February 4, 2008

When Carnival Celebrations Terrorize
Vilcabamba, Ecuador

I've only been in Vilcabamba for a handful of hours, but I'm already debating if I want to stick around for another day or not.

Carnival is in full swing in this province, and accommodations were somewhat challenging to come by in this small town of 4,000—which seems to have swelled considerably for the week. I was told by a hotel security guard that Ecuadorians from all over the country vacation/party in Vilcabamba during official carnival days (which are apparently the first five of February).

So it would seem that I've timed my relocation from Loja poorly, and landed smack at climax of the town's festivities.

It's absolute chaos in the streets, of which there aren't that many in this little village. Ecuadorians of all ages are going mad with spray foam and water games.

I have bursts of pleasure walking around, but mostly I'm focused on keeping (my camera) from getting hit.

You've got grown men chucking water balloons at old women, coordinated bucketfuls of water raining down on cars and people from rooftops, children and teenagers trying their best to intentionally spray each other in the eyes and mouth with foam, and hoses and water cannons sticking out the doors and windows of most any building.

(video link)

The true terror that I found being used was raw eggs and flour. Sold for fifty cents alongside the cans of carnival spray foam (US$1.25), are plastic bags of flour with and an egg. Some people are walking around covered in raw egg yolk, while hostile four-year-old children hover in the main plaza tossing handfuls of flour on wet passer-byers.

Walking around, I was doing my best not to get caught up in the mayhem. I wanted to be a part of the celebrations (and certainly photograph it), but people take things way too far for me to enjoy the scene, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I had an egg slammed into the back my head.

I was sprayed with foam several times, shot at with water pistols, and pleaded unsuccessfully with a middle-aged woman before she tossed a pitcher of water at me—and all that was with me keeping my distance from hot spots and intersections of trouble.

But the town is so small that it's absolutely impossible to walk around without running into someone having a good time at another person's expense. I had to leave. I got a face full of foam from a spray can only a few inches from my head, and came really close to hurting the teenager doing it. I had one hand on his wrist, and another on his elbow, and came pretty close to reacting on instinct by rotating his elbow up, sticking a foot behind his leg to drop him to the ground.

I kept my composure and just gave him a strong squeeze though. The last thing I needed was a bunch of slightly intoxicated party goers deciding that they didn't like what they just saw, and escalating the situation.

And I wasn't even being targeted because I'm a tourist. Actually, I think many people avoided going after me because I was either glaring at them, or because they were culturally sensitive enough to realize I might not enjoy playing their games. Some people gave me a choice before attacking—aguautia?!—but others didn't care, regardless my answer (or mention of a camera in my pocket).

This should've been an event I was participating in. You've got throngs of cute young girls, covered in foam and water (as they make a particularly delightful target for men), speakers pumping out music that equal most any nightclub, and only one night (or two, at most) left in town for many participants—really, could you ask for a more entertaining situation?

But the numb lips from two separate face-spraying incidents are enough to keep me away—thank God for the sunglasses. I don't know what's in that foam, but the fact it had a Novocain effect on my mouth was none too encouraging. Now I've got to hand-wash my wet clothes, as they're full of the chemical residue… but at least they're not covered with raw egg.

Update, Feb 5

This is what happens when you decide to fight back with the kids and adults in town:

They haven't been painted, they've been hit by someone running up and smearing mud(?) and hot yellow chili paste in their faces. They're also coved in vinegar, eggs, flour, foam, and water.

Yeah, I think I'll pass—I'm sorta attached to my eyesight.



February 12th, 2008

even a carnival could be 'insidious' - at least in Equador


February 14th, 2008

crazy to see it packed. vilcabamba was a little ghost town of bliss when i stayed there.

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