Sunday, January 19, 2014

Holiday in Ecuador

Spending the holidays in another country can provide some interesting insights into their culture along with being a great time for travel. Over the last month or so, Rick Steves has been showcasing travel in Europe during the season with some great photos and experiences.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that crèches are everywhere. Every church we visited had at least one, several of which were life size. We also saw them on the street and even in our hotel. I already shared one of the most extensive displays in the San Francisco Monastery. We also saw a lot of Christmas decorations on buildings similar to what we would have seen at home. Christmas music was just as pervasive as at home also. It was a bit disconcerting however to hear familiar renditions of White Christmas or “Jingle Bells” as we walked around town.

Our hotel offered a special and expensive Christmas dinner. They promised a great four course meal with music and fun. We signed up right away. The dinner itself was excellent as promised, but over the course of the evening we only saw five other couples in the restaurant, all of whom were hotel guests. The room was nicely decorated and the music was a nice accompaniment even if a lot of it wasn’t Christmas music. The keyboard player was friendly and even tried to get me to play a bit. I declined which as Linda will tell you was a good thing for all of us. We did see a lot of people entering the church in the square below as one would expect in a mostly Catholic country.

Lights and special Christmas decorations
We could see this display from all over town.
The lights were inside the gauze sheets creating a beautiful look during the day, too.
Guayaquil started taking down its display on January 9, later than in the US where we have to get ready for Valentine's Day.

Children were able to ride Santa's train.
It can be a bit hard to keep track of days while traveling because you don’t really have the reference point of having to go to work on Monday morning – or whatever day you happen to work. It was especially difficult to realize it was actually Christmas day because there did not seem to be much difference on the streets. It seemed that stores and restaurants were open as normal and people still filled the streets and squares just like every other day. The only real difference I noticed was that the Cathedral I had been trying to visit every day was finally open for visiting in the morning between services. By afternoon it was closed again and did not open again any time I was in the neighborhood. Lonely Planet recommends paying the small entrance fee, so I expected it to be open most of the time.

I gave this lovely a dollar for posing

It was for the New Year that we saw the big celebrations and closures. Two traditions bring in the New Year. One is that young men dress up as women and beg for money. Ostensibly, the money is to help widows get money they need to survive without a husband. Unfortunately a lot of the money only goes to support the young mens’ drinking expenses as they celebrate. Traffic was stopped on several streets as these young men actually stood in the middle of the traffic to extract money from drivers and passengers. When I went out walking close to midnight, I was warned off one street where this was happening. I was told to “Take care,” because they were “robbers” according to the two well-dressed young men who were worried for my safety. I decided discretion was the better part of valor and took another street.

The second tradition is to create paper maché effigies which to be burned at midnight in the streets. In this way they destroy the old year and make way for the better New Year to come.  These effigies are for sale along with masks at many of the stores. Some stores built their own dolls for display. Others put them on the front bumper or the roof of their car as they drove around the city. Many of the effigies are of politicians. The president is, of course, a popular target. One of these was displayed at the Presidential Palace. Others are of popular culture figures. We saw one of Mario, the computer game hero.  There were also a lot of little girls, under 5, with bright pink long hair wigs.

My walk that evening was intended to discover what was happening on the squares. On the Friday before Christmas, each of the three nearby squares had a live band and partying until late into the morning. The band at our square played until 2:15, making it hard to be up at 5:00 to get to the airport for our trip to the Amazon. However, each of the squares was silent on New Year’s Eve. I almost gave up before trying La Ronda Street which is supposed to be a great party street every weekend evening. The street was busy and the open space beyond it was filled with people and a lot of effigies. Most of the restaurants had music and one man had set up his own microphone to sing to the crowds. He was pretty good, but I wouldn't have paid to listen to him. I also saw a crowd of young men chasing around the area. One of them was the object of the chase. I was unable to decide if they were serious or just having fun, but I did see several police in the immediate area and most of the families walking through the space were looking nervously at the action. It was nice to see the large number of families with small children enjoying the evening. I did not stay long enough to see the burnings, but there was plenty of evidence the next morning if you were out early enough to see it before the cleaning crews came by.

We chose New Year’s Eve Day to take the gondola trip up the mountain side  for the great views of the city it offered. We were joined by a number of people with back packs. We decided that they were probably going to hike the rest of the way up the mountain to greet the new year from there. Starting at about 12,000 feet the rest of the hike was certain to take some good physical conditioning, but I imagine the view of the fireworks was spectacular.

New Year’s Day was what I expected to see on Christmas Day. Very few stores were open and not many were on the streets. With Linda’s still sore ankle we decided to do the city bus tour and have dinner at what looked like a special Italian pizza restaurant that advertised using local produce. The tour was on, but the restaurant was among the many that were closed. The hotel restaurant was also closed so we ate at the one next door where the food was just decent and we ended up with three orders of fries and an extra order of rice because the waiter and I were not able to communicate clearly. 

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