It was 3:30am when we came through the door of Graciela’s home on the outskirts of Barranquilla.
“Come, my children,” she says, standing up from the table in the dining room, where she’d been sitting with her daughter. “You must be hungry. Do you want some sopa?”
We nodded gratefully and Graciela placed steaming bowls of chicken soup in front of us, chunks of sweetcorn and potato submerged in it. In breaks between eating, her daughter acts as translator when our basic Spanish gives out.
“We saw you at the carnival today!” I point at myself, point at my eyes, point at her, then attempt some rudimentary salsa steps. Graciela laughs heartily.
That morning, in her resplendent outfit of reds, greens, yellows and blacks, her dark hair all done up and her dress flowing about her, she’d driven us as close as we could get to the parade. We walked the final ten minutes down dusty roads where chickens pecked and excited children dashed from house to brightly-painted house. 100dB floods of reggaeton, salsa and vallenato music emanated from a hundred different speaker systems.
Nothing can prepare you for being a gringo at the carnival in Barranquilla. After much haggling, we paid 15,000 pesos (£4) to get into an enclosure where the smoke of grilling and the distinctive hiss of opening cans filled the air. The onslaught on all senses can at times be overwhelming, as music, bright colours, smells, local flavours, and textures combine as the city comes together for three days of parade and fiesta. Flour is rubbed into white faces. Locals, armed with huge cans of bubblegum-scented foam, spray it profusely, targeting the obvious travellers with well-aimed spumes. Over the waves of music, there’s whistles and yells as patrons in the front row call for “dos Aguilas”, the local Colombian lager, or grilled sticks of meat straight off the barbecue. Ahead of us, toiling under the sun’s rays, dancers in the most garish outfits compete for attention, showing no sign of fatigue. Float after float comes past, greeting the excited crowds as they pass.
“There she is!” comes a cry, as we spot Graciela among forty others, dancing around an enormous yellow bull, its horns tipped in gold and streamers billowing. Despite the heat, the dancers’ moves are in sync, their twirls and spins beautifully-timed. She beams as she sees us. Now, following my gringo dance moves, she’s wearing that same smile.
“Si,” she says, then turns to her daughter, who translates: “But now, it’s time to rest. Tomorrow we do it all again.”