Portraits of Guaranda
The handsome Techno-Cumbia star took the Ñusta, an indigenous beauty queen, by the hand.
“Are you single”, he screamed into the microphone, holding her hand up in the air.
“Yes, I’m single, and looking for a man”, she yelled out to the thousands of people below.
“How about this gringo photographer beside us!” he responded.
My heart began to pound as an endless sea of faces all turned toward me with drunken smiles.
The good old days
Carnival in Guaranda, Ecuador, is not what it used to be. Hundreds of years ago, there were no techno-cumbia stars. There were just the haves and have-nots. The haves being the hacienda owners and the have-nots being the indigenous people who worked the land, or slaves.
The hacienda owner, called the Taitico, was given camaris, by all the indigenous people, who were lucky enough to use “his” land. Camaris were offerings of corn, animals, milk, and other food products. The Taitico would bring the camaris down to the square and supply alcohol for everyone to get drunk and wash away their sorrows. During the festivities the natives, or Guarangas, used this opportunity to practice their ancient agricultural rituals. It was the second moon of the year, the coming of spring, or Capac Raymi. The time had come to give thanks to the land and ask for a successful harvest in the upcoming year.
Yambombo and the dancing she-males
I was in search of the “real” carnival. What happens in the hundreds of tiny communities spotting the tranquil green hills around Guaranda? Where are the Guarangas? I was told there would be action in Vinchoa, so I hired a taxi to take a look. Nothing. Slightly depressed, I asked the driver if he new where people were celebrating. He swung a quick left down a dirt road. After many twists, turns, bumps and scrapes we arrived at the Yambombo/Huanotaxi household.
I sat in their kitchen nibbling on fritada, fried pork, as half a pig tied to a rope swayed from side to side behind me. Segundo Yambombo had been elected “Taita Carnaval” and would be representing the community of Casipamba on Saturday, the day all the indigenous communities come down from the hills to dance the streets of Guaranda. He had been dancing for many days and would dance for many more. I followed the group down trails, over mountains, and across streams. They banged drums, blew flutes, and played accordions, while singing the traditional songs of carnival.
They went spinning from house to house in groups, sharing food, laughs, and drinks. Each group had one young man dressed up as girl. From head to toe they were wrapped in traditional women’s garb. As the day turned to night the she-males pranced down the dirt roads, showing off their feminine side.
I was crammed into the back of a pickup with about fifteen other people zooming down the back streets on my way to the big parade. Suddenly I began screaming frantically as a pail’s worth of water fell from the sky hitting the back of my neck and drenching my new Canon 5D mark II. Shit, what could I do? Water wars are part of carnival in Ecuador, and staying dry is impossible. People also smear flour over the faces of their friends when they least expect it. The white faces are said ridicule the Spanish who conquered these lands 500 years ago.
In the hot noon sun a wonderful mix of characters floated down the coble stone streets of Guaranda. Dozens of red Elvises and pink gypsies danced alongside the Taita Carnival, as gigantic crowds began to drink themselves into the ground. It was a wonderful celebration of excess as only carnival can be. Reggaeton and salsa bounced off the colored walls meshing with drums and flutes while Guaranda partied down. As the old mixed with the new the city tried to hold onto it’s past while inevitably slipping into the future.