Mid-February – and I found myself in the midst of a sunny 4-day holiday weekend getting doused by little kids with water guns while walking on a river path and sprayed with foam by an 88-year-old lady on the porch of her home. Yes, this is Carnaval in Ecuador. A national holiday devoted to tossing water, eggs, flour at people, or spraying them with foam, a time for people to act out all their devilish thoughts in anticipation of Lent. This is the Ecuadorian version of Mardi Gras.
It actually reminds me a lot of Thanksgiving – big family gatherings centered around lots of food – except that you have all the water-throwing instead of football-watching, and EVERYTHING shuts down. (Of course, some of you might remember when stores in the U.S. closed on Thanksgiving – but those days are long gone.)
I was a bit baffled by Carnaval from the start. Technically, the three days of Carnaval in 2015 were February 15, 16, and 17. But the water-tossing and foam-spraying began weeks earlier. One afternoon, while in a taxi in Quito, we passed a park with hundreds of teenagers in their school uniforms, drenched and covered in foam.
You can buy spray foam (espuma) on every street corner. But where did this crazy tradition originate? My friend, Wikipedia, suggests that the Carnaval tradition of tossing things at people pre-dates the arrival of Catholicism in Ecuador. Apparently, the Huarangas Indians celebrated the second moon of the year by showering people with four, flowers, and perfumed water. Until a few years ago, Carnaval was particularly crazy – and dangerous. My hosts in Quito, Annie and Fausto, told me that people would freeze water balloons – and their victims would not only get a dousing of icy water, but chunks of ice as well. The government has been cracking down in the past few years, to reduce the number of Carnaval injuries.
The other big element of Carnaval is the family gathering around food. This is the familiar part for me. Specifically, the meal centers around chancho (pork). We spent one of the Carnaval holidays with Charito’s family at her parent’s house in the town of Azogues, to the north of Cuenca. The house sits on a property brimming with fruit trees of all sorts – and right now, plums and pears are in season. I felt like a kid in a candy store, as I roamed around (along with the chickens), eating ripe fruit right off the trees.
After consuming all that fruit, I was presented with a feast: pork, rice, potatoes, tamales, salad, toasted corn kernels, and another type of corn called mote – giant corn kernels that have been boiled and peeled, and are always served with soups here (rather than crackers or bread).
After lunch, the kids took me on a short hike up a nearby hill – I was armed with a small water pistol and my camera, and managed to take a few shots in between water attacks. It was when I got back to the house that Charito’s mother got me with the spray foam.
After the Carnaval festivities, Charito and Ivan took me on a ride through the hills to Biblián, the next town over, famous for it’s gothic church built right into the hillside. In fact some of the inner walls of the church are carved from the hillside bedrock. (There was a service going on while we were there, so I didn’t take any photos inside.)
While this church looks like something right out of a medieval fairy tale, it only dates back to 1894 (of course, we’re in the New World here – nothing is all that old!). Apparently, in the late 1800’s, the village was suffering from a terrible drought, so the villagers prayed to the Virgin Mary on a hillside. Lo and behold! Drenching rains came soon afterward! They immediately began work on the church, and it was completed in 1908.
I love the fact that the impetus to build this church probably stems from some sort of interdecadal climate variation. While I’m no student of religion, I would bet there are a lot of examples throughout history of religious fervor driven by climate variability or climate change. This would make for a really interesting thesis for someone!