Monday, February 25, 2008

Carnaval Y Candombe...

For many Uruguayos, the highlight of carnival season are the Llamadas--the seemingly infinite parades of candombe groups, flag wavers, floats, dancers and traditional characters that each represent their own barrios in a comptetion to see who is the best. Last year we caught a glimpse from curbside, fighting through the crowds...

This year, we were invited to one of the exclusive roof top parties where a premium view comes with drinks and food. Our host was Luis, a friend and owner of Montevideo's newest and best hostel, the Palermo Art Hostel. Javier came along and we arrived to find a group of excited locals, tourists, and and friends waiting to make the short walk through the Palermo neighborhood to the party...Outside the hostel, I met Raul, Luis' friend and professional photographer. Uruguayos are always eager to share their mate...
An hour before sundown, a lost drummer hustled down the street looking for his troupe...
Moments later, everyone walked to the venue, entered someone's house, climbed their stairs, then a ladder through a crawlspace entrance to the roof, and we found ourselves at a fully catered fiesta...
Besides all of the wine, beer, and liquor you could want, delicacies like foie gras with fresh bread were served...
Meats, cheeses, pastas and salads were regularly replentished by the wait staff...

And, of course, the asador kept barbecue beef coming all night. This man was such a master with meat, that I unknowingly enjoyed numerous tidbits of intestine, thymus glands, and kidney, having mistaken it for sausage and steak....Mmmmmm...
Meanwhile, this was the point of the party: to have a perfect view of the oncoming parade...


The "mani" man, selling his sugar coated peanuts made rounds between groups, while kids danced around and sprayed unknown foamy stuff from aerosol cans at any parade participant. It's quite the tradition for kids to kick, smack, slap or spray people--especially the floats, flag carriers or anyone in costume--that are performing in the parade...

Floats came early, but most of the parade were competitive candombe groups lead by their flag bearers and dancers...
Javier and Nico, the son of Ramon, owner of the El Fortin Hotel that we visited a week earlier. Montevideo truly is a town that looks like a city--everywhere you go, you see people you know. Even, if you are a couple gringos that have only lived here a year...

The feathered and sequined dancers, the baton twirler, the old man and woman, all lead the drummers...












More friends we barely know appear at the party. There names are forgotten, but we had dinner with them half a year ago in Punta del Diablo with Brian and Heidi. After this picture, without warning, the skies openend up and unleashed a torrential tropical downpour...


But soon the rain stopped, and the party did not. And neither did the parade...
Enjoy the parade...
video

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cómo Se Dice "Groundhog"?

Apparently, the word doesn't exist in Spanish...
February 2 is one of Leandra's favorite holidays. It's Groundhog Day in the USA. Around America, on this special occasion rodents called Marmota monax,--also known as woodchucks, whistlepigs, and land beavers-- are unsuspectingly ripped from their dens, snatched by zookeepers and snuggled by town mayors in an ill-conceived effort to predict the coming of spring or continuance of winter based on the appearance or absence of the varmint's shadow...

I still can't figure out what it would mean for those of us in the southern hemisphere...

This year in Uruguay, Groundhog's Day was going to be extra special. By some cosmic coincidence, this is also the day that pagan Uruguayans gather at the beach to worship Iemanja--the goddess of the sea. On top of that, soccer rivals Nacional and Peñarol were scheduled to play the first "classic" of the season, "El Classico", which means Centenario Stadium brimming with chanting, flag waving, flare burning fans...

This Saturday started normally enough: breakfast, work, lunch, checking some emails. Around seven we started the long slow walk down the Rambla to Playa Ramirez, in front of Parque Rodo, the most popular place for the Iemanja festivities. Along the way, we passed the Holocaust Monument--the only one in all of Latin America. While not large, Montevideo has a visible Jewish population whose history dates back as far as 1770, with gradually bigger immigration movements occurring in the 1880's, 1920's and post-World War II era. In December, a large menorah was one of many holiday decorations in Punta Trouville park near Playa Pocitos...

The monument itself is a 120 meter wall set along the water that symbolizes Jewish history before and after the war. Two plaques of dedication mark the exit...

Walking backward in time, the wall represents the post-war return to peace, before coming to plaques that describe the horrible outcomes of the holocaust. A small bridge crosses a chasm...
This chaotic gap represents the period of Nazi atrocities that threw Jews into a world of fear, confusion, and suffering. Prior, is the long slow descent toward World War II while the wall still represented order and peace...
The monument's entrance is marked with a simple slab describing its purpose. Between this sign and the esplanade walkway of the Rambla, one hundred feet of green grass hide railroad track that represent the trains that lead to the concentration camps, and now lead people to the memory lane of the monument...

It was a beautiful day. The sun glinted off the wind blown river and shone through a warm breeze. As we continued on, we came to our first set of Iemanja worshippers. Apparently, long white flowing robes, gowns, blouses and pants, along with turban like head wraps are the proper dress, along with combinations of blues and seashell jewelry...

Our first encounter was with two dozen people standing on a cement dock where the waves meet rock. With eyes squinting, hands open and out in a "thank you" posture, they stood there happily soaking up the spray with their clothes, and letting waves rush through their shoes...
Soon, they began returning to shore with empty baskets of spent offerings. Apparently, prolonged sea goddess worship might lead to hypothermia or influenza...
Iemanja--whose name is spelled and pronounced many different ways--is the sea goddess from the Yoruba religion, a West African religion brought over with slaves to the New World. Typically, she is a beautiful woman rising from the sea, protecting sailors and shipwreck survivors, and bringing all of the seas benefits and bounty to mankind...
This small group appeared quite serious, as they were observing their beliefs privately, enjoying the solitude far from the main celebration further down the shore. Afterwards, the high priest looked ready to go worship the god of warm showers...

Meanwhile, at the beach named Playa Ramirez, the crowds were thickening, stalls were set up to sell the numerous offerings that Iemanja appreciates, while music, dancing, sand sculpting and candle burning were happening everywhere. A small boy in the corner of the bay, worked hard, repeatedly, to push his styrofoam boat and it's cargo of offerings out to sea, but a steady onshore wind prove stronger than his desire to please Iemanja...

A statue of the goddess was surrounded by worshipers, who took turns thanking her and giving her gifts of white and blue things--mostly flowers, fruits, candles, perfume and any objects to appease female vanity like combs, mirrors, soaps and beauty products...
Although it was a mild night, only in the mid 70's and breezy, several normally cold-a-phobic Uruguayos were shoulder deep in the wind driven surf...
While others crowded the beach which already had a thick line of white and blue styrofoam flotsam as all of the attempted offerings were quickly deposited back on shore. "Iemanja is angry with us!", "No! She is happy with us and has returned our gifts in gratitude!", "Yes! She loves us, so we must show our appreciation by drinking the river water!", "No! We have insulted her with our small offerings--we must give more watermelon, candles and shampoo!"...
One simple tradition is lighting candles--but with such a steady breeze, a solid protective shelter must first be built...

Iemanja effigies were everywhere as everyone had their own interpretation of her indescribable beauty. As we walked along the beach, it was like a make shift contest of sand sculpture to see who could build a better shrine to worship from. And, people continued to walk out into the waves in a stupor of gratefulness...
Many of the would-be boats to deliver ocean going offerings were quickly dismantled and turned into decoration...
Young generations of water worshipers were quick to learn the ancient ways of yesteryear, and carry on the tradition...
Flower vendors and candle makers compared theories on Iemanja's powers while a rather large worshiper, with rather large pantaloons, with a rather large boat, seemed rather lost, his expression seeming to say, "Can anyone point me to the Iemanja asado?"...
Meanwhile, candombe drummers disguised as Yoruba followers sang and played on the beach wall over a group of dedicated dancers who spun around their offering covered altar--when they weren't busy handing out blue and white cups of who-knows-what to the onlookers...

As Iemanja oversaw the proceedings, the ceremonies started. Multiple high priests had scratched out plots in the sand where they could offer blessings to people low on sea goddess power. Some groups would be forming great circles of worship around their Iemanja sand castle, sending one member at a time around the circle in a semi-possessed trance. A lot of hand shaking, hip twisting, spinning, and a dizzying amount of neck rolling is involved. Other groups simply became infatuated with improving their Iemanja monuments with more and more soap bar decorations or watermelon or candles or designs drawn with hair conditioner...


Eventually, the sun began to set, making the scene even more weird and wonderful. The events would go on--like all Uruguayan celebrations--well past midnight, and likely until dawn...
And, although we needed to leave for the soccer game, it was fun to be part of the Iemanja festival, and imagine the candle lit boats trying to make their way on the river at night. Of course, tomorrow, the beaches would be covered in all the garbage as it invariably washes ashore...Oh well! Hooray for Iemanja, the sea goddess!

We got to the game just before kickoff...
Flares were already raging in both endzone sections, where the rowdiest of the crowds chant and drum throughout the game...
Despite this exuberant pre-game display by the black and yellow supporters of Peñarol, Nacional won this time. But the teams would play again--oddly enough--in a week. And, Peñarol would have seven new players, purchased from other countries, to bring back the former glory of the Carboñeros...

After the game, Leandra and I had a late Groundhog Day dinner at Tranquilo Bar--well, "late" if you're a gringo, "early" if you are Uruguayo--of sorentinos, ravioles, and a bottle of wine. Again, like Christmas and New Years, this holiday, this Groundhog's Day, filled with more combined culture and tradition than you can possibly muster back in the US, will always be one of the most unique memories we take with us...