It’s been several weeks without dry clothes in this high-altitude city during the rainy season. It hasn’t been because of the daily storms – oh, no.
It is Carnaval.
Every morning, we leave the hostel in Quito’s Centro Histórico and walk to a restaurant on Plaza Santo Domingo for breakfast. On García Moreno, near the Arco de la Reina, a woman sits aside a low, makeshift stand setup. Her wares are water-filled balloons, old IV bottles filled with water, buckets of water. A man hands her some sucres and launches a balloon at a friend awaiting a bus.
As obvious foreigners, we also get doused – both coming and going from breakfast.
We change into dry clothes before heading out to see the sites, like the equator at Mitad del Mundo, and to sing selections from the Sound Of Music in front of the Basilica (and unknowingly disrupting a mass). And of course, during the course of the day, we were inevitably soaked again.
But in this season of afternoon rains, our clothes never seem to dry. And being mochileros (backpackers), we only have three changes of clothes. We are eternally, infernally damp until this party ends with Ash Wednesday, 4 March.
Oh, but we join in the festivities. (Or would it be fairer to say that we sought our revenge?)
One day, Dewy – who had a room with a private bath overlooking the street – bought 200 balloons. A water fight ensued with the neighboring families to the left of the hostel and across the lane. One kid to the left bombed two nuns walking below and perfectly pitched a globo (balloon) through the open door of a bus, hitting the driver. The final outcome: four broken windows for our team and seven for the neighbors.
Another day, a joyous fight broke out between the hostel staff and the guests. Everyone was running from level to level around the interior patio, dumping buckets and lobbing balloons to victims below (or above). Then the owner walked in – and everyone disappeared, leaving behind several centimeters of water pooling in the patio.
Indeed – we had arrived in Ecuador’s capital city right during Carnaval.
We’d come to Quito for the Quest Gang meeting: 29 February at high noon at the main bus station in Quito, Ecuador. So focused on our goal were we that we didn’t even take note of the calendar. Anyways, Carnaval is one of those holidays that no-one really pays attention to, unless you’re from New Orleans or Italy or some other place that host riotous street dancing and music.
But what in the devil was this with all the water?
I bought a bunch of post cards from the kiosks at the backside of the Presidential Palace, and sat down to write thank you notes to friends I stayed with on the trip down through Mexico and Central America:
I have arrived safely in Quito and in time for the 29 February meeting. Nine of us showed up from five different continents. And – also just in time for Carnaval. Boy, do they have a strange way of celebrating here: with water! It’s like a huge water fight, with people throwing balloons at each other, or dumping buckets of water as you pass by on the street. Insane!
Again, thanks for hosting me when I passed through. Hope to see you as I travel north again in a month or so!
And when I visited those friends on my north-bound swing, I learned much more about how Latin America celebrates Carnaval. Elio in Panama said, “What’s so strange about that? That’s how we celebrate here!” Nicaraguan Noel, like me, also found Ecuador’s customs bizarre. (But then, in his country, they are in the midst of the seven-month-long dry season when Carnaval arrives. To have a nation-wide water fight would be a sinful waste of a precious resource.)
From the southern United States to Tierra del Fuego, we are in the throes of Carnival – or Mardi Gras, as it is known in Louisiana (USA).
This celebration occurs in the weeks before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Catholic Lent. The pre-Carnaval season begins 6 January, the feast of Epiphany (Day of the Three Kings).
Carnaval is a huge street party, to let loose one last time before Lent is observed. Carnival began in 14th-century Italy. It blended pagan fertility rites with Catholic ideology: The coming of Spring with the impending 40 days of Lent (when traditionally an observant gives up meat and other foods, or even habits like drinking and smoking) and Easter observances (the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus).
The Saturday preceding Ash Wednesday is an official holiday in Brazil and Panama. In these countries, as well as in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela the Monday and Tuesday proceeding the solemn day are also holidays.
Bon Temps Roulez!
In Latin America (including French New Orleans, Louisiana), Carnaval is a huge parade with lots of drumming, music, dancing and fanciful costumes. Whatever the local brew is – whiskey, rum or chicha – will keep the revelers fueled.
The pre-Carnaval season kicks off big time in Pasto and other southern Colombian towns, with the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (28 December – 7 January). This festivity is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. It has its roots, in reality, in the indigenous Quillacinga harvest festivities, celebrated after the December solstice. These days, this Carnaval begins with a water fight on Fools’ Day (28 December). The calendar year ends with the parade of the Old Men, a Latin American-wide fixture of New Year’s Eve. 5 January is the Blacks Day. This was originally a day of rest for the African slaves. In modern times, pastusos (natives of Pasto) don black face. 6 January is Whites Day, and faces whitened with talcum powder. Floats and murgas (dance and drum troupes) are featured on this day. In some communities, 7 January is Reds Day, honoring the indigenous population. Throughout this Carnaval, expect lots of talcum powder to fly.
Another note-worthy pre-Carnaval celebration rolls in Arica, in the extreme north of Chile, with the Carnaval Andino con la Fuerza del Sol (Inti Ch’amampi). Here, not only are the streets alive with the dancing of the Aymara people, but also Arica’s significant African-descendent population. It is Chile’s largest carnival celebration, and is held for three days in January or February.
In other parts of South America, communities are also dancing the pre-Carnaval season away, as if preparing for the big events in the week or so before Ash Wednesday.
The biggest parties are in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and Barranquilla (Colombia), which is another UNESCO intangible Cultural Heritage. Lodging is booked months in advance, and tickets for Rio’s Sambodromo competitions sold out.
However, you can find festivities in many other parts of the continent. Outside of Barranquilla, the cities along Colombia’s Caribbean coast have more down-to-earth, community-focused dancing in the streets. A typical creature that appears on this region’s Carnaval scene is the Marimonda, which is named for the black mico monkey that lives in the Caribbean coast forests. The long nose of the humans’ costumes refers to the long tail and long tongue of the other primate – though some equate it to another body part. Both creatures exhibit risqué behavior.
Big celebrations are also held in Salvador (Brazil); Tilcara, which has an Andean-style celebration, and Gualeguaychú, which is Brazilian-influenced (Argentina); Oruro, also a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Hertiage (Bolivia); and Ambato (Ecuador) where Carnaval coincides with the city’s Fiesta de las Frutas y de las Flores (Fruit and Flower Festival). Montevideo (Uruguay) has the world’s longest Carnaval, lasting 40 days. El Callao, in the Río Orinoco delta of eastern Venezuela, has a distinctly Caribbean feel, due to the large Trinidadian population of the town.
Not only is there music, dancing and drink, but also all sorts of things may be thrown: water, eggs, paint and cornstarch. A common feature of Carnaval in the Andes is the public water fights in which all passers-by are victims.
It is a sunny, early February day in Copacabana, Bolivia, on the southeast shore of Lago Titicaca. I have come here for a month to finish writing a book on the banana companies in Central America. If I finish, then I shall splurge with a trip to Machu Picchu.
The village celebrated its patron saint – the Virgin of Candelaria – on 2 February. But still throughout the day and night, I hear the troupes wending through this town, and through the countryside settlements. The men and women dance, sing and play without ceasing, continuously chugging chicha and chewing coca leaves. Of the myriad traditional dances, I find the morenada with its clacking toys to be the most fascinating.
Indeed, the Virgin’s feast day has seamlessly blended into the Carnaval season, which will end on Ash Wednesday (on 17 February this year).
As I cross the plaza in front of the beautiful basilica, I feel a stream of water hit my side. I turn around to see a boy – about ten or eleven years old – hiding behind a tree. He has a massive water gun in his chubby hands.
Memories of Carnaval in Quito pass through my mind. There is no way I am going to spend weeks at this altitude (much higher than the Ecuadorian capital) being eternally wet, and running the risk of coming down seriously ill.
With a glare, I walk straight up to the kid and lay my hand on his long, plastic weapon, pushing it to one side. “Do not ever do that to me again, please. Do you understand?”
He looks at me dumbfoundedly and nods yes.
“Good. Thank you.” And I walk away to continue my tasks.
Until that Wednesday when this soaking nightmare ends, I cautiously cross that plaza where the young boys lay in wait. But when they see me come, they point their guns’ nozzles down and timidly greet me. Thank goodness!
Since approximately the beginning of the millennium, customs have changed in Quito. The huge water fights have been outlawed. Slowly travelers have learned this – especially after a visit from the police explaining the newcomers cannot toss balloons from a terrace four stories up.
Nowadays, the capital’s residents celebrate with tossing raw eggs and colored flour. Water continues to play a roll, being shot out of fancy mega-water pistols. The most popular weapon, however, is carioca, or spritz foam.
Ever wonder how Easter is calculated on the Western Calendar?
So wherever you happen to be, join in the Carnaval festivities. Let loose of the winter doldrums and have a wild time during this pre-Lenten time! If you are traveling and want to plan ahead, here’s how you can calculate when the Carnaval season will be:
Easter Sunday (or Resurrection Sunday) is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the (northern) Vernal Equinox.
Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Sunday; the week between the two Sundays is known as Holy Week or Semana Santa. Forty days before Palm Sunday is Ash Wednesday; this period is known as Lent. Before that is Carnaval!
Carnaval falls in either February or March, and Easter Week in March or April.