Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Toros de Pueblo

What happens when you get hammered on strong lager, lock an angry bull inside a ring and start pissing it off?
Torros del pueblo, Ecuador
This obviously.

The fiesta experience is almost ineffable - it's a concoction of noise; the childlike, alien nasal song of Indian women; the bang of the bass drum and the brass blast; head-spinning intoxication; insurgent-grade rockets exploding just above head height, tripping over the groaning drunk; getting trampled by a horse; molested by a street dog; more booze; not more booze; then more booze; a cross-dressing man, blacked-up and wielding a screaming baby chases you with his broom; you crash into a drunk Indian man; you spend five minutes trying to explain what England is, he looks confused and gives you more booze; bulls, bulls, and more booze.

I was at the Fiesta de Pesillo, just north of Cayambe. It follows the typical mold of Ecuadorian fiestas, booze, bands, costumes and fireworks... but Pesillo has bulls.

Toros de Pueblo is a simple idea. Lock an angry bull inside a ring in the middle of town and wind it up until somebody gets a good goring. It's astonishing how sobering a horn in the trasero can be.

All of the town's heroes and hard-men stepped into the ring to prove the size of their huevos, with predictably hilarious consequences. Drunk these men were, matadors they were not.

Even the kids get involved - this eight-year-old boy got caught out by the bull's sudden turn of pace and got royally clobbered. Amazingly there were no tears. He got a firm shake, a dust down and was back in the ring for more.

Torros del pueblo, Ecuador Torros del pueblo, Ecuador

I love the toros de pueblo - perhaps a surprising stance for a vegetarian. Sure, it's a blood sport, but the blood is all human not animal.

I was a little drunk and desperate to join in the fun but a firm hand clasped around my elbow prevented me from hurdling the barrier. 'It looks easy,' I reasoned. 'I could outrun that old bull'. Lucy wisely decided to beat a retreat while she still had control, quoting Withnail and I: "A coward you are Tom, an expert on bulls you are not." Also the bamboo stand we were sharing with 500 other people was starting to creak under the strain.
Fruit for the bull's back
The processional pineapple and the snow-capped volcano of Cayambe
It is a fact: at any moment, on any day, somewhere in Ecuador a fiesta is happening. But finding the fiesta is easier said than done. We drove to Cayambe, the main town in the area, hoping to land square into the thick of it but all we found were broken bottles, empty stands and snoozing borrachos. We were 24 hours too late.

We picked up the trail just north of town with the remnants of an all-night fiesta. Five men and women were swigging beer and dancing and singing. They pointed us in the direction of Pesillo and promised us bulls.

It must have been a bit like finding a rave back in the 90s, just march to the sound of the cannons.

On the way to Pesillo we passed this incredible rainbow over the town.
Rainbow over Olmedo town, Ecuador (near Cayambe)
Rainbow over town, looks like a MAC job
Fiestas are crazy places at the best of time and I can never stay sober for long. Trago and beer are poured down my throat, occasionally I'll contribute a dollar for the vaca. The cow is like a rolling collection fund to make sure there's always booze flowing. There is no concept of ownership at an Ecuadorian fiesta, your booze is their booze and their booze is your booze. It's the Communist ideal in practice and it works... if working means an entire town gets utterly rat-arsed for five days straight.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A week in Moraspungo

The land around Moraspungo is a deep, red clay. When it rains, and it always rains, the earth churns into a viscous patty that swallows Wellies whole and covers every car, bus and bike in a triple coat of terracotta mud.

The red earth is set against a thousand shades of green - banana leaves, cacao, wild strawberries or the eponymous blackberries in Moraspungo's name.

A fog drifts across the jungle. We are 1,000 metres above the sea, already leaving the Andes for the coast. The heat and the humidity quickly glistens the skin with a cool sweat. Ten minutes after your shower you feel dirty again.

It reminds me of marshland - that strange coexistence of decay and the abundance of life... not to mention the ravenous mosquitoes. My hairy arms were enough to dissuade the mosquitoes of the coast but in the jungle they simply nestle themselves in like a feathered bed and settle down for the feast. I left Moraspungo pock-marked and driven to distraction by the intensity of the itching.

I was filming for the Fundacion Alli Causai, who are building water tanks for the town and its surrounding community. It's hard to believe so many people are drinking and bathing in dirty water everyday, but they are.

Life without clean water is unpleasant. Brushing your teeth can make you sick. Fruit and vegetables are washed in dirty water and can make you sick. Unsurprisingly I did get sick, but fortunately not until I was back in Quito.
Lugging bags of cement 

Filling the tank
We were teaching local schoolchildren how to wash their hands after going to the toilet and the importance of good personal hygiene. The children proudly demonstrated their new-found talent for my camera.

A few months back I drew illustrations for a pamphlet teaching the children good hygiene. I thought it was a wind up when I was asked to draw a shit in the shower but apparently it had been quite a problem.
Washing hands
We were also visiting patients in the remote jungle communities. Washington and Ivan, from FAC, wanted to check-in on an 18-month old child and asked if I wanted to join them. Of course, I did.

We had to leave the 4x4, their house was only accessible down a steep muddy bank and over a raging river. The bridge was constructed with two trunks of bamboo which flexed and swayed. I had to cross carrying my camera and if I'd slipped and fallen around £4,000 of gear would have gone floating away down the rapids of the Rio Moras.
Crossing the river
Standing on the bamboo bridge in the depths of the Ecuadorian jungle I had a sort of Naked Lunch moment. I don't think London has ever felt so distant.

The family - twelve of them - were living in a wooden shack on the bank of the stream. They had evidently chosen this spot to access the water, which is vital in producing trago (the local sugar cane spirit I discovered a taste for back in November).

Chickens, dogs, pigs and donkeys all live side-by-side with the family. A fire smokes all day long and on top a great pan bubbles away with some chicken broth. Everybody is filthy and caked in mud. After the dogs have finished barking at us they soon retreat to their dark corners to sleep, occasionally shaking the flies off their ears.

The family is pleased to see FAC. Not because there is anything wrong with the child, but just because it is a recognition that they exist. These people have fallen through the system and are no longer citizens. The rights and access to the Ecuadorian government's commendable free healthcare policy has well and truly bypassed this community.
Hanging from the rafters, he was not a happy bunny
Lucy and I were staying in Quinsaloma. A small town close to Moraspungo. It's the only town with a hotel in the area, but not a hotel in the sense of hot water in the shower or breakfast in the morning.
The hotel is just out of town, opposite the brothel. All night long the buzz of Suzuki AX100s, loaded sometimes with up to three horny banana pickers, drifted in and out of the brothel's discrete car park. Images of white women in bikinis with great mops of blonde hair advertise the brothel's offerings. But it's fantasy. Inside are only impoverished Indian girls from distant communities who were once burnt by the shame and guilt they had lied to their parents - who think they are in Quito washing clothes or cleaning apartments - but now are numbed and, eventually, diseased.

We ate breakfast in a small restaurant owned by a friendly man from Quito who had sought his fortune in Italy, before returning to Ecuador to invest his winnings in a business of his own. He took great pride in showing Lucy his Bialetti machine when she asked if he served "real" coffee. Despite lying slap bang in the middle of ten thousand acres of coffee plantations, the local restaurants take great pride in serving instant Nescafe Gold Blend - it's seemingly cosmopolitan and chic.

Breakfast in Ecuador looks like a hearty dinner in the rest of the world. It can be a saucy slab of grisly pork or chicken served on a mountain of rice with fried banana at the side and a bolon (fried plantain ball) as a side-order. It is washed down with a jugo - maracuya or mora if I'm lucky, tomate de arbol or  papaya if I'm not.

The bananas in Moraspungo taste like no other banana I've ever eaten, intense and almost juicy. A head of bananas here (that's around 100 fruit) costs just two dollars. The local oranges, which are piled in dumps by the side of the road, are sold for 50 oranges a dollar. You feel like a criminal carrying away a back-breaking sack of fruit for the price of an apple in Sainsbury's.

The people of this community are immigrants. The towns are new. Impoverished communities in the highlands - like Simiatug - were forced down from the fresh air and sun of the Andes and into the jungle. When the first people arrived, less than 70 years ago, the jungle had to be hacked back with machetes to make room for their houses.

I can never get my head around the disparity between the fertility of the land and the poverty of those who live on it. There is sunshine, there is rain and there are mountains of delicious fruit. Something went very wrong somewhere.
It's really rather beautiful here