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.
- Espuma. Did I say there’s nothing I hate? I take it back.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The black face paint of the Son de Negro costumes.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.