I have returned to my blog, excited to be writing again about Spain and animated by my plans to return there in April. !Que sorpresa!
It’s February, and we will be hearing shortly about carnivals in Quebec City, New Orleans and Rio, carnival nights and weekends in cities all over the world. The origins of carnival are hidden in the distant past of peoples from all corners of the world; anthropologists and historians of religion study, debate and come up with theories. We can infer that they were held not simply to allow for a few days overindulgence while away from home in the 21st century.
In February 2000, I was in the northeastern province of Portugal, tucked up in the hills and surrounded to the north and east by similarly mountainous regions in Spain. In the city of Braganza, I was introduced to the tradition of Máscara Iberica, Iberian Masks. During the winter solstice and Christmas period and then later in February, many villages have festivals with obviously ancient roots, having in common the use of masks, strange costumes and activities that are repeated each year (similar to mummering in Newfoundland). I met a wonderful woman in the tourist bureau; being a quiet time of the year, we had lots of time to chat. She was passionate about the culture of her region. She sent me to the Museum of Masks; I lucked out, being there when the professor who had designed the displays was guiding around his class. I was given a beautiful full coloured catalogue by the staff. I even brought a mask back for a mask-maker friend here in Toronto. I was intrigued. Check out the link – <http://www.google.ca/search?q=mascara+iberica+fotos&hl=en&client=safari&tbo=u&rls=en&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=y50WUeaEM4W6yAHEyICYCQ&ved=0CC8QsAQ&biw=1424&bih=722> Problems with the link? – simply google – mascara iberica fotos – to get an idea of the strange beauty and diversity of these simple village festivals. Origins? – medieval and beyond to the indigenous and Celtic peoples before the arrival of the Romans? Humans have been in this peninsula for tens of thousands of years.
Because of the time of year when they take place, I resigned myself to never being able easily to attend one. But when I booked for the final two weeks in February 2009, I discovered that I would be there during mardi gras week and so made my way to the small agricultural village of Laza, in the pine-clad hills 25 kilometres north of the Portuguese border for two wonderful days at their entroido, their carnival.
In the unseasonably brilliant 20 degree sunshine, I enjoyed the Sunday of the peliqueiros. Lines of masked costumed men, in outrageous costumes, wearing cowbells around their waists (warding off evil?), and waving small whips (punishing sinners?), regularly appeared from different directions and crossed the small village square where hundreds, many of them in costumes, were gathering as the day progressed, all the while being entertained by live bands (dixieland among others).
Jerky video? Let it have a good headstart downloading – grey bar – before starting it.
The masked ones were males of different ages, many from the village, others with roots there, some still farming (their animals kept within the village, at times, on the main floor of their homes), their sons and grandsons now living inevitably in the cities near jobs, etc. Here is a delightfully charming very short video.
Third generation or more? being cared for by his grandfather while his father and uncles were among the peliqueiros, the little one dreaming of his turn one day running with the grown-ups.
Intermittently lines of masked creatures appeared and disappeared. How many were there? Then the parade with three, who knows, possibly four generations, through the streets. Laza’s population is 700. I was amazed at how many there were. Where did they all come from?
You can imagine how enjoyable this sunny Sunday in Laza was for all of us. But I had really come for Monday’s event. I had done my research. Being there on Monday was the cunning plan.
At noon that day, with the same unusually warm sunshine, an old bathtub full of a fine liquid mud is wheeled into the square. On either side, the lads, lasses and this old fart are ready in old clothes, me in my rain pants and shell. We are armed with piles of small towels, ready to be dipped in the mud and thrown over and over again, all afternoon long. The battle begins.
My cameraman is Juan; I had been chatting with him and his wife, Ruth as we all awaited the arrival of the tub. He is asking me at the end if I want another go – otra vez. I decide against it, thinking that it was 30 some kilometres to my hotel, etc., and the others were definitely getting muddier. I regretted this when I realized before long that the mud dried and brushed off very easily. But, I wouldn’t have lasted. They were ganging up and dumping each other in the tub, stealing the bathtub to control the weaponry, and organizing mass raids on the other side. What a hoot! Later, a team would head out into the fields to bring back hills full of a kind of biting ant. Not my glass of sangria! Being an old fart, one does have privileges and chickening out is one of them. In the evening there was going to be a community meal. I am an outsider, a visitor, just part of the audience, but getting thwacked in the face with the muddy towel made me feel that I belonged here in this afternoon of chaos, of turning the world upside down, always a key element in ancient carnivals.
Obviously this is one of my favourite memories of Spain. I am planning to share some interesting 11th century parish church sculptures in my next blog which should give some insight into the origins of carnival, hidden in the ‘mists of time’.