Friday, February 24, 2012


It was approaching 3am, and everyone had repaired to the Tardis-shaped Doctor Who* bar, lured by the dual creature comforts of heating and flushing toilets. But somewhere underneath his fluorescent wig, Tomáwas getting maudlin. One of his friends had failed to show up this evening; another had elected - inexplicably - to spend the Carnaval weekend skiing in the Sierra.

"It used to be the three of us who had never missed a Carnaval," he confided, "and now it looks like I'm the only one."

I stifled a grin.  Tomás is short and barrel-chested, with exaggerated, dwarfish features and an uncanny ability to drink litres of rum while remaining standing. He is hard enough to take seriously at the best of times; when he is decked out as a sort of wigged Superman, the task becomes nearly impossible. Then again, it was Carnaval, people had been drinking since afternoon, and the poor man was feeling his age. Carnaval does that to the best of us.

I have seen pictures of various Carnival(e) celebrations around the world, but none of them are adequate preparation for Carnaval - mind the spelling - as practiced in Badajoz, which is to say, as God surely intended. Badajoz goes Carnaval-crazy. Something like 80,000 people turn out to the Old Quarter on the Saturday of Carnaval; when you factor in the rest of the festivities,  you realise that nobody in Badajoz is doing much else for at least five days of February. In fact, there are people here whose whole lives revolve around Carnaval, much as there are people in the Anglosphere who can never quite seem to shake off Christmas.

A quick dash to the shops.
These people - Carnaval Types - are most likely to be found in the murgas, in which troupes of grown men (they are nearly always men, although this is apparently not a legal requirement) dress up and perform a sort of musical sketch show. There is a formal competition, with ticketed entry, and then, throughout the week, there are impromptu murga performances in unlikely venues, such as our local Aldi. This imbues the business days during Carnaval with a surreal quality.

To an outsider, the murgas seem like a bit of a lark, but in fact, as locals will be happy to explain, they are serious business. The participants write their own witty lyrics and choreograph their own dances. They practice for most of the year, starting the preceding summer. The costumes are deeply elaborate; my favourite this year was sponsored by Badajoz's La Cubana bakery, and featured a range of the sticky, old-fashioned treats for which the bakery is justly famous. (Have you ever seen a man dressed as a bollo de leche? Then, my friend, you have not lived.) There is a cash prize for the best murga. And of course, there are murga politics, in which accusations are made of nepotism and corruption. (Spain is quite a transparent country these days, but many of its citizens remain deeply suspicious that the system is stacked somehow against them, probably by someone whose son knows the mayor.) It's all pretty diverting.

After everyone has argued about the murgas comes the real business of Carnaval: the party. Southern Spaniards, blessed with a warm, dry climate and indefatigable constitutions, have the practice of drinking in the street down to a fine art, with its own name: botellón. Normally, during the year, botellón is the province of teenagers, university students, and deranged alcoholics, who gather happily together in the parks after dark every Friday and Saturday night and see if they can't generate some noise complaints. During Carnaval, though, botellón goes mainstream. The supermarkets sell pre-made botellón packs, in approved botellón ratios: one bottle of spirits to one two-litre bottle of soft drink. And perfectly respectable people, who mind you can afford to drink in a bar, nevertheless find it rational to spend the hours between, say, 10pm and 2am drinking in the streets. In February, when temperatures often drop well below zero. I'm telling you, they breed 'em tough in Spain.

Oh, and did I mention? They all do this while dressed in costumes. Because why would you wear a coat and gloves when you can wear a thin layer of lycra instead? 

Then comes the parade on Carnaval Sunday, which starts at 3pm, a time which strikes most locals as unbearably early. (When are we supposed to rest?) Perhaps because of the uncivilised starting time, the parade is widely derided by childless locals, but that doesn't seem to stop people from moseying on down, post-siesta, and joining the fun. There are serious floats in the parade, and of course parade politics, but the real fun is to be had at the tail end, which is largely composed of groups who had decided to participate at 6am that morning, and who, dressed in costume and toting recovery beers, seem decidedly worse for wear.
But for all the politics and high drama, and that strange feeling that five days off work has left you worse off than when you started,the most important feature of Carnaval, is that it's fun. There's something really nice about seeing gainfully employed people put on a Superman costume, grab a bottle of rum, and kick up their heels. It's a feeling of release that only a five-day weekend can really bring, and if that's how Spaniards want to celebrate the onset of Lent, I say let'em. Just don't mind me if I slip out early. My rum-drinking days are behind me, and I have no Carnaval attendance record to maintain. Thank goodness for that. 
Taking a well-deserved rest on Day 5.

*pronounced Doctor Whoa

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