Two and a half years ago, I packed my bags and flew to Colombia, a seemingly-random country in South America of which I knew close to nothing, to teach English for 6 weeks. I remember my parents thinking I was crazy. This was the longest I had ever been out of the country and the first time I had flown somewhere without knowing anyone in my destination. However, to everyone’s surprise, I feel in love with the beauty of the landscape and…most importantly, the friendly, energetic, and unbelievably generous disposition of the people. Now, two and a half years later, I had the opportunity to return to Colombia in order to attend the famous Carnaval Barranquilla and to spend time with my “Colombian family” and friends. My experience over the last week and a half has left me convinced that Colombians know how to have more fun than any other group of people I know. Let me tell you why…
Carnaval Barranquilla is four-day celebration of frivolity and culture that proceeds Ash Wednesday. Events feature parades, outdoor music concerts, theater, lots of cerveza, and a smattering of other activities. One of the things that makes Carnaval Barranquilla so unique are the traditional costumes and dances. Colombia, especially the Caribbean coast, has a rich and very defined culture. My favorite dance is the Cumbia, mostly because I am obsessed with the beautiful dresses that feature heavy fabric skirts that are perfect for twirling. The most traditional Cumbia dresses are white and red checkered, but in the pictures below you will also see some other colors such as gold. If you are interested in seeing how the Cumbia is danced, you can go to the following web address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMZtkctRt1Q. The really good dancers even carry candles in their hands or balance a bottle of aguardiente atop their heads (no joke, I saw women doing this during one of the parades).
The largest and arguably most important parade of Carnaval is the Batalla de Flores, which is where my Carnaval experience really kicks off. My host family informed me ahead of time that we would be dressing in disfraces to go to the parade, but what I didn’t realize was that I was going to be a participant in the parade…. which would mean I would have to dance. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy dancing, but I am not very good at it. Costeños (the slang term for people living in the coastal region of Colombia), on the other hand, practically emerge from the womb dancing (or at least…that’s how is seems to me!). Needless to say, I was convinced I was going to make a total fool of myself. However, although I didn’t really know what I was doing half the time (ok, maybe most of the time) and although the three hour event felt like one long Zumba lesson as I frantically tried to follow the dance moves of the people in front of me, I can honestly say that being in that parade was one of the best experiences of my life. There are 3 primary reasons why:
- The group of Colombians I was dancing with were open, inviting, and encouraging. I quickly realized that they didn’t really care how well I could dance; they just wanted me to dance. One of the guys offered to be my dance partner so that he could help me figure out what to do when I was having trouble. I immediately felt included, like a valuable member of the group even though I had only know these people for about 3 hours before the parade started. I made +10 new friends in what, for me, started out as a very uncomfortable situation. The “easy-going, lets all be friends, come participate with us” mentality of this group of people, in my experience, seems to be an almost universal Colombian trait (yes, this is a generalization, but since it is a positive one I am going to go ahead and make it). Colombians love to share their culture.
- The energy of the parade was palpable in the air, an energy that I didn’t feel to nearly the same extent during the two parades where I was merely a spectator. Interacting with the crowd, listening to up-beat music in Spanish, and dancing, dancing, dancing, kept my feet moving, my heart racing, and a smile on my face. One girl in the crowd even asked to take a picture with me because she couldn’t believe there was a gringa in the parade! I danced non-stop for about 3 hours and didn’t notice how tired I was until we were on the bus on the way home. I could hardly walk by the time I actually sat down to rest my feet, which my host family seemed to think was hilarious. The energy of the event takes you over, and you don’t realize how hard you’ve been working until the crowd dissipates and the music stops.
- One of the things that I have learned from my travels is that it is always better to be a participant than a spectator when you have the opportunity. However, stepping outside of your comfort zone and allowing yourself to experience something new is hard. At first, I was very timid and uncomfortable with the idea of dancing in the parade, but as the music started and all of the sudden I had no choice but to move my way along, I made the conscious decision to just…let go. Over the past few months, I have been holding in a lot of feelings and doubts about myself and about my future. While I have learned a lot about myself and grown in confidence over the last 6 months of study abroad in Argentina, I am quickly approaching graduation and the uncertainties that come with it. It is very hard to explain, but being in that parade was an almost spiritual experience for me. I lost myself in the music, in the dancing, in the moment. I am very future and goal-oriented, which is a good thing, but sometimes it comes at the expense of living in the present. In this moment, at this parade, I didn’t think…I felt and I lived 100% completely in the present. And besides…how many people get to say they have danced in a famous parade in another country??!
Besides the parade, I attended a bunch of other Carnaval activities, although the best part was getting to enjoy them with old friends. I went to a concert one night with my host siblings where my host brother made it his personal mission to teach me to dance reggaeton a rather…sensual dance. That’s another thing I love about Colombian culture: dancing with someone in a more sensual way does not necessarily carry any of the negative (i.e. sexual) implications it would in the United States. Friends, cousins, strangers, etc. can dance like this together and it is all in good fun. I sometimes wish my own culture was a little more relaxed with things like this. Beside the concert, I also attended a Carnaval party in a barrio popular with my good friend Natalia and her family. We sat on the porch of her friend’s house while people danced reggaeton and salsa in the street. Later, I was sucked into another Carnaval tradition when a friend of Natalia’s mother threw foam and a chalk-like substance at her friends and family, me included. A chalk fight ensued, and I joined in this custom with gusto. By the end of the night my hair looked grey from all of the white powder and my clothes needed a serious washing, but it was worth it.
In a lot of ways, Carnaval Barranquilla is essentially a four-day party, and when it comes to parties, Colombians do it right. Dancing, good conversation, and lively spirits rein supreme, while celebrating with family and friends is really the best part of all. My host sister summed it up pretty well when she said, “La gente se vuelve loca durante Carnaval.” However, most importantly, Carnaval was chance for me to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in over 2 years. To say that the members of the family I stayed with (who fed and lodged me all week for free) have become good friends would be an understatement. They are my family and always will be.
I wish I could go back every year.
Viva Carnaval! Viva Colombia!