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Holiday season in the Global South as experienced by PWS
You don’t manage this much piracy without a few interesting holiday seasons. These are our favorites.
Experiencing the holidays a few thousand kilometers from home can be a beautiful tour de force in the unfamiliar. There’s always a slight sense of dislocation as the usual cheesy music and peculiar family traditions are substituted for completely unfamiliar customs. If, like us, you grew up in the northern hemisphere, you need to get used to hot summer Christmas. And it’s no fun playing Whammageddon: Latin Americans don’t listen to Last Christmas on repeat because they have taste (and Christmas salsa music).
But wherever we’ve been, we’ve had the good fortune to find hospitality, abundance and welcome at Christmas and New Year. So this week, we’re taking a break from the news to share some anecdotes.
Josh on Pablo’s Navidad Hippos: A White Christmas in Medellín
Apparently both Pablo Escobar’s hippos and Medellín cocaine stories are very popular in western media, so, despite my very public hatred for both, I’d like to wish a merry Christmas to Pablo’s hippos and never, ever, ever mention them again. As for the cocaine in Medellín, well, for all those indulging, in the spirit of diplomacy and holiday spirit I will just say there are ways to have fun that hurt Colombia a lot less.
Like eating Hallacas! I have been obsessed with Hallacas since I lived on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, and it has become something of a personal tradition for me to undergo a yearly quest to obtain this Venezuelan holy grail of Christmas culinary bliss through Whatsapp groups, people’s aunts’ cousins’ sisters and blanket social media announcements.
Living with Venezuelans helps, as my roommates are even more obsessed than I am with them, so it becomes something of a group effort. This year, my roommate Javier found the hallaca golden ticket— his sister’s ex-boyfriend has a friend whose grandmother just moved to Bogotá from Táchira, Venezuela.
Hallcas just like abuela used to make! I can’t imagine a better Christmas present. Amy and John told me I only get 150 words and I’m already over the limit. I blame Pablo’s hippos. But to find out more about hallacas, here’s a recipe. And here’s a photo! Happy holidays!
Like a broken blender: Amy on Christmas in Cochabamba, Bolivia
When my partner and I first moved to Bolivia, we rented a room with a family who half-adopted us and were kind enough to invite us to spend Christmas with them. Dinner was rice, barbecued banana, meat and salad, cooked on the outdoor grill in a garden heavy with the scent of lemon verbena. Not for nothing is Cochabamba known as the City of Eternal Spring.
I’d spent the day trying to make traditional British mince pies, but my attempts to create my own filling degenerated into a sort of alcoholic fruit soup squidged into a pastry, which the family was gracious enough to claim to enjoy.
After the food, dinner morphed into a fiesta. The cumbia was turned up, the karaoke came out, and so did the singani. Several cups in, I heard a noise, so loud that I thought someone had tried to turn a broken blender on full power right behind me. Startled, I turned around. It took me a while to register what I was seeing. The father was twirling a dead armadillo on a stick, about the size of a boot, with ball bearings in its eye sockets and blue and yellow pom poms tied festively around its ears, as if it was a Boca Juniors fan.
It was a matraca: a traditional rattle used in the folk dances and part of the opulent dresses usually put on display at carnaval. It works exactly like a football rattle, with a toothed wheel and a clicker, but traditionally, they were made of the hollowed-out body of an armadillo. Nowadays, it’s illegal to make these and carnaval dancers use wooden models, but occasionally you’ll still see the real deal.
Diego never came back: John on New Year in Ecuador
I arrived in Loja, Ecuador on New Year’s eve and met Diego, my CouchSurfing host for the night. As he showed me the room I would be staying in at his parents’ house, his phone rang.
“Hey, that was my boss,” he told me. “They’re having a party tonight and I’ve gotta drop something off at the office. You can rest here. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
He was not back in 30 minutes.
An hour after he left, his family returned. My room was next to the kitchen and I heard their conversations clearly. They cracked open some beers and were toasting to the new year.
After two hours, Diego was still out. My calls went straight to voicemail.
The party in the kitchen got louder. Some cousins came over with more beer.
A full three hours later, my bladder couldn’t wait any longer and I went into the kitchen.
Conversation stopped and everyone stared, mouths agape.
“Hola.” I tried to sound friendly.
“Who are you?!” asked Diego’s mother.
His father quickly followed.
“And how did you get in here?! How long have you been here?!”
“I’m a friend of Diego,” I told them.
Clear relief from the half-drunk, fully confused group.
“How do you know him?”
“We met online.”
They had no idea what I was talking about.
But they were understanding and shared their beers.
“Typical Diego,” they laughed.
They invited over a neighbor to take me on a tour of the city, giving me a spare key.
In the days leading up to New Year, the effigies had begun to appear. They looked like stuffed scarecrows and lounged on display in front of people’s houses. At midnight, they burned.
All around the city were small groups of people standing around a fire. The effigies were stuffed with sawdust and doused with gasoline. They represented real people, even wearing their clothes, but they weren’t born of malice. When they burned it represented a new beginning, a clean slate. Fire as a cleanser.
Not everyone got to be burned, though. The rest of us wrote down regrets from the past year on a piece of paper and threw them into the flames. A new year meant a fresh beginning.
I never saw Diego again–he was still out when I left in the morning.
“But I have my passport!”: Amy on New Year in Uruguay
Scarcely had we veered off Montevideo’s high street when we heard the first splat. A giggle, a child’s face ducking, a flash of orange plastic. And then again. A spray of water soaked into my trousers. I looked up.
On all the balconies of the barrio, children with buckets and water pistols were waiting like sentries, dousing each other, themselves, and anyone so bold as to pass below. I did a mental inventory: my passport is in my pocket, my camera and laptop in my backpack.
“Wait! I have my passport!” I shouted, but it was futile. Fortunately, my things survived.
We were on our way to spend New Year with a friend in the Uruguayan capital’s Old Town, cradled on all sides by the river.
“Oh, they do that,” our friend’s flatmate said airily as he let us in, looking at us with eyes that made me wish I’d brushed my hair before knocking.
Valuables safely in the flat, we headed to the Mercado del Puerto, known the rest of the year for tourist trap seafood joints. For blocks around, people were dancing in the streets under the austral summer sun as sound systems blared, the drums of a candombe band beating like ecstatic thunder.
Men in caps sold terrible lager from flatbed trucks. Boys climbed half way up lampposts to get a better view, swinging out above the crowd. Teens shook green plastic bottles of cider until they were fit to burst, spraying them all over their crushes. The air smelled of weed, sweat and joy.
Party guests later told us that the Old Town’s inhabitants, not wealthy at the best of times, couldn’t afford champagne, so they turned to cider as their New Year bubbly. But the green bottled stuff is so cheap and unpalatable that nowadays, it’s more fun as a weapon.
This year, Amy is marooned on Plague Island (Great Britain) hunting for treasure (a booster shot), John will learn some new end of year traditions in El Salvador and Josh is plotting a global revolution from Bogotá, Colombia.
We’re taking a two-week break, but we’ll be back in January with more original reporting on Latin America. If you’ve been enjoying this newsletter, feel free to take a paid subscription if you haven’t already, and if you have - thank you!
See you in 2022,
The PWS crew.