Colombian Carnival

by Hannah Hughes

A traveler wakes up in a strange hotel room and tries to piece together what happened the previous night during the Barranquilla Carnival in Colombia.

Wow, it’s bright. 

Broad daylight shrieked into the hotel room. What time is it? I squeezed my eyes shut, unintentionally heightening my other senses: the hamburger taste pasted over my tongue, beeps from cars clogging up the street outside, the smell of beer, hangover farts and bodily fluids — I wasn’t sure which kind.

My pulse felt like a bass speaker.

Day one of Barranquilla’s four day carnival, the second biggest carnival in the world after Rio De Janeiro, had happened. Apparently.

I re-wrapped my fragile being into the bed sheets. The mattress was firm, and the sheets felt light and silky, like a hug from a gigantic cloud. There was no chatter from the usual morning cleaning staff in the hallway; maybe I had a sign on my door reading: DO NOT DISTURB – EXTREMELY HUNGOVER. The hotel was quiet.

And that’s when I realized… I was not in my hotel.

I shot up like a klaxon had been blasted. Pristine white walls were boxed around me, plain and hospital-like. A light studded the ceiling, consisting of three bulbs flexing in opposing angles. The window view exposed a concrete apartment block across the street. There was a sleeping boy next to me. 

On cue, he began to stir. The muscles on his back protruded as he struggled to turn, apparently weighed down with a hangover equivalent to mine. As his face came into view and I realized it was a boy I knew (a fellow backpacker I had met in a different country), I sighed with relief. I had bumped into him in Colombia a few days earlier, and we had reconnected. The relief of his identity was momentary.

Masked men at the carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia

“Wait, did we…?”

“No,” he said, smudging his face into the pillow. “I assume you don’t remember nothing, then.” Adrian sniffed and simultaneously jolted his leg like he had been shocked. He hadn’t yet opened his eyes. 

“Why are we here?” I asked, feeling like a participant who had just regained consciousness at the start of a Saw game. This was not my hotel room, and nor was it his.

Adrian opened his bloodshot eyes and, groaning, began to sit up. “Wow,” he said, propping himself up on his elbow, rubbing one eye with his thumb and the other with his middle finger. “I feel like shit.”  

I scanned the room — a glitter bomb seemed to have exploded within it. The white tiles were sprinkled in freckles of pink, blue, purple, and silver, and sunlight reflected off the colors turning the ground into a flashing disco dance floor. My bag was in the corner of the room, floured in a mysterious white powder, coins vomiting from its innards. My alcohol-stained clothes were also smeared in flour. The time was 14:36. 

“What exactly do you remember?” he asked, lip curling as his eyes landed on the mud that had French manicured the underside of my toenails. 

I concentrated.

The smell of candy-floss and the sound of frying meat. Food trucks huddled together like eskimos barbecuing saucy sausage skewers. Animal-painted Carnival performers twirling their hips and flicking their extravagant headdresses. Spectator stands sandwiched with drunk people. People slamming flour into each other’s faces like activists throwing paint on a fur jacket (an unusual gesture, but who am I to question it). 

I didn’t respond to his question.

A mirror lined the wall, and my reflection stared back. Around my neck hung a hand sanitizing bottle threaded onto a pink beaded necklace — an object I had never seen before. A greasy handprint had slid down the polished mirror, presumably from a body that had tried to stop itself from falling. Presumably from me. 

Women in costume at the carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia

“By the way, is it alright if you transfer me that two hundred thousand pesos?” Adrian asked, ruffling flour from his hair until only a few dandruff-like sprinkles remained.

Por qué?” I replied in my best Spanish accent, definitely still drunk and with no recollection of borrowing two hundred thousand pesos.

“This hotel room cost me a fortune,” he said, and in backpacker land, it really was a fortune. I was about to demand he tell me why we were in this hotel room at all when he said, “And I bought you those proper dirty-looking tacos.”

“The tacos! I remember those!” I said, proud of myself.

There had been a child about ten years old with a lightning bolt shaved into the side of his head, operating a food truck strung with glittery streamers. I was walking past the child and his beautiful truck, but he looked so bored and lonely and oh so cute, and I wasn’t sure whether it was his cuteness or the knowledge that he sold food, but my drunken legs began to march me over there.

I stood opposite him and grinned.

Bonita [Pretty],” I said, stroking the streamers dangling above our heads.

Without a word, he opened a container of dry, minced meat, tipped the dregs onto the fryer, and began tossing the meat while chewing on a broken piece of plastic. He divided the mince into three taco tortillas, swamped them in a spicy orange sauce, handed them to me with one cute, little hand, and held out his other, palm raised, waiting for the money I didn’t have. 

Adrian came to the rescue, passing the child a few crumpled notes from his wallet. “Gracias,” I said to the child, who looked as though he would drink a cup of my sweat if it meant I left him alone. 

Adrian coughed. “So, should I send you my bank details?”

“Yeah,” I said, avoiding eye contact.

We sat in silence for a while. Shouts, cheers, and a saxophone melody drifted in through the ajar window: day two of carnival was in full swing.

“Why are we in this hotel room?” I asked, now afraid of the answer.

He sighed. “Taxis wouldn’t take you cos your hotel is in such a dangerous area, and it was four a.m.,” he said. “I tried to take you to mine, but you were too fucked to walk.”

That sounded plausible. 

“This hotel was the next closest place,” he said, staring at the blank wall ahead.

“Well, thanks for that,” I replied, twiddling the ends of my hair. He shrugged. “Hey, maybe it will be my turn to save you tonight,” I said. He didn’t reply.

As I was trying to piece together last night’s finale, I noticed the sign above the door reading: LATE CHECK OUT WILL INCUR PENALTY. It was time to get going.

The glass doors slid open, and the hotel air conditioning was replaced with the kind of tropical Caribbean heat that does not mix well with hangovers. The street was full: Carnival energy fizzed off every passing human, and four lanes of traffic jammed the two-lane road. An outdoor hair salon had opened with little girls having ribbons weaved into their braids, watching themselves through mirrors dangling from tree branches.

A woman dances at the carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia

“Do you remember being sick there last night?” Adrian asked, gesturing to the plant pot posed outside the posh hotel. Before I could thank him for the prompt, he gave a brief nudge on my shoulder, saying, “Alright then, see you,” and turned left down the street, never to be seen again.

I found a yellow taxi wedged between the non-moving traffic and staggered into it — an action I was pretty sure would be reoccurring for the next few days.

Hola, hola, señorita,” said the taxi driver. “Dónde vas [Where are you going]?”I thought for a moment. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in over twenty-four hours. I was covered in alcohol stains and flour. The receptionist of my hotel probably thought I was dead. The sensible thing to do would be to go home and regain some dignity.

La fiesta, por favor,” my mouth said, just as the non-moving traffic began to move.

As I was driven towards the sound of Carnival, I noticed the hand sanitizing bottle on the pink beaded necklace still strung around my neck. I opened it and gave it a smell, and then a taste. It contained alcohol.

Colombia was full of happy surprises.

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