 overnight hikes, first in the heat of Colca Canyon, and then in the freezing cold of the snow-capped volcano Misti.
In fact, the very day we arrived in Arequipa (a 16-hour bus ride from Lima), we headed straight towards the Canyon to get started on our trek down into the canyon the next morning, so we could return to Arequipa and climb Misti Volcano all within the 7 days we had in Arequipa.
Hiking Colca Canyon (without a guide)
Encouraged by a blog we read, we decided to do a 2-day Colca Canyon hike on our own, to enjoy leaving on our own schedule, hiking at our own pace, and hoping to do it cheaper than if we had paid a guide. It turned out well, and we share our experience here.
Our bus arrived in Arequipa en the early afternoon, and we headed directly to the “empresa” Centella to take a minivan to Chivay (15 soles), where we would spend the night and get a good night’s rest before starting the hike the next morning. At 3,650 meters above sea level, Chivay is a pueblo about 1.5 hours from the start of the hike down into the canyon. At night, the temperature got down to the low 30’s, just below freezing.
We stayed in a comfortable hostel called Rumi Wasi (22 soles), and coordinated to leave the next morning at 6:30am with a minivan that was giving a guided tour for a group of tourists and agreed to drop us off at the trailhead for the Colca hike, near Cabanaconde, for 30 soles. On the way to the trailhead, our driver explained some of the history of the area, including the two indigenous cultures that had lived in the different parts of the canyon, and the sophisticated canals they used to carry water from one part of the canyon to another.
We stopped in the plaza of a pueblo called Yanque where some children were doing traditional dances in traditional clothing for the tourists. In the distance, you could see Volcano Sabancaya smoking like a chimney (they said it was normal.) After about 25 minutes in Yanque, we stopped for 30 minutes in Cruz del Condor, a part of the canyon 130 meters higher than Chivay, where the huge condors can be seen flying above the rising walls of the canyon, with the backdrop of the majestic mountains on the other side of the canyon.
When we arrived at the trailhead for the Colca Canyon descent, there were a few different guided tour groups and a handful of people also doing the hike on their own. Our first day was a hike of about 7 km to spend the night in the canyon at “Sangalle”, where there is a group of hostels referred to as the “Oasis”, and the second day would be an early morning for a day of pure climbing back up to the rim of the canyon.
The starting descent was fun, like a trail run, with some tough parts, but mostly a smooth descent. We noticed that there are many different settlements, or pueblos within the canyon, in the walls of the canyon and below.
We arrived at the bottom of the canyon (2,200 meters above sea level) to a wooden bridge in a district in the canyon called Tapay, where there was an outhouse and a place to rest.
After crossing the bridge, we took a switch-back to the left – a steep ascent that was said to save about 40 minutes. After about a half hour, we arrived to a pueblo, “San Juan,” where the tour groups stopped to eat a 15-soles “menu” (soup and “segundo”, which is rice and a typical plate defined by the restaurant offering the “menu”), and where you could buy a bottle of beer for 10 soles – more expensive than in a night club in Lima!
After San Juan, we continued towards the pueblo “Cosñirjua,”, which was about an hour and a half, with the last half hour being a fairly tough climb, and arriving at a restaurant/hostel that has snacks, drinks, and a bathroom, all for a higher price than anywhere else in Peru…but not surprising considering there are no other options in the area and it’s not exactly easy to import things to the site. We bought a Gatorade that looked like it had been brought there about 100 years ago, took advantage of the bathroom and a short rest, and then continued the route towards Sangalle, where we would find the Oasis lodges.
We had heard that it would take about 2 hours, or 1.5 hours at a good pace, to arrive at the lodges so we opted to walk-run so we could rest in the horizontal position as soon as possible. The first part of the trail was a dirt road wide enough for trucks, and as we continued we didn’t see any signs, nor the pronounced descent that the blog had mentioned. We passed a woman outside her house washing clothes, and she pointed us to a turnoff to the left that we had missed a few hundred meters back.
Descending, we came to an overlook with a gazebo-like structure, took some fun photos, and continued the descent back to the base of the canyon. After about an hour, we came to another bridge, where we would cross back to side of the canyon we entered (though further down), and where we would find the lodges after 30 minutes of a steep ascent.
Caught up in the adventure, we hadn’t thought to try to reserve a space in one of the lodges, and almost all of the spaces were reserved when we arrived. Luckily, there was a room with 3 beds and its own bathroom with hot water that we got to ourselves for 30 soles each, in a lodge with a pool fed by naturally warm water from the canyon. The lodge also provided dinner for 15 soles – prices that are reasonable for most travelers, but quite high for the area, but again understandable that they are taking advantage of the limited options available.
We had read that we could buy snacks along the way, but we recommend that you bring all the snacks you need for the two days, and a way to treat water, because the snacks they offered in the lodge were limited supply and exorbitant prices – a bottle of 2.5L of water was more expensive than the room! Ok, not really, but it was half the price of the habitation – or 5 times the normal price of a bottle of water this size!
But luckily, the Girl Scout/Peace Corps WASH volunteer in me had brought everything I needed to treat water (Iodine pills and a Steri Pen) to have potable water for the next day.
The area is known as the Oasis because while most of the canyon is rocky, with desert-like plants, common in the “sierra”, this part had green grass (probably planted for the lodges, though we did see another naturally green part of the canyon where there was a waterfall, near where we had crossed the bridge.) We took advantage of the grass to stretch for about 15 minutes so our bodies could recover from the day’s hike and be ready for the next day’s ascent.
The hot shower, eating even the last grain of rice on our plates, looking for constellations (Scorpio dominating the sky in our case), and resting under the starlight in this corner of paradise, was the best way to recharge for the tough day ahead.
(Side note: At 8pm they turned off the power for the hostal, so if you need to charge phones or use the light, it’s important to do it before hand, and always good to bring a portable charger if possible.)
We had planned to start the ascent at 5:30am, as recommended by everyone, to avoid the heat of the day during the tough ascent, but our alarm didn’t go off, so we got a late start (story of my life…surely the fault of my late curse)! So we ate breakfast at 6am – the breakfast of gold – the most expensive breakfast ever: 10 soles for two pieces of bread with butter and jam, with a cup of tea/coffee, but also very necessary for the day ahead.
We hit the trail at 6:30am, and the scenery was incredible, as we ascended along with the sun, which painted the canyon walls more and more throughout the ascent. The first hour was peaceful, silent, like a walking meditation. During the second hour, the ascent got more intense, like a never-ending rocky stairway that made the quads and glutes burn with every step, not only carrying our own bodyweight, but also the weight of the backpack of water and supplies. A great workout in an incredible and peaceful corner of paradise!
Towards the end, it can be discouraging to look up because there are many “false peaks” where you think you are close to the rim, but it turns out you still have a ways to go. As the sun comes out, the heat intensifies, so it is important to have enough water and snacks to power you through, as well as sunblock, hat and sunglasses…and toilet paper just in case (and a bag to put used toilet paper to throw it away afterwards and not add trash to the trail.)
Almost 3 hours had passed and we didn’t see any sign of the rim, but suddenly a group of hikers appeared, descending from the top, and they told us we were just 10 minutes from the rim…just the words of hope we needed to awaken the surge of energy that carried us almost running to the top! We arrived 10 minutes before our planned arrival time, thanking our legs of steel and celebrating that we made it out alive and strong, even if exhausted!
After celebrating, we realized that we still had a 15-minute hike to the plaza of Cabanaconde, where we would be able to catch a bus back to Arequipa…but at least it was a flat 15-minute walk!
We were able to catch bus that left at 11:30am – just enough time to eat lunch before the 5-hour ride. And luckily, the bus stopped in the pueblos along the way, so we were able to pick up our gear that we had left in the hostel in Chivay.
Volcano Misti (5,825 meters) (Only for the strong-of-heart! Have you seen the movie Everest?)
Returning to Arequipa, we took a day to rest, try some of the delicious food in Arequipa, and to find a guide to climb the volcano Misti the following day.
To climb Misti, we went with a tour company that offers “pool service”, (puts you with a group of around 5-15 people), for a trek of 2 days and one night, and we paid 250 soles each. They also provided the warm gear (pants, jackets, gloves) needed for the extreme temperatures in the night and at the higher altitudes, tents, main meals, and sleeping bags.
We only had to bring a few basics: a hiking backpack, boots, (they rented the backpack and boots if you didn’t have them), light clothing for the first day of ascent (which would be hot), warm clothing for the night (which would be ridiculously freezing cold), snacks, and 5.5 liters of water – 4 to drink during the 2 days and 1.5 for the guides to cook with.
We rented hiking poles from them too because the ascent is steep and the descent even more tricky. And I heard that hiking poles eliminate about 25% of the strain on knees on the ascent, and 75% on the descent…so I was happy to pay to rent hiking poles now to gain a few years before I will need knee replacements!
It is recommended to climb Misti with a guide because it’s easy to get lost, and the altitude and cold really do affect the human body and its ability to think well, (and there are plenty of stories of people getting lost and dying).
The guide company picked us up from the hotel at 8am and we met up with the rest of the group to outfit our gear and head to the trailhead. A 4×4 brought us out of the city, to the base of the volcano, where we would start the ascent at about 3400 meters.
Between the hot sierra sun and the constant climb, with backpacks of more than 5 kilos, the sweat was pouring, and we tired quickly, with aching legs, hips, and shoulders. But like all marathon challenges, we took it step by step, advancing little by little, resting every 30 minutes to drink water and eat fruit to refuel.
Finally, after about 5 hours of hiking, we arrived at 4,600 meters, where we set up camp.
We were lucky enough to experience an unbelievable sight – the contrast of the awesome sunset in the west and the incredible full moon rising in the east – which made the intense cold that came with the setting sun, slightly more bearable.
We ate dinner as quickly as possible and immediately climbed into the tents to escape the cold and try to sleep 7pm-1am: our wake-up call to eat breakfast and start the climb before 2am.
The morning cold was like no other I have experienced, but luckily, the full moon was a huge light in the sky, illuminating our way through the snow. We learned that the secret was to move at a pace fast enough to stay warm and not die of cold, but slow enough so that the lungs could deal with the low levels of oxygen at that altitude.
The trek was like no other I’ve ever done – freezing cold, in the middle of the night – dark, but illuminated beautifully by the full moon, a steep ascent through the beautiful rocks and snow, at altitude. It was incredible. It was difficult – physically and psychologically. Our heads were hurting from lack of oxygen. Hearts pounding. Loving and hating every minute of it, all at the same time.
We were in a group of 7, and the majority didn’t make it to the peak because there were two different paces in the group but one guide stayed behind babysitting someone who had never been on a hike before, much less in the altitude, and kind of ruined it for the rest of the group.
I definitely recommend this trek (especially if you can time it with a full moon!), always remembering:
1. If you haven’t climbed a mountain or done a hike at altitude in the last few months and aren’t in shape, this is not a good hike to start with. Do easier hikes at lower altitudes, and work your way up to this one. Also, if you can do work-outs in the altitude in the week before the hike (without exhausting yourself), it will help immensely.
2. When going on hikes, take some plastic bags for trash, including bags for your used toilet paper, and don’t leave trash on the trail. Respect nature and leave it beautiful for the next person!
When I arrived here, everyone told me that Christmas in the U.S. is a much bigger deal than it is Peru. From my experiences here, I find them to be pretty similar, with just a few minor differences – the Peruvian touch.
The biggest differences are that Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, and that everyone (every school, business, institution, home, etc.) has a nativity scene. The nativity scene is more essential than the Christmas tree here…while in the U.S. you might see Christmas trees without the nativity scene, here you might nativity scenes without the Christmas tree.
While everyone does it a little differently, the essentials for Nochebuena are Panetón and hot chocolate (flavored with cinnamon). What usually happens is that the family gets together on Christmas Eve, eats a huge meal, drinks hot chocolate and munches on Panetón, until midnight, when they put the baby Jesus in the manger of the nativity scene…and then the kids run outside to set off fireworks and rockets. A lot of families stay up way past midnight celebrating into the “madrugada” or early morning. Christmas day is a national holiday here, (which makes a lot of sense, because everyone needs to recover from Nochebuena!)
This year (and last year), my family celebrated more like I had done in the U.S. – we had a pretty low key Nochebuena, and then we had a bigger celebration on Christmas day because that is when my oldest sister was able to come into town.
For Nochebuena this year, we went to an aunt’s house and had a medium-sized meal (while it was a large meal for me, it was medium-sized compared to a typical celebratory meal here,) and, of course, we ate Panetón and had hot chocolate while we waited for midnight (and also waited for my aunt to come home because she works at the hospital and got called in to go with a patient to a hospital in a city 2 hours away because they didn’t have the treatment the patient needed here. But that’s another topic.) At midnight we went outside to watch the kids setting off rockets and fireworks…it sounded like a warzone!
On Christmas day, I spent the morning (until 2pm) helping prepare the huge Christmas meal. It started with the typical chicken soup (caldo de gallina) as a starter, and then we had a huge and delicious turkey, yucca, potatoes, creamy apple salad with raisins and nuts, spinach salad, and rice (always). You will not have a Peruvian meal without rice…except maybe ceviche. Maybe.
My mom also had made mashed sweet potatoes – something she had learned from the thanksgiving meal that the other PCVs in my site and I had shared with her and the other families this Thanksgiving!
Most adults here say Christmas is for kids. There’s Mother’s Day for moms. Father’s Day for dads. And Christmas for kids. (Yep, those of us adults without kids are a really weird thing for most people (a topic for another day), so we don’t get acknowledged.) So, the gift-giving at Christmas is usually just for the kids. But luckily, my family has decided to do Secret Santa the past two years, so the adults draw names, and we each give and get one gift. (I love it…when I only have to think about one gift, I can put a lot of thought into it and get a really good gift, whereas I really struggle to get everyone a meaningful gift when I buy for everyone. But I digress.)
This year all the kids got something with wheels…the 3-year-old got a tricycle, the 6-year-old got a bicycle, and the 8-year-old got rollerblades.
And then we had Secret Santa, which was pretty great and low key, until…my dad had drawn my oldest sister (who is 2 years older than me), and he gave her a bicycle! It was the cutest, funniest, sweetest thing ever. She shed a tear or two, and I’m pretty sure she was more excited about her bicycle than her 6-year-old daughter was about hers!
So, for me, Christmas here is actually pretty similar to how I celebrated Christmas with my family my whole life. So why do so many Peruvians and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) say that Christmas is a bigger deal in the States? Of course I will not leave you without sharing my theories:
Christmas movies. There are tons of them, and a lot of what Peruvians know about the U.S. comes from Hollywood (yep, the image of Americans is that we are all wealthy, sex-crazed, work-aholics, thanks to Hollywood), so Christmas seems like a real big deal to Americans just because there are so many movies about it, and not so many movies about other holidays.
In the states, Christmas tends to be one of the bigger holidays of the year (advertised like crazy (even BEFORE Thanksgiving!), tons of movies about it (as I said above), secularized and celebrated by the majority, even non-Christians). In the US, I can’t really think of another holiday that would be bigger, generally speaking, given the media attention Christmas gets in the States, so it is our biggest holiday – or among the biggest…
While Christmas is celebrated in a similar manner here, it is dwarfed by the celebrations of other holidays. Compared to the other celebrations that they have here in Peru, Christmas is a pretty low-key family celebration…meanwhile Independence Day, Semana Santa, and the town anniversary and the day of the patron saint are huge, town-wide parties that last up to a week, and all have multiple parades, concerts, fireworks shows and tons of festive activities.
So these other celebrations are like a combination of many of our holidays: New Years Eve and 4th of July (for the fireworks), plus Thanksgiving (for the parade), plus state fair (for the activities), and Christmas (for the decorations they put up all over town). And so, as a Peruvian or a PCV, Christmas appears like a pretty minor holiday here.
Last Sunday, 22 October, I was under house arrest. Not just me, but the entire nation of Peru. Across the whole country (or to be precise, all the urban areas of Peru, or 75% of the population), no one was permitted to leave their house between the hours of 8am to 5pm. We were told we could be detained by the police if we were out in the streets.
Nope, this wasn’t a terrorist scare, or some oppressive government scheme, it was the census.
Just like the US, Peru conducts the national census every 10 years. Volunteers (that receive very small incentives) go door to door to collect demographic information so that citizens and institutions have a sense of how many people live in the country, what languages they speak, what ethnicities make up the nation, what kind of work they do, etc. But, unlike the US, all businesses close for one day every 10 years, and people are required to stay in their houses and wait for someone to come administer the census at their houses.
I was a little sad about this because I really like to go on bike rides on my Sundays, but I was also kind of excited because I’d never experienced a day of house arrest, I mean “census”. I know we have census in the US, but honestly I don’t remember ever participating. I certainly don’t remember an edict saying we had to stay home all day on census day. (FYI: Wikipidia says that the next census in the US will be in 2020 and will mostly be conducted by the internet.) Anyway, I figured it would be a great opportunity to catch up on some blog posts and spend some time with my host mom and dad.
The night before the census, I went for a run (since I was going to be stuck inside all day the next day I figured I should take some preventative measures against cabin fever and enjoy the outdoors a little). When I got back from my run, I couldn’t believe my eyes – at our dinner table, I saw my host sister Betsy and her family (her husband and my 2 nieces) who live an hour away in Villa Rica! They had come as a surprise, to pass the house arrest day, er census, with us! Since Betsy had come over, my sister Kathia who lives 20 minutes away also came over with my 2-year-old nephew. And my brother and his girlfriend and her son stayed the night too.
The next day, census day, felt like Christmas! The whole family was in the house (which has never happened before…someone is always missing for some reason or another), the kids were playing and watching tv, mom was in and out of the kitchen preparing pachamanca for lunch, a big group of us played a card game, and we all caught up and laughed and jokingly complained while we waited for the census people to come.
Inconveniently, they came to census us right at lunch time. A young man of about 18 years old arrived, and the poor guy said they weren’t even providing him with lunch. (Lucky for him, we brought him a plate of pachamanca to enjoy.) He “interviewed” each of us, one at a time, and even I got to partake in the census – which was basically just answering about 10-20 demographic questions while he filled in the answers on an official workbook that reminded me of exam workbooks that we had to fill out when taking a test like the SAT or ACT. (Am dating myself here…are those exams electronic now like the GRE?)
Since we had a house full of 4 different families, it took a little while to finish, but it went smoothly. And at 5pm sharp, after enjoying 8 hours of quality family time (the perfect amount of time for a family to enjoy each other’s company before they start driving each other crazy), we all fled from the house – my sister Betsy went back to Villa Rica to prepare for work the next day, my mom, dad and sister Kathia went to the farm to take care of the pigs, my brother went who-knows-where, and I went to hang out with some friends by the river.
The next week, the news was full of census stories: the census volunteer that fell in love with a censee (cute); someone sexually harassed by a censor (terrible!); and apparently this year, unlike past years, they didn’t make it to all the houses because they didn’t have enough volunteers; (word has it that they didn’t give the volunteers enough incentives so some didn’t show up at the last minute…based on the poor guy who came to our house and hadn’t had lunch, that sounds pretty accurate.)
Anyway, I am really glad I had the luck to be here to experience the census “house arrest” that only happens every 10 years. Even though at first it sounded a little strange, and maybe even a little draconian, it turned out to be a really great experience! This way of being, and way of living – making the most of whatever comes your way – is something I see over and over here in Peru, and something I really appreciate. People could have been up in arms, interpreting this as an infringement on freedom, a forced day of being bored or sad, locked inside; but instead of making a mountain out of a molehill, they made lemonade out of lemons, and a relatively normal day was turned into a huge family celebration, which turned out to be a great and memorable day!
There are a few interesting new years traditions here in Peru, such as sitting under a table and eating 12 grapes, one to represent each month, and making a wish for each grape. Or wearing something yellow (usually yellow underwear) to bring good luck in the new year. Or walking around the block with a piece of luggage so that you will have the luck to travel in the new year.
In the same spirit, but instead of walking around the block with my luggage, I rang in the new year 2017, by traveling to another part of Peru where I would experience not only a different town, but different landscapes, a different climate, and a different culture. (Peru has such a great variety of all of these – landscapes, climates, cultures – that I could not experience all of them in my 2-3 years here, even if I didn’t work and only traveled. Since I do in fact spend the majority of my time in site working, this new years trip reminded me that this year I want to take time to travel to try to experience some of these treasures that Peru has to offer.)
What happened was…about a week or two before new years, my bestie Karlia invited me to meet her and a few of our good friends in Lima and then travel south to a small village that is one of the epicenters of much of the history of Afro-Peruvian descendants in Peru, (which also happens to throw a mad new years party every year). Luckily I had the clarity of mind to say yes and I hopped on a bus to Lima.
After taking a day of relaxation on the beach in Lima, we headed to El Carmen, a town in Chincha, in the department of Ica.
In Chincha, we went to the supermarket to buy some new years eve snacks (wine, crackers, and champagne) to enjoy while we waited for the NY party to start (start time: 11:45pm, we were told).
At the supermarket we were all separately amazed at how the appearances of the people that entered the supermarket in Chincha reminded us so much of being at a supermarket in the US and made us feel an interesting sense of comfort, like home – because we saw such diversity in race, unlike we are accustomed to seeing in our sites. And then when we arrived in El Carmen (20-minute drive from Chincha), the same thing happened when we saw that the majority of folks living in this tiny town of a few blocks wide in either direction were majority black, Afro-Peruvians. I have never been so happy to see black people!
While Lima hosts a good diversity of race in certain areas, we all live in rural sites that tend to be pretty racially homogenous with most people being darker skinned with ancestors being a mix of indigenous peoples and Europeans.
(The majority of people in my town have a mix of indigenous and Austrian-German heritage and have the “typical Latino” look that most Americans know, though it is not uncommon to see lighter-skinned people usually with more Austrian-German showing, which is uncommon in a lot of other sites. In my site, I have only seen one black person (who is from Columbia actually), one person that appears to be of Indian descent, and a few Asian-Peruvians or “Chinos” as they are called, despite the fact that their ancestors may be from any east Asian country.)
It struck me as strange that seeing black people was so comforting for me, and also for my friends (probably more so for them, being African Americans). Apparently, I had previously been accustomed to greater racial diversity while living in DC; then I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t living in a place with much racial diversity, until I experienced greater racial diversity again, and I was struck by how much it made me feel at home, that I had been missing that aspect of diversity in my life without even knowing it.)
We wandered around the plaza de armas, seeing what the local artisans were selling (woven bags, souvenirs like carvings featuring black figurines, locally-made wine, among others.) Someone handed us a flier about a history lesson and demonstration of zapateo that was taking place at that moment, so we hurried one block over and found a man standing outside his house and a group of about 7 young men from Chiclayo sitting around waiting for the event to start. We entered the house and the man started telling us about the Afro-Peruvian history of the area of El Carmen, and then he pulled out a fiddle and 3 young men came in and started performing zapateo, which reminded me of “step”.
Fast forward to the 11:45 start of the new years party (which, by the way, I found out a few hours before that it was a white party). First, I have to say that my friend Vanessa was the queen of the party, by far. She was looking fabulous, BOMB!, and rocking the afro hairstyle…freely and with pride here in this site, which is very different from the reality of her (and most of our) sites.
From what I understand, it’s hard enough to wear one’s hair naturally (in an afro) in the US and for people to appreciate the beauty of that look much less to be taken seriously, or professionally. And here in Peru, that is the case but even more extreme, unfortunately. It’s one of those things that is not talked about and often unnoticed by anyone that is not black, but is a real struggle to have someone telling you that your natural hair is ugly and you should really spend a lot of money and time to make it look more like white people’s hair. (Read more about this from one of the Blog It Home winners, Brittany.)
Everyone, including a few drummers, was gathering around some large stuffed dolls the size of crash test dummies. So we joined the circle, and at midnight, the drums started going and someone set the dolls on fire…to send off the old year and welcome in the new year. We all proceeded to dance around the fire, to the beat of the drums…which also made me feel incredibly at home, reminding me of my Sunday afternoon ritual to dance at the drum circles in Meridian Hill Park in DC.
After the old year dolls had burned down, the party started. Led by a DJ, bands (of course with a cajon – a drum that is a wooden box that the drummer sits on top of), and dancers dressed as devils, everyone danced and mingled like one big happy family.
The party continued through the morning and until about mid-day the next day (though I don’t know from first-hand experience; I’m not that hard core.)
It’s hard to describe how wonderful and meaningful this new years was for me…spending time with some of my best Peace Corps friends, seeing a completely different part of the country, having so many experiences that made me feel at home…it was the best way possible to start a new year – open to new experiences and adventures, and a reminder to take advantage of my time here – in this country and in this life.
The Peace Corps mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
Goal 1: To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Goal 2: To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Goal 3: To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
So in addition to my Goal 1 work in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), we also talk about Goal 2 work…the things we do so that Peruvians have a better understanding of America and Americans. (And as a side note, this blog is an example Goal 3.)
I love Goal 1 work so much that I don’t do many Goal 2 activities here (other than generally trying to be a good person which I hope gives my Peruvian friends and family a good impression of America and Americans).
But recently I got a site mate, Mary, and we decided to throw a 4th of July party for our friends and family (probably my first official Goal 2 activity so far in site). We decided to do a few typical fourth of July foods: hamburgers (meat and bean burgers), pasta salad, watermelon, fruit salad, and lemonade.
In the morning we went to the feria – the feria is basically the farmers market where producers come and sell their produce. You can find vegetables, fruits, meats, prepared foods, and even live animals for sale, all from surrounding areas. Feria happens once or twice a week in most places, and here in Oxapampa it is Saturdays and Tuesdays, so we lucked out that 4th of July was a Tuesday!
Also, it just so happened that my brother had recently brought home meat from a bull from Codo, Pozuzu, the region 3 hours north, known for raising cattle. The only challenge was that I had to take the meat to the market so they could grind it into hamburger meat. So I rode my bicycle to the market with a plastic bag full of meat. First time for everything. #RemindedwhyIusedtobevegetarian.
Luckily my host mom loves to cook, owned a restaurant for many years, and was excited to learn about the dishes we were preparing so she helped us cook the hamburgers and prepare a lot of the food. She is great!
We had planned to start at 6, and true to “la hora Peruana”, or “Peruvian time”, the food was ready and the majority of the guests arrived at around 7:30. At any event, you always have to start with a speech (palabras), so Mary and I thanked everyone for coming and gave a brief explanation of 4th of July traditions before eating.
We asked what everyone thought of when they think of the US, and we heard things like movies, great music, and friends from the US, but unfortunately, lots of people also mentioned Trump as the first thing that comes to their mind, specifically for the idiotic things he is doing on an international scale. I pointed out that I actually had the same negative feelings these days when I think of the US, but that at the same time I have a sense of pride so many Americans have really started to be even more active in doing and continuing their good work and fighting his poor policies and bad decisions.
Finally, we shared a wonderful, nerdy part of American culture with our friends and families…trivia night. We divided into two teams, and began 4th of July trivia, with Snickers bars awarded to the winners (who then shared with everyone – what good sports!)
Independence Day here in Peru is July 28th, so soon they will have their chance to stump me with Peruvian 28 de Julio trivia!
[#TBT…Here’s a blog post from my first days in site]
Today (day 4 in my site), I found myself marching in the Independence Day (28 July) parade, down the streets of Oxapampa, Peru (actually, “down the street” would be more accurate because the parade only passed down two blocks of one street). I had just arrived 4 days before, so I was a little hesitant (for a few reasons I’ll describe below), but the point of joining Peace Corps was to step outside of my comfort zone, so I went with it.
The first awkward thing for me was the way they march in parades (desfilar) in Peru is pretty funny to a newcomer – they literally march like the German soldiers, legs straight out in front, and arms straight and swinging high. I’m sorry but have to admit I didn’t completely comply with the proper marching style because thankfully, the people around me were pretty lax about how they marched, so we did a kind of normal arm swing with our march.
The second awkward thing about marching in this parade is that it was only my fourth day living in this city, and I wasn’t exactly invited to march in the parade. But if there’s one thing I learned in Peace Corps Peru training (and in life in general, but especially in Peace Corps training), it is to put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. So, I woke up this morning, wore my Peace Corps vest, with grey slacks and my red dress shirt, and walked toward the front of the municipality where the parade was passing. I found a woman I work with (i.e., met two days ago when I arrived to work for my first day), and we watched the parade together, waiting until it was time for the municipality workers to march.
During the hour of waiting for our turn to march and watching the parade pass, I started to worry because I realized that all the other municipality workers had black suits with a white dress shirt (compared to my grey slacks, red dress shirt, and grey vest.) The “putting myself out there” suddenly seemed really awkward and embarrassing – being the really white girl with different colored clothes marching with the organization I just joined a few days ago.
But I decided I was going to have to let go of embarrassment and proudly be different and represent Peace Corps instead of feeling like I have to fit in perfectly. (One of my reasons for being in Peace Corps was to learn what it’s like to be stand out as different and still try to integrate and connect, and this was a good example of having to let go of shame and embarrassment of being different and to participate with confidence.)
So I started talking myself up…”the municipality invited Peace Corps to come work in Oxapampa, and here I am, representing the Peace Corps and working with the municipality, and it’s OK that I look a little different! (I’ll just stand in the back…)”.
And so I found myself marching down the main street in front of the plaza, participating in my first Peruvian parade. Well, marching in my first Peruvian parade. (Actually, I had hopped on a float with some drag queens in the Gay Pride parade in Lima last month, so I guess this was my second parade crashing experience in Peru.) While I’m on a digression… Peru LOVES parades. I have been here three months and I have seen more than six parades!
Back to the story of day four in my site. I was about to head home for a siesta after the parade, when a co-worker from the municipality told me the mayor was going to speak and I should go. So, I went and awkwardly sat in the back of the nearly empty auditorium, except for the mayor and four other important-looking people sitting at the front waiting people to come.
Suddenly a familiar face (later I learned he was the Alcalde’s right hand man) came and greeted me and asked me to come sit in the second row. I went and sat next to him and chatted with him while we waited for the event to start. Turns out he had invited me to the special section, because towards the end of the speeches, they brought food and wine glasses for a toast to the first two rows, whereas the other rows got plastic cups and got served last. (To this day, I am thankful for the kindness of the gerente, who made me feel welcome and slightly less awkward.)
Feeling like I had done my due diligence in making my presence known, showing interest, and learning a little bit about the political priorities of my new home, I walked home, dreaming of a siesta. I arrived home to find my mom and dad building a bed. (I really never know what I’m going to find happening at home, and sometimes I don’t even know where I’m going to end up when I go out with the family – definitely partly due to the language barrier, but also the rhythm of life here allows for more last-minute decisions on what to do. It just makes it that much more of an adventure.)
Anyway, when I arrived home, my mom and dad congratulated me (half jokingly) on marching in the parade. They had gone out to the parade just to see me march. I found out later that night that my mom had even taken photos of me in the parade. It was such a sweet gesture, I can’t even explain how happy and grateful I feel that they have so easily welcomed me into the family. So, in the moment, I did the only thing that made the most sense, and I picked up some sandpaper and helped with the bed-building project.