The first time my host mom handed me a candle, I asked what it was for. Looking back I realize asking who it was for probably would have been a better question. She responded with only two words: “a prender” (to light). Unfortunately for me, I had never heard that word before, and it sounded exactly like a word I do know: “aprender” (to learn). I was utterly confused, wondering what I was supposed to be learning. About the traditions? About the people who have died? How to light a candle? My misunderstanding led to several odd conversations throughout the night, until finally someone realized I didn’t know that word and said “encender” (which also means to light).
Yesterday was Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles), the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the start of the Christmas season in Colombia (you can find my pictures from the festival and read more about it here). When my host dad asked me to light the candles to place in front of the house I couldn’t help but laugh at myself a bit. And yet I also realized the irony of my confusion. While I was lighting candles, I was also learning. I learned about the traditions of my host family and town. I learned why these festivals are important and how much they mean to the people who participate. I learned how it feels to light candles in honor of people (something I had never done before), a feeling I can’t quite put into words. While my host family was telling me to light candles, they were also reminding me of why I am here: to listen, to experience, to participate, and most importantly, to learn.