Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Festival de la Balsa Mantena: Salango

Every year Salango – a small fishing town south of Puerto Lopez - hosts a festival honouring the pre-hispanic people who lived on these Pacific shores. The ancient people were expert mariners and developed a primitive sailing vessel – essentially a single-masted, bamboo raft. It's not exactly a Viking longboat but it did the job. Apparently their nautical expertise caught the eye of the Incan empire, who were always on the look out for useful “allies” to befriend.

The festival begins with a meaty toot on a ritual conch shell. A man dressed as one of the indigenous tribe of Salango creates a small fire on the beach and recites an incantation. To encourage a bit of audience participation he invites six local children to help... 600 local children stampede towards him and he looks a bit like Simba's dad in the Lion King.

We can't get on with the festival until the fire is extinguished and it takes an age to burn. Finally it dies and the beauty contest can begin. Three girls from different provinces are competing against la mas bella chica of Manabi for the title of Mantena Bonita. Ever seen that episode of Father Ted with the Lovely Ladies competition? Basically, that.

First up is the local lass. She parades in front of the crowd burning with shame. Little wonder, she's dressed in a shell bikini and carrying some sort of urn with all the solemnity of a pall-bearer. She looks very young, I think, as she trudges past ignominiously. Next up is Quito's offering. She's older and walks more confidently but the expert eye (read – mine) can tell her heart's not really in it, probably a feminist. Then we have Miss Esmeraldas who's out of the blocks at full gallop. She swaggers, sashays and shakes her bum for an appreciative crowd. Finally it's Miss Valencia's turn but she's late so the judging begins without her. Then, at the eleventh hour, she arrives, adding the finishing touches to her make-up. She might as well have stayed back in Valencia because (SPOILER ALERT) she doesn't win – docked points for tardiness, I hope.

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Oh dear
The judges have no choice but to award first prize to Miss Esmereldas, largely because she was the only contestant who didn't undermine this illustrious competition, treating it with the dignity and respect it well deserves. However, as a final humiliating twist to the entire sexist farce the chief takes the microphone and announces that they wanted to award first prize to their local girl but because she was only 14 years-old (yes, 14!) they felt this overt sexualisation and her skimpy costume would rob her of precious childhood innocence. Poor girl, the waves of shame and embarrassment radiated from her like a nuclear blast. Why the judges didn't think to say something before asking her to parade around in front of 2,000 gawkers is beyond me. Afterwards there was time for photos and every teenage boy in the province rushed forward with their camera phones in hand (there is no Zoo magazine in Ecuador so Mantena Bonita is perv's gold for frustrated adolescents). The poor 14-year-old had to withstand this final humiliation before she was allowed to leave, presumably in tears.

The real highlight of the festival was the dancing but before this could begin there was the annual ritual of launching a reproduction of the sugar cane/bamboo raft (Balsa Mantena). Then we found out before the dancing could begin the bamboo raft had to sail all the way to the Island of Salango and back. Then we found out the bamboo raft wasn't a natural sea-farer and the wind was rather breathless that day. I went off for some lunch, when I returned the raft was still bobbing gently offshore, slowly taking on water. Some bright spark wondered if it wouldn't be cheating if they gave the raft a bit of a tow with their motorboat. Bless that bright spark. With the boat's mission complete it was finally time to dance.

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For those in peril on the sea
First up were a black dance group from Esmereldas. They put on a racy and sexually provocative routine which they frequently interrupted for the female members in the group to grab a microphone and tease their male counterparts about the size of their manhood, their sexual athleticism and even questioning their sexuality. Homophobic? You bet. Then it was the men's turn for revenge. It was equally smutty... a bit of blue for the dads, but the kids in the audience seemed to love it the most. Shortly after this I was dragged on stage for some ritual humiliation. I think it's called twerking and I'm not very good at it.

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Oh dear, part two
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Wash your mouth out
The group from Quito danced re-enactments of city life from the perspective of the indigenous community. It was all drunkenness, lechery, nagging wives, husbands getting beaten with brooms, and the local rozzer (chapa in Ecuadorian slang) interfering with their dodgy street trading. In between dances there was some dialogue. I didn't understand the subtleties but according to Lucy it was a bit racist. Basically it was Mestizos taking the piss out of the Indian community, and impersonating them with exaggerated and inaccurate accents.

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Carry On Quito
It was a festival run with the ruthless Ecuadorian efficiency and keen sense of organisation I've come to admire. We arrived at 10am (the advertised start of the festival) only to find the organisers were still rigging the stage and lassoing a wire over an electricity pylon to cadge a bit of free leccy. The official festival announcer's first announcement was to ask if any member of the public had a schedule for the day's programme because he didn't have a clue what or when was happening. To express punctuality and sharpness in Ecuador, they say English time. As in: “I'll meet you at the airport at 11:30, English time.” I'm a victim of my own stereotype.

Salango doesn't have the bustle of its neighbour up the coast – there's no fish market, instead there's a giant factory where fish are gutted, packaged, sealed and sent far and wide. If you've ever eaten a can of tuna fish there's a fair chance it passed through Salango.  

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