On more than one occasion, I’ve walked into a fairly nice looking house to see that it’s mostly empty, the living room home to a nice TV and some plastic lawn chairs. I can’t be a judge on how people spend their money (or other ways they came to own a nice TV), but this always confuses me. I met some Peace Corps volunteers who served in Fiji and Micronesia who told me it’s the same there. My friends volunteering in Southeast Asia and Northern Africa said it’s the same there, too. Everyone prioritizes the size of the TV over a couch, tables, and sometimes even bed frames. Gotta watch those cheesy soap operas on a big screen, I guess!
A TV is exactly what I wish I had in my house when I got back from Caranval! And I’ll explain why.
First, Carnaval was AWESOME. It’s just days of partying, crowding city plazas, running through water, and seeing the most amazing parade floats I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I headed south to Las Tablas on February 11th, the main town where Caranval takes place. It’s in the eastern part of the peninsula, and I stayed with a friend who hosted a few volunteers. She was located just outside of Las Tablas so we would be able to head into town for the festivities, but then be able to escape it after we got tired. Through the late morning and afternoon, the town is crowded with people who fill the streets and center square, which is surrounded by tanker trucks filled with water. You’re standing there in the street, listening to crazy loud music, watching tons of glitter and confetti fall from the sky, and getting sprayed by the hoses from the trucks. It was a lot of fun! Getting drenched was a highlight because it’s super crazy hot and crowded, so the water helps to cool down the street and the people all partying in the street. During this time, there’s a parade of INCREDIBLE floats covered in vibrant colors, animals, sparkles, and locals dressed in traditional clothing. (I wish I had gotten photos, but since you’re standing in water all day, best not to bring anything but a few dollars with you!) But Panamanian parades are not like those in the USA. They are slow, and only about twenty floats in general. They move about thirty feet and then sit there for 10 minutes, letting the crowd soak in how amazing the craftsmanship is. You know how in the USA, they have the road blocked off? Yeah, that’s not a thing here. So everyone crowds the streets to get sprayed with water, and then as you see a float coming, everyone scrambles to the edges as it passes, then immediately goes to the street again. It was PACKED. I have never been shoved so shoulder-to-shoulder compact in an area in my life. Once, I was the last person to get to the outside of the street, and was still in the way of the float without anywhere else to go. So my friends literally pulled my legs and arms back as the float grazed my stomach… I sucked in and hoped it wouldn’t stop right in front of us! What a sigh of relief after it passed and we could all enter the road again! Because forget about safety, right?
The floats are to represent the “Queens of Caranval”. So basically, when a little girl is born to a rich family, the parents immediately sign her up to be a queen. They pay $50,000 just to get on this list, and it’s not even a guarantee she’ll be chosen. So the girl grows up, and when she’s about 18 or 22 years old, her parents donate a lot of money to the Carnaval funds in hopes that her name will be chosen off the list. At the end of every Carnaval, the queens are chosen for the following year. One to represent “uptown” and the other to represent “downtown”. Literally the week after Carnaval ends, the queens begin visiting different parts of the country, volunteering, doing meet and greets, etc. And her family pays people to begin construction on her personal floats, and people to make her dresses and other clothing she’ll be wearing during the festival. It’s nuts! During Carnaval, they both ride their own floats in their own personal dresses and traditional clothing all day every day. They look gorgeous, but it was crazy hot and looked exhausting. I’d never want to be queen! At the end of the week, the two queens have a battle. Basically they stand in their most beautiful dresses on their most beautiful floats, which slowly move toward each other. They scream insults, have crazy fireworks and pyrotechnics, and put on a good show in order to “beat” the other queen. A couple years ago one of the queens let loose thousands of dollars into the crowds in order to say “I’m so rich I can give away money, you aren’t $hit”. Apparently there’s never actually a winner announced, but the locals say “you just know”.
Here’s the kicker. It’s at 5 in the morning.
So you’re supposed to go into Las Tablas and dance and party from 10 at night until the battle, which begins crazy early in the morning. So that’s what us volunteers tried to do! We headed into town after napping that evening and eating big dinners, and watched the parades until midnight- which were STILL going and would continue on with the queens until their battle. But everyone is drinking and dancing in the streets, sometimes with the floats and sometimes just off to the side of the road or in the city center. There was one float with an entire band on it, so we followed that one and danced in the street as it went around the big circle that the parade route was following. There’s a block of this route where it’s completely lit up, crowded with people, and tiers of different cameramen and news crews taping the parade. And we went past this block. Twice. So twice cameras were shoved in our faces while we were dancing. Twice the crowd cheered us on. And twice we were on live national tv (with ice cream in hand, if your name is Amanda). As soon as we decided to take a break from dancing in the parade (we were in it for two hours!), we realized that our host families and communities probably saw us on their giant screen TVs… great. We’ll hear about this when we go back home!
The rest of the night included us getting invited into clubs to dance since we were “famous”, a Spaniard who studied in Miami allowing us to use her apartment bathroom after overhearing us panic about not finding anywhere to go, and a lot of police officers laughing at our attempts to dance the traditional way and sending so many photos/videos of us to their families. It was a good night!
4:30 a.m. rolled around and I was sitting on a couch in a club, two volunteers sleeping in my lap, music still blasting, and other volunteers and friends forcing themselves to chug caffeinated soda or pump themselves up. We were utterly exhausted. I found the girls I was staying with and they decided, to my relief, that they had had enough and were ready to go home. We taxied back to the community where we were staying and crashed! It was about 5:30 a.m. by the time we were in bed. At 8 a.m. we were back on the road traveling back to our communities on the other side of the country. It was a long day!
Some of the volunteers stayed up to watch the battle of the queens, and said we missed a really scary show. Apparently there was so much fire that the crowd was sprayed with ash, and the queens were battling with sound! It was so loud no one could take their hands off their ears and could hear ringing the next day. I’m glad we bailed when we did! I would’ve been super unhappy there.
So after so many days of craziness, I was excited to be back in my community. The trip back was horrible on 90 minutes of sleep and 8 hours in 5 different buses, but I survived! It was Valentine’s Day so, unfortunately, I couldn’t just rest in my house when I got back that evening. I had to go to a church function to please my host parents. As soon as I arrived, I started to feel weird. My head hurt and my stomach was rumbling, but I assumed I was just tired. About an hour into the service I apologized to my host mom and bailed. I was feeling super sick! I quickly showered and went to bed, thinking I’d feel better after some rest.
1 in the morning rolls around and I wake up vomiting everywhere. It was disgusting. I didn’t have time to run to the bathroom sadly so I soaked my sheets and floor. Sorry for the details! It’s my only pair of sheets so I got up and quickly washed them, threw up a few more times, then laid back down completely exhausted. I woke up in the early morning with no shirt, wearing my workout shorts, sleeping on my plain mattress. What I thought was a lot of gas ended up being diarrhea. Man, I felt sick. I forced myself to do a little more cleaning, sanitized my poor mattress, rewashed the sheets to make sure I actually did get them clean in the middle of the night, and spent the day in my hammock. I couldn’t keep down water or food, and my stomach cramps were pretty horrible. After a few days I finally was on the mend, but it took a while!
So that’s the super long story of Carnaval and why I wish I sometimes had a TV. To see reruns of us dancing in the parade, and to watch when I’m laying on the ground feeling incredibly ill.
So turns out, I get no sympathy from my community for getting sick because “carne” means meat, and the meaning of Carnaval is “Satan’s flesh” so basically it’s Satan’s holiday and falling ill is my punishment for taking part in it. Just goes to show how diverse the country is. Half of it is partying in the streets, and the other half is judging them! Carnaval truly is the traditional Panamanian experience. I’m glad I did it once, but I’m not sure I’ll do it again in the future!
ANIMAL OF THE WEEK
This centipede got freaked out when I poked it, and rolled into a little ball. Although this one was only four inches long, I’ve seen centipedes up to seven or eight inches in length. So long! Fairly common, but still unwelcome in my house, I swept it outside and told him to tell all his friends to stay away. I don’t like finding them in my shoes and shower!