When did you stop believing in Santa?

It is a simple question.  So why is the answer so difficult?  But don’t give up on me.  For me to tell this story I will go back to the Christmas tradition I grew up in.  Or at least the tradition as I remember it.  When people recall their memories of Christmas traditions, they spring from an amalgamation of memories that magically blend into their Christmas memory.  I am sure as I retell mine, my brothers and sisters, if they are reading, will tell me they remember it differently.  But then, this is my memory.

Christmas Eve always began the same way.  We were dressed, uncomfortably, in our finest clothes.  If you are imaging a fairly nerdy picture, you are right on target.  Once “suited” up, we would all pack into the family Ford Galaxy station wagon, fighting over who would get the “way back” seat, and head to church.  Of course not before my father would find an excuse to run back into the house for something he had forgotten.  Years later it would become obvious to me that this was the moment Santa got the gifts under the tree.  After our performance in the youth pageant at our church, we would receive our gift bag of peanuts and oranges and pack back into the station wagon absorbed in the vision of those Christmas gifts back home under the tree.  Not so fast.  The traditional Christmas Eve visit to my aunt’s house had to be endured first.  Now don’t get me wrong, I loved my aunt and she had a great house and tasty treats, but those gifts were just waiting for our return.  After what seemed like an eternity of visiting and Christmas carols played on her incredible church organ, we were finally back on the way home.  Once home, it was the mad cap opening of the gifts and then falling asleep on the couch as we watched “A Christmas Carol” with our dad.  This became a tradition that carried on into my own family and lasted well into their becoming adults.

But back to the point of this story.  This particular Christmas I had placed on my Christmas wish list this incredible, you put it together, metal tabs and sharp edges everywhere, model gas station / mechanics garage master piece.  I and my brother had the year before discovered where dad hid our gifts prior to the big day.  Knowing the secret, how could I resist?  Well I couldn’t and I didn’t.  There tucked behind the furnace, in all its glory, was the beautiful brightly colored box holding my model station dream. The secret was kept and all was fine until Christmas Eve.  There under the tree was my Santa gift.  Yes, you guessed it, the dream model station.  So there it was.  The reality hit home like a bullet.  There really wasn’t a Santa after all.  It was my parents, messing with me all along.

Now this blog could stop here, disappointment, realization, despair.  Okay, maybe a bit too dramatic.  What I learned at that point, besides not snooping around and ruining the surprise, was that my idea of Santa had to evolve.  Now I will tell you that it didn’t happen over night.  I was still a child for Pete’s sake.  It would take some time watching as my younger siblings went through their realization of the Santa process, coupled with enough growing up and observations for me to eventually come to my conclusion.

It turns out that Santa is a belief, no a necessity that lives inside the heart of each of us.  When we feed the imagination of a young child, when we reach out to someone in need, when we give to a charity or give our change to the person on the street corner, when we buy the anonymous gift for a coworker or neighbor, then in that act, Santa lives. We become Santa.

Children need no proof that there is a Santa.  They don’t need an explanation as to how he can visit every child in the world in one single night.  They need no evidence that reindeer can fly .  They just know it.  For me, every time I see an act of random kindness, every time I see someone open their heart and their wallet, I know it too.  Santa lives in everyone of us, and when we get old enough  to question the reality, we need to step into the myth.

Well its almost midnight and my grandson is fast asleep.  Guess I better get those Santa gifts under the tree.  So when did I stop believing in Santa?  Simple answer……I didn’t.

The True Columbia

Colombia journal day one:  Things I learned in a day


Just finished my first full day in Colombia and will record my thoughts while they are fresh in my mind.  It is amazing the things one can learn quickly when willing to pay attention in a foreign land.  The first thing I learned was that knowing even a little Spanish would have been very helpful.  Thankfully we had an incredible guide and interpreter with us.  Kathryn never ceases to amaze me with her ability to pick up the language as well as the local dialect.  It is hard to get a feel for things or be able to accomplish even simple tasks when the only Spanish I know is to tell them that I don’t know any Spanish.  The next thing I learned was that you need to get a handle on the currency.  Imagine my shock when I went to draw money from an ATM and the receipt comes back telling me that I have taken out $400,000 and my balance is $6,348,000.  Takes some getting used to when the sign says the soda is $800.  Good news, we’re getting that one under control with some improving math skills.  Lesson number three was that I may need the hair coloring after all.  When entering their state park, I was reminded that it was senior day and that since I clearly looked older than 60, I could get a discount.  The good news is that I entered the park almost for free, $7,000 vs $25,000 for the full price crowd.  What a deal.  Oh yeah, that’s just $4 after you do the math.  Then there was the papaya trick.  Turns out that papaya apparently smells like vomit to those without the right gene.  Of course if you can’t smell in the first place.  Needless to say I got to eat all the papaya, Kathryn and Bailey may have the smell gene but not the “I can eat papaya” gene.


What I really learned that was important is that Colombia is not the country so many Americans imagine it to be.  Where I pictured small little rural towns tucked far apart, I discovered Medellin with 3,000,000 people and nothing like I pictured it.  They have their own music and art, a beautiful city with an incredible transit system and a culture rich in its history.  The street vendors sell incredible juice drinks and the food is delicious.  Where we see drug cartels, they have done everything they can to rid their city and country of the problem.  Now if we would stop being such a demanding market for those drugs maybe things would improve even faster.  I am proud of Kathryn’s ability and willingness to step out of her comfortable life style and immerse her self in another culture and truly become a citizen of the country.  It is through her eyes that I can now learn all these lessons, especially the important ones.


Colombia journal day two:  And more lessons learned


Today proved to be an amazing day.  We spent the better part of it at a University held Aeisec event.  I got to watch and see what the group does and how Kathryn recruits.  The students who gathered to talk to the various delegates about their countries spent most of their time with us practicing their English and staring at the three Americans.  The number one question was always what do you think of Colombia?  With each new response I found myself naming something else.  I think I am most moved by their desire to know more about us.  It was a unique experience and a great way to better understand the Colombian culture.  Each group had a new place they wanted us to see.  They have so much pride in their country and they are a beautiful people.


In the morning, before the Aeisec event, we toured the downtown shopping district.  It is called Hueco (sounds like Wacko) and indeed lives up to its name.  It is a cacophony of color and noise as you weave through the streets full of kiosks and vendors.  I was overwhelmed but delighted.  From the number of stores carrying nothing but them, it is apparent that shoes seem to be the biggest commodity.  They were everywhere you looked with tennis shoes being the major variety.


We ended our day at the home of Kathryn’s boyfriend.  The hospitality was inspiring and the meal delicious.  We had practiced how to thank them and compliment the meal in anticipation and it was not premature.  The meal was authentic and served restaurant style which is how it is done in Colombia.  With some tasty Colombian beer and then fine Colombian coffee, the kind that would bring my wife to her knees, the meal was a feast.


One final lesson and one important to share.  When traveling by taxi, bus or auto, it is important to keep one’s eyes closed and all body parts inside the vehicle.  I would call it traffic but the word does not come close to conjuring up the proper image.  In Italy all roads lead to Rome.  In Colombia, all roads lead into your lane.  Leave eighteen inches and a motorcycle, one of a million on the streets, will occupy it.  Leave four feet and a bus will occupy it.  The motion is continuous and the speed menacing, but somehow it just keeps flowing.


And day two comes to a close.



Colombia journal day three:  Passing on the curve


We got to Kathryn’s school around 8 today.  We had taken a taxi and were not even out of the car when the chants of Kati, Kati, Kati started filling the air.  As we passed through the gates, she was literally mobbed by a host of small children.  What a way to start your teaching day.  Maybe kindergarten teachers get this treatment in America but not so much beyond that.  Here the value on education is so high and the opportunity to have someone teach them English is just so appreciated.


We spent the day with several classes ranging from year sixes up to the soon to graduate class of elevens with their proudly worn class of 2012 jackets.  We would do our presentations to the class and then they would break into groups and we would help them with their pronunciations as they read fairy tails in parts.  They were so shy but would then warm up and beg our help with the words.  They struggled in particular with past tense words as the “ed” is so difficult as well as the “th” sounds.  I am afraid that we lent a Midwest slang and accent to the whole process but they were so gracious.  They in turn tried to help us learn some Spanish and some hard pronunciations for us like the rolling double r sound.  They would all ask us to say the word and then roar in a great cascade of laughter.  Bailey even was asked by one of the year nines to present a quick math lesson.  She did not disappoint.  The day was an incredible experience and we talked about it for hours.


In the late afternoon we were driven along with Sister Irma and another teacher, Claudia, to a small town in the mountains.  The town was Santa Fe and was reached by driving over the mountain above Medellin.  The road was like any other mountain road, curvy and hanging on the edge at many points, but what an experience to take this trip Colombia style.  I spoke in an earlier journal entry of how insane the taxi and bus drivers are in the city, but this took it right to the edge.  Who would think of passing a vehicle uphill and on the curve?  The answer is apparently everyone!  I had the honor of the front seat on the way to Santa Fe and I just had to give up even watching and believe that they were so calm about it, that they make it seem completely normal.  To add further chaos to the mix, there were hundreds of motorcycles trying to share in this craziness and people casually walking the road as well.  All this while the busses and cars whizzed around at 50 miles an hour.  On the return trip, now in a bus, we got to witness some local color as one of the riders asked the bus to stop.  We were thinking he was merely exiting but he instead relieved himself on the side of the road and then climbed back aboard and we were back on our brake squealing ride.  All in all it was a beautiful trip and truly scenic and another of those days you must have in a foreign country to truly even begin to understand their way of life.  I’ll just never face a curve the same way again.


Colombia journal day four:  Butch and Sundance would have been proud


We headed for El Retiro early and traveled the hour into the mountains via bus.   We met up with the owner of a guide service and spent the morning with him learning about the region and actually ended up helping them with the town’s marketing campaign.  We were interviewed on film and then Kathryn interpreted for the viewers.  The region is known for its coffee, yes the fine Colombian kind.  You know, Juan Valdez.  We could not leave their offices without ample samples of some.  It is truly fine and that coming from me, a slouch at coffee drinking.  After a brief tour we were loaded onto our horses right in the town square and we were off.


Our guide, no habla inglas, was more than helpful.  Kathryn again stepped into the interpreter role and between the two of them we were well taken care of.  After a short ride down a back road, we entered the mountain meadows.  Sounds easy, but we were at the top of the mountain and spent the next hour working down steep grades to get to the valley below.  This is where my reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid comes in.  After all they ended their bank robbing careers in Colombia, so it was an easy step to feeling like we were in the movie.  The scenery was spectacular and after crossing a mountain stream repeatedly as we rode across the valley floor, we stopped for lunch in a meadow half way up the next ridge.


After resuming our ride we eventually worked our way through a long canyon and then back out of the mountains.  Now we could have just ridden back into town, but our guide decided we had done a great job for americanos and brought us to a cantina, where we tied up the horses and had our selves some Colombian drinks.  I would not do the name justice but it was a lot like tequila but much smoother.  After lingering about for almost an hour, expecting cowboys to saunter in at any minute, (and two actually did) we mounted back up and rode the rest of the way back to the town square.


Now this would have been enough to make the day a success, but more was in store.  The two gentlemen who had worked with us earlier, met us with Colombian coffee and a huge bouquet of flowers for Bailey and Kathryn.  After a tour of the markets in the square and a round of smooth Colombian cervezas, we had to bid them good bye.  They had practiced how to say good bye, and in halting English, told us it was a pleasure to meet us and of course asked us to come back.


This was the Colombia I was looking for.  We hold such a biased view of Colombia here in the states, but today and in fact all of the days so far, have shown us a beautiful country with proud and gracious people.  Where people told us to fear for our lives we in fact are having the time of our lives.  I will, with everyone I talk to, tell them what Colombia and its people are really like.  Today was like an exclamation mark.


Just a side note, I was originally going to title this planes, trains and automobiles.  We have now traveled by plane, train, taxi, bus and horse on this trip and we add paragliding tomorrow.  We only need a boat and a motorcycle to hit them all.


Colombia journal day five:  Fly like an eagle


To try to use words to describe what it is like to run off the edge of a mountain and then magically, serenely float into the sky is a pointless endeavor, but I will at least make the effort.


The day started early, as every day does here but today we are having some real anxiety issues that will need to become adrenaline if we are to go through with this day’s activity.  We are scheduled to paraglide from the top of one of the mountains above Medellin.  Our only solace is that Kathryn has already done it.  She is convincing us that it is a must to culminate our Colombia adventure.  With her guiding us, we set off for San Felix.  We will be over three thousand feet above the city of Medellin nestled in the valley below us.  The views we know will be spectacular but how do you overcome that pit in your stomach, aching to have you turn back.


We arrived in San Felix around ten and then waited for our pilots to arrive.  We watched as pair after pair dropped into the air from the peak above us.  It seemed so graceful that it gave us hope.  The pilots arrived about 30 minutes later and escorted us to the peak.  There we sensed the reality of it and the anxiety returned.  After another almost painful 20 minutes, we were told they were ready for us.  Fortunately they are so quick about the maneuver, “winds right we go”, that before we can even think about backing out we are strapped into our “chair”, a few quick instructions, “run then sit and I’ll do the rest”, and we are screaming toward the edge of the runway.  I use that word as it sounds so much more reassuring than edge of the mountain, a whole twenty yards away!


And then there is silence.  We are aloft and the sensation is to finally know what the birds feel.  I can feel the wind rushing through my canopy, my wings, and I see before me the entire world drifting far below me.  My thought was that we would start to sink earthward, there is gravity you know, but instead we start climbing higher.  The pilot effortlessly glides us over the landscape and picks and chooses where he wants us to go. We cross a canyon, sail over a waterfall, and silently slide past a village nestled high in a mountain valley just below the peak.  We pirouette and soar several times over the landing area before eventually gliding in to a soft landing just a few feet from where 30 minutes ago we had lifted off.  Jubilant I reach my hands to the sky and cheer for the sheer pleasure I have just experienced.  This 30 minutes will live a lifetime in my memories and will rank high as another great adventure shared.


Colombia journal day six:  What will I leave behind


Where do I begin with so many memories of this Country.  One that comes to mind immediately is the views of the city of Medellin nestled in the valley.  The houses rise up the mountain side to dizzying heights.  So high that the buses do not reach them.  The people must take gondola cars to reach the upper neighborhoods.  At night the lights from the city begin to glow in the downtown areas and then creep up the mountain side like a bowl being filled with milk.  The sight is so beautiful that you find yourself transfixed as it unfolds.


I will also leave behind the small villages, crowded around their town square as well as the rush of activity always present in that square.  The vendors with their colorful carts, the beautiful churches and the cantinas, all crowded around the square.  I will remember with fondness the two gentleman, Carlos and Franklin, whom we met in el Retiro.  They were so proud of their city and so gracious in taking us in.  When the evening finally had to end, we were saying goodbye to two new friends who insisted we had to come back.


I will miss waking up to the clouds rolling over the mountain tops and the noise of the city as it awakens.


I will leave behind the school children and their enthusiasm to learn English.  Their innocence and shyness just drew us in.  We left there with memories and images that will stay with us forever.


I will miss the street cafes and the delicious foods they serve.


I will even miss the metro and the hueco shopping district.  The sight of the metro teeming with people as it runs alongside the city streets in the night is somehow magical.  The fact that it can so quickly deliver you to the city’s sites, is so efficient.


But most of all I will leave behind the friends we made and the sights they were so proud to show us.  Colombia surprises you at every turn.  It is not what we are led to believe from the news.  I can forgive the media, for they only present the bad news from other countries, but one has to travel there and let the people and their culture surround you.  Stop being the tourist and try to become the citizen.  The surface peels away and the true nature of the country emerges.  I always feel just a little more worldly when I leave. I only hope that we left behind a better image of ourselves as well.



Adventures in Grocery Shopping

I will admit that I am in serious trouble when asked to go to a grocery store.  Before I can adequately tell my story, we will need to revisit the past.  When my first born was a small child, she and I would look forward to our Saturday trip to the grocery store with my wife.  I should clarify that while we looked forward to this, my wife did not savor the thought of having us go with her.  Never the less, her shopping list would be split between us and I and my daughter would be on our way.  Now understand that my daughter and I had a game.  We would attempt to satisfy an entire meal by visiting each of the vendor’s sampling booths.  This in turn led to a complete  abandonment of our half of the shopping list.  After much sampling, we would catch up to the other half of the list with our cart full of nothing from our required list.  This led to my ultimate lifetime ban from our Saturday grocery store adventures.

Though this episode might have been chalked up to a lack of discipline, it turns out that I am just a bit attention span distractable.  In my case, grocery stores are my nemesis.  On one misadventure, I found myself in a grocery store with one third of a list of items needed for a cottage weekend with a friend and my wife’s brother.  Old habits die hard and there I was heading toward the nearest sample booth.  I ask you, who could resist a Bubba Burger sample?  When finally tracked down by my two shopping partners, I was retasked to just get milk and eggs.  This seemed simple but once I realized that the milk selection area stretched for several yards with a host of varieties, sizes and dairies to choose from let alone that eggs could be bought in every conceivable size and assortment, all hope of success was abandoned.  I was then reassigned to securing potato chips with my friend now monitoring my every move.  I approached the Lay’s display at the aisle head trying to decide between barbecue, sour cream and onion, or plain old plain.  Three options, this should be a breeze.  Zeroing in on my choice, I was feeling quite confident when I hear my friend’s voice calling me from around the corner.  The scene that faced me was an entire aisle, seemingly a mile long, stacked with every conceivable packaging of potato chips in an infinite variety of flavors.  My question is how many brands of potato chips can there really be?  Faced with an entire aisle of this one product, I am ready for psychological help.  At this point I actually called my wife, who upon finding out that I was in a grocery store, stated in a near voice of panic, “save everyone, drop what you are doing and get back out to the car.”  This actually sounded like the police officer’s request to get your hands in the air and back away from the vehicle.  And I thankfully, for everyone involved, followed orders.

So this brings us to the present.  Due to a series of almost comical winter falls, my wife found herself in an arm sling and a complete leg brace.  Groceries were needed and her going there was out of the question.  After some serious consultation, it was decided that I was being sent in.  To say that this might have been one of history’s tragic mistakes, may just be an understatement.  My attention distractedness has by this time in my life reached new heights.  Upon arrival at this mega grocery store I am immediately overwhelmed by the sheer volume of aisles filled floor to way too high ceiling with every conceivable variety of grocery product known to the civilized world.  My list, which was already missing and retrieved by a trip back through the parking lot to its ultimate resting place, has but twenty items on it. How long can this really take?   Having eventually deciding on the appropriate size shopping cart, I am ready for my first “phone a friend”.  I call my wife to ask where I start in this maze of aisles, only to have her state that I start in Aisle 1 and work my way through each aisle.  This is helpful?  Really?  I am already mentally creating the “easily distracted, never grocery shopped as a profession”, grocery store arrangement.  Three to five aisles one brand of anything and a guide located at the head of each aisle.  And the journey begins.

First item up, toilet paper.  My wife wants the plush comfort style.  Seriously, they make uncomfortable toilet paper?  Turns out they actually do.  I eventually secure the correct brand, in the correct version and in the accurate packaging arrangement, six not four and certainly not the eight pack.  I am almost feeling cocky now, a serious misjudgement.  Next up, holiday paper plates.  To the trained professional shopper, it is understood that these are held in multiple store locations.  You apparently never know when you may suddenly decide to add paper plates to your list of necessities.  It turns out that the ones I needed were located in the candy section, this being clearly not a good location for a sugar junkie.  Smart product placement but not good.  I now make the first of my many eventual product return trips to replace the paper plates I purchased in the paper plate aisle.  What was I thinking?!!

I will spare you the story of the next 17 items but not before letting you know that they used up my next two “aisle shout outs”.  I have by this time discovered that there are three varieties of male grocery shoppers. The first is the seasoned bachelor who actually has figured out the process, very likely through a book on “successful grocery store shopping for dummies”, but like a true male, he is a hunter.  No particular pattern, just your random aisle jumping to complete a list in alphabetic order.  You will cross paths with him multiple times in your journey.  DO NOT WASTE AN AISLE SHOUT OUT ON HIM, he is focused and has no time for your incompetence.  Read the book before you venture out again.  The second shopper is the male in the guardianship of the shopping spouse.  These are easily identified by their stooped over appearance, leaning on the shopping cart and following behind the spouse who occasionally is heard barking out orders to “try and keep up”.  And then there is the third species of which I am clearly one.  We wander aimlessly up and down each aisle trying to be saved by the seasoned female shopper.  I actually found myself following one and after she would rapidly narrow down her selection to the one brand she wanted, move on efficiently to the next item on her list.  I somehow decided that I should just grab another of what ever she had chosen and claim it as my own.  This had to be a cost and time saving method.  But then I came to the sad realization that all but one of the items were not even on my list.  And again I am back to returning products misguidedly appropriated.

So finally, I find myself down to my last two items, apple cider and microwave popcorn.  I approach the frozen food aisle.  Now for those of you seasoned veterans reading my desperate blog, you are asking yourself why are you in the frozen food aisle looking for microwave popcorn?  Not surprisingly so is the woman whom I have passed for my third rotation through the stacked freezer compartments.  Sensing I may be hopelessly lost and possible facing a slow starvation death in the final aisle of this grocery store, surrounded by food but not able to reach the checkout aisle, she asks what I am looking for.  She asks me curiously, and even politely, why I think microwave popcorn would be in the frozen foods section?  I state that it is where I find it in our house.  Little known secret here, or at least an urban myth I have fallen prey to, it pops better if kept frozen.  Didn’t know that was my task upon arriving home but not the grocery store’s method of storing.  She then kindly, almost with pity, explained that I would find it in the snack aisle.  “Any chance that is near by” I ask?  Of course not as remember this is an adventure.  It will be found in the first aisle I went through, that’s right, Aisle 1.

Any chance I will run across apple cider on the way?