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|