The streets were filled with smoke from the fires. The air was filled with the shouts of the crowds and the thunderous cracks in the sky. Broken glass lined the curbs. There was an unfamiliar chemical foam raining down, it was sticky and smelled like cleaner. It looked, sounded, and smelled like a city in the midst of a bombing raid. I can’t believe I paid money to be here, and I can’t believe I’m having this much fun. It was the wildest new years I have ever witnessed.
In Canada, at least for me, New Years eve celebrations are usually quite mild. They consist of spending time at a friends house and hiding from the usual cold weather that plagues us that time of year. They are typically a potluck and catch up with friends kind of an evening. Ecuador… is a different story.
Erin and I had decided that we were simply travelling too fast and it was starting to wear us down, so we rented an apartment in the town of Baños, Ecuador, for christmas and new years. It was wonderful to have our own space and be able to cook for ourselves. I even got to make two batches of cookies while we were there, those made me quite popular with our landlord and her young sons.
While we were there our friend Rob, whom we had met in San Augustin, Colombia, had made his way down to Baños and met up with us for a few days, including new years. He was on his way through, biking from Bogota to Chile… and you thought I did crazy things. He has a blog about it here. He has done this in Asia too.
New Years eve, in the morning, Erin and I went to Casa Del Arbol. We decided to take the bus there and back, instead of a three hour walk each way. Mostly because she had to be back on time for her classes and also because I didn’t feel like walking three hours each way. We jumped on the bus and a friendly British couple began talking to us. For the remainder of the trip to Casa Del Arbol and back we were friends. Casa Del Arbol is an interesting place, it is a large tree house on the edge of a cliff and on each side of the tree house are large swings which throw you out over the edge of the cliff. Erin of course went on the swing, while I took pictures for her. I opted not to ride the swing for self-preservation reasons. I did however use the zip-line that ran about three feet off the ground and maybe 100 yards long. On the way back our new friends invited us to join them for dinner at Casa Hood, we were told to bring any friends we had.
That night we met up with Rob at Cafe hood, and soon realized our confusion. Just as we were about to leave to go to the right restaurant we overheard a girl from New Zealand who had made the same mistake. We to keep her company and ordered some beers to help pass the time while she finished hers. While we were finishing our drinks two men dressed, badly, as women came running in. One began playing the guitar and singing while sitting on Rob’s lap and the other danced around. When they were all done, I gave them some spare change and they were off to find new victims. We had also noticed, on the street out front, young kids in what looked like halloween costumes were stopping traffic and people in cars were giving them candy or spare change. Throughout the day we had also noticed many people making effigies out of paper māché, in all shapes and sizes.
We eventually made our way to the right restaurant, but had missed our friends. The New Zealander’s friends were there and she joined them. We had a wonderful dinner, just the three of us. After dinner we went out to walk around and see what the festivities looked like. The streets were packed with kids in costumes and young men dressed in drag. They were standing in intersections, stopping traffic, rubbing themselves against the cars, and harassing the drivers until they got money. There were vendors on the sides of the street selling all kinds of things; masks, wigs, cigarettes, fireworks etc. Erin decided to buy a pink wig to help get in the spirit of things. There were also a lot of people shooting fireworks into the sky and drinking heavily. This was already beyond anything I had seen back home. We dipped in and out of a few bars for a drink or two but the street was just too exciting to pass up. Plus there were several stages in the streets with live music. We eventually ran into the British couple… They weren’t too hard to spot since he is about six foot five and was dressed in drag. That sort of thing stands out to me.
As the evening got closer to midnight things really started to pick up. At about ten minutes to the stroke of midnight everyone started throwing their effigies into piles on the street and beating them senseless. There was kicking, throwing, shouting, and some full on body slams. Everyone was whipped into a frenzy and then the count down began. At the stroke of midnight everyone went wild, singing, yelling, hugging, and burning the piles. Once the fires started burning things got even crazier, people were jumping over the fires, myself included, and shooting off fireworks, myself included. Fatemah, the girl we had met earlier that day, ran out of the bar and started spraying party foam out of an aerosol can. She spayed into the crowd and really made a point of hosing down Rob. To me, it looked like big heavy wet snow falling to the ground. For a split second my mind wandered to an old memory of home when me my friends and me were standing around a bonfire while the snow fell. I did my best to get some pictures of the riotous streets but there was just too much movement and action to get anything of quality. I think the blurry, crooked, and obscured photos are an accurate representation of the night anyway.
We then wandered up and down the streets and hit a few more bars. We stayed out far later than we should have, but so did everyone. We finally made it back to where we were staying at about three in the morning, at which point we video chatted with our friends back home. Between bad internet and late night excitement I don’t think I was able to properly convey what we had witnessed.
What we had witnessed, at least what I pieced together from the locals is: New Years is obviously a huge celebration in Ecuador, no one needed to explain that. They celebrate it by building and burning effigies, they can look like anything from a shoebox sized spongebob to a twelve foot tall batman. Most looked like people and varied wildly in size, they represent the previous year and anything bad that happened in that year, hence beating them senseless before burning them. The young men dressed in drag asking for money are pretending to be the widows of the effigies, who now need help providing for their family. The money, of course, is spent on beer later in the evening. Drinking in public is completely legal and I saw very young children buying and using fireworks. To me it was mardi gras, meets new years, meets a circus all without parental supervision.
When you travel you hope for adventure and excitement. You want to see other cultures and how they celebrate, you want to partake in festivities as the locals do. This, to me, was a travellers dream. We got to witness and experience a wild celebration with the locals, just as the locals do. To make it all better, it came as a complete surprise until that day I had no idea other cultures took partying on New Years so seriously.
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