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La Fiesta del Jaripeo

I hung suspended by my seat belt in the passenger seat of a crumpled 4-Runner, looking down through the fragmented windshield at the trunk of a tree.

It had been quite a weekend in sunny El Salvador.

I'd first heard about Potonico's Fiesta del Jaripeo the day before from Carlos, a local I'd met atop an impressive bridge spanning the Río Lempa in northern El Salvador. After a week of touring the country's rain-starved, shredded wheat-coloured countryside, the opportunity to experience a bona fide Salvadoran fiesta was one I simply couldn't pass by.

An hour later I rolled into Potonico, a pretty little pueblo kissing the Lempa's muddy banks, and into what seemed more like a potential fiesta rather than an actual one. Clusters of men milled around the central plaza drinking cervesas, a huge, rickety-looking ferris wheel towered over the courtyard below and in a gazebo-like structure in the corner a small brass band appeared to be warming up for something big.

After a brief stop at a nearby eatery, I wandered down to one of the narrow streets fanning off the plaza, where a small crowd was beginning to gather.

No sooner had I entered the crowd than the band I had seen earlier sent forth a burst of horns from within its midst, and the whole street transformed spontaneously into a dancing, sweaty mass of humanity. At the centre of the party a throng of costumed revelers pulsed in time with the music in a confusing frenzy of colour and sound. Some wore large rubber masks, others were on stilts throwing candy to the children and at least one was disguised as a decidedly Latin American, pinata-headed Mickey Mouse. Every few minutes the music stopped and the crowd paraded a few metres down the street before erupting in another frenzy of song and dance.

La Fiesta del Jaripeo is celebrated in Potonico every year during the last weekend of February to honour the pueblo's patron saint. It's one of countless "fiestas patronales" celebrated throughout the country as communities large and small gather to honour their respective, and respected, saints.

As I was succumbing to the rhythm of the fiesta, I heard a friendly shout from behind me and turned to see Carlos, surrounded by friends and relatives, enjoying a cervesa on a shaded terrace alongside the street. Never one to refuse good company, I joined the gang for a Pilsner, El Salvador's best local beer. Well, one Pilsner turned into three or four, and around the time my new "family" began pouring shots of vile imported vodka, it was decided that I would enjoy the remainder of the festivities in their company.

After lunching on chicken tomales at Carlos' childhood home, we piled into his 4-Runner and sped off to the rodeo on the edge of town.

The rodeo was remarkably unremarkable, which jived perfectly with its barren locale, a corral of steel fences and bleachers forming a makeshift stadium in a dusty brown field. At the announcer's cue, local riders came not-quite charging through the gates on the backs of half-lethargic bulls being taunted with sticks and red rags by two bedraggled clowns. Nonetheless, my friends and I cheered along raucously with the surprisingly abundant audience as we took turns returning from the stadium's lone beer vendor with six-packs of warm Pilsner.

About two hours and several rounds later a well-saturated Carlos sped us back into town fast and aggressive enough that I realized, even through my own pixilated haze, that him behind the wheel was a bad idea, even notwithstanding the multitude of children lining every street.

The festive spirit, and the numerous ingested ones, washed the next couple of hours into a bit of a blur, but the next thing I remember it was dark and we were sitting on a quiet hill overlooking the entire town. Below us, the ferris wheel had sprung to life, and we could barely hear the screams of gleeful children whirling through the night air.  

After our hilltop reprieve we returned home for more tamales followed by sweet, grainy coffee that was just as tasty as it was repulsive to look at. After dinner, as I considered retreating to my tent in front of Carlos' adobe home for some well-earned shut-eye, I was advised to wash up and prepare for the dance. Oh, the night was still young!

The dance was held in a large nondescript building off Potonico's main plaza that was teeming with youngsters dancing to the live stylings of what must have been El Salvador's answer to N' Sync. I tried my best to mimic the fluid movements of my Latin chaperones, but having grown up on polkas and line dancing in rural Manitoba, my version of the cumbia came out more like the chicken dance on Prozac.

A few things distinguished this place from your typical North American Latin dance club, not the least of which was the men's washroom. It featured two designated urinals in the center of an otherwise bare room and about five young men at any one time lined up along the walls relieving themselves wherever they pleased. By the end of the night there was a two-inch pool of what I told myself was just water blanketing the entire room.

I awoke the next morning, surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to the giggles of two girls who were being regaled with tales of a hopelessly unrhythmical Canadian house guest. As I sipped my morning coffee I learned that I had been officially dubbed "Mariposa," Spanish for butterfly, for my unique arm palpitations the night before.

Jaripeo's festivities had culminated with the dance on Saturday night, and so Sunday was a restful day of fishing, drinking and unsuccessful dance lessons with my new Salvadoran amigos.

When Carlos offered to drive me up the perilous mountain road to the northern city of Chalatenango that afternoon, I judged him sober enough for the task and foolishly accepted.

About ten minutes of skidding tires and dated dance music later, Carlos' beloved 4-Runner met its untimely end. Luckily, we'd careened off the rocky road at a rare spot that wasn't bordered by a precipitous slope and had fallen only about a metre. Still, it was fortunate that no one was hurt.

I suppose the lesson I should have taken home from Potonico is that drinking and driving will inevitably catch up to you. The piece of wisdom I did glean from that weekend, however, and that I still respect to this day, is the following: Never trust the judgment of a man who stands in a pool of urine and tells himself it's water.

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