Carnaval Heat

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

The shredded comic strip atmosphere of Carnaval has infiltrated the city and holds us in a friendly but insistent grip like a grinning drunk. We aren’t always sure what to say because we aren’t sure of what we’ve really seen.

The invasion began almost imperceptibly on Monday when I saw a man walking alone in the middle of the street with a parrot on his outstretched finger and a puppy on a leash. I was intent on observing the bird as we approached each other when he suddenly took quick steps toward me and asked, “Do you want to buy the bird?” When I shook my head and looked away to avoid being pitched he shouted, “How about the puppy?”

By the middle of the week, people dressed for the beach started to become part of the mix on the street. They stood out in novelty T- shirts with towels draped around their necks strolling in front of stores. Bahians usually don’t wear towels to go shopping.

Not everyone is a typical Quito tourist. A slightly bowlegged country hombre with a worn baseball cap and open work shirt hanging out walked up with an exaggeratedly suspicious expression to the open air restaurant where I was having lunch. He left his woman companion who wore a foot high bright yellow knit hat outside while he combatively walked to the counter and must have asked how much a meal cost because he reacted as though he had been shoved and left. I noticed a pointed piece of metal protruding from the top of one of his knee high rain boots. He came to Carnaval ready to throw a knife.

Straw hats, fruit in boxes from Chile, sun visors, candies, and even containers of cooking oil are only a handful of the things for sale on the street by dozens of locals and strangers. By Friday, the staff of a corner store tienda where I buy bottled water was too busy stocking entire shelves of shampoo and coolers full of yogurt to take money immediately. Many waterfront stores and restaurants have anxious-acting extra help to accommodate expected crowds on the weekend and the following Monday and Tuesday of actual Carnaval.

As a side note with potential future consequences, there’s an angry buzz from people directly involved with the tourist industry about a story that broke in Ecuador’s biggest newspaper late in the week describing flooded and muddy conditions here. They feel that the normal high Carnaval tourist numbers are somewhat down and blame the journalist. It’s not out of the ordinary for someone to write about a natural event having the scope of this month’s rain (see my first dispatch from this visit, “Rain Included at No Extra Cost”), and his wasn’t the only piece on the theme of flooding with consequences for impassable roads to Bahia’s Carnaval. But this journalist did the same thing last year and at this point motives are ascribed to him that border on conspiracy theory. Critics are still waiting to find out what the final attendance will be before carrying their disappointment into more than just curses and shunning.

On Saturday, George and I followed the Carnaval crowd to Bellaca Playa (nicknamed La Gringa Beach). It’s somewhat isolated from the main beaches in town and that may be the reason why more of the raucous bathers and their whole families are locals. Wandering away from everyone I was run down by someone from behind so quickly that I momentarily flinched. It was a craggy faced beachcomber who surprisingly knew my name and began talking nonstop about his vision of a museum with “piedras blancas” (white stones) filled with artifacts he discovered on the beach. I listened obediently to his forceful description while studying the cluster of seven black tattooed dots in his left earlobe (the constellation of the Seven Sisters?) and the seemingy self-administered tattoos of mystical signs on his forearms. If my ability with Spanish was better I could appreciatively spend an afternoon hearing about the things he has thought about and encountered, even at that near- mad level of intensity.

Returning to the place where George and I had separated. I found him sitting with what from a distance seemed to be a puzzled or sheepish look that turned out to be consternation about a stick that had punctured the big toe of one foot. He tried to gouge it out but it was deeper than a fingernail could remove. A teenage girl materialized who was doing quite well at extracting small pieces until they became too deep for the pin of her hair barrette. Looking around for someone with a sharp knife and not finding anyone, it finally became clear that we needed more expert attention and should try for a ride to the hospital. Now George’s bad luck at being impaled by the stick turned radically toward the best luck imaginable. The girl’s uncle, Juan Carlos Cedeno, a chewing gum company employee, waded from the ocean handing off the small child he had been carrying and almost automatically drove us in his antique jeep to the hospital in Leonidas Plaza. He waited with me for an hour or so brushing off several suggestions to return to his family holiday. Juan Carlos accompanied me to fill a prescription we were handed, and ran off with a second one before I could stop him from getting and paying for it. When the huddle of nurses and skillful doctor eventually brought George out they explained how the stick had gone laterally up the tube of his toe for a distance of nearly two inches. The largest part was the deepest and required scalpeling out. Then Juan Carlos drove us back to Bahia, reluctantly accepting a bottle of rum as a gift from George and my compliment that he represented the highest fulfillment of Ecuadorian hospitality.

The following day I went back alone to perform some voyeuristic anthropology at the Queen of the Beach contest. “Queens” are a staple of Ecuadorian popular culture who are usually beyond mere beauty contest winners.. Each barrio in Bahia has its own gowned and besashed queen to represent the neighborhood community at various events and parades. Bahia has a queen who sat on the platform when the Eco-city Declaration was read.

In contrast to those more decorous titles, the Queen of the Beach competition was a typical contest but a lot sexier, and it was completely localized with contestants who live in the nearby area despite so many visitors from Quito and other faraway cities. The first was a petite and awkward fifteen year old from Bahia, with either a permanent or temporary tattoo of maybe an angel or a bat around her navel. She completely surprised me later by performing a variation on pole dancing. Next up the steps and onto the hot sheet iron platform cooled by pouring bottles of water was a corpulent woman at least five years older who relished jutting out well-rounded parts of her body while sometimes sucking on her index finger. When it was her turn to dance she shouted “Picante!” (Hotter-faster!) until staccato music came on. She moved her hips in wide arcs, protruding her ample, near-naked buttocks, while her feet kept the fast beat. The crowd was joystruck. If sheer personality had been the object, as perhaps it should have been for this event, she was untouchable. Contestant three was similar to the first but more modest since she walked up with brief shorts over the lower part of her bikini. With encouragement from the judges and crowd she slowly removed the shorts, providing what might have been the most intimate and innocently sensuous moment of the afternoon. The final contestant was pretty and graceful enough to have carried off the prize in a much bigger competition than this. Hailing from Chone, a city up the river from Bahia renowned throughout Ecuador for the beauty of its women, she also kept on a short, transparent skirt and waved her finger imperiously in a “no” gesture when onlookers demanded to take it off. One judge eventually broke the impasse by stating that she couldn’t win otherwise so the flimsy garment was dropped in a quick, surprisingly definite move and tossed to the crowd. To nearly hysterical supporters’ cries of “Chone! Chone! Chone!” she was declared the obvious Queen Of the Beach. I left immediately not wanting to clutter the memory of such a sweetly funky experience.

More Carnaval goers came to town jammed into the backs of fruit trucks and pickups throughout Monday, overcrowding Bahia’s Malecon river-ocean walkway. Outdoor dancers stayed up until three and four in the morning. Plain-dressed clowns imitating a husband and wife battling kung fu style performed in the main riverfront plaza, food stands and walking food vendors were everywhere, the line of vehicles for the overworked ferry across Rio Chone doubled back on itself.

Tuesday has finally come and Carnaval is relaxing its grip. More traffic is going out than coming into town. Darcie and Lisa are once again planting paja macho grass to plug a few fissures in the revegetation park. It will be interesting to see the shopkeepers and other business people who exhausted themselves entertaining a good part of Ecuador’s pre-Lenten vacationers finally taking time to relax themselves.

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