Blowing Up The Outgoing Year In Guayaquil
After leaving Bogota to enjoy the holiday season in Ecuador, including spending Christmas in Quito, where we bore witness to an impromptu parade of 50 motorcycle-mounted Santas, Katie and I moseyed on to Guayaquil for New Year’s Eve. A city of four million and the largest in Ecuador, Guayaquil sits on the Rio Guayas with a bridge connecting a nearby island and continuing to the opposite side of the river where you’ll find the town of Duran. (Feel free to insert “Rio”, “Duran Duran” and “dancing on the sand” jokes here.) We stayed on the riverfront towards the end of a pretty cool river walk with a couple hills immediately behind us.
As for The Big Night, we didn’t have much by way of plans. We had scheduled a day trip to a Hacienda about an hour so out of town towards Ecuador’s interior. We didn’t know what we’d be up for afterwards and I pretty much consider New Year’s Eve to be “Amateur Night” anyhow. Overcrowded bars charging an absurd cover as well as three times normal prices for bevvies while people who’ve had six drinks the last three months try to double that intake in one evening… cheesy hats, puke and fistfights. Hooray!
Our day trip had us going some 70 kilometers from Guayaquil, during which we saw people selling these colorful, massive minotaurs, Captain Americas, Supermen that look like two-meter-tall piñatas. While my Spanish is terrible, I was able to communicate enough with our driver to learn they are called años viejos, or just viejos for short. Viejos are various papier-mâché creations designed to represent the outgoing calendar year. These creations used to be likenesses of generic people or politicians/famous figures but have morphed over the years to pop-culture likenesses to garner the interest of children. And to exorcise the demons of the prior year, they are set fire to after the ball drops on the New Year.
Passing down the road, particularly the town of Naranjito, on Dececember 31 with clocks ticking you’ll pass blocks of them. Ranging from small dogs or minions up to massive six-foot-tall super heroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, minotaurs wearing jerseys of local futbol teams, all with the build of a He-Man action figure. So picture a piñata Batman with twice the body mass of Terry “President Dwayne Elizando Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho” Crews. Apparently, the midsized ones go for about $40 and the big ones can go for $250… in a country where for most people $250 might as well have an extra 0 on the end when comparing household incomes with the US.
Driving through the country there were cars, taxis with these strapped to the roof, standing on the beds of pick-up trucks and even sandwiched between the driver and passenger of motorcycles. We also saw them in the front yards of probably half the houses we passed. One even had a Thanos (Avengers Infinity War villain) on a throne a full story tall. No joke, the top of his oversized purple dome was peeping over the roof of the tienda, or market, next door. We were not sure how much money he cost, nor the time spent in creating him… all to go up in smoke in seconds flat.
Returning from the hacienda in the late afternoon the excitement had ramped up, as had the urgency of vendors selling viejos. Furthermore, on the way back it wasn’t just the vendors on the side of the street… instead there were groups of kids and 20-30-year-old men, in drag. And we’re not talking Ru-Paul’s “Drag Race” feminine drag, but picture random Latino construction workers with three-day growth to full beards in a black cocktail dress with bad wig and lipstick drag. They had strung a clothesline across the street so drivers had to slow down to a crawl to pass, requesting payment of a toll. One hombre even stuffed the backside of his dress and was shaking his best Nicki Minaj “assets” at traffic. Our driver looked back at us and said that these men represented the “widows of the old year.”
So… after puzzled looks regarding the roadside spectacle, we finally got back to our apartment, relaxed for a bit, and then went for some cervezas and ceviche for dinner, returning home for a quiet evening.
The pop-pops of fireworks started going off around 10:30pm, non-stop. At 11:50 I decided to go out and see what was going on. Or, rather, what was going off.
As noted, the fireworks were already going off, building in intensity. The guards outside our apartment building directed me to the best view point, conveniently just the opposite side of the adjacent tower. As the clock struck midnight the fireworks hit a crescendo.
The sound was crazy. For starters I was sitting maybe 50 feet from where the fireworks were being launched. Well the nearby fireworks. From my point of view, impeded by multiple towers of apartments and two hills behind us/opposite the river (450 steps high) there were at least seven different locations each with their own show going on. Oh, and pretty much the entirety of the bridge was launching low altitude fireworks as well. So any direction you looked, there were colorful explosions in the sky.
(Side note, to all my Tucsonan amigos, one of the two hills/barrios behind us managed to set itself on fire a la “A” Mountain every 4th of July. Can you say, “Sister City”?”)
After the crescendo things weren’t done.
Not yet. Not remotely.
Remember those viejos?
Well, piled in the dirt lot where they were launching the fireworks from was a big mound, at least 10 feet tall and double that around. Due to regulations in our rather well-to-do/touristy area, the center of the viejo mound merely consisted of a pile of firecrackers. Apparently in ‘the slums” (term repeatedly used by an English-speaking Guayaquil native who was our tour guide earlier in the day) with less regulation these can be stuffed with explosivos, so mere burning wasn’t enough. Only detonation of the bad things of the outgoing year would suffice.
Once the fireworks had died down the mound was doused with gasoline then set ablaze, much to the joy of the assembled masses. Flames quickly rose high and as they worked their way inward the firecrackers started going off. The noise was amplified, reverberating off nearby Bellini Torres 4 & 5 (or 3 & 4…. Whatever. Torre 2! /flashes signs). While I approached relatively close, as close as the nearest ring of observing Ecuadorians, once the bonfire started to die down a little bit, the bulk of the viejos reduced to ash, I quickly backed up as the fire stokers (or flat-out pyromaniacs) started lobbing actual fireworks, not firecrackers, into the pyre.
Fireworks sure are swell at a distance, when up in the sky. When at ground zero (emphasis on ground), time to get the truck out of Dodge.
So after many years being jaded with the whole calendar-flip moment, it was truly awesome to enjoy the exuberance (and explosiveness) of Ecuadorians celebrating the killing off the bad of the prior year to embrace the new. My sombrero is off to you, Guayaquil.