Christmas Miracle in the Andes (page 2)
Christmas Miracle in the Andes
page 1, page 3, page 4

     At such far-flung venues the holiday ritual is simpler: You call to your table whatever American expats happen to be within easy travel distance. There’s no media bombardment telling you to buy, buy, buy — so you don’t. There’s nothing to purchase anyway. You just come together for a daylong meal with a little too much wine tossed in. Just like Thanksgiving. It’s love unhindered by the distractions of listmaking and gift-wrapping, fellowship without credit card heroics.
     And so it was a few years ago I found myself alone in South America at the end of a long writing trip. Christmas was just a few days away. I could have flown home in time, but I had already missed the two-month, hyperventilating buildup to Christmas back in the States. Arriving now, with the holiday peaking, might give me the Christmas equivalent of the bends. I’d be coming up way too fast. So I drifted into the mountains of Colombia instead.
     If overseas travel is a way of forgetting your own culture while experiencing another, then Christmas, by my tastes, is a perfect time to travel. I opened a map of Colombia and picked the tiny, isolated village of El Encano on Lake Guamues (also known as Laguna de la Cocha), 300 miles southwest of Bogota. I decided that whatever Christmas was at this little place, that’s what Christmas would be for me, too. There’d be no handful of American expats around this time, either. Just me and whatever I found. Just me and . . . Christmas.
     I awake the morning before Christmas to the sound of cows being milked outside my room. From my bed, I peek outdoors through a badly cracked window at Guillermo. He’s sitting in the distance on a stool, humming, milking a cow — squish, squish — into a tin bucket. An explosion of morning sunlight shows that he’s wearing the same clothes he had on the night before — old canvas pants and a llama-wool sweater. These are the only clothes he’ll wear during my entire stay. The cracked window has been repaired with a cheap opaque tape.
     But the place has perks. I exit my room and Guillermo hands me a steaming cup of just-made Colombian coffee. He’s added cream straight from the cow and the result is sublime. “Come see all the hummingbirds,” he says brightly as I moan with every sip.
     Outside, the weather has warmed quickly to a dreamlike morning of shirtsleeve sunshine. The lake below us is a giant, blue-white mirage of reflected light. Most striking, though, are the flowers. They grow wild. They grow everywhere. Orchids, asters, daisies. They climb along the stone walls of the inn and up toward the Spanish tile roof, offering their nectar to two dozen red and green hummingbirds.
     “December is the start of our best weather,” Guillermo says. “It’s our springtime.”
     I take another sip of coffee, standing in the sunshine, and wonder what blustery winter weather is making mischief back home in Washington, D.C.
The inn grounds double as a family farm, and just then Guillermo’s three children arrive carrying eggs and more milk from a barn out back. They are Gemri, a boy, 8; Guillermo Jr., 17; and Dorys, 22. Guillermo himself is 50, but looks younger, with a thick mane of black hair sans a single gray strand.
     Guillermo is fretting now, his face lined with perplexity. He doesn’t quite know what to make of me. I tell him I’m going for a long walk along the lake. But before I leave, he tells me again that I’m the inn’s only guest. In fact, he says, there’s never been a guest at Christmastime in the 25-year history of this out-of-the-way establishment.
     “Hmmm,” I say. “Okay. See you this afternoon.”
For hours, I wander along grassy bluffs overlooking the lake. I see more llamas and shepherds — and cows with snow-white herons perched gently atop their backs. I see a tiny island in the distance with a shrine to the region’s adopted saint, Nuestra Señora de Lourdes. She watches over local fishermen who in turn honor her each year with a huge feast of stewed guinea pig, an Andean delicacy.
     It’s nearly dark and the air is again chilly by the time I return to the inn. Guillermo has built another fire and has lit all the candles for Christmas Eve. My boots and socks are wet from my hike, so I place them by the fire to dry. I join Guillermo on a long bench pulled up close, and thaw myself in the warmth of the flames. But seeing my socks hanging down from the mantel, I feel a stab of homesickness for the first and last time during this trip. I can’t hide the feeling as I describe for Guillermo the tradition of stockings turned magically full by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
     No such stocking tradition exists in Colombia, he says. Then he gives me a long, vaguely fatherly look. “Why are you not home now?” he says. “Home with people you know? Then you could have this tradition.”
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