It’s 9:30 Saturday night and I’m drinking a calimocho in front of the El Puerto de Santa Maria train station and watching the trains whisk thousands of people around the bay to Cádiz.
Carnival has begun.
Carnival has begun.
I’d arrived the night before. It had taken me about 18 hours to travel halfway across the Iberian Peninsula from Arévalo to Cádiz. I was staying with a fellow English teacher and CouchSurfer, Taylor, and rolling deep with eight other graduates of UCLA, including my good friend Zubin.
The night before had been silent. Bars were empty, the streets clean, and the sky over southern Spain was uncharacteristically stormy. Everyone was sleeping, resting and preparing for the 10-days of Carnival which lay ahead.
And now I am having my first drink of the night and realizing what mayhem I have signed up for. When I posted my last blog, I wrote that I knew Carnival was “more than just a party,” implying that it still retained some religious significance. It seems I was mistaken.
The local police are well aware of what’s in store and have adopted the most sensible policy – staying clear of the onrush. They only ask that no one brings glass bottles on the train.
We are better prepared in other areas, though. We foresaw that buying drinks in Carnival would be either extremely difficult or prohibitively expensive, so we have pre-purchased some rum and cokes and brought everything along in plastic bottles.
We enter the station and see the rest of our group: about ten other English teachers from across Andalusia and Alicante. We take a few pictures while we’re all together. It would be a miracle if our group surived intact once we arrive in Cadiz.
Everyone is buying round trip tickets on the train. The first train comes back at 4:30 AM. The train arrives and we all rush onboard. There is barely any room to stand. The train swells as more people board at each stop. The Spaniards are chanting songs together and we are all smiling and laughing.
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 loudly. I turn and find Napoleon Bonaparte lying on his back 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 screams 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.
I’m taking notes on all this when Taylor sidles up to me and says, “Hey man…Um, I’m gonna put on my costume. Can you watch my things?” I nod my head and continue scribbling in my notepad.
I hear a collective gasp sweep across the entire train station and from the corner of my eyes I see the crowd start backing away from me. I put away my notepad and look up. It’s just Taylor and me 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. Yet there he is, standing next to me in the freezing cold wearing nothing but some teeny undies and a Mexican wrestling mask. The Spanish 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. In fact, 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 away off the red carpet and sweep him out of the station.
It’s no use. We’ve only advanced fifty meters 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? I see that El Luchador and his incessant photo-shoots are preventing us from going anywhere.
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. They’ve never seen anything like it.
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.
“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.” We reach into our goodie bag and pull out the supplies: two bottles of Coke, a few cups and…what the hell?
Our bottles of rum had vanished.
Disaster. We must have picked up the wrong bag when we’d gotten off the train. That chaos with Napoleon had thrown us off. No matter. We push through the crowd and search for a liquor store.
Everything is closed. The bars have barricaded their doors and are selling cañas of cerveza and bocadillos – the fuel of Carnival. No liquor stores in sight. We’ve lost all the rest of our group and now its only me, Zubin, Derek and El Luchador. We find a store and someone goes inside to buy more rum. I hang outside and watch the crowd pass by.
The Spanish have gone all-out with their outfits. America has Halloween, Spain has Carnival. Cadiz is a swirling menagerie of costumes: Cowboys and Indians, Cleopatras and Marc Antonys, Noah with his entire ark in tow, pirates, sumos, gansters, and cops.
Yet for all the diversity there remained a sizeable number of repeated costumes. It was as if everyone had shopped at the same exact shop. Aside from the inexplicable popularity of the ‘chicken suit,’ there was an army of Smurfs, 100 Ali Babas trailed by 4,000 thieves, 300 Musketeers and more Dukes and Marquis than I could Count.
It was pure bacchanality. Everyone laughing and strolling the streets with drink in hand – one enormous bottellon. The only thing in America that comes close is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which – being a former colony of catholic France – is where the largest American celebration of Carnival has survived.
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! And let’s put all the rum inside one bag so we don’t lose it again.” Good plan. Navigating a crowd this thick was nearly impossible – losing our rum and having to retreat to the liquor store again was the last thing we wanted to do.
“Vale. ¿Listos? ¿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. Trying to find a lost comrade would have been futile. I remember seeing some drunk American girl 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 with a stage in front of it! There are a lot of people dressed like Arabs dancing on the stage! Where are you...?”
Egads! People dressed like Arabs, singing and dancing? What on earth could she be talking about? Then I saw it: Ahhhh! The famous “Chirigotas!” (Click here for video).
Above the crowd of people and floating Mexican sombreros I could see the Chirigotas, the singing groups of Gaditanos (people from Cadiz) that make Cadiz’s Carnival celebrations famous around the world. They supposedly write humorous and witty songs about current events, but between the noise, the distance and their Andalusian accents, I couldn’t understand a word.
In the midst of the crowd we run into some of Derek and Tyler’s friends: a girl and a guy both wrapped in pink, blue and orange boas and trying to pass off as chickens. We are introduced and we move forward towards the stage. The proximity doesn’t help - we still can’t understand the Chirigotas’ songs.
It’s time for another drink. We call for another round – but the bag has disappeared again!
Our spirits sink and we begin to think the night is doomed to fail. Not only did the bag contain the alcohol, but most of El Luchador’s clothes.
No looking back. Time to move forward.
We 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. I look down at the wet ground and notice how disgusting the streets are. A grey sludge coats the cobbled streets – a mixture of booze, piss, rain and god-knows-what-else.
The music is far away now and I notice the almost relentless sound of glass 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 too. No more risks. Fill the cups up and carry nothing in our hands. Leave nothing to chance.
Taylor must be feeling antsy. He has stripped down once again and he is attempting to fit his 6-foot-6 frame into a miniature car – one of those coin-operated rides that wiggle back and forth and bring toddlers endless joy.
Seeing El Luchador squeeze into that car brings me and the thirty other spectators two minutes of pure joy. Everyone is snapping photos as he wiggles into the cockpit, squeezing one leg at a time, his head bent under the roof and his crotch resting on the steering wheel.
As he is squeezing out of the car I am almost knocked over by a team of guys unloading tons of ice from a lorry. Some girl runs past me with her hands in the air, crying and screaming “I don’t give a f***!” over and over again while her boyfriend trails behind her pleading and apologizing.
The four of us need to have a pow-pow. We pull El Luchador away from another photo-shoot and huddle together. We need a game plan. Ok, boys, what do we want to do? Um…have fun?...And talk to girls? Bueno. Where is that happening? Plaza de España? ¡Vamanos!
It’s past midnight now, which means it’s Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t resemble it in the slightest. People everywhere are making out – pirates with chickens, D’Artangian with Cleopatra. Pure concupiscence here, not a shred of romance to be found.
I am reminded of a statistic I read, something about how Spaniards have more public sex than any country in Europe. Spaniards typically live at home until they are married (at 30-plus), so they hook up in the only place they can get some privacy – in public.
We stop for a moment while someone goes for a leak. Our friend dressed like a big orange chicken 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. 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.
Derek goes off to pee in a bar. He never comes back. The two chickens try to find a down-low place for her to do the same. They also disappear. I try calling them but I run out of minutes mid-call. Curse Vodafone! All three of our friends are lost forever. Just me, Zubin and El Luchador remain.
Its about 2:30 AM when we arrive in Plaza de España. It’s taken us over two hours to get here and thus far we’ve lost 2.25 litres of rum, 11 friends, Taylor’s shirt, his wrestling mask, and my camera. But we are finally here. After so much anticipation our sudden arrival begs the inevitable question:
“Now what?” We’re three dudes standing in a circle, slowly sipping our drinks and scoping the scene.
“Talk to girls.”
“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.
“Vale. Let’s go there.”
And we’re off again. This conversation is repeated as we bounce from plaza to plaza. The crowd doesn’t thin a bit. We are all trapped in Cadiz until the first train departs at 4:45. It’s a marathon party – full contrast to the 100-meter dash we run as we race against last call in American bars.
The clock strikes 4 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 are sitting across from two guys from Jerez de la Frontera and they start telling us about their 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 Sherry wine, the grape that originates in Jerez? Why yes, there are some manchitas of it on my shirt as we speak. Yes, yes, we will come to the festival and drink sherry wine together, yes, 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! Hurry, hurry!
I grab the boys and we slip off the train, grab a cab and then we are back home and getting into bed as the sun rises over Cadiz and closes out the first night of Carnival.