This year, I celebrated Carnival again after four years abroad. And what better place to start than my native Curaçao? I arrived just in time to walk in the Gran Marcha (Grand Parade) and Marcha di Despedida (Farewell Parade), both for the first time. Then, three weeks later, I got to sneak a peek of Montevideo’s Carnaval.
The festivities were vastly different in both countries, not surprising considering their different geographies and histories. Yet, what I (re-)discovered in both places was a decades-old tradition, the type that forges community between people irrespective of their race, ancestry or belief.
Karnaval na Kòrsou
Tring, tring, triiiiing. A high pitched sound pierces through my dreams. Faded, and only slightly confused, I turn off my alarm. Sunday is not typically a day for alarm clocks, but this Sunday is special. Today is Sunday February 11th, Grand Marcha, and I have looked forward to today for months. And a quick glance to my phone reveals that it is already 10am. I better rush.
I have just woken up from a nap, and despite the lack of sleep, I feel energetic and optimistic. I can hear the tumba playing in the living room, I can smell the arepitas from the kitchen, and I can see our costumes are finally ready and looking drop-dead-gor-geous. Besides, after college I think I can handle an allnighter or two.
This exhilarating morning was my first Carnival experience in years, and frankly, I didn’t know what else to expect. Would I be able to walk for hours? Would I survive the hot, scorching sun? On no sleep? And most importantly, would I get over my fear of dancing in public?
I danced, screamed and sang through sun and rain for six hours straight on Sunday. And on Tuesday night we did it all over again. This time under a star-lit sky – no sun, no rain. I enjoyed it all so much that I did not get a chance to second guess my dancing skills. In fact, my toes didn’t start hurting until after the Parade was over…
What I wish I had known before participating in Karnaval
The best advice I can give to my future self, and anyone else for that matter, is to have realistic expectations. Both about the preparations and the parade itself.
I had reserved, paid and sent my measurements long in advance and I expected my costume to be ready when I arrived. Not only was it not ready, but having it done in time for the parade meant waiting in line with fifty equally impatient (and frankly, angry) karnavalistas. I don’t know what I would have done without my mother’s sowing skills, her unfaltering spirit, and our trusted glue-gun.
Although I had been confident about the preparations, it was the actual parade I was worried about. I have outlined some of my doubts above, but my main question was Will I even enjoy this?
I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed the parade. During those six hours everyone on the island was my friend. Whether they were walking with me in the parade, dancing on the side or taking pictures, I could tell we all shared the same euphoric feeling. And that is something I have never experienced before.
The burning question then is, knowing that I might have to sacrifice a night of sleep, would I do it again? Most definitely! My family and I are already making plans for next year. Join us?
Read more about Curaçao’s Carnival, and how to enjoy it as a tourist here.
Carnaval en Montevideo
After my amazing week of Carnival in Curaçao, I had high hopes for Carnaval in Montevideo. Die hard fans of Carnival will wonder: how is it possible to celebrate Carnival back to back in two places? Aren’t they all aligned to end right before lent?
Well, Uruguayans (and Argentinians for that matter) celebrate Carnival a little bit different from us in the South Caribbean.
While in Curaçao we close off the Carnival festivities with parades, in Uruguay it is the Inaugural Parade that kicks off the madness. It is followed by weeks of tough competition between different groups in diverse categories featuring satirical singing, dancing, and acting. This makes Montevideo’s Carnaval the longest in the world!
These competitions are such a big deal that loyalties to groups last a lifetime. Historically, Montevideo was divided in different zones, and groups competed for first place in their zone. In preparation for Carnaval, the entire neighbourhood would come together, collaborating money, while the best artists would work all night to complete the neighbourhood’s tablado, or stage, where the different groups could perform. When tablados became privatised in the late 20th century the competitions maintained their importance.
Dan and I were fortunate enough to catch a show at one of these private stages with some of our friends, and it was only 100 pesos (3$) each!! As it was already early March, we couldn’t really enjoy the competition. Instead, we were just in time to see this year’s winners in each category. We were truly blown away by the singing and dancing skills of each group, as well as the diversity between the performances.
What I wish I had known before going to see the Carnaval
While I am certain that I would have enjoyed the performances without any prior knowledge, I was happy that I had read up on Montevideo’s carnaval before.
There is a lot of information available online, especially if you read Spanish. I really enjoyed this Practical Guide (in Spanish). But if you have the time, do visit Montevideo’s Carnival Museum. Entrance is 110 pesos ($4), and although the exhibitions are small, I learned a lot about the festivity’s history and key figures. And the information is fully available in both Spanish and English.
I wish I could go into all the fascinating details of Montevideo’s Carnaval, but I simply don’t have the space on my blog. Instead, I will leave you with this fun fact:
During colonial times, only slaves and their descendants were allowed to dance Candombe. But Carnival, being the unifying festival that it is, attracted people of all different ancestries. Thus, in order to participate in the festivities, Spanish people painted their faces black and were called lubolos. This tradition has remained, and to this day there is still a competition category called Sociedades de Negros y Lubolos (Society of Blacks and Lubolos). How is that for a positive spin on Blackface?
Have you celebrated carnival abroad before? I would love to hear about your experiences, and tips on how to enjoy this amazing celebration to the max.