Barranquilla CarnivalOne week before the principal carnival parades begin, there is a preliminary parade that starts early in the evening, called La Guacherna. When I asked what this meant the typical answer was “night of fooling around” or “a big mess.” Someone else told me it was a Cuban term for water and lights. La Guacherna is free to the public and is like one big dancing, drinking, hectic, street party with a high concentration of young people. The parade street is only a block from the office and I followed my friend who wanted to meet up with her friends. We started walking against the flow of the people traffic, and when we get to where we wanted the crowd was too thick to get close to the parade street or to find her friends, so we backtrack until she runs into other friends participating in the carnival, and hang out with them, since they have about a two hour wait before they would commence. The best way to enjoy the two free street parades, one which is a week before the start of the Carnival at night, and the other on the last day of the holiday during the day called Joselito (a guy who enjoyed the carnival for four days and died at the end of the carnival season), is to find a restaurant or bar where you can get an elevated view to people-watch, drink and dine. You most likely will have to make such seating reservations well in advance. Joselito is held on 84th street and is the better of the two.
Later at around 11 pm we head to a club with a couple of Americans and their dates where many of the patrons are dressed in costumes. There are some striking women at the club, particularly one tall woman dancing with a young man around her age. It is quite common when people dance up close for the man to have his hand low on the woman´s back. So I see this young man who has been dancing with this tall beauty all evening drift his hand downward. Before it gets any lower the woman takes his hand and brings it up to her back. This seems very unusual to me because I often see people who don´t know each other dance in the position and don´t recall seeing a woman ever stop this. From what most women tell me, they don´t like dancing with strange men because of the closeness and contact. Later in the evening the tall girl, who sees I know Salsa, asks me to dance and tells me she lives in the States. She is here visiting and is with her uncle who used to live in New Jersey and whom I happen to know. He and his slender wife have always been very friendly. His wife starts talking to me and tells me she has been a Carnival queen and works with a very poor all-Black dance group that needs a sponsor. She asks for a $500 dollars donation. The tall woman from the States tells me she must mean $500,000 pesos, but the former queen confirms it is dollars. As an American you can´t go anywhere without being asked for money.
The next day, I know my friend is not going to be able to arrive till 1:30 pm and that we are going to have difficulties finding a good seat. The carnival starts later, but if you want a nice view you need to arrive by late morning because this parade attracts the largest crowd. At the entrance to our stands we are told they are full and that we have to walk many blocks to another stand. We argue for a while and they let us in but don´t allow me to bring in the fifteen cans of foam I had just purchased at $3,000 pesos each because they sell their own foam, at twice that price. I give in and let them hold my foam. I had a few cans in my camera bag which they didn´t check. They help us find a seat, which is a first, and before I actually sit down my friend takes a can of foam and starts spraying the people behind us, all whom happen to be a unified group of about twenty representing Cream Helado, an ice cream company. So right off the bat, in retaliation, we are covered in foam and soaked. We battle them all day and things turn to our advantage when they splinter and start attacking each other, and are unable to keep up with our supply of foam.
As a side note, the guy who had confiscated my foam at the entrance later says he will give it back to me for $10,000 pesos, to which I (reluctantly) accept. But when he gives me my foam and I pay him he asks for a tip. No end to the surprises here. It takes about four “no´s” and turning my back on him before he leaves. It´s like being asked for a bribe and then a tip on top of that. It is best to say “no” once and then ignore the person, which I normally do, but this request took me by surprise. The Cream Helado group however is a fun bunch; they give me a hat to wear, share their rum and whiskey and have me join them in their group photos (I think, as their mascot). Upon leaving at dark they want to know if I am coming back the next day. You bet!
We arrive at the same time on the next day and I am surprised to see there is still a large crowd in the stands. Tickets this year have been much higher in price, around 40% I think: I paid $141,000 pesos for one three day pass. You can however get scalped discounted tickets on the streets. We joined the Cream Helado group and carried on from where we had left the day before.
Living in Colombia has made me very observant of the little things that I would never be on the look out for in the States. For example, you constantly have to be on guard of your possessions. I was noticing a very young girl climbing the stands reaching out to grab my friend´s purse which was by her feet. As she reached towards the purse I stepped on the child´s fingers until I heard a crack and then let her fall to the ground. I'm playing, all you need to do is make it clear you see what´s going on. The girl backed down on her own and wandered off towards a more accessible target. Theft is rampant in Colombia. Consider any street person to be a thief regardless of their age. Typical Colombian justice is to gang beat thieves on the streets.
On the third day, the crowd seems larger than the year before. I wanted to go to a different section in the stands, but my friend wants to join the Cream Helado group again, which we do, and we get into more foam fights and drinking, and before we know, it is five o´clock and the parade is over. We were going to eat afterwards, but one of the guys in the group and his wife insist that we join them for chicken dinner at their house outside the city, past the airport. The couple looks like they are in their late 20´s or early 30´s. They seem to be very good friends and blend well with each other. He has been working as a manager in the same company for seven years and they have a handsome son. I am ready for some quiet time, but at the same time in a good mood for anything so I tell my friend to make the decision. She seems a little hesitant, but accepts. So we grab some beer to drink and drive, which in Colombia looks no different than not drinking and driving.
We arrive. The car is parked in front of the house and the back trunk opens to reveal the parties sound system, two large speakers. Neighbors suddenly come over and I am being introduced and taken over to different houses. They are not introducing my Colombian friend, just me the freak. Back at the house I´m told (not asked) to dance and the hosts make sure I always have beer in hand. So I teach some of the girls a couple of steps, then they start giving me lessons to improve my hip and shoulder movement. All night I hear the word “borracho” thrown my way, but I´m not sure what that means.
At dinner I see a large, fairly new TV and the cobweb underside of a tin roof ceiling. For drinks we are given a soda, “100% pure orange juice”, as they reiterate, and of course beer. My plate has three pieces of white bread and it is full of orange-colored rice. I am told this is chicken and rice but I don´t see any chicken. My friend then takes ketchup and starts pouring it over my rice. The other option would have been mayonnaise. That being her option, because I wasn´t given an option. From what I have experimented in other homes ketchup and mayonnaise are very typical dressings/sauces for rice and pasta. The female host makes sure everyone eats everything and when I ask her why she is not eating, she points to her small belly. Dinner is the only time real conversation takes place and when dinner is over we go out to the front porch where I sit down for about thirty seconds before I have to start dancing with the women who don´t believe my hips will move properly without their hand-held assistance.
About an hour and a half after dinner we are given beef soup. The only time I´m allowed to sit is when I am eating. None of the women at the party have ever met an American and the 18 and 19 year olds are flirtatious and inquisitive of my availability and the connection I have with my female friend. Like any guy, I tell them I don't know who she is I thought she was part of your group. After five plus hours we are allowed to leave, only after agreeing to come back another day.
While I met new people, the experience fits the same pattern as my last four carnivals: friendly people, and lots of laughing, sharing, dancing and drinking.