It’s the morning of the first day of carnaval and I think I am ready. According the lore of carnaval and memorialized in song, one should sleep with his fingers crossed the night before to bring him luck throughout the following four-day festivities. Indeed, with the help of a rubber band and some gauze pads, I expect to have good fortune. I like to invent traditions.
Panama’s Carnaval, running simultaneously with New Orleans’ Mardi gras, is a sort of last fling–a last chance for people to have fun before the 40 days of lent begin. Around 1910, Panama started celebrating Carnaval in grand scale and today, it is bigger than ever. It consists of 4 days of celebration throughout the country, from big cities to tiny villages. I’m not sure what to expect.
Imagine the annual beer-inspired celebration at your college or the day when your town closes off a main street and allows vendors to sell cotton candy and hot dogs–well imagine that times one zillion. Carnaval was extraterrestrial.
They closed off Via Espana which is the four lane highway I usually have to frogger myself through to get to Dunkin Donuts. Vendors everywhere: It seemed to be a universal rule–no seller may charge more than $.50 for a beer. Incredible food: I felt like packman trying to get a taste of everything I could. I had smoked chorizo doused in a delicious, garlicky, herby chimichurri. I had two traditionally prepared Panamanian hot dogs with all the fixings. I tried samples from several of the hundreds of Ceviche merchants with giant trays of the stuff balanced on top of their heads. I smelled the smoke from old garbage cans turned BBQs blowing crispy roasted chicken bits into the streets. It was great.
My newly shaved head was getting sunburned so I bought a banana leaf hat for a quarter.
Whether it’s a legit tradition or just an excuse to be obnoxious, I don’t know, but children at Carnaval have this thing where they attack you and throw confetti in your eyes or squirt you with water pistols. It’s funny for about 4 minutes then it gets a bit old–but alls fair in Carnaval. I got soaked and covered by a clan of 4 little scoundrels with high-powered Super Soakers, which was funny. One casino on the route had a beautiful VIP-looking stage from which you could drink their beer and throw their T-shirts into the passing carnavalers. I wandered up to the entrance and pretended like I had been there before. A man in a suit at the gate stopped me with his large stubby hand and asked me something in fast mumbly Spanish–I though my plan was foiled, but after nodding and waving to a fake friend at a table, he let me through. It was hilarious. From atop my newly befriended stage I had the perfect view. Tons of people screaming at me for a shirt, lots of pretentiously dressed partiers giving me over-enthusiastic high fives. I felt like a rock star.
This is when I had another one of those moments–what am I doing here? Drinking free beer, eating tasty snacks, partying with all these fancy peoples in a VIP stage overlooking a century-long Latin celebration wearing a banana hat. I shook my head at myself in self-righteous shame. I am cool.