Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year's Eve in Ecuador

A rope across the road stopped our car and out of the darkness leapt four men wearing wigs, miniskirts, and fishnet tights – it was highway robbery, of a sort. The men danced, twerked and exposed their giant plastic breasts, they wouldn't let us pass until we'd handed over money. These are the viudas (widows) and this is Ecuador on New Year's Eve.

Viudas dancing on New Year's Eve in Ambato
Our car was stopped at least 40 times on the short drive into Ambato centre. The widows rule the road and resistance is futile. Apparently Ecuadorian men are no different from English men - any opportunity to cross dress and they seize it with a raw passion that betrays a little too much eagerness.

If you want to drive anywhere in Ecuador on New Year's Eve then you need pockets full of shrapnel. Failure to pay results in a hefty and humiliating sexual molestation by the viudas.

A friend from Pillaro dressed as a viuda with his mates and occupied a prime spot on the busy road into town. In a single night of transvestite mischief they made 350 dollars (about the average monthly salary in Ecuador). The best part is they spent everything they had earned on booze that same night.

The other main event ofNew Year's Eve is the burning of the ano viejo dummy. I'd made a grand plan to create and burn a Rolf Harris doll, but in the end it all came to naught. Instead I bought Barney the Dinosaur for five dollars from a roadside seller. It was getting late in the evening and all the best dolls had already been sold, so my choices were Barney, the donkey from Shrek, and (rather bizarrely) a sabre-tooth tiger – it was a no-brainer.

Lucy's young cousin Darya bought a more impressive Snow White ano viejo for 12 dollars. Unfortunately she grew rather attached to Blanca Nieve and at the stroke of midnight refused to burn her.

Before the midnight bonfires begin first you must write a will containing all of the events of the past year and gift them to friends and family. Another tradition dictates that you must wear yellow underwear and a bra to see in the New Year. I have no idea what the significance of this is.

I'd bought a bag of lethal fireworks in town and was itching to set them off. The first one was basically just a stick of dynamite. I lit it far too close to my only spectator (Lucy) and blew her eardrums out – my own shell-shock was unfairly ignored, I felt.

Miraculously, by midnight I still had all of my limbs and my ears had finally stopped ringing... it was time for Barney the Dinosaur to meet his maker. I stamped on his head and stuffed it full of firecrackers before striking the match. He went up like he'd been thoroughly pre-soaked in lighter fluid – in fact, he had.

With the bonfires blazing it is time to leap over the burning effigy to symbolise putting the past year behind you. It was only in mid-flight that I remembered the fireworks I'd foolishly placed in Barney's head and nearly lost my foot at the ankle. Even in his charred death throes that camp, purple dinosaur had the last laugh.

Across Ecuador the roads are filled with burning dolls and the tarmac bleeds rivers of black oil. The air is thick with acrid smoke and weapons-grade Chinese rockets whizz by your head singeing eyebrows.

This is how I welcomed 2014. I didn't think things could get any crazier but the next day I was heading to the festival of the devils in Pillaro and I was about to be proven spectacularly wrong – but more about that later.

Unfortunately there are no photos because my iPhone was stolen the next day. My only record of the night is this single photo of me and Barney in happier times.  

Me and Barney... best of friends until I stamped on his head and burnt him

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