Qué bonita es Carnaval!

It is Tuesday, the last day of Carnaval break.  I thought I would take the opportunity to write about the event that Carnaval has been!

Carnaval festivities began my first day back at school here in Ecuador.  I diligently planned my lessons for each of my four classes the evening before, but lo and behold, Friday when I arrived at Joaquin Chiriboga, I was told that there would be no classes.  Instead, we would be having an all-day Niña Carnaval Pageant.  The parade was just over a week away, and deciding which little girl would get to sit atop the school float and wave was serious business.

The girls spent a good three hours preparing.  It’s times like this when I am so thankful that I’ve taken up knitting.  I always carry my yarn and needles in my purse, so that in moments (or, in this case, hours) of what could be boredom, I knit away the minutes.  Finally, the program began.  After about an hour of very made-up 5-6 year-olds dancing, modeling various outfits, and strutting down the cat walk, we had our Carnaval Girl.

And the winner was the adorable Tatiana!

How cute is she?

Over the next few days, people kept telling me what Carnaval was like in Ecuador.  Depending on which town you were in, it entailed 1-8 days of tradition, parades, and chaos.  Yes, chaos.  Ecuadorians like to play their “Carnaval Games,” which involve using water, flour (colored or normal), eggs, and caraoka (this foamy silly string sort of stuff you spray out of a can) in what becomes a family, school, friend, or town-wide fight.  Anything is fair game- you don’t have to know someone walking down the street to spray them with your watergun (or as I saw, sit on the rim of your truck bed, which is filled with water, and dump buckets on people walking down the sidewalk).   All social rules are out the window during Carnaval.

I’ve never been that competitive, or into getting super dirty.  And I knew that I would definitely be a target for those playing Carnaval games.  About a week ago, I was working away on http://www.hostelworld.com, trying to find a peaceful place on the coast where Bekah, one of my fellow volunteers, and I could spend Carnaval weekend and avoid all of the craziness (I was trying, but not finding- during Carnaval break, tons of Ecuadorians flood to the beach, making it hard to find room in any inns).  However, each Tuesday night, all of us volunteers go to Riobamba’s Casa de la Cultura (culture house) for its showing of a free independent film.  It’s definitely one of my favorite traditions here.  Last Tuesday, the movie was a documentary on Carnaval in the Chimborazo Province (where I am).  Watching it made me see Carnaval in a different light.  It looked like a traditional, tremendously fun holiday in which everyone is allowed to let go of any stress and just act like a child.  And, apparently, Chimborazo, probably because it is a highly traditional province and would never practice a tradition half-heartedly, had the craziest Carnavals in Ecuador.  So, I decided that to flee would be stupid.

I got my first taste of Carnaval games this Friday.  I did my best to work with them, since I hadn’t taught them in two weeks, but once recess came, they did nothing but play with water and flour.  I figured there was no reason for me to be there, and tried sneaking out quietly, however, the entrance door was locked.  No, I’m trapped!  As I was turning around to make an effort to find the janitor/ secretary/ school attendant who has the keys, this cute, deceivingly innocent looking little girl with her hands behind her back approached me and smiled.

“No, noooo!” I said, but she sprayed me with her caraoka.

Then, it was like I was a swimmer with a fresh cut in a sea of sharks- the kids all seemed to realize that I was there and they herded toward me, equipped with their water, caraoka, and flour.  I bolted back toward the courtyard and ended up having to play Carnaval games out of defense.  About half an hour later, I made it out of the school, dripping wet.  But, I was smiling.  It was the most fun I’d had in a while.

During my bus ride home, I realized how intense Carnaval truly was; how crazy it made people.  Passing through a small town, someone sprayed caraoka through the open bus door at some of the passengers.  Upon arriving in Riobamba, I saw scads of people battling with water in the streets.  Dozens of people were rinsing their Carnaval remnants off in this decorative fountain.  I witnessed someone chuck an egg out of his apartment window at a complete stranger- it cracked on her back and she looked at the sky with unsurprised anger.  When it was time for me to exit the bus, I did so with calculated caution.  Every person walking by, every car passing me, every building I walked beside held a potential assassin.  I immediately entered a store selling caraoka and polvo (dyed flour), so that I would be ready for any attacks.

Here’s an anticlimactic moment: I didn’t get hit once during my ten-minute walk home.  Maybe people saw how thoroughly wet I already was and had mercy on me.

My Carnaval action picked up the next day, however.  I traveled to Quito with Reyna, her daughter Anita Julia, and her two children.  After treating myself to sleeping in until 9 am, we headed to Reyna’s son John Henry’s house for a Carnaval party.  I wore exercise clothes that I didn’t really care about, and carried a fresh change of clothes.  The things you have to do to be prepared for the games.  We arrived around noontime to a house buzzing with activity.  Lunch was being prepared, children were already at it with the games, a bonfire was being sparked.  Jorge, Reyna’s oldest son, was chopping up his second pig, with a machete.  He was tossing these pig parts into a (clean) trash container.  Fritada (slow-cooked pork that simmers in a pot of water, oil, and seasoning for a few hours), mote (really tasty, tough corn kernels), empanadas, and salad were on the menu.

A whole lot of pig.

I can only imagine how heavy that bin was.

It didn’t take long after our tasty traditional lunch was through for the games to begin.  I was expecting caraoka, flour, and water.  But things went in a direction I did not expect.  MUD.  I’ll demonstrate, using the following two pictures, exactly what happened to just about every person at this party (the only people safe were the pregnant women [there were three of them there!], small children, and old ladies).

Brutal, no?  But it was seriously very fun.  Here is the grungy crew warming up by the fire.  (No, it was not a warm day.)

I'm the reason there is purple splattered on some of our faces and clothes. Apparently, dyed flour is much more of a Chimborazo Province thing. Everyone was like "What is this? Is it going to come out?" And I was like "Yeah... who on earth brought that?"...

Carnaval did not stop there.  Sunday, I said goodbye to Reyna and her family and traveled back to Riobamba with Aunt Normita (I don’t think this is done with each country’s Spanish, but in Ecuadorian Spanish, “ita” or “ito” is added to just about everything- her real name is Norma) and her perrita (little dog) so that I could make it to Guamote’s Carnaval festivities on Monday.

This dog was totally nuts!! She just loved giving me surprise back of the neck kisses.

The time I had in Guamote was, without a doubt, worth coming back for!  Guamote is known for its crazy Carnaval.  Volunteer friends Alice and Bekah joined me to witness the spectacle of a Guamote Carnaval.

Here we are on our way to Guamote. Notice how clean we look.

Upon arriving, I could tell that I was in a different Guamote than I’m used to.  People from all over Ecuador had traveled there to enjoy the festivities.  There was an energy in the streets.  I had brought with me a can of caraoka, some polvo, and a 1.5 liter bottle of water with a small hole in the cap- my DIY water gun.  I was not going to let my students destroy me today 🙂

In classic Ecuadorian fashion, we were told the parade would start at 8, so we planned to arrive at 9, and it didn’t even begin until around 10:30.  In that hour and a half, we helped ourselves to the array of delicious fried foods being served by the street vendors, I greeted my students (who were dressed up in their cute costumes for the parade), and we found a good place to sit and watch.  Once the parade got going, the gaming began.

These people were seated across the road from us. This picture is part one of the sequence. Notice the woman who has just been rudely sprayed in the face.

Part two: Please notice the guy on the left who has just been, to his surprise, soaked and the woman getting back at the kid who sprayed her. This is probably my favorite picture from the entire morning.

The parade lasted for four hours (we watched for the first three).  Over that time, things just got wilder and wilder.  I think most people were drinking (including us…), which had a fair amount to do with that.

Check out all the caraoka!! The poor dancers in the parade were absolutely covered in Carnaval ammo.

When my school float finally approached us, I excitedly greeted the director, just about every student, and my coworkers with a friendly spray of caraoka.  It was so fun seeing them.

There's a very caraoka'd Niña Carnaval Tatiana, continuing to wave to an increasingly inpolite crowd.

People, without a doubt, attacked us because we stood out.  Anytime we had to go to the bathroom, it was worse, because we had to walk a couple of blocks beside the parade and became moving targets for parade-viewers.  The worse was when someone sprayed caraoka on your face- especially when it got in your eyes.  Man, did that sting.  Or in your mouth- ew.

There was one cheeky old man, in particular, who took considerable joy in getting us.  He managed to sneak behind both Alice and Bekah and crack eggs on their heads.  He tried to do this to me, but I was the one to cracked the egg on his head 🙂  Although I may have won the battle with him, I think it’s safe to say that we lost the Carnaval war.  When we returned to Riobamba, it was with flour-caked faces, caraoka and polvo-stained clothes, and water and/or eggs all over.

Our after shot.

We were, easily, three times as dirty as the average Ecuadorian in attendance.  Still- actually, I think because is a more appropriate word, it was an incredibly fun time.

I’m now nice and clean, and I managed to get all remnants of Carnaval out of my clothes.  Today is the last day of Carnaval break, so in Riobamba’s main street, people are continuing the craziness with a Carnaval war, but I’ve had my fair dose of Carnaval and am hiding in my room, blogging away.  I’m so glad I stayed here to enjoy Carnaval, but I think I’ve had enough… Happy Mardi Gras to you readers in the states!  It’s a cousin of Carnaval, you know.

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2 thoughts on “Qué bonita es Carnaval!

  1. Oh girl, it was so much fun. The ladies are Bekah (an 18 year old volunteer from the US) and Alice (26 year old volunteer from England). Yes, I definitely get on with them very well! It’s incredible how easily friendships are formed between foreigners in a strange land.

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