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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