Celebrating Carnaval in South America, Kiva Fellows Style!

This is a repost from my section of a blog on Kiva Stories from the Field, for the full blog including Ecuador and Bolivia, click here. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

Rob Packer, KF10, Colombia

Every year, Barranquilla hosts one of the world’s largest carnivals—also the biggest festival in Colombia. For the four days of Carnavales and the weeks of Precarnavales before, the city comes to a standstill as various roads are closed to be filled with brightly-coloured, traditional carnival characters and cumbiamberos (cumbia dancers).

Having lived in Barranquilla for just over a month, everything has been building up towards Carnaval for the past month: there are borrowers at the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo who derive almost all of their annual income from producing items for Carnaval, and there are borrowers I’ve visited who’ve decorated their house with carnival characters or have part of their business based on the Carnaval.

The part of Carnaval that I’ve enjoyed most has been the letanías: something I’d never heard of until I arrived in Barranquilla. These are minstrel-like improvised satirical rhymes with subject matters ranging from international politics to the appearance on the onlookers, told by groups of around five people who accompany Carnaval parades. Often crude, full of costeño words and local and national news of the last year you might not have heard of, they can often be quite hard to understand: unless they’re about something you know. In the spirit of Barranquilla’s Carnaval, the staff at FMSD wrote their own letanía about what had happened over the past year, and here’s the section on Kiva:

El Carnaval es goza y goza
Y toda la gente está muy activa
Y hasta metemos en la recocha
Al man que vino con Kiva.

Ese man es gente buena
Pero le vamos a echá maicena

El de Kiva no se baja en un hotel
Tiene miedo hay gente tesa
Y es por eso que Liney
Le tiene alquilá una pieza

De día lo lleva donde sea
Y de noche le gatea

Al Kiva le gusta le lealtad
Del microempresario, también su garra
Y eso que no fue al mío en Soledad
Pa que meta butifarra

Que busque su Sisben de inmediato
Porque va a parecer un pato


Carnival is all enjoyment
And everyone is very active
And we even make a mess
With the guy who came from Kiva.

This guy is a good person
But we’re going to throw flour at him

The Kiva guy doesn’t stay in a hotel
He’s scared there are difficult people
And that’s why Liney has
Rented him a room

She takes him here and there by day
And at night he’s on curfew

He likes the loyalty
Of the entrepreneur, and their grit
And he didn’t even go to mine in Soledad
To have butifarra

He should get his social security
Before he starts looking like a duck

Day in the Life: Barranquilla Carnival – ¡Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza!

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

The motto of Barranquilla’s Carnival, or Carnaval in Spanish, is ¡Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza! (literally, “Anyone who lives it, is who enjoys it”). Over the past month, life in Barranquilla has been turned upside down as people live and enjoy the start of the Carnival season. Since the Lectura del bando on 16th January, when an edict is read out to residents ordering them to have fun, there have been precarnavalero parades at least once a week culminating on Saturday with the start of four days of cumbia, vallenato and salsa with crowds soaking each other with water, dusting each other with maize flour and spraying each other with foam. Everything you’d expect from what is widely regarded as South America’s second largest carnival after Rio and Colombia’s largest festival—and in a country with a reputation for rumba (partying).

As Barranquilla’s most famous daughter, Shakira once said ¡Mira, que en Barranquilla se baila así!

An advantage of being a volunteer in a city with such an enormous and inclusive event is that you can really take part: through friends and the organization I’m working with here, I’ve been able to take part in a comparsa, a group that dances in a parade and have been given an insight into the storytelling traditions of Barranquilla’s Carnival and Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The folclor of Carnival has become one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of carnival: the musical and story-telling traditions of the Caribbean coast permeate the festival and have their own cast of characters. Here are a couple of examples:

* In the comparsa I took part in, we were all dressed as monocuco, a masked, veiled and hooded character based on stories from colonial times of rich gentlemen disguising themselves so they could pursue women from lower classes.
* This year’s symbol of Carnival is the coyongo dance, where the participants wear enormous cones with bird’s beaks and their dance symbolizes birds being chased by a hunter: the people saw their own exploitation at the hands of the Spanish mirrored in the dance of the bird and hunter.

The part of Carnival that I’ve most enjoyed though is the letanías, groups of minstrels dressed as university professors with scripted or improvised rhymes that subvert and criticize everything in Barranquilla from political figures to individuals who just happen to be watching. The tradition began as a way for barranquilleros to let off steam. I love it for its inventiveness and because they speak a brutal and honest truth; barranquilleros regard the letanías as the true personification of the spirit of Carnival—four days when normal rules are turned on their head.

Weird Words and How to Learn Them

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

It almost goes without saying that language is one of the main reasons that people volunteer in Latin America. It could be that they may want to learn or improve their Spanish or Portuguese language skills, and if you speak the local language, you automatically have a connection with people you’re working with that you wouldn’t get through indirect communication.

It was a combination of these reasons, and the fact that I felt I’d be more effective in a place I could speak to everyone, that brought me to Colombia and I’m a big fan of my position here. I enjoy riding around on public transport going out to meet Kiva microfinance borrowers and hearing them tell their own stories. And although costeño, the dialect on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is known for being golpeado (certain letters are not pronounced, especially S and D), it’s not as hard as I feared—the accent of people from the Paisa region around Medellín is everything that I feared, however. It’s more of the costeño habit of mamando gallo (joking around) that makes things harder though as I get a lot from the context and miss the joke. The other thing I am noticing is that I’m learning some really, really weird words.

When you’re a Kiva Fellow, most of the borrowers you meet will have different types of businesses, although some regions have gluts of Avon ladies or dairy farmers. In one morning, we visited a man with a stall selling industrial hooks and high-tension belts, a woman working in confecciones (dress-making rather than confectionary as I first thought), and another woman running an internet café who was also doing up her house. On another day, you could visit a hairdresser, an electrician and a woman who runs a business changing motorcycle oil. Each one involves its own special vocabulary and paying a lot of attention when the conversation turns to different types of garras (hooks). However, my word of the moment is fileteadora: it’s a special type of sewing machine—but is not a máquina de coser—that I have no idea how to start to describe in English and according to Google is called an “overlock sewing machine.” As I’d have a lot more trouble to have my clothes mended or altered in Spanish, it strikes me as really weird that I’m a relative expert in describing the machines used. Although it’s a very strange word, it seems every woman who works in confecciones wants one.

A lot of these weird words take me back to when I studied languages at university and a moment of desperation a friend studying Italian shared with me. She had no idea how she’d ever get to be fluent in the language because there are so many words you just pick up along the way; her point was she’d never end up playing field hockey in Italian. While this is true, I think you just bump into words and learn that way, and volunteering in Latin America is a great way to learn random words in Spanish. When it comes down to it, is it even that important to know how to describe field hockey in Italian? Just sit back and enjoy, and try not to think about it too much.

Not such a secret

By Rob Packer

Whenever I go to a really nice beach, I find I’m torn in two directions afterwards: the first is to tell everyone, the second to tell no-one and keep it a secret. In the case of Tayrona National Park, however, Colombia’s national parks authority, SINAP seems to be the same quandary. The park lies just under an hour from Santa Marta and two to three from Barranquilla, and its secret is out: the park is famous across Colombia and is considered one of the must-see attractions of the country. But there’s a twist: with only a couple of roads into the park, most of the better beaches involve around an hour of hiking or horse-riding through the forest.

A life-changing beach experience in Tayrona.

Walking through the forest to get to the beaches of Tayrona.

Ants in Tayrona. We saw some ants carrying huge loads here.

How the food and drink gets into Arrecifes.

Cynthia, a colleague from Kiva visiting Colombia invited me to spend the weekend in Tayrona after my first week in Barranquilla. After a longer-than-promised journey from Barranquilla to Santa Marta and then onwards to Tayrona, we got off the bus and started walking the asphalt road down to Cañaveral, where the comfort comes to an abrupt halt along with the tarmac and the mule track to the mochilero havens begins. After nearly an hour of dodging provision-carrying mules, the first sign at Arrecifes did not go down well: the strong undertow has killed a number of people over the years. Menos mal, the beach at Arrecifes is a windswept desert compared with the beautiful, more sheltered bays along the coast. Putting on the swimsuit and running into the slight-cold, but really just-right water was truly exhilarating.

Arrecifes. No swimming here.

More waves at Arrecifes.

Fishing at Arrecifes.

I loved how this, and lots of other rocks around Tayrona, looked like they'd been cut in half like a piece of cheese.

Cooling off after a hike.

It was memories of this that had us jumping down boulders the next morning, abandoning grandiose plans to walk out of the park overland. We’d climbed up to El Pueblito, a pre-Columbian[1] Tayrona settlement, and suddenly the idea of another three hours of walking through the forest and no beach at the end started to sound ridiculous. The walk down from El Pueblito was a stunning torrent of boulders that just encourages you to run down them. Back at sea level, we ran into a pair of bogotanos Cynthia had met at a raucous evening of bingo the night before—while I was sleeping off four hours of sleep after a night of rumba in Barranquilla, oblivious to the party happening five metres from where I was sleeping. The two guys from Bogotá showed us their favourite beach in the park, unsignposted and a stone’s throw across a palm-tree plantation from the main path. As all four of us tried to balance on a huge rock twenty metres from the shore, the water’s transparency and lack of people made it seem like it was our little secret: so close to the path and yet so remote.

El Pueblito, a pre-Columbian Tayrona settlement in the park.

El Pueblito. This was the breaking point where we decided that a few more hours of hiking with no beach at the end weren't worth it.

El Cabo, one of Tayrona's most famous beaches.

A relatively deserted beach. Crystalline water and no-one else there. Thanks to the bogotanos.

Fried fish with arroz con coco (rice with coconut), another piece of caribeño deliciousness.

And so we headed back towards civilization and mobile-phone reception, with the new-found knowledge that a hike that doesn’t end with a beach is only half a hike.

The view of the sunset in the forest on the walk back to civilization.


[1] I know I’ve ranted before about how to spell Colombia, but if you’re talking about pre-1492 America or Columbus, it’s Columbian. Promise!

Night-time in Tayrona.

Sundown at Tayrona.

Two Museums in Bogotá

By Rob Packer

Bogotá’s Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) is one of the biggest in the country and although the name is deceptive—there is a fair amount that isn’t gold—it gives a very thorough, if poorly explained, rundown of Colombia’s pre-Columbian cultures. Rather than trying to explain, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

The balsa muisca, the Muisca raft, one of the museum's most famous exhibits.

These (tiny) figures reminded of Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis.

The other museum I’ve visited in Bogotá is the Botero Museum, which is a showcase of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. Just like the Museo del Oro, this museum is run—rather strangely—as a subsidiary of the Banco de la República, Colombia’s central bank. The overwhelming feeling you have while looking around the museum is that nothing’s thin in there: his “proportional exaggeration” (podginess) extends beyond the body. Until I’d seen his still-lifes, I never knew that fruit could be fat. The reason for it is beyond even the artist: “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.”

After rooms of proportionally exaggerated men and women, I couldn't work out it this was a podgy hand.

There was something beautiful about this very curvy Leda and Zeus.

Rubbernecking in Girón

By Rob Packer

While I was staying with Jimena’s family in Bucaramanga, we took an evening trip to Girón, a nearby town famous for its colonial centre. We arrived on a Saturday night, which is prime time for weddings in Colombia and drove through the crowded streets of the town looking for someone to park. Eventually we found a place on a square and parked there. As we pulled up we noticed we were parked next to a wedding limousine; Jimena shouted out “¡Esa no es buena señal” (That’s a bad sign!) and we looked to see the bride was sitting there waiting for the groom to turn up. We got out of the car to join the crowd of people on the other side of the square waiting to see the wedding, or rather, if the groom was going to turn up. After reminiscing about a similar scene in the Sex and the City film and about the experience of watching it in Hong Kong with yelps and gasps every time a new handbag was shown, the groom turned up, possibly in a colectivo—one drove past and suddenly the groom appeared out of nowhere. Everyone agreed that the bride was very pretty and we went for a walk around town.

Waiting for the wedding to get started. Tick tock!

The night-time streets of Girón.

The main church in Girón. We visited in early January when Christmas decorations seemed to be in every public space in Colombia.

How to Annoy a Colombian

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10, Colombia

The easy answer to this question is that there is a wide range of ways to annoy a Colombian. And after having been in Colombia for a month, a lot of them are starting to annoy me too.

One of these grievances is that Colombia must be one of the most consistently misspelt countries in the world. Having just come from Kyrgyzstan, which is part of a region of hard-to-spell countries, it came as a bit of a surprise that a lot of my friends seem to think I’m in Columbia, South Carolina, not South America. For the record, there are lots of places called Columbia, including a university in New York, a province in Canada, a river in the Pacific Northwest, and a huge number of cities across the US; but none of these places are countries in South America—that’s Colombia.

Another complaint is that the image of Colombia as a dangerous and drug-filled place is one of the few to leave the country. While no-one can convincingly claim that Colombia has the crime level of Switzerland or that there is no involvement in the global drugs trade, the Colombia of the headlines from the West is one that I have yet to see—and am in no hurry to do so. One of the things that saddens a lot of my Colombian friends here is that some people visit Colombia and still talk about it in terms of headline formulae. I’m at a loss to explain how tourists leave with this opinion in the face of some of the friendliest people on the planet and the natural beauty of the country: it’s as if they had visited another country.

The thing that’s annoying us most at the moment in the FMSD office in Barranquilla is the fleet of burger vans that circle through the centre of Barranquilla offering la típica hamburguesa americana (the typical American hamburger). Every afternoon, the mixture of barranquillero carnaval music and traffic is shattered by the shrieks of something I can only describe as sounding like a Sesame Street character. The thing about these burgers is that at 2,000 pesos (about US$1) they’re very, very cheap and the most recognizable part of the recording is the Sesame Street character shouting “¿A cómo?” (“How much?”). In fact, in the six months that the ¿A cómo? vans expanded onto the streets of Barranquilla—the concept is originally from Bogotá according to my colleagues—it has become something of a local fascination. For example, I overheard a radio phone-in yesterday where the presenter was saying ¿A cómo? every time he didn’t hear what one of the callers was saying; and from what I’ve been told, there will be plenty of jokes about it as part of Barranquilla’s Carnival next week (South America’s second largest after Rio).

So turn up the volume, enjoy the advert of the ¿A cómo? van as Liney, the Kiva coordinator has a look around the van, and then imagine hearing this about fifty times in an afternoon.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

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