I took a deep breath and counted to five. Exhaled. Then I took another and did the same. Beside me, Maruja patted my hand as the waves of claustrophobia washed over me.
The last time I’d been in an elbow-in-the-rib and backed up against a sea of bodies was at the Zigong Lantern Festival in China in 1987. Whenever the people in the foreigner affairs office at the university wanted to go somewhere or to do something, they would arrange an outing for the expat teachers. We were always a great excuse.
Over a million people had gathered in Zigong. I took a couple of happy snaps of the fireworks and lasted about four and a half minutes before I had to get out of the crowd.
The Medellin Event of the Year
The Fieria de las Flores started on July 29 and partied on until August 9th. During that time there was something for everyone: the botanical gardens hosted an orchid and birds display, a parade of thousands of horses wound their way through the city streets, an expose of antique cars was on exhibit events for the kids were on offer, street dances — both planned and spontaneous – happened and copious amounts of aguardiente, the local hooch, was consumed.
It was a massive party that I managed to avoid.
Thousands of people had already gathered along the street of San Juan for the final event of the Feria de las Flores. And there were thousands more were arriving by the minute.
To make sure we got a good space we had arrived early and sat on the pavement for two hours. Then when the first silletero –a chair-carrier covered with flowers – appeared all hell broke loose as the pavement-sitters collectively lunged towards the barricade lined with police for crowd control.
The chair-carriers are the traditional way to move goods and people the 40 km or so up the mountain to Santa Helena, the flower producing capital of Colombia. The idea is that the loads are piled up, but the person can then sit down and rest on the chair. For the feria – festival or party– the chairs are decorated with intricate flower patterns, lifted onto people’s backs and balanced with a piece of cloth on the forehead.
Not for shrinking violets, the men, women and children all get into decorating their respective chairs. And the larger ones can weigh up to 75kg. There were also singers, dancers, musicians and clowns dancing around on stilts as part of the procession.
Actually I didn’t see much as peeking through people doesn’t make for a great view, but every once in a while I would catch a glimpse. There was no mistaking the cheering and yelling of the crowd.
After about an hour or so Maruja and I escaped the crowd and joined her partner, Eidad, who is tall enough to see over the crowd. He got some great video footage. I reverted to regular breathing and we strolled around the area.
Small Towns, Big Crowds
Monday morning on the news I learned a million people had been to the final ceremony of Fiera de las Flores, so no wonder it felt like shades of Zigong. Hells bells you would have to gather everyone in the entire province of Saskatchewan to amass a crowd like that.
Perhaps it is because I was raised in small towns that I really can’t cope with crowds I suppose I could get counselling to overcome my fear of crowds and heights, but why bother as they are both dangerous? Until they installed a chute in Mecca, for example, hundreds of Muslims died every year as they stampeded to touch the 30 cm by 1.5 meters Black Stone.
Am I glad I went to the Feria de las Flores? Of course. Would I do it again? Of course not.
If you want to get in on the action from the comfort and safety of wherever, check these links as the feria really is spectacular: