A colorful ride on a chiva with each sip of Los Andes coffee

Traveling at top speed on paved roads, windows rolled up, the A/C blasting and music blaring, is to go on a race against the clock–and against nature. Enclosed behind glass, the treetops and grasses outside merge into a fuzzy green wall, any life inside the vegetation hidden and forgotten.

If riding in a car like that is like living in a city apartment, climbing aboard a chiva is like camping under the stars.

The Colombian chiva, also known as a “ladder”, is a truck converted into a bus, adapted to road conditions in the rural mountainous area of the paisa coffee-growing region, and the traditional form of public transportation in the Colombian coffee lands of the central Andes range.

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Waiting along the roadside to be picked up by the chiva.

How to distinguish a chiva from the multitude of other forms of public transport? While many buses and trucks in Colombian cities have a spattering of the patriotic red, yellow, and blue, the chiva is a colorful macaw. Whereas the municipal buses limit their paint to somber lines, the chiva is a frenzy of exotic geometric designs. The artist Carlos Pineda traced its similarities to the mandalas of India and published a coloring book (for children and adults alike) to meditate on the mandalas of the chivas converted into black and white. To watch the process and lose yourself in the dizzying video of the designs, watch until the end of “Mandalas del Camino“.

Another essential design element of the ladder bus is a lack of windows along the passenger seats. This allows drivers and their assistants to step directly onto the wooden frame and use the entire vehicle as a ladder to load onto the roof the farmers’ sacks of goods: from jute bags of green coffee to sell in the village to sacks of rice bought on the return trip. It wouldn’t be unusual to see a pig or chicken heaved onto the roof, but one day I would love to see a chiva (in Spanish it means goat) carrying an actual goat!

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Author with her friends riding the chiva.

A breeze sweeps your skin. The slow-moving vehicle itself doesn’t generate much of a breeze, allowing you time to observe in detail nature passing by within arm’s reach on the roadside. It is an opportunity to be in contact with natural life, and with human life. Instead of individual chairs, passengers sit side by side on a single long bench, like attending one of the Catholic churches whose spires tower above every paisa village.

The other passengers are surely peasants, and in the paisa coffee zone of Antioquia, Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda, they are most likely coffee growers. According to the Tourist Guide of Antioquia, this form of transportation “arrived in Antioquia in 1908”. The Antioquian municipality of Andes, the commercial capital of the southwest and hub of the coffee economy of Antioquia for more than 100 years, declared in 2004 that the chiva was part of their cultural heritage.

Antioquia es un Caramelo chivas Andes
Photography by Daniel Cifuentes

At the Andes transportation terminal, “55 chivas that still provide regular service to the 62 rural villages of the municipality” are stationed. Daniel Augusto Cifuentes Sierra captured this scene in this photograph, published in the 2014 book Vistas de Antioquia by the Viztaz Foundation, dedicated to preserving the area’s cultural memory. According to the paisa photographer who works with coffee growers in the area, “Ladder buses are without a doubt the most colorful jewels of Antioquia and the main means of transport in the rural area.”

The Andean Coffee Growers Cooperative pays homage to the chivas that transport their members with coffee bags to sell, toast, and export to countries like the United States. In a special edition, the packaging of their roasted coffee bags is stamped with colorful chiva designs.

This is the coffee we drink. Coffee enveloped in the peasant tradition. As hot as it gets in the summer in Texas, I try to take a few sips sitting outside, with the breeze playing on my skin, just like when riding a chiva.

Do you dare to roll down the window, stick out your arm, and feel nature? Hop on the chiva to enjoy this coffee produced in the green mountains of the Andes.

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Biking to work not only on Earth Day or in May: Two cyclists go the distance for sustainable commuting

I have the shortest, quickest, cleanest work commute: from the bed to the desk. I work from home, and it’s wonderful. To attend an event or meet with a client here in Denton, Texas, I always try to ride my bike.

My Midwestern parents raised us to bike anywhere you needed to go, unless it’s snowing, sleeting, or hailing. My professor father wheels through slushy streets, and the neighboring college kids drive past yelling, “See you in class!” A wee bit competive, he pedals faster to holler back “I’ll be waiting for you!”

So I wasn’t surprised when my brother entered in a bike race in sunnier South Carolina. The city of Greenville held a commuting competition today to celebrate Earth Day 2017 by pitting car vs. bus vs. bike. My brother, Tim Hibbard, started the company EnGraph to make transportation routes more efficient through GPS. Of course Tim knew the fastest, smartest, cheapest way to get to the City Hall: on bike. And he didn’t have to cut any corners (or even wear spandex) to win the race fair and square. A win for the Earth, and for commuting cyclists everywhere.

My husband, Daniel Cifuentes, comes from “The City of Eternal Spring”, where weather is never an excuse not to bike. Even towering Andes mountains are no obstacle. Here in flat Texas, he hadn’t reckoned on the force of prairie winds whipping across open ranches, nor the whoosh of extra-wide trucks roaring down the highway. He took them on in full force smack in the middle of March winds for his inaugral bike commute of over twenty miles to the coffee roasting company Farmer Brothers. Daniel helps farmers sustainably grow coffee, and in the name of sustainability he pedal-powered himself to work on March 17, 2017.

I interviewed Tim Hibbard and Daniel Cifuentes on biking to work for Earth Day. Could it be done every day?

Tinto Tinta Translations (TTT): Where do you live, where do you work, and what’s the distance between them?

Tim Hibbard (TH): I live in downtown Greenville and I work in a neighborhood called the village of West Greenville in an old textile mill that’s been converted into a coworking space. That is about 3.5 miles each way.

Today’s race was from a Walgreens in a neighborhood called Silverbrook to City Hall in downtown, and that ended up being about 3.3 miles.

Daniel Cifuentes (DC): I live in Denton, which is in the north of Texas, within the DFW area. I work in Farmer Brothers, which is located in Northlake. It’s halfway between Denton and Ft. Worth on I-35W. Between my work and my home there are 22-23 miles.

TTT: How do you normally commute to work?

TH: I always go on bike. We only have one car. So I bike.

DC: I drive my own car to work most of the time. I have a coworker that lives in the same city and sometimes we carpool together. I just tried once to bike to my work.

TTT: Are there any other options available, like mass transit or carpooling?

TH: Yep, there a couple of bus stops close by to where I live, and I’ll take those sometimes if it’s really raining, but I have to transfer and so that takes a while. If it’s raining I’ll typically just wait and work from home for a little bit, because I have that as an option. I pretty much always bike.

DC: There is a new route that the Ft. Worth transportation company started October last year. It’s called the Express North route, number 64, that goes from downtown Ft. Worth to downtown Denton. But the price is a little bit expensive, and it stops at the Alliance airport, which is around 3 miles from my office. So I would need to walk or bike those 3 miles, but the road is on Interstate 35 and it’s not safe.

TTT: Why did you choose to bike to work that day? Had you biked there before or was this the first time? 

TH: I bike there every day.

DC: That was my first time. I wanted to know if I could do it more often. I wanted to test the route and the tolerance of Texas drivers. To see how easy it was, how long it would take me to get there, to see if it’s a viable option for my commute. It’s something I can do maybe once per month. It’s not a viable option to do on a daily basis.

TTT: Were you able to ride in bike lanes or sidewalks, or did you share the road?

TH: Race: This particular route started out on a 4-lane arterial route, but it was only that way for a block or two. Then it went to a 2-lane road with a sharrow, but as we got closer to downtown the last 2 miles was all bike lane.

Normal commute: I have an option of bike lanes 100% of the way. I usually go a way that is a little bit faster but without bike lanes.

DC: I took an alternative route 377, that goes parallel to I-35. I was sharing the road with cars, but the road had a big shoulder so I felt safe riding that way.

TTT: How did the motorized commuters treat you? Did they give you wide berth? Did they heckle you? How do you feel sharing the road with drivers?

TH: For the most part the drivers are respectful. I make sure that they see me, that I have my lights on, that I’m visible. I try not to surprise drivers. You’re always going to have the few that don’t like bikers and are going to honk, that don’t like you being there. For the most part the drivers are pretty good.

DC: I felt safe. A couple of cars waved at me and kind of encouraged me to keep going. But there are some big trucks that threatened me a little bit, not because they were driving close to me, but just because they’re big and they were driving fast. If one of them is distracted, like texting, then maybe because of the size of the car it could hit me, so that was a little scary.

TTT: Was there ever any moment when you feared for your life? You’re wearing a helmet, but other drivers have steel and more protective elements. How exposed do you feel?

TH: I feel safe because I pay really close attention, but I’ve been suprised before so I just try to remain very diligent. Yes I do feel safe when I’m biking. There’s a lot more that we can do and that we should be doing, because most people would not feel safe. There are options, like protected bike lanes. There are easy things cities can do, as far as moving how cars park along the street to create protected bike lanes without actually doing anything but repaint parking strips. Cities need to be paying attention to those things and doing those things so more bicyclists feel safe biking down the road.

DC: No. I’ve been biking all my life, and I feel safe when I do so. The drivers were not aggressive, but maybe are more so on I-35. This road has stoplights and the speed limit is less, so maybe they drive a little more cautiously.

TTT: What were the road conditions? Any challenges with obstructions, like parked cars, low tree branches, or broken glass?

TH: In the downtown area Greenville does a really good job of keeping the streets clean. A lot of time road debris ends up in the bike lanes, but Greenville does a good job of keeping those bike lanes clean. There’s never an issue with junk in the bike lanes.

DC: No, the condition of the road was very good. The only hard condition that I had to face was the wind. It slowed me down a lot.

TTT: How could your commuting route be made make more bike-friendly?

TH: The number one thing is protected bike lanes. All cities should be looking at that. Another thing that they could do that is easy is looking at how lights are timed, especially on routes that are uphill. I have one uphill climb in particular in the downtown core, and I’ll hit every red light. I have a way that’s 100% bike lane, but I choose to go another way because on that road the lights are timed slower. I’d rather share with cars and hit green lights then have my own bike lane and go slower stopping at every single red light (and be going uphill at the same time). Cities have computers that can run models to determine effects of traffic lights and what would happen to congestion if they changed the designed speed of that road in order to make it more friendly for bicyclists.

DC: I feel there’s enough space in the road to mark the shoulders with bike signs or put some signs on the road so that the cars know they’re sharing the road, so they’re more aware of us bikers. That would improve the road.

TTT: How could fellow commuters make it less intimidating to be out on the road on a bike?

TH: The onus is really on the bicyclists. There are a lot of bicyclists that do things that make drivers upset. They run stop lights, they run stop signs, they cut in and out, they ride three-people deep, they block people. One bad bike rider will really spoil the bunch. A lot of drivers don’t like bicyclists because they can be jerks and act entitled. We need to be respectful. Just as we want our space on the road, we need to give vehicles their space on the road, and we can both be happy. I really think it’s on the bicyclists to be good examples. And then the drivers will be more likely to be more respectul to us.

DC: If they are more aware of the bikers because there are signs and there are spaces where bikes have a priority, maybe they will drive a little more carefully, knowing they’re sharing the road with someone with less protection.

TTT: How could your work space make it more inviting to arrive on bike? More secure bike racks? Financial incentives similar to bus passes given to other commuters?

TH: They do a great job. As far as a bus pass, my company pays for public transit. The actual facility has indoor bike parking with locks, showers, lockers. They’re very bike-friendly. I could not be happier with where I bike to.

DC: I think it’s hard for my workplace to do so because we’re located on the side of an interstate road. I don’t see it as very feasible for my workplace to do activities that promote biking to work. We’re in front of the Texas Motor Speedway and it’s only used 4 to 5 times a year, so maybe they can encourage us to bike some loops around the speedway.

TTT: Are sweaty shirts and helmet hair a factor? How can you arrive to work on bike while keeping a professional appearance? 

TH: Nope, we have showers. Yeah, you don’t want to be that guy.

DC: No, because we have showers at my workplace. I can change my clothes.

TTT: What would you say to your coworkers who live close enough to ride but haven’t considered it an option yet?

TH: Yes, there are those people, but they are becoming less and less because more and more people are biking to work; it’s great. There are probably 10 of us that bike pretty much every day, out of the 70 people who work in the coworking facility; that’s a really good number. So, many people are biking to work. To the people who aren’t: give it a try once. If you hate it, then at least you tried.

DC: I would say that the people who live close can talk about it with others and form a group of 4-5 people. So if they’re afraid of the road and that a car can hit them, they’ll be in a group and more visible.

TTT: Do you plan to commute to work again?

TH: Yes ma’am, every day.

DC: Yes, I want to do it at least once a month.

TTT: Will you do anything differently next time?

TH: No, I’m happy with the route. The weather’s nice. I really like it.

DC: I think the only thing that was hard was the wind, and that’s something that’s beyond my control. Next time I will take the same route. Besides the wind, there’s nothing else I would change.

TTT: How do you think the city should interpret the results from today’s race, the fact that you won as a biker?

TH: I think in most situations the bike’s going to win, just because there are so many ways it’s more convenient. Today’s results show that we’re off to a good start. With continued investment in biking infrastructure, especially with protected lanes, we can make it even easier for more people to bike to work every day.

***

May is National Bike Month. May 19 is National Bike to Work Day. We can make biking not just an annual event, but a regular part of our lifestyle and work culture. Tim is committed to biking every day, and Daniel every month.

They are aware of their role in making cycling more prevalent. What can you do?

Bikers: Be visible, be alert, and have increased awareness that you’re sharing the road.

Drivers: Become accustomed to seeing cyclists respectfully following traffic laws, and reciprocate the respect.

Cities: Provide better signage and designated spaces to ride and park bicycles.

Workplaces: Provide safe places to park bikes and shower facilities.

Join Tim and Daniel in creating a healthy workforce that actively reduces our environmental impact on Earth Day and everyday.

Gardening mysteries unraveling in March winds

My left thumb has been itchy lately. I’ve been yanking up scratchy thistle, and I got a bee sting there a couple days ago. Clearly (or dirtily) the left is the green thumb for gardening, following the rhyming logic that my right is for writing. After translating resources with clear instructions for sustainable agriculture with tropical crops like coffee and cacao, I walk into the wild unknown of my own subtropical kitchen garden.

Exploring gardening in Texas, during my first growing season here, is mostly a joyous experience of marveling at nature’s mysteries.

Just like in Manizales, seasons are thrown with gusto to the wind. It can feel like spring at dawn, summer all day long, and fall right before dusk…during a November winter.

Faithful to the start of the adage on March storms, tornado winds this week shredded my milk-jug-encased tomatoes straight down the middle of the stem, yet didn’t even tussle four-foot-tall arugula. The garlic in the middle of still-straight cilantro simply folded over because it’s time to ripen, tornado or not.

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Flowering arugula smells sweet like jasmine, as the leaves get ever more peanut-buttery potent. It’s an exhilaratingly sensorial confusion to nibble and sniff at the same time. Coffee flowers similarly remind me of jasmine, but peanut butter was the one American treat I always missed in coffee-growing countries. Arugula strangely straddles that rift in cultural cuisines.

This particular plant came out of a mystery pack of jumbled seeds from a garage sale, was the only one to bolt from two beds, and chose to do so right on the edge of the patio.

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Clover seeded last summer luckily flowered for St. Patrick’s Day and started to attract pollinating bees, but I got a bee sting all the way downtown at a Keep Denton Beautiful (beauty-full of flowering Redbuds) event. I hung up a birdhouse only for a wasp to make its nest.

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There’s no rhyme or reason to when roses appear, whether tended or ignored. Mint comes back with a vengeance if mowed over, but dies when gingerly transplanted. Tropical ginger couldn’t hack the dry Texas heat, but the coffee hasn’t given up.

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We were charged with babysitting someone’s special organic jalapeño seedlings potted in black gold soil compared to our backyard’s clay bricks, and each one died. Just regular seeds out of fruits from the Mexican market gave us 99% germination on bell peppers and habaneros that overwintered wonderfully. In Colombia we danced salsa; in Texas we grow salsa!

IMG_7454The greatest mystery lately has been what’s sprouting from the unfinished compost I spread over the beds when spring planting time arrived months earlier than expected. The compost from last fall’s garden held the remains of a couple of successfully sweet cantaloupes, several smashed pumpkins from the neighbors that go overboard for Halloween, a boatload of unripe watermelon from an early winter snap, and umpteen vine-borer-infested butternut squash.

Today I moved a mound of leaf bags and squashed underneath I found seedlings with seeds attached: they’re watermelon. But I firmly believe that some others are undefeated squash.

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As Masanobu Fukuoka expressed in The One-Straw Revolution, seemingly random growth is not wrong; it’s entirely natural.

Lil’ D limericks

If the Irish get kisses for wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, what would happen if everyone acted green the rest of the year? The earth will kiss us back and provide a home to sustain us for more years to come.

In celebration of sustainability, and in honor of the NPR show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” (I won’t, ’til the end) I have created my reader’s challenge of limericks for Denton, Texas on this St. Patrick’s Day.

May the Irish luck be with ye.

 

Even in Ireland they can hear Big Ben,

Tick-tick stick to schedule in London.

But this town’s downtown tower

doesn’t show the correct hour,

for life moves at a southern pace in ________.

 

Folks here are creative, always inventin’.

Raise backyard chickens, just keep ’em penned in.

Get your craft on at SCRAP.

Stand up, sing, dance, or rap.

Be original, stay ___________.

 

Two universities bring in the brains,

Metroplex growth with construction cranes.

A pity, given the proximity,

bad public transit to the city;

Yet at all hour we hear loud honking ________.

 

On second-hand loving Denton is keen.

Recycled gives books another chance to be seen.

Twice As Nice is a fab thrift store.

Habitat has paint, wood, and more.

Not just the Irish are proud to be _________.

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If you too love just about everything about living in Lil’ D, especially its freethinkin’ folks, but wish there were even more environmental initiatives, then send in your limerick answers* and sustainable suggestions in the comment box below.

Or submit your own limericks in homage to your hometown or adapted city!

To get thoughts rolling before pitching Big Ideas for Denton at Stoke next Monday, here’s a short list of my ideas for a greener Denton:

Alternative transportation

  • More commuter trains (A-train on weeknights, connection to Ft. Worth) and less frightfully noisy freight trains (plant more trees along the tracks as a sound barrier?)
  • Bicycle racks in front of stores. Some places (SCRAP, Ravelin Bakery) have let us bring our bikes inside, apologizing that the city doesn’t allow bikes to be parked outside.
  • Bike-awareness as a component of driver’s education and driver’s license renewal. Some drivers act openly aggressive toward cyclists, some only look for other cars before turning, and others are too busy on their phone to notice a bike until it’s too late.

Waste reduction

  • Weight sensors on the garbage trucks to charge each household by the amount of trash they generate each week. Water, electricity, and natural gas are based on consumption. It seems unfair to charge a flat rate to two houses, when one has an overflowing oversized garbage bin every week and another puts out a small bin every two weeks.
  • Biodegradable, green-tinted bags for yard waste to be composted, not landfilled. Neighborhood composters looking for leaves don’t know if the curbside stack of black garbage bags contains future soil or plastic trash.
  • Ban on leafblowers. Texas is windy, y’all. After an hour blowing the leaves to the other side of the street, the wind blows them right back. It’s pointless, loud, and wasteful. A rake does the job silently, efficiently, and using human power.

Food production

  • Farmers’ markets in northern and southern neighborhoods, just like banks have branches distributed across the city.
  • Incentives for homesteading similar to the programs in Kansas, to encourage organic farmers unable to afford the higher prices for smaller acreages.
  • Combat invasive weeds like Johnson grass with ground cover like clover (my white clover patch had perfect timing flowering today). Shamrocks for the win! ♣

Share your ideas, and we might all be lucky enough to have the city implement them.

*Are you one of those people who scatter Cheerios all over the breakfast table trying to look at the upside down answers to the word scramble on the back of the cereal box?

Please don’t spill my blog.

uǝǝɹƃ ‘suᴉɐɹʇ ‘ʇuǝpuǝdǝpuᴉ ‘uoʇuǝp :sɹǝʍsu∀

Putting the green in holiday greenery, with a pop of red

There is a lot of greenery in holiday decorations, but not a lot of green.

  • Our neighbors have left their Christmas lights on all night long since before December.
  • UPS has been bringing a package to the neighbors nearly every day since Black Friday. Inefficient deliveries means online shopping isn’t more environmentally friendly than driving once to the mall. (How about a discount if you opt to lump all your household’s purchases spread out over several weeks into a single monthly delivery?)
  • Single-serve aluminum baking pans and disposable champagne glasses are designed for holiday office parties or hosts who can’t bother to cook and then wash dishes afterwards too.
  • After the flurry of unwrapping, the mounds of paper, ribbons, bows, and probably a little kid’s already lost new toy, are whisked up in a pile for the garbage.
  • Unwanted gifts, notably the ugly-on-purpose white elephants, are given for a chuckle, then tossed.
  • The everyone-must-have-it-and-so-shall-I item is purchased at all cost, only to be relegated to the back of a closet stuffed with last season’s trends. A lady paid $300 for a Hatchimal in an online auction! That much money can buy a whole chicken coop set-up with a flock that will lay edible eggs every day all through next Christmas.

This year, our first living in the United States, we wanted to make at least a two-person dent in America’s Christmas-time consumption. We went for a hike in the forest while everyone was stuffing themselves silly at Thanksgiving, and the next day picked up free pecans straight from the trees while everyone was shopping on Black Friday, purportedly to help bring businesses out of the red. For the greenery, I didn’t need to spend green; I just had to look outside.

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Navidad 2011 in Jardín, Colombia. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

I hadn’t had a proper backyard garden since we lived in Jardín, Colombia, where every vividly painted balcony had a little old lady stooped over with a watering can. It didn’t matter if the pot was an empty pop bottle, as long as you grew pretty flowers in it. And everyone did. Gardening in Jardín was effortless: year-round mild temperatures, fertile soil, abundant water.

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Growing corn on either side of a mandarin orange tree in our backyard in Jardín. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

Texas is a whole different beast. It’s like riding a bronco. I really, really, wanted to see at least one bright red tomato popping out of that tangle of green branches, like Rudolph’s nose if he ran into a pine tree, and so I hung on as big ol’ Texas weather bucked with all it’s got: a drought in June, 100-degree days in July, a rainstorm-a-day that brought fungus in August, aphids in September, daily tickling sessions to help pollinate in October, nightly tucking the plant to sleep under sheets for frost just at fruit-set in early November, and numbly stripping the branches of any tomato bigger than my pinky fingernail before the hard frost in the teens in December.

I missed my Rudolph moment, but green ripened into red in the dark cabinets and exploded with homegrown flavor. After that first juicy bite of lost summer, I made my peace with winter’s closure of the growing season and yanked off the tomato cage. I guess I wasn’t entirely at peace looking at unopened flowers and still had the bronco-buckin’ grip that can snap metal. That broken cage released my creativity, and with a little redneck ingenuity (duct tape) the upturned trellis became an upcycled tree.

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Coffee capsule/tomato cage 2016 Christmas tree. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

Tinto in two forms helped with the rest of the decorations.

1.) Tinto as black coffee: Empty espresso capsules became dangly bells that let out a dainty ring against the sides of the tomato cage. This is our fifth year of hanging the same Nespresso capsules (and hanging the same hand-sewn stockings) on a miniature Christmas tree, which back in Colombia was made out of fresh bamboo branches each year. We rescued the capsules from the trash bin of an office that worked with and drank a lot of Nespresso.

2.) Tinto as red wine: Empty bottles will spell out J-O-Y to my visiting nephews and nieces learning to read (it’s my middle name too). The letters were cut out from the cardboard of a cracker box. The twine had held up pole beans in the backyard. The red marker and gold ribbon were discarded by previous tenants. Three evergreen clippings came from branches that overhung a nearby walking path and were due for a trim. The wine came at a cost, but we’re happy to be still celebrating monthly anniversaries.

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Joy in a bottle. Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes

Thank you to the coffee and wine growers for contributing to our year-round enjoyment of these beverages and our year-end holiday decoration.

Thank you to the tomato growers who will sustain us until next summer’s crop.

Thank you to those who also choose to find peace and beauty in the simplicity of a more sustainable seasonal celebration.

Thank you to my readers and fellow writers for nourishing my mind with your inspiring ideas and encouraging words.

Now bring on the holiday desserts! (Thank you to the cocoa growers, the vanilla growers, the almond growers…)

Seasonal greetings from Tinto Tinta Translations!

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¡Feliz navidad! Photo credit: Carrie Cifuentes