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Water-throwing, Ambato, carioca

It was the end of January and I had been suffering from persistent paranoia since Christmas. I didn’t trust a soul. Old, young, male, or female, I was suspicious of every Ecuadorian I laid my eyes upon in Cuenca. No matter how innocent they looked, I could nonetheless imagine the cuencanos throwing a water bomb or pointing a plastic pistol at me without warning. I was sick of their juvenile way of celebrating Carnival and tired of keeping my head on a swivel whenever I was outside the dry confines of my apartment.

Although I felt a tad better when I saw that both foreigners and Ecuadorians were considered fair game, I still wasn’t a fan of water-throwing. To that end, I continuously sought ways to avoid the wetness and eventually heard about a potential refuge.

Far different from how the rest of Ecuador celebrated Carnival, the tradition of water-throwing was prohibited in downtown Ambato. (The aqueous act was nevertheless legal outside the city center). In truth, the Central Sierra town was famous for NOT using squirt guns, buckets, and balloons during the annual festival. The ambateños, therefore, compensated for this enforced lack of liquid by dousing their targets with aerosol cans full of colorful, scented foam known as carioca.

After being hit with water bombs on more than one occasion in Cuenca, I very much wanted to witness Ambato’s unique way of celebrating Carnival. And when Andrew, my friend from Loja (a tranquil municipality near Ecuador’s southern tip), informed me he was headed for the capital of the Tungurahua province, I instantly agreed to meet him there.

Several hours on a swerving, nauseating bus brought me north to Ambato, where I met Andrew for lunch in the city’s bull’s-eye. Next, we wandered to the southern outskirts of the municipality and climbed numerous stairs to a littered overlook, which was occupied by a lone gentleman. Observing the active town below, my fellow English teacher and I were in the midst of talking about our new homes and jobs when something abruptly caught my attention.

I strained my eyes focusing on a tall, jagged sculpture protruding from the northern end of the valley. It looked like a giant, metallic shard stabbing upward into the early-February sky. Even though it was an interesting piece of architecture, I was more intrigued by the fact that the enormous silver shank seemed to be resting on the only piece of land higher than ours.

“What’s the name of that lookout point over there?” I asked the short, middle-aged Ecuadorian to my left. “I’m talking about the hill with the small building and weird sculpture.”

“That’s the First Printing Press,” replied the soft-spoken man.

“How do we get there? Do we follow that street?” I heard Andrew inquire on my right. He was nodding to one of the major arteries running north-south through the heart of the city.

“Yeah, that’s Juan Montalvo. You can take it across the river and walk up the hill,” the Ambato resident answered.

As the late-afternoon sunlight further faded from the Central Sierra basin, our tour guide for the moment continued to point out Ambato’s top landmarks and neighborhoods. He not only told Andrew and me how to get to those places, but also informed us about the town’s best Carnival events, such as the Fruit and Flowers Parade and the scheduled bullfights. Be that as it may, we were short on daylight and would soon have to meet a few chums from Quito. And so, the two of us wished our helper well and decided to save the First Printing Press for another day.

Andrew and I spent the initial part of that Saturday evening catching up with Liz, Nick, Nicole, and Rozana, our pals who had arrived in Ambato by way of a three-hour bus ride from the north. Just four months earlier, the six of us were TESOL classmates in Quito. In addition, this was our first reunion since Andrew left for Loja and I moved to Cuenca immediately after completing the course.

Later, while our four friends were enjoying an Aventura concert, Andrew and I spent the remainder of the night walking up and down Cevallos Avenue, exchanging carioca blows with those who provoked us. In fact, Andrew and I developed a pretty good system of covering each other’s back. If one of us was hit, the attacker was subsequently double-teamed by gringos. Moreover, Ambato’s very popular four-lane-wide byway was packed from sidewalk to sidewalk. For several blocks, people of all ages sprayed perfumed foam on foot, out of pickup beds, or from the roofs as well as the interiors of trolling vehicles. Some participants, Ecuadorians and foreigners alike, carried out solo missions, worked in pairs, or swaggered in canister-flaunting gangs. I’d never seen anything like it before; it was chaos.

On the other hand, it was a mutual madness. The vast majority of the people on Cevallos accepted the fact that they were going to end up rainbow-colored and smelling like a florist. In a way, it was a lot of fun just completely letting loose and fully partaking in the sudsy free-for-all. Apart from occasionally getting hit in the eyes or mouth with carioca, it was well worth it. Charging a couple bucks a can, the froth-covered vendors definitely made a good chunk of change off Andrew and me.

After spending Sunday watching Ambato’s famous Fruit and Flowers Parade, taking in a bullfight, and dancing into the wee hours of the morning with our Quito friends, Andrew and I found ourselves completing the task that we had established on Saturday afternoon. Despite getting lost in an affluent hillside neighborhood, the two of us eventually discovered the correct trail, passing numerous impoverished dwellings as well as a decrepit bullpen. Finally, Andrew and I arrived at the once distant sculpture that we had admired from the opposite end of the valley just two days earlier.

The Monday morning cloud cover chilled our bones as we shook our heads at the graffiti-riddled monument and constantly stepped around remnants of the previous night’s fireworks display. Standing on that circular, cement platform, Andrew and I proceeded to take turns snapping various panoramas in order to capture the gloomy municipality in its entirety. Furthermore, the eerie silence of the site made it seem like we were the only people in town.

While my friend continued to take photos, I realized my attitude adjustment over the past few days and paused for a moment. Despite my prior dislike of the celebration, Ambato had shown me a positive side of Carnival. I pictured myself back on Cevallos, in the thick of the carioca fight, and having a blast. It was fun because everyone was all in, including me. Suddenly, Andrew awakened me from my daze.

“I’m done!” he shouted. “What now?”

I couldn’t answer his question. Regardless of getting our photo fix, it was clear the two of us weren’t satisfied. We were bored, it was hardly midday, and Carnival wasn’t over.

With this in mind, Andrew brought up an excellent point: we still had a couple cans of foam back at the hotel.


Further Information

Other helpful information: This story took place during the early days of February 2008.

Did you like this article? Then you'll like these: Quito Clubs for Expats, Renting In Quito, Blue Hearts, Best Places For Brunch In Quito, Feria de Quito: Bullfighting, Hair Stylists In Quito, Hacienda San Agustín, Galapagos Islands Wildlife, Pacha Chocolate and Riverwalk.

By Tyrel Nelson
29 Dec 2008

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