Saturday, December 13, 2008

Colombian Lights

Festival of Lights, Villa de Leyva, ColombiaI got off the bus in the mountain town of Villa de Leyva expecting a quiet colonial village with few people. Instead I found a bustling colonial town with almost every single hotel entirely booked through the weekend. The reason? The Festival of Lights. Every year what seems like half the country pours into this little whitewashed town with seemingly no buildings younger than 400 years old, packs into the main plaza, sets off tons of fireworks and then parties until four in the morning. I'm not sure if I've ever seen so many people drinking and yelling and singing in one spot as I saw that town square. You could've easily crowd-surfed the wads of people packed in the stores buying beer and aguardiente (local firewater made from sugarcane and anise).

Aside from seeing some great fireworks being exploding so close that they set off multiple car alarms, I think my favorite part might have been one of the more ironic ones for something celebrating light. About half an hour after the last fireworks ended and the first musical act started, the power went out. All the sound systems, Christmas lights and buildings lost electricity. At first everybody laughed and cheered. Then something interesting happened. Instead of getting rowdy and complaining, I started hearing snatches of music here and there. In every corner, people were breaking out drums, sticks, guitars, and making their own circles and singing their heads off. Candles came out of nowhere, some tourists blinded all their friends with their headlamps they had "just in case," and the party went right on. We got power back about twenty minutes later, lost it again after a few seconds, then got it back even later.

I left during the second day to go to Bogota, but even there there were celebrations. The national park was absolutely packed, and my taxi driver and I ended up stopping on the main street just to watch the fireworks go off above our heads. The festival wasn't confined to the big public areas either. As we drove by the smaller streets we saw people with maybe fifty candles sitting outside their homes, chatting, enjoying each others company.

The next day, just about everything had been shut down. I spent the day checking out the sights and getting a few errands done. My poor, ailing camera finally turned in its letter of resignation in the form of multiple repeated memory card corruption errors. So after talking with my family some, I picked up a new one.

If you've ever had a new camera, especially a new digital camera, you'll know the effect it has on your eyes and brain. Everything and its mother looks photogenic. Everything. And that's if you're just sitting at home. Now imagine that same effect, only you're in the gorgeous colonial capital city of a foreign country bordered by a mountain range you can take a cable car up to the top of for the view. I had to forcibly restrain myself from only looking at where I was going through the camera screen. I have some of the most random pictures of dogs, graffiti, trees, streets, gold museum exhibits, guinea pigs (which is another story in and of itself), you name it. And at they time, they all looked absolutely fantastic. We'll see what I think of them in about a month.

I made my way south to Cali, the mecca of Salsa dancing, and found another cultural experience I wasn't expecting. The towns two major football/soccer teams were playing each other and that if the one with home team advantage won, it would go onto to finals. So I hopped a bus and got a first floor ticket. Being a typical Yankee, I'd never been to a professional soccer match before, and I figured if there was anywhere to start, it would be in South America. I made sure I was wearing neutral colors, got a bite to eat, and grabbed my earplugs as an afterthought before catching a city bus to the stadium. I figured if things got just way too loud after a while, I could put them in.

That "after a while" turned out to be roughly two minutes and 30 seconds after entering the stadium. This was not the polite, quiet Seattle Mariners Baseball crowd I was used to. Maybe the companies of mounted and riot police stationed outside the entrances should've tipped me off. I was surrounded by a throbbing, screaming, singing, and jeering red mass supporting Cali America. The fans behind the goals not only never sat down, they never stopped jumping up and down for the entire match. I saw at least one person try to climb the barbed wire fence to yell at his favorite players. That atmosphere alone was well worth the price of my ticket.

One of the funnier things for a foreigner was the sounds of a non English speaking crowd. For example when something goes wrong for an English speaking crowd, you hear everybody go "Awww..." in unison, and maybe boo. Here, everybody made this "aaOOgh" sound that, for me at least, was a bit like the bark of a great dane. Also instead of booing, ape sounds and gorilla arms seem to be the norm for making fun of someone or showing disapproval. And the songs they sang... I would not have translated those in front of English speaking kids the age of some of the younger fans there. Wow.

Cali America won 1-0, qualifying for the finals, and the fans did not the let the city forget it for the entire night. All across town was a sea of honking, cheering, and singing red. Meant I saw a lot more drunk soccer fans than salsa dancers, but I still had a lot of fun.

That was all a few days ago. I'm in Ecuador now. Quito, to be specific. I had a breathtaking ride through the southern mountains (just look at that) and then an excruciatingly long border crossing. Imagine standing in a shortish line, say twenty yards or maybe less. Now imagine standing in that line for over four hours. That was Ecuadoran migration. But after that, sleeping on a parked bus to avoid bringing all my stuff through a dangerous neighborhood at midnight, and I'm here, enjoying parades, parks, and the scenery. Also I'm shopping for shoes. A short but overgrown and challenging hike ripped apart my hiking shoes, and after a repair job lasted only three days I ditched them in Cali, relying on my sandals instead. Turns out to have been a bit of a mistake. I wear size 13 mens shoes. I'm about half a foot taller than most latin american men, and it turns out nobody here sells shoes my size. I'm having a hard enough time just finding shoes two sizes too small. But any chill from walking around a high mountain town in Teva's is easily eclipsed by my shopping for...

...well, actually I'm not going to say what I was shopping for quite yet. I found it, at around 45% of its original price, but my head is still spinning just thinking about how much money I just spent. And that's after plunking down the cash for a new digital camera. But this...

Let's just say my next post should be a good one.

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