Category Archives: Celebrations-Holidays-Traditions

Fall Traditions: Aljezur’s Sweet Potato Festival and Giving Thanks

It came as a bit of a shock to us, back in 2012 and traveling in Mexico, that there were no outward signs that our favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, was taking place back in the US. Nope. We moved right from the Day-of-the-Dead to Christmas songs in the markets and grocery stores, simple and elaborate Nativity tableaus, and lighted decorations on the streets. That may have been our first clue that we were carrying some ethnocentric baggage with us as we moved from country to country. Over the years, we like to think that we’ve managed to shed some of the weight of those preconceptions as we’ve learned about other traditions and holidays. Interestingly, while mentioning Thanksgiving here in Portugal might get us a blank look, everyone knows exactly what the signs for Black Friday sales mean. It appears some cultural mores cross borders easily.

The weather changes so gradually that there isn’t much to mark the passage of summer to fall to winter in the Algarve. Portugal observes Daylight Saving Time so darkness comes earlier and mornings and evenings require a sweater or light jacket. And, instead of Thanksgiving heralding the holiday season, the Algarve Region has its own time-honored tradition: the annual Festival da Batata-Doce or Sweet Potato Festival. Taking place in nearby Aljezur (population 6,000) over the three-day weekend at the end of each November, the festival features the handicrafts and products of the Algarve and pays tribute to the sweet potato as part of its cultural and culinary history. In fact, the Aljezur Sweet Potato Producers Association goes out of its way to demonstrate that not all sweet potatoes are equal  by guaranteeing Aljezur’s tubers with a Protected Geographical Identification (PGI) stamp on each bag.

 

looking up at the Castle of Aljezur

 

The humble sweet potato is one of the earliest vegetables known to man with depictions of the root vegetable that date to prehistoric times discovered in Peruvian caves. They were among the various new foods that Christopher Columbus brought back to Spain during his voyage of 1492 and the Portuguese explorers are credited with carrying the sweet potato to Africa, India, Indonesia & southern Asia. During our time in the Algarve, I’ve developed quite a liking for the Aljezur sweet potatoes. However, it took a little persuading to convince Richard that we should go to the Sweet Potato Festival as he stubbornly maintains an aversion to the tuber being honored. In the end though, curiosity won out.

 

sweet potato beer and baked goodies

Canned tuna & sardines, cork products, spices and dried fruit

 

As expats, we love discovering festivals and learning about the cultural history of our adopted country. But, we also carry our Thanksgiving traditions in our hearts and each November we practice our own version of gratitude no matter where we are. This is the time of year we miss our son and grandson most and we’re thankful that they’re both happy and healthy. We take stock of our own health and, surprisingly take note of the fact that neither of us have had so much as a cold during the two years we’ve lived in Portugal. As Americans, we’re particularly grateful that we have health care when, for millions back in our country, this basic human right is either absent or under assault. We’re thankful that we have a comfortable home here in Lagos because many of the residents of our former home state of Texas and elsewhere, are still living in hurricane devastated communities, storm-damaged homes and makeshift shelters waiting for help from a government that’s reluctant to throw out more than a few rolls of paper towels. We’re thankful, too that we can safely walk the streets of our adopted country in daylight and after dark, and go into a theater, shopping center, concert hall and church without apprehension. And lastly, lest our love of our home country be questioned because we live as expats and speak freely of our deep concerns for the future of the US, we’re grateful to have come from a country with a rich tradition of welcoming all religions, ethnicities and races. We’re proud to have come from a country that’s provided sanctuary for those fleeing violence and oppressive regimes, offered a helping hand and safety net to our poorest, disabled and elderly and worked together with other nations for a better world for all. Our major contention with those who advocate for the ‘make America great again’ movement is – we happen to think, despite all its shortcomings, it’s always been great.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

tile mural of Aljezur and its Castle on the hill

 

Lent and Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala: Alfombras, Christ Floats and Processions

 

We say this often, but so much of travel is about serendipity, where timing and seasonal events can play a big part in the travel experience. Since we don’t usually pay much attention to religious holidays, we recently missed seeing one of Portugal’s best Carnival celebrations in a nearby town for the second year in a row. And Lent, the weeks that come after the just-for-family daytime parades and the not-so-family night-time, raucous revelry of Carnival, is a time that usually passes by us completely ignored. Followed by many western churches, these six weeks are a solemn religious observance of penitence and self-denial (pastimes that we avoid) beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating with Easter Sunday.  And no one in the world celebrates Lent and Holy Week (Semana Santa) quite like Antigua, Guatemala, where we arrived, quite by chance, during the Lenten period in March of 2013.

 

San Jeronimo Ruins, Antigua, Guatemala

We could sing out-of-tune odes to Antigua, a beautiful little city flanked by three volcanoes of approximately 46,000 people in the mountains of southern Guatemala.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Guatemala from nearby Mexico. The Dominican priests who followed brought along their Lenten and Easter traditions from Seville, Spain, including the Alfombras, the “Christ Floats” and the processions.  Some 500 years from their introduction to the Guatemalan faithful, Antiqua’s Holy Week celebrations have become the largest in the world, with a unique fervor and devotion. Each Sunday during Lent found us waking up to our alarm clocks and setting out to walk Antigua’s streets well before daybreak in search of that day’s Alfombras and procession.

 

 

 

 

Antigua is famous for its Alfombras (Spanish for carpets) and it was easy to see the route the day’s procession would take as the Alfombras mapped the way, laid out on the cobblestone streets in front of the family homes or businesses.  Made from dyed sawdust in a variety of sizes and shapes, stenciled patterns and free-form designs, most were decorated with an assortment of flowers including bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, chrysanthemums, carnations and roses.

 

Making Alfombras

Here and there we’d see fruits and vegetables in a carefully designed pattern as well as glossy, green, pine needles added as further embellishments.

 

 

Many families save all year to create their Alfombras using one-of-a-kind stencils and designs passed down from year to year, many through generations.  The creation of the Alfombras begins the day before the parade and combines hours of tedious work along with a family celebration.  Often, the carpets are completed only shortly before the procession arrives.

 

 

 

The parades are organized by different brotherhoods affiliated with neighborhood churches and each procession begins at that church. In colonial times, the “Christ Floats,” featuring figures of Jesus Christ arranged in biblical tableaus on a wooden platform called an andas, were quite small and were carried on the shoulders of twelve devotees.  Now, as the tradition has gradually evolved into lengthy pageantries of religious fervor, many of the andases are massive. The combined weight of both the elaborately carved wooden platform and religious statues can weigh several tons with the largest requiring up to 100 carriers. It’s an honor for penitents, who come from all over Latin America and pay for the privilege, to carry the andas. The carriers rotate their turns in and out often at the end of each block as the effort to carry the massive andas demands both endurance and strength as they journey through Antigua’s narrow streets for hours.

 

 

The streets are crowded with men wearing robes of Lenten purple (Cucuruchos) and black-clad women (Cargadoras) awaiting their turns to carry the load.  It’s wasn’t hard for us to imagine a beaten Jesus Christ staggering along the streets with his cross as we watched the faithful voluntarily carrying the andas.

 

 

We’d hear the mournful music from the bands playing traditional Guatemalan compositions well before the procession would appear, which gave us time to stake out a place on the sidewalk corner where we’d get a good view of the participants.

 

 

A purple-robed man would appear, amid a cloud of fragrant (and choking) incense, swinging a metal censer suspended from chains.  The carriers of the first float would step upon the alfombra to walk its length, followed by the rest of the solemn marchers in the procession. The bands with tubas, French horns, clarinets and drums, would follow and, at the end, the trampled Alfombras would emerge as mounds of sawdust and debris.

 

 

The street sweepers were the sad finale of each procession and half an hour after the procession passed, there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious Alfombras.

 

 

Holy week (Semana Santa) takes Antigua’s Lenten celebrations to a whole new level as people from all over the world crowd into the city.  (The estimate for 2016’s crowds during Semana Santa was 1.2 million people.)  Beginning on Palm Sunday, the Alfombras become even larger and more elaborate as their creators work through the night to complete them. The parades are each more spectacular than the last, with costumed Romans and Centurions astride horses. Hundreds of purple-robed men and black-clad women mingle with the crowds of spectators. A Passion Play on Friday culminates with a huge procession and the massive andas bearing Christ carrying his crucifix moves slowly about Antigua’s streets throughout the morning.  And then a lull for a few hours.

 

 

The bands begin to play slow and mournful dirges and the funeral processions appear carrying the body of Christ encased in glass upon a platform.  The Virgin Mary, splendidly attired but mournful, appears amid the Stations of the Cross and commemorations of all her moments of sorrow at the death of her son.  Everyone is clad in a somber black with the women wearing veils or mantillas.  The censers spew out choking clouds of sweet incense that hangs in the streets and the mood is as solemn as though the crucifixion had just occurred rather than happening over 2,000 years ago.

 

 

For us, Easter was almost a let-down with hastily assembled Alfombras, a small procession with the resurrected Christ and firecrackers that went off throughout the day. As non-believers and non-Catholics, we’d spent several weeks immersing ourselves in the Easter traditions of La Antigua and the artistry of her Alfombras, Christ Floats and centuries-old Lenten processions.  We fell in love with the city during the Lenten processions and stayed several months longer in Guatemala than we’d originally planned, exploring the country from coast to coast but Antigua’s Lenten and Semana Santa celebrations and traditions remain among our favorite memories of this country. Firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, cynical and lacking any vestiges of religious ideology ourselves, it was never-the-less tremendously moving to see faith and devotion so openly portrayed in La Antigua.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash 

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: A Sausage Festival In Querenca

Querenca, with a population of less than 800 residents, is not a place that you’d stumble upon – you have to look for it.  Located in the central interior of Portugal’s Algarve region it’s at the end of a steep and winding road that makes you suspect you’re going nowhere but still feel curious to find out where nowhere might be located.  The drive itself is worth a trip to Querenca to see clichéd but oh-so-lush, green pastures with grazing sheep and pink flowering almond trees. One of the high points of our drive to the middle of nowhere was when we came upon a house between a hill and a creek which sat adjacent to the highway.  The home obviously pre-dated the two-lane, macadam roadway and the Portuguese manner of handling this engineering conundrum spoke to their national ethos. Rather than defacing the existing structure in any manner, there was a sign placed by the side of the road indicating that the thoroughfare was one lane for the next 40 meters or so to allow the driver to maneuver around the house.  And then the road reverted to a two-way.  A simple solution that causes no great inconvenience to those who drive along this road less traveled. village plaza

So what were we doing parking our car mid-morning on a dusty square under the watchful eyes of two frowning women who apparently wanted us to move our car a couple of centimeters closer to an invisible line?  We smiled and accommodated their request – everyone was happy.  And then we followed a small group of people up a hill that opened into a large plaza lined with a few restaurants and other businesses and dominated by a beautiful church dating back to the 16th century for …Smoke

The Festa das Chouricas.  From the moment we’d heard about The Festival of Sausages in Querenca we knew this event had our names all over it.  Besides the prospect of stuffing our faces with the local chourica (a smoked sausage made of pork shoulder and spiced with paprika, lots of garlic, black pepper and salt and blessed with an offering of red Portuguese wine) we planned to sample some of the many tasty foods and libations for sale: olives, breads, nuts, various pastries, glittering bottles of liqueurs and wines.A chef

An annual tradition, the festival is held in honor of São Luís, the patron saint who protects the health and welfare of animals. In times past, the families of inland Algarve raised a pig to sustain themselves through the year and asked São Luís to safeguard it.  To thank the Saint, they offered their best homemade sausages and today the festival also raises money for local charities.  The festival draws an estimated crowd of at least a thousand visitors from many places around the region and the fund-raising looks to be a huge success.

Olives and beans

 

Burning stuff

 

the happy bakerWe walked around inhaling the perfume of chicken and sausage dripping fat upon the grill, admiring the local crafts on exhibit, drooling over the pastries and buying almonds and olives and handwoven baskets. The scent of grilled sausage became irresistible. Everywhere smoke hung in the air.  We stood in line and paid 7.50€ for a monster sausage on a crusty (made you feel glad to have your own teeth!) freshly baked roll that fed two.  sausage sandwich

We stood in line to sample the quiche and share a huge piece of sweet fried bread dusted with sugar among us and our friends.  We chatted with other guests and vendors while the wind swirled billowing clouds of aromatic charcoal smoke from the grills around us.  And we people watched: vendors smiling and bargaining with guests, people enjoying the food and sunny afternoon, children laughing, a fashionista in bright red, 4-inch heels teetering carefully on the old cobblestoned walks.  A lazy, golden-haired dog lay on the pathway with eyes closed and tail thumping while the crowd carefully walked around him. We reckoned the smoke infused lungs and clothes were indeed worth it as we both agreed that the Querenca sausage and the local gastronomy were scrumptious.sausages

 

Olives, figs and almonds

 

smiling vendorIn the mid-afternoon people began to cluster in small groups in front of the picturesque church and before long a man carrying a banner emerged followed by the gold crowned statue of São Luís smiling benignly, carried upon a flower bedecked platform by men in short robes.  A small group of the faithful trailed behind the hoisted saint while we visitors clicked cameras and watched as they paraded at a slow, measured pace around the church.  The procession ended up back at the church doorway and then São Luís was tucked inside the church for another year.the procession

 

AndusThe afternoon was fading and even though musical performances, singing and dancing and fireworks were promised we decided not to brave the winding roads after dark and to make our way home.  We left the smoke and the quaint hamlet of Querenca behind.  But, in the back of our minds lingered the thought that Querenca’s Sausage Festival is only the first of many sausage festivals throughout the year in Portugal.  There were more good times and good eating ahead!

Comida

By Richard and Anita

 

 

 

 

So This Is Christmas

When we left the US in early November the hype for the Christmas season was already in full swing, the stores decorated and temptations arrayed with SALE! SALE! SALE!  The ads on the TV bombarded us with visions of an idealized Christmas with attractive, middle-class families smiling and having the best of times, SPENDING! SPENDING! SPENDING!  It was the perfect time to flee…

Thankfully no one we know!

Thankfully, no one we know.

This is our fourth consecutive Christmas outside the US and except for missing our family (Yay Skype) we’ve enjoyed some holiday time with new friends we’ve made along the way in each of our temporary homes.  We’ve appreciated our role on the sidelines watching long-established celebrations with the emphasis on family and community traditions rather than the commercialism, excess and high expectations that we were a part of for so many years.

Mexico, 2012

Mexico, 2012

Nicaragua, 2013

Nicaragua, 2013

Colombia, 2014

Colombia, 2014

As we’ve walked and driven around and about Lagos we’ve discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that the city’s decorations are very low-key with few outside ornaments and lights although many of the store windows around the central plaza have a Christmas themed display.

A lurking Santa and an unlit Christmas light display

A lurking Santa and an unlit Christmas light display

Santa's sleigh

Santa’s sleigh

In fact, until you duck into the larger stores or souvenir shops you might not even know that Christmas is just around the corner.  But if you look up you might catch a glimpse of Santa clambering about the rooftops.A tiny Santa checking out the chimneys

And what will we do for the holiday? Since we’re still in the settling-in phase in our newly adopted city our answer is a very contented, “Not much.”  We have our poinsettia plant which has been shedding leaves steadily as our lone concession to decorating for the season and we’re already wearing our Christmas presents that we bought a few days ago at a Christmas market: shearling slippers. shearling slippers for Christmas

Christmas Eve we’ll celebrate in one of our favorite little restaurants with a British style meal of turkey and the trimmings and just enough Christmas carols to get into the Christmas spirit.  And, if we can keep awake long enough, maybe we’ll drive around the city to see how others make merry.  As for Christmas Day?  There are miles of nearly deserted beautiful beaches nearby…  Does it get any better than that?

Christmas elves

Christmas Elves

Feliz Natal y Feliz Ano Nova to you and yours,

Anita and Richard

 

Three Road Trips: Three Vignettes in the DR

Okay.  So this first little snapshot isn’t quite the epic road trip we had in mind but it did involve us piling into the little white Kia rental we shared with our friends early on a Saturday afternoon and driving across the touristic sprawl of Punta Cana.  We’d heard there was a parade near the airport named the Carnival Punta Cana. The timing of the event struck us as a bit curious since it was well past Mardi Gras and into the Lenten period when simple living and abstinence are usually observed.  But as guests of the Dominican Republic, who were we to challenge their collective wisdom or rationale? After driving to the event and casting covetous eyes about for a parking spot (no, not on the sidewalk like a few of the bozos we saw!) we drove on and on and, finally, found one on the shoulder of the road not too, too far from the event.

Our feelings exactly!

Our feelings exactly!

Arriving at the parade route we quickly came to the conclusion that this event was another commercial extravaganza gratis of the dreaded All Inclusive Resorts. All the shaded seating areas seemed to be the exclusive domains of the aforementioned rascals and, yep, colored wrist bands were indeed the price of admission for the day.  By then we’d walked quite a ways, so back we plodded past the merry tents serving frothy libations behind barricades that prohibited us from simply crossing the street, to the parade entrance.  We crossed over to the free side of the street which of course was in full sun, found an open spot along the barricades with the potential for some afternoon shade and hunkered down to protect our viewing rights and enjoy the parade.

The festivities themselves were a strange amalgam of young women, many children and several depictions of disproportionally buxom females.  Interspersed were stylized demons in colorful, elaborate costumes designed to strike fear into the hearts of the young or whimsy into the heads of the inebriated; both of which were in abundance that afternoon. We admired the extravagant costumes parading by and noticed that many of the participants in the parade were representatives of the Caribbean Island Nations.  All was well until the Haitian contingent paced by us with an intriguing voodoo float and suddenly there were boos, rude catcalls and objects flying.  Peace was quickly restored and later we learned that, for many reasons good and bad, there is no love lost between the side-by-side neighbors, Haitian and Dominican, who share the island of Hispaniola.Carnival in Punta Cana

A few days later we took a rather nerve rattling drive through the provincial capital of Higüey several miles into the interior to visit the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, which could more simply be said as the “Church of Altagracia.”  Driving in Dominican city traffic is not for the faint of heart, which amply supplies the reason that neither of us was piloting our rental car. That onerous duty we left to our friend Bryce, an aspiring, derring-do, wanna-be Dominican driver. Our quest for the day was buried in the heart of the city and our relieved group exited the vehicle in the near empty parking lot. One of the most famous cathedrals in the country, this modern Basilica was begun in 1954 and competed in 1970.Basilica de la Altagracia

Designed by two French architects, it is a mixture of the sublime and the mundane: towering arches, massive stained glass windows and a jewel-encrusted framed painting of the Madonna of Altagracia as well as the designation as a Basilica in 1970 by Pope Paul VI anchor its upside. But the church structure itself is not regal, it is more compact and angular than the traditional churches and the unadorned, gray cement walls are the dominant theme within the sanctuary.La Basilica de la Altagracia

However, the quiet of the interior, with light streaming through the multitude of stained glass windows and the glow radiating back from the highly polished mahogany  pews, pulpit and the Madonna’s repository with suspended, foot-long, carved leaves encircling it, suffused the air with a tranquility, broken only by our superfluous guide’s uninspired soliloquy.

Ready for more adventure, but heartily relieved that we were still passengers in our rental, we set off again several days later and found ourselves on the eastern side of the Parque Nacional del Este, alongside the Caribbean Sea near Boca de Yuma, a stretch of rugged coast and coral reef that has been lifted by geologic forces from the ocean floor to become an island land form. The iron shore is stunningly beautiful with its ragged imperfections, numerous waterspouts and the quaint village of Boca del Yuma.  Boca de Yuma

Friends had recommended a restaurant, El Arpunero (The Harpoon) which sits regally atop the cliffs, open-aired so that the sea breezes flow in; a palm-leafed, thatched roof shades the whole dining area.  Immediately adjacent to the restaurant is a swimming hole, totally contained within a punch bowl of the old sea bed. It has a sandy beach but also outcroppings of coral rock; the water level fluctuates with the tidal action fed through a hole in the rocks which form the outer rim of the bowl. Boca de Yuma

Following one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve been in the DR (langustinos or jumbo prawns and tempura battered shell-fish) and after a little dreamy fantasizing about owning a home in the area, we took a quick hike around the nearby cave, Cueva de Berna, a large cavern with openings blocked off behind warning signs and, unfortunately, graffiti marring many areas.  We returned back to the restaurant, cooled off in its filtered saltwater pool, did a bit of basking in the sun while enjoyed a cold libation as well as a few quick hands of Gin Rummy.

Road trips, short and long are entertaining past-times to get briefly acquainted with several of the various locales in any given area. Nothing is in-depth, but all of it is a slice of the life of the country. When added up, these dribs and drabs can fill in puzzle pieces forming a more complete portrait of a complex nation.  Speaking of which, there’s another road trip that we could fill you in on …in the campo  - trip to Cabarete

By Richard and Anita

 

 

 

 

 

Shake Your Booty & Cover Your Ears: Carnival Parades in Curacao

Children's Carnival ParadeA couple of things are certainties at Curacao’s Carnival parades. First, you will wait way longer for them to commence with the activities than you had anticipated and second, when they do get around to the parade to-do the initial order of business is to dispense earplugs along the length of the route.

Banda Bou Parade

So it went at the Children’s Carnival Parade one Sunday afternoon. It was an event requiring patience waiting in the scorching sun while being pressed up against a metal retaining rail as Banda Bou Paradelatecomers crowded in. We rationed our water from newly purchased and sweating bottles (because, after all, neither of us wanted to lose our places while searching for a porta-potty.) After a truncated eternity the street began to clear and there appeared, in dazzling canary yellow uniforms with the requisite short skirts, the Insel Air girls with their smiles and ear plugs for the masses. Children's Carnival Parade  All the schools, youth organizations and numerous companies, it seemed, had a presence at the children’s parade. And the theme of the parade was geared to the age; cartoon characters from past and present, including many that we recognized and remembered well. Passing before us were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Flintstones, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other, new characters that were completely unknown.

Banda Bou Parade

Children's Carnival ParadeWe discovered quickly enough the reason for the ear plugs. Even before the first child was in sight we noted that spaced generously throughout the parade were Banda Bou Parade large mobile sound systems. Multi-tiered, ginormous woofers, tweeters, mid-ranges and bass blasted out live performances of Tumba, Curacao’s unique music, and Calypso or D.J. inspired audio mayhem of rhythm based “shake that thang baby” music.  But whether live or Memorex the volume was deafening. Shouting to each other was impossible. We could feel the vibration deep in our ribs and sternum from the bass rattling your bones, maximum decibel, blaring volume.

Banda Bou Parade Banda Bou ParadeCuracao has its own unique twist on the pre-Lenten celebrations that originated with the plantation owners and wealthy merchants who threw extravagant and stately balls complete with masks and wigs reflecting the heritage of their homelands. The slaves mimicked the upper crust behavior in their own homes with their songs, folklore and customs. After the abolition of slavery, with Banda Bou Paradethe enhanced freedom of expression and the rise of a freer, urban working class, the celebrations grew more elaborate and moved from the homes to the streets. Here developed the tradition of today’s Carnival with beauty pageants, Tumba dance competitions, street parties (the jump-ups), private in-door affairs (the jump-ins) and parades that encompassed all the island.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou parade routeHaving enjoyed ourselves with the children’s parade we ventured to the Banda Bou Parade in the town of Barber the following Saturday.  We were instructed to get there a couple of hours early as it was heavily attended since the Carnival frenzy continued to build as the countdown to sobriety and atonement, Ash Wednesday, was nearing. We arrived at our destination and drove the parade route from the end point towards Banda Bou parade routethe beginning and were politely, but emphatically, advised with head shakes that various parking spots we eyeballed were reserved as evidenced by a chalk mark, a cinder block or a folding chair. Near the front of the route we found a spot on the side of the road.  It was 1:00 PM; the parade, we’d been informed, started around 3:00 PM.  And so we sat and watched traffic ebb and flow, watched the Harley scooter contingent rumble through for a few passes, watched the vendors come and go, watched families with excited children, watched the sun cross a cloudless sky, watched the plates of food and Amstel beer and the locally distilled rum concoctions disappear.Banda Bou Parade

Sometime near 4:30, the police finally halted traffic and we waited with sorely tested anticipation. And then, the vivid canary yellow uniforms of the Insel Air beauties were among us again distributing foam hearing protectors with dazzling white-toothed smiles.  Shortly afterwards the parade was underway this time with children, teens and adults.  The bands and Tumba dancers, all elaborately costumed, strutted, shimmied and shook as they passed. Behemoth sound trucks, enough to justify the ear plugs, floats and cars with dignitaries and well-wishers rolled past us. And when it was done, we were among the first to lead the trek back down the island in the direction of Willemstad, deafened and carrying on a conversation at much louder levels than usual, happy that we had endured the wait and experienced another Carnival parade.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou ParadeThe next day, Sunday was the finale,  the Grandi Marcha Parade, a wild, riotous event for the adults celebrating what we were told was the island’s version of the New Orlean’s Mardi Gras festival that would eclipse all the previous parades.  Beginning in the late afternoon and extending well into the night it’s the city’s big blow out with the dancing, drinking and raucous partying so excessive that the day after is a national holiday, a day of recovery if you will.

Call us weenies with no sense of adventure but … we skipped it!Banda Bou Parade

By Richard and Anita

The Heartland of Panama and The Gringa of Guararé

Azuero Peninsula near CambutalThe Azuero Peninsula hangs off of the Panamanian underbelly like a squat appendage, jutting southwards into the Pacific.  It’s been called “the heartland of Panama” and “the home of folklore and traditions” but at its heart it is the distillation of the old Castilian culture; the celebration of the vaquero – the cowboy and the landed gentry. Fittingly it is a land of voluptuous, softly rolling hills and breathtaking vistas, verdant green pastures, farmland and working cattle ranches.Azuero Peninsula

For the modern world, it encompasses golden and white sand beaches, world-famous surf destinations, spectacular sport fishing, whale-watching, snorkeling, diving and sea turtle nesting areas.  The eastern portion of the Peninsula, the most populous region, includes the city of Chitré, the smaller city of Las Tablas and the sleepy, seaside fishing village where we found ourselves, El Puerto de Guararé, (pronounced Gwa-RA- ray).

Guarare boats

Although our perception of Guararé was of a town that had stepped back in time our hostess Bonnie Birker, owner of the friendly, seaside guesthouse Casa del Puerto, said it had progressed since her first arrival in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer.  At that time La Enea de Guararé was fairly isolated with only one car in the entire area and roads of deep mud during rainy season. There was electricity but no phone service.  Water was provided by a village pump and the homes had outside latrines.

Guararé was featured by Lonely Planet in 2000 and Bonnie, who prefers to be called a gringa from Guararé rather than an expat, realized that the town that had given her so many friends and memories had modernized and even had phone service. She returned to Guararé for good in 2006 after her retirement from a career as an international consultant in countries that included Honduras, Jamaica, South Korea, the Philippines and Nepal.  She bought a large but unpretentious house with deep covered porches that overlook the wide expanse of the Pacific spread out in all its awesomeness.Bonnies house

view from Bonnies houseThe food in Guararé is well worth mentioning. It’s located on the coast and small fleets of boats set out twice daily in the early morning and near sunset and their catch graces the tables of many local restaurants. Most often we feasted on freshly caught corvina, or sea bass.  Served with heads on – and sometimes staring eyes, too – they were easy to debone with a sumptuous, flaky, white meat. They came accompanied by the regional specialty of patacones – which we had previously called tostones in Nicaragua – or crisply fried green plantain patties. We also stuffed ourselves with fresh fish or shrimp ceviche. Late one afternoon we dined on fresh caught tuna on the southern coast of the peninsula. The bounty of the sea was never more lavishly available than in the Auzero.

During our visit Bonnie did her utmost to show us some the reasons why she had returned to the village of Guararé and the Azuero Peninsula.  We visited Las Tablas for the National Festival of the Pollera held there each July.  The Pollera, a descendant of the Castilian culture, is the females’ yang to the vaqueros’ yin. It is the quintessential national dress composed of a blouse and long, full skirt featuring the painstaking work of the Panamanian women with original and complicated, decorative embroidery and, many times, additional applique, crochet and lacework.The Queen of the Pollera

Beauties at the PolleraThe festival included the presentation and judging of the Pollera in several categories, rodeo and equestrian events, craft and food vendors and a concluding parade. The latter displayed several dances with the men and women moving in a formal and stylized, intricate synchronicity while others featured the women – with many young girls imitating them – swirling and twirling holding the hems of their dresses up to display the gorgeous embroidery designs and a demure peek at the white-on-white lace and cutwork underskirts.showing the underskirt

Many of the dresses involved hundreds of hours of skilled and careful needlework and the most elaborate were expensive by almost any standard.  And, as if the Pollera needed any additional decoration, several long necklaces of gold were draped around graceful necks, sparkling beaded hair adornments sat atop glossy, black hair and eye-catching earrings dangled from lobes.

Towards the end of our time in the Azuero we spent a day traveling through the center of the peninsula to the southern coast, again with Bonnie. We drifted through established towns such as Tonosi in the rolling hill country, still much immersed in the cattle culture. Places such as these are the anchor of the peninsula, they are the heartland clinging to the more traditional. At the terminus of the journey we stopped at the beach town of Cambutal, with its rapidly expanding infrastructure reflecting the up-coming changes. Here, and elsewhere, are modern signature homes, boutique hotels, tony yoga retreats, funky eateries and up-scale restaurants all vying for the dollars possessed by the surfers, sun worshipers, eco-tourists, gringo retirees and wealthy Panamanians.the beach at Cambutal

The Azuero Peninsula neatly encapsulates the tensions that exist as an established way of living cedes ground to the new. Surely benefits accrue in the wake of modernity but at a cultural cost. Bonnie, and her many amigos, represent those on the cusp, those who are witness to and participants in the changing of the guard.  And in the Azuero, we were the fortunate ones who wandered through able to observe and appreciate the heritage and enjoy the perks offered by the latest and greatest.Featured Image

By Anita and Richard

Panama Pictures And Panoramas

Panama is the southernmost country of Central America and is comprised of a variety of stunning landscapes and seascapes, white and golden sand beaches, rolling hills with farm and ranch lands, mountains and, of course, cities and people.  During our travels in July we took hundreds of photos and we wanted to share some of our favorites this week.

We’ve spent the month of August crisscrossing the US visiting family and friends on a long overdue trip back “home”.  Our travels started at the beginning of the month flying in from Panama to New Jersey for a few days and followed by a ride to Washington D.C. via Amtrak.  Later we flew to Spokane, WA. for a mini-family reunion. Another flight a few days afterwards took us to Denver, CO where we’re currently visiting more family including our son and grandson.  Our last stop in the US will take us to Corpus Christi, TX before we head to South America in September.  There we may just have to take some time off to recoup from a hectic month and catch our breaths!

Next week:  More stories from Panama

By Anita and Richard

The Easter Pilgrims Of Popoyuapa

Pilgrims from PopyuapaSo much of travel is about serendipity; the unanticipated, the unknown and the totally unexpected.  And so, imagine our smiling astonishment as we rounded a curve on the Pan American Highway south of Granada, Nicaragua, last week and found motorized traffic halted and waiting for a long line of at least one hundred and fifty carts being pulled by oxen and horses. Caravan  Families with young children and the elderly passed by, either walking alongside the carts or riding inside.  Many of the carts were in the process of pulling off the road to rest and water their animals.  And, of course not able to resist an opportunity for a closer look, we hopped out of car and started walking down the road to find out what we could.Family passing by

The two-wheeled carts were built with a wooden base, many with aged and gray boards but others were gaily painted.  They had arched frameworks that were mostly covered in sugarcane stalks and leaves to shade the occupants within from the hot sun shining overhead.  Hanging from the roofs and along the carts’ sides were buckets filled with food, straw baskets, coolers, hammocks and cheap, plastic chairs and bunches of bananas or plantains. Chicken on the roof!

Perched upon the top of several of the carts we spied hens and roosters clinging to roof coverings for (perhaps?) their last ride.  Many carts displayed yellow flags which signify the Catholic Church and the blue and white national flag of Nicaragua.  Some were draped with a large purple cloth representing the upcoming Holy Week and stamped across with the name of the city from which they ventured.Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

Nicaragua is a Catholic country and the culture is rich in religious beliefs and folkloric traditions that may vary from region to region; many are prominently on display during Lent and Semana Santa or Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday.  We found out later that the caravan that we had seen formed the return trip of devout pilgrims visiting Popoyuapa, a small village of 4,000 near San Jorge, Rivas and Lake Nicaragua where a four-day festival occurs each year before Santa Semana.  The Sanctuary of Popoyuapa is the home for the Shrine of Jesus the Redeemer, a life-size Christ figure wearing a traditional crown of thorns.  The image is also known as Jesus the Rescued, possibly named so after the floating statue was retrieved from Lake Nicaragua or, according to another story, after being pieced back together following an earthquake in 1844.Pilgrims from Popoyuapa

In addition to those making the symbolic pilgrimage by oxcart, thousands more of the faithful visit the shrine during Semana Santa to show their devotion and express their thankfulness for what they’ve received, for favors divinely granted or to ask for miraculous intervention in their needs.

colorful cartsThe pilgrimage by oxcart to Popoyuapa  is a tradition passed down through the generations and has occurred for at least a century with the faithful traveling from as far away as Masaya and Granada in a journey that may take as long as four days and cover up to 150 miles round trip.  Except for a chance encounter on the Pan-American Highway we might never have seen this astounding caravan of oxcarts plodding down the road nor learned of this religious pilgrimage of the deeply faithful. Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

 

 

Competing For Candy

DancersWe were not certain what to expect as we walked into the auditorium of Casa de Tres Mundo in the heart of Granada on a Friday morning. We knew that we were attending a scholarship contest for Priscila, the 10 year-old daughter of Yanni, whose family has graciously lent a portion of their home to the school where we had volunteered for the last three months. In fact, we had supervised our older class the previous day in making posters to raise and wave supporting Priscila’s effort in competing for the prize. And we knew that some of the volunteers had been working closely with Priscila the last couple of weeks on the academic portion of the match, rehearsing answers to the questions that might be asked. We also understood that of the eight participants, only one would advance to the final competition in the capital city, Managua.

Contestant # 1Now we were prepared to operate on SOTB (South of the Border) time; we’ve pretty much acclimated to that aspect of life in Latin America. So we knew that we might have a bit of a wait when we arrived on time at 9:00 AM.  But we had our friends and volunteers from the school there, Priscila’s immediate family, the directors of the NGO and a small contingent of students from the Pantanal school.  The minutes ticked by slowly and, when the event finally began, it was not fashionably late, it wasn’t SOTB late, it was an hour and forty minutes late. Even the locals were beginning to despair.

CompetitionWe used some of the long wait profitably, however, and learned a bit about our hosts, MILAVF and La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundos. The former, known also as Movimiento Infantil or the Children’s Movement, is a nationwide organization that, for 34 years, has worked to enact and enforce child protection laws. They work in communities with at-risk children and adolescents, organizing them into dance troupes, sports clubs, performing and visual arts classes and ecological projects. La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundo, which began in 1987, was founded by an Austrian artist and author and a Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician.  It has steadily expanded to include classes in the arts, dance and theater for the children of Granada, an art gallery with rotating exhibits for the public, a free, communal radio station and an arts program to encourage youngsters in the poorer barrios of the city and beyond.All the contestants

When the competition finally began it was with each of the girls coming down the makeshift runway in sports attire:  a tennis outfit with a racket, a cheerleader with pom-poms, a soccer player with ball and so forth. It was a bit un-nerving to see these young girls striking semi-seductive poses during their introductions and sauntering flirtatiously. Following this was a segment with the girls in their colorful, traditional dresses of Nicaragua, which included a short introduction to the judges and a brief Q and A for the academic portion. Interspersed with the program presentations by the eight young contestants were dance numbers by various ensembles; these were highly entertaining.The dance troupe

Finally, the results of the judges were announced. Our contestant, Priscila, came in third. Of course this was not what we had hoped for, but as she was competing with girls from the more affluent, private schools in Granada we were pleased with her showing. As third-place winner she received three gaily decorated bags with packages of sugared confections. The winner of the competition won a chance at a scholarship and was crowned with a tiara and draped with a sash in true Miss America style.  She also received a beautifully decorated cake and three flowered bags filled with sugared confections. As Jim, our school’s director drily observed, “Hey, they’re kids. They like candy.”

Priscila with the loot

Priscila with the loot

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

A Fiesta in Barrio Pantanal

Barrio Pantanal The New York Times reported that in Latin America the rate of population growth has dropped dramatically recently; Nicaragua is no exception. During the last two generations urbanization, increased access to health care and women’s empowerment has translated into smaller families. Barrio PantanalBut it was hard to reconcile that account with the reality of barrio Pantanal, a neighborhood south of Granada’s mercado district. It is not a place that taxis like to go because many of the streets are not paved but rather are dirt roads or foot paths. Jim, our host, explained that of the roughly 11,000 people in Pantanal, 7,000 are children 15 years and under. In this neighborhood, many of the residents are squatters. They live on vacant land which they use until they are evicted and required to move to the next make-shift shelter.Barrio Pantanal

Feeling a little at loose ends for Christmas day we made inquiries regarding volunteer opportunities and leaped at the chance to spend the afternoon in barrio Pantanal helping Education Plus Nicaragua with a fiesta and celebration for the children it serves and including the folks in the neighborhood.  We arrived at the festival location, a modest home with neatly swept concrete and dirt floors and two newly built latrines out back.  waiting for airThe family who lives in the home has generously allowed the NGO (non-governmental organization) to use it on weekdays until a permanent home for the school is found.  Education Plus provides a much-needed nutrition program to combat the malnutrition and hunger that many of the children experience by offering a free lunch and dinner to its students.  The non-profit organization believes that children who speak English have the best chance to escape a life of limited options and poverty so high priority is placed upon teaching English as well as after-school tutoring and help with homework.  The volunteers also work on teaching and improving socialization skills such as sharing, taking turns and playing cooperatively in organized recreation programs.Two Princesses

The yard and roadway in front of the home were filled with excited children.  A handful of adult volunteers of many nationalities were sprinkled throughout the crowd.  Antonio & MelissaThe children, many in their best party clothes, were eyeing two huge inflatable bounce houses, a table filled with soft drinks, popcorn and cotton candy machines and piñatas. The dozen or so volunteers, some already working with the program, were there to enjoy a Christmas fiesta along with the children of the neighborhood.

The five hours passed quickly for it was mostly chatting briefly with individual children, helping to keep games moving along, making sure every child had their turn at the various activities and doing whatever looked like needed to be done.  The children were having a great time; there was laughter and smiles galore. Sipping sodasMuch food was consumed. There was none of the usual fighting and bickering associated with almost three-hundred kids in close proximity to one another.  Looking to the east you could see where the pavement ended and the dirt track began. You knew that the poverty and hunger were waiting, as they always are. But for that Christmas celebration, for that sun dappled afternoon, it was fiesta time.Howdy hi!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

La Bomba: A Not So Silent Night

Fireworks-A rocket is launchedGranada took on a new personality for Christmas Eve.  Rather than a handful of people sitting on their stoops to chit-chat while taking in the sights and sounds of the city’s night life, the doors and windows of the colonial homes on block after block were open displaying their Christmas decorations and lights for all to see. People congregated in groups, large and small, in front of the homes. Generations of families and friends greeted the strollers with “Feliz Navidad”.  Kids vied for space in the streets with the adults to shoot off fireworks or launch the numerous types “bombas”,  the explosives and sky rockets.Lighting a bomba The truly awe-inspiring missiles were those which were constructed locally using dynamite with prima-cord fuses. These brutes were wrapped in brown paper twists, placed into an upright, steel pipe-stand on the street and then lit with a long taper. The wee children, of course, were relegated to the curbs and steps to play with sparklers and ladyfingers.

Girls & SparklersAs we were walking by the home of the Arana family we stopped to admire the multitude of lights and glimpsed a beautifully decorated tree in the back of the living room.Decorated for Christmas The matriarch, Fatima, invited us to come inside to better appreciate their efforts. The home, built in the Spanish colonial style around an interior courtyard, was a lavish display of twinkling lights and ribbon wrapped columns.  We were given a tour of the home by one of the daughters and admired each room festively decorated for the season. Later that evening, when  we passed by the home again as we were walking to our house, we greeted the patriarch of the family, Emilio, sitting at the entry way overseeing  his grandchildren setting off their firecrackers in the street.

Casa de FamiliasThe fireworks had been building towards a crescendo all day. In the early part of the day the reports were sporadic and tentative. By mid-afternoon they were reliably steady and increased hourly as the night progressed. It was not a coordinated effort; it was thousands of households independently and simultaneously asserting their right to celebrate in the loudest, most frenetic manner possible. At midnight, the culmination of the evening, the cacophony was majestic. From every side, on all the streets and walkways in the barrio, from over the garden walls fireworks exploded with abandon; the skyline a strobe, pulsating, white glow.  The occasional colored skyrocket only accentuated the bright flash of gunpowder with its resounding report. The angels would know that Granada was joyously paying homage to the Christ child.

We awakened on Christmas morning to a neighborhood disturbed only intermittently by the occasional sound of fireworks. When we left our home at mid-morning Christmas day, the city was quiet for Christmas is a day to be with the family. The only evidence of the assault on the senses that had transpired only hours before were the neat piles of paper residue left behind by the street sweepers to be hauled away later that morning. The city, its energy spent, had returned to normalcy.girl with a sparkler

By Richard and Anita, December, 2013

 

Out of Touch: Blissfully Unaware of the Christmas Ballyhoo

Nativity scene on Big CornThis is our second Christmas on the road and, as we return to Granada for the third time in as many months from our sojourn in the Corn Islands, we realize how out of touch with the holiday season we are. This is the week before Christmas and we’ve been happily removed from the Christmas hoopla. 

Minimalist decorThe weather’s hot, there are no television advertisements (indeed, no TV where we’ve been staying), no canned and cheesy Christmas carols blaring from store speakers urging us to Buy! Buy! Buy!  Ads that assail (and, I have to admit) entice us everywhere we turn.  Aside from the flood of email ads hawking holiday wares and specials which we delete each day we can choose to ignore the frantic commercial frenzy and preparations for the big day almost totally.

A Miskita church

A Miskita church

Which, and we apologize beforehand to all you Christmas season lovers, is exactly what we want.  No pushing and shoving crowds, no traffic snarls, no obligatory Christmas parties where overly exuberant drinking leads to unintended consequences.

A tipsy SantaInstead, we’ll spend a quiet Christmas with a friend we met in Merida, Mexico last year and new friends we’ve met in Granada.    We’ll call family to catch up on the news and activities of the day and, except for online gift cards, congratulate ourselves on our wise spending while trying hard not to miss those we love most dearly.

Seasons Greetings to all of you who read our blog.  If you are a Christmas lover enjoy the holiday.  If you’re not, get through it!  And to all of you, our wishes for a safe and sane New Year.A different Christmas tree

By Anita and Richard, December 2013

 

Honduran Independence Day on Utila

A rainy beginning to Independence Day celebrations

A rainy beginning to Independence Day ceremonies

Everyone has a part in the celebration

Everyone has a part in the festivities

Exuberance – that’s the word that came to mind watching the young people as they practiced in the school yards and lanes, as they waited for their chance to strut their stuff before the packed bleachers at the soccer stadium, as they played before the crowd of applauding parents, relatives and friends. Independence Day on Utila was indeed an occasion for celebration.

Independence Day in Honduras - Marching bands with drums and glockenspiels

Independence Day in Honduras – Marching bands with drums and glockenspiels

The school bands, and each school possesses its own band, practiced  in earnest for several weeks before Flag Day on September 6 and Independence Day on September 15. The bands began practice before the school day, sometimes well before 7:00 AM and continued with unflagging energy after school and well into the evening, often until 10:00 PM.

Waiting their turn to perform

Waiting their turn to perform

These marching bands, consisting exclusively of percussion instruments – snare drums, base drums, glockenspiels, cymbals, shakers – epitomize the economic reality of the nation. The instruments are relatively low-cost and low maintenance; they can be mastered in a reasonable amount of time by enthusiastic students of various ages, can be carried individually in marching bands and do not require auditoriums for practice or public performances.

Preparing to present the colors

Preparing to present the colors

Much like in the US, there was a passing nod to history during the day’s parades, picnics, boxing matches and the greased pole climbing competition. The context for Independence Day, September 15th, is rather convoluted and in addition to Honduras, includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. On this day in 1821 these four colonies of Spain declared independence in their Congress of Central America. Reading between the lines, it appears that these countries piggy-backed off the success of the twenty plus years of freedom fighting that was just concluding at the time in Mexico. Following independence, there was a brief alliance with Mexico, under the Federal Republic of Central America, which ended in mutual rancor in 1838.

Bird's eye view of the festivities

Bird’s eye view of the parades & hoopla

At the end of a long day of festivities, when all the Independence Day marchers had gone home and all the instruments were put away, the night was quiet.  What was surprising to us was the extent to which we missed the sound of the percussion instruments that same evening when we retired. We were accustomed to dropping off to sleep to the sound of the rhythms. Nothing like a soothing glockenspiel to bring on the nods…

Parade Rest

Parade Rest

By Richard and Anita, September, 2013

 

Antigua: Lent, Alfombras and Semana Santa

We arrived in La Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO world heritage site, after a nine hour overnight ride on a double decker bus.

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The city is absolutely, stunningly quaint and picturesque filled with well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture and the ruins of Spanish colonial churches (destroyed by both time and recurrent earthquakes), many dating back to the sixteenth century.

Ruins of Santa Clara

Ruins of Santa Clara

On the horizon, surrounding the city, loom three large volcanoes: Volcan de Agua, Acatenango (last erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, which is constantly active at a low level with steam visibly venting many days.

Volcan Agua

Volcan Agua

We were incredibly lucky to have timed our stay here during Lent as Antigua has the biggest Lenten and Semana Santa celebration in the world and the weeks leading up to Easter were filled with music, religious processions and alfombras.

Procession on Good Friday

Procession on Good Friday

Alfombras are sawdust “carpets” which are laid out on the cobbled streets in front of the family home or shop and have a variety of stenciled patterns, geometric and free form designs, made with colorfully dyed sawdust, flowers, fruits, vegetables and pine needles.Alfombra - San BertoloAlfombra They were absolutely amazing and involved hours of tedious work to make.After th These acts of devotion cost participants dearly in terms of time, money and effort: many people work all night to create their unique alfombra.Alfombra Each area of the city, and some of the surrounding villages, had its own procession over the weeks leading up to Easter with the faithful celebrants carrying enormous and incredibly heavy wooden platforms with the parish statues.Lenten ProcessionWomen's procession We spent the month of March waking up before dawn on the weekends, walking the streets, admiring alfombras and waiting with the early morning crowds in anticipation of the marchers.Incense and Procession The procession would be preceded by music as the streets filled with the fragrant incense smoke from men swinging burners. The men, wearing robes of Lenten purple, and the women wearing dresses of black or white, would slowly pass by carrying the religious statues.

After the Crucifixion

Good Friday – After the Crucifixion

They would make their way over the  cobblestone streets carpeted with the alfombras, trampling them to mounds of sawdust and debris. The bands with drums and horns would follow, signaling the end of the event and then the street sweepers would descend immediately to clean up the debris. Half an hour after the procession passed there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious alfombras. Street Sweepers after the Procession By Anita and Richard, May, 2013