San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Holi of Holis

The woman approached me, beaming, as she held out her hand. Her fingers were splayed, and her palm was covered in yellow paste, a mix of colored “gulal” powder and water. I said hello, and she said hello back. Then she pressed her hand directly into my chest, impressing a yellow print in the fabric of my white T-shirt. It looked like someone had high-fived my pectoral muscle.

“Happy Holi!” she exclaimed.

This was the Holi Festival of Colors, a Hindu celebration so ancient that no one knows its precise origins. Across India, millions of people commemorate Holi with a nocturnal bonfire (to exorcise evil), followed by a day of food, music, and general hijinx. Distilled to its most basic theme, Holi is about expressing love and banishing ill-will. But the best part, the part that everyone cherishes, is throwing colored powder in the air. Celebrants dust themselves in vibrant hues, then spray each other with water, so that the powder dyes every inch of exposed skin.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

I had heard of Holi before, but I’d had a hard time picturing it. Photographs depict a constant explosion of powder, rainbow geysers bursting over thousands of festivalgoers in the streets of Dehli and Calcutta. When I arrived at the fairgrounds in San Antonio de Belén, I found something at once more relaxed and more playful: Participants approached each other with baggies of powder, smiled amiably, and then smeared the colors across each other’s faces, arms, and outfits. While some people ambushed each other, most interactions were slow and intimate, like friends trying to pick ants off each other’s shoulders.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

The festival was hosted by the Indian Community in Costa Rica (CRIA), whose mission is to “share and unite the Indian culture, business, and values with Costa Rica.” When I arrived, a representative welcomed me and handed me a baggie of red gulal and encouraged me to mingle.

“But I don’t think you are ready for this,” he said jovially, gesturing toward my camera.

I looked at the anarchy happening all around me: Children ran around with water guns the size of Uzis, and groups of men surrounded unsuspecting friends, picked them up, and hurled them into baby pools.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

Some children shot each other with jets of water, thanks to a system of pipes and nozzles. One preteen girl gathered her friends and marched away from the water, all of them soaked to the bone. “That’s a bit cold for my liking,” she said in perfect Commonwealth English.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

After I snapped some shots from afar, then covered my camera with a protective sheath, a twenty-something man approached me and smiled knowingly.

“Don’t worry, man,” he said. “I take pictures, too. I even have a Canon, a Mark II. I have great respect for cameras. Just don’t worry…”

With that, he mixed water and red gulal in his palm, then swept his fingers across my forehead and cheeks. It felt less like a practical joke than being ritually decorated – the way that warriors and baseball players adorn themselves with pigments.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

According to one CRIA member, there are perhaps 120 to 130 ethnic Indians in Costa Rica, an astonishingly small number considering that India is the second most populous country on earth, and the Indian diaspora is generously spread across every continent. If that number is correct, then the vast majority of Costa Rican Indians were present at the event – plus a smattering of Ticos, Europeans, and North Americans.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

As I approached the main tent, the scent of curry excited my nostrils. Aside from my close friends, one of the things I miss most about Pittsburgh is the food – the Indian restaurants in particular. The Central Valley has its share of excellent Indian kitchens, such as Taste of India, Taj Mahal, and Naans & Curries, but Pittsburgh used to spoil me with more than a dozen Indian restaurants, plus all-you-can-eat buffets, carry-out samosas, and food trucks arrayed around college campuses and public parks.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

At Holi, the food tent rekindled that passion for Indian cuisine. I stocked up on fried cauliflower and drizzled spiced sauces over my paper plate. As I chomped away, I watched the swirl of activity around me: Electronic remixes of Bollywood soundtracks blasted through speakers, women danced in groups on the main stage, and children scrambled around the grounds with water guns.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

It wasn’t until I got back in my car, full and happy, that I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my face: I was covered in yellow and red gulal, and thanks to the blazing afternoon sun, the colors had run down my face as rivulets of sweat.

Later that day, the colors remained, even after I’d scrubbed my face in the shower. During an evening trip to Auto Mercado, I looked jaundiced and strange beneath the fluorescent light. But I didn’t care. It was evidence of time well spent. It was, in a sense, the color of joy.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

Robert Isenberg is a staff writer for The Tico Times. Visit him at robertisenberg.net.

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