Spanish School and Carnival – Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Classroom at Spanish By The SeaAlthough most of the instructors (Aicel and Esteban, to name my 2 favorites) were fantastic, the Spanish By The Sea administration left me wanting. Firstly, their confirmation letter states ‘be there 18:00 Sunday for orientation and an oral and written placement exam’. An email to me also requested I be there a few minutes early to pay in full (they only take cash). I arrived 5:53, showed my deposit confirmation and paid the rest. I asked for a receipt, but the large Nordic woman wanted to wait ‘until later’. One thing you learn when you travel – NEVER give over cash, especially a large sum – without a written receipt. I asked her to at least sign my confirmation letter. At the end of an hour long chat about the island, three of us who were not lodging at the school wanted to know when we were going to take our placement test. Helga (name changed to protect, well, me considering she’s a 6-foot plus, buxom Viking) bellowed, “You’ve not taken the exam? You were supposed to do that earlier.”  So no oral exam just a rushed written 10 page exam warranting a mere 15 seconds perusal by Helga – she must be a fabulous speed reader – had her declaring our placement for our first week of schooling.

The major complaint, even by the instructors, was the ever changing schedule. You needed to check the schedule every morning, before 1 PM and then again before they close at 7:30 – it’s like the shell and pea game – you’ve got to keep a vigilant eye on the thing or you’ll miss something and pay dearly. I learned that the hard way when I’d checked the schedule at noon after my second day of 4 hours of morning classes. I was still in a particular room with a particular instructor for my 5th and 6th hour, but when I returned at 5 PM, Helga exclaimed “Oh no! You missed your class!” What? I guess I’d not checked the time – they’d moved it from 5 to 3 PM. There had been only one other person Beginner Diabloin the class and he missed it too. Gee, I wonder why. Then she had the nerve to say, “Oh and it’s Tuesday so you need to pay”. I felt like punching her out but she was a lot taller and thicker than I was so I opted for an angry disgusted look as I reminded her I’d paid the other night and could produce the receipt. In the end she let me make up the 2 hours the following week (I was lucky I was there to study for 2 weeks) and I made it through – albeit with my head swimming with a bit too much Spanish after 2 weeks of intensive studying.

Bocas is small island town on Isla Colon but they take Carnival seriously. Juan, from Casa Verde, had reserved part of the upper terrace of Ron Don’s (across the street from the main park square) so we had a good upper viewing of the festivities. There was a large lighted stage with DJs throughout the weekend, but the most intriguing part was the dance of the devils.  Around 4PM on Saturday, costumed men, some boys, began to arrive in head-to-toe all red costumes. All the costumes are handmade, bells jingling around their ankles as they stomped through, the devils employing whips to encourage the crowd to press back to the edges. As the red devils part the sea of humanity, the red and black devils arrive – their duplex color indicative of their intermediate level. As the crowd presses back, idiots, challengers, with meter-long wrist-thick branches begin to challenge the devils. The sticks are used to protect the challengers’ legs from the whips as they attempt to goad the devils (WMV video) .  The big guns then start to arrive all in black. They are one step below the master level: the master level takes at least six years of dedicated training and performance to aspire to. Now the whipping and devils dance begin in force (AVI video clip). A troop of challengers form a concentric circle in the middle of the street, sticks at the ready. Carnival Challengers CircleOther challengers flit in and out from the edges and if they are “trapped” by several devils, they fall to their knees so the devils cannot continue their whipping; hoping at this point to be rescued by the mass of challengers keeping a wary eye in the middle. Nice idea, but mostly the “sucks to be you” attitude prevails and the rogue challenger has to limp away – usually without his stick since the more advanced guys are rather adept at snagging it with the whip and flinging it yards away. Finally the masters come out – just two this time – and they are in black costumes fringed with white. Things become fever pitched as challengers and devils alike try to gain the upper hand. Cops are everywhere to try to maintain order, but you can feel the tension in the air and at one point I had to look away from a challenger Carnival Night Stagewhose calves were full of bloody welts. “Uhm, shouldn’t someone maybe take him to the hospital?”

At 6PM all the devils unmask and the challengers can see just who gave them the worst whoopin’. Challenges continue but things start to die down; Moms take pictures of their kids with their favorite devil and the injured challengers hobble away. As the night stage starts to awaken, I snake my way back to Casa Verde, my calves twitching in sympathy for the challengers, I weigh the importance of tradition against the ability to walk without a limp.

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