Sympathy for the Devils by Suzanne Russo

Nieve cascades around me, a trickle of it oozing down my cheek as I rush through the crowd of dancing, singing, powder-frosted revelers. I’m trying to keep Nena in my sight, but she is fast, on a mission. We’ve visited three shops with no luck. When Nena asks for (of all things) Heineken, the tiny men in the tiny bodegas invariably frown, apologize, and gesture to case after chilly case of chilled Salta and Quilmes beers, none able to offer the beer bottled an ocean away. I cannot understand the insistence on Heineken, but what do I know? The shoes I am wearing are not my own.


I no longer quite know how I ended up in a dusty Argentine town barely larger than the wooden saint bracelet that somehow found its way onto my wrist, much less why I am covered in muck and following a Colombian jewelry vendor in search of a Dutch beer. The past two days are a haze, as foggy as the chalky talco that coats every exposed inch of me.


There was the gentle whisper of a whim back in Buenos Aires: “Psst… Carnaval… psst… adventure...” That seedling had somehow blossomed into an overnight bus ride to an unknown town and a party imagined far more exotic and tropical than its earthy, raucous reality. Then came was the faithful knocking only to be told that the two inns in town had no more room, a heathen’s version of the Christmas story on the day the devil was disinterred from the mountains for a week of mingling with mankind.


That’s how the family I’d found explained Carnaval celebrations, right before they piled me into the wayback of the station wagon, where I chatted with young twins Octavio y Julia while watching the sun set streaky red mountains. Somehow after a drinking, eating, and dancing, I hobbled on stubbed toe to let the family know that I had found a place to sleep, pausing my partying only long enough to pose for a picture with the twins, all of us wearing our matching llama sweaters. I floated off, pleased with myself and my adventure, not knowing where the party would take me, and not really caring either.


The next day brought music, parades, and a pair of sneakers from the friendly lady running my hostel, who explained that my sandals were inappropriate for traipsing through the mountains (my poor toe agreed). Outside there were flurries of nieve, a foamy substance shot through the air or tossed in exploding eggs. It stuck to my hair, my face, my clothing, mingling with talco and confetti in a sticky Carnaval mess. I paused for a break on the terraced steps of the Monumento a los Héroes de la Independencia, an imposing war memorial, and it was while I was reclining against a stone wall that I met Poncho, a fast-talking Colombian who sidled over and doused me with talco.


I wasn’t sure I should be sitting with Poncho, Nena, and their band of gypsies, but they were friendly and fun, and they explained the diablos, who danced about in their colorful, jester-esque costumes, as personifications of the devil, mingling unknown with the crowds in a week of letting loose. I was nominated to accompany Nena on the quest for beer, presumably so that I could pay, and off we rushed.


Now I’m standing in the street, looking for Nena. An egg of nieve explodes in my face just before I see her, and then a familiar melody starts, and we step behind a parked car to watch the approaching parade. Flutes sing, devils dance, and I’ve just realized and I suddenly look over to see Nena being swooped away by a diablo. I have just enough time to laugh (and wonder if I’ll ever see my new friend again) when a second devil scoots up and whisks me into the fray.  He twirls me with his tail as we snake our way through the streets, breathless and heady. No longer concerned with the crazy turn of events, I dance with the devil, kicking up dust in borrowed sneakers.


We stop, jubilant, and with a quick hug and goodbye (spoken in characteristic “diablo falsetto”) my devil melts into the converging crowd. Nena is nowhere to be found, and I am surrounded by grinning strangers. One thrusts a decapitated two-liter bottle into my hands and I absently sip a cool, thick drink, wondering briefly if I should be concerned for my safety before passing the decapitated two-liter bottle to another new friend. A fog of talco fills the watercolor sky.


I join the throngs in a street dance, engaging in short, laughing conversations, “Eres Argentina?” “No, Americana.” Eyes widen, and even in my Carnaval stupor I see wheels turning, calculating the viability of seducing the lone American girl speaking choppy Spanish. I gently extract myself from a playful tug-of-war in which I am the rope. My conservative self finds her voice for a moment, but only to be drowned by the thrum of the bombo drums, and now I am dancing withdiablitos, who frolic and giggle as they grip my hands in tiny fingers.


In the chilly, dark night I sit on a bench in the twinkling square, sharing a beer while my latest new friend teaches me the Carnaval song. Then another: “Sale el sol siguen chupando/Sale la luna siguen chupando” (At sunrise they keep drinking/At moonrise, they keep drinking…). He pours the last swig of beer on the ground, an offering to the Pachamama, then excuses himself to return the bottle. Bleary-headed, I watch the gypsies’ fire dance. The bombos bellow. The world rushes. A talco-dusted diablito shoots nieve on my feet.


I watch him toddle away before looking down at the faded, unfamiliar gray canvas, now covered with goo. All around me, the party spins on.



© Suzanne Russo, 2014

Suzanne Russo is a California-born, Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in EuroCheapo, National Geographic, and the recent Matador Travel book, 101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die, among others. Still bi-coastal, she edits the local travel website offMetro San Francisco and runs the New York literary organization Lit Crawl NYC, which plans annual literary romps through Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. She has a penchant for accidentally joining parades in foreign festivals. 

Sympathy for the Devils was read by Josephine Cashman on 2nd April 2014