November 2009 Fiesta Time in Cartagena
November is fiesta time in Cartagena.
There are so many holidays around that time that they blend together,
but they all center around November 11, the Día de Independencia,
which is the day Cartagena declared its independence from Spain
in 1811. Basically, the week in which that date falls is a party.
School is dismissed; businesses may or may not be open; workers
may or may not show up. Ask anyone that week if they are working,
and the answer may be either "¡Claro que sí! ¿Cómo no?" (Of
course; why not?) or "¡Claro que no!" (Of course not!) We
think it depends on how much they need the money.
In this land of beautiful women, it makes sense that the Independence
Day festivities should revolve around beauty pageants. For 75 years,
the Miss Colombia pageant has been held here in Cartagena around
November 11. Each Department sends its Reina (they're not princesses
- each is a queen!), plus one each from Cartagena and Bogotá, for
a total of 24. The winner, Miss Colombia, represents the nation
in the Miss Universe competition. Colombia is serious about this
competition - many pages of newsprint and hours of radio and TV
time are devoted to the candidates. During the 2 weeks leading up
to the final selection, the Reinas are in Cartagena, doing "good
works" during the day, visiting schools, orphanages, etc., and going
to official functions, with various competitions in the evenings.
These evening do's are expensive: the bathing suit competition was
$80/person and the final pageant cost $150 a head. The Miss Colombia
pageant is more or less the exclusive preserve of the country's
social elite. Originally, all the reinas were sponsored by local
social clubs, and most of those clubs are essentially country clubs,
to which the poor (or even
middle class) need not apply. So, naturally,the poorer but
proud Cartagena locals decided to establish a separate series
of events, centered around, of course, a beauty pageant for
the Queen of Independence.
This pageant features local women who represent their barrios
(neighborhoods) in Cartagena and its surroundings. In typical
florid Latin American style, the organizing committee justifies
the fiesta/beauty pageant by stating "The Pageant of the Queen
of Independence is conceived
as an activity that not only exalts the beauty of Cartagena
women, but as an instrument with which these women can exercise
leadership in the community to enjoy the festivities." We
didn't see much of the leadership exercising, but we did exalt
their beauty, which their skimpy outfits displayed admirably.
|No matter the official rhetoric, it's just another
excuse to party, party, party! The local beauty queens are far
more natural and diverse than the Miss Colombia candidates,
|enthusiastic support from their friends
and neighbors during many readily accessible pageants and parades.Many
community organizations,youth groups, schools and universities,
dance troupes, etc. take part in the parades, usually wearing
traditional clothing and dancing to traditional music. It's
The parades essentially shut down the city. Often, the spectators
show up hours ahead of time, some wearing costumes or makeup or,
for some reason, big afro wigs - That's got to be really hot in
the 90-degree weather! In the streets, along with spectators, are
young men, semi-naked and smeared with dirty motor oil, asking for
coins or they threaten to smear you with their oil.
We carried lots of coins - pennies would suffice, as long
as you gave something - and they really weren't serious about
the threat, anyway. Other spectators carried spray cans of
mild soapy foam, and we were liberally sprayed. Considering
the sweltering heat, this was actually pretty welcome, but
the foam serves as an excellent cover for pickpockets, who
spray it in your eyes and when you try to clear your vision,
nab your money. We didn't bring much money, but Andi's cell
phone got snatched out of a secured pocket of her purse; she
felt the theft but by the time the nearby people rallied to
stop the thief, he was gone. All the other revelers apologized
for his actions, and we felt more welcomed than disturbed
by the incident. We kept watching the parade!
Meanwhile, back to the Miss Colombia side of things. Two
huge and free parades showcase
||the Miss Colombia candidates to the
general population - one is a land-based parade; the other is
water based. The land parade is, of course, better attended
by the locals, who generally don't have access to boats. They
pile onto the city walls in a general air of fiesta - once again,
it's really just an excuse to party!
We wanted to attend the water parade, and we do have
access to a boat! So we got official permission (Rob received
a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Capitán
Designato"), raised Akka's anchor, and joined a hundred
or so other spectator boats.
In the water parade, or ballenero, each
| queen (or, in a few instances, couple
of queens) was in a lifeboat rowed by cadets from the Colombian
Naval Academy, all in their spiffy whites. The boat carrying
Miss Colombia 2090
||led the parade. Six cadets rowed each lifeboat,
another steered, and another stood in the bow with a boathook.
A junior officer stood watch by the platform where the queen
stood, presumably as "safety officer" to keep her from falling
over, or in. Occasionally, a queen would grab her escort's hand,
lift it high, then twirl and dance under it. The escorts looked
uncomfortable - the queens looked beautiful and blasé.
This was a long parade - 2 ½ miles - and the cadets weren't
all that good at rowing. Plus, some of them were pretty distracted
by their Queens, who were wearing bikinis and high heels (and
their sashes, of course) and dancing to the sounds of the
various sound systems on the spectator boats.
Occasionally, the cadets would stop rowing altogether and
simply join in the moment.
The parade of lifeboats hugged the shore opposite our anchorage,
and was separated from the spectator boats by a line of buoys.
The spectator boats could -- and we did - nose right up to
the buoys. As soon as all the queens had passed, the whole
line of spectator
boats pulled back and sort of leapfrogged on itself to find
a new vantage point to watch the whole thing all over again.
And again, and again. We got to watch and wave and be waved
at up close, four different times.
Some of the spectator boats had been chartered by supporters
of a particular queen. They'd festooned the boats with balloons
or streamers and a big banner with the queen's photo, name
and title. And all the supporters on board were wearing t-shirts
with the queens' image on them. When we were jockeying past
one boat, they called us over and tossed us a t-shirt. Andi
immediately donned the shirt, which showed the face of the
Queen from North of Santander (the actual name of a district
that's, well, north of the city of Santander).
| The spectator boats ranged in size
from dugout canoes (really!) to excursion boats and two replica
galleons. Many of the boats had to be well over their safe passenger
limit, but the patrolling Coast Guard and Police didn't seem
overly concerned. We noticed that only some 80% of the skippers
were wearing the official orange "Capitan Designado"
No matter. Despite the huge crowds, loud music and drinking,
there was some remarkably good seamanship.
On one speedboat, a man was dancing on the foredeck and attracting
a lot of attention. We
||got closer and realized why. His
outfit consisted of an Afro wig, a huge pair of sunglasses,
a thong bikini with another afro wig pinned to his front, and
a huge dildo! After we snapped a couple of pix, we noticed the
police boat approaching and were dismayed - the guy really wasn't
hurting anyone, and lots of spectating girls were wearing equally
As it turned out, the police didn't want to arrest him -
they just wanted to take photos of him!
Akka was one of only 3 sailboats in this melee, and the only
sailboat daring to get right up close to the buoy line. Despite
the carnival atmosphere, the drinking and the distractions
of the queens, etc., we were never bumped into. Everyone was
really polite and festive, seemed delighted at our gringo
Did we mention the water balloons? Local guys in dugouts were selling
small plastic bags of water (some dyed yellow or red or blue, the
colors of the Colombian flag) to toss. We quickly learned to stay
away from the tall galleons and excursion boats, from the top decks
of which we were an easy target. Fortunately, the dye was weak and
cleaned up off the decks without leaving stains. And fortunately,
we weren't wearing good clothes, although that t-shirt with Queen
North of Santander's picture will never be the same. And, you don't
really want to think about the environmental impact of all those
plastic bags in the bay…
After some 2 ½ hours, the beauties were delivered to the Navy Club,
and the spectator fleet began to disperse. Again, total politeness
and wonderful driving, smiles everywhere, and we returned Akka to
her parking place to clean up the decks and resume ordinary life.
Two nights later, Miss Colombia 2010 was selected. She was Miss
Bolivar, which is Cartagena's province, making the locals very happy.
. To see Miss Colombia 2010, go to http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news-lite/98-beauty/6896-natalia-navarro-galvis-elected-miss-colombia-2009.html
To see the Queen of Independence, go to http://www.eluniversal.com.co/v2/cartagena/local/reina-chapacua.