Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Monday, November 06, 2006

Mama Negra, the Devil's Nose, and more...

I don’t even know where to start because this past week has been completely packed with new experiences. Thursday was the Day of the Dead, and it was amazing. I went to an old, indigenous village in the north of Quito, and I was able to experience the age-old traditions of indigenous families who came to clean and paint the graves and tombstones of their loved ones. They also brought massive portions of plantains, soups, special breads and fruit to eat with the dead. I don’t really like cemeteries, so it was kind of creepy seeing so many people standing on and eating over the graves. Some of the graves were very humble, and others were ornate, but many were simply forgotten. That was sad to see, especially if I could see that it was the grave of a baby. The people really weren’t crying either, as it was more of a celebration, and the people were happy to be there. I also had the chance to visit two of the major churches here to see the catacombs (San Francisco and the Basilica). The catacombs are only open during this day, so family members can only visit their dead one day a year. The catacombs are kind of eerie because they were kind of humid and there were practically innumerable hallways of mausoleums. Mausoleums are basically the only way to contain the dead because there simply isn’t enough land for burials (except in the north). In order to secure a space for a dead family member, the family has to rent the space. From what I understand (and I hope I am horribly mistaken), a person cannot buy the space forever. So when the family forgets, ceases to exists, or simply forgets to “pay the rent”, the caretakers empty the space in the mausoleum and throw away the bones. Just like that! There were some really old graves though, and some even dated back to the 1800s. While it’s not exactly my cup of tea to hang out in cemeteries all day, I enjoyed this very unique Latin American experience, and I admire the respect the people display for their loved ones.

This weekend was pure craziness. I went with another Rotary scholar, Emily, to Latacunga, a town about 1.5 hours south of Quito (on a good day). Latacunga is a small town compared to Quito, and everyone was talking about an insane fiesta that would be going on called Mama Negra (Black Mother), so we made it our mission to go. It took us forever to get there, but the excitement was palpable on the bus, and it was worth the trek. I don’t know the history too well about this parade, but apparently, during the founding of the city, the people found a statue of a woman that was covered in what they thought was black paint. After trying to wash off the “paint”, they realized that it was indeed a statue of a black woman. They then honored this statue and a fiesta followed called Mama Negra. I might have this wrong, but that’s what I understood from the woman next to me in the parade! Honoring a woman, especially a black woman, is unique and surprising in Ecuador because of both machista attitudes and strong, prejudicial stereotypes against the black population, which constitutes a small portion of the total population. We could hardly move in the streets because of all the people, but that kind of made it all the more fun. Basically, the whole parade (about four hours), honors the Mama Negra, who actually is not even a woman! It’s a man that paints himself black and rides on a horse. The honor of being the Mama Negra is supreme, and it’s passed down every year to important figureheads in the community. The star is not the only one who cross-dresses. There are tons of men dressed as women, complete with wigs, sequins, and dresses who entertain the crowd. And…the people in the parade don’t throw out candies like in the United States. Instead they are all equipped with bottles of alcohol, and they pour their lot in the mouths of the crowd or in their cups. Another favorite was .75 cent boxes of wine that they threw out instead of candy. As you can imagine, I’ve never seen so many drunk people in my life, but it didn’t get dangerous. People (and I especially mean the MEN) just went to the bathroom anywhere they deemed fit, which made us really careful of where we walked. Right. It was an awesome parade, and I’m glad that we got to see traditional dances and costumes. How could I have missed a parade honoring a cross-dressing, painted man?

(This is basically a crucified pig that is surrounded by skinned guinea pigs that all have packs of cigarettes and alcohol tied to them)

Sunday was a trek to a city in the southern region of Ecuador called Riobamba. Emily and I wanted to be adventurers and go on the acclaimed “Nariz de Diablo” (Devil’s Nose). I wish I could tell you that we ventured into the unknown and almost escaped death, but it is actually a train ride through tranquil towns and countryside. The reason it holds such a formidable name is because at the end of the 7 HOUR ride (I’m not kidding), we scale down a mountain with switchback rails, and it’s a sight. I’m sure if I were a railroad engineer I would have appreciated it even more. Anyway, we caught the train at an early 6 a.m. and it wove through really poor areas to the south of Riobamba. We saw many poor children that ran alongside the train and clapped as we went by. At first I thought it was really cute that all of the children of the villages came out to see the train, but then I realized that they came to wave to the tourists to try to beg and receive candies. Many vendors came up on the train (we rode the whole way on the roof), and when they saw that we were approaching a pocket of children, they would sell lollipops and other candies to the tourists to throw to the begging children. Some people said that the vendors and the children work in tandem and that the kids returned the sweets to the vendor so they could make more money without having to buy more candy. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that I don’t think people should be throwing candies. If they really wanted to help these children they should throw toothpaste and toothbrushes. Or they could throw books, socks, underwear- whatever would actually help the children. Sure, what child doesn’t like candy, but when I saw two year-olds left abandoned to beg from the train, it just made me think that the tourists are promoting a sort of unhealthy hope and system for the children. We also saw breathtaking plots of land that people cultivate with their herds of animals, and it amazes me that people of such humble resources can exist with so little and yet have everything they really need. Their homes barely exist, and some are literally tied together, but they know how to cultivate almost impossible pieces of land. I hope I can include some pictures of what I saw in the future. Anyway it’s been a packed week, and next week is a week in the jungle with my school, so my next update won’t be for another two weeks. Hope everyone is doing well and is getting ready for Thanksgiving. I’ll miss being home, but I’m planning a killer feast with Emily that we’ll cook for our friends and family here. Hasta luego!


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