Written By Tony Hawker
Everyone has a favourite festival, there are countless celebrated annually around the world and each is unique in its own way. However, most will feature tight security, a first aid tent, ticket reservation, expensive food or drinks, and even your basic portable toilets. I have only come across one that didn’t. Welcome to ‘Festival de Rio Suarez’ otherwise known as the ‘Tanga Festival’ (G-String Festival). This annual event held in Barbosa, Santander has no entry fee, in fact not even an entry gate. More than one hundred thousand people attend this country festival that pretty much runs itself. The organisers put up a stage, organised fireworks, book some bands but food, alcohol and merchandise are all sold by Colombian opportunists eager to make a quick buck. Families arrive in droves, car boots pop open and out fly t-shirts, hats, blankets, beers, watermelons absolutely anything and everything. Outside of a festival-goers tent you can find half a cow, or pig, tied to a stick cooking over a fire next to a large pot of simmering sancocho soup all for sale. If it started to rain a guy would miraculously appear selling umbrellas and raincoats.
Sofia and I parked the car in a residents backyard, around one kilometre from the festival, he was making a few pesos letting the masses park on his grass. It was a steep and treacherous walk down the narrow dirt road which involved dodging drunk drivers and herds of motorbikes supporting five family members.
The festival takes place over the first weekend of January, on the banks and amongst the rapids of Rio Suarez, a shallow, fast flowing churning beast of a river. Men and women of all ages launch themselves into the water enjoying the ruckus of the rapids, numbed by adrenaline and alcohol. Safety is assured by an old skinny rope fastened from tree to rock across the river, indicating where the rapids begin to intensify. It was here I met Camilo, a dark, young, skinny lad with immense core strength, a saviour to many. Being a confident swimmer, Camilo was paid to rescue the helpless drunks if they slipped passed the ever reliable security rope. When I first saw him he was stumbling out of the rapids, bleeding cuts on both knees, supporting a barely conscious half drowned teen. He placed the dead fish on sturdy, dry bolder and quickly returned to river to retrieve a young girl, who had wedged her foot under a rock. I was intrigued and had to say something.
- ‘How is this allowed to continue?’
- ‘This has been a great year so far,…two days into the festival and no deaths. There were three killed by the river this time last year and two the year before!’
People were gravitating towards the stage, it was time to secure a prime position for the upcoming g-string contest. We pushed our way through the crowd, reflecting again on the benefits of my height in Colombia. Music was pumping, anticipation was rising and soon g-string models from around the country would parade on the catwalk. To pass the time the announcer selected ten couples for a reggaeton dance competition to be judged by the crowd. It was basically sex with a soundtrack, Miley Cyrus would have been impressed. I was starting to get shoved, and feel the anticipation of thousands of horny men line up behind me. Looking directly down at my feet, I could see left over puddles from high tide and small channels with deep grooves weaved throughout the dry bank, that could only have been shaped by powerful flowing water. How often does the water reach this part of the bank I thought. The stage had been built practically touching the water, I saw safety hazards everywhere.
An announcement came over from the stage, ‘we have just heard that it has started raining heavily in the next town, which has been known to cause flash floods in this area so everyone please get out of the water.’ A loud cheer erupted, followed by a hundred bodies plunging into the water that drunkenly tumbled through the rapids. Camilo will be busy I thought.
‘Cerveza Cerveza!’ was a common shout from another opportunist, I raised my hand and grabbed two cold ones. The man was also selling chicha, a thick, yellow, corn fermented liquid, bottled in a two litre coke bottle at a bargain price of five thousand pesos (around $2.50). More than enough to get anyone wasted.
The crowd cheered, horns were sounding, foam was squirting, people were yelling. This is it, g-string time! I heard the word tangita which is a Colombian way of saying tiny g-string, smaller the better I say. ‘Wait whats this?… Oh no, I can’t be watching this… I’m a primary school teacher!’ They were little g-strings alright, on little girls aged between 5-10 years old. One by one they strutted out, waved, kissed to the crowd, some even shook their arses. Catch 22, if I left I would loose my pole position for the main event. What to do? The tangita competition went on for an hour, with last years champion finally crowning Miss Tangita 2014. I needed a drink so purchased a bottle of chicha. Surely now it was time for the real thing.
Finally the real show began and the prolonged wait had definitely been worth it. The girls were announced individually by department (state) and entertained the crowd very much like the tangitas did. The girls took their time, posed for the cameras, blew kisses, shook their tangas and did their best to connect with the crowd. I will be the first to admit that I have a weakness for Colombian women, they are the perfect package of what a woman’s body should encompass. However, there are a few Colombians that believe bigger is better. While half of these exotic creatures paraded their natural bodies, the other half had been dramatically enhanced, most notably in the arse. This was the tanga festival after all, but it is definitely not my style.
An entertaining hour later Miss Quindio was crowned Miss Tanga 2014. It was all over and I realised how dark it had become. The festival had one flood light operating, shining directly onto the stage but once you walk passed it everything fell into darkness. Out popped another Colombian opportunist selling flash lights and glow-stick wrist bands. Light was a necessity to navigate back to the main street, so groups huddled behind those who had a phone or flash light. There were drunken injuries everywhere. Surprisingly, in the dark congestion of a thousand drunks, I bumped into an exhausted version of Camilo.
- ‘Busy night?’
- ‘Si, I haven’t had time to rest, we lost three this afternoon.’
- ‘Three what?’
- ‘The river killed three people since the last time we spoke.’
- ‘Oh my god, how is this festival still functioning’
- ‘Welcome to Colombia, I hope you get home safely!’
- ‘Where are you going?’
- ‘I just finished my shift and the first band is about to start, it’s time to join the fiesta!’
In the distance I heard the band commence and a cheer erupt from the crowd, for the majority this party was far from over. There were still tube races down the rapids, wet t-shirt competitions, fireworks and music, dancing and drinking would be stuck on repeat until sunrise Monday morning.