The other day I breezed out of the house after a long day of work, heading to the Malecón for a walk along the water, something I do to a) get a little exercise and b) remind myself that I am in the Dominican Republic, mere blocks from the Caribbean Sea, and I should not stay cooped up all the time.
The start of my walk was normal enough. I crossed busy Avenida Independencia quickly and cautiously, passed the neighborhood houses and small yards adorned with palm trees, walked by the taxi drivers and policia, who were, as always, sitting in plastic chairs wearing bored expressions.
When I reached the Malecón, I noticed something peculiar: The major street there, which is usually packed with cars speeding in both directions, was eerily quiet and devoid of the usual traffic hell. So I took the opportunity to do something I rarely get to do: I dashed across the middle of the street, not having to walk down to the safer roundabout to cross.
What is going on today? I thought to myself.
Walking down just a few blocks, I encountered women and children walking in the middle of the street in colorful costumes, and suddenly it clicked.
A few more blocks down and there were more costumes—some ridiculous, some downright scary. Then came blasts of music in all directions, and I noticed spectators generally heading toward the same main thoroughfare. So I followed, and eventually I stumbled on parade, and surrounding it, party ground zero: a raucous mix of frantic beats, hyper young men and the smug girls they were flirting with, and whatever other shenanigans may result from the deadly mix of Presidente and Brugal.
Carnaval is a celebration that takes place throughout the Dominican Republic in the month of February, though the festivities intensify closer to February 27, the country’s independence day. It’s apparently been celebrated on the island since the 1500s.
Though the costumes people wear are bizarre enough to seem random, there is in fact a deep tradition behind them. Diablo Cojuelo (Limping Devil) is a reoccurring character, and his modus operandi is to run around hitting people with air-filled animal bladders. I saw plenty of this going on, but at the time I had no idea that I was witnessing a centuries-long tradition. It just sort of seemed like young men being rowdy.
“Though the costumes people wear are
bizarre enough to seem random,
there is in fact a deep tradition behind them.”
There’s also Roba La Gallina, where a man disguises himself as a woman in order to steal chickens. This one may not be as relevant in the big city, but I did in fact see one man adorned in a flowy, pink gown holding a live chicken.
All in all, I’d say the theme of the day was a spicy mix of cross-dressing, debauchery, loud music, and long-held traditions expressed in the most Dominican of ways. I thoroughly enjoyed it.