December in The Tropics (or Why I Have Cookie Crumbs in My Bathing Suit)

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It’s one thing to escape to a warm, sunny spot for the holidays when the place you’re coming from is constantly cold. Traveling somewhere tropical gives your numb toes and red, runny nose a well-deserved break. But when you live in the tropics, as we do, the arrival of the holidays just seems, well, weird.

Last month, December 1st rolled around, and everything was still green, still hot, and still summery. We were just as sunburned, sticky, and sweaty as always, which made the appearance of giant inflatable snowmen in the streets seem almost perverse. An actual snowman here would suffer a miserable fate.

Of course, we tried to get into the holiday spirit. To start, we hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for co-workers, neighbors, and friends. There were two turkeys (one roasted, one grilled), two types of sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and stuffing. We had sautéed carrots with bacon, and green beans with blue cheese and cranberries. For dessert, there was apple pie, pecan pie, a Colombian flan, and an ice cream cake (it is summer).

It was the perfect caloric kick-off for the December holiday season until I realized that we were far more apt to end up in bathing suits poolside than bundled up somewhere on a ski slope. That realization dissuaded from me from further holiday indulgences—that is, until I discovered the deliciousness of sun-warmed Christmas cookies eaten poolside. After that, no cookie was safe, and my bathing suit was constantly covered in crumbs.

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We bought locally made holiday decorations as well as a tree from China (real trees are hard to come by) and plenty of metallic ornaments to put on it. We arranged a colorful string of lights on our tree’s flexible metal arms, but they sadly fizzled out as soon as Shon tried to deactivate the high-pitched holiday music that EVERY. SINGLE. SET. of lights we found in Pana played. Our tree remained dark—though gloriously silent—for the rest of the season.

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There were a handful of holiday gatherings. We went to Shon’s co-worker’s house for a traditional (and awesome) Colombian brunch. We feasted on fried boñuelos (doughnut rounds), arepas (flat discs of corn dough stuffed with cheese and then fried), and tamales. We were also invited to a brunch at the jaw-dropping house of one of Shon’s organization’s board members. Situated lakeside (and accessible only by boat), the views were incredible (even from the bathroom) and the décor was Dwell-worthy, but it was the kitchen and its beautiful tiles that really got me. Oh, and this baby. His name is Niko.

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Whereas Shon and I had to work hard to make the holidays feel merry and bright, Panajachel had no problem getting into the swing of things. At the beginning of December, there was a parade called the convité that was kind of like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. People dressed up as warrior princesses, Mexican wrestlers, Big Bird, Hello Kitty, and Erick Barrondo (the Guatemalan speed walker who won gold at the London Olympics) and danced in the streets to marimba all day long.

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I said it was kind of like the Macy’s parade, okay?

There were tamale baskets galore. Traditionally, these are baskets given as gifts that are filled with ingredients for making tamales. More commonly, though, they’re a random assortment of grocery store goods like fresh fruit, rice, Pepsi, marshmallows, refried beans, and cookies.

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Every shop in town was decorated with colorful (but maddeningly musical) lights, and many stores spread pine needles over their floors, invoking the scent of a Christmas tree without the tree.

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Why you’d want a mess on your floor instead of a tree for decorating was a mystery to me, but nowhere near as big a mystery as Guatemala’s obsession with fireworks.

Have you ever been to a war zone? I have not, but I did recently see Triage, the Colin Ferrell movie about a war photographer, and some of Kurdistan scenes kind of reminded me our Christmas Eve. Over the course of December, dozens of stalls dedicated solely to pyrotechnics appeared on Pana’s streets. Everyone from little girls in traditional dress to teenagers and adults stocked up the types of fireworks only professionals would be legally allowed to use in the States.

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And at midnight on Christmas Eve, they all went off. We were on the bridge that connects our neighborhood to the main part of Pana right at 12:00 a.m., and I thought we were going to die. Fireworks went off everywhere—in the streets, on rooftops, and in backyards. The acrid-smelling air filled with the whistling sound of fireworks flying in every direction. Some shot straight up, forming sunbursts in the sky. Others went off with deafening pops just a few feet away from us. We ran to our house in fits and starts, taking cover when necessary, and doing our best to avoid teenagers who aimed fireworks at each other. When we finally made it home, I was shaking. Clearly, 8 lb. 6 oz. newborn infant Jesus was trying to tell us something: Next year, go to midnight mass.

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Except that we had gone to mass, just earlier in the evening. Before the service started, we spent a few minutes admiring the church’s decorations and then headed out to see Panajachel’s Christmas tree, located in the church plaza. I should note here that by “tree,” I’m not referring to a Norway spruce from Vermont. By “tree,” I mean a tall, triangular steel frame covered in pine branches, spray painted green, and decorated. And the “tree” we went out to see was actually Pana’s second of the season. Fireworks burnt the first one down.

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The next day was Christmas day, and we awoke to our usual blue, sunny skies and near 90-degree temperatures. Despite the heat, we made roast turkey and cookies and watched The Christmas Story (twice). It was a nice day, it was a fine day, but in all honesty, I couldn’t wait for December 26th. For despite our best efforts–and Pana’s enthusiasm–the holidays just never felt quite right. For me, palm trees, sunscreen, fireworks, and the thought of slow-melting snowmen will never say feliz navidad. Nevertheless, the cookie crumbs in my bathing suit are still a [tasty] reminder of a fun month.

7 responses

  1. I think this is my favorite post so far, but it makes me miss you even more. Your pictures are beautiful and I am jealous of your Christmas haha. Mine was spent in a steakhouse…..with Guatemalans though! LOVE YOU!

  2. Hahaha! Those firecrackers are no joke! One of my cousins told me once that a friend of theirs thought one of them was a candy and put it in his mouth and had his teeth blown out! When they’re every where, I guess you’re just not as careful? Your post was so funny!!! Glad you both survived your first Christmas there! Although it’s not your typical Jersey/New York holiday, you must realize, out here – we would love to have some cookie crumbs in our bathing suits too! Bathing suits are a hazy concept in this cold weather!
    Love that I’m connecting with my native roots from my amiga gringita! LOL. XO

  3. Pingback: A Three-Day Trek Through the Guatemalan Highlands « Not Quite Roughing It

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