A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – The carnival of Pasto – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
(Most floats are incredibly tall and detailed like this one. They may look solid, but when you see them up close you may notice where some of the Styrofoam has been ripped away by somebody in the crowd or simply by the float being in use.)
After playing in the Steel Band at St. Scholastica, it was always Trinidad and Tobago that came to mind when somebody mentioned Carnival. In reality, there are many Carnival celebrations that take place in Central and South America, from the massive celebration in Rio de Janeiro to the smaller, but nationally recognized Colombian celebration of Carnival in Barranquilla.
I never intended to visit the massive Barranquilla celebration, so as part of my travels during my university’s semester break in January, I and two friends decided to spend a few days in Pasto, a city an hour or two´s drive from the Ecuadorian border. The city is fairly quiet and un-discussed the majority of the year, but it springs to life in the beginning of January for their own Carnival celebration. (Locally, it´s called Carnival, but nationally it´s recognized as the Feria de los blancos y negros or Fair of the Blacks and Whites).
(It’s usually Ecuador that’s known for cuy (guinea pig), but many of the foods in Pasto and southern Colombia are influenced by the proximity of Ecuador. There are many restaurants in the city that specialize in cuy!)
The city boasts a massive parade on January 6th that matches many of the large fairs and Carnival celebrations in cities all over Colombia later in the year. There are massive floats made out of styrofoam and electric neon paint, as well as large masks that marchers carry through the day-long parade as they dance through the streets. The amount of work that goes into the parades is impressive and results are gorgeous!
For the few days before the parade, everybody in the city dons ponchos, ski goggles, face masks, sweatshirts, and large hooded parkas to protect themselves because the streets are full of people spraying foam, throwing white dust, and trying to draw on your face. It sounds super fun! We brought all of the necessary equipment (including an excited attitude) the first night that we arrived in the city, and after thirty minutes walking through the streets we realized something shocking–to us, it wasn’t fun!
I had found myself caught in a similar type of festival earlier the year in Girardot, a very hot city a three hour bus ride outside of Bogota, and the experience had been super fun! Everybody in the city had bottles of foam that they were spraying at each other. Everybody that owned a motorcycle was out on the street, covered in foam, the person on the back of the motorcycle armed with their own bottle of foam. It was fun!
However, when it came to the festival in Pasto, there was something about it that made it difficult for us to join in with the festivities.
To begin with, people aim at your face. That in itself is okay because you can put on sunglasses and pull up your hood, but people would run at us and rip off our hoods, grab our hair, and, in some cases, pull off our sunglasses as they sprayed directly in our faces. It´s not my definition of fun. For some people it is, but I´ve never been in a situation where it is permissible to run at a random stranger anywhere in the city and throw things at them when they´re shouting “No!¨. It was very different than what I was used to!
(Note how the foam is primarily inside the hood of my poncho.)
The other aspect of the Pasto Carnival that made me feel unnerved was that the primary people enjoying the opportunity to spray foam and throw dust were not what I would assume was the “intended audience”. When little kids, children, families, or a group of good-natured adults spray foam at you and laugh as you retaliate in kind, it´s a fun experience! However, the streets were full of large groups of early and late twenties men who I often witnessed ganging up on a single person, including little kids.
My friends and I decided to make our time in Pasto short, and we took every opportunity possible to see sites around Pasto such as a famous gothic cathedral and a peaceful glacial lagoon that is used for trout farming. (Though, while driving back from the lagoon we had a mob of thirty-some people attack our van, rip open the door, spray foam inside of the car, and then pull our friend out of the van.) In a few of the vans, we overheard other passengers discussing how they no longer visited Pasto during Carnival because they thought it no longer had the “spirit” of past years.
I´d like to say that we had a wonderful time at the Carnival, but, even after “fully-engaging” and going all out on foam and protective gear, it was inevitably not quite what we were expecting. However, it was still an experience! I can now say that I visited Pasto during the famed Feria de los blancos y negros.
(Pasto itself is a beautiful city!)
About our special correspondent and senior editor Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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41 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – The carnival of Pasto – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
I also agree that it is surprising how people are so aggressive in the streets with throwing foam in people’s faces, especially in children’s. I would be very caught off guard as well. But, it almost goes to show how different cultures can vary from each other. To most people of the city this is a normal festival, but from the outside perspective, it could be seen as silly and confusing. The festival teaches you a lesson about people and how everyone is so much different.
Thank you for your story! Did you end up trying the cuy? And what did it taste like? It is really interesting to me and also weirds me out how animals that we usually have as pets here in America, are sometimes delicacies in other countries and cultures. Also, the foam in the face does not sound like fun what so ever! It would be interesting to think about a celebration that is similar to to foaming people that we have here.
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Laura, thank you for sharing your story! I found it interesting that they eat Guinea pig and we consider those to be our pets. It’s cool to think about which countries eat what. We often find the foods other countries eat bizarre, but I’m sure they think the same about what we eat. When I think of carnivals I think of a fun experience. The carnival in Pasto sounds somewhat scary. It definitely seems like it wasn’t what you expected. I was very surprised that they foamed you in the van and took your friend out. Thanks again for sharing!
I have always hear of how wonderful and enjoyable and fun carnival celebrations are. I am sorry to hear your experience was not overly pleasant, but it is interesting to hear of someone having a negative experience. I would imagine that any time there are thousands of people going crazy and celebrating there would be those who would take it to far. Reading this made me think that those groups are probably at all or most carnivals and that sadly some people do wreck the celebration for others. Thank you for your story though!
Although I feel sad that you did not have the experience you expected, you have to admit that you have a wild story to share! Reading your article caught me by surprise that the festival was so aggressive. I would have felt just uncomfortable as you had if I were in your shoes. It’s surprising that grabbing someone, pulling their hair, and spraying foam at them, even when they say “no” is acceptable, even if it is during a festival. If that happened in the U.S., you would assume they would be arrested and it would be a much bigger issue. I guess the lesson I learned through your story is to always go into a new situation with your eyes open and be ready for anything, because it may not turn out the way you expected. Thanks for sharing!
What really stuck out to me was that your experience seemed somewhat violent. I suppose if you’re from that area it may just be tradition, but that seemed really over the top. Especially the part where 20 year old men were ganging up on kids and when your van was stopped. The Guinea pig part was interesting too, it’s funny to see the different entrees throughout the world.
Carnavales and holiday celebrations are very important to any culture because it allows individuals to celebrate who they are and remember where they come from. I think whenever entering a new culture it is important to research what these celebrations are and why they are practiced. It is only by researching ahead of time that you are able to develop an expectation of what happens in each celebration. When you experience the culture through immersion it may not go as expected but I think that we should always make the best of the experience because this practice is part of someone else’s culture.
What an interesting story! The situation about the foam does seem quite terrifying but I like how you still explored Pasto and experienced what else it had to offer. I loved the picture of the parade and researched more and they are really beautiful. I hope one day I can go and see for myself.
What a fun experience! I took Music of the Caribbean last fall and I loved learning about Carnival. Its a festival that is so much different than anything we have here in the Mid West. I would love to travel to Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago like I learned about in music class. I know in the Caribbean there are steel drums at celebrations, but what type of music did they play at the celebration in Columbia?
This is an interesting article. When I started to read it, I did not expect for the outcome to be that the celebration was not fun but I can see why it was not. It is good that you had the experience but some experiences are not something you want to do every year! It makes me think about my own traditions and what other people would think of them. Would they like them if they did not know all of the history behind them or is that what makes the traditions appealing to those who participate?
What an interesting article! I had never heard of such a carnival, but by the sounds of it, it sounds like an experience that you will never forget. I think it is important to remember that this is a cultural thing and it means a lot to the people who celebrate it. I like how, although you didn’t fully enjoy the Carnival, you still were able to explore the city of Pasto and all the things it had to offer. Did you try the cuy dish? I think it is interesting how that is a delicacy there, but is a common household pet in the United States. Thank you for sharing!
That actually sounds a little terrifying. It’s really cool that you tried to take part in the festivities since its not an opportunity many people would have, however I could see how the experience was unnerving. Growing up, I had similar experiences playing Holi. It’s interesting to me, though, because i thoroughly enjoy those celebrations. When you’re not used to it I’m sure it’s strange. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the sight seeing!
That’s so interesting! There are so many unique festivals and carnivals across the country, let alone the world! I know my family likes to attend the cranberry festival in southern Wisconsin and it’s so different from the Apple festival and many others! It’s fun to see how unique places make their celebrations.
That sounds kind of scary! I’m not sure how I would feel about that! It’s very admirable that you were able to take part in festivities because now you are able to tell friends that didn’t get to about those experiences.
The ways you have described the aggressiveness of the foam throwing makes me quite concerned. I have never been to a festival of that kind, nor have I been to one of the most known festival in the United States, Mardi Gras. I have seen the floats up close when I toured Mardi Gras World, but I do not believe it compares to the festival in Pasto. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I would love to travel to a place such as that and experience different celebration like you did, Laura.
That sounds like a memorable experience if nothing else! I imagine American carnivals with be tough to compare to and compete with that. So those actions are presumed “regular” for that particular event, it just seemed absurd to you because it was unexpected? It sounds eerily similar to some kind of amateur warfare, I can’t blame you for being a bit afraid! Would you do it again, just differently prepared?
The idea of Carnival in Pasto seems so enticing, it is a shame that the experience wasn’t more positive for you. I’m curious what happened to the tradition of light hearted fun turned into slight brutality by some groups. The idea of ripping people out of vans reminded me of something like the Purge. I just started a project on the Carnival in Rio and the original history started with throwing buckets of water on each other in the streets, how enjoyable is the use of foam as the “weapon” used in Pasto? The idea of a big foam fight sounds like so much to have at CSS, but without question some people can and will wreck the festivities by taking competition too far.
What an experience to be able to look back on! Even though it may be something you don’t want to relive, it was good you had the experience. I can see how that would be shocking to be a tourist visiting their Carnaval seeing how in the US we tend to shy away from that kind celebration. The cultural background behind this carnival seems quite extensive. You can tell that this tradition is something that holds a great deal of importance to the people. Just as traditions here in the US are important to us. Thank you for sharing and I hope you continue make lots of great memories.
Thanks for the story! Sorry to hear that you and your friends did not have fun at the carnival. It seems very unpleasant to have groups of strangers that are relentless at spraying foam in your face. Interesting point made about most of the restaurants serving cuy. At least you can say that you had a memorable (yet not so friendly) experience.
After reading about your experience, I can see the pros and cons of the Pasto Carnival. Was there any significance in spraying foam on people and why would they aim specifically at the face? For me personally, I would feel uncomfortable with strangers touching me and there should be a level of respect even if it is a festival. It makes me question as to what the original purpose behind the carnival was and how was it like in the past since you mentioned how “other passengers… no longer visited Pasto during Carnival because they thought it no longer had the “spirit” of past years”. But I think it is great that you had a great time and hopefully the beauty of the city made up for it!
What a cool experience! Here in America I could not imagine foam being thrown at one another during a carnival, especially with family. I would not enjoy strangers ganging up on me either, especially spraying me with foam.
I am glad your attitude about the trip is still good, even though part of it was unexpected. It is always interesting seeing how other countries do things. Great story!
That sounds like quite the experience. Did you try the cuy? As I read the caption of your picture I immediately felt bad for the guinea pigs, thinking that they shouldn’t be eaten but then that passed as it is a part of that culture. Our culture is very different, valuing guinea pigs as pets instead of food. I would be interested in hearing how it tasted and whether or not it was good or if you could get past your own cultural view of guinea pigs to be comfortable eating them.
Interesting to see how far and in different directions multiple people can take a festival. I’m curious as to whether or not the intended audience was children and their families in good natured fun. Perhaps the culture as a whole is a bit more competitive? To see such a variety of views on it definitely makes me wonder. But perhaps it is similar to the states and it’s just based on your age group more on how you view and participate in the events.
When looking at the title and just glancing at the pictures i thought that you and your friends were going to have a wonderful time, but after reading the article i can see that with an experience like that i wouldn’t have had a good time either. But just remember an experience is an experience for a reason even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. Would you ever do it again now that you know more about it? Great Article!
It really is a sad thing to see when a small group of people can ruin something so great for the majority of people. I went to carnival in Rio De Janeiro and was surprised at how well i was treated from beginning to end. And that was on a massive scale. It just really stinks when people take these festivals that are supposed to be about fun and letting loose, and make it about ruining other peoples fun.
What an interesting experience that sounds like Laura. It is hard to imagine a festival like that her in America because I feel as things are so regulated. Did you notice if police were around to contain any issues? Or was everything just viewed as a free for all because it was supposed to be “fun”? I would agree with you that I wouldn’t want to be in a situation like that. If you could change something about this experience, what would it be? Thanks for sharing your story!
I found this article very interesting due to the shocking change of direction it took! When reading the beginning of the article I was sure it was going to be a tale about how fascinating other cultures are and the great experience of partaking in their festivities. It appears I could not have been more wrong. Not only did you not enjoy this carnival, but I have a hard time seeing how these types of activities are enjoyable to anyone. Prior to this article I had very little knowledge of what a carnival was like, all I had ever heard was about the carnival in Brazil and how enjoyable that experience is. Your writing was a real eye opener and I suppose I will no longer make the assumption that all carnivals seem incredibly fun.
I thought that this article was very interesting especially the experience itself. Its astonishing that such a small group is able to accomplish something at such a large scale. I found it weird that eating guinea pigs was a thing, that seems gross. This seemed like an interesting experience, one that I personally would not want to be apart of. It seemed to not be the Minnesota nice experience we are all use to.
What an incredibly unique experience! I have to say that I probably would have had the same reaction as you. I was surprised with how aggressive you described the people that were spraying the foam at peoples’ faces. It does not sound like it would be fun for anyone on the end that was receiving the spraying. I am pleased that you gave it a shot and tried to understand what it was all about. I can’t help but wonder what this carnival was like years before… Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for sharing your experience with the Carnival of Pasto. I have always loved the idea of carnivals and holiday celebrations, as they are deeply rooted in culture and history; they allow people to celebrate and give thanks to who they are and where they come from. It was surprising to hear about the violence you experienced, I’m sure that’s the last thing you expected. But large crowds can draw in trouble; I have seen and heard about similar experiences at the annual Notting Hill Carnival in London. I’m glad you made the most out of your experience and that you got to explore Pasta and experience more of its culture.
The Carnival sounds and looks (from our photo) like it would be quite beautiful as you mentioned! I am sorry you did not have as good of a time as you expected. It seems to me there is always at least one person (or group of people) who ruin it for everyone. I wonder if the popular spread of more aggressive behavior involving the foam among the younger-adult group is a generational thing or if it has occurred often throughout the history of the Carnival.
What an experience to be a part of! I’m sorry to hear that it was not as fun as you expected it to be. From the pictures of the foam and the float, I bet it just gets crazy there. With that being said, it’s sad to see that people can take things too far, and ruin a fun experience. I also find it odd that our pets in America can be other countries snack. I cannot imagine eating a guinea pig.
Thank you for sharing your experience! How lucky you were to be able to experience Carnival. I have always wanted to experience Carnival and be able to see the beautiful parades and all of the beautifully dressed people. I had a foreign exchange student from Sao Paulo that always talked about Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro. It is celebrated so many different areas and I think it would be interesting to be able to contrast your experience with a celebration in a different city/country.
What an interesting experience that took place. I certainly thought that it was going to turn out better and i am sorry it was not fun and as exciting as it should have been! It seems like whenever there are large events going on there will always be that 1 group of people (usually kids) that will ruin it for the rest of us. I know i have had incidents even at our own state fair in which groups of teens made it less then appealing. I am glad you were at least able to experience it, however.
This was a very interesting story! I find it interesting that people in the streets are so violent! I also find it interesting that they eat guinea pig, where here we consider them as pets! Thanks for sharing your story!
I love the idea of festivals, especially the color festival in India and the pride festivals in June. Celebrations of culture like this just give me really good feelings about the human species. But like those passengers said, these people have obviously lost the spirit of the holiday, and that makes me very sad. It should be a day a child looks forward to with the kind of excitement that makes them unable to sleep the night before and these guys are ruining that for them. Hopefully elsewhere these great celebrations remain uncorrupted. Thanks for sharing your experience!
That’s interesting you mention your mistake regarding Carnival. I was also under the wrong impression as I thought it only occurred in one country. I would imagine that celebrations differ from country to country. How would local foods and traditions make Carnival celebrations different based on location? How has Carnival evolved over time?
Very interesting story. It’s funny how certain things can sound so exciting until they actually take place. I guess the only thing even close to that I’ve experienced is concerts. For example, you expect a concert to be fun and be able to dance and enjoy the music. However, sometimes the people around you don’t seem to be having fun for some reason! Its a different idea but some what similar in a way.
I wonder where the practice of spraying foam in people’s faces came from. I also am curious as to why this particular Carnival was such an aggressive event? I’m sure I would have been very uncomfortable as I don’t like physical contact with strangers. I will say though, that this story is definitely a wild “party” story that is sure to impress.