Carnival: day 1

Friday night (the eve of the four days of Carnaval):

Went to see traditional groups performing at an open-air stage in a plaza. Besides the few thousand people watching, there was a conga line of a few hundred drunks slowly circling the stage. Oh boy, it’s going to be a long weekend! I thought of joining in, but those rhythms only confuse my body. That, and I wasn’t drunk (an obvious prerequisite).

I then headed over to the stadium, where some great sounding modern bands were playing all night. Didn’t go in, since tickets were $20 (!) But I had a nice time sitting on the curb listening and watching the street life. People walking around with beers in their hands, handicrafts and carnival outfits for sale, old men playing dominoes at card tables, “llamada” people selling talk time on their cell phones. And through it all, vibrancy and energy. People psyching up for the big weekend.

Saturday – day one:

Took a cab to the location printed on my ticket for the first day of parades. It was chaos leading up to the entrances, but once you got through security, it was very calm and organized. Every palco (an area of bleachers) is self-sufficient – food, drink, toilets, even it’s own band! The typical four guys in the white outfits playing various percussion, singing, and those uncannily loud flutes. They would sit at the back of the stands and strike up a tune every so often to get us energized or dancing. They also took requests, but didn’t know “Hotel California” OR “Free Bird”, can you imagine? Sometimes our palco’s band would compete with the next one over. There are dozens if not hundreds of these palcos along the parade route. They’re all set up so the sun is at our backs (behind a sun shade). On the other side of the street are the cheap seats, with the sun in their eyes. I’m glad those were all sold out when I bought my tickets, I would have roasted. I never saw what it was like just watching from the street, but Dominic and Alex told me it was alright.

The other neat thing about the palcos is that you’re with the same group of 100 people for three straight days, so you get to know each other. On this first day, a friendly guy from Medellin who was there visiting friends befriended me. At first I thought these guys were pretty obnoxious, arriving late, blocking views, throwing powder. But I got over myself and we ended up having lots of fun together over the next few days.

The aforementioned powder.. usually corn starch or some other substance, it’s thrown and smeared on each other.. for fun. Yes, most of the crowd is 20 – 30 going on 8. The other fun activity is spraying white foam on each other. It’s like shaving cream, but shoots a lot further. Especially fun to get in the eyes, particularly if you wear contacts. Being the token gringo in my palco, I was “welcomed” with this ritual over and over.. and over.

The parade on this first day is called Battle of the Flowers. Originally the paraders and the audience would throw flowers at each other. That doesn’t happen anymore. I couldn’t tell you exactly how this parade differs from the other days, but it did seem to be the biggest one. Literally hundreds of groups participated. It started late, around 2:30pm, and continued well after dark. I felt bad for those groups at the end, since most people had either gone home or were too sauced to pay attention anymore. Perhaps because of the sheer number of groups, the pace of the parade was really fast. It was hard to get good shots since they were racing by! And I think of the dedication, performing for miles in high heels in their crazy getups in the hot sun, then having to look and perform your best for the judges at the end of the parade route.

I don’t fully understand the history or reasons for it, but Carnival is a time for dress-up and diversion, laughter and scares. Thus in the parade you have masks of bulls, tigers and bears; large heads; superheroes; transvestites; the grim reaper; lunatics; dolls; mythological creatures; as well as Colombian celebrities. Traditionally it was a time when slaves could safely make fun of their masters, which has evolved into funny effigies and parodies of current events – there were two Obamas (one with Michelle and the kids), a Chavez, and a Castro. One phenomenon I would love to understand is the large number of (black) performers in blackface. Being raised PC, it made me cringe. But the crowd ate up all the stereotypically exagerated eye rolling, tongue wagging, and facial contortions. The only thing I’ve been able to find on the net about this is the Zulu krewe in New Orleans (whom PBS did a special on). But the blackface performers here are different – they dress like they’re straight out of the tribe in Africa.

At the same time in a different part of the city, the Momo King parade is going on, which honors the neighborhoods that originally brought the Carnival celebrations to Barranquilla. In fact, during all four days and evenings of Carnival, there are multiple activities taking place at the same time – dance and music performances, readings, comedies, parades, etc. It’s impossible to see it all.

After the parade I went to supper with my new friends. I was happy that most of them spoke English – all except one, who only knew how to say, “Gringo, I love your ass!” He was coming on to me, it’s true, but we found out later he had been trying to say “I love your eyes”, but didn’t have the pronounciation quite right. So this line became the running joke of the weekend. One of the group was a New Yorker, in fact – her mom is Colombian, and she is cousins of one of the flight attendants.

After supper we jumped in their car and went up to the nice area of town where the well-to-do live, which I hadn’t seen much of yet. This couple lives in a very nice condo with a beautiful view. They kindly offered me their shower and a change of clothes. I began to see another side to the city. German (one of my new friends) agreed with me that Barranquilla sucks, but he put it like this: “it’s like a dog so ugly that you just have to love him.” For him, the city doesn’t have any of the usual attractions, but the people are what keeps him here. And I realized it would be like visiting D.C. and only staying in S.E., or if I had gone to San Salvador and stayed in the crappy downtown instead of with George’s sister. A completely different view of the city I would have.

German also explained the reason for all those “Dangerous River” signs I’ve seen all over town (even at the tops of hills, with no river in sight). Apparently there is no storm drain system because when the tide came in it sent all the brackish water up onto the streets (I guess they tried it). Allow me this  short aside:

Seattle had a similar problem in the late 1800’s. Since the sewers emptied directly into the ocean, when the tides came in the toilets became fountains. Ewww. A person could get blown out of a toilet or drown in a pothole. A whole generation of Seattle children was raised on the tide timetable. Visitors to town, unaware of the eccentricities of the sewerage system, often were treated to a chilling experience. Newcomers became known as “wet backs”. (By the way, the term Skid Row also hails from Seattle, due to the road that was formed by all the lumber skidded down the mountain into barges bound for San Francisco. But my digression digresses..) Merchants tried to remedy the problem by creating a dais for the toilet systems, but people didn’t like climbing a ladder to get to the toilet. Go figure. So after the great fire of 1889, the city decided to rebuild, one story higher. The city raised the things they had control over, namely the streets, and left the shop owners to raise their front doors and sidewalks. This took a while. So for about a decade, in order to cross the street, you had to climb a ladder (up to 32′), dodge horse and carriages traffic, cross the street, then climb back down a ladder. As you can imagine, this was not an especially flattering way for ladies in long dresses to walk about with their shopping bags.  It also wasn’t a good situation for men on drinking binges or horses on wet pavement, both of which went tumbling to their death dozens of times before everything got rebuilt to the same level.

Ahem. Can you tell I was a tour guide in Seattle once upon a time? Anyway, back to the streets here in Barranquilla – being unsuccessful in laying underground storm drains, the streets turn into raging rivers during the rainy season. This also explains why so many of the curbs are inordinately high (like, 3′) in certain areas. Apparently the rains don’t last long, but they do happen most days, and for those few hours during and after a storm, it’s extremely dangerous to try to cross the street. Buses, people, donkeys all get swept away. The city simply shuts down. German lost a good friend because she went back to her car for a lot of cash she had left in it, thinking the car might get swept away. Turns out it was, but with her in it. She died for 3 million pesos ($1,160), what a shame.

After washing up we headed to Studio 54, one of the two gay clubs in town. Now I fully admit that this could be strictly my perception and not objective reality, but gay clubs in general feel more comfortable to me. For one thing, I always feel like a rock star because I am hit on, whereas that never happens in straight clubs. There is less game playing going on, the posing is more upfront and honest, and you generally know where you stand. For example – at the same club a couple of nights later, one of the guys who had been flirting with me just asked me point blank if there was a chance of anything happening or whether he was wasting his time. I politely told him I wasn’t interested, which he took very well, and wandered away to find other people. We ended up hanging out and dancing together again later without that ambiguity in the air – everything was comfortably out on the table, and we knew where each other was at. Try getting that kind of clarity at a straight club.

I finally figured out how to make a slideshow in WordPress so you don’t have to click back and forth between the gallery photos anymore. But.. it requires Flash. Which is why I’m including the traditional gallery below the slideshow. (If you don’t have Flash installed, it will just look like two sets of photo galleries). You’ll also find the comments box below that (hint, hint). The slideshow runs pretty pokey on this machine I’m testing it on. The ability to go full-screen is pretty cool, though. Let me know how it works for you.

First, a few short videos:
“Garabato” characters dancing
Swirling, frilly_costumes
An Afro-Carribean group dancing


  • christine says:

    Wow, this is amazing. I have been looking forward to this post since I saw you had it up. Awesome.

  • Say says:

    I can’t wait to have my patches off so I can look at the pics and catch up on the reading. Promise some comments when I do! Thank you for calling, please try again, I can see the buttons on the phone now!!!
    Much love, al all,

  • Judith Johnson says:

    Hey Josh, loved the costumes and the masks especially. So weird the black face, don’t get it. Loved the mabo video. The other videos take too long to open, so I give up. ARe you really dancing? what a change, tell more!. Await the next installmant. Judith

    • Joss says:

      I know, my videos are absolutely huge. Compressing them is a bit beyond the computers at these internet cafes. But did you know you can click a link to get the download started, then continue browsing and doing other things while it downloads in the background? When it finally finishes, it should open the movie automagically.

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