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.

Living in Two Worlds at Once

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

One side of volunteering sometimes not spoken about is the desire to see the country you’re in—it makes you sound like a tourist and you came to Latin America to do something more. I personally think that it’s fine to see the country in your time off: you’ve chosen Latin America over another part of the world and if you’ve paid for the ticket yourself, they don’t come cheap.

The view over the weekend version of Cartagena.

Life as a volunteer makes things difficult though. Most volunteering on the continent will involve visits or contact with lower-income areas; however, it’s more unlikely that these people are going become your friends while you’re in-country. They will likely be higher-income locals or tourists. And your desire to see the country will take you to more sanitized parts of the country. As a friend who’s just finished with Kiva in Ecuador said, it’s “like you’re living in two worlds at once.”

Over the past week, I’ve seen completely different faces of Bogotá and Cartagena. After a weekend with friends in some of Bogotá’s nicer barrios, I spent a morning in the foundation’s office there before heading to south Bogotá to meet Kiva borrowers. There was something exhilarating about riding the TransMilenio, Bogotá’s metrobus, to areas a lot of bogotanos and even fewer tourists would ever enter. Cartagena, though, was much more extreme. I stayed with a Colombian friend in an area by the beach more like Miami than Colombia, and spent an afternoon wandering around the beautiful old city. The contrast couldn’t have been greater with what I’d seen during the week in Cartagena: meeting a displaced woman in a squatter settlement and hearing stories first-hand in former guerrilla areas outside of the city.

This divide takes a lot of getting used to and I’m not sure how to reconcile them. When I arrived back in Barranquilla, I grabbed dinner at the local pizzeria and started talking with the owner. He told me that the lack of contact between the parallel societies is what contributes to Colombia’s subdesarollo (underdevelopment, a word repeated all too often here). I don’t agree with his theory: there are too many examples of this in developed countries. What is does say, though, is that looking the other way is not the way to get used to the divide.

¡Por Fin, Me Quejo!

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

If you’re not a Spanish speaker, the title means “At last, I complain.” No, this doesn’t mean my Kiva Fellowship placement in Barranquilla, Colombia has gotten off to a sticky start. It’s from a sign we saw while on a journey around the city to get our bearings earlier in the week.

The sign was actually directions to two barrios of Barranquilla, one called Por Fin and the other called Me Quejo. Barranquilleros seem to enjoy pointing out their—often crude—sense of humor and this is an example. The reason for these names is like two sides of the same coin: these are depressed areas of Barranquilla that lacked public utilities for a long time. While the people from Me Quejo se quejaban (complained) that they didn’t have water or electricity, the more optimistic people of Por Fin celebrated every time a utility was connected: “At last we have water! At last we have electricity!”

As a Kiva Fellow in Barranquilla, a large part of my time here will involve visiting poorer areas of the city, in order to meet microfinance borrowers and to see the effects of microfinance loans on their lives. It was this kind of direct connection with people on working hard to succeed in the face of poverty that originally brought me out an investment banking bubble into the nonprofit sector. My previous placement with Kiva was based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and I’m looking forward to seeing the differences in volunteering in very different parts of the world. Part of me hopes that the optimist-pessimist streaks of different barrios continue, but I think that, like in Central Asia, the real interest factor will be the borrowers I meet and each one’s individuality.

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