South America just celebrated Carnaval, a Mardi Gras that, for me, completely enhances any definitions of the word “party.” I’ve never really celebrated Fat Tuesday back home, and while New Orleans is supposedly the best, I can’t imagine anybody going harder than the Ecuadorians. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, Carnaval isn’t just a one-day fiesta; it’s a whole week.
Maybe about a month before, everybody kept talking about how excited they were for the festivities to begin. And people were asking me the same question: was I going to play? I had never even heard of Carnaval before, so I had no idea what anyone was talking about. Play what? I’d find out soon enough.
“Playing Carnaval” can mean many different things. One of the most common methods of play involves water balloons. You’ll just be walking down the street and … WHACK! … water balloon to the face. Everyone’s dying with laughter and you’re standing there, soaking wet. So that’s how it’s going to be, huh? Plotting revenge can prove difficult seeing as how Ecuadorians have mastered the technique of stealth bombing. A split second after you get nailed, you’ll turn around and see either nobody there (frustrating,) a really old person that you know had nothing to do with it (really frustrating,) or a huge group of people with the perpetrator lost in the crowd (infuriating.) Revenge, well personal revenge anyway, is basically an impossibility.
I’d like to point out a key difference right now between people from the US and Ecuadorians. I don’t care how great a party might be back at home, if somebody hit me in the face with a water balloon, there would be a fight. I mean, haha, now I’m soaked. What am I supposed to go and get changed now? What about all the stuff in my pockets, cell phone, credit cards, etc? Here I’ve seen men in their fifties take two the chest in the middle of the day and immediately start to laugh it off with the rest of the crowd. They are just unbelievably easygoing.
I hope I didn’t seem uptight, but there was definitely a split second after every time I got soaked where I wanted to blow up in some sort of berserker rage. Luckily, I’d quickly find my center and remember that I’m supposed to be smiling, avoiding any international incidents. Unluckily, water balloons would turn out to be the least of my problems.
Water balloons were just the warm-up. Well, water balloons filled with water were the warm-up. Pretty soon I’d see people covered in dust. Apparently it’s OK to not only soak somebody, but also to then throw a fistful of flour at them. Or even better, let’s mix flour and water and then fill it up in a water balloon. Or eggs. Or let’s just skip the whole water balloon part and let’s hide on the roof with a bucket and wait for somebody to pass by.
And this was just the really sneaky stuff. Some of the more overt attacks involved people running up to you and smearing this – I still don’t even know what to call it – stuff all over your face. The stuff was thick and oily, and usually a dark blue, red, or green. Someone told me it was margarine mixed with food coloring, but really, who knows?
What if they run out of stuff? Well it just happens to be the rainy season here, and it turns out that mud can make a pretty good on-the-spot replacement. In fact, let’s you, me, and three other guys take that guy over there and just throw him in the mud. If he puts up a fight, too bad, he’s totally overpowered. Sure it might turn into a sort of weird mud wrestling match, but come on it’ll be hilarious. So what if we’ve all been drinking all day long, I’m sure nothing bad will happen.
After a few days I felt like a rat. Whenever I left my apartment, I’d go really fast, running right up against the walls whenever possible, and constantly looking around in all directions. I got pretty good at avoiding the surprise ambushes, but sometimes I wasn’t so lucky. Sometimes I saw it coming, and I knew that there was nothing I could do. Like whenever I rode around in the back of a pickup truck, for example, I knew I’d be toast. They’d be waiting on the side of the roads with buckets and hoses; it was like shooting gringos in a barrel. On any given day, I usually only had to change my clothes two or three times, something I’d consider a success.
Like I mentioned before, the drinking was constant. Beer during the day and whiskey at night. Groups of men would be sitting around stacks of “jabas,” (pronounced haba) a case of twelve 22oz. beers. Drinking here is tricky business. Back home, ninety percent of the time I’m a pretty good judge of knowing how much alcohol is in my system. Based on this knowledge, I can either choose to speed up the process or slow it down a notch. In Ecuador, this just isn’t possible.
When drinking, I’m used to everybody not only drinking what they want to drink, but having their own drink and drinking at their own pace. The way it works here is sitting in a circle, usually just men, with one small cup. One person is in charge of serving. This person fills up the one cup with beer (or whiskey, or moonshine) and, one at a time, you pound the glass of beer. When everybody has been served, the person serving drinks a glass for himself and the circle starts all over again.
You are completely at a loss of control; the glass just keeps coming and coming, so it’s only a matter of time before you’ve had too much. Plus, since you’re not serving, you have no choice what you’re drinking. I mean it’s not like there is anything other than beer, but sometimes if the beer is warm they’ll just add an ice cube, or some cold coke. Definitely not my favorite way to drink, but you’re just part of the circle and everybody’s doing the same thing.
So the days are spent drinking beer, playing volleyball, and throwing water balloons. On Sunday night there was a huge dance for the whole community. These dances are pretty fun, but they have their own formulas and routines. The dancing itself is pretty straightforward; if you’re like me and absolutely can’t dance, you kind of just shuffle back and forth. As long as you can keep the rhythm, then there’s no problem. The way it goes is this: everybody dances, then everybody stops and drinks about ten or fifteen minutes before the next song.
The songs are long … like sometimes half an hour long. And rarely do Joannah and I get to dance with each other. As soon as a song starts, there are maybe ten guys racing to me to ask my permission to dance this song with Joannah. So then somebody finds a partner for me and we start dancing. Unless you’re dating or married, you never look the person you are dancing with in the face. Or talk to them. You basically just dance, or at least try to keep the rhythm, for half an hour. After the dance everybody pounds some whiskey before it’s time to do it all over again.
These dances usually last until at least 6 am, but Jo and I usually run out of gas much earlier. Everyday I’d wake up and see everybody right back at it with the circles of beer. I seriously don’t know how I could possibly keep up with them.
This lasted for a whole week. I’m telling you, I’ve never seen anybody party like this.