Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Nativity novena in Colombia

On December 16, many families in Colombia, and Colombians living outside of Colombia, begin praying the Nativity novena ("Novena de Navidad"), a nine-day series of prayers designed to prepare for the arrival of the baby Jesus on the night of December 24. The novena is definitely one of my favorite Colombian traditions.

It's worthwhile to point out that in Latin America, Christmas is not considered to be celebrated on the day of December 25, but rather the night of December 24 or "noche buena" (literally, "good night"). It's a subtle difference but important nonetheless.

The novena contains a series of prayers recited every evening. They include daily prayers to the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the Christ Child, a series of poems of praise called the "gozos" that can be either recited or sung, along with a separate prayer specific to each day of the novena called the "consideración" that highlights an aspect of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem and the events that surrounded the birth of Jesus.

There is what you could call a quaint Catholic spirituality around these prayers. Many of the thoughts around using Christ's humility as a model for our own lives are worthwhile to contemplate. Occasionally, though, the reflections border on an absurdity particular to old-style Catholicism, such as in the prayer on the eighth day recounting how Mary and Joseph could not find a place to stay in Bethlehem: "The sound of each door that closed on them was a sweet melody for their ears." ("El ruido de cada puerta que se cerraba ante ellos era una dulce melodía para sus oídos.") Also, the prayer to St. Joseph can cause some chuckles because he is referred to as the "padre putativo de Jesús" (adoptive father of Jesus), where "putativo" sounds too close to a Spanish curse word. Nowadays the offending word is often replaced by "adoptivo."

Following the novena, the family will often sing traditional Spanish Christmas carols or "villancicos," either playing the instruments themselves or singing along to a CD. In some cases the novena becomes a social event for inviting extended family members, with food and drink served after the prayers are recited.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Garífuna community pays a visit to Philadelphia in August 2009

One of my favorite activities in Philadelphia in August is the annual Caribbean Festival which takes place in Penn's Landing, the recreation space which faces the Delaware River and is in the area where William Penn originally landed when he came to the colony later named Pennsylvania. This year I was pleasantly surprised that a group of Garífunas from the New York City area came to perform and sell items representative of their culture. One of the festival organizers told me that the audience really enjoyed their performances.

To summarize, the Garífuna are descendants of a mixture of Africans and Carib peoples, the majority of whom settled on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent until they were forced out by the British at the end of the 18th century. Those set adrift on a ship by the British from St. Vincent, on the eastern side of the Caribbean Sea, landed providentially on the island of Roatán on the western side. Today Roatán belongs to the Central American nation of Honduras. The Garífuna eventually migrated to the mainland and settled on the Caribbean shores of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Many descendants of those migrants later moved to New York, specifically Brooklyn, where they form a thriving community.

Garífuna music and dance, with its combination of African and Native American traits, does not sound exactly like other African forms of music in the Caribbean region. In particular the singing style and the drum patterns make it unmistakable. Some people may be familiar with the punta rhythm, which can be played traditionally or in the modern "punta rock" style. There are also Garífuna rhythms such as the "paranda" that use the guitar, which suggest influence from Spanish music. Garífuna culture is familiar enough for you to find explanations on the Internet or examples on YouTube.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Julie and Julia" and a food festival in Bogotá

Today my wife and I saw the film "Julie and Julia" and of course our thoughts started to revolve around food. It reminded me of the food festival we attended called "Alimentarte," which took place in Bogotá in July. The place was absolutely mobbed and featured a dizzying array of food from many corners of the globe. We spent about an hour trying to decide what we wanted to eat, and eventually I decided on a dish called "patacón con carne desmechada," which consists of shredded meat served over a large piece of fried green plantain. We let our mouths water over this display of pastries, and I went with ice cream (a scoop of rum raisin with a scoop of cookies n' cream). There was also music from a top-notch police salsa band.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Danger of False Cognates

You probably have heard that the Spanish word "embarazada" does not mean "embarrassed," but "pregnant." This is an example of what is known as a false cognate. A true cognate would be, for example, "el grupo" which means "group." While we're in the process of learning to speak or write another language, cognates are helpful for us when we get stuck and have to guess a word. We should still make those sorts of educated guesses, but be aware that there are a few words that sound like one thing in English and mean another.

We're not the only ones with that dilemma. Spanish speakers have the same difficulty when they try to use English. The hand soap in the picture is a perfect example. The Spanish word "sanidad" does not mean "sanity" but "health," but the company in question must have been confused, or assumed that the consumer wouldn't care, when they named this hand soap "Sanity Plus." I milked this for all it was worth and would ask if using this soap would help me keep my sanity. For the record, "sanity" would be loosely translated into Spanish as "salud mental," or mental health.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The View from the "Piedra Capira" in Colombia (2009)

Two weeks ago I took a trip to the town of Guaduas, about a 3-hour drive from Bogotá (4 hours on the slow-moving buses). One of the highlights of the region is the point called the Piedra Capira, which is a rock with a cross perched on it, that hangs over the edge of the hill, showing the full view of the Magdalena River. (The Magdalena is the Colombian equivalent of the Mississippi and runs nearly the full length of the country, flowing northward before it empties out into the Caribbean Sea.) To get to the Piedra Capira, one leaves Guaduas on the route toward the town of Honda, drives for about 15 minutes, and makes a left at the sign. The rest of the way is through a narrow gravel and dirt road, and at some point the car has to be parked and one has to go on foot until reaching the rock. I was especially surprised that this attraction did not appear in any guidebook, just in a pamphlet issued in the town of Guaduas.

On a clear morning the volcanoes Nevado del Tolima (left) and the Nevado del Ruiz (far right) are visible. There are two smaller peaks, barely visible in between these, called the Nevado del Quindío and the Nevado de Santa Isabel. I added new photos from this last trip to Colombia at the webpage for Cundinamarca, the name of the province that surrounds Bogotá.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands (2009)

I've just returned from a short travel agent familiarization (FAM) trip to Beaches Turks and Caicos, which is located on the island of Providenciales, also known as Provo, the most developed of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The slogan "Where on earth are the Turks and Caicos Islands?" is well-chosen, because invariably someone who hears of those islands will ask that same question. They are part of the same chain of limestone and coral islands as the Bahamas, but are south and east of Nassau and slightly north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Technically they aren't Caribbean islands because they face the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea, but culturally they do have a lot in common with the islands that face the Caribbean.

The major attraction of Provo is its beautiful 12-mile Grace Bay Beach, which runs across the entire northern part of the island. The offshore coral reef makes for gentle waves, ideal for floating in the water, and the sand is powdery soft. Because the surrounding waters are protected by law from fishing, there are a surprising number of fish swimming in the water very close to shore, something I also saw in the Bahamas. The water is so clear that you can see the bottom as if you were in a swimming pool.

See more pictures from Provo on my travel website.

Monday, June 8, 2009

New feature on my website with Google Maps

On my Latin and Caribbean travel site I added a map using Google Maps to show the places I've visited. The map can be zoomed in and out to get more or less detail. When you get to the site, you can click on the markers to see the place names and in some cases I've added some descriptions under the locations. Over time I'll add more specific information and link it to my blog entries.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The making of guava paste in Santander, Colombia (1980)

In Christmas 1980, I went with a group of friends to a farming area in the province of Santander in Colombia. The purpose was to spend time assisting a local priest (an American) in his mission work by visiting the campesinos in the countryside and celebrating Christmas in their parish church. The climate there was warm but not exceedingly hot: what is called "tierra templada" (temperate land). The other types of climates in the tropics, depending on the altitude, are "tierra caliente" (hot land), "tierra fría" (cold land), and "tierra helada" (frozen land).

Some of the campesinos made guava paste, which was formed into blocks, wrapped in banana or plantain leaves, and shipped to the rest of Colombia. This paste was what is known as the "bocadillo veleño." Bocadillo refers to the sugary guava paste and veleño means that it comes from the town of Vélez, which we could see from the top of the hill. One of our stops was one of these places where the guavas were crushed and mixed with sugar. I'm trying out the paste, which at that point was still hot and not yet formed. When I got back to Bogotá and told a friend there about my trip, he said that it was not a good idea to eat it hot because it caused diarrhea, but I don't remember suffering any ill effects from it.

Another highlight from the trip was tasting the foam that came out of the cow when the campesinos began the process of milking it. It was sweet, almost like a milk shake.

See my travel website for more information on Colombia.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

More insights into Spanish words

Continuing with my theme of Spanish words, I have found the learning of the language a lifelong process. This is not to discourage anyone from learning, but rather to highlight the interesting things that come up as we're confronted with words that we don't recognize, or where our classroom or book learning can't prepare us for all real-life situations. I liken learning Spanish to what a friend told me about learning to play the guitar: "easy to learn badly but hard to learn well." Spanish throws a lot more at a person than the common misconception of Spanish being easy leads us English speakers to believe.

One example is illustrated on this sign that I photographed in Bogota two years ago. It is advertising a new apartment complex that will have two elevators, a garbage chute, and two social halls or community rooms that are also common in some apartment complexes here in the US. If I hadn't sounded out the word "shut" the way a Spanish-speaking person would, I never would have figured out that it meant "chute." "Shut" is the English word spelled phonetically in Spanish, though the "sh" sound does not exist in Spanish except in countries in southern South America such as Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, and where the sound does exist, it is never spelled "sh" except perhaps in a word borrowed from another language. 

Another even more important example is the word "muchacha," where not knowing how the word is used could create problems. If I had only paid attention to my high school Spanish textbook, I would have assumed that the word always meant girl or young woman. However, "muchacha" could also mean maid or servant girl, and maids sometimes dislike the use of the word when referring to them, preferring the terms "empleada doméstica" or "empleada de servicio" (female domestic or service employee).

See my language learning webpage for more tips.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Learning and re-learning Spanish

It's no secret that, with 21 countries that count Spanish as their official language, there would be differences between these countries regarding which words mean what. Take the Ferris wheel, for example. In Spain the word is "noria," but in Colombia it's called the "rueda de Chicago" (literally, "Chicago wheel") probably because the first Ferris wheel was exhibited in Chicago in 1893 (see By the way, the "noria" in the picture was taken at the April Fair (Feria de Abril) in Seville.

When I first studied Spanish in high school I learned that the word for socks was "calcetines" and the word for women's stockings was "medias," but when I got to Mexico the word "medias" was used for both, as it was in Colombia. I didn't get to Spain until 2006, and while conversing with a Spaniard on the return flight to Philadelphia, I used the word "medias" to mean socks, and he corrected me, bringing back that word "calcetines" that I hadn't heard since high school.

I found that people in Spain were not fond of Anglicized Spanish words or English words mixed in with Spanish. Another Spaniard I met corrected my use of "ok" in a sentence, something that I found common in other places I visited. They would probably cringe if I used the word "lonchar" for "eat lunch" instead of "almorzar", or "checar" or "chequear" to mean to check or review instead of "revisar." However, the Spaniards are not free of English or Anglicized words in their Spanish either. The word for "ticket" can be "boleto" or "tiquete," but in Spain you hear it called "el ticket." While in a restaurant in Seville I found that the waitresses were confused when I asked for "salsa de tomate," which is used in Colombia to mean ketchup, but they understood perfectly when I used the word "ketchup." I thought it was funny because not too long before that, there was a popular song called "Aserejé" sung by a Spanish female singing group called "Las Ketchup"! For more information on "Aserejé" or "The Ketchup Song, " see the article in Wikipedia

For tips on languages, see my webpage on language learning.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Colombia: Playing the game of "tejo" (1987)

Because of the difficult terrain, not many railroads were built in Colombia. One that was built was converted into a tourist train that leaves the north of Bogotá and proceeds to the towns of Zipaquirá - the town where the salt cathedral is located - and Nemocón. In the areas surrounding Bogotá, including Nemocón, there are many places to play the game of tejo (TAY-hoh), a game going back to the pre-Columbian days, which is similar to horseshoes. Here I'm throwing the disc (it reminded me of a shot put cut in half) toward a target that is a raised platform, filled with tightly packed mud or clay, with four pouches filled with gunpowder surrounding the center of the target. The goal is to hit the center target and make one of those pouches explode. Tejo is associated in people's minds with beer, because plenty of it is consumed during the tejo matches.

Visit my webpage on Colombia.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Philadelphia: Mexican group at the International Village Fair, 1987

An incredible event took place in Philadelphia in July 1987 called the "International Village Fair," which commemorated the 200th anniversary of the US constitution. It took place in the vicinity of Independence Hall, where the National Constitution Center and the Independence Hall Visitor's Center (both of which hadn't been built) now stand. Each day featured performances representing different parts of the world, though there were stands representing the whole world throughout the week, and a commemorative booklet was issued. This event was well-organized, showed evidence of ample funding, and featured a lot of talent brought in from outside the city, such as the Mexican Veracruz trio in the picture. The roof you see in the picture was temporary and came in handy when the rain came down later in the day. I only had one criticism of the event: it came and went without any follow-up activities in what I consider the ongoing task of sharing other cultures.

Visit my webpage on Latinos in the United States.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Panamanian pollera on display on mural in Philadelphia

Thanks to Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, the images of some of the artists who have promoted Latin American culture in the region have been captured on the walls of the office of Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas ("Latin American Cultural Roots"), a nonprofit arts organization that I co-founded in 1991 along with Yolanda Alcorta. One of these is Elba Dormoi, who came to the United States from Panama at an early age and promoted both the folk dances of her country and the popular salsa and merengue dance rhythms for over 40 years in conjunction with her husband, the late Ted Dormoi. This mural shows her wearing the beautiful pollera, the dress most identified with Panama. If you're interested in seeing this mural firsthand, go to the corner of 5th and Somerset Streets in North Philadelphia and walk a half block east along Somerset Street to see the full mural. Elba's likeness appears at the back of the building facing Orkney Street.

This description of the pollera comes from the book Festivals and Dances of Panama by Lila R. Cheville and Richard A. Cheville:

The pollera is spectacular from a distance, but closer observation reveals a folk art of exceptional skill and complexity. Almost every part of the dress is made by hand, from the attractive embroidery on the blouse and skirt to the delicate ornaments tucked around the gold combs in the hair. Visitors should not hesitate to approach the lady empollerada to examine the craftsmanship visible in each flower, the delicacy of the stitches in the gathers, and the painstaking skill reflected in the handmade lace decorating the ruffles. She is proud of her pollera and genuinely pleased to display her dress and her jewelry.

One of the most satisfying things for me is to have seen this organization grow and establish a presence in the Latino community in Philadelphia, promoting the culture of the entire Latin American region through the collaboration of all those who have performed, displayed works of art or given workshops over the past 18 years, as well as those who have coordinated or done the less glamorous administrative work. You can go to the Raices website at to learn more about the organization and its programs.