Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Feathers and Foam and Dancing girls... Oh My!

Time moves differently down here. Phone tag that starts on Monday feels like a full month passes until it catches up on Thursday. Events from early January feel like just moments ago all the way into mid-March. Between the flip in seasons and an irregular schedule, my internal clock needs a serious tune up. Following this, I can’t hardly believe that Encarnacion’s Carnaval threw its final water balloon over three weeks ago. 

Home to the biggest celebration in the country, Encarnacion considers itself the Capital of Carnaval in Paraguay. Other cities host festivals and parades throughout the season, but none party like this southern border town.

Carnaval arrived in Encarnacion (or Encarn as most volunteers call it) with the railroad, in 1916. Originally a three day celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday, today Encarnacenos paint the town red for the entire month leading up to Lent. Friday and Saturday nights Rey Momo (King Momo) leads the corsos (parade route) through blocks of brightly lit bleachers along the waterfront. Sundays, the entire city becomes fair game for a no-holds-barred water fight. Kids run through the streets with buckets of water and full balloons, older participants launch their watery weapons from moving cars.

As Kevin and I walked to the bus with our tickets in hand, I had no idea how our first night at Carnaval would unfold.  Would we encounter a mild-mannered evening where men and women sit opposite each other without speaking (not an uncommon set-up for a Paraguayan get-together) or a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, with free-flowing alcohol and wild crowds?  I wavered between basing my expectations on the Mardi Gras themed beers ads who found their inspiration here and listening to my host mother remind me how Paraguay’s deep Catholicism prevents activities from escalating above a PG rating.  (An insistence, I should mention, that becomes a little farther from the truth for me daily--but more on this later.)  The event ends with the start of Lent thus making the connection between the party and the church undeniable, but still I couldn’t get the image of feathers and dancing girls out of my head.

Admittedly, I counted myself among those with mixed feelings about a shindig that supposedly centered around half naked women shaking their heavily glittered bottoms for the eager hoards.  A few minutes into the parade, however, and these reservations disappeared.  Of course some took the night as an excuse to drink to excess, I quickly recognized the true essence of the occasion in the Samba beat.

Organized through neighborhood commissions and social clubs, everyone dances--regardless if in the spotlight or in the stands.  The biggest associations have themed floats, bands, drum-lines, multiple sections of dancers, and a children’s division.  Although most adult dancers wore a little less than your typical ballerina, few looked truly scandalous.  
The little girls (in leotards and tights) aligned with various organizations held their heads higher than I’ve yet seen in this country.  (The United States and Paraguay hold generally differing views on fostering self-esteem in children.) Overwhelmed by the pride of the proceedings and unable to resist the foam fight, I can't wait until next year.  Long Live Carnaval.

For an entirely different type of Paraguayan Carnaval, please click here to read Discovering Paraguay's account of festivities in the Chaco