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Last Chance for Pleasures of the Flesh! Carnaval in the Dominican Republic

Last Chance for Pleasures of the Flesh! Carnaval in the Dominican Republic

by Ginnie Bedggood

All over the Caribbean, Central and South America one final fling is made at this time of year to assuage the need for partying before the traditional Western Christian Lent period begins, with its history of penance and denial of 'the flesh'. The timing depends on when Easter falls, because dependent on that is when Ash Wednesday occurs (the Eastern Christian Church is different with Great Lent starting on Clean Monday (!) which is often later in the year). Ash Wednesday in 2006 occurs on March 1st, which is very convenient for the Dominican Republic as the culmination of Carnaval celebrations is always linked to Independence Day which is February 27th. Carnaval is thought to be a semantic derivative of 'carne vale' - a farewell to meat, heralding the traditional fasting of the Lenten period. Carnaval used to be celebrated in the Dominican Republic during the week before Independence Day and ended with the colourful Independence Day Carnaval Parade in cities and towns across the country. But why have a little of something when you can have a lot? Now it would appear that the whole of February is taken up with Carnaval and certainly all Sundays in February see mini celebrations throughout the country.

Carnaval, on the surface, is an 'excuse', were one needed, to have fun - eating, drinking, dancing merengue and bachata, and taking another 10 years off the useful life of one's eardrums due to the incredibly loud volume at which the music is played. It is also the culmination of a year of hard work in corrugated iron roofed shacks, for the most part, where the Carnaval costumes, masks and processional floats are prepared. Out of these humble workplaces emerge the most intricate of designs requiring hours of painstaking sewing, mainly, but not exclusively, by the women in the family. Indeed, it is hard to understand why, for example, in parts of Mexico, the Monday before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) is known as El Dia del Marido Oprimido (the Day of the Oppressed Husband!) when it is the wives who have been working their fingers to the bone sewing sequins, bells and the like on to the costumes. Traditionally, in parts of Mexico, on this Dia del Marido Oprimido, husbands are allowed to do anything they want........within the parameters of civil and religious guidelines! Some would say this applies all year round in the Dominican Republic!!

However, not all Carnaval preparations are carried out by female fingers. Most of the papier-mache masks, for example, are made by teams of men. The making of masks is closely connected with the agricultural background of the Dominican Republic. Cattle farming 'left-overs' were clearly in use in most of the masks of bygone days, items which the cattle slaughterhouses did not use, for example, teeth, hide, horns and hair. Clay is extracted from rivers to make the moulds on which to shape the face of the mask, which is thensun-dried. The horns are attached using a glue made from yucca starch mixed with lime juice to prevent it becoming rancid in the heat. After this the holes are cut for eyes and mouth. The final work is sanding, polishing and painting of the mask and fitting of comfort foam inside so that the wearer's face does not get scarred.

Men also make (and use!) the vejigas - dried reinforced cow or pig bladders which are used to swipe at the unsuspecting. If you are attending a Carnaval procession watch the back of your legs - these 'weapons' can pack a nasty punch and leave a mess of bruises. Last year the La Vega Carnaval, which of all the towns tends to be the one with the most spectacular reputation, even had a vejigometro - a machine for measuring how hard you can swing the vejigas. This comprised of a cannon shaped structure which sent a ball flying out when thwacked. The further the ball goes, the crueller your 'hit'.

There is, of course, a historical tradition behind the vejigas - it is said that, in days of yore, the procession onlookers or 'sinners' morphed from procession onlookers to rowdy mobs. The role of the devils or 'punishers' was similar to that of present day law enforcement authorities using either water cannon or tear gas at a G8 Summit, for example, namely crowd control. The devils aimed to push the mob back in order to protect their fellow costumed procession participants. These devils are known as 'diablos cojuelos' or 'crippled demons' which always seems a bit of a misnomer since they are mainly the people doing the (if only temporary) crippling! Legend has it that the diablo cojuelo (or Lechon in the town of Santiago) was a demon banished from the afterlife to earth; he fell awkwardly and hurt his leg and became 'cojuelo' - the one who walks with a limp. The costumes which the devils sport are designed to mock the appearance of the Spaniards at the time when they colonised the Dominican Republic. Those who have read Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes may recall a character described as a devil, dressed in a costume with mirrors and bells and who carries an inflated animal bladder as his weapon.

There are other Carnaval characters to look out for: Roba la Gallina, for example, (steal the hen) is usually a man dressed as an overweight woman, often with rollers in her hair and sometimes carrying an umbrella; Se me Muere Rebeca is a crying mother with a sick child (represented by a doll) who asks at the corner stores for delicacies for her child. These are, in fact, passed on to all the children who follow behind this character. The tourist to the Dominican Republic who has been faced with the 'mymother/sister/cousin needs an operation' routine will be relieved to know that this is actually based on historical tradition and is part of the culture! Calife is another character - a poet who pens verses mocking the current politicians. Calife characters are particularly busy in 2006 Carnaval since we have municipal and congressional elections here in DR in May with all the attendant spin in advance - plenty of material there for Calife.......... There are also Los Trasvestis (you have probably guessed! These are men dressed as women) and Los Africanos and Los Indios. The latter are participants imitating the original Taino Indian inhabitants of the Dominican Republic. The former represent African slaves - to do this the whole body is painted with charcoal and sump oil - don't get too close!

The visitor to these celebrations needs joie de vivre, stamina, eyes in the back of his head and earplugs. Other than that, it is all huge fun! I have this on good authority from my husband who in 2005 was part of the Puerto Plata Carnaval Parade, riding on the float of a local charity for children of which he is a committee member. As a foreigner (albeit living in Puerto Plata some 13 years), it is a great honour to be invited to participate in the actual procession, so this is not an offer which you refuse. He came home exhausted, dehydrated and with ears ringing. Dominicans, on the other hand, can keep up the level of energy required for hours.

Only the seriously uptight could fail to catch the Dominicans' infectious sense of fun. This is there all the time, just that it is more noticeable during Carnaval. Carnaval is indeed a family activity encompassing the very small to grandparents. If, as a visitor, you have the slightest amount of extroversion, join in the dancing. As a gringo with two left feet you will probably win the title of 'gringo cojuelo' but no one will mind and all will cheer you on. If you are a weight trainer go to the La Vega Carnaval and have a go at the vejigometro - but if you do well, expect to be challenged to repeat your performance again and again. Dominican machismo would allow for nothing else.

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