Thursday, November 28, 2013

Making diablo masks for the Diablada PillareƱa

Meet Marco Antonio Callamara. There are two things you should know about him. Firstly, he's not as scary as he looks. Secondly, he makes devil masks for a living.
Diablo de Pillaro
Marco Antonio Callamara showing off his latest creation
Marco gets paid to spend his days imagining the face of Satan, then recreating it with paper, glue and acrylic paint.

Marco is from Pillaro in Ecuador, a chilly town high in the Andes that can only be reached by a perilous, snaking road from Ambato. Pillaro is most famous for its diabolical annual festival.

La Diablada Pillarena is a UNESCO heritage festival with its roots buried deep into black Pagan soil. Sadly, its origins are lost to historians after a riot and fire in the 19th Century destroyed the town's archives. What is clear - the festival has nothing to do with the Catholic church... although there's clearly some fire and brimstone influences bubbling away in the mixed cauldron. 

The Face of Satan part iiBut the festival isn't until January - so I'll be back. In the months preceding the annual event the mask makers of Pillaro are busy adding the finishing touches to their devilish creations. Like some black metal Blue Peter presenter, I was in Pillaro with the stick back plastic to help make some masks.

The face of SatanMarco specialises in the wild and wacky. His masks are not traditional, and have a cheeky sense of humour. Many of his devils have erections or are cradling bottles of trago.

He works from his home just outside town and in the shade of the Tungurahua volcano. Beneath the washing line his yard is piled high with half-finished demons and diablos. In his lifetime he has created 200 masks and they sell for around $300 a pop.

Marco's workshop
I also went to see Edison Guachamin who maintains a more traditional approach to the diablo masks. Edison runs a local folk dance group so he not only creates the diablo masks but also choreographs the dance routines for the festival.

We compared one of Edison's masks with a pre-Incan mask from La Tolita civilisation, now housed in Quito's Museum and the likeness was extraordinary. Thankfully, there are still some dark corners the light of Catholic Spain has failed to illuminate.

Edison ran me through the process of making a devil mask, the entire procedure takes a couple of weeks but he has several masks on the go.

Yellow pages Satan
Satan in the phone book - look close and you can see numbers
It all begins with a clay mould, roughly in the shape of a human head. Over the clay, layer after layer of paper is added, bound by a strong glue. Edison uses a Quito telephone directory and it's strange to see the face of Satan emerging from the mess of names and numbers.

The masks are fitted with twisted horns which are secured (presumably with the consent) from the local ram population. The very finest masks are equipped with a pair of hairy ears which are secured (presumably without the consent) from the local pig population. Further accessories include animal teeth or marble eyes.

The masks are made to order and some people want a real horror show, others want something cheekier and more loveable. The devil comes in many guises.

Edison in his workshop
Edison working on Satan's snake staff
Finally the masks are painted in bright reds and blacks. The outfits are topped with giant crowns, made from folded cardboard. The headgear is very heavy and slightly unstable so dancing in one of these costumes under the heat of the Ecuadorian sun is a real challenge.

Showing a finished mask
Painting the teeth

I would dearly love to dress as a devil and dance through town. Disappointingly, it was suggested I should dress as the Guaricha – basically a clownish transvestite who has to flirt with authority and beg for money.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Rayner on Reinas

Reina is the Spanish word for Queen and Ecuadorians love Reinas.

Let's be clear from the start, these queens aren't the sort of dignified, noble monarchs you might find on the back of a five pound note. No, sir. The biggest difference is they're sexy and throw sweets at you.

There's only one thing the Ecuadorians love as much as a Reina, and that's a Fiesta. Hardly a day has gone by without stumbling blindly into the middle of a Bacchanalian revelry. The reasons for the fiestas are usually shrouded in a mystery more impenetrable than the Enigma code. Sometimes it's a Virgin, sometimes it's liberation from the Spanish, sometimes it can just be a donkey's birthday.

By way of example, I was in the small sub-tropical town of Quinsaloma. As we drove into town we passed three separate stages, rigged to the nines with lights and amps. It looked like a rock concert and this was just a Wednesday night. It turned out the town was celebrating its new civic status – it was no longer going to be categorised as a small town, it was now a mid-sized town. It's hard to imagine a duller and more meaninglessly bureaucratic reason to celebrate, but this didn't stop the local population going bat-shit mental armed only with brass bands, trago and partially de-weaponised fireworks.

Have a basketball, of course
Have some strawberries, why not?
But I digress, back to the Reinas. There cannot be a fiesta in Ecuador without at least 20 Reinas. They ride majestically through the town on the back of agricultural trailers that, only the day before, were carrying a pig and six cows to market.

Under President Rafael Correa Ecuador has finally found political stability. This new democracy is contagious and to become a Reina you need popular support. In the week preceding the festival voting takes place.

I was in Ambato this week and the University was hosting an election for its Reina. The walls of the campus were plastered with campaign posters, each with a glamour snap of the hopeful candidate. They were selling tickets for the Reina unveiling at seven dollars a pop – that's the equivalent of twenty five quid in real money. It's serious stuff.

Reina from the 1930s being publically reminded of the cruelty of ageing and the fleeting fickleness of transient beauty

I'm sat at the Fiesta de Tisaleo, a small Andean town with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. It's a Sunday and we've just cracked open a six pack of Club Rojas (Ecuador's most delicious local beer). Embarrassingly four school children chose that moment to walk past with an anti-booze banner which roughly translated as Dad's old maxim: “You don't need a load of ale to have a good time.”

After the guilt-tripping kids, it was turn for the parade of Reinas.

There was an offical festival Reina, there was an old lady Reina, there was a Reina for the taxi drivers' union, a Reina for the cobblers union, a Reina for every local school, a Reina for the Reina's Union.

The Reina's job is to smile, wave to the braying hoi polloi, kiss the mayor (seriously), and shower gifts from her imperial chariot (which has just the faintest odour of pig shit despite a good hosing the night before). Most Reinas throw sweets, some throw oranges, one surrealist Reina threw basketballs and strawberries. However, the best freebies came from the cobblers' union Reina, who lobbed boxes of shoes into the crowd. This rain of plimsolls caused what in England we would call a riot but in Latin America falls somewhere between a polite queue and a mild jostle.
Bit of leg for the dads
The dads in the crowd loved the Reinas, the mayor really loved the Reinas, even the sweet-coveting kids loved the Reinas. All clean innocent fun, right? Well I'm inclined to agree, if I'm prepared to overlook the inherent sexism of the entire spectacle. The trouble is, I'm not.

For a start, the Reinas never look completely natural. There's always that underlying sordidness about the whole affair, a sort of grubby shame. Of course, the Reina is the presiding monarch of the fiesta, it's just that she is so vulnerable and exposed. One rat-arsed borracho can turn the entire regal role on its head with a disrespectful cat-call or well-aimed satsuma. You might remember the toe-curlingly sexist beauty contest I witnessed at the festival of Salango.
More sweets? You're sweet enough already, Darling
Horse riding Reina, a clever twist on a well-trodden theme. Nice one, Treacle
More questionable still, the entire Reina parade takes place in front of thousands of impressionable young girls. Make up, hair and a pretty smile are what counts. The golden rule is Reinas are to be seen (read: perved over) and not heard. It's not a very positive message for the next generation.

Of course, I should be careful what I wish for. I'm certainly not advocating giving the Reinas soapboxes with their tiaras. The last thing I want to hear at a boozy fiesta is some Bono-esque rant about destroying the rainforest.  
Give us a smile, Love
Reinas, Reinas everywhere but not a drop to drink

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The day I stumbled across an illegal trago distillery

It's not everyday you stumble across an illegal distillery. Rarer still to be given a tour and a tasting.

I was in the remote sub-Tropical region close to Facunda Vela. A man had fallen from a horse and we went to offer assistance. He had cracked his spine, but was going to recover if he laid still in bed for a few months (which he was never going to do). But my thoughts soon turned elsewhere; something was tickling my nostrils – the unmistakable smell of alcohol.

We had unwittingly arrived at an illegal sugar cane spirit distillery. The super-strength liquor is known as trago; the same poison I'd been force-fed at La Fiesta de laVirgen de Merced.

We were deep in the jungle. There were no roads (only rocky tracks), no electricity, no shops, no running water. This was the heart of darkness.

So I started sniffing around the distillery fully expecting to hear a "nada que ver aqui, rayo de sol." But no, bizarrely, the owner happily gave us a tour of operations. He even demonstrated the dark art of trago making.

First up the raw sugar cane is sliced in half down the middle. It was fed into a very agricultural looking press, powered by an old generator and saggy belt-drive. I was amazed at how much juice this sticky plant contained, it poured out and we had soon filled a bucket.

The raw sugar cane juice is an unappetising grey/brown colour. I was given a mug to drink. Tasting notes, it was very sweet, but muddy and unpleasant with a faint note of red diesel.

The next part of the process was no less appealing. Fermentation took place in a large pig trough. The flies were thick in the air and the sugar cane bubbled and popped volcanically. The entire mixture looked just like raw sewage. Oranges floated in the mix; although I'm not sure how they were supposed to impart any flavour.

Next I was shown the distillation machine. This looked even more agricultural than the press. They weren't distilling any trago that day so I didn't get to see it working.

With the tour over it was time to taste the trago. I was poured a very generous measure into a filthy cup. Thoughts of blindness and liver failure briefly crossed my mind but only fleetingly, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I knocked back what must have been a quadruple measure by British standards (or what my Welsh friend Alex used to call 'quads' (but then he also pronounced toast as tost so I'm not sure what to believe anymore.))

The experience of neat trago goes something like this. First the tongue burns, then the throat burns, then the esophagus burns, then the stomach burns... and the stomach doesn't stop burning for at least two hours. The warmth of the spirit radiates like a coal furnace in the gut. Within minutes of quaffing the fire juice your heart is pounding and your head becomes pleasantly light. All of a sudden strange things start to make sense, like taking all your clothes off and chasing the wooly monkeys through the jungle with a sharpened stick.

Once I'd been found in the jungle and reunited with my clothes it was time for the final part of the production. The finished product is stored in large plastic barrels and sold to the nearby communities for one dollar a litre. It hardly seems possible alcohol this powerful can be sold so cheaply. The Indian community loves to celebrate with trago and it is seldom drunk responsibly. The culture is to drink until you pass out. Driving through the paramo (the Andean dessert above 3,400 metres) I've seen borrachos passed out by the roadside with their dogs waiting patiently beside them.

The Indian way to drink is very communal. I know because I had first hand experience in a monster session lasting from 9pm until 4:30am. The Indians drink from a single cup which is constantly refilled and passed around a circle. The person being offered the trago can refuse it and hand it back to the server who must down the glass. Of course, revenge is swift and the trickster can expect a double-measure in return.

Back at the distillery and a donkey was being loaded with two large plastic barrels filled to the brim with trago. My host was about to do the rounds like a twisted milkman. The donkey didn't look very happy, but then I suppose they never do.

I was feeling a bit light-headed and had a cramped, bumpy truck ride to the nearest village to contend with.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I can still see and I've not turned yellow.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Colada Morada and Guagua de Pan

In Ecuador, November 2 is the Day of the Dead and this means one thing: Colada Morada and Guagua de Pan (that's a thick, hot and fruity soup and sweet, jam-filled bread in the shape of a baby). It's an important family celebration and everybody gathers in the kitchen to pitch in with the peeling, chopping, blending and stirring. Those who can't fit around the steaming pans can just sit on the sidelines and make unhelpful comments about not adding too much pineapple because last year it was too sour, etc.

Colada Morada
A steaming mug of Colada Morada
Guagua de Pan
Guagua de pan... creepy
Guagua de pan (pronounced wah-wah, from the Quechua word for a baby's cry) is a bit like a doughnut stuffed with blackberry or guayaba jam or even chocolate. When you slice the blackberry dolls open it looks like an autopsy or C-section. Traditionally you'd bake these yourself, but we had our work cut out with the colada morada so picked ours up from a bakery. After a bumpy ride back home we opened the box and there had been a few casualties.

Guagua de Pan
Real horror show
The Day of the Dead is big news across Latin America. It's an important pre-Colombian celebration, in November the Incas used to parade the mummies of their Royal ancestors to demonstrate the length and continuity of the royal line. Spanish chroniclers writing in the 16th Century say the entire month of November was dedicated to Incan ceremonies of the Dead, called Ayamarcai (meaning to transport the dead in Quechua). The Spanish brought Catholicism and, as always, the church hijacked this fun mummy-flaunting festival for its own.

Today, Latins visit the local cemetery and pay their respects to dead friends and family. The queues to get into the graveyards are impressive, it looks like a rock concert (but instead of cider people are carrying classy polystyrene crosses, tastefully wrapped in silver foil, adorned with the finest tinsel and artfully finished with an obligatory image of the Virgin in the centre.

The symbolism behind the colada morada and the guagua de pan has been lost in the mists of time. So to better understand this this traditional Indian custom we scoured Lucy's anthropology textbooks. An Ecuadorian anthropologist writing in the 1960s, called Dario Guevara, suggests the baby bread and blood, red soup represents human sacrifice from pre-Colombian tribes. Another clue can be found over the border in Bolivia where they still bake large bread dolls to represent a dead family member. They dress the bread doll in clothes and sit it prominently within the house (presumably somewhere the dog can't eat it... imagine the symbolism of that!) The doll is offered food and shots of sugar cane spirit and later they take it into town to parade and dance.

It's interesting that within 500 years the symbolism of the celebration has been entirely lost but the ritual continues today unabated. Nobody knows for certain what the soup and bread means, and nobody much cares. As an outsider I was bound to ask, but for the Ecuadorians I was missing the point. The Day of the Dead, and the ritual of the Colada Morada, is really about gathering all the family together. For migrants working in the big cities, it's a weekend to return to their rural homes and reconnect. It's an important part of social cohesion, not just within the family but also for the community. You acknowledge who your family is, who it was, and by sharing the day with others at the cemetery, who the local community is also.

Colada Morada
You wouldn't serve Colada Morada in a glass, but I wanted to photograph its colour and opacity
Colada morada ingredients
Some of the many ingredients necessary for the perfect Colada Morada

I wanted to write an authoritative English language recipe for Colada Morada, luckily Lucy's 97-year-old grandma was on hand and ready to divulge nine decades of culinary secrets. She used to make Colada Morada for 40 people, but this particular recipe is good for 15-20.

Abuelita Luisa
97-year-old Abuelita Luisa shares the esoteric art of making Colada Morada

1lb of blackberries
1lb of mortinos (tiny blueberries, but normal blueberries could be used as a substitute)
6 naranjillas
1lb of strawberries
Half a pineapple
Two cups of maiz morado (purple corn flour)

Arrayan leaves (myrtille, a type of Andean tree),
Orange tree leaf,
Hierba Luisa (lemongrass),
Isphingo (an Ecuadorian laurel tree, with a taste not dissimilar to cinnamon),
Ataco (a pseudo cereal of the Andes, similar to quinua)

Sweet pepper,

  1. Soak two cups of maiz morado (purple corn) and soak it in water for three days, when it starts to ferment and turn sour.
  2. They sieve the sour flour and save the water. NOTE: If you can't get hold of purple corn flour then standard white cornflour can be used instead.
  3. Use two large saucepans. In the first, boil the blueberries with the blackberries in water until they become soft and burst. In the second pan, boil water with the herbs, spices and the pineapple's rind
  4. Blend the blueberries and blackberries in a liquidiser and sieve away the pips and pulp.
  5. Remove the herbs from the second pan, leaving you with aromatic water
  6. Add the sieved blackberries and blueberries into the aromatic water
  7. Add some of the pre-prepared corn flour to the mixture to thicken the water. We're aiming for the consistency of a Heinz Chicken soup.
  8. Peel the naranjillas and blend with a splash of water. Sieve this and add the juice to the mixture.
  9. Chop the pineapple and strawberries into tiny squares and add to the hot mixture and boil for five minutes. Also add the peel of one of the naranjilla fruits.
  10. Serve hot in mugs with guagua de pan
The end result is a spicy, slightly sour stew that doesn't really tip the scales past equilibrium - it isn't delicious, it isn't disgusting, and it most certainly isn't insipid. It's a lot of effort, but that's the point. It's not really about liking colada morada or not... it's about getting together and making something, like a family coming together in England to decorate the Christmas Tree, or just to get blind-drunk.

Making Colada Morada
Making Colada Morada, it's a jungle in there