As they've done almost every year since 1888, the city of Barranquilla, Colombia holds one of the largest celebrations of folklore in the world. Barranquilla's Carnival ranks second only to the one in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro in terms of sheer magnitude. As a young man, growing up in Colombia's largest coastal city, in a nation that is the only one in South America to have coastlines on, both, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Carnival was, for me, a very special time. I had the unbelieveable good fortune of living on a street numbered 70B that wasn't known for much throughout the rest of the year, as it was like many other streets in the city. What made 70B special was that, every year, Barranquilla's Carnival, would find its way down our street and right past the small shotgun apartment where my father, mother, brother, and I lived. Even better, our apartment was elevated, so it was nicely perched above everything happening down below in its glorious detail, so we happily shared our stairwell with people who crowded on the steps to get the best view possible.
The Carnival in Barranquilla is known for its street dances, masquerade parades and many distinct styles of Colombian music, the foremost of which is cumbia, and for which I have a friend, Nando Malo, who can sing one as good as anyone I’ve ever heard. There are many other genres of music throughout Colombia that are just as beautiful and noteworthy such as porro, mapale, gaita, chandé, puya, fandango, and fantastic merecumbés, among others. Not only is it a time for street parades, but there is a party-like atmosphere that pervades almost every corner of the city, with get-togethers taking place at many residences in this coastal city known, historically, as the first and one of the major gateways from the North to the rest of South America. And, for those who like to wet their whistle, the major manufacturers of liqueurs send trucks replete with samples to distribute among thousands of bystanders along the Carnival's route. One year, while enjoying the festivities with an American friend and mentor from South Carolina who worked as a volunteer in the Peace Corps and ran a school for Colombian youth with dyslexia, he reached out with his hand and caught one of the bottles just as it was about to hit me on the head. Perhaps the manufacturers have come up with a safer way to distribute their wares, but we just laughed it off at the time without giving it much thought because there was too much to be happy about, too much to enjoy in life.
One of the trademarks of this four-day extravaganza, non-stop festival is that many young people--and sometimes the more elderly folks--buy boxes of corn starch and get deviant by sneaking up behind others on the streets and covering them with the powdery stuff. So, as it turns out, you have the added effect of not only keeping an eye out for what's going on with the Carnival, but of, also, having to watch your back for the unsuspecting “ambushes” that are taking place all around you. Much to the credit of the colorful people of Barranquilla, tempers rarely flare over such things, and I can testify to the fact there is nothing better than sneaking up on an unsuspecting young lady and dousing her with corn starch, unless it’s the satisfaction of getting the favor returned by her, later. Some ambushes are carried out by groups of roaming marauders—gangster-style--as some "deviants" like to roam in packs in search of prey. I enjoyed every aspect of the experience to the fullest. At the end of the day our street looked like it might fit easily into the scenery of a Canadian city during the heart of winter as the street was transformed from its usual gray to a surreal white.
One little detail I'm curious to find out about with this year's Carnival has to do with the Queen of Ceremonies, Maria Margarita Diazgranados Gerlein. With beauty, grace and poise such as she possesses, it's easy to make an older man wish for younger days. I know it's a long shot, but the mystery has to do with her family. I went to school in the late 70s and early 80s with a classmate who had her last name and who bears a striking resemblance to her, although, if it was to come down to a side-by-side comparison, the most credit I could extend to him is that he might, perhaps--under just the right circumstances--be her uncle. I'm sure my classmate, who shall remain nameless, of course, would like to take full credit for rearing such a charming young lady, and if I, somehow, managed to blurt out his name, by accident, I'm sure Carlos wouldn't mind all the undue publicity he could get if people thought he was related to the Queen of Ceremonies. Oops.
In 2002, the Carnival of Barranquilla was proclaimed a Cultural Masterpiece of the Nation and, a year later, on November 7, 2003, it was declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The upcoming Carnival, for 2014, will take place between March 1 and March 4, 2014. The Carnival slogan is, "Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza," or translated, "He who lives it is who enjoys it."