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Published: November 23rd 2008
It was ten o’clock on the evening before the final day of the Pintaflores festival. If it is possible for a city to buzz, then that is what San Carlos on the island of Negros was doing, alive with the tense expectation of tens of thousands of people who had no work the next day and were excitedly awaiting a party of truly gargantuan proportions that constituted the very embodiment of their homeland’s culture and history. On some level the city’s soul buzzed, vibrating back and forth, up and down, barely containing the tension, ready to explode, that could be felt everywhere: in the behaviour of the citizens, barely able to contain their excitement, laughing, shouting, dancing and drinking at every corner; in the constant questions, “Hey Joe, you coming to the street parade tomorrow?”; in the streams of motorbike and tricycle taxis that made it almost impossible to cross the streets that were almost entirely devoid of cars, the drivers of which were out celebrating unlike the poor souls peddling away to earn the equivalent of 5p per 2km.
We walked through a packed pedestrian street just outside the town where a small fair had been set up. It was lined with shops selling the cheapest clothes, toys and food available anywhere on the planet, the delicacies on offer ranging from boiled eggs with a chick inside to fried bird claws.
“Is this tasty?” I asked a guy selling the eggs.
“Yes, Sir, very good, lots of protein!” He said before bursting into a fit of laughter. “Don’t eat more than five though or maybe you get heart attack!”
Opting to give it a miss, we continued to push our way through the crowds past rows of people who seemed convinced that with a bit of persistence they would be able to make us temporarily lose our sanity and purchase a 20-peso bright yellow plastic machine gun or something equally useless. Somewhere nearby techno music blasted from what must have been a mountain of speakers. Eventually we arrived at a tall white wall with two doors cut into it and the word “Carnival” spray painted in red above them.
In we went to a grassy area less well-lit than the streets and less crowded.
We approached a huddle of people all shouting excitedly and focused on a man sat behind a tiny table with three upturned thimble on it. He was flicking them around the table at an astonishing speed without knocking any over. Finally when he stopped people threw down a collection of coins and crumpled bank notes, each apparently selecting which thimble they wanted to bet on. When all the bets were down the man behind the table upturned first one thimble, then another, then the third, under which was a small red piece of plastic. A roar went up from the people who had put their money on that one and they were promptly returned three time their bet.
Suspicion flared up I my mind. If the odds of winning were one in three and he paid the winners three times their bet, then he would never make a profit - on average he would just break even. Somehow he was cheating but people were betting furiously nevertheless. I started to move on to observe another game but, glancing back over my shoulder, by chance I noticed how the man was cheating: after everyone had placed their bets I saw his fingers, working close to the speed of light, lift two thimbles and flick the red thing from one to another in a split second. Whether I noticed it because I was now standing to his side rather than in front like everyone else, or whether it had something to do with the fact that I had only glanced for a fraction of a second, I do not know. I know, however, that the man was such a professional that no one in front of him had noticed what he was doing.
The next crowd was concentrated at a man standing next to a vertical white wooden board studded all over with nails. At the bottom were sixteen pockets, eight of them with numbers written on them.
“Here, friend, have a free practice go!” he shouted as I walked past. I could not refuse that. He gave me five metal balls and told me to drop them at the top of the board, letting them bounce down through the nails. One by one they each completed the journey, four of them finishing up in numbered pockets. He then showed me a sheet with various bank notes pinned to it, each with one of the numbers next to them. Had it not been a practice go, I would have made a profit of around four hundred pesos. I bought few balls, not expecting to win anything but interested to see how this man would scam my money off me. I watched him intently as I dropped each of the metal balls and saw the trick immediately: the man was nudging the whole apparatus with his knee at exactly the right time and place to ensure that none of the balls went into the numbered pockets.
For a while we wandered round the carnival, observing different groups of people, each huddled around their swindle show of choice, betting frantically, shouting alternately in glee then rage. “Hey Joe, come have a go!” was shouted at us from almost every one and accompanied by crowds of people beckoning us over.
Finally we chose one which as far as I could tell involved no possibility of scamming whatsoever. There were six coloured spots on a table. Above it was a container which held three large dice with one of the colours on each side. You bet your money on a colour, pulled a string that emptied the container of its dice and if one of them landed with your colour pointing upwards, you doubled your money. Seemingly very good odds for the gambler, but my mind harked back to a maths lesson at school where we had studied a situation exactly like this and learned that the odds were not what they first seemed although for the life of me I could not remember why.
I began betting fifty pesos at a time and winning every time. This continued for several games and I, with the winner’s euphoria and delusions that his luck cannot do anything but continue, went on betting. The huge crowd that had gathered to watch the only white person at the carnival and kept cheering me on, along with the many beers and large bottle of rum we had drunk with dinner, also served to encourage me. Suddenly my luck changed and I lost almost everything in a few goes until I had just one hundred pesos of profit left.
“Quit while you’re ahead,” Atien, a Frenchman who we had met in El Nido then again here in San Carlos, told me.
“Come on, Eddy, let’s go,” said Lizz, my girlfriend, not the biggest fan of gambling.
I momentarily saw sense and began to leave but something made me turn back, place the one hundred peso note on green and yank the string. Three greens came up on the dice and for a moment everyone in the crowd stared in stunned silence before a raucous cheer went up. The man running the stand did not have enough on him to pay me so he went of to get some from someone else.
“Bet some more, let him win some money back,” Lizz told me, thinking that I had bankrupted the game, not entirely understanding the principles of gambling - that the odds were always against the player and that for every winner there were more losers.
I agreed, betting twice more and winning both times. After that we left and I promised I would be back the next evening to give them a chance to win their money back.
At 1pm the next day the town exploded. It began at the port. Hundreds of dancers lined up in their troops. Each group was dressed to a common theme in some of the brightest, most multi-coloured and in some cases bizarre costumes that I have ever seen. There was everything from women dressed as princesses to giant bees to a kid dressed as a monkey who desperately clung to the end of a twenty foot pole that one of the dancers swung in circles through the air as he marched down the streets. A group of men and women performed a dance themed on harvesting crops while next to them three young gay men, their bodies and hair entirely painted in white, danced slowly, sensually and seductively, writhing, wriggling and slithering in a way that reminded me of supernatural creatures from some Ancient Greek or Roman legend, perhaps a cross between Medusa and the Sirens.
One by one the groups danced out of the port area and entered the streets of the town to the sound of drummers stood high on the backs of moving lorries, their bodies and faces, like those of all the performers, painted with the images of flowers.
"Why does everyone have flowers painted on them?" I asked one euphoric spectator, a large beer-bellied man in sunglasses who until we started talking had been stood at the side of the street with a bottle of Red Horse beer in hand, jumping up and down and yelling "Vamos San Carlos!" like everyone else. The style of his moustache, along with the shade of his skin and his general appearance, reminded me of a stereotypical Mexican as portrayed in a Hollywood movie. Bizzarely, this person who to me did not seem like the likeliest student of cultural history, was able to give me the only explanation of what the festival meant that I found all day.
"It was a favourite tattoo design in the old days," he told me. "It began a long time ago. A princess fled from her own place and came here with a few warriors - they were the first people to live here, but she was really sad - she missed her family, you know. So everyone agreed they would tattoo their bodies with pictures of the flowers from her homeland, to try to make her less homesick!"
The sun was high in the sky and everyone, from the drummers hammering away with their sticks to the pirouetting princesses to the children clapping their hands and stamping their feet, was soon drenched in sweat. Every now and then, when a particular group had taken a momentary respite from their dance, slowly shuffling down the street and giving one of the other nearby groups a chance to perform, people would dart out from the crowds lining the streets and hand a bottle of water to their exhausted, perspiring friends or relatives.
Although nobody offered me water, I was constantly being handed glasses of beer by locals excited to have a foreign visitor.
"How do you like our town? What do you think about our fiesta?"
"It's great!" I always replied. "Really, really nice!"
"You have anything like this in your country?" One young student asked me, Red Horse in hand.
"Not that I know of," I replied. "What does this fiesta mean to you?"
"What do you mean?" Came the puzzled reply.
"Like, what does it represent? What are its origins?"
"I don't know, man!" The student said, laughing. "It's just a party!"
It seemed I had been looking at the party from the wrong angle, trying to understand its meaning and what it represented in terms of culture. Of course, for most people, it was just an excuse to have fun. Likewise, if someone asked me what the Notting Hill Carnival in London "represented", I would not have a clue.
When all the groups had reached the centre of town things began to break up. The dancers got changed and met up with their family and friends and everyone began to get down to the business of pure and simple partying. I looked at my watch and noticed that four hours had passed since it had all begun at the port. I was slightly dazed, tired and my clothes soaked through with sweat. All my memories of the dance seemed to blur into one, one giant flurry of fast-moving, bright colours, shouting, excited people and heat.
I had lost all my companions in the hectic, confused mania that had been the procession through town, so I sat down at a street grill, ordered a beer and chewed on a piece of unidentifiable barbecued meat.
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