“Are you getting ready for something?”
“Yes, the desfile inaugural de Carnaval tomorrow at 8:20 p.m.”
“Carnival? But, but it’s…”
Oh, never mind. I’m not going to be this pesky, by-the-book foreigner who feels the need to remind locals that Carnaval doesn’t start on January 24. In fact, Carnival, the summer party that rocks Brazil and the South America as a whole, is very late this year—March 1 to March 9.
But Montevideo has the world’s longest Carnival, starting in January through early March. So basically, performers—given the size of Uruguay, I’m willing to bet that almost every resident participated once to some extent—spend two months of their life parading through the streets and the rest of year rehearsing.
Carnival is a serious affair in Latin America.
Traveller’s luck, I had no idea Montevideo would be partying on a random Thursday night in January.
At 8:30 p.m., más o menos—okay, at 9:15 p.m.—I walked down the main avenue, 18 de Julio, toward Plaza Independencia.
Attending a carnival parade require considerable patience—the show doesn’t happen in front of you, it’s coming to you. Parade routes can be long, so you may have to wait for an hour or more to start seeing the first performers, depending on where you’re standing.
Uruguayans are patient people, although I’m guessing that drinking copious amounts of mate and smoking joints while waiting—weed is legal in Uruguay—works wonder for patience, but maybe not focus.
Suddenly, joints stopped being smoked and mate gourds were put aside. The sound of drums became closer and louder.
Much like in Brazil, there was a succession of drummers and dancers dressed as archetypal characters—Mama Vieja (old mother), Gramillero (medicine man), Escobero (acrobat), etc.—lead by a banner carrier.
Uruguay had interesting twists, with people throwing water, food and papelitos and there seemed to be a tradition with flags. Men, children and women were carrying giant colourful flags on long poles—they must weigh a ton!—and waving them as close as they could to the crowd until we could all touch the fabric. Every time a trick was performed—twirling the flag, running with it, etc.—the crowd cheered.
There was also a lot of Candombe, quintessential Uruguayan music traditionally performed by Afro-Uruguayans, an interesting groovy rhythm.
I watched the parade for a couple of hours, then I walked up the avenue, where it ended. It was like being backstage. I watched all the dancers, drummers and banner carriers, looking both relieved and exhausted, meeting their family and friends and chugging down litres of water.
The air was buzzing with energy coming from the crowd and the performers.
Then I walked back to the hotel because I’m guessing the party was going to last until sunrise.