by Julie Philip
Location: La Vega, Dominican Republican, Caribbean
Since moving to the Dominican Republic to teach six months earlier, all I kept hearing from the locals is, “You have to go to Carnival in February!” I imagined wild and wondrous celebrations not unlike the Brazilian Carnival so often seen on TV. So, come February, my friends and I were determined to visit the Carnival in the small town of La Vega, generally considered the best place for Carnival in the DR, with a 500-year tradition.
Driving there is half the adventure. Luckily, my friend had a car, so we didn’t have to travel the usual way of gua-gua – the overcrowded but cheap public transportation common with locals. It took about three hours to get there from our town, Cabarete, on the North Coast. The roads are covered with big, deep potholes, and the roads barely pass for two lanes; no dividing lines of course. Like most Latin countries, the rules of the road are, well, there are no rules. But the locals seem to have some logic to their chaos.
After our nail-biting trip through the mountains, we arrived in La Vega. We headed downtown for the festivities. What we saw was a mass of people slowly walking down the street. We figured they must be walking to where the entertainment was, so we joined in the slow, crowded, hot parade. The distant sound of merengue music was in the air, so we figured we were headed in the right direction. Along the sides of the roads, families stood about, watching us walk along. It sort of felt like we were the entertainment, though we were by no means doing anything remotely entertaining.
After starting to feel quite disappointed with it all, the crowd suddenly started to get excited and quickly dispersed in all directions. Us dumb gringos were left standing all alone in the middle of the street wondering what the hell was going on. Suddenly, a big gate off a side road opened and about fifteen costumed creatures came running out towards us as if the gates of hell were being opened!
So my friends and I hit the pavement running. Then suddenly from behind I felt something hit my butt and felt my knees buckle beneath me from the pain. The evil costumed diablos conjuelos (literally ‘lame devil’) carried, what looked to me like a hard balloon attached to the end of the rope. They are, in reality, inflated cow bladders, cleverly disguised in colorful fabrics. They swing and hurl these things around like weapons and hit you – only females – on your keister. And they don’t hold back- they nail you HARD!!
So for us, Carnival consisted of running and hiding from these crazy devils. I ended up getting hit from behind about twenty times; I was honestly almost near tears it hurt so badly. Once you got into a safe viewing range, however, the masks and costumes are absolutely fantastic- shiny, colorful fabrics and horned, elaborate, grotesque masks that are handmade and different according to each region in the Dominican Republic.
Even up to a couple months after Carnival I was still insistent that I would never go again. Though, much like childbirth, after the memory of the pain fades away, you’re ready and excited to do it once again.
Text & photos © Julie Philip 2004, All Rights Reserved