South America

Barranquilla Carnaval, 2nd Time Around

Each costume in the parade is more amazing than the last

It’s not everywhere in the world where months of raucous, citywide, business-paralyzing parties are not only permitted, but heavily encouraged. As the home of the second biggest Carnaval in the world, Barranquilla, Colombia happens to be one of those places. And since the city is also my Peace Corps site, entering my second year serving as a TEL teacher and teacher trainer meant experiencing Barranquilla’s UNESCO-rated Carnaval for a second year in a row!

Covered in cornstarch, which is thrown and/or smeared on friends and strangers alike at all Carnaval events

Covered in cornstarch, which is thrown and/or smeared on friends and strangers alike at all Carnaval events

The Carnaval hum begins the first of each year, building to a roar by early February. The weekend prior to Lent, it explodes into four days of parades and fiestas that spill from stadiums and other arenas to overtake all barrios and streets of the city.

I wrote about some Carnaval basics last year here, so I’ll try not to be redundant— a few thoughts, instead, about what it was like to experience Carnaval in its entirety for the second time, after living and working in Barranquilla for the last sixteen months.

To be honest, after last year, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d stay in town for the 2013 Carnaval. Between the weeks of build-up that include ginormous parades, shrill cumbia bands playing nonstop in the streets as well as neighbors’ patios and malls, a week-long Carnaval celebration at the school where I work, and constant Carnaval music blaring from my host family’s giant speakers, I wasn’t sure I could take the citywide climax of four days AND nights of celebration!

Suffice it to say, I stayed to enjoy Carnaval with gringo and Colombian friends alike, and was glad for it. We spent a day in the sun watching the inaugural parade, La Batalla de Flores, danced in the poorest barrios where music blasted from every patio and strangers became amigos over shots of aguardiente, and partied on Calle 84, where monied folks pulled up their cars and unfolded trunk-stored sound systems worthy of “Pimp My Ride” for the city to dance to.

We ran from street fights, salsa-ed at the infamous La Troja, and stole rare minutes on sidewalks to talk about life in impassioned, three-am, bi-cultural heart-to-hearts of the sort that turn strangers into best friends–if only for the weekend.

This year, I was relaxed enough to pause, every now and again, and shake my head at the craziness of it all—that I, a Wisconsinite whose dancing competency begins and ends with the polka, would end up (attempting) Latin dancing with smoothly gyrating, sequin-bedecked men who crooned songs in my ear and said they’d waited all their life to teach me to dance…

Each costume in the parade is more amazing than the last

Each costume in the parade is more amazing than the last

Really, though, I think the craziest thing was that ultimately, this wasn’t just a weekend of fun, a party I sought or an experience I’d looked for. Instead, this year’s Carnaval was actually part and parcel of what’s become my real life.

On Tuesday, February 12th, we mourned the “death” of Joselito Carnaval, putting to rest the spirit of Carnaval in preparation for Ash Wednesday and Lent. As a slightly conflicted sort of Carnaval-goer (my job is education, after all, which is severely hampered by Carnaval events), the pang of nostalgia I felt as the flames of Carnaval finally died came as a surprise.

I may never have the chance to experience such a spectacle as a part of my daily life again. I’m not sure I actually want to…but I do know, however, that this year I truly lived up to Barranquilla’s official Carnaval slogan – Who lives it, enjoys it!

Emily Fiocco
Emily graduated college in 2010 with a creative writing degree, which naturally led to working at a healthcare software company in Madison, Wisconsin. After managing software projects for a year, she ended her spurt as an American professional to return to what she truly enjoys—traveling, living in new cultures, and non-profit work. Her life in the Peace Corps in the huge city of Barranquilla, Colombia has ironically turned her into an urban dweller. She is learning to make her home in a city that believes in fashion above all else, even during un-air-conditioned 100+ degree heat. Her job is teaching students and training teachers at a large, all-girls school, supporting the country’s goal to turn its schools bilingual by 2019. While here, her spare time activities include hunting down ovens in which to cook delicious, Colombianified food, embarrassing herself with highly gringa dance moves, reveling in the local geographical luxury of consistently labeled streets, and trying to improve her Spanish with the help of the local Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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