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Carinval en Cádiz (Pt 2.)

We’d lost our rum for the second time in two hours, plus most of El Luchador’s clothes. But there’s no looking back – it’s time for a pow-wow. I pull El Luchador away from another photo-shoot and huddle our group together.

“Ok, boys,” I ask, “what do we want to do?”

“Um…have fun…”

“Talk to girls…”

We decide the best place to do this is all the way across Cadiz, in Plaza de España. Finding girls is no longer a priority for me – the Chicken and I are hitting it off well. Still, it’s time to vamoose. I offer the Chicken my hand and guide her through the crowd.

The six of us break away from the crowd and cut down a side street. A half dozen girls line either side of the street, squatting against the wall and pissing in plain sight, sin vergüenza. The wet cobbled streets are coated with gray sludge of booze, piss and rain.

The music is far away now and I notice the relentless sound of bottles smashing against the ground. I can feel glass grinding and cracking under the soles of my soiled shoes as we walk back to the liquor store.

We pool together some money and get more rum – one bottle this time, not two. Fill the cups up and carry nothing in our hands. No more risks.

Taylor must be feeling antsy. He has stripped down once again and a crowd of thirty is watching him attempt to squeeze his 6’6’’ frame into a miniature car – some kind of coin-operated children’s ride. Derek returns with the drinks and we continue towards Plaza de España.

It’s three hours past midnight by the time I realize it’s Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t resemble it in the slightest. People everywhere are making out – pirates with Smurfs, D’Artangian with Cleopatra. Pure concupiscence here, not a shred of romance to be found.

It’s time to make my move. I pull on the Chicken’s feathers and say her sexy costume makes me want to ‘pluck her.’ She gobbles up the lame joke and we start making out.

The two of us continue kissing while some of the boys go off to take a leak. The Chicken’s friend, the Hen, suddenly slips and falls in a planter full of brown sludge – the physical embodiment of Carnival at its grimiest. He’s trying to smile and rationalize his misfortune as he wipes the Carnival Juice off his pants. “It’s probably just rainwater…it rained a lot today…it’s probably just rainwater…”

yeah, man, sure it is. We are nodding our heads sympathetically when Zubin returns from peeing, and now we are ready to move once again.

My notepad from this point on is filled with indecipherable scribble. The crowd is at its peak and it is too crowded to write. I pull out my camera but the screen is totally smashed in. It’s destroyed. My spirits are too high to care. I pull the Chicken closer. All my mental images are in portrait style now. Vertical glimpses of Carnival squeezed between two buildings: one-part party-goers, two-parts brightly painted walls and balconies.

We claw our way through the crowd, determined to arrive in Plaza de España if nothing else. Left down the alley, then right, straight down the road and across a string of plazas. Twenty minutes later we see Plaza de España stretching out before us.

¡Por fin! we shout. ¡Finally! My hand fishes behind my back for my Chicken. I turn around but she’s gone.

¡Mierda!” I scream. “I lost my Chicken!” I try calling her, but my pre-paid card is out of credit. Derek and the Hen are also nowhere to be found. Jealous suspicions swirl through my mind. I snap back into the moment. Our friends are gone forever. Just Zubin and El Luchador remain.

It’s taken us over two hours to get to this damn plaza and thus far we’ve lost three bottles of rum, 11 friends, Taylor’s shirt, his wrestling mask, my camera and my Chicken. The plaza is half empty and noticeably quieter than the rest of Carnival. The three of us circle up near the center of the square, slowly sip our drinks and start scoping the scene.

“Now what?”

“Talk to girls.”

“Right.”

Zubin glances over his right shoulder, then his left.

“I thought this was the square where cute girls came up and talked to us.”

“No. That one is Plaza de…” Taylor’s voice trails off.

Zubin pulls back his mask and yawns. “Que sueño tengo. This festival is a marathon. We Americans are accustomed to partying in sprints. When does the first train leave?”

“4:45,” I grumble.

The church bells strike four and we mob to the train station. RENFE employees open the gates to the station and we flood into the vestibule, down the platform and onto the train. 45 minutes till ETD.

Zubin and I plop down across from two guys from Jerez de la Frontera and they start trying to teach us how to clap flamenco style, but it’s some inscrutable rhythm my untrained ear can not decipher. Everyone is privy to this gypsy-influenced beat except us. I try to mimic it with no success – My brain can’t comprehend something so irregular.

Our friends keep repeating the beat:

Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez!.

I’m still practicing this clap as they start telling us about Jerez’s annual feria in May. I try to keep my eyes open and pay attention…

we must come to Jerez to see the festival. Something about flamenco guitarists with girls dancing. Even horses dancing – horses! On their hind-legs, dancing to the music! Yes, it’s unbelievable but it’s true. We simply must see it for ourselves. Yes of course, we can stay with them, in their home with their family and their mothers will cook us the traditional Andalusian food, something muy tipico de Jerez. Have we tried the local Sherry wine? Why yes, there are some manchitas of it on my shirt as we speak. Yes, yes, we will come to the festival and yes we will drink sherry wine together, yes, yes, por supesto, por supuesto, tio…

…I wake up thirty minutes later with one of them kicking me in the leg. It’s your stop! El Puerto de Santa Maria! Get off! ¡Deprisa! ¡Deprisa!

Carnival is over. I guess you can’t count your Chickens before they hatch. But at least I learned the flamenco clap. I grab the boys and we slip off the train and walk down the streets clapping away into the sunrise:

Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez!

¡Fin!

Carnival en Cádiz (Pt. 1)

I feel drastically unprepared for this. It’s 9:30 Saturday night and I’m drinking a calimocho in front of the station and watching the trains whisk thousands of people around the bay to Cádiz.

I should have taken a siesta this afternoon. My costume is decent. I am dressed in loose pants and a shirt covered in Hindi excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, trying to pass off as an Indian. Derek, another local English teacher, is dressed as a detective. Zubin is wearing street clothes with a 2€ plastic mask on his face. And Taylor, our CouchSurfing host, is wearing a ski jacket and holding a Mexican wrestling mask under his arm. For better or for worse, the four of us have banded together for the wildest celebration of Carnival in all of Spain.

I heft our bottles of rum and wine as we enter the station to greet the rest of the gang: about ten other English teachers from across Andalusia and Alicante. We take a few pictures while we’re all together. Our group won’t survive intact once we arrive in Cádiz.

Everyone is buying round trip tickets for the train. The first train back to El Puerto leaves Cádiz at 4:30 AM. The station is buzzing with anticipation. I try to imagine the return home from Cádiz. Some blurry late-night retreat from the sunrise. More likely wet and shivering on the beach or bobbing in the Atlantic.

The train arrives and we all rush onboard. It swells as more people board at each stop. Now we are all pressed against each other chest to chest. I’m standing next to two Spaniards, one dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte and the other as the Pope. They are chain-smoking doobies of chocolate and have effectively hot-boxed the entire train.

I am squeezed between the other passengers and the walls of the train and our rhythms all synchronize into one throbbing pulse rising rising rising with each passing station. My face is pushed against the cold metal walls of the train as it whips clockwise around the bay. It is as packed as a Bombay local train at rush hour, and if they’d opened the doors we would have hung out the side of the train just like the Indians.

I make a joke that the only place with any space remaining is in the bathroom. We all laugh, but then a group of girls goes into the toilet and never comes back.

We finally arrive at the station. Ya esta! Ya esta! they shout. Everyone is spilling out of the train when suddenly I hear a loud THUD! and a girl behind me starts screaming. I turn and find Napoleon Bonaparte sprawled on the ground with his eyes rolled back in his head and his tongue flopped off to the side. I think he is having a seizure and pull out my pen to wedge between his teeth.

One of the American girls behind me yells Someone call 911! and her friend is screaming, They don’t have 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE 911 in Spain! They don’t HAVE it! Meanwhile, the Pope drags Napoleon off the train and down onto the platform.

Then Napoleon is back on his feet, dazed but smiling. The Pope tells me that the chocolate had gone to his head. I smile and hand Napoleon back his hat. Within minutes the doobie-smoking-dictator is ready to re-attempt conquering the night.

So am I. We gather in the vestibule of the train station and make a futile attempt to reassemble our massive posse. A girl says that I don’t look Indian enough. She rubs a little lipstick on her finger and smears a makeshift bindi across my forehead.

Then a collective gasp sweeps across the entire train station and from the corner of my eyes I sense the crowd start backing away from me.

I look up. Taylor and I are alone in the middle of a gigantic circle of onlookers. Taylor is finally in his costume. When taciturn Taylor told me that he was going to put on his costume, I didn’t realize that it would entail taking off all his clothes.

There he is, standing next to me in the freezing cold wearing nothing but some teeny undies and a Mexican wrestling mask. The Spanish have never see anything like it. In Spain most people are terrified of being perceived as ‘ridiculo’ – walking around in whitey-tighties is just not done.

Therefore Taylor is an instant hit. Todo del mundo is yelling Joder! Mira a este tio! Taylor really looks like a wrestler. He is Taylor no more – he has transformed into El Luchador.

People are a-pointing and cameras a-flashing, but we have to get a-going. I run into the circle, break through the ‘Madre mia!’s, pull the rock-star off the red carpet and sweep him out of the station.

It’s no use. We’ve only advanced fifty yards and once again he is surrounded by onlookers. He is turning every head with in a 50-foot radius. ¡Que cajones tienes, tio! they shout, ¿No tienes frio? El Luchador’s incessant photo-shoots are preventing us from going anywhere.

But it doesn’t matter. Our buddy is the most famous guy in Carnival and we all leech off his parvenu status. We’re like Turtle from the early seasons of Entourage as we walk down the street introducing ourselves as friends of El Luchador.

We push him through the crowd and he parts the sea of people like Moses. Everyone is just turning their heads and stepping out of his path.

We’re at the edge of a main plaza now. It is the size of a football field and it’s overflowing with people, pouring groups of costumed Carnivalers down side streets and into cafés and bars. I put my hands on my friends’ shoulders and let out a deep breath of satisfaction. We made it.

“Jesus, guys. It’s only 10 PM,” I say, “We’ve got over six hours left to go. Bust out that rum and let’s mix ourselves some Cuba Libres.” I dig through my goodie bag and pull out the supplies: two bottles of Coke, and a few cups – but no rum.

It’s my fault and everyone knows it. I must have forgotten a bag when I’d gotten off the train. Napoleon’s pseudo-seizure threw me off. I offer to buy more rum and we push through the crowd in search of a liquor store.

Everything is closed. The bars have barricaded their doors and are selling cañas of cerveza and ham and cheese bocadillos – the fuel of Carnival. No liquor stores in sight. We’ve lost all the rest of our group and now it’s only me, Zubin, Derek and El Luchador. We find a store and someone goes inside to re-supply. I hang outside and watch the crowd pass by.

Cádiz is abuzz with an army of Smurfs, 100 Ali Babas trailed by 4,000 thieves, 300 Musketeers and more Dukes and Marquis than I could Count.

It’s pure bacchanality. One enormous, nationwide, institutionalized sin before Lent. Everyone laughing and strolling the streets with drink in hand – a macro-bottellon.

My friends come back outside with the rum and we fill up our glasses. Derek offers me a bag of lemons and I reach inside and snatch one up. “Hey!” he says, “Don’t be so cocksure with my lemons!” He throws me an accusing glance. “And let’s put all the rum inside one bag so we don’t lose it again.” I ignore him and turn to address the others.

Vale. ¿Listos?” I ask, “¿A donde vamos?” Someone suggests we go to Plaza de something-or-rather and we plunge back into the seething tangle of alleyways.

We approach a plaza even larger than the previous. We have to link arms to stay together through the crowd. We pass a drunk American with her finger in one ear and her phone in the other, yelling,

Where are you guys?!? I’m lost! Do you see a…a sign or…or a building or something? I see – What? I said, I see a big church and… and there are a lot of people dressed like jesters dancing on a tractor! Where are you…?”

¡Egads! ¿Jesters dancing atop tractors? ¿What on earth could she be talking about?

Then I see what the poor girl is referring to: a large pack of chirigotas, the wandering groups of guitarists and singers that make Cadiz’s Carnival celebrations famous. I’d seen a few groups earlier, wandering amidst the party like 15th century minstrels caught in a time warp. But this was the first time I’d seen so many of them at once, and dancing on a trailer no less.

The tractor swings around the corner before me, hauling a trailer full of chirigotas singing with great élan. There must be twenty of them, all dressed as some sort of jesters with costumes exhausting every color of the rainbow. A dozen or so singers wrap around the edge of the trailer on all sides and encircle five guitarists who float above them on a platform. The guitarists strum their Spanish guitars with a flamenco rasgueado and sing along with the rest.

I focus my attention on the singers. Most of them are quite drunk yet they maintain their panache. They sing, not in the sloppy way we Americans might sing “Friends in Low Places” at a Karaoke bar, but with a dignified drunkenness. You can almost hear the sherry swishing around in their bellies as they sway in unison. They slur articulately with their left hands on their hearts and their right arms extended before them holding their copas in the air in a perpetual toast to the good life.

They are dressed in the same clothes, singing the same songs and all equally drunk, but each man is slightly different. Each has his head cocked at a different angle, his arm raised to a different height, his voice tuned to a different pitch, and his eye winking at a different muchacha in the crowd. Music, style and movement all harmoniously composed. Not a touch of discord coming from the whole drunken lot

The tractor fires up again and starts moving towards a nearby plaza. A drunkard stumbles into the road and pauses directly in the path of the chirigotas. He is incredibly disheveled. His ski jacket is stained with the mud, blood and booze of a night he will never remember. The tractor honks its horn and moves closer to him but he is oblivious. He is preoccupied with something in his pants and has both his hands wedged elbow-deep into his unbuttoned jeans searching for Dios sabe que.

As I watch the fool standing in the plaza and unknowingly squaring off against the tractor it seems like some absurdly comic re-enactment of Tiananmen Square. I can see the headlines now:

Yesterday, on the second day of Carnival in Cadiz, one man, drunk as a skunk, felt he’d had enough wine and decided to take a stand against his fellow revelers. He courageously stood before a band of chirigotas and refused to move. Their tractor was about to run him over when suddenly he shouted, ‘¡Ya! Enough! The forces of fun and merriment have carried this party too far! What we need is solemn sobriety! Go home chirigotas! Thou shall not pass!’ But it was of no use. An plain-clothed officer from the State Ministry of Bacchanal filled up his glass and definitively crushed this nascent party-pooper movement…

The tractor moves off and disappears into the crowd and we run into some of Derek’s friends: a cute blonde and her effeminate male companion both wrapped in pink, blue and orange boas and trying to pass off as a Chickens/Hen duo As we are introduced, the Chicken and I lock eyes. I call for a new round of Cuba Libres and a toast. We look for the bag of booze but once again we are all empty-handed.

¡Me cago en la leche!

(See Part 2 for the rest of the story)