Warning: That which I am about to disclose may be disturbing and/or terrifying. Whatever may come off as disgusting or unsettling, remember this; YOU WILL NOT UNDERSTAND CARNAVAL UNTIL YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED CARNAVAL. And only then, will you appreciate those events as part of the BEST. PARTY. EVER.
Let’s just start with Carnival was probably the closest experience I will ever have to being a celebrity. Every hoity-toity, snobby, invite-only thing there was- I did. And I’m not trying to be arrogant, I am just trying to spell out the pure MAGIC that is being a huge gringa, in the Azuero, during Carnaval. The other 360 days of the year I hang my head neck-breakingly low, wishing I could just blend in a little more so maybe not so many construction men wouldn’t shout to me, making all the normally polite people stare, too.
But that was not the case at Carnaval. During this week, I held my blonde head high, flashed my pearly purely-Orthodontized smile and winked with my bright blue eyes to be rescued from the sea, no, SQUALL, of people on the street- where if I lifted both feet I would certainly be swept along with the current. And I’m a huge gringa. My poor friend, Katie is a small gringa (people call us La Chiquita y La Grande- there is no other reason to learn our names) and she only remained above water being anchored onto me. And the ocean analogy is not far from truth as the mid-day events were called culecos– a small closed in area with huge water tank trucks on each corner spraying people with fire hoses- some blasts being so strong you think you’re being water boarded. While the trucks are spraying you, each adjacent road has a stage set up (no, I have NO idea how the equipment doesn’t get wet), so even though you think it is safest to find the nearest pole and hang on for life, you CAN’T for fear of missing Panama’s biggest reggaeton artist, or Panama’s biggest ska band, or Panama’s biggest heart throb playing (which, I hate to crush girls dreams, but my gay-dar radar goes off the charts with him…). So you swim, soppingly, through crowds and puddles (because Chitre doesn’t have drains, because why would they? It never rains) of luke warm, milky water and just hope to goodness you have no open wounds on your ankles. (Need I mention Carnaval falls during the middle of summer where in the already most deserted part of Panama, the Azuero cuts use of water BEFORE Carnaval so that it can be used to spray people for 5 days straight… Not poor use, all in the name of tradition.)
That’s when we were discovered- finally getting to Joey Montana and having found a lamp post to hold on to dear life for. I made Katie get on top of the base, and I stood behind, making us look like two giant gringas. And that’s when I felt it- like the touch of an angel, except in the form of someone pouring cold beer on my head. When I looked up, I saw the pudgy, brown skinned cherub, under a halo of that brutal, tropical sun we were directly under, and he motioned to us as if to say, “Come unto me.” Katie and I swam with all our might, like we were seeing land for the first time, ran up the stairs of the temporary platform that was VIP, paid for by the hoity-toities, gave quick presentations to our cherub savior and ran for the railing- Katie in front, me behind, like Jack and Rose of the Titanic- looking over that sea that is so beautiful when you are above it, and so terrifying when in it.
During the tempest that is the culecos (okay, no more storm analogies- I promise), comes the float (oh my gosh, that just fits so PERFECTLY with the analogies!)- which are painstakingly detailed and only used for one of the Carnaval days to follow a predetermined theme. The best part is that the floats are almost always made by men, and almost always by homosexual men, so the whats-supposed-to-be-merMAIDS are TOTALLY merMEN, even though no one dares admit it. But they are. There are two “teams” to the Carnaval compition; Calle Arriba- which is all the people who live in the immediate city limits, and Calle Abajo- those just down the street from the center. I belong to Calle Abajo. On the float rides the Reina, the Queen- elegantly dressed in sequins or feathers or spandex or a combination of all of those things and make up that would make Liza Minnelli jealous. She rides through the crowd, throwing kisses while the people on top of the water trucks from the opposite team spray her directly in the face with their fire hoses. Magically, she stays put (and so does her make-up- thanks to some kind of special shellac only gay men would know about) despite shes dancing in stilettos, ducking under power lines, can’t see because her feathers are falling in front of her face and the tractor pulling her is having a hard time with the clutch as he tries to herd drunks and small children out of the street. But the Reina does not fall, she throws her kisses (theres a saying; If you want to be Reina, you must throw kisses), she does not forget to cross herself as she passes in front of the church, and miraculously (MUST be from the help of God), her mascara does not run and her fake eyelashes stay exactly in place.
Behind the Reina float comes the float with the murga, the band who plays the music she dances to and her beauty team- all gay men who for the first time all year get to come out in full display- wearing hot pink netted tube tops and itty bitty shorts that make me extremely jealous of their perfect tush. They also dance like the Reina (THEY are the real Reinas of Carnval) and throw their kisses because they KNOW whats its like to be Reina more than the Reina does.
Behind the murga comes the tuna, which in Panama, tuna still means ‘tuna’, so I really have NO idea why they call them that, except maybe because its like they are in a school…of tuna…?? Anyway, the tuna, who are the residents of the respective areas, or family of the reina, or someone involved in fund raising or designing/building/creating the float, or are just drunks, looking for any excuse to dance along, follows up the back of the floats. The tuna has a very specific and important job that is ESSENTIAL to the Reina rivalry- they dig up dirt. Figuratively. They find out the WORST of the life of the other Reina and then turn it into a chant that they sing as a tuna group. And if the Reina has no dirt to be dug? Well, then they make it up, of course! Mind you- I am still figuring out all this stuff as well, and trying to understand in the heart of the culecos, in the midst of heat stroke, Quick! Get me another free hoity-toity paid beer, being sprayed DIRECTLY in the face, because well, I’m a giant gringa, and slowly, every day losing more and more of my voice. SO. The rumor about my Reina- from Calle Abajo, was that she had had an abortion and whether that were true or not, the tuna not only made a chant about her aborted pregnancy, but found a very convincing transvestite to dress up in a sexy nurse costume and come accompanied with a baby doll (a white one- with features very much in my image, might I add, even more disturbing) to act out the whole scandalry so that even a naïve foreigner like myself would understand what it was (supposedly) this Reina, who is crossing herself again as she passes in front of the church, has done. And, Oh God! Feathers stuck in the power lines. Oh, no, she just did a little prayer action to free herself. Atta girl! Abortion or no abortion- I am PROUD of my Reina!
(I am so sad and sorry I didn’t get any pictures of this shenanigans, but an iPhone in the middle of this madness would not have lasted).
If you survive the culecos, you go home after and sleep until 10 and then wake up, put on your sexiest, crazy outfit and go to the discoteca (club, I guess is the closest translation- but discotheque is just so much more fitting). A girlfriend and I decided to go out in florescent wigs, figuring our hair wouldn’t have fit in anyway, so what the hell- and we were a HIT. Only once did a mean girl pull my wig off, but I recovered rather quickly, managing to get the bangs in the front on the second try and finding a very nice gay man to fix my part and smooth the fly-a way’s. I just love those gay boys. And those straight boys just loved that wig… Yessssss.
The final day of Carnaval, La Chiquita y La Grande were so exhausted we didn’t know how we would make it through another day, albeit the last. We decided we needed power food and made huge juevos rancheros, and set out, dragging a** but determined. As we started to thread into deeper water of people, I looked up longingly at one of those wonderful truck water tanks that had the view of everything, the ability to breathe air that hadn’t been recycled a thousand times and the luxury of spraying people in the face instead of being sprayed in the face. And there it was- the ‘Come unto me’ motion that I will never mistake, only this time it was a different cherub- still brown and pudgy faced (usually those who are hoity-toity are usually pudgy as well. And so it goes.) and still with a beautiful cooler of free, cold hoity-toity beer that I, without shame, chugged all the cold, melted ice water instead. And there we were- on top of the world, a hose in hand spraying all those who looked to me like they needed a pick me up or any form of hydration- because you know, If you wanna be Reina…