Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's Carnevales!!!.......Part I

THE EVENT.......The actual EVENT was a thing called “CARNEVALES”, or carnivals. For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s a pretty big deal down here in Latin America. I still don’t understand EXACTLY what they are celebrating (possibly “pre-Lent celebration” like Mardi Gras), but it is CERTAINLY a celebration nonetheless. For a comparison, I think I would just say that it’s like a mixture of spring break and Mardi Gras….latin style, of course. Although it is celebrated to some extent all across Latin America, I have heard that the biggest celebration, next to Brazil, is right here in Panama. So, beginning on Friday (Feb. 1 this year), the whole country takes a vacation until the following Thursday to participate in the festivities.
Not every town has a carnevales celebration, but those that do seem to take great pride in their unique festival. There is a “queen” that rides around on these floats throughout the weekend, apparently changing her outfit (think Vegas show girl meets the village shaman) each day of the festival. There are also other “floats” with various people riding in front of or behind the queen. AND, instead of a traditional marching band to aid in the fiesta, the band simply rides in their own “cart…of sorts” behind the “queen”. In order to witness this big procession, THOUSANDS of people come from all around. SO, you have the queen, you have the band, you have the thousands of people lining the streets to watch the procession, AND you have this spontaneous “mob” that forms behind the floats, singing, dancing, and chanting as they follow along. It’s really quite a scene.
For the rest of the weekend, people pretty much just hang around in the town square, eating various “meats on a stick”, listening to unbelievably loud music, dancing, and drinking….A LOT (i.e. around the clock........or maybe I should say "clocks" since it goes on for DAYS!). Oh, and I should also mention that because it’s so hot out, there are these big water trucks that constantly go around spraying water on the people (in addition to every kid in the area spraying everyone in sight with their personal water guns). Finally, to top it all off, there are the never-ending fireworks (don’t these people EVER sleep?), LOTS of traffic, and the “straight off the cover of LOW RIDER magazine” trucks aiding the street party with their music being played at absolutely incredible decibel levels. Like I said…’s really quite the scene.

THE PLAN…….Since the whole country was taking a few days off, the school was going to be closed from Friday afternoon until Wednesday AM. Also, since Boquete doesn’t actually do a carnevales celebration, I told Carlos (guy who runs the school) that I would head South with him to meet up with a group of his friends from Panama City. Although I’m really not much of a “party-er”, I’m feeling a little too old for Spring Break, AND I do enjoy my space (14 people in a very small house could get a little tight), I was really excited to see some other parts of the country. And besides, how bad could it be? The actual plan was to head to a town near the beach called Pedasi. It’s located in the central part of the country, on the Pacific side, and is known for being a beautiful part of the country with plenty of terrific beaches. Again, THAT doesn’t sound so bad, right?

THE JOURNEY…..For about a week before the day of departure, I continued to ask Carlos the same question. “So, have you checked the bus schedule from here to Pedasi?” For that same amount of time, the answer remained unchanging….”oh….don’t worry….it’s all under control” (or in other words…..NO). So as Friday afternoon rolled around and we hopped on the first bus leading out of Boquete, I told Carlos that he was the navigator and that I would just trust his local senses. Fortunately, as we arrived in the next town of David, we were just in time to catch the bus to “Divisa” (about 5 hours away). My favorite moment of the day came when I threw my bags under the bus and was instructed to hop on as quickly as possible. The only problem was that Carlos had suddenly disappeared and I didn’t actually have a ticket to be on this particular bus. Suddenly the ticket lady came down the aisle asking me for my ticket, etc. “Uh, well, actually I don’t have one yet”, I tell her. “Oh, no problem, where are you going?”, she asks. hmmmmm……now THAT’S an interesting question. Because once again, since Carlos had been the actual mastermind behind this little journey, I for one had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA of the name of our ultimate destination, let alone where this particular bus was going. As you can imagine, it made for a pretty hilarious exchange.
J….. “uh….well…..I’m not exactly sure”
Ticket Lady…..with a very puzzled look on her face……”you don’t know where you are going?”
J……”not exactly.”
Ticket Lady…….”ummmmm……are you going to Panama City (ultimate destination of that particular bus)?”
TL……”well, are you going to”…………………she then proceeded to name approximately 3, 837 small towns across Panama, not one of which I had ever heard of.
J……”nope…not that one……….not that one either…….that one? Nope, I don’t think it’s that one”
TL……..she’s now becoming very confused at the fact that not only does this guy NOT have a ticket to be on this bus…..he also has no idea where he wants to go. “So where are you going?”
J…..”again, I actually have NO idea. “ “but I think my friend”………………..

About this time, a very “helpful” older gentleman sitting nearby decided to intervene. Assuming the obvious thing (that I simply didn’t understand the language), he began to try to help with what my friend calls “Tarzan language”. In other words, VERY slow-VERY loud-VERY simple language.
J…..”no no, I know it sounds crazy, but my friend……..”
OG…..”PA-NA-MA”! “PA-NA-MA CI-TY”! “YOU GO-ING”!!!!! “WHERE!” “YOU”!
TL…..”I need to know where you are going”.
J…….”I know, I know” “I understand the question, I just don’t know the”…………

Finally, another guy we were traveling with (guy from the school who speaks VERY little Spanish) figures he’ll give it a shot. Although his intentions were good (to tell the lady that our friend was buying the tickets inside), all he could get out was “my friend”. But in reality, that’s not entirely true. Because he is just beginning to learn the language, so what he ACTUALLY said to the ticket lady was “YOUR friend”, while pointing out the window emphatically. As you can imagine the scene was deteriorating VERY quickly…….

TL…..”again, I need to know where you are”……..
OG…..”GO-ING!” “GO-ING!” “CI-TY!!!!!!”
Jesse….”YOUR FRIEND!” “YOUR FRIEND” (pointing out of bus window)
Jason……”my friend is buying the tick”………
Jason…..oh man, I’ve got to get off this bus.

Well, eventually Carlos showed up (from the bathroom) and we purchased our tickets for the correct destination without additional problems. AND FINALLY, after the two buses, two more taxis (one of which was so crowded that I had some guy from New Zealand sitting on my lap), and one ride from a kid that was either completely drunk or simply did NOT know how to drive, we arrived at some random gas station to meet some random guy who had a key for our rental house. And with that, my “Carnevales” adventure had begun.

MI CASA ES SU CASA: I remember when I was in Atlanta for the Olympic game. For a brief couple of weeks, the eyes of the world were on MY city. I also remember the dollar signs present in the eyes of most of the locals around that time. It was as if everyone’s first thought was “wow…this is so cool! The world is watching and coming to MY home!”. Interestingly enough though, the second thought seemed to be “wow, I think there might be some real potential to make some extra cash!!!” (or, as I like to think……”wow, I can really rip some people off on an international level!”. Apparently, around Carvevales, things operate pretty much the same way. I’ve learned that it’s not uncommon for the locals to simply leave town for a few days and rent their houses out for ungodly amounts of money. Case in point? The place where we were staying. When we arrived, we were met by the owner, a very nice older woman who I believe lives alone. The house was EXTREMELY simple (concrete floors, couple of rooms, toilet and shower (i.e. elevated spicket with primitive floor drain) behind the house. The other thing that I found a bit peculiar was that the lady pretty much cleared that place out. I mean she took the soap, she took the clothes, she took the food, the sheets……everything……EVEN THE TOILET PAPER! The price? Well, I’ll just say that we were paying a rental price for a house “on the beach in the US”……..we were about a half hour FROM the beach, and a bit further from the US.
Anyway, after a long day of travel, I decided to grab a quick shower to wake and freshen up a bit. “hmmmmm….so how does this thing work?”. “Oh yes…..I see”….”oooooo a bit cold, but not TOO bad” But just as I was rinsing the shampoo from my hair, I felt something against my foot. “hey…what’s that?”, I say while trying to clear the shampoo from my eyes. WHOOOOAAAAA!!!.. ….whatever it was, it was now running OVER my foot………”SWEET MARIA!!!” And because it was so dark outside, all I could see was that something quite large, maybe a small mouse, maybe an enormous cockroach, was now running OVER my foot! Again…..this was going to be an interesting weekend.

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