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Today is Rose Monday, the day most carnivals hit fever pitch as we near the Lenten fast leading to Easter. “Carne- vale” is Latin for “flesh farewell.” The tradition harks back to the ancient world, rites of spring and fertility, worship of Bacchus, and aboriginal beliefs. The promise of letting it all hang out drives the carnivals in Rio, Venice, Cologne, Portugal, Martinique, Bolivia, Mexico, and, of course, New Orleans. One nearly universal theme is that of frivolity and satire, especially ridicule of the authority of church and state. Europeans flock to the carnival in the Canary Islands, drawn by sunny temperatures in the 70s. Just off the coast of Senegal, there are seven islands that are a province of Spain with an intact Spanish culture. They offer a wide array of micro-climates and topographies, including vineyards in lava fields, beaches formed by windblown Sahara sand, and the only remaining prehistoric forest that once covered Europe and North Africa. Spain’s highest mountain is a volcano on the island of Tenerife, which is frigid and icy at the top and where Mars exploration vehicles were tested. Carnival is celebrated in towns across the islands, and the carnivals in Tenerife and Gran Canaria are among the largest. They attract carnival “delegations” from Europe — mostly from Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia — ready to party. Warm-up events include choosing the carnival queens — and drag queens. Cross-dressing is a venerable tradition that began as a symbol of the emasculation of royalty. Carnival traditions have often found men portraying queens, princesses, and feminized kings. On Gran Canaria, cross-dressing contests reach a performance level P.T. Barnum would admire, amid concerts and street dances. After several nights of concerts and parties, the Rose Monday parade in Santa Cruz de Tenerife sails on streets that wind past blooming African tulip trees growing along the ocean. The evening brings huge outdoor concerts with a variety of performers, from rock and jazz to singing groups, with most of the revelers still in costume. A short plane ride away is Gran Canaria, known as “the little continent” for its variety of landscapes. There’s fine scuba diving around the island for the daytime, and for the evening, the all-night street parties of Las Palmas. Those who can make friends with revelers on floats join them for the night parade that ends the carnival. Three weeks of carnival ends with a giant sardine burned in effigy amid fireworks. That burning of a scapegoat — whether portrayed as a king with a secret identity or as an ancient fish deity — finishes the chaos. Carnivals climax at midnight on Fat Tuesday, with men dressed and wailing as bereaved women in black. The ceremonies take away the woes of the year and usher in the great equalizer, Ash Wednesday. That day brings repentance for everyone. For more information, check out www.canarias.org, www.spain.info, and www.grancanaria.com. Connecting flights arrive from London, Madrid, and Frankfurt. Those wishing to extend their carnival festivities should look into Basel, Switzerland, which begins its unique take on carnival at 4 a.m. the Monday after Ash Wednesday. There, the parties are loaded with political satire, with the White House a favorite target of late.
Skip Kaltenheuser is a D.C.-based writer and photographer.

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