Berlin Christmas Market

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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.

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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!?!

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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*.

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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.

Crossing the Colombian-Ecuadorean Border on Christmas Day

We’d heard mixed things about crossing borders on holidays, with the two disparate problems being overcrowding from everyone travelling during the holiday or nobody being able to cross because the border is just…closed. These vary by holiday and border, so we weren’t sure what to expect at the Colombian-Ecuadorean border on Christmas Day. We verified with locals that the border would be open, then after our time at Las Lajas caught a taxi for 20,000 pesos (~USD $6.50) to the nearest border crossing, Rumichaca. It turns out we got the best of both worlds: the border was open, and there were only a handful of people crossing.

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 Colombian migration office on Christmas day. Pretty lonely, but convenient for crossing. Next time, I’ll bring candy or something to hand out along the way.

We visited migration on the Colombian side for our exit stamp and waited in a line consisting for 4 people, including ourselves, for about 5 minutes. The border guard checked our passports, then stamped them and politely waved us out.

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Walking toward the border. There was some vehicle traffic, but only a handful of pedestrians.

Then came the ridiculously easy task of crossing the border. We walked south of the Colombian migration building and walked the yellow footbridge into Ecuador.

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Welcome to Ecuador, almost.

From reading other reports, I’d heard the Ecuadorean side can be a bit more confusing. There’s not a checkpoint directly at the border; it’s the large white building on the left a few hundred meters in. We walked over to get our entry stamps, initially worried they may ask about our plans for onward travel (an issue that’s dogged us more than I imagined on our trip so far). They didn’t, just asked where we were bound next (Quito), and stamped our passports.

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Taxis wait outside of the Ecuadorean migration office. Their rates are higher on Christmas Day (and other major holidays). To save costs, consider sharing an unofficial taxi with other travelers. 

We then encounterd the only disadvantage of traveling on Christams Day: taxi prices on the Ecuadorean side were higher. We shopped around for a bit with the taxis in front of Ecuadorean migration, then crossed the street to the unofficial taxis where we shared a car with two other passengers for $1.70 and swapped travel stories. This ride took us to Tulcan, where we paid $6 for a winding, 5-hour bus ride to the Ecuadorean capital of Quito.

So overall, Christmas Day is a great time to cross the Colombian-Ecuadorean border, and probably any open border for a country that celebrates this holiday. Just remember that the people working are away from their families for the day, so if you can then tip a little extra.

Ipiales/Las Lajas

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.

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A statue on the streets of Ipiales.

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.

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A house in Ipiales

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.

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The main square of Ipiales.

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.

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A boy carries the infant Jesus to the Nativity in the church.
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The marching band procession for the Nativity in Ipiales.

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.

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The church nativity scene in Ipiales.

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.

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A view from the road to Las Lajas.

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.”

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Plaques giving thanks for miracles at Las Lajas.

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.

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The first view of Las Lajas.

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.

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Crowds for Mass on Christmas Day at Las Lajas.

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.

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People light candles at an altar in Las Lajas.

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.

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People douse themselves with holy water dispensed from a cherubic statue.

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.

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The view of Las Lajas from above.

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.

Happy Holidays!

(This post is a bit out of order, but is too good to not do for Christmas.)

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A giant illuminated Christmas ornament

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”.

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Crowds on a park path lined with figures of giant illuminated flowers. One of the three kings from the Nativity story looms in the background.
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Children gather around a larger-than-life kitchen table in one of the Los Alumbradores figures.

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.

 

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A Christmas “elf” catches sight of us. What followed was a 5 minute fictional interview of where we were from, a couple of jokes, and a “Merry Christmas!” 

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.

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A huddle of nuns out to view Los Alumbradores

And because Parque Norte is also an amusement park with rides, it led to this unintentionally hilarious and creepy picture of the Nativity:

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Yeah, this pretty much sums up how I feel about the year 2016.

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.