Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Carnaval en Cuenca

We arrived in Gualaceo from Cuenca redy for a lively sunday market scene. Right off the bus it was clear this small town is the center for Carnaval celebrations. The main street was lined with people awaiting the parade. At 10am, the crowd was festive and giddy. Kids ran around with squirt guns, teenagers with aerosol cans of foam, and men drank beer. Balcones and rooftops were filled to capacity. Street vendors sold snacks, beer, foam spray... Friendly store owners drank bottled beer thru gapped teeth. A mechanics workshop was converted into a festive BBQ scene (check the foto). Liter bottles of beer floated in cool water while 3 generations of little ladies tended the coals, rotating by hand the chickens and ´cuy´ : guinea pig. The cuy were impaled on a thick, tapered pipe and roasted with the choicest organs preserved.
By 11am, water was flying freely from squirt guns, bottles, buckets, hoses, passing cars, storefronts, and raining down from rooftops. Adolescent boys (and grown men, too) targeted strictly the young women, who took the splashing as the flirting it was. Surprising to me, they also reacted to the aerosol foam in the face with giggles and good-hearted complaints, wiping the rainbow soap from their eyes, ears, and hair. The parade hadnt yet started, but we needed a break and escaped to the market for food, passing a pet store on the way. Hanging in the window (was this some sick joke?), the sign read ¨se vende hamster¨ (hamster for sale.)
More cuy at the market and the first really fresh broccoli we had seen in a while. By the time we walked back to town, the parade was parading. Tractors pulled floats on which danced less-than-ecstatic girls in clinging clothes, trying to smile thru the foam inviading their orifices. I joined the onlookers on the sidewalk, glaring at any grinning punk with an aerosol canister. The parade passed and then the battle was taken to the next level. Even the police in riot gear took long-distance water balloons to the faceplate. Round women in the traditional garb giggled at the scene. Each dressed nearly identical: cheap black slip on shoes, bright pink / purple / red skirts and a buttoned up sweater. Of course, they all sported the typical bowlers hats, hair falling in braids to their backs. Some, for the occassion, covered their hats in plastic bags.
I limped towards the bus station (Tamara, not feeling well, had escaped earlier) feeling amazed that people could have so much fun doing something so stupid. Maybe I was just in a bad mood from twisting my ankle, but it seemed more like a junior high free for all than a collective celebration. Id fantasized about Carnaval as community coming together in joyous release. The only necessary ingredients being positivity, water, and alcohol. But the men wetting teenage girls seemed lecherous and wasted; the dancers in the parade hot, annoyed, and bored; and the gangs of boys accosting girls with handfulls of foam ground into the face and a smack on the ass seemed close to assault. The only joy seemed to come from making someone else uncomfortable.
The next 2 days in Cuenca continued the same. All the stores were closed, the streets empty but for drunks covered in foam and flour (the poor man´s weapon.) It felt like urban warfare; constantly looking over our shoulders and up at balconies to dodge the high-velocity ´bombas´. We walked across town to the only functioning street market. On a silent street, a woman walked with her 6 yr old son. As they approached she shared a smile with Tamara. When her boy aimed the aerosol foam, Tamara sweetly said no. But with mom´s encouragement and even help in aiming, he got T, leaving a blood-red stain across her back.
Arriving at the market, among the few veggies, chickens, and pork shanks, were 3 prostitutes dripping wet and extremely drunk. Angry at something, one woman stumbled out with a crate of eggs and went ballistic. Spitting, cursing, hurling eggs without aim. We ran for cover as the drunk hooker smashed eggs over the head of a co-worker, who just sat there, not even resisting; too wasted or too fat to be bothered. Then another overweight woman in a tight outfit came to the rescue. She and the egg-thrower struggled, wrestling and smashing eggs on each other full in the face. We left then, glancing over my shoulder at the blur of nappy, wet hair, egg yolk, and disturbingly liberated cleavage: a fitting image to sum up Carnaval in Cuenca.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Next to a rotisserie chicken joint, across a busy street from the diamond vision digital billboard, and next to a 5star hotel, I found the Church of San Francisco. Built from 1586 - 1628, it houses the first virgin mary in chile, the Virgen de Socorro (help). Brought by the Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia as protection against indian attack. But perhaps her true role was as protector against the three earthquakes the church has withstood, making it the oldest building in Santiago. A nondescript brick-red facade encloses the high, vaulted ceiling. Once inside, the smog and heavy heat recede into the silence of the chapel. Worshippers kneel, heads in hands, s they must have for centuries. On the walls people have scrawled prayers and pleas for protection and benediction on their families, their work, their houses and studies.

In the adjacent courtyard, I wandered thru the museum without much expectation. Ebtering the former convent, I was pleasingly shocked . In a manner that only colonial catholicism can muster, the halls were filled with gruesome depictions of the franciscan christian histories.

Adherents used to torture themselves in shared suffering with Jesus. The actual instruments of these self-imposed inflictions were presented in glass cases with titles like: ´shoulder whips,´ ´teaded scourge,´ and ´whips for the soles of the feet.´ Deeper into the dark, cool rooms were countless, spectacularly gruesome representations of Christ Crucified. I rounded a corner and upon the graphic scene of Christ on the cross, tortured. Beatific midget angels gaze smiling at their Lord. His body so fully flagellated that burgundy blood drips onto the women washing his feet and saturates his loincloth. But the angelitos still gaze admiringly at his suffering, exhausted face and collect his blood in goblets of gold.

The highlight of this impressively morose celebration of religious penance is definitely the 54 canvasses depicting the life of St. Francis of Assissi. Each about 11 by 7 feet, they once lined the walls of the church itself. They were given inspirational titles like: St. Francis Stoned by the Children of Assissi, These Shall Be Thy Weapons, St. Francis Chastises Disobedience, Temptation of the Flesh, St. Francis and the Leper, St. F receives the Stigmata, and St. Francis in Purgatory. Rosy-cheeked cherubs, usually pictured fluttering blissfully in the nude, here were in full armor wielding tiny swords and shields. A beheaded bishop, the raw stump of his neck staining the white satin bedsheets with dripping crimson as the still-squinting head sits on the floor. And finally, the Death of St. Francis portrays his grey emaciated body attended by a flock of monks. Their shaved heads bowed with a look of guilt, while a symphony of angels plays above. And of course St. F greeted at the pearly gates - his flowing hair, creamy complexion and rosy lips returned to their earthly brilliance once again.