It occurs to me that maybe the reason that America has wide sidewalks and Colombia has narrow ones isn’t because of the difference in the size of the people–most Americans are quite a lot taller and wider than most Colombians–but in fact, because of the differences in comfort zones. Here, we all brush shoulders and graze elbows into those curves of the human body that are usually reserved for hugs and tickles, and we turn our bodies to swing our hips and handbags around each other.
Waiting in line to board a flight to LA from Panama, the two vacationers in front of me turn periodically to check on me, despite my best efforts to not look like I am eavesdropping. Then I realize it’s not my invasion of their conversation but my encroaching into their personal space that bothers them. I am lining up like any good Colombian would, with the minimal amount of space between me and them, breathing down onto their wheeled suitcases.
My waxing lady (yes, I now have one of those) asks what I’ll miss about Colombia. The human connections, I tell her. In my country, lives are separated by fences and decorative lawns and closed up, air-conditioned bubbles. Here, we live in each other’s spaces, sharing the same experiences.
The same tiredness as we try to stay balanced in a creaky, careening bus home, holding each other’s groceries and toddlers to balance each other’s load. The the same helplessness when the rain comes and we all lose power at the same black, startling moment, and we can hear each other through the walls and open windows in the stillness that follows. The same community pride when we all press together into the main street, a sea of yellow soccer jerseys, to watch the hometown hero, Carlos Bacca, parade slowly to the plaza atop the volunteer fire department’s best rig.
A few posts ago, I talked about Carnaval, the biggest event of the year in coastal Colombia. Here is part two, what it’s like to be a queen of Carnaval!
The festivities started getting into full swing–all the music and conversation revolved around Carnaval. Then came the game-changer: my school asked me to be the queen of professors. They promised I’d only be the international queen, so I would be sidekick to the official king and queen…until the real queen of professors couldn’t make it to the first event and I got promoted in the space of ten minutes from vice-queen to the reigning dignitary who had to open the festivities for the entire school–in Spanish!One of the best memories of queenship was frantically prepping in the school office that day while my fellow English teachers coached me on Spanish inflection and pronunciation and my host mom fussed over my frilly cumbia dress and the flowers in my hair. And that’s how one becomes a school queen, or, as I see it, a school mascot with a much cuter outfit (also itchier.)
As a progressive, independent Western young woman, I’ve never aspired to be a beauty queen; it’s always been a foreign culture to me, with the crowns and fake tans and such. But here in Colombia, you say yes to everything, so I found myself being convinced to be a queen.
“It’s fun!” they said.
“It’s not a big deal!” they said.
Two parades, at least eight events, five dresses, two meltdowns and one crown later, I am writing a “Gringa’s Guide to Being a Carnaval Queen.” Here’s a preview…
Gringa’s Guide to Carnaval Queening
Welcome to your new role! As a gringa, your most important job, like any beauty queen, is to represent your people–in this case, all foreigners. No pressure. All anyone wants is to know that foreigners love and enjoy the host culture, and Colombians are a great example of that. From now on, whenever anyone asks you what you think of Colombia, you just say, “Carnavales!!!” with a big smile and you’re in. If you can throw in a little hip shake that you learned during Carnavales, even better. Here are a few other tips:
1. One Word: Glitter. Be forewarned: they will expect you to know how to make yourself up beauty
queen style. If you’re a mascara and BB cream girl like me, I strongly suggest you either a) find a knowledgeable host sister or b) youtube the hell out of contouring and eye shadow application. Invest in a good bright red lipstick and resign yourself to the inevitable glitter tornado that is the month of March. As for blotting paper, remember that you live in a tropical location and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES can you get makeup on your fancy dresses. If you’re too cheap for oil blotting sheets, know that paper napkins are a really scratchy, thin Plan B.
2. Fake it ’til you make it! For your inner princess, this is your chance to live it up–all eyes are on you! If you don’t have an inner princess, find your inner actress and fake it! Being a queen gives you a rare chance to communicate one message to the entire crowd, so make sure the message is, “I feel so lucky to be queen! This is the coolest experience I’ve ever had in Colombia! I’m having the time of my life up here! I hope I don’t fall!!” And more likely than not, it’ll be true.
3. Find a reina expert. For me, this was my host mother. Her daughter had been a child queen, so she knew the who, what and when of the queenly business. I had no CLUE, which led to more than a few mishaps. Warning: you are responsible for nagging the school to pay
for the dresses (if you’re lucky) (they still owe me), for going to fittings you didn’t know about, for picking up and dropping off the stuff in a timetable you have no idea about, and for finding someone to do your hair before every event. Thankfully, my host mom rescued me from several dramatic emergencies regarding the above rules.
4. Smile for the camera! Camera to the nth power…If I’m ever a real celebrity, I’ll be ready! The smartphones, not-smartphones, pocket cameras and, the most baffling, professional photographers come out at any time. Once, I went to a parade in the nearby town with a bunch of
friends and guess who showed up? The photographer from my school! They have an ingenious business here–these guys have professional or semi-pro cameras and ask you to smile for the camera…a week later, they show up at your doorstep at 8 pm to sell you every single shot they’ve ever taken of you! Apparently, you’re supposed to buy all of them, but at $5,000 pesos ($2.50) a piece, this broke volunteer only took six. Anyway, moral of the story is make sure you practice a sustainable smile and a body-flattering pose, cuz you’re going to see it many, many times in print.
5. Gozar! Once you’re zipped in, sucked in, powdered up and smiling, don’t forget to sit back and enjoy your front row vantage point. It is so incredible to see your own high school students transformed into elegant, expressive, passionate artists, showing their beautiful traditions to the world. When they invite you to join in, forget the precarious crown; the risk of lipstick teeth; the pinching zipper. Throw your hands up in the air, grab a nearby student and dance!!
I feel so honored to have been part of this celebration of the elaborate and beautiful costeno culture. As they say, “quien lo vive es quien lo goza“, or “the one who lives it, enjoys it!”
Appendix A (ish):
These are all the costumes I got to play dress up in! A huge shout out to my school, my host mom and the numerous other helpers who made these outfits possible!!
1. Cumbiambera. This costume is worn for the traditional cumbia dance, which is a fusion of three local cultures: African, European and indigenous. An interesting fact is that the small steps taken originated with the African slaves in the area, who could only lift their feet off the ground a little bit because they worn iron chains on their legs.
The dance is a chase: the man tries to win the woman’s affection three times before she accepts his gift, a lit candle. He then leads her through the dance as she holds the candle and follows his hat. It’s very flirtatious!
2. Garabato. This costume is also a dance outfit in the colors of Barranquilla’s flag (red, green and yellow.) The dance depicts the struggle between life, as shown by the bright outfits, and death, which is played by a character in a skeleton suit. As always in Latin American culture, life wins and everyone celebrates! There’s a whole parade.
3. Skirt and top-cito: (see in the article above) This one was another cumbia outfit, but a little more fancy. It was midriff-baring (no bueno) and had lots of dangly, sparkly things going on. I wore it to dance the faculty presentation dance (a mambo) on the coronation day.
4. Coronation Cumbiambera. The frilly, white princess dress I wore on the Coronation day was also a cumbia dress. It was custom-designed in Barranquilla for a girl who was queen of the town a few years back. Fun fact, she may have been similarly tall and thin, but I was much more endowed in certain areas! That dress was tight! The ladies who helped me zip up said, “maybe if you diet until Friday, you can lose your boobs.” Didn’t work.
5. Orange outfit. Brianna, a fellow volunteer who was a spectacular international queen a town over, loaned me one of her outfits so I wouldn’t have to rent a whole extra dress for some event. While we’re on the subject, she was absolutely stunning in her blue feathered outfit as she paraded through her entire town (up and down
the hills) in stilettos. Kickass queening!
6. Mambo Italiano. (see top photo) The final dress was tailored for our faculty dance. That sounds much more exciting than it actually was–I showed up at the designer’s house for a “final fitting” the morning of the dance to find that she hadn’t even made it yet! She threw some pieces of fabric together for a quick dress, but let’s just say that I won’t be wearing it again–four hours of scratching left me raw and red. Either way, it was a fun dance dress!
I had the grand and slightly intimidating opportunity to guest post at my friend Bjorn Karlman’s successful global do-gooding blog, CultureMutt. Go check out my post about Countering Conventionality and living an international adventure life, and give Bjorn’s blog some love!