Ten Things I Kinda, Sorta Don’t Much Like About Carnaval

Hate is a strong word. There’s really nothing I hate about Carnaval, especially given that there’s so much to love. But at times, over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of a trip I took to New Orleans (I love New Orleans) one year right after Mardi Gras. The plane was full of NO natives returning home after skipping out on the madness.  I thought I could relate, but it wasn’t until I experienced Barranquilla’s Carnaval that I understood the true depth of the complicated relationship that hometowners can have to events like this. Is it possible to look forward to something intensely while also wishing for it to be over? Yes, yes it is. Is it possible to value an event for the cultural treasure and/or economic engine that it is, while also complaining vociferously about the disruptions to daily life? You betcha.

As you hopefully know by now from my other posts, I’ve got mad love for Carnaval. But, in the interest of keeping it real, here are ten things that really get my goat as this weeks-long season progresses.

  1. Espuma. Did I say there’s nothing I hate? I take it back.
    This espuma war is still at a fairly acceptable level.

    This espuma war is still at a fairly acceptable level.

    This shaving-cream-like foam is sold on the street in big spray canisters. The kids love it, as do some adults who should be called names I can’t say. It was outlawed last year, and it’s still prohibited this year, not that you can tell.

    You do not want this stuff in your ear.

    People spray it at each other. They spray it on themselves. They spray it up onto the underside of the tents that shade the parade seating… at which point, it starts to melt and drip on your head. Forget about keeping yourself dry and instead focus on protecting any electronics you might have dared to bring. (What, you actually wanted photos?) And if you see me on the street, do NOT try to sell me some. Thank you.

  2. That little high-pitched flute that’s part of traditional cumbia. (You can hear it and see it at 2:31 in this video.) I actually really like cumbia — the music and the dance — in almost all its forms. The cumbia played during Carnaval features three flutes, and it’s great… until your neighbor, the grocery store, the taxi driver, and the bar next door all start playing it at all hours for weeks on end. Then it gets a little… what’s the word? Grating. Further proof that you can have too much of a good thing.

  3. VERY loud late night/early morning music from the nearby bars. My feelings about this are mainly due to the fact that our toddler’s room has big windows that look out over our street and the nearest intersection – an intersection that also features some of the most “go to” bars in the city. By 11:30 p.m. on about five or six weekends leading up to Carnaval – and until almost 4:00 a.m. on each of those nights – trying to sleep in Marcello’s room is literally like trying to sleep in a bar with a live band. The solution? Marcello comes to “sleep” in Mama and Papa’s quieter room on the other side of the house. The result? Mama and Papa don’t much sleep due to a 2 year-old’s uncanny ability to take up an entire queen-size bed.

  4. The Toddlers and Tiaras aspect of Carnaval for young girls. If you have a son, you really don’t have to worry about what he’s going to wear or how he’s going to be asked to dance in a Carnaval parade. Chances are, he’ll be outfitted in a modest and handsome traditional costeño outfit or sparkly garabato garb. In either case, he’ll be covered up and not engaged in anything that might remotely resemble twerking. If you have a daughter, you actually do need to worry that she will be asked to wear something worthy of a Vegas show girl and that her dance team will be booty-shaking provocatively to a song like “El Serrucho” by Mr. Black (the song’s video is NSFW – not safe for work, small children, or those easily shocked) – hilarious for adults, not so hilarious for pre-teens.

  5. The black face paint of the Son de Negro costumes.
    The black face paint and bright red lip paint are used for the Son de Negro costume.

    The black face paint and bright red lip paint are used for the Son de Negro costume.

    No, I don’t hate it. I just don’t know how to feel about it. Having worked in the civil rights field for most of my career, I wince at anything that reminds me of the racist Blackface minstrel acts of 19th Century America. (For an interesting take on this history and its current use by artists and entertainers in the US, check out the two-part series, “The Legacy of Blackface,”  on NPR’s The Tavis Smiley Show.) I realize this cultural association is probably very US centric, and that maybe the implications just aren’t the same in the Carnaval context — at least that’s what I tell myself. The Son de Negro costume is one of Carnaval’s various standard costumes and characters, pretty much all of which have a back story. This costume is said to derive from the African and Afro-Colombian influence on the Colombian coast. I’d love to hear more opinions about this costume from Colombians, especially Afro-Colombians. Maybe that would help me put it in the proper context.

  6. The marimondo. I know this clown-like figure is supposed to be Barranquilla’s very unique contribution to the worldwide pantheon of Carnaval characters, and I like what little I know about the story behind it – that poorer Barranquilleros developed it as a way to make fun of the fancy costumes of high society – but I can’t wrap my head around how having a you-know-what where your nose is supposed to be constitutes a cherished cultural tradition.
    These marimondo costumes are less... umm... exaggerated than many.

    These marimondo costumes are less… umm… endowed than most.

    I’m getting there, though. Almost. And I’d never be in favor of banning it, which became a real possibility with the Barranquilla mayor’s February 2014 decree prohibiting vulgar and morbid costumes. Humor should be a cherished cultural tradition, too! Seriously.

  7. The gringo mark-up. No matter what time of year it is, it’s pretty clear that I’m not from Barranquilla. I stick out like a sore thumb. Nonetheless, since Barranquilla is primarily a tourist town only during Carnaval, people generally assume I live here even while they recognize that I’m not from here. Not so during Carnaval. Carnaval is the time when, on occasion, a cab driver will try to charge me twice the going rate for a ride or when a Carnaval T-shirt will cost me more depending on who I ask. I think during this time of year I’m generally assumed to be a tourist and thus deserving of the tourist prices that any self-respecting tourist destination will charge to those who come to enjoy it. I absolutely don’t fault Barranquilla or Barranquilleros for trying to make the most out of the very amazing event that they work so hard to host. I understand it and support it, but I’ll be glad for when I can go back to being a regular.

Actually, that’s it! I couldn’t come up with ten things I kinda, sorta don’t like – seven was as far as I could get. That right there should tell you something. This reminds me of Barranquilla’s Carnaval slogan: “Quién lo vive, es quien lo goza.” He who lives it, enjoys it. Here’s to that! Now I have to go pick up my palco tickets for the days ahead.


31 responses to “Ten Things I Kinda, Sorta Don’t Much Like About Carnaval

  1. Good job.

    Clarissa Strickland
    Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
    160 Clairemont Ave, Ste 500
    Atlanta, Ga. 30030
    CBF Website | Facebook | Twitter | Blog

  2. James B - Canada

    Completely agree with You. I have seen the Carnaval once in 2004 but I have seen the pre carnaval festivities in every late January we have been there and I must say that me and my Barranquillera esposa do not like it and do not enjoy it. Kids think that it is fun but like you I do not get the marimondo, the black face and the foam and the 24 hr loud music. I am not saying ban it but maybe contain it. Live and let live but do it somewhere else. Best to be in Cartagena during carnaval.

    It is still our dream to love there. To buy a condo in the El Alto Prado area. I will leave the cold frigid north, the taxes and high and higher cost of living, the cops adn their tickets, in an airplane or in a pine box.

    • Barranquilla has definitely been a good move for us. And, every time I start feeling annoyed about some of the Carnaval stuff, there is some other part to REALLY enjoy. 🙂 We had a great time at Batalla de Flores yesterday, and an amazing experience at the Prado Es Prado concert last night. We hadn’t done the concert thing before and it really was a lot of fun. And the spirit of everyone in attendance at both events was really great.

    • Yesterday, at the Batalla de Flores parade, there was a really coordinated troop of marimondos… their funny dance, which included literally getting on the ground and scooting on their butts for a few beats of the song (I don’t know how they were planning to manage that for such a long parade route!)… was totally awesome and in great humor. The crowd loved it, and me too. 🙂

  3. I like Carnaval and I have no problem with it. I think every culture and tradition should be explored and expressed. The only problem I have is when the babies and little girls are dressed so sexy and shaking there butts. Grown men don’t look at them as little kids but as sex objects and that’s where I draw the line.

  4. I liked reading this 🙂

  5. I enjoyed this article very much as I live in the Caribbean where Carnival is an integral part of our lives. On my island ours is celebrated during Christmas. Trust me there is much debate if such revelry should be missed with Christmas given the nature of our Carnival – alcohol abuse, vulgar street dancing, in essence, reckless abandon. I strongly agree with the latter portion of “harpermckinley’s” comment.

    • Are you from the Bahamas? I’ve been in Junkanoo several times and that’s celebrated on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Miss those days.

    • I didn’t realize that Carnaval is celebrated at Christmastime in some places… I thought it was always between Epiphany and Lent… goes to show I have a lot to learn! I’m not sure I would like it at Christmastime only because I feel like mixing the two would somehow make each of them less instead of more. I think I would have a bit of a hard time with that. Although I suppose that doing them both at once might make Carnaval less disruptive to work schedules and such…

      • Your point about carnival being held at Christmas is similar to that expressed by many here at home. It is felt by many that it takes away the spirit of Christmas since the media promotes Carnival and little is heard of Christmas. I too share that view.

        Sent from Samsung Mobile

  6. I am from the twin island federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. Visit my blog clareg67.com titled, “Ah Ha, That Was Fun!!!’ to learn a little about my homeland.

  7. fancytoughboots

    I have never been to Carnaval–but have been planning on it for some time. I feel like after this post I’ll have a better idea of what to look out for! Thanks! 🙂

    • My pleasure! It’s definitely a great thing to do at least once, and maybe repeatedly! I was just talking to some friends yesterday about how we’d love to go to Carnaval in Bahia in Brazil sometime. I would theoretically like to do Rio, but have heard Bahia might be more authentic. In any case, Carnaval in Brazil is on my bucket list!

  8. Some of these things remind me of chalk on the blackboard. Irritating and useless. So much money spent for all excuses of having a good time which amounts to nothing. Some of which is pretty banal. I have decided not to go if they gave me a free ticket. I got better things to do like painting a wall, taking a walk or watching paint dry.

    • Well, I’m a big believer in “to each his own” and “live and let live” and all that. As you can tell from my post, I do find some of it irritating. But, I’ve learned — sort of the hard way, I think — that there is a big value to having fun in life and that prioritizing fun is actually a healthy thing to do, within reason of course. Anyway, I say that only as my own opinion. It’s just that I used to not prioritize fun and then I realized that not ever doing so wasn’t a good thing. But of course there are many ways to have fun and everyone has to find what works for them.

  9. I like Carnaval. It reminds me of a coffee’s name by Heart Coffee Roasters hahaha

  10. Very insightful. Thanks for sharing!

  11. I’ve been to Brasil several times over the years. Haven’t been to Carnaval in Rio but I’ve twice been to the pre-season Carnaval in Natal, CarNatal. I’ve also been partied at the festival in Recife. As for CarNatal, I loved it. The feeling of unity and togetherness was amazing. So many people coming together to sing and dance as one was incredibly moving. There was plenty of drinking but I saw no fighting. The music was great and I was fortunate enough to be with people that had a balcony reserved so we could follow the parade when we wanted and hang back as needed. I wouldn’t choose to drink Skol at home but in the heat and sweat of a Carnaval it’s lightness is just right. Oh, and I apparently speak Portuguese when I’m drunk. Who knew?

    • LOL, I have to admit that a little alcohol can sometimes be very helpful when speaking a foreign language. :))) Carnaval in Brazil — and traveling to Brazil generally (I haven’t been yet) — is on my bucket list. I can definitely see how Carnaval could create a real spirit of community and togetherness. We felt a little of that last night at the Carnaval concert that we attended. I kind of feel like lack of community is, in some places, one of the downsides of today’s world. Events like these, in their best iterations, can help create community and bring people together. That, in my opinion, is probably their single most important function for the people who participate. It’s a really valuable thing, and too rare these days.

  12. good post…keep doing it…as I am new blogger I posted couple of blogs and not able to get that much popularity please visit my blog http://mindtechnorms.wordpress.com …please help me by reading by any blog (as I read yours) and try to find is there any writing issues or I’m expecting too early…your valuable comments will really boost my writing skills…

  13. is this in cozumel i was just there 😀

  14. Great job, Courtenay! I’m from Manhattan, and used to crazy crowds, but this is a bit too much even for me. The foam is bad enough, but how about when they start chucking flour at everyone, and the combo becomes like paste in your hair! My Colombian fiance goes to every Carnival event and loves it, but I’m just a cranky, old fogey, I guess. I’m waiting until the 15th to return to my home away from home (Barranquilla), when I’m sure the coast is clear. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Todd! It makes me feel better to hear a Manhattanite say that. 🙂 I think if you live here, it’s best to embrace it fully… anything else is just way harder. Unfortunately, our US-based work schedules can make the full embrace a little difficult, though we try as much as we can. As for that flour/foam mix, don’t even get me started! 😉 We’ll look forward to having you back soon.

  15. I always find it fascinating to hear/read a gringo’s view of my hometown and its traditions.

    The Son de Negro costume is just that, a costume. Please don’t make it anymore than it is. I realize that most Americans remain sensitive to the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. while some pursue lifelong careers pretending it still exists today. It does not. I only learned about racism and the permanent obsession with it after arriving in the U.S. in my mid-teens and attending school here. After 27 years in the U.S., I have yet to experience it in my daily life. I have found the U.S. and Americans to be about the nicest, friendliest, and most tolerant accommodating people in the world.

    The “espuma” thing is new to me. Before leaving Colombia, we would pour and throw Maizena (corn starch) at each other, which I really disliked, especially in my eyes. I guess this whole foam experience grew out of that and was supposed to be a safer method… I am glad it has been banned. Hopefully it will be enforced soon or better yet, replaced with silly string.

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