Oh, we thought we were so smart…
…we had totally cracked the system by arriving at Cali bus terminal at 11:30pm. We would surely be at the front of the queue when the ticket booths selling bus tickets to Pasto finally opened at 3am: the envy of all other tourists; an impressed nod from the locals – these gringos really know their ‘filas!’
Oh how naive we were.
It turned out we were not the only people with this bright idea. When we arrived at 11:50pm we were confronted with a queue so enormous it curled around the whole terminal. The look on peoples’ faces and the state of their clothes suggested they’d been there for days: people had brought blankets, pillows, snacks and thermos flasks ready for the tough conditions to follow. When I asked people what day they were currently releasing tickets for, they looked at me with a blank expression, as if they’d been in the queue so long they were slowly going mad: a terminal torture chamber. No-one knew what day it was anymore. But I did. It was the 2nd January and everyone in the world was travelling to Pasto for the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros – one of Colombia’s biggest events of the year, and recently awarded UNESCO heritage status.
At the front of the queue it turned into a bottle neck about 6 people wide and 12 people deep. There seemed to be absolutely no system and every few minutes the crowd screamed and waved their fists, as presumably new bus tickets were released. It was absolute chaos.
There was ONE security guard in the entire terminal who was getting swamped with questions. When I asked him the best way to get to Pasto, he told me ‘to get to Pasto you need to… have a lot of patience.’
There were a couple of other queues for smaller bus companies so we split up. Kate’s queue was showing promise but about 1:15am just ground to a halt as the one person behind the desk left without warning. Everyone just slept on their bags and waited. Intermittently someone would try and push in greeted by a chorus of ‘la fila la fila LA FIIIILAAAAAAAA!!!!!’ (the line!) People were NOT putting up with queue-jumpers for these tickets…
Every now and then a ticket tout would run through the terminal announcing a new ‘bus’ that had arrived and a surge of people would sprint to the window to try and get a ticket, but always came back moments later saying they’d sold out. I think they were just trying to get people out of the queue.
I asked some nearby women about the ticket ‘system’. Of about 9 bus companies running service to Pasto, only one sold tickets in advance and these sold out in minutes. The other companies only sold tickets for that same day, because of the huge quantities of numbers travelling. This didn’t make sense, ‘but surely, if they know people will be travelling they should sell tickets in advance.’ ‘Yes, but they don’t know if the buses will be coming so they don’t want to sell tickets for buses that don’t exist.’
And so it all became clear. There weren’t enough buses to cope with the amount of people. They had no idea what buses were coming, or when. When they learned of a bus’s whereabouts, they sold a ticket. In the meantime – we would just have to wait.
It was 4:30am before we finally got to the front of the queue. They gave us tickets for 7:15am – I’ve never been so happy in my life!
When the bus finally arrived I felt like Rose in the Titanic when the rescue boats come back for her…
It didn’t matter that our 8 hour bus journey was actually 10, or that ‘The Call’, the worst film of all time was playing (Halle Berry what were you THINKING!) because when we finally arrived in Pasto, Luis, our ANGEL was waiting to meet us. He took us to his house, gave us towels, showers, fresh clothes, food and water… and we were ready to face the music.
We spent the first evening watching the opening procession of carnaval where the highlight were some dancing guinea pigs (cuys). We were told to wear ‘ponchos viejos’ and clothes we didn’t mind getting ruined.
The Blancos y Negros dates back to the time of the slaves where on the 5th January, the day before epiphany, everyone (slaves and masters) would paint their faces black and on the 6th, everyone would paint their faces white. This has merged now into a 7 day festival where the black (facepaint) and the white – (chalk and foam called ‘cariocas’) is chucked and smeared in abundance throughout the entire week.
Before we went outside…
You are never safe at carnaval – especially when kids are around – they are the worse. The only thing to do is to cover your face us much as possible (bandana, big sunglasses, hat) and arm yourself with at least one, if not two cariocas… let the battle commence.
Day 2 was probably one of the most unforgettable days of my life – nothing could have prepared me. I have never laughed so much or been so covered in crap and not given a hoot!
From midday until midnight we took part in a foam warfare accompanied by quisindisindi (Andean folk music) and merengue mashup, a LOT of face paint and perhaps a couple of drops of local spirit – fondly referred to as aguardiente (when in Pasto…) and just got involved!
We had to have a day of rest – to wash the flour out of our hair and the face paint off our faces, although I still can’t get that UV off my glasses almost two weeks later. And then we slept, ready for Day 6 – the procession.
Psychedelic madness did ensue: a giant Mad Hatter that sneered from side to side; a mermaid whose tail opened up to reveal a band; an elephant whose trunk squirted foam… this was the procession ‘las carrocas’ (or floats) that are made throughout the year.
There were also incredible dancers and musicians parading through the streets:
This time we were on a balcony, so far from the squirting foam, but we had an amazing view of people getting covered (the policeman get hit the worst). But the kids still got us on the balcony, and crossing the street was still a near-death experience.
We ended our trip to Pasto with a bag of very dirty clothes, a week’s worth of sleep due and some excellent if not hazy memories. We wrote a song to say thank you to Luis and his Dad for being such amazing hosts. Thank you, Pasto!