The fine spray of regurgitated aguardiente, with an unexpected force, drenches her, as two clowns, in every sense of the word, clash antlers all around her. Meanwhile I thank my lucky stars that it’s not me, pulled from the crowd, to participate in this curious ritual.
Let’s clarify the above picture. Imagine that you’re at the St. Patrick’s day parade in Dublin, when three characters come up to you, on the fringes of the parade. Two are dressed in white, with clown masks that wouldn’t be out of place on some B-movie horror set, while the third looks for the best part like a tramp, clutching a bottle of metholated spirits. They pull out your girlfriend from the crowd, and while the two demented Morris dancers prance around her, banging sticks at her feet and above her head, in American terms invading her ‘personal space’, meanwhile their scruffy mate takes in a slug of meths, holds it in his cavernous mouth for a second or two, then with what can only be described as an impressive but useless skill, he spits/sprays the alcohol so that it seems evenly distributed over the entire body of the intended victim. This could, to the uninitiated, seem like a violent act worthy of a couple of slaps in response, but then, we’re not at the St. Patrick’s day parade – we’re at the annual Fiesta de la Mama Negra in Latacunga, high in the Ecuadorian Andes, and this ritual is actually a blessing, certainly in disguise! It’s all immensely good humoured, if somewhat unhygienic, with everyone sooner or later coming in for a spray, and all the while the parade snakes on, relentlessly through the town. I’ve never seen the like.
Ecuador is a beautiful country, which has a little bit of everything in terms of the geography of South America, from the Andean highlands, to the coastal plain, and the Amazonian rain forest. One of the highlights is taking the pan-Americana highway through the Andes, on a bus driven by a lunatic, with snow covered peaks on either side, and the hustle bustle of life all around you. There’s no simple way to describe a south American bus ride: dirty, chaotic, terrifying, practical, sociable, cheap, and, for the most part, fun. Latacunga is one of the stops between the capital Quito, and the very picturesque and subsequently touristy Baños.
Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the world, is one of the reasons that people visit Latacunga, to organise trekking expeditions, and it’s also one of the reasons people don’t visit Latacunga – as three times in the past it has completely devastated the town with violent eruptions. As a result, Latacunga has become an oasis of ugliness scattered amidst the beauty, bereft of the tourist-beloved colonial architecture, and made up of various grey concrete blocks that wouldn’t look out of place in the darkest recesses of the ex-soviet block.
It is, though, a thriving market town, full of everyday life, and when we arrive on the 22nd of September, there are precious few gringos on the ground. There’s a confusion amongst the various people we ask, as to when the Festival de la Madonna de la Merced, as the Fiesta is officially called, starts. Surprising, as all the guide books will tell you that it’s on the 23rd and 24th of September every year. We start to wonder whether we’ve gotten something wrong, or, paranoically, whether people are trying to confuse the clumsy great gringos that we are. Regardless, for two days we hang about, enjoying the bright warm sunshine, which at this altitude dazzles, and do the things that a town without tourist sites affords you the time to do, such as check up on email, wash your ever growing pile of laundry, and generally catch a breath. As ugly on the surface as it may be, as is often the case, under the surface Latacunga has its own particular beauty, and I quickly grow rather attached to this small market town, whether it be sitting in the local park watching local indigenous families queuing to get their photos taken, or sitting in a local bar drinking a cerveza.