This week is Semana Santa, the Holy Week that is celebrated by Spanish cultures around the world. My sister, who has traveled extensively in Spain, mentioned weeks ago what an important holiday it was in Spanish cultures and that she was excited to learn how they celebrate here in Latin America. I figured the best person I knew to give me the low down on the week would be my Spanish teacher, Nayma. When I asked her what the traditions were here, she quickly summarized that the "older generations" attended church and that the "younger generations" spent the time at the beach with their families. But the more we talked and the more I saw throughout the week, it became clear that it wasn’t just a generalization about what people do to celebrate the week that made this time special to the people. It was about a much broader tradition that everyone around the world understands and participates in whether Spanish, American, European, or Asian.
The city of Cartagena is Colombia’s version of Florida… People from all over travel here for holidays to get a bit of sunshine and escape the day to day routine. I mean who doesn’t love an excuse to relax in the warm tropical weather and beaches? About midweek the city started to quickly fill up as people from all over Colombia and other countries piled into the city for their holiday vacation. It was quite apparent, even to us – tourists ourselves, as the already crowded streets starting filling up with cars that had license plates from Bogota, Medellin, Cali, and Barranquilla. Rooms at all the hotels and hostels were booked solid and the neighborhoods were buzzing with activity as out of town relatives came to stay. Coincidentally, we too had friends coming to visit us for the week from Florida. As we were waiting at the airport for our friends, it put a smile on my face to see the arriving passengers let out a scream as they saw their family and ran towards them for the *kiss-kiss* and hugs. The little ones would see their cousins and instantly start playing together in the middle of the airport like they had never been apart. The adult siblings and cousins would give each other a big hug then step back to say how great the other one looks and how much they missed them. The grandparents were standing by with triumphant smiles on their faces, beaming with pride at their families. No translation was needed, there was no cultural barrier, it was just an incredibly obvious love of family that spilled from every person I saw. We had our own greeting at the airport in much the same way when our friends arrived. Even walking down our street we saw new faces sitting on the stoop chatting away about life and eating delicious food that someone in the kitchen had probably spent hours making.
Mid week we visited Mercado de Bazurto, "The Peoples Market", with our friends. Luckily we had our Spanish teachers Nayma and Mario with us, because it was quite the experience. Without an open mind I think many would instantly panic and turn around. This market is a HUGE open air market with tiny little walkways that zig, zag, weave, and basically defy all rhyme or reason. It is packed sweaty arm to sweaty arm with people selling their wares and shopping for their goods. There is smoke pouring from the grills, piles of rubbish and decomposing funk clogging the walk ways, people shouting about their products, and carts being pushed down walkways twice the size they should be. There is no fruit section or fish section, its a cluster of whatever fits with plantains being sold next to knock off Adidas footwear and the barber next to the prepared food lady. But if you are prepared to take it all in, it just might be the coolest and most real thing you can do here in Cartagena. We wandered the maze and sampled amazing fruits like Nispero, Curuba, and Guayaba. There was fish fresh, salted, smoked, grilled, and fried some of which I quickly recognized and others that were totally foreign to me. We walked through the meat market (your not allowed to take pictures as there are illegal animals and the sellers don’t like it) and saw everything from an entire pig heads to cow eyeballs alongside all the "normal" cuts of meat you might expect. And like any market, after all the hard work of bargaining for your goods you will probably need a quick bite to eat yourself. We tried fried fish (a standard Cartagena dish) and a sweet dessert called platano tentacion (plantain fried in a red soda that turns it neon pink). The sights, sounds, and smells definitely took it out of us but I wouldn’t have missed this adventure. It was real people in real life, and it was beautiful in its own chaotic way. It seems our week was mirroring what many of the locals were doing. Mario was saying that the market was exceptionally busy as people prepared for Semana Santa, buying the goods that they would need for the rest of the week to make family meals and holiday dinners.
The next two days were spent at the local beaches of Bocagrande and El Laguito. If that’s what the locals do, we should too! A quick $2.00 taxi ride took us to the beach that was filled to the brim with cabanas and people. It was rather convenient to not have to haul all your stuff with you to and from. Everything you needed was there – mini tents for shade, chairs, beers, food, toys for the kids, trinkets and cover ups for the adults. Shane was a little frustrated with the near constant "Senor/Senora te gustaria…" Fill in the blank, literally. The sellers walk up and down the beach all day selling coconut patties, kites, massages, and bracelets. It kind of became a part of the rhythm there. I can see why everybody flocks to the beaches for the holiday. It was a great relaxing way to spend the day with your toes in the sand and the sound of the waves rolling in. Our evenings were spent in the crowded squares sampling AMAZING street food and drinking cold Aguila’s while watching everybody socialize with family and friends. The street performers were going full tilt, one mime would mimic the way unsuspecting people were walking down the street perfectly – we watched for ages and laughed the entire time. There was a Semana Santa procession which closed the streets to traffic and wove through Getsemani ending at the church in Plaza Trinidad. The congregation followed in step with the priests and attendants filing right through the crowded plaza. The religious procession wove seamlessly with the secular festivities, neither one taking away from the other.
During my conversation about Semana Santa traditions with Nayma it was funny to hear how unique each families traditions actually were. Yes the broad statement that many Colombians spend the days at the beaches or partaking in religious services like she mentioned would be an accurate assessment. But her own traditions varied a bit. She is from Venezula, as is Mario. Her children were born and raised in Switzerland for the first part of their lives though and there they paint hollowed egg shells in pretty pastel colors. So since it was a tradition for her children they spent the days leading up to Easter painting eggs. Nayma and Mario took their children to the beach one day and Marios children saw all the pretty eggs they had painted. Of course they asked to do eggs of their own, a memory I am sure they will cherish. Maybe it will even become a tradition of their own. She asked me what I usually do for Easter which lead to discussions of Easter egg hunts for the little ones. Each family I talked to did something a little different but when you look at the big picture we all have one common thread. Family. Semana Santa or Easter (and pretty much every other holiday I can think of) ends up revolving around it no matter where you live or what your cultural heritage may be. Holiday traditions differ from place to place, but the reason for the traditions doesn’t.