We’ve all seen the cartoons featuring hairless little space aliens freshly landed on earth trying to figure out earthling civilization based on artifacts like a set of giant golden arches.
In Cuenca, we sometimes feel like space aliens.
This was driven home most recently attending our third winter revel in three weeks. The latest (and last for a while) was on January 6, Epiphany on most Christian calendars but Day of the Innocents in Cuenca even though Christian churches normally commemorate King Herod’s legendary butchery of little boys on December 28.
Got that? No matter. The point is that any correspondence between any religious observance and what went on in the streets of Cuenca on January 6 was purely coincidental. This was Halloween meets Stephen Colbert. In drag. An exercise in public satire in which thousands of citizens dress up to skewer the absurdities of the past year and tens of thousands more citizens line the streets to cheer the action. Imagine a Macy’s Parade with nothing but balloons on the order of the UK’s baby Trump send-up and you get the picture.
With three holiday celebrations and many hours of grilling locals now under our belts, we are here to tell you that Ecuadorians take their holiday revelry seriously, by which we mean they embrace the festivities in high spirits but also as an opportunity for informed and civil political commentary.
Right. Informed and civil political commentary, paraded in the streets. We are definitely on another planet.
Even as space aliens, we found some of the satire on parade broad and universal enough to be understandable.
There were, for example, the barefoot and pregnant paraders marching behind a banner that read “The ‘Privileges’ of Being a Woman” (emphasis on the quotes around “privileges”) while men with bullhorns wove among them bellowing, “What’s the problem, ladies? You get to go to work! Take care of the children! Cook for your husbands!”
Even without the label “Tele Mentira” (“TV Lies”), Pinocchio with a car-length nose and the message, “Ecuadorians! Everything is good!” was only too recognizable as a lampoon of post-fact journalism. To reinforce the fakery theme, fake TV reporters ran into the crowds with fake TV cameras and microphones to conduct inane fake interviews with the very real spectators.
Police violence (against students and indigenous populations) was another readily recognizable theme and, along with anti-IMF sentiments, proof perfect that Cuencanos take their parade of ideas to heart.
Other exhibitions were a bit more inscrutable.
We understood the sarcasm about natural gas providers who failed to deliver gas during last autumn’s civil unrest (“Muchas Gracias, Gaseros,” the banner read). After all, they left the country without hot water or cooking fuel for weeks.
But what was the connection with the gringa flashing her nether regions in the same “Gringitos Locos” (“crazy little gringos”) entry?
Likewise, we could get the connection of “Caballeros de la Noche” (Dark Knights) ahead of a bunch of Batmen and Jokers, but why were they followed by Batwomen sweeping the streets with push brooms?
It wasn’t hard to figure out the link between indigenous dancers and the Spanish sailing ship float accompanied by conquistadors (“invaders” in these parts).
But what was the significance of native Americans (“indigenous North Americans” around here)?
Also befuddling: a dazzling golden goddess (unless she was something else) and fabulous feathered birds. No matter, they provided Louis with some very happy clicks.
Crowd control and conduct were also a bit other-worldly to us. Essentially, anything went. Louis could stand in the middle of the street busily shooting to his heart’s content while spectators of all ages dashed into the action and the photos.
Being in Spanish school the last couple weeks has given us easy access to native interpreters to cu through our alien fog. On New Year’s Eve, for example, we were surprised and curious about the complete lack of public drinking. The answer: New Year’s is a family celebration. If grandparents are alive, it is specifically a celebration that they lived another year. What’s more, Ecuador has strict laws against public drinking. End result: New Year celebrations that are not only serious but sober.
In the end, confusion and its resolution have been part of the holiday fun for us. Doris never wanted to come to South America. Her stock answer to Louis’s relentless prodding that she “needed” to see SA was: “I grew up and lived in Spanish colonies! I don’t need to travel to them to know what they are like!” Being culture shocked is evidence that she (and we) are learning better. South America is no more Spain than New York City is Amsterdam or Massachusetts is England.
For us space aliens, that makes every day a new inter-planetary landing.
From the Partout toolbox: Pop quiz time, fellow travelers! Do you know the three-digit emergency number for the foreign country you most recently visited? You know, the 9-1-1 of, say, France or Australia or Qatar? Those three little numbers can be the literal difference between life and death on the road, but we have yet to stay in an AirBnB and house exchange where the number is front and center in the hosting notes. Solution? Look up your destination’s emergency code before you hit the road and, like the Mastercard of old, don’t leave home without it.
COMING SOON! Let’s Talk Toilets