“¡Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza!”
– The motto of Carnaval de Barranquilla, translating roughly to “He who lives it, enjoys it!”
People often ask me why I have chosen to spend so much time in Latin America. I respond by saying that it is a remedy, a medicine, that I have needed for a long time to combat the influence of three years in finance and another four years before that in a high-pressure university. I don’t mean to downplay these privileges; I am still reaping the benefits of my studiousness. But my career and my education occupied a dangerous amount of my identity. In many ways, I needed to learn how to live.
If there is one thing I can say about Colombians, it’s that they know how to do just that, with passion and intensity. They dance and they love and they live like pros. Much like in Katzantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, I feel like the bookish narrator learning to live among so many dancing Zorbas.
The best example of this intense living that I can provide is the Carnaval in the city of Barranquilla, a two hour drive from Cartagena and birthplace to both Shakira and Sofia Vergara. Carnaval de Barranquilla is the second biggest Carnaval celebration after Rio de Janeiro, and the most massive party in Colombia (which is saying a lot). For nearly a week leading up to Ash Wednesday, the entire city stops in its tracks and parties. No household, taxi cab, or toddler is exempt from the merriment.
The streets of Barranquilla are flooded with floats, costumes, music, and colors. It’s not unusual to see costumes fit for Halloween. I saw a surprising number of young men dressed up as women, with sizable plastic body parts affixed to their clothing. For a small tip, they let you take embarrassing photos with them (which makes me wonder how much aguardiente they had to drink to prepare for the role). Yes, I have photos with them; no, you won’t see them posted here.
The most distinctive props of Carnaval de Barranquilla are espuma and maizena, foam and white flour, both of which are used as weapons against unsuspecting passersby. Before I wisened up and bought my own can of espuma, my friends and I were popular targets in the crowd. The war cry “Las gringas! Las gringas!” was swiftly followed by a face full of foam or a cloud of white powder, turning us into soapy white ghosts.
Ever-present throughout the parades, concerts, carnavalitos, and street parties is the incredible music of Carnaval: cumbia, vallenato, salsa, and more. Dancing is a prerogative.
Aside from the pageant queens, the brilliant costumes, and the music, my most beautiful memory of Carnaval is the incredible kindness and friendliness of the Colombians (and Venezuelans, and Uruguayans) that I met over the course of the weekend. Among men and women, old and young, locals and foreigners, there seemed to be a mutual understanding that we were all there to celebrate life and friendship and music. Cervezas and colorful wigs were gifted freely, and everyone wanted a million photos with their new friends.
Three days after leaving Barranquilla and returning home to Cartagena, I am still catching up on sleep and coddling my salsa-weary feet. I may still dance like a gringa, but I am learning little by little to live big, live loud, and laugh about it the next day.