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Bogotá Part I: Passover, Semana Santa, and Celebrating My Arrival in Colombia

Having lived away from my “home” country and family for most of my life, I never developed a soft spot for holidays. We don’t have family traditions cultivated over years and years of celebrating Passover or Rosh HaShana. I remember celebrating one Passover in San Diego with our Muslim neighborhood tailor and Christian friend. Another I celebrated in Boston with a childhood friend of my father, who had become religious since my dad last saw him over 20 years ago. That was my longest Seder, as the Hagadah was read in Turkish, English, and Ladino! In Israel, my sister and I always receive multiple invitations from distant relatives and friends. Last Rosh Hashana, I was in Ko Lanta, Thailand and celebrated entering the Jewish New Year splurging at the Pimalai Restaurant with an Israeli-Dutch couple we had met that day.

No matter where I am on holidays, alone I am not but most likely not with my family either. Even with my missed-flight episode, I was to do the Passover Seder with a Bogotan Jewish family, who had generously invited me spend my first few days in Colombia at their home.

“You are arriving in the worst possible week,” they had told me when I informed them of my date of arrival. “It’s Semana Santa and Bogotá is going to be empty!” How empty could a 7-million city get? I wondered.

From one home-away-from-home in Paris to another in Bogotá, my hosts picked me up from the airport and we drove in uncharacteristically empty streets to the northern part of the city where they live. Apparently it is possible to witness such traffic-free streets only a few days out of the year. If smooth rides through the city are what empty Bogotá was to offer, I had no complaints, especially after an 11-hour plane ride.

The streets may have been empty of cars but the Unicentro Mall, which was my first attraction in the city, was certainly not empty of shoppers. It took me over an hour to purchase a Colombian SIM card!

The following three days, I experienced Bogotá as a member of its some 2000 Jewish residents. Instead of Hostel dorms, city-tours, or views of backpackers tramping the streets, I got a massage at the Carmel Country Club, which is where the Jewish Bogotans spend their weekends.

Relaxed after my massage at Carmel Country Club, Bogotá

Relaxed after my massage at Carmel Country Club, Bogotá

The club has a big golf course, tennis courts, pool, and two restaurants. According to my insider information, when some European Jews arrived in Colombia in 1920s they weren’t allowed in the existing country clubs of Bogotá and thus built this club in the outskirts of the city. Now situated rather centrally, it provides families an oasis in the middle of this crazy city. In a city where it’s dangerous to take your cell phone out on the street, the club is where the kids can play, ride their bikes, and run free.

My Colombian Passover dinner was delicious fusion of Polish, Panaman and Colombian cuisines. It was a different Passover, with different people, most of them familiar to me only since a couple of days. As my phone filled with messages from my family and pictures of their own celebrations, I felt bittersweet. I am in South America only three days, I couldn’t already be homesick! But as I read the Hagadah in Spanish and sang the familiar songs in Hebrew, I slowly started to lounge more comfortably in my chair, and not only because as such commands the Seder.


Passover in Bogotá

Passover in Bogotá

If I had to describe my first few days in South America in one word, it would be vertigo. I could blame the highest capital of the world and altitude sickness or jet lag, but the truth is that I was freaking out. I was feeling dizzy—from the multiple daily instructions on how to avoid getting mugged or held at gunpoint for a few thousand pesos, from the fact that I had no idea what awaited me on my solo journey, from the fear that I wouldn’t manage on my own. I was feeling dizzy and I would be lying if I didn’t think about going back home immediately.


And as paradoxical as it might sound, the comfort and warmth with which my amazing hosts were providing me was making me even more nervous. It seemed like I was always about to start traveling alone, but kept being embraced by local families that took me in as their own be it in Paris or Bogotá. I would eventually be in a hostel, sleeping in a bunk bed among strangers but the time seemed to just not arrive. The anticipation kept me up all night and at six a.m. on my fourth day in Bogotá, I packed my bag, thanked my hosts and took a taxi to the Anandamai Hostel in the historical center of the city, La Candelaria.


Saying goodbye to my Colombian family…



From celebrating the exodus from Egypt in northern Bogotá, I arrived in the center of the celebrations of Jesus’s resurrection in La Candelaria. Vertigo left my body and my second episode in Bogota washed away my anxiety but I am saving all that for the next post 🙂

Passover is a celebration of freedom, Easter of rebirth. I couldn’t have started my journey at a better time.

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P.S. A heartfelt thank you to my Bogotan famil(ies). I feel blessed to have had the chance to celebrate Pesah with you and look forward to meeting again, wherever it may be!