Welcome to Carnaval! My host family began counting down the days in October. Every time we wash our clothes (by hand in the cement sink), someone in my family would throw water on me and scream “Carnaval”. I honestly dreaded it and I thought I would hate it. The idea of strangers randomly soaking you with water at any moment while out in public felt like an opportunity for my students to catch me walking to school and soak me. Guess what????… It has been my favorite holiday from the entire year. Another good lesson on experience versus pre-judgement.
My host mom’s brother, his wife, and their son are here visiting El Cabo for a month from the USA for the first time back in 20 years. My host mom decided to throw a Carnaval party in their honor. My host family dropped off a big, fat pig in another town for it to be prepared “Hornado”-style. I went with my host sister to pick up the piggie. Little did I know Carnaval had fiercely started in the other town, Gualeceo. There were kids and families hiding on the sides of the road throwing water, spraying karaoke (soapy foam), using water guns, and using hoses to get water inside the passing cars. Thankfully our camioneta driver reminded us “Remember all windows must be up.” When we arrived to pick up the full sized, cooked pig, there were an army of gremlins waiting for us. My host sister got out and was immediately drenched. I quickly made my decision to stay in the car.
When we arrived home, my host mom asked if I could make the llapingachos. Llapingachos are this mashed potato patty like a crab cake, sometimes filled with cheese. They are quite tasty. I made 75 on my family’s new electric skillet. My family divided up the Hornado (the cooked pig), the llapingachos, lettuce, and mote (hominy). It was a feast, and while we ate the fantastic meal, the DJ, my host mom hired, set up the speakers and went to work entertaining us. I thought my ears were going to explode it was so loud.
Once everyone semi-finished eating, the water fight began. I was cornered by my nephew and three cousins, ages ranged from 7-10. I was quite intimidated. They drenched me in water and foam. I then strategically stood by the huge bucket by the waterpipe and threw buckets of water on them. One of the girl cousins joined me and we were winning for the most part. We used our buckets to cover our eyes from the foam being sprayed at us. Family members eventually were dragged out by other family members from the “protected area” to soak them from head to toe. It never went above 55 degrees fahrenheit. Brrrrrrr! If you tried changing clothes, you would just be soaked all over again. The only way to stay warm was to dance to the music or keep playing, because eventually the water felt warm. It was so much fun, and we played for about three hours.
The Backstory for what I did on Monday:
My friend’s family invited me in January to represent their family in the Candidata de Reina (Queen’s Candidate competition). Little did I know what I was signing up for, one of those ignorance is bliss situations. Their family would be dressed up as firefighters as part of a float in a parade, and they wanted to find a special costume for me. All of the major costume shops are in Cuenca, so we visited three. Well, most Ecuadorians are very petite, so the sizes available range from XXS to S. It was hilarious. My friend and her mom decided they would just have a special firefighter dress made for me where their dresses were being made. I picked out a cute picture on the internet to show to the lady.
The next day dances practices began, and they were led by the fourteen-year-old girls in the family. There were about thirty people at each dance practice. The photo of my dress was shown to one of the aunts and she said, “Oh no. That is not sexy enough. You need to cancel it and go look at one of these rental places in Paute.” I thought, “WHAT????” So the next day, we were back on the costume search… We found a place that rents out more traditional, Carnaval costumes. It was definitely not what the aunt had in my mind, but my friend and I liked it and I felt comfortable wearing it out in public.We had three more dance practices. The little kids begun playing Carnaval while we practiced. We also magically turned a large truck into a beautiful firetruck.
We began putting on our costumes and makeup at 8 am and didn’t finish till about 9 am. There was a lot of cynching and safety pinning of my the skirt, the belt, and the top. I was also coached on “the how to of princess waving” by my friend’s 84 year old grandmother who I absolutely adore. She is so sassy and funny. She even told me I need to blow kisses at the crowd, and she gave super cheesy demonstrations on how I should do it. This made me less nervous for the parade. If I could be silly and not take myself too seriously, I could pull this off.
Our group was called Los Locos Bomberos (Crazy Firefighters) and we looked so good while we began lining up for the parade. There were judges along the parade route grading the costumes and cars, TaiTai (kind of like king) Carnaval, and the choreography. Lastly, my part as Queen of our float was not graded until after the parade was over. We waited for an hour for the parade to even begin. It finally started and so did the dancing as we paraded through town. I was standing on this trailer attached to the back of the fire truck with the TaiTai Carnaval. The first part of the parade was easy going. When I saw little kids, I tossed pears, plums, flower petals, and aluminum foil wrapped cookies. I felt like royalty or one of the princesses from Fiesta. When we got to the center of El Cabo, that is when the fun really begun.
A new rule had been established this year for the parade, no one was allowed to throw water or espuma on the contestants during the parade, but apparently no one knew. heard about it. I think that rules and laws are generally just ignored during Carnaval from what I saw and from what my host family told me. People drenched us with hoses and water guns. Kids and adults would come up to the part where I was and spray the espuma in my face or on my body, especially when the parade was stopped. I wondered why we put so much effort into my hair and makeup that morning. It was crazy to say the least. From the top of our firetruck, there were three fireman throwing water into the crowd.
When we reached the final leg close to the stadium, we performed our dance in front of the judges’ stage. I lead our group since I was the Reina of the Fireman, but our music stopped half way through which was very sad. We looked fantastic dancing our way by the judges. Check out videos at these links:
We then ate more hornado at the family’s house. This pig could last us a week it is so big. The ladies returned for me to whisk me off to the Reina competition. I had not been prepared for this next part. I was told they would ask me a few questions. Instead as each candidate was announced, we walked up onto the stage individually and were voluntold to start dancing to whatever music they blared out into the crowd. I was supposed to do some sort of dance move?!?!? Now, I’m really outside my comfort zone.. I was unprepared for dancing in front of 2,000+ people but was worth trying for the $500 cash prize for the winning Reina. My dance moves have improved while being here, but are not ready to be showcased. I went for the familiar and repeated some of the spins and dance moves from our choreographed dance and threw air kisses just like the abuela had taught me. I got loud cheers… The finale included all the Reinas dancing on stage for two long songs. I smiled and got in sync with the 20 other local girls who probably had practiced the whole year for this moment. We were given a turn to deliver a Carnaval message and to introduce ourselves to the growing crowd. Some girls tried telling the crowd not to drink, which didn’t go well and they were booed. I stuck with something I knew would go over well. I said in Spanish, “Good afternoon, El Cabo. I am Julia and I am 18 years old. Please enjoy the typical food, the dancing, and the culture. Take time to spend the day with your families. This is my first Carnaval and I am really enjoying it. Thank you for sharing your tradition,Carnaval, with me. Viva Carnaval!” I was the last one to go, but half way through my message I was boycotted, which means people start yelling to distract me. It reminded me of throwing a free throw in basketball and being heckled by the other team except this time I had no idea the other groups would try and sabotage my speech. I had no idea what was going on. I was confused and paused for what felt like 3 long seconds and then continued my message. I had more loud cheers at the end, and I was proud of myself for speaking Spanish in front of all those waterlogged people.
Finally the results were in by the end of the day.Our group won first place for costumes and the decorate fire truck. My friend’s family was ecstatic. I won second place in the Reina competition, and lost to the winning Reina by just 2 points. She has won $1500 from winning the last three years in a row.. I had so much fun and I am so glad I went along for the ride and had a spectacular day. My host family wants me to return next year, so they can compete with their own float, and I can claim the “crown”.
Once the winners were announced, I met back up with my host family to listen to the two music artists who had come to El Cabo. While we danced, we sprayed foam into the air and over the crowd. On the field below, there was a pozo “a giant, mud, water pit”. People get thrown into this pit which is not a soft landing. I begged and pleaded with my host family not to throw me in, so they protected me from other random people trying to come after me. My host mom put up her fists to fight this group of guys and yelled “Don’t touch my daughter”. My mom is tiny in comparison, but she intimidated them. My heart melted when she called me her daughter. My host sister and her husband later dragged me back to the house and drenched me again. It was like every time I was almost dry, someone threw water on me and I was completely soaked again. Rosa (my host mom) was feeling feisty and protective of me like a mother bear.. Once it gets dark, it’s considered a courtesy not to keep throwing water, because you can’t really drip dry when it’s 50 degrees. A family kept throwing water on me with their bucket for who knows what reason except I stand out. Eventually, Rosa marched over to them and said “This bucket is now mine!” and confiscated it. Haha, I died laughing. She was all business. We danced until we were too cold to move and then we went home and fell asleep exhausted.
I slept in till 10 to rest for the upcoming evening of festivities. I headed to Paute to hang out with my friend from GCY, Khuda. We ate cuy at his aunt’s house and it was the tastiest cuy I have had all year. I bought a can of the foam for defense mechanism as we walked around Paute. You have to be prepared at all times to stand your ground! There were trucks driving people around perched in the back so they could throw water balloons and spray water on people walking by. Khuda just looked at them threateningly and he stayed dry. I was nowhere near dry by the end of the first five minutes. We then met up with more friends from GCY who grabbed Khuda and dragged him outside to some neighbors with drenched him using their water hose. It was so funny, because he finally got wet. We then headed to the concert in Paute with more people throwing foam and water at everyone.
I went back to my host family’s house and we ate empanadas and drank coffee for dinner. It’s one of my favorite meals to eat together. We watched and danced at the second concert for the night. The concert was calmer than the first one and pretty dry by Carnaval standards. It was the perfect way to close down Carnaval. My siblings back home have no idea how prepared I am for our next water balloon fight!