After my adventures this past weekend, I realized how much the word “carnival” is actually tossed around without any sort of real meaning. Whether it was for better or for worse (though I’m leaning toward better), I think I have finally discovered the true meaning of this term. The Cadiz carnival in the south of Spain is one of the largest and most extravagant in the world. Though people rehearse, prepare, and look forward to it throughout the entire year, the full-blown “carnaval” usually takes place for about two weeks before Lent.
Traditionally, carnival time was a time to celebrate and, for lack of a better term, to go crazy before Ash Wednesday put an end to all the fun. In other words, during the carnival, the mentality is that anything goes, everything “es normal” (is normal), as the Spanish say. You could dance, sing, scream, smoke, drink, and even hook-up without anyone thinking anything of it, because for the forty days following, these things are unheard of. In fact, in Salamanca, there was a tradition in which all the prostitutes living in the city would be expelled and taken to the other side of the river until these forty days were up! As my trip to Cadiz was the weekend following Ash Wednesday (within the forty days), I expected for the carnival to have somewhat faded out. You would not believe how wrong I was.
My adventure began last Friday on an excursion bus from Madrid to Cadiz. I went with nine other girlfriends who, like me, had no idea what exactly we were getting into. To begin with, the two “Eurovibe” buses taking us there and back were made up of young people from all over the world, from the U.S. to Europe. I guess I wasn’t overly shocked to find that people began drinking from the minute they found their bus seat, as this was, in fact, part of “their carnival experience”. Thankfully I slept most of the way down, which in retrospect was a great thing as I would definitely need the energy that night.
Once we arrived to what I thought would be Cadiz, we realized that actually, the hotel we were staying at was in a city about an hour from Cadiz, and that as a matter of fact, we would not even be going to Cadiz until the next day! That night, the entire Eurovibe group was taken to a club at the hotel. Though most people did not seem to mind too much, my friend Natalia and I felt that we might be missing out of what we really came for. Thus, after precisely five minutes in the club, we walked back toward the hotel to find out if there were buses heading to Cadiz.
What we came to find at the front of our hotel was a bouncy, friendly, and slightly tipsy group of Spanish people waiting for a local bus, which they confirmed was one going to a different city called Chiclana, from which they would take another bus to Cadiz. As we spotted the bus that they had eagerly been anticipating pull up, we asked when the next one would come (to see if we could convince the rest of our gang to come along), but as it turns out, this was in fact the last bus of the night! So we were faced with a dilemma that we instantaneously solved, as we knew it would be our only chance to have the real Cadiz experience as we had imagined it.
The bus ride there was interesting to say the least: people drinking out of huge soda bottles (“botellón”), smoking all sorts of things (yes, IN the bus…), singing, dancing, kissing, swinging from the rails, and all of this IN COSTUME! It was quite the sight, and I could not get over the feeling of being in a surreal world. Upon arriving to Cadiz on the second bus with the same group of Spanish acquaintances, Natalia and I agreed that it would be just as simple to return to the hotel after the carnival since it’d been a piece of cake to get there. So, we headed into the center of town and the center of the carnival without a worry in mind.
We explored the maze that is Cadiz (tall walls dividing one small street from another) for the rest of the night. The amount of people out in the streets at all hours of the night was unbelievable, and at times, overwhelming. People of all ages, ethnicities, religions, sizes, and in incredibly creative and original costumes were celebrating like there was no tomorrow. This ecstatic and joyous atmosphere both in the “carpa” (tent), which is where the main party was, and outside, was contagious— it made you feel alive. So alive, in fact, that Natalia and I did not get back to our hotel until 8 in the morning the next day (for breakfast, of course!)
*Side note and confession: The truth is that it was not as easy to get back on random buses as we imagined without knowing destinations, stops, or schedules (especially without a Spanish crowd to follow, and without knowing the name of the city our hotel was in or even of the hotel for that matter—but our adventure back is a story for another time).
Needless to say, the next day (or rather, later that Saturday), we went for ROUND TWO, but this time like normal people on a programmed excursion (on the Eurovibe bus there and back). My nine girlfriends and I retraced some of the same steps from the night before, but with each step seeing and experiencing something new, as no day in the Cadiz carnival is quite the same. People have a whole new set of costumes, the “chirigotas” (witty and satiric choirs) sing a whole new set of songs, and the city itself is transformed from one day to the next although the essence of the carnival remains.
After looking over my reflections on this weekend’s experience, I’ve found that it is impossible to put what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt into words; there’s just no way to recreate or compile the experience in a few paragraphs. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the Cadiz carnival is not a place, an idea, or even a thing. It’s an experience. An experience that I would recommend to anyone that wants to really feel alive and let go for once (especially if they take Lenten time to heart!)