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In the "Cult of Escapism": Carnaval

Thursday, March 17, 2011


From – March 8th, 2011 – the day I returned from Carnaval

The gay trucker on ecstasy is back in indigenous territory. My body hurts and I’m still not thinking straight. Carnaval didn’t quite conquer me but it was a bloody fight and I barely made it out with my money, my shirt, and my dignity (at least, most of it).

Right - David's hat and David; Left - Me, the Gay Trucker on Ecstasy

The best way to summarize Carnaval is chronologically, so here’s my itinerary from the two days:
7:00 – We (Peace Corps volunteers and visitors) wake up because our body clocks are fixed on “dawn mode” and because the neighbors begin blasting music. Everyone tries to sleep longer and everyone fails.

8:00-10:00am – By now, we’ve all accepted that sleeping off the hangover is impossible and are limping around, avoiding direct sunlight and trying to remember what happened the night before. We eat breakfast and address various injuries (e.g. one volunteer ran full speed into a barbed wire fence; another, immediately afterwards tried to jump the same fence and failed – these are the kinds of intelligent decisions made during Carnaval).

(For a shot of the soon-mentioned square, the floats, and the seven million people, search “Carnaval Panama” on Google images)

10:00am – 3:00pm – Reboot. We start drinking again during breakfast, put on our colors and ridiculous outfits and proceed to the center of town with approximately seven million other people. The center is a square – each side about two blocks of street with a “park” in the center (all concrete). The streets are completely empty except for the giant floats, the tractors pulling the giant floats, the tanker trucks filled with water and the seven million people. As such, elbow room is bountiful and trips back and forth across the square definitely do not take 45 minutes of pushing, being pushed, tripping on coolers, stepping in putrid water and eventually failing to escape.

Approximately six of the seven million people are pickpockets, the rest are not fit to operate a motor vehicle, or even a cell phone. Anyone not wearing a bathing suit and a plain t-shirt is wearing bright colors or something really revealing (this category included women and transvestites and me, because my friend ripped my button down shirt open). 

There are three floats – one with the queen of the Lower Street, one with the Upper, and one with the band. The queens stand among giant snakes or musical instruments or peacocks and are dressed accordingly. The floats change each of the six days. Queens smile and sort of dance. Similarly dressed but less attractive women stand at each corner and do the same. Apparently, Upper and Lower queen compete but I don’t know how. What I do know is the tractors slowly drag the floats through the crowd, like a fist slowly pushing through a soft chocolate cake. You can either follow the flow away or press against the sides and feel the crush as they pass. Either way, pickpockets follow the floats and we had many victims.

One friend caught a pickpocket with his phone in hand and my friend grabbed it back and put the guy in a headlock. Another vigilant friend caught a man with his hand in my pocket, clutching a free t-shirt (I had all valuables around my neck). He pushed the man around and yelled at him until the man ran away. The unlucky lost $20, $130 and a credit card, and $100 and a phone, respectively. Those successfully stolen from left the next day and were among those I consider conquered by Carnaval.

The water trucks were more fun than the pickpockets. For mid-day, mid-summer, in a windless area near the equator, it is surprisingly hot during the day. So companies sponsor tankers filled with water and their promoters stand on top and throw free stuff and hose down the crowd. The water feels incredible but the street drains get clogged and dirt, beer, and urine flow along the curbs. I walked through this in sandals at one point and miraculously, am yet to get a staph infection.

3:00pm – 8:00pm – We return to our rented house, dirty, soaking, sun-burned and drunk. Most sleep on mats, sleeping bags, or directly on the floor. Some stay up and talk. Showers and throwing up are popular activities.

8:00pm – 10:00pm – We rise and nurse hangovers with more beer or cheap rum and have the healthiest fried food that $2.00 can buy. Most abandon the day clothes for something slightly more respectful, like jeans. I preferred free t-shirts.

10:00pm - …am – P.H. I don’t remember what that stands for but that’s what they call the outdoor dance club, no matter what city you’re in. There are multiple bars and a stage in front. Much dancing. More drinking. The apparent goal is to fit the population of Central America into an area a little smaller than a football field. I’d like to tell you more about what happens at P.H. but I honestly don’t remember.

The crew at home before heading out

…am – Stumble home. Run into barbed wire fences. Bless the backyard with your stomach contents. One inspired volunteer jumped into our neighbor’s backyard pool and did a few laps, then ran soaking and screaming through the house we had rented. No one sleeps more than three or four hours.
Carnaval goes on for six days. I was there for two. Some were conquered by Carnaval, falling at the hands of pickpockets and the handles of alcohol. The rest leave dazed and hungover and full of stories that should never be repeated. As I left the house, I said goodbye to my friend Tyler:

Me – “Tyler, that was fun man, I’ll see you soon and let’s do it again sometime.”
Tyler (tightening his grip on a black coffee and slouching in his seat) – “Let’s never do that again.”


At January 7, 2013 at 11:17 AM , Blogger bama said...

Woozy, yuck, and too much fun - - - or something.


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