Each year a group of kids and young adults spend hours making and decorating their papier mache masks, and detangling and sewing yards of “fur” onto their costumes. A few weeks ago my host brother invited me to take pictures of the kids working on their costumes. While I was there I met Adolfredo, the founder and leader of the group. After finding out that I studied photography in school he invited me to accompany the group in several parades as their photographer. As this is probably a once in a lifetime experience, I agreed to do it, despite the rest of my host family warning me it would be hot and tiring.
This past Saturday was the first of the burros salidas (outings). We were told to meet at 1pm to get on the bus to Juan de Acosta, a small town about 30 minutes away. At 1pm I had my camera packed up and ready to go, but my host brother was still getting dressed. Since my North American brain still has not adjusted to the Colombian sense of time, I began to worry they were going to leave without us. Of course when we arrived at the meeting place we discovered the bus hadn’t arrived yet, and it was then that we found out the bus wasn’t due until 2pm. While we waited I was introduced to the other photographer who would be going with us. He had clearly done this before and was already snapping photos of the kids while we waited, so I pulled out my camera and started to acquaint myself with the kids, most of whom I had not met before. Since this would be one of the less grueling parades we had kids as young as 4 or 5 years old.
The bus finally arrived and we somehow squeezed in the 40+ kids and a dozen or so adults, plus all of the masks and drums (for the Cumbia band that would be walking with us). I was very thankful it was only a half hour bus ride because as you can imagine it was crowded, noisy, and hot. Once we arrived we had to walk half a kilometer or so to the start of the parade. After that it was time for my least favorite part of parades: waiting. It was nearly two hours before we started moving. While we waited we got to see many of the other groups, including a variety of dance troupes in traditional costumes and the resplendently dressed Reina (queen) of Carnaval of Juan de Acosta. While one group of dancers practiced several of our burros decided to join them, trying to copy their moves. I soon learned that this is the burros’ entire job, being as silly as possible.
The beginning of the parade was best described as organized chaos. There was no place to line up, just a large crowd of performers, loosely organized into their groups. As the street cleared the next group would melt out of the crowd to take their place. When it was finally the burros’ turn my host brother told me to go up to the front with Adolfredo and his wife who was carrying the flag. I had basically no instructions beyond “take pictures” and had no idea what to expect. The burros organized themselves with the little ones in the front, the big ones in the middle, and the band in the back. As the Mapalé dance troupe in front of us moved down the road, our fearless leader motioned to the kids to stay put and the three of us moved forward twenty feet or so. Suddenly he yelled out “Burros!” and they all came charging down the road. He carried a whistle on him and at his signal they all dropped onto their backs, kicking their feet in the air like burros rolling on the ground. At that point the crow swooped in, pecking at the downed burros, and the tiger pounced upon an unsuspecting kid. I was unprepared for the incredibly enthusiastic response of the crowd. For the entire length of the parade people cheered, laughed, cooed over the little ones, and jumped into the street to take selfies with the big ones. Whenever there was a longer pause in the parade the kids would spread out into the crowd, stealing chairs or sitting on people’s laps, grabbing people to dance with, and poking fun at the crowd and each other, all to the spectators’ delight.
Within about 10 minutes I got the hang of things and ventured out along the edge to get better pictures. On more than one occasion I found myself completely surrounded by burros when the whistle blew, and ended up unable to move due to the kids laying on my feet (and of course they wouldn’t move until the signal came to get up again, leaving me trapped, much to everyone's delight). I spent a significant amount of time stalking the tiger just as he stalked the burros, trying to get the perfect photo of him taking one down. Partway through the parade our group encountered a mimo (mime), who took pleasure in mimicking both the burros and me as I took photos. All in all the biggest challenge was keeping my camera clear of the foam being sprayed by the crowd (see spray cans in photo above).
The parade ended after about an hour and a half and we made our way back to the bus, though not without a few last shenanigans by the kids. But our day wasn’t over yet. The bus took us to Baranoa, a town about 10 minutes from Pital for La Guacherna, a pre-Carnaval parade. Since it was now too dark to take photos I joined my host family to watch the parade while the burros marched again. While I enjoyed walking with the burros, it was also fun to get to see the entire parade. By the time they reached us it was after 11pm and the burros were definitely worn out, but they still couldn’t resist picking on their friends when they saw us sitting right in front.
It was after midnight when we all made it back to Pital. And though it was a long day, I’m glad I didn’t listen to my host family’s warnings about sore feet and exhaustion. As I edit the 400+ photos I took that day I look forward to joining the burros again this weekend on their next salida.
More photos here