It’s 1989 and the beginning of a new school year. Shoulder pads are on their way out, and moms gather and chat in the car park about what’s ahead on the school calendar, Christmas fayre, Easter bonnets and the local carnaval parade being the highlights. It’s a small, English, prep-type school. Although it’s fairly international, most of the pupils are English ex-pats. The Christmas stuff is traditional, some dad or other plays Santa and there is jelly and cake; Easter is mum’s making bonnets and the easter egg hunt – which leaves Carnaval as the time to integrate more with the local community in which we live.
Every year since I’ve been here the kids have dressed up and tagged onto the end of the parade in Los Cristianos. There is no PTA as such, the school is too small and informal really, but there is a bunch of moms who like to help out and get involved. This year the leading light amongst this bunch suggests that we do a bit more than the tinsel and cardboard creations, and really go for it – “proper” costumes, grease paint and glitter, a float, music and choreography; in other words the whole nine yards, being an integral part of Carnaval. Meetings between teachers and parents are held, and enthusiasm is palpable, on all sides. It is, after all, months away, and it doesn’t seem like such a huge task.
First reality check – The big parade in the Santa Cruz Carnaval is Shrove Tuesday, of course, so there is no need to wonder about when it happens. In Los Cristianos it takes place two or three weeks later. You would think that for such a big day on the municipal calendar there would be a specific date and a theme set, say, a year in advance, but, no, roughly six months away, and there is no information available. This, remember, is the days before internet or social networking (how much easier have our lives become!), and extracting this information means a visit to Arona (a round trip of about 50 km) to quiz people in the town hall. A liaison is appointed, a lady who speaks perfect Spanish, unlike most of us, but the days drone on and there is no word. We are aware that we need to start working now to outfit and train around 70 kids and 20 parents/teachers, and raise the money to do so. The dream would collapse if parents had to pay the true cost of costumes, however frugal we might be.
We launch ourselves into a program of money-raising events, raffles and race nights, lunches and tombolas, and all of the traditional ways and means PTAs and the like have used for decades. This is all a brand-new world to me, and I am amazed by the dedication of a few, the antipathy of some, and ultimately by our success. It is every bit as demanding, tiring and rewarding as a fulltime job. In fact, hell, it is a fulltime job! I remind you again, that this is in the days before cellphones and computers made communicating so much easier, and remind myself that it is in the days before there is a legal limit to the amount of alcohol one could consume before driving a car. There seems to be a fair bit of alcohol involved in these evening events!
Eventually, word filters through that the theme of Disney has been chosen (this proves to be erroneous so far as I can make out, but we go with it anyway), and a meeting is set to agree on what theme within that we go for. We stay clear of the obvious Mickeys and Plutos, and choose Alice in Wonderland. The meeting drags on and characters are decided and roles doled out (sometimes under duress!), music and costumes are discussed, and shopping planned to start spending all that hard-earned cash. A schedule of regular meetings to discuss progress and plan further is also set up. We are an army. We are invincible.
The costumes are all to be made in-house, so sewing groups are formed by those who have or can borrow sewing machines, and people are appointed to be in charge of various aspects of our endeavor. The search is on for a suitable wagon to act as our float, which will portray the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Those not on the float will be the Red King and Queen and their attendants (who are the dancers), and Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who will be our “clowns”. Material is bought and sewing commences. I don’t have a machine, so I am not a sewer, but I volunteer for headdresses, as these are mainly to be made by hand.
Someone scores yards of white satin decorated with playing cards, and we have the start of the costumes for the Red Queen and King and their attendants, most of whom will be the pack of playing cards.
It’s after Christmas now, and we throw ourselves into both the costume making and more fundraising. Of course, on the fund-raising score, people are getting a bit fed up of us by now, and there is a definite giver-fatigue setting in, but, to my amazement, amongst the organizers there is a level of enthusiasm and goodwill ongoing which I have rarely observed before in life. To date no-one has flounced off, bad-mouthed anyone or sulked. We have a giggly high point when one of the moms returns from a visit to the UK having raided a theatrical suppliers which was closing down. It has yielded the Mad Hatter’s costume and lots of other goodies which we can adapt. It gives us a lift and melts away the blues brought on by both that giver-fatigue, and the complaints from husbands about cold meals and our obsession with Carnaval…..and that is what it has become, an obsession, almost a raison d’être, and for the first time I understand just how big a deal this is to the people of Santa Cruz. Heck this is only the much smaller version, in Los Cristianos, yet here we are putting hearts, souls and lives into it, and for this brief time, little else is more important.
As yet we haven’t started to choreograph our entry. This is a primary school, and we are aware that the children probably will either forget or get bored if we begin too soon, but the day is fast approaching when it must be begun. I can breathe a sigh of relief that I haven’t a musical bone in my body, so all I have to do is to learn the steps with the children. Hours are spent after school and at weekend, practising a kind of hop, skip and jump which snakes from side to side across the street. It ain’t easy. I’m probably the oldest at 43 and the youngest is probably around four years old.
We are now around a month from what we assume will be the big day, and the Carnaval in Santa Cruz is already beginning, yet still, despite almost daily calls to the town hall, there is, apparently no fixed date for Los Cristianos. Apart from appointing it in our diaries, an official registration as participants has to be made, and we are anxious to do it right. We are still in want of a lorry too. Hair is beginning to be torn out, but despite the lack of lorry we begin on the mammoth task of making thousands and thousands of crepe paper flowers to decorate the lorry and create a suitable bower for the Mad Hatter and his weird friends.
Finally, at last, por fin the day is set by the town hall – time for a dress rehearsal. Close to the school there is an abandoned building site, where infrastructure has already been laid, the perfect place one windy and hot Sunday afternoon to two-step our way around and around those ghostly streets. Weary tots, bored pre-teens and fraught moms, dads and teachers drill for hour after hour it seems, careful not to get our costumes dusty, remembering the hours of toil and tears which have been sewn into them. It’s a week off now. We are as good as we will ever be, but still no lorry.
Suddenly, as hopes are fading, we receive an offer, friend of a friend of a parent has a lorry which will not be used on Sunday, but which will not be available for decoration until late Saturday. It will have to do. We are desperate. Saturday passes in a flurry of colorful, crepe roses, gin and tonics, sore fingers from the rose making, bored kids and more gin and tonics. The lorry begins its transformation from dirty work vehicle to floral fantasy, and that’s when the magic begins, and we begin to realize that our dream is coming true. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Carnaval.
Sunday dawns bright and sunny, by no means a given at this time of year. Whereas in past years we’d sauntered down and met in a local bar towards the end of the parade route, tagging on at the end when the official entrants had all passed by, this year we have to be on time. There are numbers and schedules. The irony of this is not lost on us. This parade always slated to begin at 4, never, ever has begun on time, but punctual we are. Grease paint and sequins are applied to faces young and old, costumes are pulled on and last-minute adjustments are made. Nerves are at fraying point, excitement washes over our group and those nearby. We hear the various musical groups and bands begin to play. We try to keep the kids calm and grease paint from running in the heat as we wait, and it is hot in our costumes.
Finally our number is called and our unrecognizable lorry pulls slowly out of the side street to join the parade. We follow, at first very nervous, tippy toe-ing, giggling both kids and adults, then, reaching the main street, our music strikes up from the amps on the truck, our leader gives the signal and our dance begins.
We weave our way along the main street, crisscrossing, smiling as we pass each other, now chuckling, now confident, making sure the kids can keep up, laughing at Tweedledum and Tweedledee as they entertain the crowds which line the roadside, and not at all envying those on the lorry acting out the tea party and tossing candy to the crowd. We have our rhythm. We begin to hear shouts and whoops of encouragement from folks along the road who know us, people pass us drinks in paper cups, we grin inanely at friends and family rushing out with cameras. We are, in short, having the time of our life. I’m not sure just how long the route is, but I guess about a kilometer, and it’s lined with Fun, with a capital F. It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life. Tweedledum confesses it’s second only to his wedding day on his personal fun chart.
As we reach the end of the parade route all the groups kind of just merge into the fairground, people collapse in heaps of merriment and laughter on verges, and we have to keep a sharp eye out for the children. Happily, most parents have the schedule and those not taking part are there to collect their offspring and not a child is lost. Tourists ask us to pose for pictures, and we just can’t stop laughing. At the end of the day I have consumed surprisingly little alcohol, and am on a natural high. What a feeling! Even grumpy husbands now admit that the late meals and “neglect” were all worth it, and we believe them for a time. It most certainly is a day to remember.
On Monday night there is a presentation of prizes, which requires the participants donning costumes again and attending, but Carnaval not being so important to the British community, few parents allow their kids to attend on a school night. However, we win a prize for presentation, so word drifts down to us, as we potter about our evening tasks, still basking in the merry memories of 24 hours past.
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And the reason I don’t do Carnaval any longer? Well, we kind of gave it a try the following year. The majority didn’t want to give up so much of their time again, so the kids went back to tagging on at the end. It’s very probable that they had just as much fun doing that, and probably didn’t at all miss the costume fittings and rehearsals! A few of us ran up glam costumes to match what the kids were wearing, but it just wasn’t the same. Several years on I tried it again, walking with the school, and it was nice, but still, not the same kick as ’90. Springsteen wrote about the feeling – “Glory Days”. You have to know when you won’t better something, don’t even try, move on to something else. or you’ll get stuck in a grove. There will never be a Carnaval experience to equal actually taking part, spending months planning and working towards it, the anticipation, the tensions, and then really and truly letting your hair down on the day, that feeling of liberation, of not caring less about anything other than the fun of it all, and now I know better than to try.
I’ve been looking for photos to put on this post, but they seem to be packed well away somewhere, which, perhaps, is where memories best belong.