I confess I’m stealing a column idea from my friend and fellow U.S. Foreign Service retiree, Fred LaSor, who served in Africa when I was in Latin America. We didn’t know each other back then but we’ve enjoyed sharing diplomatic stories in recent years.
Earlier this month Fred wrote a column based on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s death, remembering how he dealt with a Cuban ambassador before President Obama restored diplomatic relations last year.
“I stayed (for dinner) and we ignored each other,” Fred wrote, which sounds like a satisfactory solution to an uncomfortable situation.
I could write about politics in the Foreign Service but since it’s the holiday season I’d like to recall a few holiday experiences when I was stationed overseas with my late wife Consuelo and our two young children, Guy and Maria. We had a memorable Christmas in Panama City in the 1970s as I was being transferred from Mexico City to Bogota, Colombia in mid-December.
We found ourselves in a Panama City hotel room on Christmas Eve, but Consuelo made the best of things by making a Christmas tree out of red and green construction paper and taping it to the door of our hotel room. We opened a few small presents alongside our makeshift tree on Christmas morning. Somehow, Santa found us even though we were stranded in Central America.
We spent several holiday seasons in Caracas, Venezuela, where it was usually 90 degrees and sunny on Christmas Day. I don’t know whether Santa wore a Speedo in the tropics but he always managed to find us, wherever we were. One food-related Christmas custom in Venezuela involves “hallacas,” which are super-sized tamales containing meat, veggies and other good things. Most of the Venezuelans who worked in my office came to the office bearing delicious hallacas, which sustained us through the holiday season.
Back in the 1970s Caracas parents took their children roller skating in the streets all night long. I remember looking out of our apartment window at 3 a.m. and seeing exhausted children sitting on the curbs and sidewalks. Don’t ask me to explain that strange Christmas custom. We encountered another unusual custom in Bogota, where holiday revelers would launch small hot air balloons called “globos” in the evening. Every now and then a globo would land on a wooden roof, with predictable results. I’ll spare you the fiery details.
And then there was the Catholic priest in rural Colombia who invited us to his lively New Year’s Eve celebration featuring warm beer, a large globo and a “gato-nauta,” which was a cat-astronaut. Again, I’ll spare you the gory details but I’m sure Father Salcedo went to confession on New Year’s Day.
I recall a couple of memorable Thanksgivings, one in Spain where we ate fish and chips at a British pub on the Mediterranean coast. We tried to explain our holiday to the Brits and the Spaniards, but they preferred to drink beer and throw darts. And then there was Thanksgiving with embassy friends in a small town in the Peruvian Andes, where hotel staff was trying to figure out what those crazy Americans were doing to several large turkeys. It wasn’t easy explaining our holiday turkey-lift to the Aeroperu flight attendants, and we were thankful to survive that cross-cultural experience.
The moral of this story is where there’s a will there’s a way as our Foreign Service families figured out how to celebrate American holidays out there in the Third World. Pleasant holiday memories remind me to wish my loyal readers a very Merry Christmas and a New Year full of good health and happiness.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat.