A New Definition of Holidays
For the first time in my life I was away from home for the holiday. One Thanksgiving I was in Scotland, but my mother and grandmother came to join me so that doesn't really count.
This was the first time that I was away, faced with different traditions, a different home and different food. I knew that upon graduating college things would be different, traditions would change, friends would be in different places, family might be far away. During my Peace Corps application I knew that I was going to be away for two years, that two birthdays, two Christmases, two New Year's Eve's. It wasn't until I was standing there on Christmas, staring at my paper Christmas tree that I realized it really was two years.
Before Christmas I would have moments every so often where it hit me how long I am going to be in Peru but Christmas turned on a different switch in my brain. Probably partially because Christmas officially marked the longest I have been away from home. The other part is that Christmas in America is a time steeped in traditions, comfort and home.
Although it was odd to be away from home, I feel like this is really the only time in my life that I can detach from comforts in such a dramatic way. I had no idea what to expect for my first Peruvian Christmas. In all honesty my expectations were quite low, because everyone seemed shocked that I was even staying in my site. On several occasions I was told that I was going to cry staying in site because Christmas here is a bleak affair.
Fortunately I made it though Christmas without any tears. Lots of contemplative moments, but no tears. Honestly the thing that I missed the most, besides my family of course, was the flavors of Christmas. The smell of sugar cookies baking, the sweet savory taste of pumpkin pie, the aroma of pine filling the air. On Christmas day this year I stuffed my face with nearly every sweet thing I could find in hopes of satisfying my flavor void. Finally oatmeal with cinnamon chocolate seemed to do the trick. It was close enough to satisfy.
Huancavelica Christmas is entirely different than American Christmas, entirely different than many parts of Peru. For starters I spent Christmas day in a cemetery, a tradition that shocked even the Peace Corps safety and security officer. When I told my mother I was going to spend Christmas in a cemetery I am pretty sure she fell off her chair. Luckily the cemetery looked more like a church than an actual cemetery. There were no head stones in site, which helped me to forget that we were celebrating the birth of Christ where they lay people to rest.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Also Christmas seems to revolve around chocolatada, a cinnamon hot coca, and paneton, basically fruit cake with jelly beans and raisins. I saw a few kids get presents but they were just casually given to them on or around Christmas. There was no element of surprise, no need to wrap them, no mystery.
Another major difference between American Christmas, at least my family's version of American Christmas, and the Christmas here in Huancavelica is that the celebration is mostly on Christmas Eve. Throughout Peru Noche Buena, Christmas Eve is celebrated with fervor while Christmas Day is more of a slow day to take it easy. Some of my friends went out clubbing on Christmas Eve, others had large family dinners, I on the other hand was mostly just confused on Christmas Eve.
For my family Christmas was basically just any other day, so I decided to go up to Ciswarapampa to spend the night with one of my fellow Huancavelican's Allie. That way at least if Christmas sucked it would suck with someone else. Christmas eve morning my sister begged me to stay in Cusicancha in order to have dinner, paneton and chocolatada with her. I didn't want to abandon my host sister on Christmas. She told me she was going to be solita and I couldn't imagine being alone on Christmas Eve. I spent about the next 4 hours in a pickle running up and down a mountain trying to figure out how to resolve the issue. Eventually I decided to stay, informed my sister and as if nothing had happened she told me she would just go to the cemetery party with her mom. It was as if Christmas was just a blip on her radar, rather than an all-consuming day.
The Christmas party at Allie's was nothing to write home about. In fact it barely even happened, but my expectations were for tears and I got to watch Love Actually so I was not really disappointed. Part of me knew it was Christmas the day but it definitely didn't feel like it. The more I thought about it the more I realized that no matter what job I took after Christmas this year would be the first truly different Christmas in my life.
This was my first Christmas in the real world. Now granted the route I took granted me a drastically different Christmas, but it was comforting to know that it would be different stateside or in South America.
Christmas day we awoke to have a well rounded breakfast of a lamb and corn soup called patasca, paneton and chocolatada. The lamb was cooked all night and had a savory and succulent flavor. Normally on Christmas morning I have eggs, coffee, orange juice and cinnamon buns, lamb is probably the furthest thing from my mind.
After breakfast we walked over to the cemetery where there was a community wide party and a negritas dance competition. The negritas dance is a fast paced dance focused on the feet. There are intricate feet movements accompanied by a hand bell.
Traditionally the dancers wear white with brightly colored sashes and hats. When someone is doing a dance that the audience likes everything from hard candies, to paneton, to soles, to beer is thrown at their feet as a sign of appreciation. The dance is far more complicated than a dance that I could do, but as the day wore on many of the men became more intoxicated so I decided to leave with the women of my health post around 5.
Leaving the party was the hardest part of Christmas because that was the first time that I was alone on Christmas. At first I tried to surround myself with my health post and host family, but eventually I settled on cleaning my room and listening to Christmas music. What I really wanted was a small moment to celebrate Christmas in my own little way. With chocolate oatmeal and the Christmas episodes of The Office.
New Year's Eve was equally as slow paced as Christmas had been. Fortunately there was no cemetery included in this celebration, but the menu was exactly the same. Having come to terms with the sense of time of how long I am going to be here I was less discombobulated during New Year's Eve. For some reason John Lennon's song "So This is Christmas" was running through my head the entire day. Granted it was no longer Christmas but the verse "So this is Christmas and what have you done another year over, and a new one just begun" kept running through my head.
If I think about it I have done a whole hell of a lot since last December. Graduated college, completed a lacrosse season, gone to NCAA playoffs, driven across country, and one minor thing...moved to Peru. Minor changes.
I spent New Year's Eve in Huayacundo Arma, a fellow volunteer Ty's site. It is traditional on New Year's Eve to burn effigies and around midnight when I looked around Ty's site around midnight I could spot about 7 piles of burning effigies, made out of god knows what. The air was filled with the smell of rain, the crackling of firecrackers, and the sound of cumbia music.
Having a slow New Year's Eve gave me a different perspective on the holiday. It was not a crazy party night like past New Year's Eve's in the states it was instead one that I spent with my fellow volunteers getting to know them better. Realizing that they would be my family and support network over the next two years. Realizing that this is my life for the next two years.
I am here. I am in Peru. Now the next step is to figure out what to do.
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