Cuban music, good atmosphere, the scent of baby powder and a white cloud of dust are in the air over Santa Cruz de la Palma. Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is colorful, hot and sexy, Carnival in Cologne is “Helau” and “alaaf” and Carnival in La Palma is a two-week exceptional state! Here at Los Indianos tons of baby powder fly through the air and at Entierro de la Sardina (burial of the sardine) a giant papier-mâché sardine is set on fire. In short: the Isla Bonita is upside down, it is danced, sung and celebrated exuberantly.
In February 2018 I flew to the Isla Bonita, the beautiful island, La Palma. There was carnival held exactly during this time. A time in which the entire island is upside down and my camera and I were faced with a great challenge. In this blog entry I will introduce you to the highlight of the carnival season, Los Indianos, and what this spectacle meant for my Nikon equipment and me. Then you will learn what the funeral of a sardine has to do with carnival on La Palma.
Los Indianos – back to the colonial era with baby powder
The carnival madness begins on La Palma in early February. There are wig competitions, ambassador’s parade, children’s carnival and lots of music, parties and boisterous atmosphere. But only when the scent of baby powder is in the air and white people walking through the streets, you know that you are approaching the absolute highlight of each year on the island: Los Indianos. The biggest event on La Palma takes place on every Shrove Monday in the island’s capital. On this day Santa Cruz de la Palma turns into small Havana. Even the large Plaza de España is renamed the Plaza de La Habana for this festival because it is Día de Los Indianos – Day of the Indians.
The scenery could not be more impressive: men dressed in white shirts or cream linen suits, a white panama hat on their heads, a cigar in their mouths, (fake) dollar bills or a silk scarf in their pockets, strolling with women through the historic old town, which was declared cultural heritage in 1975. The women wear white or cream-colored, rich sophisticated clothing with lace applications and protect themselves from the sun with a sunshade made of lace. They represent the Indianos. Thus, the expatriates are called on La Palma, who emigrated between the 16th and the early 20th century in several waves of emigration to Latin America, especially Cuba, to find their luck there. After a few years many returned with acquired wealth and were solemnly received by those left behind. They brought from the New World South American rhythms, goods (such as cigars) and customs that have become embedded in the folklore of the island. The tradition of dressing up in white on Rose Monday came about in the 1920s when a small group of carnivalists decided to make a parade through downtown Santa Cruz de la Palma. They dressed in white to mock the returning emigrants. The idea was so well received that this parade was included by the city administration in the official carnival program in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the traditions of mocking the returnees and throwing powder (polvo) joined. However, the tradition throwing powder or talc is much older than wearing white on the Shrove Monday. Historical evidences prove that since the 17th century in the city diligently polvo is thrown around. It is believed, on the one hand, that powdering goes back to giving the skin a pale appearance. Other sources, in turn, assume that the goods of the ships entering the port were sprinkled with powder to prevent the spread of introduced diseases.
In addition to the white accompanied gentlemen, one finds from time to time also “African American servants”, which were brought by the emigrants. The figurehead La Negra Tomasa is a charming character, which was first embodied by Víctor Díaz Molina in the early 1990s.
For the Rose Monday 2018, the weathermen predicted a rain probability of 90%. Fortunately, it rained only very briefly, quite easily, which saved me and the over 80,000 visitors of the festival a mud fight (just for comparison: the island capital has about 18,000 inhabitants, the entire island about 85,000).
Imagine this scenery: the streets of the historic old town full of in white colonial style clothed people dancing and celebrating to Cuban music, who throw around baby powder. I just had to capture that with my Nikon D5!
Baby powder versus Camera
We photographers, no matter if an ambitious amateur or professional photographers, pay close attention that nothing happens or comes to close to our beloved camera and the optics. Especially dust, sand and powder are declared enemies of our equipment. So how diving into a crowd that does throw with baby powder around? And how best to protect the good piece?
I really saw everything that day: cameras with powder, cameras in garbage bags, cameras in underwater housings and cameras that stayed at home and were swapped for cell phones. I did not have my underwater case with me, but I did not want to miss the spectacle, so what to do? I chose a simple, cheap, but probably most effective option. In the supermarket, I bought for 60 cents 30 meter cling film and decided to leave my F-Stop photo backpack with my optics far away from the festival and took only my Nikon D5 and my AF-S NIKKOR 105 mm 1: 1.4 E ED. I opted for the 105mm, because it allowed me to keep enough distance to the powder, the depth of field with this optic is just great, it has a nice bokeh and of course an excellent quality. Both wrapped well in 6 meters cling film, so everything should stay fresh and protected. The problem: handling of the buttons and little wheels was more than difficult and the control view of the display was pretty much impossible. With this option you really need to know your camera inside out and know what ISO and aperture values are needed for each situation.
Later in the evening I changed the lens to an AF-S NIKKOR 35mm 1:1.4G. However, changing the optics took place far away from the festival. All Santa Cruz de la Palma was covered with a fine layer of powder and so the distance had to be large enough that the sensor of the Nikon D5 remained protected. Before that, however, it had to be freed from the 6-meter cling film. In doing so, I made sure that my hands were clean and nothing came on the body. I was amazed how well this option worked. My camera was 99% clean and the rest was easy to blow away. After the lens change, it was wrapped again in 5 meters of cling film and I went back to the nocturnal turmoil. In the evening not so much powder flew around, but the camera should still be packed well. Also the last part of the evening survived my Nikon equipment thanks to cling film without much powder contact.
Another tip for the photographer: If you want to participate in such traditional celebrations, you should adapt as well as possible to swim in the crowd. For example, I had dressed completely in white. Some tourists, who ran by chance into the festival, were powdered from top to bottom. It is also worth wearing sunglasses and a scarf in front of the mouth to protect yourself from the powder. Some people got the stuff in their eyes, which can be a pretty unpleasant situation.
Despite that, I can only warmly recommend Los Indianos!