Shake Your Booty & Cover Your Ears: Carnival Parades in Curacao
A couple of things are certainties at Curacao’s Carnival parades. First, you will wait way longer for them to commence with the activities than you had anticipated and second, when they do get around to the parade to-do the initial order of business is to dispense earplugs along the length of the route.
So it went at the Children’s Carnival Parade one Sunday afternoon. It was an event requiring patience waiting in the scorching sun while being pressed up against a metal retaining rail as latecomers crowded in. We rationed our water from newly purchased and sweating bottles (because, after all, neither of us wanted to lose our places while searching for a porta-potty.) After a truncated eternity the street began to clear and there appeared, in dazzling canary yellow uniforms with the requisite short skirts, the Insel Air girls with their smiles and ear plugs for the masses. All the schools, youth organizations and numerous companies, it seemed, had a presence at the children’s parade. And the theme of the parade was geared to the age; cartoon characters from past and present, including many that we recognized and remembered well. Passing before us were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Flintstones, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other, new characters that were completely unknown.
We discovered quickly enough the reason for the ear plugs. Even before the first child was in sight we noted that spaced generously throughout the parade were large mobile sound systems. Multi-tiered, ginormous woofers, tweeters, mid-ranges and bass blasted out live performances of Tumba, Curacao’s unique music, and Calypso or D.J. inspired audio mayhem of rhythm based “shake that thang baby” music. But whether live or Memorex the volume was deafening. Shouting to each other was impossible. We could feel the vibration deep in our ribs and sternum from the bass rattling your bones, maximum decibel, blaring volume.
Curacao has its own unique twist on the pre-Lenten celebrations that originated with the plantation owners and wealthy merchants who threw extravagant and stately balls complete with masks and wigs reflecting the heritage of their homelands. The slaves mimicked the upper crust behavior in their own homes with their songs, folklore and customs. After the abolition of slavery, with the enhanced freedom of expression and the rise of a freer, urban working class, the celebrations grew more elaborate and moved from the homes to the streets. Here developed the tradition of today’s Carnival with beauty pageants, Tumba dance competitions, street parties (the jump-ups), private in-door affairs (the jump-ins) and parades that encompassed all the island.
Having enjoyed ourselves with the children’s parade we ventured to the Banda Bou Parade in the town of Barber the following Saturday. We were instructed to get there a couple of hours early as it was heavily attended since the Carnival frenzy continued to build as the countdown to sobriety and atonement, Ash Wednesday, was nearing. We arrived at our destination and drove the parade route from the end point towards the beginning and were politely, but emphatically, advised with head shakes that various parking spots we eyeballed were reserved as evidenced by a chalk mark, a cinder block or a folding chair. Near the front of the route we found a spot on the side of the road. It was 1:00 PM; the parade, we’d been informed, started around 3:00 PM. And so we sat and watched traffic ebb and flow, watched the Harley scooter contingent rumble through for a few passes, watched the vendors come and go, watched families with excited children, watched the sun cross a cloudless sky, watched the plates of food and Amstel beer and the locally distilled rum concoctions disappear.
Sometime near 4:30, the police finally halted traffic and we waited with sorely tested anticipation. And then, the vivid canary yellow uniforms of the Insel Air beauties were among us again distributing foam hearing protectors with dazzling white-toothed smiles. Shortly afterwards the parade was underway this time with children, teens and adults. The bands and Tumba dancers, all elaborately costumed, strutted, shimmied and shook as they passed. Behemoth sound trucks, enough to justify the ear plugs, floats and cars with dignitaries and well-wishers rolled past us. And when it was done, we were among the first to lead the trek back down the island in the direction of Willemstad, deafened and carrying on a conversation at much louder levels than usual, happy that we had endured the wait and experienced another Carnival parade.
The next day, Sunday was the finale, the Grandi Marcha Parade, a wild, riotous event for the adults celebrating what we were told was the island’s version of the New Orlean’s Mardi Gras festival that would eclipse all the previous parades. Beginning in the late afternoon and extending well into the night it’s the city’s big blow out with the dancing, drinking and raucous partying so excessive that the day after is a national holiday, a day of recovery if you will.
By Richard and Anita