Carnival has arrived in Ecuador once again. The most elaborate celebrations take place on the coast which is known for its carefree, party atmosphere, probably because Ecuadorians from the Sierra flock to its beaches whenever they have vacation. True to its reputation as a conservative, reserved city, the only Carnival celebrations that take place in Quito are the pranks that involve throwing water balloons and squirting shaving cream on random passers-by. No parade, no parties, just the stinging welt of a water balloon bursting on your arm as you walk down the street. As the balloon pops, one can hear the near-by giggles of hidden teenagers. Walking down the street becomes a risky endeavor as partakers in Carnival “fun” are known to launch water balloons or tip entire pitchers of water on people from the balconies of apartment buildings. In these cases, I don’t have a chance. I know they’ve been tracking my movement from down the street. They will bombard me with water and shaving cream at the perfect moment, just when I’ve walked by and am no longer expecting a thing.
Anyone who can has left Quito for the long weekend (a national holiday) which stretches through Monday and Tuesday of this week. All my Quito friends went to the beach to eat fresh ceviche, drink beer, dance salsa, and bake themselves in the scorching Ecuadorian sun. Many people originally from the coast go home to be with their families. This includes the sex workers. Those who can scramble up the bus fare head down the mountains, either to be with their children for a few days, or to bring their children to visit family. Some send just their children on buses to the coast. V. said she was headed to Ambato for Carnival to work because supposedly business was picking up there. The rest stay in Quito because they don’t have plata to travel or to be economically self-sufficient guests. C. said to me that although she has the bus fare, she won’t go because usually she likes to treat her family to a meal out, perhaps to show that she is living the “migration dream” of making a successful life for herself in Quito.
The women celebrated Carnival on the streets Friday by getting in the spirit of pranks and fun. Armed with special bottles of “carnival” shaving cream and homemade “squirt guns” by putting holes in the tops of their water bottles, the sex workers spent the day dousing water and shaving cream on people who walked by. They are in a particularly good spot for drowning unsuspecting drivers who have their windows open as they travel down Montafur Street. Drivers have to pause and/or stop at the intersection of Espejo, making them perfect targets. On Friday the women screamed with glee every time someone stopped and fell victims to their pranks. I’ve never seen the women laugh so hard. I think part of the enjoyment was feeling like they “owned” the streets, that they could invert power relations for a moment and be perpetrators of pranks rather than the victims of daily abuse. Isn’t the inversion of power what Carnival is all about?
They also spent the day chasing each other, secretly sneaking up on one another: “bam” a spray of water to the face or shaving cream. I also spent the day dodging water or shaving cream, and chasing after them with my own water bottle. The fact that they felt comfortable enough to dump water on my head or squirt shaving cream in my face, made me feel good in a funny sort of way. It made me feel that as an anthropologist, “I’ve made it.” They include me in everyday jokes as well. In fact, sometimes it seems like their favorite pastime is to “make fun of the gringa,” which again, I find flattering because I take it as a marker of acceptance. They’ll start calling out “We’re selling the gringa! $100 for 30 minutes, look at the gringa, we’re selling her!” I find it hilarious. Not to worry though, when men actually approach me, they’ve “got my back.” They’re the first to come to my defense, yelling things like, “keep on walking Mister….she’s not working…..don’t look at her….get lost.” (Obviously, their jokes wouldn’t be so funny if they didn’t also protect me from potential clients.)