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It was a cold October evening, but sitting in my folding chair in front of one of Mexico’s most historic buildings, I was warmed by the excitement in the air.  It had taken more than just the two flights and a nap in the Houston airport to get there that day.  I had ditched my house, sold my possessions and quit my job.  This was the first night of my new life and I was starting it by seeing and hearing the story of chic who was even more rebellious than I am – Bizet’s Carmen.

My move to Mexico coincided exactly with attending my first Cervantino Festival, one of Latin America’s largest performing arts festivals. Carmen, the only opera I’m really familiar with, was a great start.  As the festival continued, I would be awed by dance and circus acts, sit in a celebrated church and hear a group called Los Tiempos Pasados perform Sephardic music on period instruments, and fall in love with the East Village Opera Company (opera rocks! – literally).

Cervantino – The Festival

The festival starts in early October and runs for two weeks (this year October 3-21st). On any given day there are 9-15 performances offered at venues throughout the city.

Prices vary from free to to around 25 US$).  There are free shows every evening.

Acts come from all over the world, but every year there is a featured guest country (or countries, or region) and a featured state (or states) from Mexico.  For 2012, guest countries are Austria, Poland and Switzerland.  Sinaloa is the invited state.

Inti-illimani – my favorite group last year

Ballet Folklorico

The City

Nestled in a canyon in the heart of Mexico, Guanajuato is one of the legendary silver cities.  Narrow allies wind up and down between colorful houses.  Bring good shoes.

Guanajuato was the site of the first major victory in the battle for Mexican independence in 1810.  Mexicans visit Guanajuato to see a piece of their history in the same way that Americans visit Philadelphia.  Some of the festival venues are at historical buildings including the Alhondiga and and the spectacular, turn of the century, Teatro Juarez.

Most of the motor traffic is underground in subterranean streets and tunnels.  This is great if you’re a pedestrian, but it can lead to really bad traffic during busy times (especially Cervantino weekends).

As colorful as a city can be…

The Namesake

The Festival is named for the great Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes (1547- 1616) and homage to his epic work Don Quixote is seen throughout the city.  (There is even an art museum dedicated solely to him.) Apparently, a drama professor from the University of Guanajuato and his students started performing scenes from Don Quixote in one of the public plazas back in the early 70’s.  The Cervantino Festival evolved from that humble tradition.

Don Quixote is considered by some to be the first novel, and librarians have frequently voted it the best book ever written, citing it’s idealism and humor.  Before reading it, I felt intimidated.  It’s a big-ass book and I questioned whether I would understand 400-year-old humor.  However, my fears were for not.  Librarians know what they’re talking about.  Noble, idealistic and completely off his rocker, the adventures of Don Quixote and his lovable side-kick Sancho Panza will likely appeal to most travelers.  This is the story of a man who wants a little more adventure than normal life has to offer, a man who wants to live in a better world, who suffers for his idealism and gets carried away by his reading.  And the 400-year-old humor works just fine.

Some day I’ll try to read it in Spanish – my own version of reaching for the unreachable stars.

Be Prepared!  This is sound advice for nearly any occasion.  On a backpacking trip it usually means bringing enough food, water, and warm clothing.  On a deep sea fishing trip it could mean carrying an adequate amount of sunscreen or filling the cooler with at least a week’s worth of beer, even if the trip is only for a day.  But the average festival typically only requires a fully charged battery in the camera and good walking shoes.  This is not the case for the Yanshui Fire Work Festival.

To experience this festival to the fullest you need to be prepared.  You need to be prepared like the space shuttle is on re-entry.

The standard festival attendee is covered from head to toe; wearing a full face helmet, an ankle length raincoat, several layers of clothing underneath that coat, the thickest work gloves on the market, motorcycle boots, and something long (and hopefully nonflammable) to use as a scarf.  If you happen to have catcher’s gear or a space suit, you might add that to outfit.

There is good reason for this level of protection; the purpose of the festival is to pummel the crowd, some 60,000 to 100,000 people, with rockets.  The city of Yan Shui, a city in Southern Taiwan has set about setting fire to the locals…and the locals love it.

The festival, which was started in the mid 1870s, began as a way to fight off an evil spirit—a spirit that we know as Cholera.

The epidemic must have pushed them a little past their “wits end.” The plan they conjured up to fight back the disease was to “Beehive” the evil out of people.

One quarter of one hive

They created mobile parade floats that we might as well call  movable bombs. They are basically iron framed shelves assembled into large squares.  Mounted on the thin shelves are thousands and thousands of rockets, about two or three times the size of the average bottle rocket.  The whole contraption is called a “Beehive.”

It must have worked; the bad spirit left and hasn’t come back.

Now, I am pathologically unprepared most of the time.  For this festival I wore a hooded pullover, blue jeans with one leg rolled up to keep out of my bike chain, and crocs.  I brought swimming goggles to protect my eyes.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  I looked like I was about to roll into an 8:00am Freshman Philosophy class, and the rest of the crowd looked like poncho sporting Stormtroopers.

The God of War, and also an adept businessman

The show began near the Temple of Kuan Kung, the God of War; a warning shot was fired into the air, and the sparks fell lightly into the surrounding crowd.  I wanted pictures so I tried to fight my way up, and I got pretty close.  The fact that the people around me were heavily protected didn’t seem to register.

Shortly after the warning shot, a fireman grabbed my arm, and said, in English “Is that all you’re wearing?  You need to get out of here right now!”

He rushed off towards the temple, dragging me by the hand.  As we arrived at the temple, a safe enough distance away, the crowd where I had been standing lit up like a bomb fire as the thousands of rockets were fired straight into—INTO—the masses.

Thick smoke rose in the air as rockets whizzed through the mob, reducing those closest to the hive to mere silhouettes in a background of fire.  The scene was stunning.  And right at that moment, as the crescedo of fire built to the climax…my camera died–You’ve got to be prepared!

Shot just before the camera died, and the Bee-hive eruption.

I found my friends, and we ran up the steps of the temple’s museum, up the ladder to the roof, and watched from relative safety as the parade would drive a block, shoot off a warning and then fire the place up like before.  On an on through all the neighborhoods and surrounding townships until the parade eventually came back to the temple, around 3 or 5 am.

“It’s Sunday!  Don’t these people have to work tomorrow?” my friend remarked to a temple worker.

The worker said that not only will they stay up all night following the parade; they’ll go to work, and come back for the next night too.  “Don’t underestimate the power of the god,” he said.

I believe he might be right about that.

And so, I learned a couple of things; always be prepared, and don’t underestimate Kuan Kung, but there was one thing I didn’t learn, and still want to know.  How in the hell did 19th century city dwellers protect themselves against this crazy show?  It kind of makes me think that the reason Cholera disappeared was because everyone who had it was blown to smithereens.  If you know, would you let me know?

Special thanks to Mia Lee, Emily Lewis, and Sharm el Shiekh Holidays.  And as always—Good Journeys!