Carnival: day 4

Tuesday, final day of Carnaval. No big parades today, instead  smaller parades and events scattered around the city. After sleeping in, I walked up to the plaza where traditional groups were playing all day and evening. Had a real coffee at the mall next door (at Juan Valdez, Colombia’s version of Starbucks). Heaven. Bought another memory card for the camera, since I shot 2GB in just three days.

Got the call from Juan to come over to Mayra’s neighborhood, where one of the traditional last parades was going on. Jumped in a taxi.. nice to see another part of the city. This parade was more personal, everyone just out on the street. I missed most of it since it was so late, but it was still great fun. Mayra’s aunt kept grabbing me and dragging me into the midst of the parade to pose for pictures. After the parade, we all hung out there in front of the house listening to music, dancing, and drinking. Nice vibe, all the aunts and cousins and grandparents and entire neighborhood hanging outside. Some of the younger cousins spoke English, so that was nice for me.

The festivities broke up fairly early, so I called up my other group of friends to see what they were up to.  Met them in front of a group of bars at the other end of town (whereas Mayra’s hood might be analogous to Bushwick, the area with the bars would be the East Village). They were already three sheets to the wind and reviving the game of spraying foam and powder in each other’s eyes which I had difficulty getting into, so I was about to leave when they said no, we’re all going to the other gay club. Had a really fun time being the belle of the ball (lord knows why – see previous posts for thoughts). Finally we said our tearful goodbyes and went to our respective homes.

I never ended up seeing the main theme of this final day of carnival – the death and funeral of Joselito. According to lore, this fellow danced and made love non-stop for 4 days and died on the last day. There are supposedly parades all over the city simulating funeral parades with groups dressed as widows reenacting the legend of Joselito Carnaval who is represented by a puppet (effigy) that is put to rest, symbolizing the end of Carnival. Imagine, women in funeral blacks crying over their beloved Joselito. Would have been cool to see this, but at least there are pictures.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…


Carnival: day 3

Another day, another parade. I don’t know how they keep it up – I’m exhausted, and I’m only sitting in the shade all day!

Today’s parade is called “Gran Parada de Fantasia”, and is meant to be all the modern and new ideas in dance, music and costumes. To be honest, I can’t see much difference between today and the first day. Once again, hundreds of groups – they were rushing by, and it lasted about four or five hours. Going on at the same time in the stadium was the battle of the bands, which would have been fun to catch. But like I said, it’s impossible to see it all.

Today the police were handing out literature that I thought was a program for the parade. As near as I could tell, however, it was a pamphlet on how to live a good and honest life. Hm, interesting approach for them to take. But I discovered upon reading the fine print that it was written by one L. Ron Hubbard, of Scientology fame. It’s got some great precepts in it, but of course I take exception to religions as businesses (why are they not taxed??) Their creation theory, though, is so totally wacko, it makes wonderful reading if you need a good laugh. I wonder how the Colombian state police force got mixed up in all this nonsense.

Speaking of police turning a blind eye, it turns out that red lights are merely suggestions to slow down. Most cabbies honk incessantly as they approach one, warning the traffic that has the right-of-way that they’re about to come barreling through the intersection. This happens in full view of police, who don’t seem to care.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…


Carnival: day 2

Didn’t get to sleep TOO late, so was able to get up in time to get a good seat in the palco. Turns out I needn’t have rushed – today was less crowded. The theme of today’s parade was “Gran Parada Tradición”, in other words, all the traditional groups. I sat next to a guy I thought was North American or European but turned out to be from Bogotá. He (Juan Andres) was there with his girlfriend Mayra, who lives in Barranquilla. Juan is a flight attendant (only with a different airline than the group I met last night) and Mayra is a doctor. They were really friendly and great fun. They both speak goodly English, although Juan did most of the talking.

During the parade Juan explained some of the stories behind the different characters, dances, and music. Everything associated with Carnival has a history and a story. It’s such a rich tradition, I only scraped the surface. For example, there is a dance I attempted later that involves taking only very short steps (all the better to hold your partner close, as Juan explained). This dance evolved from the leg irons the slaves wore – they could only move their feet very small amounts.

Two of the most popular and well-known characters are the Monocuco and the Marimonda.
The Monocuco costume enables anonymity for the wearer. You wear ample clothing and a mask, in order to hide whether you’re a man or a woman. The monocuco never speaks (not to betray his/her voice) or else tries to disguise his/her voice. This costume was used in the past to enable (typically upper-class) lovers to meet in public whilst allowing their respective anonymity (not from each other, but from prying eyes). They could thus dance together in public without fearing anyone bothering them since no one would dare to breach the anonymity of their costume.

Carnival has deep pagan roots (fertility rites, etc.) and historically during these few days each year it also gave people an opportunity to smirk and belittle the Roman Catholic Church. The Marimonda costume is typical of this tradition. The name “marimonda” refers to a Colombian spider monkey as the wearers of this costume had to justify using it. But basically, the marimonda costume is a hymn to the male penis as expressed by the nose of the costume.

So the parade this day consisted solely of traditional music, dances, and costumes. No floats or outlandish modern contrivances. It also started late and went into the evening. We didn’t even stay until the end, instead the three of us walked to get a bite of traditional food. Mayra and Juan had to go back to her family for a familial celebration, so I went home to rest up. Got up at midnight and hit the clubs (they were just getting going at that hour). I began at one where a girl I met at the palco said she would be, but she wasn’t there, I didn’t dig the music, and it was not happening. Next I tried a popular club I had heard about, and it was jammed with people. I spotted her at the far end with another guy from the palco (betrayal!), but didn’t stay long. continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…


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. continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

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