19 February 2009

Uruguay 2009, part 4: Carnival in Montevideo

Disponible en español: El Carnaval de Montevideo

Palacio Salvo (by pablodf)
Palacio Salvo
Our first day in Montevideo was better than expected, without taking into account the easy and safe arrival, the cleanliness and everything else. It was the first day of February and, contrary to our fears, the weather was ideal. A nap was required, yes, but after that we were able to go out to the sunny afternoon and wander around the Old Town, here and there taking pictures of the typical icons: the Artigas mausoleum, the Palacio Salvo, the architecture surrounding the main square.

The really good stuff, however, was a change of schedule due to a rain we didn't witness. As it turned out, the opening ceremony of the 2009 Carnival season had been put off because of bad weather a few days ago, so that day we'd have the chance to see it. The hostel staff proposed that we go together, at 5:30 PM, and get a good place somewhere along Avenida 18 de Julio, which was already closed to traffic and where you could see long rows of wooden chairs and palcos that looked like gigantic baby playpens (all of which could be rented at reasonable prices).

Marisa and I followed the group but then, deciding we'd found a good spot already, we left them. We stayed at the corner of 18 de Julio and Rio Branco St. (I remember that detail not because I'm some sort of memory freak but because we stood there beside the sign with the street name for two hours).

Carnaval de Montevideo 5 (by pablodf) Carnaval de Montevideo 3 (by pablodf)
Carnaval de Montevideo 2 (by pablodf)

It's unusual, as I understand, for the first Carnival parade to start during the daytime. That also was good for us. First, of course, we had to wait for the police and the organizers to free up the avenue, for the comparsas and the murgas to line up correctly, for the peddlers of canned foam and cotton candy and confetti to leave (they never left completely). After that there came a couple of buses rolling side-to-side to make room, and then they began coming, one, two, ten, fifty carnival groups, each with their own outfits or banners, on foot or atop carriages with varied ornamentation, dancing or singing or doing choral parody.

Carnaval de Montevideo 4 (by pablodf)

Carnaval de Montevideo 1 (by pablodf)
I've never been too fond of Brazilian-style carnival or the modest copy of it that is en vogue in several parts of Argentina, with gigantic carrozas and a predominance busty women covered in artificial feathers. I acknowledge their effort but I'm not interested in it, except technically. The Montevidean carnival is different, since in Uruguay murga and parody troupes, which represent the true spirit of carnival (transgression, role inversion) are featured more prominently. You also get to more of, let's say, real people. I saw almost nothing of sweaty, muscled male dancers or hot brunettes displaying their natural gifts for the public; there were "queens" waving from their vehicles, but most of the participants were just people, young and old, fat ladies, middle-aged gentlemen singing, guys dressed as ladies, everyone with their own colours, with elaborate costumes, lots of face-painting, whirls of brilliance and sequins, and always a smile for the kids that clapped on the sides. This carnival had more mocking and parody, and yet more innocence, than what you see in the corsódromos.

If we had arrived one day later, we would've missed it. If we had come to see it on the scheduled date, days before, we would've missed it as well.

One after another came cabezudos, cumbia singers with flamboyant hairdos, a huge flag of Peñarol and a huge Argentine flag, a group of guys clad in gold with boxes, bottles, cages, umbrellas and a whole assembly of props on top of them; a smiling bishop, a king of spades, groups marching at the rhythm of a batucada, a parody of firemen on a mini-firetruck that sprayed Seltz water over us, ladies with curlers... Two hours went by, and necks were already hurting from looking west, and faces burned from receiving the sun on the same side all the time.

It was dusk. With the last lights we went walking, going up the river of colours towards its source and beyond, after the Citadel's Gate, where we found thousands of people, hundreds of troupes waiting for their turn to join the parade. The printed schedule of the carnaval listed (if I recall correctly) some 250 groups; we'd only watched about fifty. So we only saw one-fifth of the first day of the 2009 Carnival of Montevideo. That was enough to call it a day. We left to find something to eat, and then to rest.

To be continued...


  1. Anonymous20:17

    I am totally impressed by your English. Are you a translator?

  2. Thanks. No, I'm not a translator. I just like to practise it whenever I can.


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