Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Where did all the sane people go? Las Fiestas de Noviembre

Colombians do not like to work much. Pass by an average Cartagena house at any time mid-week and you will just about make out through the cigarette smoke and dust, the hazey outline of an entire family, just hanging out in the front room, smoking a fag, bad vallenato (popular Colombian music which favours the accordion over any more reasonable instrument) blaring through a crackling radio, the men with their vests rolled up over their bare bellies and the children naked, sticky with sweat under a useless ceiling fan. This is from a typical week in Cartagena. But what has just passed was no typical week. My tongue is yellow, my feet cracked and blistered, my toes broken, my arms bruised, my face spotted and my vision blurred. I have survived Las Fiestas de Noviembre.
As I have tried to communicate, Cartagena searches for any excuse to not work and just throw a big old party instead. The whole city grinds to a halt for an entire week to celebrate its independence day and host the finals of the incredibly important Miss Colombia beauty pageant. There are parades through the streets and on the water, catwalks, balls, concerts, drinks parties and DJs, every day and every night. Imagine Kate Moss doing Freshers’ Week in the Caribbean, sponsored by HELLO!, and soaked in whiskey, via Nottinghill Carnival on half the budget and twice the crowd.  In the words of the great Stevie Gerrard, here’s my story.....

Hotel Santa Clara. I work here. YERRRRRRR

My week actually began in tranquil luxury as I was commissioned to translate the gourmet menu and spa price list of the top 5 star hotel in Cartagena. I proceeded  to pass two days with coffee and chocolate on tap, loafing in the lounge bar, occasionally tap-tap-tapping on a lap top, trying to find appropriate translations for exotic Colombian fish. The prize:  lunch and massage at the hotel, plus THE golden ticket of the week: an invitation to La Fiesta Con Mas Estilo, the party thrown by Caras the South American equivalent of Hello!, where all the great and good of Cartagena, plus soap stars, singers and designers all clamour to get their ticket. I was Charlie on the way to the chocolate factory and I was going to find me a golden egg laying goose.
We are sailing....

I am sailing...

Wednesday began in equal tranquillity, as a friend took advantage of the time off work to take me out in his yacht to the nearby island of Baru, a paradise of white sand, coral and palm trees where the wealthy come to escape the claustrophobia of Cartagena. On the city beaches it is impossible to pass 30 seconds without someone trying to sell you a plastic necklace, a massage or, anything else really (I once encountered a man who first offered me a parrot, then a broken shoelace, and then a tyre. I declined all three, although was mildly interested in the shoelace.) But here it was pure silence, and I truly felt like I was in the Caribbean, mon.
However, on returning to the city at night fall, things started to accelerate at a dizzying rate. A Canadian DJ had arrived not speaking a word of Spanish and my delicate translation skills were urgently needed. When I found the man in a bar, he was very, very drunk, and was trying to tell a hat seller that his hats were stupid. The seller misunderstood and was proceeding to put them one by one on the Canadian’s head, at which point he would slap them away, like a child might swat away his mother’s attempt at brushing his hair. I intercepted at the crucial moment and led the bemused man away, with promises of more whiskey. In true Cartagena style, the night rapidly spiralled out of control, and before I knew it I was outside a salsa bar accepting an invitation to an after party, and then suddenly I was dancing on a table to Florence and the Machine, swearing blindly that she was my sister (soz Grace......) and that she was coming to see my in December and would throw a concert and they were all invited, and then suddenly I was on the floor, having smashed through the table. Wow, I thought, this is embarrassing. It got even more embarrassing when I awoke in the same position the next morning, amongst the ruins of the table, to see a group of civilised 40 somethings eating breakfast around a dining room table. I bade my farewells and scuttled out, high heels in hand, the door-man giving me an irritatingly cheeky grin.
Watching El Bando from the roof. We're all friends here. You've got the love....
Thursday.... A feeling of great dread had swallowed me into its dark underbelly, and I vowed never to leave my room. But then my phone rang, and a friend invited me to come and watch El Bando with her. El Bando is the parade through the main avenue of the city, with music, floats, horns, spray foam and general tomfoolery. Although many had warned me not to go to this because of it being super dangerous, I thought as a seasoned Nottinghill attendee I could handle it. But walking through the city centre towards the avenue I felt sick with fear, as the poorer kids covered themselves with thick black oil and held cups of piss threateningly towards you, daring you not to give them change. I must have spent about $15 000 COP in keeping these madmen away, but it was money well spent as we watched one poor woman who failed to pay the tax covered in piss and black, burning oil. All in the name of fun..... We finally reached the house of a friend of my friend, from where we would watch the parade from the rooftop pool, and a strange feeling of déjà vu began to drip down from between my ears down to my toes. I know this house..... I know that doorman...... OH GOD. Yes, I was back at that same house from the night before. I swear these things only happen to me.... However, there is a reason why there is no word for “awkward” in the Colombian dictionary, and they greeted me like an old friend. We watched the madness below from the safety of the rooftop, big black men dressed as babies, girls being arrested for donning military kit, drunken brawls, and as night fell and the frothing masses went home, we sat in a hot tub and discussed the attributes of each potential Miss Colombia.
La Fiesta Con Mas Estilo
Friday.... El Bando was on again today, but I had had more than enough if it. Today was special. Today was the day of La Fiesta Con Mas Estilo! I declined a VIP sunset drinks party thrown by Peroni (darling) and instead set to work on my animalistic hair. So, it ended up more Fimbles than Faboosh (a word I have learnt from Alvi –see older posts) but I was geared up and ready to go. I had been leant a beautiful dress (strictly long dresses only) and taught the correct way to hold a clutch bag (by Alvi) and suddenly we were outside the party. Red carpet, paparazzi, people clamouring for autographs, I was in HEAVEN. I LOVE CELEBRITIES. Inside the party, my friends were visibly embarrassed as I gawked around with mouth wide open uttering “ER...WOW”  at every corner, while they mooched disdainfully. I grabbed handfuls of sushi and bite sized cakes, a couple of glasses o’vodka and I was away, just drinking in the luxury of the event, occasionally knowing someone, but generally not. However, as has been the way in Cartagena for the last month, the heavens opened, soaking all the pretty little ladies and the men dressed in white. Everyone ran towards the chapel, where the rather sweet gay P.R. (quote: “What are my religious views? Honey, I believe in MYSELF”. Love ‘im) was begging a famous designer to remove herself from the altar. In the midst of the madness, a strong hand grabbed my shoulder and told me it was time to go. It was in fact a friend Beatriz, whose husband was about to DJ at some other terrace party. “Got to run darling, Javi’s playing at Kiki’s.” Too much. Waaaaaay too much. Said terrace party was much more fun, if marginally less glamouous, and we danced badly until far past our bed time.
Me all suited and booted and the like

Admiring Alvi
Saturday....  I didn’t feel very well on Saturday. Not well at all. It had been several days since I had got to bed before sunrise and I wasn’t sure I could cope. There were more parades and catwalks for Miss Colombia that day, but I was ambivalent, encased in a friend’s house with the equivalent of KFC. Day turned to night, the city was firing itself up. Tonight, the equally notorious Jet Set White Party, where I would be accompanying Alvi as his “date”.  We strutted in, looking faboosh. More free food, more free booze, more hopelessly glamorous women with impossibly sleek hair and great boobjobs. An excited buzz descended on the crowd as the highlight of the night arrived, the Señorita Colombias (the Miss Colombia finalists) entered the room. While the majority of the crowd whistled and shouted words of encouragement to their respective Reina, a drunken friend of mine with just a rudimentary grasp of the English language abrasively yelled “GIVE ME ONE. I SAID GIVE ME ONNNNNNNE!” She appeared to be confusing the expression “give me five”. It slightly lowered the tone of the occasion. I however, clapped with glee and danced the night away, trying to get into photos with the baffled beauty queens.
Senorita Bolivar in motion, giving me one
Sunday and Monday, more parties, more pain, the selection of Miss Colombia, and the city had had enough. Tuesday, and the streets were beginning to gain a salience of normality. In a week of such hedonism and debauchery it is hard to lose sight of what is the real Colombia. But then on the way to buy some food I stumbled across this: a group of teenagers practising vallenato in a supermarket car park. I apologise that the video is not of great quality, but I walked away smiling as I finally remembered where I was. Freshers’ week was over.

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