Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cumbaya and Carnaval

Morning Pichincha

Carnaval is a popular holiday in Ecuador. The four days before the start of 40 days of Lent are party days. Schools and offices and stores are closed for the holiday. Apparently the traditions of Carnaval in Ecuador originate from pre-Columbian festivities surrounding the Spring Equinox and indigenous cosmology. The 'Huarangas' Indians used to celebrate the second moon of the year with a festival characterized by throwing flour, flowers and perfumed water. The development of the festival in Ecuador is very much an example of 'synchretism', the melding of cultures and traditions, which one encounters with many of the major festivals in Ecuador. Costumes, masks, jokes, dancing and music are joined by water bombs, and in some cities, the throwing of flour and eggs and 'spuma' or foam.

Most of the cities throughout the country celebrate by engaging in a wild and crazy game of throwing water bombs on unsuspecting friends and strangers and especially gringos. Children and teenagers anticipate this holiday all year, and start using water guns early in January in preparation. Adults complain about the practice and efforts have been made to limit or eliminate the water games without success. Ambato celebrates the 'Festival of Fruits and Flowers' and does not allow water bombing in the downtown area, while Guaranda is famous for encouraging using eggs and flour and water bombs. Ambato allows 'carioca' spraying, which is like shaving cream in all sorts of colours. I have seen the spray cans sold in Carolina Park for several weeks now, and people have been trying out their spraying techniques on their friends and family.

Each town has parades and participants dress up in disguises and masks and dance to the rhythm of lively music. The celebrations begin with the election of the 'Taita Carnaval', or the Father of the Festival, who leads the parades and the heads the festivities.

We have booked a hotel in Ambato for the holiday, but Eric will be unable to travel down with us. He has a student from Baltimore and a colleague arriving from Montreal next Saturday, and will stay in Quito to pick them up and organize their trip to the jungle. Maya and I will take the bus down Saturday and Eric will drive the truck to join us late on Sunday. We have been warned to bring clothes we don't mind getting wet or stained with foam.

Eric had a meeting today in Cumbaya at San Francisco de Quito University with Stella de la Torre, a remarkable scientist who works on marmoset (tiny little monkeys) and integrates her area of research with the lives and communities of the Secoya Indians in the jungle. She works on helping them with sustainable development as a way to preserve their culture and way of life, and is very enthusiastic and idealistic and makes a significant difference in their lives and in preserving the forest.

I took the bus to Cumbaya a little later to meet Eric for coffee, and then to join my friend Maria at a wonderful Spanish restaurant at 'La Esqina' (an outdoor mall-like complex with dozens of restaurants and coffee shops) to catch up and invite her to join us in Ambato for the holiday. Her son Gabriel and Maya like each other and Maya would enjoy herself even more if she has someone to play with. And I would feel better traveling by bus to Ambato with Maria.

Now that I am accustomed to taking the bus from Quito to Cumbaya, I find it easy and convenient, and it is amazing that it costs me only 25 cents each way. Almost all the people I have met through the Canadian Embassy, and many of the Ecuadorians I know, live in Cumbaya or Tumbaco, where it feels quieter and calmer, is always warmer (although Quito is unseasonably warm this winter), and has an upscale feel, at least in the parts I have seen. I feel a little more relaxed in Cumbaya. I wonder where the name comes from or if the song that I remember from my childhood has to do with this town or somewhere more exotic.

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