Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cousins & Carnavales!

This is the story of one of the wildest parties I have ever attended. The best part of it all: I got to share this incredible Panamanian fiesta with 2 awesome cousins of mine. Only a few days after my immediate family finished their trip here (a story that still needs to be told…) I got a message from Jeff (my cousin), asking what I would think about him and Susie (other cousin) coming to visit in February. Yes, Please! (Head's up - almost all of these photos were taken by Susie, without them this blog wouldn't be the same. Thank you Susie!)
So happy these two came to visit! 
So the planning began, and next thing I knew they were on their way here. Susie is a natural planner who loves to take full advantage of her limited time off of work to travel. Jeff works as a flight attendant, and can travel the world for stupid cheap (I won’t tell you how cheap because it will just make you mad) – and as such is very flexible. Perfect combo for making the most of a week in a foreign country.
Primos en Panama City
The week they happened to have available to come see me turned out to be the same week as Carnaval – so I knew some crazy shenanigans were in order. Supposedly, only one other country celebrates Carnaval with more fanfare and hooplah... Brazil. Maybe you've heard of it? ;) For those that need a tiny Carnaval explanation – it’s basically the same thing as Mardi Gras, but it’s celebrated for 4 days beginning on Saturday (in some cases even earlier) instead of just on Fat Tuesday. It ends on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Basically it's seen as a chance to get all your sins and reckless abandon out of your system before behaving reverently for the 40 days leading up to Easter. If you need more than that – Google it. The point is, Panamanians like to party. And at this point in the year, they go all out.
It's bout to get CRAY
Panamanians do it differently than other countries though, incorporating something known as “Culecos” into the day-time celebrations. Basically these are giant trucks filled with water, parked in the streets with people spraying water through a fire hose on a mass of dancing, happy people. In addition to this, everyone that owns a water gun (every kid in Panama) brings it out to soak their friends. Sounds Awesome right?? It WAS. But first let me explain how I got us there.
Staying dry is not an option!
So although Susie planned basically every other detail of their journey (major props to her), my job was to figure out how we were going to celebrate Carnaval while they were here. Naturally, I asked my roommates and co-workers for advice on where to go, what to expect, etc. While chatting with my boss Heidi, we decided the best strategy would be for me to go with Jeff and Susie to Penonomé – the local capital of the Coclé province (El Valle is also in this province), which is known for some of the wilder Carnaval parties in the country. The tradition of celebrating Carnaval actually began in the towns and cities of the interior provinces, not in Panama city. As a result, the parties there are the craziest. Most importantly, it wasn’t too far away – only about 1.5 hrs in a bus. 
From the blue dot (El Valle) to Penonomé – that’s like 1 cm, not far at all! 
The trickiest part of the whole plan to go to Penonomé would be finding a place to stay. So I sent out a couple couchsurfing requests, and waited with crossed fingers. The next morning, my wishes came true – but in a way I hadn't even imagined. At work, Heidi told me her husband Edgardo (co-founder of EVACC – major frog saver and all-around bad ass) wanted to take us to Penonomé for Carnaval to make sure we had a good time and stayed safe. He could drive us there and he had a friend in town who’s house we could stay at, and he’d accompany us to the festivals to make sure we did it right. JACKPOT!!!! Planning done.

The Carnaval Crew

So when Susie and Jeff finally arrived in El Valle, I was beyond excited. So was the entire country – well those that enjoy Carnaval that is. Obviously not everyone is a partier - some Panamanians don’t even leave their houses during Carnaval and others flee the country to avoid the mayhem that ensues during these 4 days. But we were headed right for the thick of it J
Hey, no fun allowed! 
The first night Jeff and Susie spent in El Valle, we headed out to dinner at Zapote – my favorite local pizza joint with my roommate Diana, so she could practice her English y mis primos pueden practicar Español. We caught up on all the wild adventures they’d already had in the city, taught them some fun useful cultural phrases (Rakataka = ghetto, Ayy a la vida = oh my god, goodness gracious, good grief, etc) and demonstrated to Diana what a southern accent was. After dinner we headed to the supermarket to stock up on beers, since we would be leaving town early in the morning. 
Dining out with Diana
Early in the morning turned out to be closer to noon, since Edgardo had a fair amount of errands and things to take care of before we left town. This worked out fine for us though, since it gave us time to charge our phones/cameras, while enjoying some coffee and delicious pumpkin bread at my friend Erin’s Butterfly café. 
Polariod Selfie at Bodhi hostel
Once Edgardo showed up, we stocked up on more beer and ice (Always be prepared) and hit the road. On the drive Edgardo explained to us a bit more about the traditions behind Carnaval, our plans for the day, etc. We wound through steep mountain roads to get to Penonomé the “back way” – avoiding the traffic of the Inter-Americana Highway. 

 Leaving El Valle via the "scenic route"
When we arrived in Penonome – we went to the house of Edgardo’s buddy, Ricardo, where we would be setting up camp for the next two nights. Ricardo and his wife have very recently welcomed a brand new baby into the world, so in order to avoid disturbing their peace and quiet our plan was to stay in tents behind their house. I got very excited (admittedly more than necessary) when I saw that one of the tents Edgardo brought for us to sleep in was an old-school green Eureka tent, the same one I used to camp in once a month for many years while growing up as a Boy Scout. They don’t make these things anymore (inner old man speaking) – so this was a nostalgic bonus.

Happy Campers
Once we polished off a couple cold beers and got to know our hosts a bit, changed into our bathing suits, slathered on some sunscreen, and mentally prepared ourselves with yet another beer… it was time for Carnaval craziness. Ricardo gave us a lift right into the heart of the madness, our heavy cooler stocked with a wide variety of Panamanian brews riding behind us in the truck bed.
We made it!
We disembarked and made our way into the soaked streets, Jeff and I carrying the cooler. Once inside the gated-off area, the cooler was lifted above our heads so that we could squeeeeze through the masses to find ourselves in a decent spot. All the while yelling, drinking, laughing and carryin' on :D
Bienvenidos a Carnaval!
Those around us gave us an extra centimeter of space since I don’t think they trusted two gringos with a heavy cooler full of beer on their heads not to accidentally drop it, and all of its ice cold contents, on their heads. Luckily for everyone, this didn't happen. 
Squeezing through the crowd
Eventually we found a spot we liked, set down the cooler, and spent the rest of the afternoon getting sprayed by water, taking photos, dancing (on and off the cooler), and of course drinking. That’s what Carnaval is all about! 
The more, the merrier!
Thanks to Edgardo and Ricardo, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a true Panamanian celebration. So Panamanian in fact, that we were the only gringos in the entire sea of people. This made me very happy, since I’d much rather surround myself with locals as opposed to other foreigners while traveling – helps ya really get a true taste of the native flavor.
Susie's view from on top of the Culecos! Can you spot the gringos? ;)
Why drink only one beer when you have two hands??
Ayy a la vida - whitest award: won!
The madness carried on until about 4 pm, at which point the water was shut off and everyone pretty much headed home for a while to eat dinner, change, and prepare for the night time festivities. So we did exactly that. Edgardo called Ricardo who kindly came to pick us up and took us back to his place, where we dried off, cleaned up, and told stories of the insanity we’d been a part of.
Jeff found a friend on our way home

Riding back, in the back
 Once in dry clothes, I helped Ricardo cook a typical Panamanian meal using some of the skills I've picked up since living here.  Later we all sat down around the table together as one big happy family, blessed the food, and dug in. During the meal prep, lots of baby photos were taken and smiles were abundant.

Proud mama with her beautiful baby
Full to the brim with a delicious meal, we relaxed (napped) and let our bodies digest the healthy mix of sun, water, beer and grub for a while. Once the sun set and the food comas wore off, we rallied, put on some presentable outfits, and headed back into town in Ricardo’s truck to celebrate some more. 
Siesta time
The night celebrations were centered around a massive parade, featuring extravagantly dressed beautiful Reinas (queens) that rode on massive intricately decorated floats, full marching bands, and all sorts of wild costumes. Even most of the kids got into costume!

Mini Minnie
It was certainly a sight to behold. We payed a small entrance fee to gain access to a huge open air disco club that had massive balconies overlooking the streets, where we were able to get great views of the parade below.

The balcony admittance was totally worth the extra bucks, since we avoided having to fight to see over anyone’s head to get a glimpse of the action and the bar was only a few feet away.  We spent the rest of the evening watching the parade, dancing in the disco, and taking ridiculous selfies.

Much, much later in the evening, we took a taxi back to Ricardo’s place, climbed into our tents/hammocks and crashed. In what seemed like a blink of an eye – I woke up around 8 am to the sound of Ricardo shaking my tent and telling me “Ya las cerevezas estan frias!” (Beers are cold!) I grunted, laughed, and rolled over while telling him I'd be there a bit later. I managed to rest another half hour or so before the sun became positively unbearable and forced me out of the tent.
A "Dude, where's my car?" moment
When I got up, Ricardo was busy in the kitchen whipping up a batch of Hojaldras (yummy Panamanian fried dough breakfast treat) and a huge pan of scrambled eggs. Around 9:30 or so we all gathered around the breakfast table for a friendly family meal and more story sharing. 
Before long, it was time for Round 2! By noon we were back in Ricardo’s truck, heading back to the familiar chaos of geting sprayed down with hoses, dancing wildly, and emptying our cooler full of beers all over again. 
Round 2 Babay!
Annnnd, Weeeee're Baaaaack!
Our second day, Tuesday, was the final day of Carnaval – so there was a bit more going on than the day before. On top of one of the culecos there were about 7 or 8 chicas throwing T-shirts, sun glasses and even tiny airplane liquor bottles out into the crowd. Needless to say, we all scrambled to snag a free souvenir/drink! 
Who wants a T-shirt?! 
I moved through the ocean of jumping Panamanians to find myself just on the outer edge of the T-shirt girl’s throwing distance. I leaped up to snag a knotted blue T-shirt and then just for fun, caught a second one only a minute later. The folks around me weren't too happy when I snagged the second one and told me to get out of there. Don't blame em!
T-shirt tossing twins!
So I laughed and obeyed, bringing the goodies back to the cooler, where Edgardo and Jeff had also stashed the shirts they caught. Edgardo deviously discovered that a T-shirt soaked in ice-cold cooler water made for an excellent tool to unsuspectingly soak Susie, and eventually all of us haha.

Primo Photo!
Now for a rather hilarious testament to just how crazy Carnaval is - something that an outsider would otherwise never realize.  Among all these soaked masses of people, there are pretty much no (read: absolutely none) easily accessible public bathrooms. This is not your typical American event with long lines and rank port-a-potties (Bonnarooo!). So what to do when you’re drinking all day, tightly packed in a mob of people, and surrounded by flowing water?? Simple – Pee your pants! Hahaa!
Water, water everywhere... but nowhere to pee
But seriously. When nature called we shamelessly answered and then waved our arms madly begging to be rinsed off. After all, we were wearing bathing suits so with a quick rinse... it's all good.  Trying to find a side street or corner to pee in was not an option, since cops could potentially fine you for this, as Edgardo warned us. Not worth it! Once you get over the initial awkwardness of this, it was actually pretty nice to be able to freely relieve yourself. How often is that socially acceptable?! Gotta take advantage of times like these.   If you find yourself in a similar situation, I would definitely recommend it ;) 
Peeing your pants, it's the cool thing to do!
Unfortunately, this day was also marred with a serious bummer. At one point Jeff and I were on the hunt for more free T-shirts and sunglasses, when suddenly he grabbed me and thrust his wrist in my face. “Dude, where’s my GoPro?!” Panicked, I immediately began to scan the beer can littered street. Warned by everyone not to take anything of value into Carnaval – Jeff and Susie both insisted on bringing their waterproof cameras and wearing them tightly around their wrist in order to document the debauchery. 
Hooray for water-proof cameras!
Thankful that they made this choice, I left my camera at home, and with it any sense of responsibility. Sadly, at some point while jumping up and down, Jeff’s camera must have snapped off of his wristband. Although we told everyone around to help us look for it (and they did!) it never showed up. We suspect some crummy, good-for-nothing, person (que maldito!) found it and rapidly disappeared. Edgardo rushed to get the police involved, and people were frisked – but no camera. L Please take a moment to recognize the grief this caused.
A second of sadness ;-(
But, in true Jeff style – he chose to look on the bright-side of life and appreciated how many of the surrounding locals rushed to come to our aid. We hugged it out and reminded ourselves that it was just a camera – the important thing was that we were fine and still in the midst of an incredible celebration. So we turned our frowns upside-down, took lots more photos with Susie’s camera, and carried on! 
Love this guy, his attitude, and that #hat
All too soon, the final day of Culecos was over and we began to make our way out of the thick of it. While munching on some street foods and sitting on the side of the road waiting to head back to the house, we saw some of the souvenir girls leaving the scene and heading our way. Acting quickly, Susie and Jeff chatted up these good lookin' ladies and we got them to take a bunch of photos with us. Fun times.
Back at Ricardo’s house, we had another delicious dinner and spent more time relaxing. Soon after dinner though, Ricardo and his wife had to head out of town – since he needed to be at work in a different city early the next morning. So they left Edgardo with a key, and we took liberty of the shower and hammock to rest and rinse off before repeating another night out to watch the final parade of Carnaval. 
Rinsing off with an ice-cold T-shirt
We got a late start that last night thanks to some naps lasting longer than others (ahem, Jeff) – but around 9 pm or so we started walking towards town and eventually got a taxi to stop and pick us up. We caught the tail end of the parade, but saw many different things than the night before – including some crazy dudes with huge angry artistic masks that looked like something out of the Temple of Doom, as well as a bunch of high-stepping horses. 

Couple of Queens

Deviant Duo

As the night aged, I couldn't help but feel a certain subtle sense of sadness among the people, myself included – everyone knew the whole thing was almost over. It would be another year before these streets see this much action again, and lives will quickly resume their normal laid-back pace. Polishing off a few final cervezas, we people-watched a while before taxiing back home to get some much needed rest. After all, I had to get back to work in the morning! 

So that’s the (rather long, drawn-out) story of Carnaval! To really know what it’s all about, you simply gotta go. See y’all at Carnavales 2016! Until then, Peace OUT! :D


  1. Awesome story cuz! So glad I got to be a part of it. Bring it on carnival 2016!!