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Masks, Music, and Fire: Carnaval in Alicante, Spain

Carnaval is one of the most important holidays of the year, not only in Spain but also in the majority of Spanish-speaking countries in the world. Luckily for my CEA group and I, Alicante just happens to be the Carnaval hotspot of Spain - people come from all over to join the festivities in the city center of Alicante. It is without a doubt the biggest, craziest, most fun party I have ever experienced!

Carnaval is a very old, well-loved tradition, which originated as part of the Christian religious calendar. Like Mardi Gras in the United States, Carnaval is a huge, extravagant celebration right before Lent, the forty-day period of fasting and strict rules before Easter. In Spain, the celebration lasts almost a week: here in Alicante, the festivities began on a Thursday, reached their peak on Saturday, and concluded on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. During this time, the city center was even more full of life than usual - streets were blocked off and decorated, restaurants boomed, people went around in costume, parades were frequent, and the plazas in el Barrio (the popular center of nightlife) had live music almost every night.

The Carnaval festivities both began and ended with a parade, throngs of people starting at one end of the center and moving up into el Barrio where a giant party awaited. These parades were somewhat terrifying - a special group of people dressed up as demons, all in red with horns and tails, and ran around brandishing torches that shot off fireworks. This is part of the tradition, a Pagan-like firework show to rebel against the arrival of ultra-religious Lent. On Wednesday night when the festival concluded, this also included el Entierro de la Sardina - literally, the burial of the sardine. In a bitingly satirical mock-Catholic mass service, the people "prayed" to a giant papier-mache sardine to deliver them from the current political and social injustices. Afterward, the special team set fire to the sardine, dancing demonically around the plaza.

Friday night continued to demonstrate the highly anti-establishment aspect of Carnaval in Spain, both religious and political. On Friday night people dressed up as political figures and performed skits that mercilessly made fun of current political events.

Saturday night was the apex of the Carnaval celebrations - what a night! The entire city of Alicante and all the party-goers from out of town poured onto La Rambla, the main avenue in the city center (just a block from my apartment!) No matter their age, everyone dressed up in costumes - from this group of hippies... these adorable little bumble bees, with whom I just had to pose for a photo... these adorable little bumble bees, with whom I just had to pose for a photo...

One of the things I loved most about Carnaval was all the music! The city center was basically transformed into an arena for open-air concerts for seven nights in a row. Local bands of all different styles played. On Saturday night a group rocked out on pop and classic rock songs for a packed crowd gathered on La Rambla. My friends and I were right at the front of the crowd, singing along at the top of our lungs.

 Saturday night concert

Wednesday night's music was my favorite! After the burning of la sardina, a local band called Pura Mandanga took the stage and turned the plaza into a giant, euphoric dance floor. They're a talented group of local guys, and their music is made up of original songs with amazing variety - everything from Reggae to jazz to rock.

Carnaval was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my time in Spain. Not only was it crazy fun, it was also a fascinating cultural experience that will stick with me for the rest of my life!

Hillary Harder is the Spring 2014 CEA MOJO in Alicante, Spain. She is a currently a junior at Goshen College.

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