Monday, January 6, 2014

How I became the first English Diablo at the Diablada Pillareña

I was the first English Diablo de Pillaro... and conspicuously so. I was a foot taller than all of the other devils and the long blonde hair was a dead give-away. As a result I was a magnet for the trago shots (sugar cane spirit) and had half a bottle poured down my throat before the parade had even begun. At first I was nervous and a shot of Dutch courage was welcome, but soon my stomach was on fire and it was a relief to finally don the devil mask to escape the trago.

Ready to dance
The Diablada Pillareña is the annual festival of the devil in the high-Andean town of Pillaro. Its roots are a protest by the indigenous communities against Spanish rule and the Church. The devil was their symbol of union and shocking rebellion – the masks ensured anonymity from their corpulent hacienda owners. All of the communities danced into town and took over the main square in an annual act of defiance and solidarity. Any colonial Spaniard who had forgotten the festival and popped into Pillaro for some chorizo and Rioja was guaranteed a bad time.

Now, in a strange twist  – I am dancing alongside the Indians in a festival that has become more about fun, drinking and friendship than protest. All the same: “Bloody Spanish.”

The weight of the mask was impressive, forcing chin into chest. The tiny slits for the eyes were like keyholes, and I could see less in the periphery than a blinkered horse; there would be more than a few collisions to come. In my right hand I carried a stuffed zorillo (an Andean skunk whose territorial pissing smells exactly like weed) with which to torment and terrify children, girls and drunks lining the streets. I had a heavy sheepskin wig tied tightly around my head to secure the mask. The rest of my outfit was a red silk suit, flesh-coloured stockings and a pair of pumps one size too small, because size 46 and beyond does not exist in Ecuador.

Edison makes the final adjustments to my mask while my neck snaps under the strain
Lucy was worried I'd get lost in the chaos so volunteered to dress as a Guarricha to keep an eye on me. The Guarricha is traditionally a cross-dressing man in colourful women's clothing, and a creepy mask; they carry a baby and a bottle of trago. Like the diablos, their job is to cause maximum mischief and spread the drunkenness.

Lucy the guarricha with her baby and bottle of booze like an ASBO mum
The diablos have to dance with wild pelvic thrusts and adopting a mock drunken stagger (the latter I'd mastered expertly). The zorro is punched high in the air in time with the thumping bass drum from the marching brass band.

The hardest thing about the parade is getting enough air to stay alive. Dancing at 3,000 metres is breathtaking at the best of times but dancing at 3,000 metres with a belly-full of booze combined with the weight of the mask and its three pinprick air holes for the mouth was the equivalent of going for a jog during an asthma attack. It's forbidden for the devils to remove their mask during the parade so all I could do was relax, regulate and enjoy the dizzy highs of asphyxiation.

We danced twice around the main square in Pillaro before coming to rest in a social centre where I could finally remove my mask. Somebody handed me a bottle of water, it was a welcome sight in the heat and I glugged greedily. Something was wrong! I realised I'd just chugged listerine, the paint-strippingly strong distillation that Ecuadorians like to knock back when a party is in full-swing.

I was dancing with a group from Guangibana led by Edison Guachamin who runs Andean Arte – a dance school and traditional clothing hire shop. I'd filmed Edisonmaking the masks for the Diablada Pillareña a few months earlier and had wheedled my way into the collective like a cheeky stray-cat. Edison also loaned me the diablo outfit and mask.
(left to right) Me, Lucy and Edison posing before the parade
The Guangibana group always occupy the rooftop terrace of the social centre – I'd been drinking with them there two days earlier and that was where the idea of me dancing was first suggested. From the terrace we could see hundreds of devils and guarrichas drinking. The band were sitting sulking in the corner because nobody had bought them any beer or trago to drink and there was no way they were dipping their hands in their pockets. Luckily they were soon oiled up and playing again.

In Ecuador nobody has their own drink, everything is communal. We bought a 24 pack of Pilsner and it is one person's duty to pour the beer and hand the glass around the circle. This responsibility always seemed to land on poor, old Gato for some reason. With the crate polished off it was time for the second round of dancing. All of the group were tight after the beer and trago and there is nothing more devilish than a drunk diablo.

In the second parade it was less about the dancing and more about winding-up the audience with my zorillo. The best trick was to ask girls to stroke the zorillo and attack them with it when they did, brazen tourist photographers were another reliable target. Lucy and I had even worked out a little routine whereby I chased her with the zorillo and got it to bite her bum. The zorillo had its revenge though, I managed to slice open my finger with its razor claws. I was so drunk I barely felt it but was shocked to see the blood pooled in my palm – but the show must go on.

Lots of the crowd wanted photographs with me and it's probably the closest I will ever come to celebrity. As the sun sank behind the mountains the dancing was coming to an end but I was still hungry for more so sneaked back for a final fling.

Not enough room to swing a zorillo
After the parade we all headed to Edison's house for another crate of beer and trago. On the winding mountain road back to Ambato I'm sorry to say I felt quite sick. I'm such a show-off I can't just take a tiny swig from the bottle and am easily inflated by applause. This surreal day ended with the sudden realisation I'd lost my shoes, which is always the mark of a good night.

I've seen some festivals but nothing comes close to the Diablada. The colour, the music, the dancing, the active volcano of Tungurahua as backdrop and the booze make a chaotic and kaleidoscopic cocktail. I've honestly never had so much fun in my life.


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