The crazy ranchera band that was partly responsible for the even crazier crowd.

Completely surrounded, I try my best to push through the crowd without getting separated from the rest of the group. There are people pressing in on all sides but nobody is moving in the same direction. Some are dancing while others are ducking away to one of the many food stalls lining the fair ground. The rest are just being shoved back and forth by the dense pack of moving bodies. It is like a wave of Japanese commuters clamouring onto an already overflowing bullet train, only more chaotic.

The noise of the ranchera band blares from the mainstage not far away and the bright lights break up the night sky. A little further from the action things look slightly calmer and we are heading in that direction. But everyone else seems to be intent on stopping us. A bony body part jolts my elbow right before a large buttocks brushes past my stomach. I breathe in deeply just as an unseen assailant steps on my toes, sending me crashing into to somebody else. For a brief moment I consider apologising but decide it’s not really worth the effort. They probably won’t be able to hear me in all the noise.

“This must be what it’s like to be caught up in a stampede,” I think to myself. It’s only a slight exaggeration.

It’s the night before Chile’s national holiday and I’m with Leonel, Katty, her sister, Isabel, and brother-in-law, Pedro, at the local fonda – a massive carnival where people gather to eat, drink and dance as they celebrate the fiestas patrias. It’s a big deal.

There’s a fairground atmosphere with ferris wheels, jumping castles, a circus top and dozens of food stalls serving traditional drinks and dishes. All the menus are basically the same: empanadas (a pastie shaped pastry a bit like a meat pie only with real meat, an olive, a saltana and a slice of boiled egg), anticuchos (kebabs) and choripans (a spicy sausage on a bun) to be washed down with chicha (a fermented apple drink fairly similar to cider) and terremotos (literally earthquakes, these potent cocktails contain a lot of cheap wine, a bit of fernet and a generous scoop of pineapple ice cream).

The air is thick with smoke from all the coal barbecues and filled with the sound of cheerful shouts and loud conversations. It’s a merry type of mayhem. And in case anyone has forgotten, there are tri-colour flags and bunting everywhere: we are here to celebrate Chile’s freedom from the Spanish, not just our right to the freedom of association.

Over by the stage, we’re still getting tossed about in the crowd. Making things worse, I’m carrying two plastic cups in my outstretched arms filled with terremotos. One is mine and the other belongs to Pedro who is shuffling along in front of me, his hands full of food. He insisted on shouting me the drink and given the circumstances I happily agreed. But now, despite my best efforts to keep the drinks steady, they slosh around in the middle of the choppy human sea, spilling down my arm and onto Pedro and the people around us.

A woman turns and glares at me, saying sometihng about wet hair. This time I do say sorry as I shrug my shoulders helplessly. “Disculpeme!” The look on her face suggests she isn’t satisfied with the apology and I brace myself for a verbal barrage. But just as she’s about to let fire, someone else pushes in front of her and we become separated in the crowd. I don’t complain.

Thankfully though, I am not separated from Pedro and I manage to stay in his slip stream as he expertly navigates the moving mass of bodies. Up ahead, Leonel has managed to find a relatively calm spot and he signals to the rest of us to follow. Freedom is in site! With renewed energy, I barge forward and after copping two more elbow blows and a surprisingly sharp kick to the shin, I break free from the tidal wave and join the others.

We all breathe a sigh of relief and turn our attention to the stage where the ranchera music is still pumping along. Dressed in bright, white suits and cowboy hats, the band members step from side to side, swinging their hips in a way that only true latinos can. It’s infectious. Spread out on the field, we echo their moves, raising our hands and jumping when they tell us to.

It’s a lot of fun but after a couple of songs, I start to feel a little dizzy. Noticing my state, Pedro turns to me, a huge grin spread across his face.

“How was the terremoto?” he asks.

“Good,” I reply, “but a little strong.”

Now he laughs.

“I said to the guy at the stall that it was for a gringo and told him to make it extra strong. Pongale todo!” He says, laughing even more.

I grin too as I roll my eyes. Viva Chile!

Advertisements