Read Mike’s "Hanoi Haircut" also from In the Mountains of Heaven
     by Mike Tidwell Zaire (1985–87)
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“HOW MANY NIGHTS will you be staying?” the Indian innkeeper asks me, leaning over his dusty desk. He speaks in slow, accented Spanish. Behind him, an assortment of wooden Christmas ornaments festoons the inn’s aged door. The stone fireplace is a gentle tempest of logs and cracking flames. It is Dec. 23.
     “Three nights," I say, lowering my backpack to the warm stone floor. The innkeeper arches an eyebrow. "So you’ll be staying through Christmas?”
     “Yes.”
     “And you’re alone?” He glances over my shoulder.
     “Yes.”
     “I see,” he says.
     I gather my gear and follow the innkeeper, whose name is Guillermo, down a narrow hallway to my room. Through a window, a liquid flaming sun is sinking toward 9,000-foot peaks outside this rural mountain village in southern Colombia. “You’re our only guest,” Guillermo says, unlocking my room and handing me the key. “There are no other visitors here.” I can almost read the rest of his thoughts: “We never get backpackers at Christmastime. Never. And the Colombian tourists — they have all gone home to be with their families, of course, for the holidays.” I settle quickly into my room, then hurry outside to catch the last of the sunset. I pass unlit Christmas candles, thick and red and half-used, scattered throughout the inn.
     My being here is no accident. I want to be at this distant spot, far from my own country, a lone traveler, at Christmastime. The holiday in America always leaves me feeling a bit blue. While others relish the crowds, the shopping, the Yuletide specials on TV, I’m never quite able to catch the “spirit” — to get festive on cue — when so much of the package seems like a scripted marketing opportunity. The best solution, I decide: Sample the holiday elsewhere. Which is how I wind up among these Andean mountains. I follow a short path down from the inn to the edge of Lake Guamues, the largest, highest, most beautiful piece of fresh water in Colombia. The indigo surface is cradled by forested mountains turned blond by the waning light. In the cool alpine air, I pass ponchoed Indians in bowler hats. A young boy with braided hair carries a panpipe as he herds llamas along the shore. The lake is shaped like a giant teardrop.
     I take a seat and watch as a series of final, awesome sunbeams falls to earth. The myth runs that a powerful medicine man created this lake and these mountains from the bodies of a feuding husband and wife — and the result is absolute peace for all who live here. I can feel it. A stillness spreads through my road-weary body. Nearby, a peasant farmer is harvesting potatoes from the black earth and humming a familiar tune. I listen. I recognize the song. “Noche de Paz.” Silent Night.
     The last of the sun disappears. The panpipe in the distance begins to play, flutelike and joyful, getting farther and farther away. In a manner of speaking, Christmas this year, for the first time in my life, may very well be a religious experience. The best Christmas holidays I’ve ever spent were overseas in obscure corners of the world — in Africa, central Asia, South America. There was that Christmas in the Congo, for instance, sitting down to goat meat and fufu with other bearded, ponytailed Peace Corps volunteers under a rustling palm tree. There was that time, too, in faraway Kyrgyzstan, gathering juniper branches in the snow for window decorations and exchanging used books wrapped in boxer shorts.
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