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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

After years of traveling to Muslim majority countries for the past couple years and previously living in Israel, it was really quite a surprise to be in a Catholic country for work a week before December 25. Besides Christmas celebrations and decorations, there were other clues that this was an atypical work trip for me: alcohol everywhere, tank tops, and short shorts.

Colombians celebrate Novena de Aguinaldos, the nine days leading up to Christmas Day. Unique traditions like gifts being brought by Baby Jesus through the window and evening family Novena celebrations are explained in excellent detail here.  We learned from a local friend that the Novena (roughly a half hour of prayers and songs) are even performed in malls, so Sara and I headed to the Santafe mall on the second night of Novena. Performers in Christmas plaid were singing to a very enthusiastic audience, many of whom were adorable small children shaking small tambourines and maracas to keep time with the music.  It was interesting to see something so religious in such a secular space.
Medellin (pronounced Mah-dah-jeen) is the second largest city in Colombia and is nestled i

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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

n the Aburra Valley. The views are simply stunning of the Andes Mountains. Even working out in the gym was exciting because of the incredible view. Medellin has won an award as the Innovation City but not the type of innovation you think of when you think of my job. Their award comes from the amazing work they have done for urban planning in the last twenty years. The city had grown so large that even four years ago people referred to different neighborhoods within Medellin as “X City” instead of “X neighborhood.” It took over two hours to get from the north part of town to the south, physically segregating the poorer sections of town that were in the hills.  The city created a cable car system as part of the public transportation. Now instead of walking up steep hills or navigating narrow streets in a car, a quick ride in the air gets you from the north end to the south in half an hour thanks to the cable car and the metro system. This change has really brought the city together and added job opportunities to many who live in poorer neighborhoods.

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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Another famous act of Medellin is their annual display of Christmas lights along La Playa Avenue on the Medellin River. National Geographic named these lights as one of the ten most beautiful Christmas light displays in the world. Of course we couldn’t leave town without experiencing them for ourselves. This display is put on by EPM, the local utility company, which really gives back to the city. Every year a new theme for the lights is determined in January, and the display is created by locals throughout the year. Creations are covered in metallic paper and LED lights to reduce electricity. The result is lovely in daylight and breathtaking at night. Walking along the river at night has the same ambiance as being at the county fair: lots of vendors selling everything you can think of from arapes stuffed with meat and cheese to strings of mangos in a small paper bag ready to eat. The narrow walkway is crowded with teenagers enjoying an evening of freedom and with families of strollers and grandparents in tow sharing the experience. Our local friend explained that many of the vendors live the rest of the year off what they make during the six weeks the lights are on display.

Of course, the river isn’t the only place to see lights. There were amazing lighted tulips and snowflakes hanging from trees near our hotel. It may have felt like spring weather, but we were truly in a winter wonderland.
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