Over the year’s I’ve come to appreciate spending Christmas with family in the States, but I try to make it a point to celebrate New Year’s Eve abroad.
In 2011, I returned to Lima, where I’d watch fireworks explode at midnight on the streets around Miraflores. In 2012, I decided it was time to experience my first New Year’s Eve in Medellin.
I’d previously heard anecdotal evidence from friends that Medellin wasn’t a great place to spend NYE. There’s no Time Square like New York, or cross-dressing and effigy-burning like in Ecuador. Instead, it’s traditionally a family focused evening. Only after midnight do some people leave their homes and neighborhoods to party.
When I messaged my friend Lina about my impending return, she invited me to join her for celebrations at her aunt’s house in Robledo, a neighborhood located in the mountains of western Medellin.
I can go to discotecas any weekend, but being invited into a local family’s home means a lot more to me.
A Change in Plans
On the 31st of December, the day after I moved back into my old apartment, I was walking around Parque Lleras when I noticed a wine shop was open. I stepped inside, and picked up a bottle of Spanish sparkling wine (cava) as a gift for Lina’s aunt.
Back at the apartment, I checked my email to find there was a change of plan, and we’d be heading to a friend of a friend’s house in San Javier instead. She also suggested we bring rum (as she knows I don’t like aguardiente). I realized my miscalculation, but brought the wine anyways.
I met Lina at her house around 7:30 PM, and she thanked me for the wine, though she suggested we leave it behind as our hosts may not appreciate it. They’d prefer a bottle of rum or aguardiente to celebrate the new year.
I met Lina’s daughter, and a Scottish expat to whom she rents one of her rooms. It was his girlfriend’s family who’d be our host for the night. Totally random, but I was up for whatever experience awaited us.
Arriving in San Javier
I’d never taken the metro as far as San Javier, the furthest stop on the line that runs west across the city. San Javier is part of the notorious Comuna 13, which has been plagued by an ugly cycle of drug and gang violence for many, many years.
But it was hard to be nervous in the company of Lina and her daughter, and on such a festive night.
We walked to the metro, where I noticed there were very few people. In New York City, the platforms would be packed with revelers heading out for the night. Lina commented that she was surprised to see so many people. I looked across the platform at the ten or so people there, and had to laugh.
A few minutes later, we were getting off in San Javier. Outside the station, there were lots of people in the street. It felt like we could’ve been anywhere in the city.
There we were met by the Scot’s girlfriend, and lead to her family’s house a few blocks away. Later, Adriaan from Colombia Reports would tell me San Javier is the nicer part of Comuna 13.
Though I didn’t know that at the time, unconsciously I knew that homes and neighborhoods closer to the metro stations tend to be safer, than had we also hopped a bus or taxi further into the Comuna.
Meeting the Family
Upon arriving at the family’s house, we were immediately greeted by a few guys outside the front door, who welcomed us warmly. There was an excited dog running around barking, and lots of family members. Young cousins, aunts, and uncles.
Inside, the living room was still decorated from Christmas, and the floor was cleared of tables and chairs. Lina had mentioned there’d be dancing, and I was feeling reticent as I’d barely danced a night of salsa the whole year.
We delivered the beers, rum, and Coca-Cola brought as gifts, and made a small cash donation toward the party. Then, we sat outside and chatted.
It wasn’t long before the girls wanted to dance. A mix of salsa, merengue, and traditional Colombian Christmas music was being played on the stereo inside.
The aunt whose home we were in invited me to dance, and that broke the ice. Hearing her compliments afterward gave me a renewed sense of confidence. Lina was right, dancing is like riding a bicycle.
The movements I’d performed hundreds, and in the case of the basic step, thousands of times, over the years, were still ingrained in my memory.
The rest of the night was a whirlwind of dancing with Lina, her daughter, the aunt, and one of the cousins. I’d missed dancing salsa so much. I missed the excitement it generated, both physically and mentally, as well as the confidence it gave me.
In between songs, I’d sit and watch the other family members dance. I felt a strange sense of belonging, even though I’d only met these paisas a few hours earlier.
New Year’s Eve Dinner
On the sidewalk, the men of the house were grilling up meat (pork, I think) and chorizo, while the ladies carried out boiled potatoes, salad, and arepas.
Together, they served us small plates of this typical paisa fare.
What I was eating mattered a whole lot less to me than where I was eating (Medellin), and with whom I was eating (the family and friends).
The Clock Strikes Midnight
As midnight approached, more and more fireworks were being launched at the intersection two dozen meters away. A cacophony of explosions. I was thankful to be just far enough away to enjoy it, without having to duck for cover.
Inside the house, we counted down. 5…4…3…2…1…Happy New Year!
Everyone began giving each other kisses on the cheek, and wishing one another “Feliz Ano” (Happy New Year). The whole experience of celebrating New Year’s with a local family was reminiscent of the time Holly did so December 31, 2009.
And then the dancing and drinking continued. I was enjoying my old favorite, Medellin Anejo rum, with a beer here or there. But apparently I wasn’t pouring strong drinks, because aside from being tired, I wouldn’t have a hangover the next day.
Finally, at 4 AM, we departed the party, and picked up a taxi back to our respective homes. I’d heard it can be hard to get a taxi after midnight, but apparently by 4 AM, it’s not so bad. At least not in San Javier.
How did you spend New Year’s Even in Colombia?