Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Candles and Fireworks: Christmas in Bogota

Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles) is one of Colombia's most observed traditional holidays. It is celebrated on December 7, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday. I had never heard of this celebration before coming to Colombia. Apparently it is more Colombian than strictly Catholic. Traditionally this would be the day that the city would turn on its Christmas lights in the parks and on some of the city's main thoroughfares. This year, however, the city lit up on Friday 26 November. The current mayor has come under a lot of fire for botched public works and suspicious contracting. I guess he wanted some pretty lights to distract the people's attention.

On December 7 people put candles and paper lanterns on their windows, balconies, porches, sidewalks, streets, parks and squares, in short, everywhere they can be seen, in honor of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception.

Visiting the city's parks to see the lights has become a traditional Christmas pastime here. There is an annual competition between neighbourhoods for which one has the best lights display. Taking trips to the different parts of town to see the lights has become a regular family outing. Some popular parks, like El Virrey, get so crowded that it is a complete mob scene.

As well as lights, people will set up elaborate nativity scenes (pesebres), with complete landscapes that will include the town on Bethlehem, fields, real rivers, mountains, lights, moving pieces We used to think the mechanical display in Ogilvy's window in downtown Montreal was special; that was nothing compared to the work and detail of some of these nativity scenes!

Even though José Miguel was rabidly antireligious, he still replicated the Christmas traditions as they brought back fond memories of his childhood. One of the former traditions was to send up hot air balloons made of paper, that were powered by a candle suspended below the mouth of the balloon. Not surprisingly these used to fall onto people's houses and cause a lot of fires, and the municipal government eventually outlawed them. Still, during my early years here I remember one Christmas that we sent up a paper hot air balloon from the park in Sta. Barbara. It was truly beautiful to see the glowing balloon float silently off into the night. I hope it didn't land on someone's house.

Another thing that the city outlawed was fireworks in private hands. Every year around Christmas, little kiosks would pop up all over town selling fireworks… and every night on the news we would get the latest updates on how many children (and adults) had their fingers blown off or lost eyes. The city finally said enough is enough and banned private fireworks. Now it puts on professional fireworks displays that are much better than the cheap little fireworks that people could afford to buy. Still, it has been hard to break the habit. When someone has grown up with a tradition that has positive associations for them, they want to repeat it with their children, even if it means reckless endangerment. Still, nowadays you don't hear as many illegal fireworks being set off as you used to. People have come around to the idea that they are dangerous to handle, expensive, and the city puts on far better shows.

Tonight there will be a big fireworks display in Parque Simon Bolivar. I have a front row seat from my living room window. The city hires professional international pyrotechnics experts. What the Bogota version may lack in artistic interpretation (say, compared with the Montreal International Fireworks Competition), it makes up for with exuberance. Still, the city puts on a show that is not too shabby at all.

7 December: Let the Festivities Begin!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hay Festival Picks - Cartagena 2011

The Hay Festival is coming up January 27 to 30, 2011 in Cartagena, Colombia. Here are my festival picks.

This year's festival does not have the marquee fiction writers seen in previous years, but it does have an intriguing selection of journalists.

My festival picks:

Thursday 27 January

Rubén Blades in conversation with Roberto Pombo
This great star of Latin music is also an activist, a composer, actor and a lawyer; to all of this, we have to add his experience as Panama’s Minister of Tourism for 5 years. Rubén
Blades, the inventor of “intellectual salsa”, so-called because of its socially involved lyrics, never rests; he has just finished his Todos Vuelven tour, he has been filming a movie in Mexico and has recently won his ninth Latin Grammy. Today, he will talk to Roberto Pombo about musical innovation, social commitment and about how he combines music with his other projects.

15:30 - 16:30, CASA MAPFRE
Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad
Bee Rowlatt
Bee Rowlatt, a reporter for the BBC World Service, looked for Iraqis who spoke English in order to find out about life in a Baghdad destroyed by war. That was when she found May Witwit, an English literature teacher who helped her students forget about bullets and bombs with stories about Jane Austen. Communicating by email, they became close friends despite differences in age, religion and culture. This correspondence, which was made into a book, provides a fascinating portrait of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and also describes an ingenious plan for May to escape from Baghdad, bringing her safely back to the United Kingdom.

19:30 - 20:30, CASA MAPFRE
The fascination of conspiracy theories
David Aaronovitch
The respected journalist and Times columnist David Aaronovitch, through his latest book,
Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, introduces us to the world of conspiracy theories and their social role. The cases he analyses are fascinating, ranging from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the death of Marilyn Monroe and the assassination of President Kennedy, to Princess Diana’s fatal accident and the notion of US involvement in the attack on the twin towers. Today, the author will talk to us about why conspiracy theories arise and why they are so appealing to us.

Buena Vista Social Club concert
The legendary Havana orchestra offers us a much-awaited concert, spreading joy and
Cuban rhythm with every note.

Friday 28 January

Philip Glass in conversation with Peter Florence
Philip Glass’s work is some of the must outstanding music written in the second half of the 20th century. This renowned composer and musician, linked to the minimalist and postminimalist tradition, has composed for the soundtracks of films such as Koyaanisqatsi, The Hours and Notes on a Scandal, creating operas and orchestral versions of albums such as David Bowie’s Heroes. He will talk to Peter Florence about experimental, avant-garde music for all.

15:30 - 16:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Michelle Paver in conversation with Peter Florence
The children’s writer Michelle Paver was recently awarded the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for her series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. These chronicles came about through Paver’s passion for animals, anthropology and history; today she will talk about this with Peter Florence and about how her trips to Norway, Lapland, Iceland and the Carpathians have been important sources of inspiration.

Philip Glass, piano recital
The US musician Philip Glass is a famous composer of classical and minimalist music. He has composed more than twenty operas and eight symphonies, as well as piano, violin and saxophone concertos. Tonight he will delight us with a piano concerto.

Saturday 29 January

10:30 - 11:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Joumana Haddad in conversation with Juan David Correa
The writer Joumana Haddad is one of the Middle East’s most multi-talented authors. As well as being a poet, translator and journalist, she is one of the organisers of the IPAF literary awards (the Arabic Booker), she is literary editor of the An Nahar journal and editor of the Arabic magazine Jasad, which specialises in literature and bodily arts. Her book I Killed Scheherazade, which has now been translated into six languages, has been described by Mario Vargas Llosa as “a very courageous and illuminating book about women in the Arab world. It opens our eyes, destroys our prejudices and is also very entertaining.”

15:30 - 16:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Between Communism and Capitalism: Illusions of a happy world
Gary Shteyngart and Ingo Schulze with David Aaronovitch
The European wars of the 20th century were fought between two irreconcilable ways of understanding the common good; now, at the dawn of a new century, this common good continues to be an unfulfilled promise. Talking about this will be: Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and selected in 2009 by the New Yorker as one of the most outstanding writers under 40; and Ingo Schulze, the German writer whose first novel, 33 Moments of Happiness, won his country’s two most prestigious awards and is considered to be the most representative writer of the unified Germany. The discussion is chaired by the British journalist and writer David Aaronovitch.

17:00-18:00, UNIBAC
Luis Pescetti and his guitar
Luis Pescetti
We invite you to enter the world of this multi-talented artist who, as well as publishing many books, composes songs and has just won the Latin Grammy for the best Latin
Children’s Music Album. Writer, composer, singer and showman, Luis Pescetti is at home on the radio, television and the stage, moving and entertaining both adults and children with his fantasy and sense of humour.

19:30 - 20:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor is a very prolific author, as well as a journalist and human rights activist. He worked at the United Nations between 1978 and 1996, ultimately leading the team in charge of keeping the peace in the former Yugoslavia. He is currently a member of the Indian parliament. He will talk about the challenges faced by India, an emerging world power.

Sunday 30 January

10:30 - 11:30, CFCE – SANTO DOMINGO SQUARE (courtyard)
Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Peter Florence
Shteyngart was selected in 2007 by the literary magazine Granta as one of the best young US novelists. His stories and essays have appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker, Granta, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. Peter Florence, the festival director, will talk to him about his recently published novel, Super Sad True Love Story.

12:30 - 13:30, SANTA CLARA ROOM (Hotel Sofitel)
Humour in writing
Luis Pescetti in conversation with Daniel Samper Pizano
The Argentinean Luis Pescetti is author of many children’s books with a sharp and provocative sense of humour, an activity that he came to through his career as a music therapist and educationalist. In the 1990s, with the backing of Unicef, he designed a number of publications for teachers regarding the educational use of humour and music.
Today he will talk about the role of humour in literature with writer and journalist Daniel Samper, who has written a range of critical, and comical, books.

I am also really looking forward to the British Council Meet the Author sessions, courtesy of going with a friend who is a school administrator. These were wonderfully intimate encounters with the authors, mainly geared toward young people.