Pre-gaming, Spanish style

ALICANTE, Spain

A group of Buzz Lightyears got buzzed on the street, drag queens drowning in tulle and glitter frolicked around them, and a swarm of Captain Jack Sparrows pretended to walk the plank. This was just a morsel of the craziness that is Carnival.

What began as a way to release all partying temptations before Lent has transformed into a sort of Halloween – minus the pumpkins and trick or treating. The Spanish like to party, especially those here – the city that never sleeps but always drinks – and last month they went all out for Carnival, a free-for-all Saturday night party on the street Jan. 26.

Preparation for the celebration began at the beginning of the week and by Monday, twinkle lights in the shapes of masks adorned the cross streets and several stores transformed into costume shops. By Friday, the police started fencing off roads and the bus lines posted alternate routes for riders. Then Friday night, the night before Carnival, a parade of people started playing music in the streets. For hours, drums banged and people dressed as clowns and white Bob Marleys marched in the streets to welcome Carnival.

Some Spaniards dressed up on Friday night to watch the parade that made its way from Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, down to the center of town – but it was not until Saturday night that the city transformed into a wonderland of color and debauchery.

What surprised me most wasn’t the costumes or the sheer craziness of the whole spectacle, but the amount of botellón-ing that was going on.

Botellón, which literally means large bottle, is a phenomenon that has rocketed in popularity since the 1990s. It’s a pre-game of sorts, but instead of occurring in student dorms, it takes place on the street.

As I made my way through the thousands of people crowding the barrio, the center of town with all the bars, the beach and the Puerto – home to the discotheques – every few feet I spotted a group of people dressed to impress and surrounding bottles of liquor like a bonfire. Imagine the M Street or Georgetown bar crawl on Halloween, but add 10 times as many bars and people, plus the public consumption of massive amounts of alcohol to the mix.

Botellón-ing is a typical weekend activity among Spanish youth, who start partying here at around 14. However, during Carnival, the excess of botellón gatherings was overwhelming.

Botellón-ing has become such a problem in Spanish cities recently that several have passed laws specifically prohibiting the public pre-gaming. Cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Alicante have laws against botellón-ing because of a fear that the activity will lead to jumps in binge drinking. Statistics published by Spain’s ministry of health revealed that alcohol abuse among teens jumped from about 30 percent to 40 percent between 2004 and 2006.

But still, the law is rarely enforced in Alicante because of the shortage of police here, said one of my friend’s host parents, who is a police officer. On Saturday night no one seemed to even try to be discreet, and the police didn’t appear to eye the handles and 40s, which were being worn like costume accessories.

Botellón-ing is a simple three-step process, much like throwing a house party. First, you call your friends and pick a place to meet – a park, an alley in the barrio, or sometimes if you’re daring, atop Alicante’s Castillo, which is an ancient fortress with views of the beach (being caught botellón-ing at the Castillo can lead to very expensive fines). Second, you buy a ton of alcohol. Third, you meet at the designated place and start to drink.

There have been a few very scandalous botellón events in Spain in the last few years. The most recent occurred in March 2006. Through text and e-mail the word spread about a botellón competition between several Spanish cities to see who could throw the biggest botellón. From Madrid to Malaga and Sevilla to San Sebastian, about half a million young adults and teens crowded in the streets to participate in the macrobotellón.

Botellón-ing is preferred to house parties because the majority of Spanish youth live at home into their late 20s and sometimes into their early 30s. A college student isn’t able to throw a kegger or kickback as easily in Spain as in the United States because of the parental situation. Therefore, they take it to the streets.

When I asked my host sister Flavia, 23, and a recent university graduate, why botellón-ing is so popular, she said, “It’s cheap, it’s fun and you’re doing it with all your friends.”

Adding Carnival to the mix just kicks a typical botellón up a notch. Rather than having a good time in the streets in your daily attire, you can party with your group of friends dressed as Tetris pieces, fairies or a whole list of Disney characters.

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