Floating Reed Islands & Virgin of Candelaria

Carnival in Latin America is a not-to-be-missed experience. Last year I was in Barranquilla, Colombia – what they said is the second-largest Carnival celebration in the world (after Rio’s) and much less expensive and commercial. I had a fantastic time, and was naturally wondering where to go this year. Lo and behold, people around here say that the second-largest Carnival in the world after Rio’s is in Oruro, Bolivia. So my plan was to go down there for a week, cross back into Peru to meet mom in Arequipa in late February, then return to Bolivia in early March to continue my trip.

Just a few problems with this scenario. One, Bolivia charges Americans a $135 entrance fee (visa), which I wasn’t excited about paying twice. Two, I hate crossing borders. Gee, maybe it’s my bad history of having things stolen or being personally violated, but border crossings just creep me out. So I’d prefer to minimize the amount of them I have to do. Three, the more I read about Carnival in Oruro, the more it sounds like a real pain in the ass. Fun, to be sure – tons of dancing, parades, celebrating, live music – but also all the negatives that come with an overly-hyped event in a small town: prices skyrocket, hotels book out, thieves multiply. Sandra helped me by calling a number of hotels and what few had rooms left were outrageously priced. One poster on the message boards seriously told me that cardboard boxes on the street were selling for $5/night.

Then I found out that Puno, a town in southern Peru on the shores of Lake Titicaca, has a similar celebration a week before. It’s nearly identical – the same dances, same music, similar parades – but on a smaller scale.. less crazy, less expensive, and less hassle. And I wouldn’t need to leave the country. Done and done. The best part was that Sandra was able to take a long weekend and join me for the excursion! Fantastic.. events like that are so much more fun with a partner in crime.

We take the night bus from Cusco and arrive an hour early (!) at 4am. Wake up the hotel to let us in, settle into our room for a bit of sleep, and get woken up an hour later to marching bands tromping down the street. Uh-oh.. are we going to get any sleep this weekend?? Still, their passion is infectious. What possesses people to carry large heavy tubas down cold dark streets at all hours of the night blowing their lungs out? For three to eight days on end. 10 – 16 hours a day. How do their lips not fall off? Are they deaf by the end of the week? These people are dedicated.

And that’s just the musicians. The dancers are wearing hot, uncomfortable costumes – many in high heels or platform shoes, others in 2-foot thick layers of foam rubber and fake hair, sweating under the hot sun.. dancing for miles along different parade routes every day, from pre-dawn until well into the night. Day after day after day. They all deserve medals.

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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.

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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.

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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)…

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