It’s still only mid-November, but that hasn’t stopped the Berliners from starting Christmas early. And it goes further than just the heaps of stollen, gingerbread, and spiced liquors in the supermarket nearby — they’ve opened a whole Christmas market at Potsdamer Platz. I’m flying out tomorrow, so Cindy, Eric, Anna, and I head out for one last adventure.
Wow, did I mention this place was holiday-themed yet? The little wooden stalls are decked out in lights and doling out delicious winter carnival treats. There’s one doling out hot drinks, including mulled wine and spiked hot chocolates, one selling out decorated cookies, candy, and spiced nuts, and multiple selling the fried food from various cuisines. And then there’s…chili!?!
We wander around, eating as much as possible and watching people sled down an artificial toboggan hill. We wonder aloud when we might see each other again, with Cindy and Eric bound for Amsterdam for another workshop, Anna heading home to California soon, and me flying to Boston tomorrow. I want to keep traveling, but there’s also a pull to stay in one place for a bit where I can accomplish something. That feeling comes from my lab days, as a graduate student. You can’t run PCRs and cell culture when you’re on the road — at least, not yet. But a suitcase lab and interesting questions to chase would be all I need to pack up again*.
I’ll miss the three of them, but it’s only temporary. With friends like these, we’ll be sure to see each other again.
*Ironically, I will not be going back to the lab when I return. I have a new career waiting for me in consulting! We’ll see how it goes.
Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.
Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.
Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.
Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.
When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.
We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.
The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.
We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.
Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?
For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.
As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”
A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.
October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”
It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.
Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.
Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.
Our first week in Russia I caught the flu. We meant to leave for Lake Baikal a few days ago, but I won’t be strong enough for another day or two. In the meantime, one of our hosts at the hostel tells us about an upcoming Buryati Dance Festival at Ulan-Ude’s Ethnographic Museum. “You should go! It will be fun,” she tells us cheerfully. She helps us find the bus schedule to the place, and the day of the festival we find ourselves catching jam-packed minivan that serves the museum bus route.
The atmosphere is festive when we arrive at the museum grounds, where we pay 200 rubles per person (~4 USD) for entry. People are lined up to get food and kvas, to play games, or to take turns in bouncy houses.
A small crowd sits in front of the stage, where performers dressed in traditional attire sing and dance. We watch for a few sets, though we don’t understand jokes when they’re made or the song lyrics—everything is in Buryat, not Russian. But it looks so much to me like what I’ve heard and seen at the University for Minorities in Chengdu, where students gather nightly to practice the dances of their ancestors, gathering in a circle and going through the steps, skips, and hand motions.
As the sun sinks lower, we peel away from the stage to walk through the museum grounds, which are covered in dense pine forest and dotted with exemplary buildings from the nomadic tribes, the early peasants, and the first European settlers in Siberia. Four-sided wooden buildings lie within steps of rounded yurts. An Orthodox Chapel sits on the museum grounds, while in the forest you can find granite stones inscribed with teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a mix of east meets west, of fur skins wrapped around yurts for insulation and four-post brass bedframes with mattresses and sheets.
After sunset, we return to the stage and find it surrounded by a huge crowd waiting for the real show to begin. The last of the performers complete their acts, followed by a hurried transition. Two young people take the stage, and they address the crowd in Russian and Buryat. They thank us for coming and admire how much the festival has grown in the few years it has been alive. They talk about the festival’s origins and its goal to keep the Buryati culture alive. Then they tell us all to spread out: it’s time for the real festival to begin. We’re going to learn Buryati dance.
The crowd ambles away from the stage, arranging itself in huge uneven circles and ellipses in the field. Stoytcho and I remain together, a miracle considering I can’t understand anything being said from the stage. But I don’t need to. Our two onstage hosts demonstrate every dance step along with the Russian- and Buryat-language instructions, and I watch them and the people around me for dance cues. Three steps, point right foot out and stomp, pull back, three more steps, repeat. Switch directions. Repeat. We kick up dust as we move, people shuffling and stumbling over the steps for a minute. Then our hosts announce it’s time for the dance. We link pinkies with the people beside us and have at it, step step step stomp step step mistake correction catchup repeat. Our hosts pause us and add a new step: a run. We’re now a thread of people stepping, skipping, stomping, running mostly evenly and sometimes unevenly around our circle, mostly linked by our pinkies but occasionally losing connection, kicking up dust that floats up to fill our shoes and clothes and the air. We continue as a whirling flock of humans, practicing several different dances that start with simple steps and become more elaborate performances. Stoytcho and I gain some proficiency, able to time our movements with the crowd, though we’re exhausted and can feel grittiness in each breath. Our hosts on stage call a stop to our last dance and ask us to make concentric rings around piles of wood arranged nearby. A man with a torch enters our ring and touches it to the woodpile, creating a plume of fire as it lights and illuminates our faces. Dance volunteers take their position around the circle to guide us, waiting for the signal. This is the true test of our dance mettle.
Our hosts shout something and we’re off, starting, stepping, stomping, skipping, sprinting, and stopping, following the volunteers’ lead with linked arms and laughter.
New Year’s Eve is a big holiday everywhere, and Quito is no exception. From massive floats illustrating scenes of the old year by day to fireworks exploding and cross-dressers panhandling for beer money by night, Quito’s New Year’s festivities don’t disappoint. Below are photos we took in Quito’s Plaza Foch/Mariscal Sucre area on December 31, 2016.
During the day, the Av. Río Amazonas in Mariscal Sucre was transformed into a fairground with floats depicting important issues in Quito and the events of the previous year. There were floats lampooning politicians, calling for conservation of water in the city, and honoring firemen who rescued citizens during disasters (such as the 2016 earthquake in Manabi province). The street was full of pedestrians, while vendors hawked everything from rainbow mohawk wigs to fake breasts to neon-colored children’s toys on the side of the street.
The nearby Parque El Ejido also transformed into a massive market, selling souvenirs, trinkets, and snacks for the celebrations. We sat on a bench and watched families slowly amble past, adults trying to keep children from running off in every direction. Other individuals hurried past, rushing to complete their shopping in time for evening festivities. The air was thick with the smell of sugar and steaming sweet corn, alive with the shouts of children and laughter of friends. Even in this warm atmosphere, a contingent of officers stood in a line, waiting to guide traffic and keep the peace once night fell.
Once darkness fell, the real party in Plaza Foch got started. The families disappeared. Vendors switched to selling fireworks and roman candles. And the streets re-opened to vehicle traffic—sort of. Cars were stopped every few blocks by another feature of Quito’s New Year festivities: the viudas. Masquerading as the ‘widows’ of the old year, these men stop cars and pedestrians to beg for beer money while dressed in ridiculous costumes.
And then there are the effigies themselves. Clothes stuffed with newspaper, propped up in chairs, and wearing masks, these dolls represent the old year and are destined for a fiery demise. Some are dressed as political figures and fearful creatures, while others are references to pop culture such as My Little Pony and Minions. All are meant to be burned to bid farewell to the old year, but the ‘fiery demise’ bit didn’t seem to be something done around Plaza Foch. When we asked shopkeepers about burning the effigies, they seemed slightly embarrassed and suggested we leave the city center and visit one of Quito’s suburbs—apparently it’s now more of a family affair.
As with any good New Year’s celebration, the fireworks, drinking, and celebrations went on far past midnight. It was a long, ebullient farewell from Quiteños to the old year, which hadn’t particularly been kind to Ecuador. But the next day was the start of a new year for them.
The town of Ipiales is located in southern Colombia and serves as a rest point for travelers between Colombia and Ecuador. At the elevation of nearly 3000 m, the air is already thinner here and you’ll find yourself heaving as you climb through the hilly streets.
Unlike Cartagena or Medellín, Ipiales isn’t a tourist town. It looks more run down, there are no glitzy lights, and there isn’t a party street lined with bars. The houses on the streets look more modest, though they’re still decorated with symbols and bright colors. We don’t encounter a single backpacker here besides ourselves, and there are no hostels, so we stay in a cheap hotel. When we walk along the street, people don’t try to hawk goods to us, although they sometimes stop and stare out of curiosity.
We’re only here for the day, so we walk to the town square and see what’s happening. It’s just after midday on December 24 and the area is full of people buying last minute gifts from the dozen or so stalls that line the square. Some sell stationary and shirts with the Frozen characters on them, others sell cheap jewelry, and others sell food and drink gift baskets. We stop for tamales at one of the food carts, then sit and watch the people bustle by. Several older men are congregating nearby, visibly drunk and laughing and shoving each other. They’ve lined up several empty vodka bottles along a wall and take swigs from the only non-empty bottle remaining.
As the sun dips lower, we notice several people gathered in one corner of the square and wander over to find a procession for the Nativity. Surrounded by priests and trailed by a whole high-school marching band, one young boy carries a plastic infant Jesus. He solemnly marches the street around the square, and then enters the church to deposit Jesus into the manger.
We watch the people file in to pay their respects, and when most have come and gone we enter. Despite the modest houses and buildings in the square, the inside of the church is beautifully decorated. The Nativity scene is sprawled in one corner, a mixed media display of goods and lights, while a statue of Jesus holds up an extension cord that doubles as a barrier around the spectacle. We pay a version of respects and then head back to the hotel for the night.
The next day is Christmas Day, and we’re up early and bound for arguably the only tourist attraction in the area: the cathedral of Las Lajas. We find taxi drivers in the central square of town and hire one out to the cathedral. One of the nice features of Ipiales is that there are fixed rates to everywhere, including Las Lajas and the border with Ecuador—no negotiations are needed, although you’re welcome to try.
As we speed along the narrow roads out of town, we ask about the area. We expect that given the apparent lack of wealth in the area, the taxi driver will be pessimistic, but we’re pleasantly surprised. “Things are good,” he tells us, “and getting better. There are lots of jobs [for everyone].” We ask about the primary industry in the area, and he says much of the region is dedicated to growing temperate crops such as potatoes and wheat, which the trade with the more tropical northern provinces for bananas and rice. “But there’s almost no tourism here,” he tells us, “If it weren’t for Las Lajas, we would be entirely forgotten.”
When we arrive at Las Lajas. There’s no sign of a cathedral, but there’s a narrow sloped road down a hill packed with shopkeepers and restauranteurs, selling everything from candles and rosaries to fried nuts and cuy (roasted guinea pig). This is the first place we’ve seen cuy, so I’m tempted to try it but Stoytcho is less than enthusiastic. We continue walking down the street, stopping once to purchase a few multicolored candles at one of the vendors for 3000 pesos. The street vendors eventually give way to walls crowded with thousands of plaques, each giving thanks for a miracle from the church and the Virgin of Las Lajas. Finally, near the base of the hill, Las Lajas breaks into view, towering steeples and buttresses suspended hundreds of feet above the Guáitara River gorge.
The area is thronged with crowds, the cathedral inhaling and exhaling waves of people every few minutes as sessions of Christmas Mass are repeated over and over. The people spill out from the cathedral doors and spread out along the promenade, posing for family portraits taken by wandering photographers for hire, lining up to sprinkle themselves with holy water, and bringing candles to an outdoor altar for lighting.
We join the mass of people gathered at the altar and hand over our candles to be lit. I’ve never been religious, and I’m at a loss of what to do after I hand my candle over. The best I can guess is that I’m supposed to make a wish or prayer with the lighting of a candle, a bit like a birthday but less selfish, so I do that.
Out past the candle altar, people are lining up to douse themselves with water dispensed by a cherubic statue. They collect it in their hands, then spill it over their hair and wipe it on their faces. One man fills an empty water bottle.
We finish walking around the cathedral and then head up to a nearby hill to get a view of the valley. It’s hotter now, and popsicle vendors have sprouted up on the path, selling bright red gelatins and coconut milk pops. Children play along the path as parents try to corral them for family photos with Las Lajas in the background. The photographers-for-hire waltz between them, taking photos and then guiding the families down the hill to a small outcrop where they take turns printing the photos on a few printers. One photographer asks us, on behalf of a shy family, if we would stand with them in their photo. We happily agree, and we’re immortalized, a giant man and a vaguely ethnic woman, standing surrounded by a Colombian family. They thank us, and they’re gone before we even think to ask for a copy.
When we finally reach the top of the hill, we look back over the valley. It’s nearly noon, and the throngs of people have dissipated, but small groups still trickle through. The cathedral’s structure dwarfs all of them, like schools of colorful fish darting through a massive reef. According to the stories, people first started coming here because it was the site of a miracle, where the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman and her daughter. The first shrines were built of hay and wood, and the cathedral, funded by local donations, wasn’t completed until 1949. It’s a true communal project, one without famous architects or multinational construction firms. Just people who came together and wanted to make something bigger than themselves.
(This post is a bit out of order, but is too good to not do for Christmas.)
A belated happy holidays post from the two of us to everyone out there! While we were in transit to Quito for most of Christmas Eve and Day, here are a couple of amazing shots from the pre-Christmas celebrations of Parque Norte in Medellín. This city in Colombia goes absolutely crazy for Christmas, decking out major streets and parks with lights and larger-than life figures known collectively as “Los Alumbradores”.
For the week or two leading up to Christmas, families visit major parks and admire the lights, taking pictures, eating festival food, and generally being merry. People also dress up as clowns, Santa Claus, superheroes, and comical characters for circuis performances and pictures with children. They’ll also poke fun at adults, so as a foreigner be ready to be the butt of a few good-natured jokes. They didn’t seem to be there to busk or make tips though, so you don’t need to give them money.
If you’re looking for a place to merrily spend the holidays, Medellín is probably one of the best. The celebration is huge and you’ll meet all sorts of wonderful people. Los Alumbradores really brings everyone from the city out for the evening.
And because Parque Norte is also an amusement park with rides, it led to this unintentionally hilarious and creepy picture of the Nativity:
So once again, Happy Holidays! Whomever you are and whatever you celebrate, do it with a full heart and gusto as we bid farewell to 2016.