Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New Year's in August

Why write about New Year's in the summer months? Is it because here in Cuenca, the few degrees south of the equator that we are, the seasons and holidays are in reverse? Nope. I just haven't written for that long. But don't worry, the events and details of my New Year's experience here have only embellished themselves in my brain in the meantime.

So, I was sitting with President Correa when he got a call from Hugo Chavez about a conspiracy regarding Ingrid Betancourt...

Not really. I promise to deliver to you my experiences, as they happened:

We'll begin here, where I was standing on Calle Larga with a few of my CEDEI colleagues. Clutched in my left hand was a bottle of mezcal I had brought from Mexico. Tucked gently under the arm of Drea was a box of red wine. Had we been drinking? Perhaps. But in fact, these packages of booze were actually mechanisms operating in our defense. You see, according to the long list of traditions associated with New Year's celebrations in Ecuador, if you have a bottle of aguardiente and you see someone who's not drinking, it's your obligation to serve them a copious amount from the same cup any number of strangers may have been drinking from previously. Having learned this the hard way early in the evening, we opted to carry around our own preferred selection of alcohol. That way, when someone kindly offered us some Zhumir (the preferred label of aguardiente in southern Ecuador), we would hold up our own supply, raise a toast and drink a more reasonable quantity than what we were likely to be handed by our generous patron.

What is aguardiente, you may ask? Scroll down a story or two for a detailed description. What, you might also be wondering, are some of the other traditions of New Year's in Ecuador? Read on:

As it turned out, the booze only helped prepare us for the craziness about to unfold around us. Amongst the Christmas lights hanging from the walls, up until midnight on New Year's Eve you'll find these kinds of displays out in the streets of every neighborhood around town. Like the one above. A banner telling you the neighborhood responsible for the panorama before you. It also advertises the substance fueling the pageantry: Zhumir. And, the display itself. Always big, usually political. Here, a graveyard full of the people and organizations better off dead in the coming year, and the added satisfaction of a bagfull of arms in the foreground.

Here, along another backstreet, a stab at the big blue busses and ubiquitous yellow taxis that deliver us from place to place. The message is clear, fuera los buses. Cars, trucks and busses claim the lives of innocent people every day, around the world. In the US, for example, there's often a fair amount of talk about gun control, but year after year, automobiles kill more people in the United States than guns do. Do we talk about car control? Maybe now, with $4/gallon unleaded. Here, the gas is still leaded, and still under $2 a gallon. And the exhaust from the busses is thoroughly black and stinky. I've personally wondered many times, as I walk the beautiful hilly streets of Cuenca, amidst a backdrop of big, green mountainsides, why we contaminate our planet and run one another down, all to be in a hurry. As a spectator from the outside, some of the political commentary of the night was over my head, but this one was hard to misinterpret. It's never been a better time to be car free.

This image might help to better illustrate my position as a first-time visitor to the Cuencano New Year's experience. On the surface, for example, the message is more or less clear even to a newcomer. A shark devouring the bloodied carcass of a man with the initials of a political party on his sleeve and another on his pantleg. Ecuador has a dozen or so political parties, each with differing levels of control. Here a few of them are roasted, with some plays on words that only now, 7 months and a few questions later, have I come to understand and be able to laugh about. At the time, the look on my face was probably more like that of my friend Chris to the left. I'd try to explain them to you, but if you've ever tried to translate a joke, you know that most of the humor is, as they say, lost in translation. Plus, the idea is to lure some of you down here to learn for yourselves.

With all these gruesome images, you're probably asking yourself, is it safe? Do all the bloody spectacles and Zhumir lead to a night of violence? Fair questions. To begin my reply, I first offer you Exhibit A:

Three innocent little girls with their lollipops, up long past their bedtimes, one of them staring a blood-encrusted shark in its paper-mache eyes. What may be going through their heads? Another good question that I won't venture to answer. But suffice it to say that there were countless children on the streets that night, all absorbing the tradition that they will surely help to cultivate and deepen themselves, later in their own lives. For now, they at least all seem to enjoy the loud noises.

Which leads me to the moment that everyone around the world, time-zone by time-zone, looks forward to, no matter where you are. We all count the seconds before, and then, that moment comes. That magical time, no different really, from any other second that passes by, other than our own human observation, when one year ends and another begins. What happens now depends greatly on where you are. Here, that means fire. Lots and lots of fire.

I should probably explain here the real intention and philosophy that underlies the Ecuadorian New Year. The occasion, in Spanish, is El ano viejo. We call it the New Year, but here, the emphasis is on the old. Where we tend to think more about our intentions looking forward, the idea here is one of looking back, thinking about what we want to get rid of, forget about, exorcize, cleanse, and burn. Hence the big displays. All sorts of images, tending toward the dark and graphic, come to life for everyone to see, all to bring to mind the demons and ghosts in our own lives. Then we take power over those things by, at that magic moment, throwing them all into a pile and setting them alight. Now we can look forward to a new year, having cleansed ourselves of our pasts.
To witness it is truly powerful. For several short but exhilarating minutes, every direction you look, up and down Cuenca's gridlike, cobbled thoroughfares, is fire after fire. For a short time, while the fires are still burning, people revel around them. They dance, drink, laugh, and some try to jump over the blazing remnants of paper, wood, and other materials I'd rather not think about. Then, when the fires go out, the party begins. Cumbia music plays at high volume, and people keep dancing, laughing and drinking until long after I go to bed. And, when I wake up late in the morning, I can still smell the night from the smoke that lingers on my collar.


Anonymous said...

Your aunt here, Brian.....I personally don't get it - it sounds a little too graphic and not like a very enjoyable way to spend the holiday season. How is Christmas - does politics surround that as well? And while I saw how beautiful the countryside was, if you still have leaded cars, etc - the pollution must be pretty bad - are you sure that you and Nancy want to live there????

Anonymous said...

A completely different view of the same holiday we celebrate. That is the beauty of seeing other countries, just because we celebrate it one way doesn't mean it's the ONLY way. Say hi to Nancy, Love, Dad.