Saturday, February 20, 2010


Our friend Gladys told us that when she was a girl (she's now in her 50s) Carnaval basically began on Christmas Day. Things have changed a bit since then, but Mia and Nikki have been playing Carnaval (that's what they say here - 'jugar Carnaval") with the neighbors and their school friends for at least a month.

In most of Ecuador, "playing Carnaval" means throwing water balloons, shooting squirt guns, and even throwing buckets of water at each other. The real Carnaval plays itself out on the streets with water balloons and buckets of water at strangers. And it is not just a game for kids. Xavier and Karla, college students and siblings who live in our building, have been having a water balloon war with the neighboring pre-adolescent boys for the past week. Last week, they loaded up two large wash basins with water balloons, put them in the back of their friend's pick-up, and headed into town. Maria, our landlady, has been taking her grandkids (our neighbors) and our girls out for a drive around the City to throw water balloons at strangers. During these drives, she has been known to take a balloon or two and toss them out the driver's window. There are rules (according to Nikki) - no throwing at people in suits, or old people or babies.

(Debby) I "played carnaval" with the ladies from my aerobics class about 3 weeks ago. We all went out to someone's "quinta" (house in the country), roasted some pig, drank some canelazo (grain alcohol, sugar cane and cinnamon stick), played cards, danced and then got each other totally soaked with water balloons, the hose, and buckets of water. No one was spared. Fortunately, I knew to bring a change of clothes and the sun was out soit was a blast getting soaked. Mia and Nikki sat in a pick up truck watching the ladies go wild. We played musical chairs and each loser got a bucket of water on her head. The winner got 4!! it was a great girl's day (Don was at the beach with his surfer friend Ron).

Even walking around Cuenca, we were hit with water balloons well before Carnaval actually happened. Mostly, we'd get hit on Friday and Saturday nights by teenagers and college students out on a drive with their car full of water balloons. It's all good fun and no one is allowed to get bothered. Mostly, they missed us so we really didn't ever get soaked. Mia and Nikki were so into it and I think they want to bring Carnaval back to Seattle. Somehow, I can't see Seattlelites being into getting doused with water when it's 40 and rainy.....

A completely different type of Carnaval celebration is held in the small City of Ambato. The Fiesta de la Fruta y de las Flores is held in February, culminating on Carnaval weekend. We arrived in Ambato on Friday night so we could be in town on Saturday morning for the Blessing of the Fruits and Flowers a the main Cathedral. Every year they create a mural, which covers the entire front of the Cathedral, made entirely out of fruits, flowers and bread. This year's mural included tomatoes, pears, leaves, capuli (a small brown fruit), beans, eucalyptus seed pods, and many, many flowers of all colors. The park in front of the Cathedral was packed, and the park continued to be a hub of activity all day long. After the benediction, we went to a few museums and exhibits, including the mausoleum of Juan Montalvo, a native son of Ambato whose 19th century "liberal" writings on human rights earned him the scorn of the country's clergy. We saw a cool exhibit of paintings by Cuban artists in homage to the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin. We also saw a beautiful flower exhibit in an old building along with numerous rooms of paintings. We even got our picture in the local paper (Nikki is hiding behind me)!

We ended the day at a restaurant on Ave. Cevallos - the main drag. Our guide book says that Ambato is a sleepy town, but it sure wakes up for this festival. The street is the main route of the parade on Sunday, and already on Sat. evening most of the curb space is reserved with chairs and benches. Traffic is at a virtual standstill as cars cruise up and down the block. Numerous cars (presumably from out of town, since Ambateños don't celebrate Carnaval in this way) have children in the back, spraying Karioca (a watered down, foamy, shaving cream-type substance) out of a can at passing pedestrians and unsuspecting motorists driving the other way!

Sunday was parade day. We had been staying at the house of an aunt of the daughter-in-law of Jaime and Rita, and for the parade we went with Monica to her mother's house, which is on Cevallos, the parade route. Someone in the family erected bleachers on the sidewalk, with about six banks of seats, for family and friends, and this is where we watched the parade. Before the parade started, the street was so full that I didn't know where everyone would go once the parade began - there wasn't any room on the sidewalks! I was fascinated to watch the pre-parade, not only of spectators, but also of vendors selling everything anyone could need.

The parade itself was pretty impressive, sort of like the Rose parade in Pasadena, in that all the floats were made up of only fruits and flowers. Interspersed with the floats were marchers and dancers in traditional costumes, all from the area around Ambato. After the parade, we went back to Monica's house for lunch, but the street filled with all the spectators, mostly armed with Karioka. We all went to a local park with a swimming pool (like every pool we've been in in Ecuador, no lifeguards, no rules, and this one had the twist of a waterslide emptying into the shallow end of the pool). For dinner, we went back to Cevallos, which was going stronger than ever with Carnaval revelers with Karioca. We gave in and bought each of the girls a can, and they were so psyched. Debby and I stayed 20 feet behind them to avoid the crossfire, and I wish our camera battery hadn't died, because the look of sheer joy on their faces as they engaged in battles with other Karioka-toting kids (and grown-ups) was something to behold. We returned to Monica's house around 9:30, and Debby and I went out for Valentine's Day to see Elvis Crespo, a Puerto Rican merengue star who was giving an outdoor concert in Ambato that night. When we returned from the concert around 1:00 am, Cevallos was still going strong - street concerts and impromptu karioka battles!

Monday morning we loaded up the rental car and headed south to the pueblo of Guaranda. This town is famous for its Carnaval celebrations, but in Ambato I'd come to understand that this means they throw not only water, but flour, eggs, oil, tomatoes - pretty much everything. We had no reservations for a place to stay, and the hotel prices in Guaranda for Carnaval were super high, so our "plan" was to go to the nearby town of Salinas, and find a place to stay there, and go into Guaranda for a visit.

The road from Ambato to Guaranda is spectacular, our book says it is the highest paved road in Ecuador, topping out at over 4,000 meters (13,000 ft). It's barren but beautiful, and it also passes very close to the Chimborazo volcano, which is the highest in Ecuador, at about 20,700 feet. Although it was relatively cloudy on our drive, we did get some peekaboo views of the flanks and even the snow-covered top (yes, there really is snow at the ecuator!)

On the road up to Salinas, we saw many faces covered with flour, so we kept moving, rolling up our windows when necessary to avoid threatening buckets of water! As the road winds up the valley to Salinas, we were all struck by the beauty - it's a little like Switzerland, with the green pastures and cows.

The town of Salinas, at 11,650 feet, is set at the base of 3 steep cliffs, and many of the houses climb up the sides of the hills. We were happy to find a hotel room, and given the relatively mild nature of the Carnaval celebration (dancing and a band in the main town plaza, only minimal water bucket throwing, and not at tourists), we decided to sty here and skip Guaranda.

We were struck by the relative prosperity of the town, and the presence of many young men (conspicuously empty from many rural areas near Cuenca - they've all gone to the States.) The town is a center of many types of production: cheese, chocolates, sweaters, dried mushrooms, to name the main ones, and almost all of it is produced and sold through cooperatives. We learned some of the history from talking with a local at a pizzeria (run by a Spaniard and a Quiteña - that's another story). The town was originally all part of an hacienda, like most of rural Ecuador, and the residents worked for the hacienda owner, which meant mining salt (hence the town's name - "sal" is salt in Spanish). A photograph of the town from this period shows that all the homes were "chozas," small adobe huts covered with thatch roofs. Shortly after the Agrarian Reform of the early 70's, the first cooperative was formed for producing cheese, and it involved not just the town itself, but also many surrounding villages. The model spread to other industries, and the cooperative is now involved in giving loans to start up businesses and even for young people to study abroad!.

Tuesday morning, we went for a short hike up the cliffs above town, and headed out around noon, passing the southern flank of Chimborazo on the way. We stopped for the night in the town of Alausí, which is the starting point for one of the few remaining segments of the Ecuadorian national railway. A short run down the stretch called the "Devil's nose" is maintained for tourists. But the trip that Wed. morning was already sold out, so we just headed home after breakfast, happy that we all arrived safely back from a great vacation.

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