Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Surviving Carnaval

 I have officially survived the longest, most confusing holiday of my life: Carnaval. Carnaval is basically Mardi gras South American style. I think it's supposed to last four days or so--right up until Lent--but people here have been celebrating for at least a week and a half. According to Wikipedia, it's different in different countries, so I can only speak for Ecuador when I say: what a sh*tshow. 
Though there are plenty of more "cultural" events depending on where you go, the gist of Caraval here is basically just a huge water fight. No one is safe. And no one can be trusted. You think that child looks innocent? WRONG. That kind looking old woman? NO. Since last week, people of all ages have been jumping out from behind doors with water balloons, pitchers of water, eggs and flour, or this awful chemical foam spray called "Carioka." I got sprayed on my way to work once, which was a little irritating. Gringos are especially good targets--everyone loves to see a foam-covered, soaking wet gringo who didn't know better. 
Traditionally I guess there were supposed to be little devils that threw water or eggs on unsuspecting friends and strangers during this time. So it's part of the holiday for children, teenagers, and pretty much everyone to ambush each other at any point for a week, more or less. I don't know where the foam came from as far as tradition (I don't think it's been around for that long), but it's everywhere now. It's fruit-scented and colored and stings the eyes something awful. 
Anyway, I went to the town of Tena for Carnaval because I had a few days off of work. Tena is town of about 20,000 located in the rainforest. The smaller nearby village of Misahualli, which is a starting point for a lot of jungle tours, is also home to one of the many big Carnaval celebrations--parades, concerts, etc. My whole weekend was pretty much a giant fight/party. We drove around in the back of a pickup all over town attacking people and being attacked. Then we went to Misahualli and joined the festivities on the beach of the Napo river, where there was a huge concert and giant fight, complete with lots of beer drinking and a few instances of actual violence. Some kids nearly drowned, but the party continued to rage around them. 
This water bombing and foam spraying is technically illegal, but no one does anything about it because please, it's fun. I am tired of it now, but it was nice to be a part of a holiday that simply could never happen in the US. I mean, it's a free-for-all. Kids were waiting on the high way even, with huge homemade contraptions to dose every passager with water. When we were driving around in the pickup, one of our crew threw a water balloon into someone else's car. A brief car chase ensued, but the guy just had to calm down and admit he was stupid for having his window open and talking on his phone during Carnaval. In the US we would have been sued for sure. 
This is partly tradition and I think also a reflection of cultural differences. Ecuadorians are just more relaxed about everything. They laugh off a good egg and flouring because it's Carnaval. No matter that they have to continue working in their tienda for the rest of the day. It's all in good fun. I don't imagine there would be so many good sports in the US, but maybe I'm wrong. 
Anyway, the day after the beach party my eyes were crusted over from all of the foam they endured--the face is the prized target--and I still had stains on my clothes and body from the powdered paint (still unsure about the origins of this tradition) that people smeared on each other on the beach. 
Even yesterday back in Quito I was not safe. Two boys ganged up on me with Carioka and then tried to take a picture. Yes, I had fun during Carnaval, but I'm glad it's over. Now I can finally take a shower and wash my clothes. 
Having a camera on my person for this holiday was out of the question, but I found a couple photos online so that you'd get a general idea. Also, this is the one picture of the Tena area: me jumping into the river from a rope swing. 

Such nasty stuff.
Buckets of water...

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