Viva Carnaval

Two Saturdays ago, I took the bus up to the town of El Valle, about 10 minutes away from my house. Deema, a friend and fellow in Global Citizen Year,  lives there with her host family. We met up in El Valle to go watch what we thought would be a fun, but more or less uneventful parade for Carnaval. We were wrong.

Getting myself to El Valle in the first place is a bit of a story. Deema and I planned to find each other on the main street in the town since it’s not very big. She would walk there from her house  and I would take the bus from my house and get off at the stop on the main street at 9am. I was a tiny bit worried about being able to find each other since her phone was broken and we wouldn’t be able to call each other if I got lost or if something happened.

The morning of, I walked from my house to the bus stop and  got on the #14 bus to El Valle. About 7 minutes in, I realized the bus was taking a different route than normal because the parade was to go through the main road. I got off the bus on a muddy road not sure if I was anywhere near where I needed to be. I started walking one direction before seeing some guys directing traffic in the other direction, so I turned around like a typical lost gringa and asked them if we were near El Valle and the parade. They pointed me up a giant hill. Walking up the hill, I hoped I was going in the right direction.

Finally, I arrived at the parade street I was meeting Deema on. The whole street was blocked off and every tienda on it had a little stand set up outside selling cans of “carioca”  also called “espuma”—think of a can of silly string except scented foam comes out instead of stringy material.

After walking up and down the main road a couple times looking for my friend, and worrying I’d never find her since it was well past the time we were supposed to meet, I finally decided to just buy a dollar cup of fruit and yogurt and sit watching the pre-parade buzz, hoping she’d just appear. And not 30 seconds later she did!

Relieved to have found her and not have to watch the parade by myself, we walked over to the main plaza of El Valle where lots of people were gathering. While Deema and I sat and talked, observing the people milling around, an older woman came over and set up her espuma stand right next to us. We bought two cans from her, assuming we’d play with it a little bit later since so many other people  were carrying espuma cans as well.

At around 10:30, the parade started. Deema and I sat on the curb and began to watch. A lot of groups in different traditional Ecuadorian clothing, passed through the parade, dancing, singing and playing drums. Another group danced by, dressed in devil costumes, banging heavy drums. One of the men in the parade, closer to the side of the street pulled me in and gave me the stick to bang on his drum.

Eventually, a group came through carrying a large, handcrafted hut made of sticks that if you looked inside, represented what a typical Ecuadorian kitchen used to look like. A group of very tough looking young men dressed as cows also passed by. Then a group of adorable preschoolers came through, dressed as cuter cows. During all of this, people standing behind and to the side of Deema and me would occasionally spray the espuma on us: on our heads, on our backs, on our legs, in our faces. We’d look around and try to figure out which of the 50 Ecuadorians around us did it to try and get them back with our espuma but could never figure out who it was, so we were forced to just spray as many people as we could around us; which is truly the spirit of Carnaval; spraying random people with espuma as well as dumping water on anyone you see.

Eventually, the parade came to a standstill—a bit of a traffic jam. Deema and I got up and walked along the side of the road to see more of the parade that had stalled. We realized the parade went on forever and forever. The groups in the parade weren’t from just El Valle, they were from all the neighboring towns and villages as well. People were spraying espuma every 10-30- seconds at us, and occasionally dumping water as well, and poofing cornstarch on our faces and heads. When the whole parade and town is essentially a giant water/espuma/cornstarch fight, and you’re significantly taller than everyone, have snow-white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, EVERYONE sees you and wants to get you. Every so often someone would spray me in the eyes with the espuma, and temporary blind me.  I would grab hold onto Deema in front of me so as not to lose her in the crowd while I used my shirt which was sopping wet from people dumping/throwing water on me, to clean my eyes.

Further up in the parade, a group of men and women dressed in typical Ecuadorian outfits were dancing all around with each other in the parade. We paused for a minute to take a breath and watch. Soon, one of the men dancing pulled me into the parade to dance with him, and then another pulled Deema in. While I was attempting to dance with this guy, other people were spraying espuma on my back and dumping water on me. Then another woman from the parade came over with a wooden bowl of juice and held it up to my mouth “toma, toma” (drink, drink). I continued dancing with this guy—he had a strong grab on me and kept passing me off to other people in the parade to dance with too. Another woman came over and put a pear in my hand and then someone else put some kind of sweet corn dessert wrapped in a leaf. Then another woman lifted another bowl of juice up to my mouth. The dancing continued and yet another lady held a spoon with berries up to my mouth and I ate them.

Finally, the guy I was dancing with let me go. Completely overwhelmed but in a fabulous way, I tried walking back to the side of the street to finally try and take a breath. Before I got there, some other people in the parade who I think had been watching me, came up to me and handed me a giant baby doll, said something about marrying me to get a visa to the United States, and then asked for a photo. I happily obliged for the photo, but did not marry anyone.

Trying again to pause for just a moment, we saw two young boys grinning widely running towards us. I think we didn’t have energy to run, so we just stood groaning quietly there while they cracked a raw egg on each of our heads.

Both of us a bit overwhelmed from so much over stimulation from everything that transpired, we walked the half hour walk back to Deema’s house to rest.  Five minutes in, we walked past a group of 3 men standing at the end of a driveway…with a bucket. During Carnaval, you can’t trust anyone anywhere, so we were quite suspicious. And especially being obvious gringas, we make really fun targets for the Ecuadorians. So we began walking on the other side of the dirt road, faster than usual. As we passed them, one of the men picked up the bucket and started running towards us. We sprinted, screaming and giggling, afraid and excited. I didn’t see what was in the bucket, but Deema did and says it was a red liquid—quite possibly pig’s blood, something they do use to play Carnaval here sometimes. Quickly, the man turned around, deciding not to dump a bucket of pig’s blood on us. Praise the Lord. I think he may have just wanted to scare us and see our reaction.

Further down the road (of horrors haha) we came upon a momma dog nursing her 5 or 6 adorable puppies. We stopped to take a picture. I was getting out my camera when what we assume to have been the papa dog ran towards us, baring his teeth and growling, like I’ve only seen in movies. We took a couple quick steps back, almost about to run, when the dog let up and stopped growling so threateningly. We quickly walked away, pretty freaked out.

We arrived at Deema’s house and her 5 dogs greeted us, running towards us, but this time not baring their teeth trying to kill us. Deema stuck her head in the outside shower to get try and get some of the raw egg and cornstarch off of her head.

We returned an hour and a half later, expecting the parade and all the madness that came with it to have died down. But nope, it was still going, stronger than before. This time I put my sunglasses on, even though it was cloudy, to try and avoid having more espuma sprayed in my eyes. They were red and they stung. The sunglasses helped somewhat but somehow people found ways to spray it into my eyes through the sides of my glasses.

While trying to buy water at a tienda on the side of the road the parade passed through, a man came up to us and smeared cornstarch all over the top of my head. Further down the road, the parade continued, traditional Ecuadorian music blasting from various places in the streets, groups dancing in the parade, water and espuma flying everywhere, everyone having a good time. Carnaval is definitely my new favorite holiday and I’m sad we don’t have it in the United States 🙁

Standing against the wall of a tienda, and taking everything in, we made yet another mistake of standing too close to a group of young guys too excited to see some easy gringa Carnaval targets. Two of the guys came over and took me by each arm, dragging me into the middle of the parade. I started trying to get away, giggling and smiling. When they’d successfully dragged me into the middle of the street, one of the guys hoisted me over his shoulders and shouted something above. Suddenly, I saw a couple people on the balcony above us with a hose. And bam—I was sopping wet all over again, the hose spraying directly at me from above, me screaming and laughing while kicking my legs which were dangling off the ground over the guy’s shoulder. I think everyone around was laughing hysterically at the 5’8 gringa being held by this Ecuadorian guy that was maybe 5’2. He finally let me down, and I ran back to Deema, one again surprised and shocked and wonderfully pleased with the craziness of Carnaval.

Now desperately needing food and a break from being sprayed in the eyes with foam chemicals, we went to eat lunch at the little farmer’s market. I had salchipapas (French fries and sausage, an empanada de queso, and morocho: a hot drink made of milk, corn and sugar). We ate in peace, the farmer’s market area seemed to be a Carnaval-free zone.

After that, we took the 10 minute bus ride back to my house, but not before emptying the remaining water bottles and espuma we had on anyone that we walked past.

Getting off the bus, we left a little puddle since we were still sopping wet. Deema had on rain boots that she had to empty out. Walking from the bus stop to my house, we recounted all the craziness we’d just experienced, while sopping wet, smelling like apple and grape foam chemicals, and with raw egg and cornstarch dripping down our heads. It was a good day.