I'd narrowly avoided a cavalry charge of cross-dressing Turks riding kaleidoscopic silk-clad horses – I was at La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced.
The annual week long festival is a Pagan affair (despite its name and later approbation by the Catholic Church) celebrating Summer equinox.
Ecuador is in the middle of the world and on the equinox the sun is in the middle of the sky – it swallows shadows whole and bleaches everything you see. A friend had a sun dial in their garden and on September 21 it was necessary to spin it 180 degrees about face or else let it linger in shadow for the next six months.
The general flavour of La Fiesta de la Virgen is a simple mix of dressing-up, dancing, and drinking – lots of drinking.
|No chance of rain but the sun will soak you through|
The generous locals don't need much encouragement to pour their fire water down the throats of visiting tourists. El Vikingo, your courageous narrator and conspicuous Englishman, was subjected to no fewer than ten Trago ambushes. Alcohol has numbed my lips before, but my teeth too! – that was a first.
Even motorists making their way back from church weren't spared the dentist's chair – revellers wouldn't let them pass until they'd doubled the drink drive limit. Taxi drivers too were hitting the Trago hard – I saw one bleary-eyed cabbie transform a simple three-point turn into a fifty-four point turn before finally saying “sod it” and abandoning his vehicle.
I was in Merced – a small rural town in a valley south of Quito. It's a largely indigenous area and the festival was filled with Indians wearing traditional clothing. My favourite outfit was worn by the Otavalenos – that's blue ponchos, white linen clothing, long pony tails (adorned with colourful ribbons) and all topped with a cheeky cherry of a bowler hat. The ponchos are thick-knit wool and it was 30 degrees under the sun, so extra marks awarded for stoicism.
|He was trying to shake my hand - I was trying to photograph him - something's gotta give|
Also in attendance were Los Morenos – who paint their faces black with boot polish like it was the 1920s – and the Zamarros, dandy cowboys, who wear comedy sheepskin chaps and iron their shirts a little too meticulously.
|Boot polish and a white dress - what could go wrong?|
Top of the pile were Los Turcos (the Turks), the cross-dressing horsemen I'd mentioned at the start of my piece. When Los Turcos arrived the entire town made way for their clip-clop procession through town. Their identities are hidden by creepy masks and the significance of their dress and symbolism has been lost in dark ages.
|El Turco at full gallop|
Also at the festival I saw lots of people dressed as Ecuadorian soldiers or policemen – either wearing zombie-like make up or with their faces blackened. The indigenous population aren't the biggest fans of these particular institutions and this was mockery through mimicry.
Its unfair to say the fiesta was a purely pagan affair – despite its Bacchanalian character. In the town's main square a vast open air mass was taking place – albeit interrupted by sporadic outbursts of rockets and fireworks. The Virgen de Merced also took pride of place in the procession through town, borne on the shoulders of local girls and a few chivalrous chaps.
The Catholics love a supernatural apparition of the Virgin – and La Virgen de la Merced is one of the Mary's many personae – in this case our Lady of Mercy. She originated in 13th Century Catalunya – during the darkest days of Islamic encroachment in the Iberian peninsula. The Virgin of Mercy has chimed with particular resonance in the New World, and nowhere more so than in La Merced itself.
Our Lady of Mercy is typically portrayed in white robes and with arms outstretched to the faithful. In La Merced locals had stuck dollar bills to her dress which presented a confusing cross-cultural image.
|Our Lady of Mercy parades through town|
The soundtrack was provided by the many bandas de pueblo (village bands) – who struck up bouncy Sanjuanito, Pasacalle and Albazo tunes on trumpets, trombones and drums.
On the menu – although not for this vegetarian still recovering from a bellyful of e.coli – were giant strips of crackling pork skin. The grim, black eyes of the roasted hogs stared back from every roadside stall and a dollar got you a generous slice of crispy flesh.
|Tempted? A dollar a slice|
Finally, it's not a South American fiesta without the humble borracho (our version of the pisshead). I was there on the final day of a week's worth of boozing and revelry so understandably there were casualties propping up bus stops or sleeping off a skin full of Trago in a storm drain. We rudely awoke one roadside borracho on arrival and he gallantly volunteered to guard our car – although it was much more likely he'd just be sick on it.
|Borracho borrachito paso el dia solito|
La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced is a chaotic and colourful affair held together into a cohesive mass by the spirit of dance and revelry... and of course the spirit of the spirit Trago.
See the rest of the photos from La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Merced here