Carnival starts in just a few days in Panama. It’s true, the actual date of Carnival isn’t until Saturday the 25th but, at least in our village in the mid-1990s, Carnival lasted the better part of a week. We learned to never plan to get anything done in the days before or after Carnival. After all, people had to spend the days before Carnival practicing getting drunk. The day of Carnival was spent being drunk, and the days after were spent recovering from having been drunk.
In the lead-up to Carnival, the women would make vast quantities of tamales (polenta-like corn mash filled with meat and vegetables, wrapped in leaves and boiled) to sell to all the young people who would come home from their jobs in the city for the celebration. The making of tamales was a group activity done only by the women, and the rules of behaviour were…relaxed. It was Carnival, after all! I seldom saw the women of our village drink, but the lemonade we drank while making tamales was spiked with seco.
But Carnival was about more than drinking. It also included dancing, and getting wet. In Penonome, the Carnival parade was made of elaborate rafts that floated down the river. The local fire tanker crawled through the crowded streets, turning the fire hose on the crowd as it chanted “Water! Water!”. The unspoken rule was that men could splash water on women, and vice versa–you’d walk down the street and have cups of water thrown at your face by laughing men.
In our village, there was always a parade. Not on water, but up to the community building–a large open-air pavilion–where a band would play until late into the night. Our neighbours also usually had a dance, just for a few local families. No one in our village had money for a proper traditional pollera, but a long full skirt and a t-shirt was good enough for the local party. Kids and adult alike danced through the night, and the next morning was very quiet…