New Year’s Eve: the world’s birthday. The night, like a birthday, serves as a pretext for debauchery and, paradoxically, also as an opportunity for reflection. The way a person approaches his or her individual
birthday says much about that person’s hopes and dreams, fears and values. The way a culture celebrates New Years’ is an archetypal expression of its shared ethics, mythology, and worldview. With this in mind, we wandered the streets of Cuenca, Ecuador, to explore the celebration, departing our home just before sunset.
We started with a stroll down the broad boulevard towards the historic Centro. The welcoming spirit of the people here was amplified this evening, as virtually everyone we passed met our eyes with warm smiles and wished us feliz año (short for feliz año nuevo, happy New Year). More than half the people we passed were in family groups, some nuclear families of mom, dad, and children, some including grandparents and grown siblings, some dressed in sequins and some in jeans, while some wore their quotidian, traditional indigenous outfits.
What appeared to be a crowd of people on the median resolved itself into a display of monigotes. The tradition here is to burn these life-sized dummies as a representation of all that you want to leave behind in the old year. The effigies are mostly sold with masks which one buys separately, but some have faces on them. A few are giant, some are not even human looking, and others are works of art. Some mount them on their cars or truck beds and drive them around on display, but most seem to carry them around until it is time to burn them. We passed many such vendors on our walk. The monigotes are emblematic of the willingness to forgive and be forgiven, to leave our regrets and resentments behind, to let go.
For sale as well were fireworks. A few days ago the city government plastered the signposts and bus stops with signs advising people to buy only legal fireworks, and most of those on public offer were sparklers of some type or small Roman candles. That is not to say that larger mortar-fired fuegos artificiales were unavailable, as we learned later, just that they were not on the tables for display…
Our first stop was the gringo joint, Don Colon’s. We didn’t have a reservation for the Don’s surf and turf special, but we sat at the bar and sipped our drinks (seltzer for me, rum for Steve), until his first seating was over and he found us a vacant table. Brian Gary, a favorite among the North American baby boomers here, regaled us with James
Taylor, Billy Joel, and Elton John easy-listening tunes while we ate our delicious steak and lobster. It was way too sedate for us, and so we declined the included glass of champagne and the glitter party hats and hit the streets, where the real celebration was happening!
The streets were hopping, and Parque Calderon was still dressed up in its Christmas lights. Families strolled with children, couples necked in the darker corners, groups of teens walked arm-in-arm. Despite the darkness and the late hour, the children were in good spirits and excited. Small fireworks were being set off everywhere. A man in a mask and wig, dressed as a woman, approached a group on a bench and made clawing motions, and one of them stood up and fished a coin out of his pocket for “her.” This was one of the “widows,” supposed brides of the old year effigies who are burned, who beg for charity to support themselves (well, it appears that the money goes for beer for themselves and their friends, but, hey…).
Later, we would pass many small groups of revelers in the streets, where the “widows” would raise ropes from curb to curb in front of passing cars and beg for handouts from the occupants, while the rest danced to boombox music and set off small skyrockets. And everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, children, old men, couples, even teenagers met our eyes with grins and wished us feliz año.
Police were present, walking unarmed, in pairs, wearing yellow reflective vests. They were watchful but unobtrusive; I saw no one receive a command from a cop, and searching the crowd or corralling people in one place was not even a concept. No one searched our bags; no one walked through metal detectors. I’ve never felt safer. This city reminds me, and many others, of living in Manhattan in the 1960s. People watched out for each other as well as watching out for themselves and their children when fireworks were being lit. People danced and drank in the streets and smiled at strangers. People were human to one another. People participated in the entertainment instead of consuming it.
We made a short stop at Los Balcones, the family-owned hotel with extended-stay apartments where we had stayed when we first landed here, confused and timid. We were glad to see the restaurant in the atrium of this family-owned business full of tourists of many nationalities, enjoying dinner and soft music. Each of the three staffers present gave us each a hug and me an air-kiss (I’ve come not just to accept this custom, but to enjoy it!), and despite qualms about my gout, we each had a single glass of champagne with the owners, who kindly complimented me on my improving Spanish as I tried to tell them that this place was more than just a hotel to us. Paolo, the main host at the hotel, showed us his monigote, custom made with a lifelike mask of his face. Janeta, the dueña (owner) sat by me and patted my hand and squeezed my arm. Her simple human warmth fed my soul.
They recommended we walk to an overlook called Cruz del Vado, where there is a plaza and a view of the lower city, so we meandered in that direction. It was getting close to midnight, so the streets were less crowded as people settled where they wanted to be at that liminal moment. Small piles of ashes gently smoked where monigotes had burned, among other less wholesome piles and puddles of debris from the evening’s revels. Despite the late hour and the deserted sidewalks, there was no sense of danger.
When we reached Cruz del Vado, we heard music playing. Sure enough, we saw the blazing flowers that are big fireworks displays begin to blossom across the plateau of the City of Four Rivers. We watched the sparklers and pinwheels and dancing on the plaza, small Ecuadorian children in collared shirts and tights running amongst a few dancing pale-faced gringos, who looked like giants next to tiny indigenas in their felt hats and embroidered velvet skirts, all dancing to joyful, lively Latin music, and all smiling.
A steep stairway led down to the Tomebamba, which divides el Centro from the new town. The cobbled walkway was deserted and the river rippled musically next to us; we interrupted a passionate young couple lying in the shadows on the river bank as we walked by, but we just kept walking.
It was 11:28 as we turned back down the broad avenue towards our home. The vendors were packing up, extended families piling unsold dummies into pickup beds and carefully packing boxes of unsold fireworks. One family was packing up when a young boy ran up to his pre-teen brother, arms full of dummies, and yanked his brother’s pants to the ground! The family looked at us, the strangers, mortified, until they saw we were laughing, and they laughed too. “¡Feliz año!” Steve called, and they waved and wished us a happy New Year too. The sound of mortars and skyrockets was becoming more frequent, and the occasional emergency vehicle siren blared as well. A monigote was burning in front of our building and a family was sending up good-sized fireworks into the sky overhead, in counterpoint with another family’s mortars in the median on the next block.
We reached our terrace a few minutes before midnight, and what we saw from our balcony was nothing short of dazzling. The entire sky lit up above the city with fireworks displays, from horizon to horizon. The noise was a rhythmic rumble. 11:59:59—we kissed. Happy New Year!
We climbed the one flight to the roof and joined another middle-aged couple, Americans, already up there. They returned our “Happy New Year!” grudgingly and retreated to the other end of the roof. We could just make out clusters of people on the roofs of neighboring buildings. We watched the amazing spectacle until it began to taper off and the whole city was swaddled in a haze of sulfurous smoke. We went back down to our apartment.
There, we had waiting another Ecuadorian New Years tradition: grapes. We slowly ate 12 delicious fresh grapes, and with each one we made a wish for one month out of the coming year. As we ate, I reflected also on the year newly passed. This was a year of letting go. My home of 15 years was sold, along with the lingering fantasy that I might actually make back some of the tens of thousands of dollars I’d put into it over the years. So many belongings I couldn’t begin to list them: furniture, art, collections, linens, clothing, tools, machinery. My airplane and the dream of freedom it represented. My son, my baby, who set out on his own. I said farewell to many friends, a process which establishes in your mind and heart who the true friends have been: the ones you tear up when you say goodbye, the ones you keep up with on social media or e-mail, the ones you wish were by your side when you see new things that excite or amaze you.
I spit those old attachments out with the seeds, and formed intentions for each month of the year ahead: learn more Spanish, see the Galapagos with my son, finish editing Blind Spot, finish writing Machine Sickness, write and edit more fiction and nonfiction, volunteer at the literacy center’s daycare, get to know the people around me with their lovely hearts full of joy, fully enjoy the visits my friends and family can make, and explore more of my adopted country.
It is a year of hope ahead of me. I wish you the same!