December 31, 2005
The small town of Otavalo, in the north of Ecuador has an unhurried pace most days but today there is a hum in the air. The stalls at the market are more crowded than usual and the vendors do brisk business. As evening falls, the crowds converge in the plaza and the hum turns into a sizzle.
The past couple of days as I wandered around town, I had seen effigies propped up in front of the houses. More caricature than art, many of them have features that are definitive enough to be recognizable. Most are effigies of politicians and have placards and signs attached to them. The signs denounce them or their actions and make no bones about it. Made of straw, stuffed with paper and rags, they are meant to be burned at midnight. The effigies are not the only things that will burn tonight. The street stalls are festooned with firecrackers of every conceivable size and shape. The stalls around the park near the cathedral are draped in an eye-popping array of masks. The ones depicting hideous monsters and the ones of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein seem to be the most popular this season and sell like hot cakes. Not far behind in sales are those of Bush. The masks are to be burned as well. Tonight is a pyromaniac’s dream come true in this little town.
Children wearing masks too big for them, stumble along barely able to see, clutching ice cream cones. Gaggles of young girls dressed up in their finery giggle as they totter past in high heels. Trucks cruise along slowly, their truck beds packed with families, their speakers blasting music at deafening levels. And then there are the drag queens. Some have masks on while others wear face paint worthy of Mardi Gras. They gather in groups in the middle of the street, swing, slither, dance and gyrate in front of the cars sending the occupants and the crowds into helpless fits of laughter. Every so often someone darts out and lights a rocket in the middle of the street. The fire crackers run the gamut – rockets, ear-shattering bombs, sprinklers, sparklers, fountains – they are all there in a near continuous fizz, pop and bang.
There is music blasting from every car and shop, and although their mega-decibel speakers have been ramped to the max, they can barely drown out the fireworks. The volume increases steadily until it reaches a crescendo at midnight. Then all the effigies are put to match. Doused in gallons of fuel, they burn, occasionally spitting out a firecracker or two that were tucked inside the straw.
As if that were not enough, there are fires in front of most houses. Every street has a row of fires burning, like so many campfires, and people sing and dance around each of them. As we wander down the street, we too are swept into it. This too seems to be another uniquely Ecuadoran way of bringing in the New Year. Tradition has it that all the old ills of the year are ceremoniously swept out of the house on the last day of the year. At the stroke of midnight they are burnt. The house can now usher in the New Year, and its occupants, their new hopes.