“Mangos! Papayas! Melons!”


Charles Olsen takes us with words and photos into the heart of the Caribbean city of Barranquilla at the mouth of the River Magdalena during the vibrant and chaotic carnival celebrations, which bring the whole city alive.

Article first published in
Wild Tomato Magazine, Nelson, New Zealand, October 2013

PHOTOS BY CHARLES OLSEN:
1 Queen of the Battle of the Flowers
2 Everyone takes part in carnival
3 Even the elderly have fun at carnival

“Mangos! Papayas! Melons!”


I wake around 6.30am to the chatter of birds, the cackle of the neighbour’s parrot and a street salesman calling, “Papayas! Limes! Mangos!” followed shortly by another calling “Avocados! Avocados!” People in Barranquilla may not have much money but as they say, there is no lack of food. On the street corner, for a few pesos you can buy a bag of fresh sliced mango with lime juice, salt and pepper, or coconut juice from a large green coconut cut open with a machete so you can drink it with a straw. Then you ask the seller to split it open and scoop out the white flesh.

The city has been buzzing since January with the pre-carnival activities and this year is the bicentennial as well as the 10th anniversary of its declaration by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. I’m fortunate to have a press pass as the only other ways to see the Battle of the Flowers parade (Batalla de Flores) are to pay for a seat in a stand, or to take part in the parade itself. Walking to the press stand we are bombarded by music blasting out from stands on both sides of the streets that are filling with people.

Apart from the dawn chorus things generally aren’t very punctual here and the parade, due to kick off at 11am, doesn’t set off until around 2pm and reaches us an hour later. Poor folk sitting in the stands opposite us who have no respite from the sun; during the afternoon orange-jacketed medics stretcher away a number of people who’ve collapsed in the heat. At last the main parade reaches us, lead by the city’s uniformed cleaners dancing in unison with their brooms to traditional Colombian folk music. I’m already caught up in the atmosphere and the crazy nature of it all under the scorching sun.

The parade is a mixture of highly elaborate floats carrying the beautiful queens and kings of carnival and large groups of dancers in traditional costumes, many based on African or Spanish traditions as well as indigenous costumes of Colombia and the funny Marimonda costume. This originates in Barranquilla and comprises big flappy ears, a long nose and large defined eyes and lips. Most are accompanied by bands playing traditional Colombian and Afro-Colombian folk music such as cumbias and mapalé. There are also characters from films, giant heads, fire-breathing aliens, multicoloured costumes (I imagine the World of Wearable Arts taking to the streets of Wellington). There is even a contingent of orange-suited Dutch men so perhaps a Kiwi group would be very welcome here.

The people of Barranquilla have an unstoppable energy. Here, everything goes; people laugh at themselves and with each other. Figures dressed as corrupt politicians salute the crowds who wave back and take photos. An old man dressed as a baby with stained overflowing nappies raises chuckles, the carnival drunk behaves outrageously… Carnival ends with the funeral of Joselito Carnaval (Joseph Carnival). This is the final craziness of carnival where groups re-enact the death of Joselito Carnaval who, having drunk and partied so hard throughout carnival leaving all the women pregnant, collapses dead in the middle of the street. Suddenly a great wailing, shouting and crying rises up from those accompanying him. “Oh Joselito! Why did you have to die? We were all having such fun and now you’ve gone!”

Article first published in
Wild Tomato Magazine, Nelson, New Zealand, October 2013