It’s Valentine’s Day and Taylor announces he is taking his girlfriend out to dinner tonight. No Carnival for him. Zubin has to catch a bus back to Madrid early tomorrow morning and he is on the fence. I want to give it another go but it looks like tonight will be more-low key. I suggest that since we saw Carnival by night today we should go check out Cádiz during the daytime. We finish up lunch and meet up with Derek and Taylor’s Spanish girlfriend, Peli.
Two hours later the five of us are riding the bus to Cádiz and making some tentative plans: go to Cádiz, walk around a bit (just to “check it out,” of course) go see some of the notable monuments, the beach etc, then catch a bus back to El Puerto de Santa Maria at dusk and spend the night close to home so we can be “well rested” for the ride back to Madrid – a ‘mellow day,’ nothing more…
All these plans fly right out the window once we arrive in Cádiz. The infectious spirit of Carnival sweeps over me and I understand the meaning of all this merrymaking – to revel the moment before the upcoming forty days of abstinence preceding Easter.
I was not raised as a Catholic, but seeing the joyous festivities clarifies today’s purpose. The future – be it Lent, Parenthood, Old Age, or Untimely Death – is looming ahead and we best enjoy today and live in the moment. And despite not being Catholic, I can easily think of what I will give up for Lent – self deception, like the plans we’d just cooked up on the bus.
“Guys, we’re lying to ourselves,” I announce, “There’s no way we can expect to stay here for only few hours and have an ‘easy night’ tonight – we’ve signed up for Carnival and we can’t give up early.”
My suggestion is met with a tepid response. Taylor says he has work tomorrow, and the others suggest we play it by ear. I continue, undaunted.
“So be it.” I say, “I don’t have work for two more days and I bet we will all end up staying here for a while. This is the first time I’ve experienced Carnival and who knows if I’ll see it again. We have to aprovechar, no?”
It was decided, at least in my mind. We must prepare for the best-case scenario – a repeat of last night. I have no cash, no credit on my cell phone, and neither does anyone else. We grab a few bottles of local sherry wine, recharge our phones, load up our wallets and raise our glasses to being young and alive in the moment.
The main square of Cádiz is half as full as the night before but still buzzing with an electric boisterousness. Confetti, broken glass, and cigarette butts litter the ground. Men, women, children and viejos celebrate with equal enthusiasm.
The Spaniards know how to enjoy life. Since 1976, when the 40-year ultra-conservative dictatorship of Francisco Franco collapsed, the Spanish have embraced the freedom they were once denied. Having tasted a repressive society they celebrate life by living in the now.
And if any part of Spain embodies this spirit, it’s the people here in Andalusia, Spain’s southern-most state. Northerners often describe the southerners with a slightly patronizing tone – as their wild, singing, dancing brothers whose predilection for fiesta is equally strong as their aversion to work.
A quick glance around the streets of Cádiz certainly corroborated such claims. They are doubtlessly more open than the reserved people of Castile. This is often attributed to the differences in climate, but it’s more than that.
Andalusians have panache found nowhere else in Spain, maybe in all of Europe. They seem to never stop laughing, partying, singing or playing the guitar. It makes one wonder if they come into the world with a guitar and castanets in hand.
Everyone around me has a drink in hand and dozens of people are singing together and clapping their hands to an inscrutable rhythm my untrained ear could not decipher. Everyone is privy to this rhythm except us. I try to mimic it with no success – it’s too irregular. My brain can’t comprehend this gypsy-influenced beat.
We are on the edge of a square now and a band of chirigotas come parading up a nearby alley. In fifteen minutes I see a half-dozen of these groups. They wander around Cádiz like 15th century minstrels caught in a time warp.
The night before I’d seen a large group of chirigotas singing on a distant stage, but now I can see them more closely. The groups vary in size from a half dozen to maybe twenty people. Most are composed of men, but we encounter groups of both sexes. Your typical group has at least one or two guitarists accompanied by a handful of singers. Every group has it’s own “theme” and all its members don coordinated costumes.
Most of them are quite drunk yet they maintain their panache nonetheless. They sing, not in the sloppy drunken way we Americans might sing “Friends in Low Places” at a Karaoke bar, but with a dignified drunkenness. Their collective swaying is countered with articulate singing, focused yet smiling eyes, 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.
Around the corner comes a tractor hauling a trailer full of chirigotas singing with great élan. There must be twenty of them in total, all dressed as some sort of jesters with costumes exhausting every color in 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 the flamenco rasgueado and sing along with the rest.
But the lyrics, not the music, are the most important aspect of this show. They sing satirical songs about current events and crack jokes about Spanish society. These singers are what makes Carnival in Cádiz famous.
I focus my attention on the singers. 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 girl 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 tractor full of chirigotas. The tractor is honking his horn but the drunkard is completely oblivious of his surroundings. He is incredibly disheveled. His ski jacket is stained with the mud, blood and booze of a night he will never remember. As the tractor moves closer to him he still takes no notice. 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 I think to myself that it is some absurdly comic re-enactment of Tiananmen Square. I can see the headlines now:
Yesterday, on the second day of Carnival in Cádiz, 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! You 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…
I’m smiling as I imagine all this when the drunkard finally sees the tractor and drags his sorry ass out of the street. The five of us raise our glasses once again and promise each other that we will not end up like that dude by the end of the night.
The truck pulls into the plaza and stops in front of a large cathedral, which I recognize from the night before. The chirigotas jump off their trailer and take a drinking break in the plaza. We introduce ourselves and compliment them on their singing. I tell one of them that I love their style but that their Andalusian accent makes it difficult to understand what they sing. I ask what the last song was about. Seducing a woman, of course, he tells me. Ah. But of course. He says I need to return to Carnival for three consecutive years and on the third year I will finally understand the songs. We take some pictures with the chirigotas and one of them comes up and gives me a big sloppy kiss on the cheek as we are taking a picture.
I feel amazing. I’m standing in the plaza amongst palm trees, chirigotas, music and merriment. I am happy to be alive. We all have that delicious sherry swashing around in our bellies and we decide to go watch the sunset over the ocean. It is the first time I have seen the ocean in a while and I realize how much I took it for granted in California. In Arévalo I am stuck on an island in the midst of a sea of wheat fields. It’s not the same. We while away a half hour sitting on the boardwalk and smelling the salt in the fresh ocean breeze.
Then it’s back into Carnival. The rest of the afternoon passes quickly. In my mind it is one big blur of chasing down bocadillo vendors, sipping sherry, and trying to learn how to clap the flamenco beat like the Andalusians.
Meanwhile, Taylor, ever the one to surprise, has bought a shiny pink dolphin-shaped balloon and tied it to his wrist. When he smiles he looks a freakishly large six-year-old boy at Disneyland. The balloon is enormous and he giggles as the dolphin smacks into every person we pass. We finally stop before a group of chirigotas singing something about Prime Minister Zapatero’s failure to handle la crisis (the recession). All I hear is blah-blah-blah-Zapatero!-blah-blah-blah-dinero!- blah-blah-blah-la crisis! – blah-blah-blah- idiota!
Taylor’s balloon is swinging in the wind. It dives into a group of five Spaniards and almost knocks their joint to the ground as it smacks each one of them in the face. This balloon is going to get us in a fight once the crowd’s collective drunkenness rises a notch or two.
“Taylor, it’s been fun but it’s time to Free Willy.”
“It’s not a whale, it’s a dolphin.”
“Fine, then. It’s time to Free Flipper.”
We debate this issue for a bit, then decide to send the dolphin to the heavens before it gets trapped in a tuna net. Taylor is trying to gnaw the string off his arm when a group of his girlfriend’s Spanish amigos join our group. The dolphin is saved.
We switch to Spanish to converse with her friends and make our way up a street. The sky dims, the streets fill and the streetlights brighten. The sky is a magnificent hue of blue. We make our way up a crowded street and stand at the intersection of two of Cádiz’s most bustling streets. We are chest-to-chest, still sipping on sherry and talking to all those who pass through this convivial little alley.
Then it starts to rain. Not much, just a slight drizzle. Everyone pulls out umbrellas and the party continues. But a palatable sense of wariness has permeated the party.
It starts raining a little harder. Taylor and Peli announce they are going back to El Puerto to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s 9 PM and Zubin, Derek and I are in no way ready to go back, despite the rain. Soon the trains will stop running until morning. We decide to stay and we wish the two lovers a happy evening.
We are a group of three now. The night is young and so are we. We’ve polished off our sherry now and its time for round two. The street is too crowded, so we look for a side street to spend the next few hours.
The rain starts pouring down hard. We see a group of twenty Spaniards taking shelter under some sort of platform and we squeeze in and join the party. They welcome us into their group and soon we are taking photos together and introducing ourselves around. Partying under a seven-foot tall stage is a bit odd, but it’s cozy. Derek comments that it is like Fraggle Rock, “it’s a well-knit community,” he adds.
We spend a good hour in Fraggle Rock. Our Spanish is freed of inhibitions and we are joking and laughing in our second tongue. Our new friends are are teaching us local songs from Cádiz. Me han dicho, que amarillo, es maldito para los Cádizos… We are well on our way to becoming chirigotas when suddenly hunger strikes. We are starting to feel the sherry and we need to eat a strategic bocadillo if we expect to continue through the night. We slip out from Fraggle Rock and promise to return in ten minutes.
By the time we returned to Fraggle Rock, the entire atmosphere of the night had changed. It was raining. Almost everyone on the street had disappeared. And Fraggle Rock was empty.
“Dammit!” sighed Derek dejectedly, “I liked Fraggle Rock…it was a well-knit community.” Obviously we were not knit into the community well enough, for they have all left us behind and we are alone once again.
It’s approaching midnight now and we can’t find a soul in Cádiz. Municipal street-sweepers are out in full force, cleaning up broken bottles and spraying down the cobblestones. Our gumption dissipates with each empty street we encounter. Then I see a dozen people dressed as pilgrims from El Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
“¡Oye! ¡Peregrinos!” I shout, “Where has everyone gone?” Most people went home because of the rain. But they point us in the direction of a neighborhood called La Viña, where they say everyone else has gathered.
Zubin, Derek and I have another pow-pow. I wonder if we should we have turned back when Taylor and Peli left. No time to look back now – we’ve missed the last train and a taxi back to El Puerto would cost an arm and a leg (or, as they say in Spanish, dos ojas de la cara). We can’t leave Cádiz for a good five hours until the trains start running, so we’d better find something to do. We huddle under Zubin’s umbrella and set our course for La Viña.
After twenty minutes of wandering in the rain we arrive. We have re-connected with Carnival, but the vigor of last night is undeniably absent. We befriend some people from Sevilla and finally someone teaches me the secret rhythm of the flamenco clap:
Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez!.
I’m absorbed in practicing the clap when suddenly these friends disappear as well. Zubin, Derek, and I are becoming increasingly desperate with each passing hour. We go to a bull-fighting bar, but its too packed to move. We join some chirigotas dressed as microbes and listen to their songs, but we are their only audience. It’s just not the same as before.
Then we meet two French girls, one from Bordeaux and the other from the Basque Country. They are cute, and things are looking up. We spend a good hour walking all the way across Cádiz looking for something called a carpa.
The girls are hyping it like its some fantastic bar, but it turns out to be a big tent full of people dancing until sunrise. There’s a cover charge and we don’t think its merece la pena to go inside. Maybe we are being pennywise and pound foolish, but we are exhausted. The French girls are a little miffed at our indecisiveness. They give us a quick peck on the cheeks and go inside without us.
Alone again. But, no worries – its 4 AM and the train leaves soon. We grab the umpteenth bocadillo of the night and make our way to the train station.
The doors are locked. Last night’s 4:30 AM train was a “special event” and the next one leaves at 7 AM. Bad News Bears. A cold gust of air whips me in the face and makes me shiver. The purr of a passing street sweeper cuts through the night. As we walk away from the train station we all start complaining.
Our gumption is all but gone. We are bedraggled and tired. I try one last attempt at rallying our spirits:
“Well, it ain’t over till The Fat Lady sings.”
Just then, a group of fat chirigotas wearing wigs and dresses started singing across the street. I took it as an omen from Bacchus: The Fat Lady had sung. Carnival 2010 was over and it was time to go home.
But hey, at least I finally learned how to clap to the flamenco-style. We hail a cab and I ride home clapping away into the sunrise…
Uno, Dos, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve, Diez…