A Champagne Offering To the Goddess of the Sea


Beach days abound in this gleaming, sun-baked city, but New Year's Eve was special.

There were 3 million beach-goers. And hundreds of thousands of them didn't go just for a cooling swim (although it was 96 degrees) or a smarter tan. They went to make offerings to the goddess of the sea.

Every year on Copacabana Beach, one of the country's most glamorous beaches in one of the world's most glamorous cities, Rio residents and their compatriots shrug off their cool sophistication to embrace the mysticism that suffuses Brazilian folkways.

For New Year's Eve, they dressed in white or gold, to represent purity and fortune. Beginning with sunrise, they tossed flowers or poured champagne into the sea as offerings to Yemanja, as adherents to Afro-Brazilian faiths call her, or Saint Barbara, as she is known to Roman Catholics. They jumped seven waves for good luck. They scribbled their desires for the new year on slips of paper, waded hip-deep into the water and tossed them into the ocean. Some just mumbled their wishes at surf's edge.

As a smothering sun broiled Copacabana, Teresa de Jesus da Cruz, 56, stood on the beach, clutching a fistful of flowers in one hand and a bottle of cheap champagne in the other. She and two friends dug a hole in the sand. They lit eight candles and poured champagne into the hole.

After a few minutes, da Cruz, wearing a cream-white blouse and a colorful print skirt, walked into to the surf, water sweeping over her ankles. A knot of children scampered around her and stared. She emptied the champagne into the water and flung the bottle into the sea. Then she closed her eyes before dropping her flowers into the water--four gladiolas (three yellow and one white), four white roses and one red rose--one at a time, a prayer with each flower.

At the end of the offering, she made the sign of the cross.

"I'm Catholic," said da Cruz, a hospital administrator, for whom a trip to the beach is a New Year's Eve must. "But I believe in the spirits. When I come here, I feel great, I feel relieved. If I don't do this, you know, the year won't start well."

Scattered around the beach and on nearby streets were the remnants of other offerings. In front of one apartment a half-block from the beach: a scorched peach and pear, seven grapes, two crushed roses and a scrap of burned red fabric. The beach was littered with flowers, candles and bottles of champagne, half-hidden by the sand.

Da Cruz, tall and slim with long, elegant fingers, said that she had prayed primarily for "health, peace and harmony" for herself and for her nation, and for "a little bit of everything else." She didn't pray for money. She said she never prays for money.

"First health and peace," she said softly, "If I have health, that means I can work, and if I can work, the money will come after."

By nightfall, circles of candlelight illuminated the beach as the offerings continued. By then a calm crowd of 3 million milled around Avenida Atlantica, listening to an array of bands--samba, gospel, Brazilian pop--and awaiting fireworks displays. Revelers in cruise ships and small crafts watched from offshore. Guests at the seaside hotels along the avenue strained out of their upper-floor windows, gawking at the scene.

By then, da Cruz had gone home. Her ritual over, she planned to usher in the new year with her family, at home.

"Today is the same as it is every year, no different," she said. "This is how it begins. It's only a new century that's starting."

-- Stephen Buckley

With No U.S. Troops, There's No One to Disco


For years, rarely a weekend night went by when La Cascada restaurant in downtown Panama City was not packed with U.S. military personnel, feasting on inexpensive seafood and washing it down with beer before heading upstairs to its popular discotheque.

Turnover among waitresses was curiously high--a phenomenon, it turns out, that had little to do with taxing shifts or low salaries. Many of the waitresses ended up marrying American soldiers they had met at the eatery. In what became a matrimonial mural at La Cascada, their wedding photos found a place on a back wall of the restaurant that at any given time was checkered with snapshots of U.S. military men and Panamanian waitresses.

"Not only did the soldiers eat and drink a lot, but they were generally charming. I remember how many of them would bring roses for the women who worked here," Gladys De Garcia, 40, supervisor of personnel at La Cascada, recalled. "And quite a few marriages came out of those relationships."

Now, however, as the millennium turns and Panama begins a new era with full ownership of the Panama Canal, the wall is a stark space of blue tile, not a wedding portrait to be found. There are few other traces of the crowds of U.S. troops who used to throng the restaurant, except for a small sticker on a door frame outside that reads, "17th Airlift Squadron. Anything. Anytime. Anywhere."

And the second-floor discotheque has closed.

Much has changed for La Cascada in the years since U.S. military forces that for decades were stationed here for training and to provide security for the Panama Canal gradually started to leave. The exit began after treaties were signed in 1977 that called for the United States to hand over the waterway to Panama and withdraw its troops.

At noon Friday, that transfer was officially completed. There are no longer any U.S. troops to be found in Panama. The last ones departed weeks ago.

La Cascada's clientele is now mostly Panamanian, and business has slowed compared with the days when the U.S. military presence meant a bountiful flow of income for the popular restaurant, as well as other commercial establishments. But amid the open-air tables canopied by trees and decorated with dome-shaped plastic lights of varying colors, remain some vestiges of American influence. The menus and signs on the lobster tanks are still written in English as well as Spanish, and a poster of Marilyn Monroe remains in the men's restroom.

Outside La Cascada, Leslie Miller, 38, a Panamanian who was laid off from his job as a cargo handler at Howard Air Force Base as it downsized and now parks cars at the restaurant, reminisced about the troops he got to know from the 17th Airlift Airborne.

Pointing to the airborne's sticker on a nearby wall, Miller said: "The guys from this squadron used to come here all the time in civilian clothes to eat and drink. They were friendly and laid back and good tippers, even though they did not make a lot of money. There was no fighting or anything like that; just a meal and a good time."

-- Serge F. Kovaleski

Gastronomical Delights On Top of the World


At the top of the world, at the approach of the millennium, it all came down to this--17 roasts of the finest Alberta beef, 400 Malpeque Bay oysters, 1,000 bottles of French champagne, 500 roses and 28 tons of explosives.

It was billed as the world's tallest free-standing millennium party atop the world's tallest structure, Toronto's CN Tower. Although it had been planned for a year, the last of the $250 tickets was sold only Friday afternoon, just as the sous chefs were stuffing the boneless pheasants with wild mushroom risotto and the pastry chef was putting the finishing touches on her three-foot-tall pyramid of ice cream balls.

For more than three hours, the 300 guests ate lustily and drank modestly before the circular 360 Restaurant began to shake and rumble in explosive jubilation. The fireworks set off from the roof above the observation deck counted down the final 10 seconds of the year for the hundreds of thousands gathered below along the shores of Lake Ontario. Then, from the decks of four giant tankers moored offshore, Canada's largest city was treated to its biggest-ever fireworks display, seen from as far away as Niagara Falls.

Nothing about the event at the CN Tower had been left to chance. The production schedule for kitchen staff of 50 had been planned out, hour by hour, on the laptop computer of Executive Chef Peter George, beginning Thursday afternoon with early rounds of vegetable chopping, shrimp poaching and squab marinating. By 7 a.m. Friday, florist John Tarrant was already at work building the bountiful displays of flowers, fruits, vegetable and breads at the buffet tables arrayed around the restaurant. By 4 p.m., the ceiling of the restaurant had been obscured by thousands of helium-filled balloons.

But lingering in the back of everyone's mind was what would happen if, at the magic hour, the power went out, stranding everyone 1465 feet up in the cold Canadian air. Not to worry, assured Nick Migliore, the tower's head of security. He told the assembled staff that the tower's engineers had laid in a 21-day supply of fuel for backup generators to run the structure's six elevators and had installed hundreds of batter-powered lights along the exits and stairways. They'd even stockpiled 30,000 gallons of water and a case of flashlights and reserved the SkyDome next door, just in case an orderly evacuation was required.

At 8:30, with the sterno lit beneath the Quebec tortiere and the ostrich meat fresh off the grill, the restaurant's executive director, Alfred Caron, made his last lap around the restaurant and declared it all satisfactory.

"Uncork the champagne, everyone; it's show time," he bellowed as the elevators disgorged the first group of guests, their tuxedos and gowns festooned with the silver hats and other gewgaws that had been passed out in the lobby below.

There were old couples and young ones, some from as far away as Germany, others from as nearby as Buffalo, across the lake. And at midnight, with the clear sky aglow in rapturous, cascading color, they looked at each other as if they were glad they had decided to put aside all the apprehensions and cynicism and make something special of this millennial gathering.

-- Steven Pearlstein

A Dying Mining Village Hopes for New Prosperity


The Rev. Job Contreras, the Roman Catholic priest who presides over this remote village's colonial church, began delivering his millennial message several weeks ago.

"I asked people to please stop bringing me candles and water to bless to protect them from the apocalypse," Contreras said. "I won't be an accomplice to that kind of fear."

He refined his message for the New Year's Eve midnight Mass to better address an even more prevalent fear in this slowly dying village high in the Sierra Madre mountains of southwestern Mexico.

The fear is expressed by town manager Sergio Pena. "This New Year, we hope for employment, to have a better life, that the people won't leave, that we grow and not die," said Pena, 32, sitting behind a rustic desk below the sepia photographs of more than a century of mayors who have led this once-prosperous silver mining center.

Hundreds of miles and a world away from the gaudy, rambunctious, $3 million celebration in the central square of Mexico City, the 600 residents of San Sebastian marked the new millennium with music blaring over loudspeakers in the town square, simple family dinners at home and a midnight Mass in the village's four centuries-old church.

San Sebastian is symbolic of the thousands of small rural communities across Mexico and the rest of Latin America that have been bypassed by the fast-paced era of the Internet, instant information and e-trading.

The town, reached by a serpentine dirt road 1 1/2 hours from the nearest paved highway, has 17 computers and a handful of television satellite dishes. The cobblestoned town square is traversed by as many men on horseback as in cars.

"Technology is arriving slowly and we have confidence in it," Pena said. "We have e-mail, but globalization has not arrived, and we need it for jobs and for the future."

San Sebastian has witnessed the vagaries of changing times. Before the dawn of the 20th century, this was a prosperous silver mining town of more than 20,000 inhabitants and nearly 100 mines. The last 100 years witnessed the closing of mines, the town's main source of income, and saw the population shrink to less than 600 as young people fled to the United States in search of work.

Today, 60 percent of the town's income is from dollars sent home by relatives in the United States. "For some, the new century is very important because you hope it's going to change your luck, so you have a better life and better work," said Teodoro a Redondo, 44, a day laborer and father of 12 who often leaves San Sebastian for weeks at a time with his four brothers to play in a mariachi band in Guadalajara, a five-hour car ride away.

"It's so difficult because there is no work, the people are all leaving and the houses are falling down," he said with a sweep of his hand toward dilapidated homes perched on the verdant mountaintops overlooking the town.

In recent years, San Sebastian has been discovered by tourists drawn to its colonial charms and picturesque mountain vistas.

"We hope it will be a great tourist center in the next millennium, because if we don't find a new source of income, the town is going to disappear," said Alberto Trejo, an assistant to the mayor. "If it becomes a tourist attraction, the people will return."

Said Contreras: "Tourism has influenced people's way of thinking so we need to reaffirm our identity. We need to place more value on our cultural riches as well as on our personal integrity and the area's natural beauty. We need to cherish the values that identify us as Mexicans."

-- Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson

CAPTION: Mexican women dressed in traditional Indian costumes perform in Mexico City. More than 800,000 people were expected at the festivities.