I've never posted about Mérida's Carnaval, this year's rendition of which ended last Tuesday. I guess that's because it's been covered many times, and also because I like to post good photos, which can be hard to get from behind a huge crowd, which is generally the position from which I've observed the parades in the past. And after a few years of participating fairly heavily in the activities, I cut back on my personal involvement in Carnaval. It's fun, it's an important part of the culture here, and I enjoy it, but now I appreciate it in smaller doses. I've gotten to the point where a solid week of daily parades, loud music and partying is more than I care to experience.
The parade route passes only a few blocks from my house. Even when I stay home, the noise and congestion are evident. So after attending one parade at the beginning of the festivities, I decided to leave the rumble and blast of Carnaval behind, and cut out for an overnight stay at the beach in search of a little peace and quiet. The contrast hardly could have been greater.
Upon arriving at one of my favorite beaches, I was immediately caressed by a perfume quite different from the normal salt-air aroma we always expect along the Gulf of Mexico. The stark, white sand beach smelled like a flower shop. And the source was not readily apparent, although I finally tracked it down to this fringe of tiny white flowers in full bloom right above the high-tide line. The lime-green of the foliage created a brilliant contrast against the sand in the glare of the sun.
I'd borrowed keys to an empty beach house, so the next morning, after a restful sleep in a hammock hung there, I headed out early to the nearby estuary. In this season the mangroves and brackish shallows here are home a great variety of migratory and indigenous birds. I climbed a palapa-roofed observation platform that permitted me to watch a distant grouping of feeding flamingoes, along with many species of ducks, egrets, herons, cormorants and pelicans.
Every so often a flock of flamingoes would pass over, yacking incessantly as they headed away from the sunrise in search of feeding areas. As each flock passed over, one or two pairs would suddenly wheel away from the group, and make a spiraling descent in order to join their fellows already wading and dipping their hooked bills in search of breakfast. The feeding assemblage of hot pink birds slowly grew as more and more joined in.
Ducks, congregating in large, tight clusters to repeatedly dive and surface in the shallows, created boiling disturbances on the black water as they pursued feed in the depths. Occasionally a large number would startle and take flight together, calling and creating a wet rushing sound as they flapped and surface-stepped briefly in order to gain sufficient speed to become airborne.
When I returned to Mérida on Tuesday, the party was still on.
There were the beer floats, with twelve-foot-high bottles of Sol and bikini-clad girls shaking for all they're worth to high-volume music. A float sponsored by a bottled-water company sprayed a fine mist of water on the sweltering crowd. Bands of drummers pounded away and the bass beat vibrated our insides. Fanciful, tall creatures walked by on high stilts. Thousands of costumed revelers entertained an estimated 800,000 persons along the parade route.
My view of the final Carnaval parade this year was somewhat different than usual. My friend Paul offered me a place in his palco, or box of eight seats, along Calle 60. This afforded a shaded, front-row view of the party.
Sitting in a front-row palco offers a lot of advantages. The view is fantastic. You can see everything, and many participants in the slow-moving parade love to interact with the crowd, so it's possible to talk with them, shake hands, and get them to pose for pictures.
Then there is the food. Carnaval sponsors toss out lots of treats, mostly snacks, trinkets and T-shirts. When you are standing in back of the throng, there's lots of competition, but from the relatively comfortable folding chairs of a palco, it's possible to catch them without a scuffle. There was plenty, and we shared with our neighbors. I ate a cheeseburger (snatched out of the air and handed to me by Paul, who's not eating much meat these days), a variety of cookies and candy, and drank a Coke. Not exactly health food, but it was all part of the party.
Lesson one: Spending part of Carnaval week in a serene place away from the hullabaloo allowed me to appreciate the craziness more when I was back in it.
Lesson two: Have a good friend who offers palco seats to you. Or reserve a palco yourself (and be that friend to others).