By Renée S. Gordon
Forty-five years ago the first Smithsonian Folklife Festival (SFF) took place on the US National Mall in Washington, D.C. This cultural heritage event, one of the largest and most prestigious of its kind, showcases living traditions from around the globe. Over the course of its history the two-week festival has introduced nearly 50-million people to more than 90 nations, 100 tribes and every region within our own country. www.festivals.si.edu
Each festival presents a schedule of daily programs that include interactive workshops, performances, and demonstrations that highlight the culinary, music, textile, crafts and oral traditions of international communities. Evening concerts and Festival food concessions preparing traditional cuisine enhance the experience and allow visitors to explore the culture at a deeper and more authentic level. There are interactive areas designed for children and families and a creative website filled with activities and games to both broaden their exposure during and maintain their interest after the festival. Numerous items are for sale in the Festival Marketplace so that festival attendees can take home an art, craft, music or food products that is unique to the featured areas and may have been created by the showcased artists.
This event is one of North America’s biggest parties and it is totally free. It is completely accessible to the handicapped and provides American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters as well as tactile and verbal description tours. Reservations are recommended. Information on the 2012 Festival can be obtained online.
The SFF is also much more than a party. It is an explosion of culture and ethnicity that celebrates international diversity and the traditions that have kept the culture vibrant and alive and have managed to survive into the 21st Century. It is credited with being a model for UNESCO’s 2003 International Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Since 1989 UNESCO has been addressing the issue of maintaining and valuing cultural heritage in the face of increasing globalization, largely through sustainable development, inter-cultural dialogue and low-impact tourism. In 2001 UNESCO issued the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, equating cultural rights with human rights. As a partner in this endeavor the Smithsonian Folklife Festival selects a country as the showcased destination and over a multi-year period, artisans, craftsmen and performers are meticulously selected to represent the country’s diversity in people, craftsmanship, history and cuisine to encourage tourism, experience the area first hand and encourage positive perceptions. This year’s featured country was the Republic of Colombia in northwestern South America and it was a revelation.
The Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the countries of Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela bound Colombia. It has the world’s greatest number of bird species, the second largest number of types of amphibians and plants and a vast number of unique customs and practices due to its Indian, Spanish and African heritage.
The first inhabitants were Amerindians who lived in agrarian communities. Records indicate that Spanish conquest began around 1499 and people of African descent were among the conquistadors. By 1535 they had established the Viceroyalty of New Granada, consisting of Colombia and the adjacent regions, and founded the first permanent settlement of Santa Marîa. Santa Marîa is the oldest remaining city in the country and is a popular heritage tourism destination.
The earliest documented African slaves were shipped to Colombia in 1550 to serve as a labor force. They were instrumental in the origination of gold extraction, cattle ranching and the production of sugar cane. Upon landing many Africans exhibited their hatred of enslavement by escaping and living as maroons in free villages known as palenques. The modern Fiesta in Palenque, a traditional Afro-Colombian dance from San Basilio, once a maroon village, has been designated a UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Historians note that in Simon Bolivar’s fight for freedom more than 50% of his army was of African descent. Interestingly, in 1757 in El Retiro, the first instance of voluntary manumission of slaves in the Americas occurred in Colombia. Doña Javiera Londoño, a widow, freed all 127 of her slaves.
In 1819 the Republic of New Granada, consisting of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, was founded after independence was gained from Spain. Slavery was abolished in 1851.
A great lure for travelers is the unique activities and sites in the country’s six ecosystems, the Andean Highlands, the Amazon Tropical Rainforest, the Southeastern Plains, the Coffee Region, the Pacific Rainforest and the Momposino Depression and three large metropolitan centers of Bogotá, Calî and Medellín. Regional specific experiences such as gold mining in the Pacific Rainforest and weaving in the Savannah can be arranged.
Colombia has six sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. They include the Historic Centre of Santa Cruz de Mompox, the 278-sq. mile Los Katíos National Park. Malpelo Island Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, the National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro, the colonial Port, Fortresses and Group of Monuments, Cartagena, pre-Columbian San Agustín Archaeological Park and the Coffee Region.
Some of the most interesting experiences are to be had while touring the Coffee Cultural Landscape. Coffee growth is a vital part of Colombia’s economy and has had a huge impact on its culture. Visitors can arrange to stay on a plantation and participate in every step of the growth process. Juan Valdez was created here in 1959 and he and Conchita, his mule, have represented 100 percent Colombian coffee ever since.
You will also learn about the Willys Jeeps, WWII vehicles now used to transport more coffee bags than you can imagine. Jeeps are packed by skilled yiperos, who learned their skill from packing mules. If you are very lucky you might get to witness a rodeo where jeeps are fully loaded and typically race on only two wheels.
Special packages and outstanding dining and accommodations await you. Information is available online. www.colombia.travel
If you are looking for an authentic cultural or active tourism experience “Consider Colombia”, you won’t regret it.
I wish you smooth and diverse travels!
The Martin Luther King Memorial Dedication is scheduled to take place in Washington, DC on August 28, 2011, 48 years after the delivery of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The 11 AM dedication will be preceded by a 10 AM concert and followed by a concert at 2 PM. Tickets were made available through a lottery system that is now closed but there is a designated public section that is not as accessible but does not require a ticket. www.mlkmemorial.org
A number of hotels in the DC area are offering “Build the Dream” packages that include tickets and a variety of other perks. www.washuington.org
The Washington, DC Fairmont Hotel offers a package that includes two tickets, breakfast and a “Build a Dream Wristband” that represents a donation to the memorial fund. 1-800-441-1414 or www.fairmont.com
The Hotel Monaco has no specific Dream Package but it has been rated one of the top hotels in the US. The accommodations are luxurious and the service is exemplary and best of all, the hotel is totally pet friendly. They will even lend you a pet goldfish during your stay if you are suffering from separation anxiety. www.monaco-DC.com