Monday, February 23, 2015

Carnaval 2015


Ever since the moment that we touched down here in Colombia, the event that every single person we have run into has been about Carnaval. The buzz and amount of pride that the residents have displayed in having the world’s second largest Carnaval celebration in the world (smaller only than that of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil) has been apparent for the last 5 months. As soon as the calendar changed from 2014 to 2015, the focus shifted as well. Storefronts started hanging streamers. Traditional characters were painted on billiards halls. Special music created especially for the event flooded the busses, streets, and clubs at night. The stage was set for the biggest event of the year here on the coast!

This four day folkloric festival, which is always celebrated starting on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, is attended by over one million people every year, including tourists from around the world. With traditions dating back from the late 19th century, this celebration has been a staple of life in Barranquilla for many years. The celebrations begin about a month before the actual Carnaval itself. These Pre-Carnaval events are filled with just as much excitement, as the entire town prepares itself for the festivities. 

Some of the Pre-Carnaval events include the following:
  • Lectura del Bando: This event is highlighted by the traditional reading of the Carnaval declaration by the Queen. This declaration, which states that everyone must enjoy themselves by dancing and partying wildly, is the official start to the Carnaval season.
  • La Guacherna: This nocturnal parade is the most important event of the Pre-Carnaval season. Held the second Friday before the start of Carnaval, this parade is filled with traditional performances by people dressed up as marimondas, monocucos, los Negros, cumbia dancers, los Congos, and other folkloric characters.
  • Coronaci├│n de la Reina:  This event, which occurs the Thursday before the first day of Carnaval, features tons of popular and famous musical artists. It also showcases the passing of the crown from the previous year’s queen to the current queen. This year’s musical acts included Mr. Black, Young F, Peter Manjarres, Twister El Rey, and other big name Latin artists.
These events, and a slew of other, helped set the stage for the actual Carnaval event itself. Back in January, Derek and I had bought tickets for the three big parades. This tickets, which guaranteed us palcaos (stadium style seating set up along the parade route) meant that we did not have to fight with the masses for a good view of the parades as they passed through along Via 40. 

The official festivities kicked off on Saturday, February 14th with La Batalla de los Flores (Battle of the Flowers). This parade, which is the most important event of Carnaval itself, is a traditional parade in every sense of the word. It features floats, famous figures, and lots of performances from various groups around the Atl├íntico region. The parade lasts about six hours (we didn’t stay for the whole thing) and was a great way to kick off the Carnaval season. Later that night, we met up with some other friends of ours and headed over to La Troja, with is a super popular outdoor salsa club. The streets around the club were closed off and were filled with people from all over. After dancing there for a couple of hours, Derek and I headed to another block party with some other friends from Peace Corps. This party featured traditional Colombian music, played by live bands. It was once again an awesome scene and we had tons of fun just soaking in the atmosphere.


Sunday brought along La Gran Parada (The Grand Parade). This parade was void of floats, but full of Colombian coastal culture. The groups that participate in this parade represent some form of folkloric Colombian character. The loud, booming speakers of the day before were replaced with smaller, live ensembles consisting of drums, trumpets, clarinets, and some traditional Colombian instruments. This parade really did a great job of highlighting the importance of these characters to the Colombian people themselves. There was a great sense of pride from the participants as they were able to showcase their culture. That night, Derek and I once again headed to La Troja, where we met up with some other volunteers and once again enjoyed a long night of dancing and music. While La Troja normally isn’t one of my favorite places to pass a night at, I will admit that being a part of the massive crowd was very entertaining.


Monday brought my favorite parade, Desfile de las Fantasias (The Fantasy Parade). This parade was filled with brightly colored costumes, invigorating beats, and captivating performances. Many of the costumes worn by the participants featured feathers, sequence, and in most cases, very little else. When one thinks of Carnaval, the participants of this parade would fit into what normally comes to mind. Local dance styles, like cumbia, champeta, and vallenato, are mixed with samba, salsa, and raggaeton to create a magical atmosphere that definitely pleased the spectators. To wrap up our Carnaval celebration, Derek and I inadvertently crashed a random birthday party to help support the band that one of the volunteers in our group is a member of. While we were definitely out of place and received some pretty strong stares, it was still a pretty good way to bring our first Colombian Carnaval to an end. 


Throughout this post, I’ve alluded to some Colombian folkloric characters that made numerous appearances throughout the Carnaval season. Here is a bit more of an in-depth look at these characters and their meaning to the Colombian people:
Las Marimondas: This character is probably one of the easiest to spot. Characterized by massive eyes, a long, imposing nose, elephant-like ears, and an inside-out suit, the marimonda was created by lower class Barranquilleros as a critique of the upper class. It strives to point out how uncomfortable and ridiculous many of the people in the upper echelon used to present themselves and live their lives. The marimonda dance is filled with lots of silly movements that seem to combine an elephant with a primate.


Los Monocucos: Back before Barranquilla was the large, industrial city that it is today, rich men used to ride into town during Carnaval and try to woo the local women. However, they would hide their identities behind masks, which helped inspire the monocucos costume. Consisting of a jester-like robe, a hood, eye-mask, and long piece to cloth to cover the bottom half of the face, this costume allows for the wearer to easily remain hidden or reveal themselves if so desired.


Los Congos:  This costume, which is one of the oldest of Carnaval, was inspired by the Congo region of Africa. Consisting of a large headdress adorned in brightly colored flowers, white painted faces with rosy red cheeks, sun glasses, and an intricate pant suit, the male participants definitely stand out in a crowd. The women dress themselves in brightly colored dresses that tend to match the color palette worn by the men. The men also tend to carry a machete in their right hand.


Los Negros: One of the neatest things about the entire Carnaval experience here on the coast is the fact that all aspects of the costal history are celebrated and shared – even those that may tend to cast a bit of a dark shadow on the area. Influenced by the visible African slave trade in the area (mainly Cartagena), Los Negros represent an important aspect of Colombia’s past. Thick, black body paint and sombreros adorned with brightly colored flowers that helped to protect the slaves against the strong coastal sun characterize these participants. The dance that is associated with Los Negros was created in Santa Lucia, a town in southern Atlantico. It is filled with tons of strong and rapid movements, along with exaggerated facial expressions, highlighted by bright red tongues and lips. It’s quite a startling sight to see when one of the participants unexpectedly invades your space!


Los Garabatos: This folkloric tradition highlights the constant struggle between life and death. Traditionally, costumes are made out of red, yellow, and green material (which are the colors of the Barranquilla flag). Males wear yellow shirts, a red and green cape, black pants, and tall white socks. To highlight their representation of life, white hats accompany faces that are painted white with red cheeks. Women wear long dresses that are comprised of the same colors (black, red, yellow, and green) along with a large flower in their hair. Someone wearing a skeleton outfit with a scythe also accompanies this tradition to represent death. During the course of the dance, one of the lead male Garabatos fights off death, showing the life triumphs over death every time.


La Cumbia: This is by far the most important and famous dance of the Colombian coast. This dance is influenced by the mixture of indigenous, African, and Spanish cultures during Colonial times. The instrumentation and songs represent this combination – drums (African), maracas and pitos (a flute-like instrument) (indigenous), songs (adapted from Spanish poets). The dance itself has a strong African influence – the women make short, quick movements which symbolize the chains that bound the feet of many slaves as they made their way from the ships to the market place. The dresses that the women wear are very reminiscent of the Spanish upper class during the Colonial time period. Men traditionally wear all white, accompanied by a red neckerchief and a hat. The presence of lit candles and balanced aguardiente bottles on the heads of the women make this one of the most entertaining dances on the coast!


Rey Momo: A part of the Carnaval celebrations since 1888, the King of Carnaval here in Barranquilla is adorned in all gold (including gold body paint), wears a massive nose ring (which makes him look like a boar on the farm), and is accompanied by a band of warriors. This character is traditionally a tall and fat man – a representation of the physical stature of the original Rey Momo.


La Reina de Carnaval: A part of the Carnaval celebrations since 1918, the Carnaval Queen is traditionally chosen at the end of the previous Carnaval to give her plenty of time to prepare for the festivities. The Queen is chosen by the committee that oversees the Carnaval festivities and is given the job of presiding over all events in relation with Carnaval.


Obviously, there are more characters and historical components to the Carnaval celebration, but I’m going to stop there on account of the fact that this post is getting rather lengthy! All in all, the build-up and hype that accompanied did not disappoint. It was amazing how fast the whole thing flew by! I’m excited for next year’s celebration already, as I will have a better understanding of everything that’s happening. I’m also looking forward to being able to get more involved at my school (since I’ll actually have one during Carnaval next year) and am hoping to be named Rey Momo, which finally learning how to properly dance the cumbia! 


PS - check out the latest edition of Oiste, the Peace Corps Colombia quaterly newsletter to stay up to date on things happening here on the coast! Also, look for the article by yours truly regarding the recent moves that have taken place throughout the country. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

First Impressions

Packing up all of my belongings for the third time in the past five months was bittersweet. I was extremely sad to be leaving my host family. Even though I had only lived with them for the last month and a half, I had come to really feel at home with them. They had opened up their home to me and welcomed me into their family with open arms. Granted, that's how things work here on the coast - another reason why leaving them was so hard.

However, at the same time, I was also excited. I was excited to finally be moving to my small town (aka pueblo) of Repelon to finally start my Peace Corps service. I was looking forward to meeting my new host family, to start integrating into my new community, and to start working at my new school. I was ready to finally have something to look forward to every day besides Netflix and another 200 pages of my latest book.

Fast forward a few days and I can tell everyone that I am getting settled into my new pueblo and so far, am enjoying the small town feel. Living in a small town is nothing new for me - my hometown in Iowa fluctuates between 3,000 and 4,000 people (depending on what source you trust). I'm used to not having every amenity at my beck and call. However, that's small town IOWA style, not small town COLOMBIA style. As I've come to realize already, there's a big difference.



The pueblo that I now call home, Repelon, is a small community of 8,000-10,000 people (no one really seems to know exactly how many people live here). It has four main paved roads, a church, hospital, and an amazing small town feel and spirit. I am living with an awesome family (so far, I’m batting 1.000 when it comes to Colombian host families!). My host mom, Elvira, stays at home and sells various items from her house (i.e. lunch, purses, etc.). One of the neighbors, Elijah David, is over at the house every day, helping her out with the household chores and other odds and ends around the house.

The house itself is more than I could possibly ask for! There are five bedrooms and two bathrooms inside the house itself – this doesn’t even include the rooms around the back patio. There are two kitchens – one inside and one out on the back patio. The kitchen outside is where I get to store my food in my very own full sized refrigerator (I’m telling you – I got amazingly lucky). My room, which includes a bathroom, is one of three other rooms outside that I think Elvira might rent out to others when space is needed. She’s currently in the process of putting in a new closet and mirror in my room to help make me feel more comfortable.

Outside of the amazing set-up, my host mom is also an amazing cook. So far, the meals that I have had are some of the best that I’ve eaten during my time here in Colombia. The best part of all is that I get them delivered to me IN. MY. ROOM. Even when I ask to eat with everyone else, I’m told to not worry about it and that I’m a guest. This is a nice gesture, but pretty soon, I’ll be eating with everyone else to help permeate that family feeling. Outside of my host parents, I also live with a host brother, Pablo, and a host sister and her son (I have yet to meet them as they are in Venezuela, but hopefully they’ll be back soon).

One of the main streets in Repelon
The main church
Front of my house
The outside kitchen (and my host mom on the right)
The outside of my room (with my very own table to eat at)
Beyond my living situation, the rest of small town life so far has been treating me well to this point. Besides the lack of running water (this in itself has shown me just how much water I actually do use and has made me more conscious about this) and WiFi at my house, it’s a very simple life. Days are spent sitting in the kitchen, carrying on discussions with my host mom and various other townspeople that come by the house. Evenings are filled with runs around the town (my goal is to be eventually known as “that kid that runs all the time”) and nightly talks on the patio in the front of the house.

I still haven’t quite had a chance to see what my life at school will be like. I’ve been to school twice, but have yet to see a class. This past week has been filled with various Carnaval celebrations and trainings in Barranquilla, so I have yet to really see what my classroom duties are going to be. But with observations set for the next two weeks, this will soon sort itself out and I’ll be able to get comfortable with what my role will be on a day to day basis. So far, all of the teachers and students have been very excited about my presence and I can’t wait to get to know them all so much better!

Las Reinas de Carnaval de John F. Kennedy
Trying my best to fit in...