Foam and Fire

by Kamil, Tufts 1+4 Participant


What a word. Crowds of cheering people packing the streets like sardines. Fireworks. Massive parade floats, marching dance ensembles, and city wide warfare.

Everyone carries a bottle of “Carioca,” ranging from a humble 300mL in a few easily concealable inches, to behemoth bottles that carry over a liter. What is “Carioca”?

Carioca is scented foam. It doesn’t stain and it’s somewhat non-toxic. People sneak attack each other with water, flour, and foam. Others form groups and prowl the streets looking for unwitting victims or other groups to challenge. It’s harmless fun, although some people go quite wild.

In my home base of Cuenca, people wore helmets. Some had ear plugs, others surgical masks covering their mouth. You will get foam in your eyes, ears, and mouth, sometimes even with some protective gear. I wore a bandana over my mouth and ears, which was quickly rendered quite useless as mounds of foam piled up and I began to appear more like Santa Claus or the Abominable Snowman than a recognizable regular person.

Mind you, there’s plenty of celebrations unique to every country. Certainly, Carnival is more international than other Ecuadorian holidays, such as their new year’s’ traditions.

For that, the trick is make effigies out of wood and old clothes, representing the past year, and burn them to make room for the new year to start fresh and cleansed. 

For the truly entrepreneurial, each neighborhood has judges and contest prizes. The biggest enter regional contests and compete with each other in public areas to the background of fireworks and concerts.

But everyone makes them. Each family burns their own representation of the old year, with some rubbish shirts, pants with holes, and torn shoes that would otherwise be discarded. At midnight sharp, the neighborhoods are alight with bonfires in front of every house, family sharing a good time together, and more than a few people running and bonfires and cheering family reunions. People dance a bit, wish each other best of luck in the year to come, and some take turns jumping over the bonfire to be reborn from the ashes of the past year. The experience cleanses.

Holidays mark the special divisions of our otherwise mundane year. Days, weeks, months are vital to our routine and systemic society, but don’t capture constant awe, nor offer a seductive allure. Celebrations are a reset button. When you participate in the emotional highs and everyday annoyances of a people, you get a better insight into their culture. It’s something romantic to reminisce over, and remember for the rest of our lives. Nothing quite stands out like the biggest holiday celebrations in the memory, or lack of celebration in those days.

Whatever happens, I’ll sorely miss all the traditions and celebrations I’ve encountered here in Ecuador. I’d likely take some back with me, but struggle with my family and local community that considers such actions utterly different and incomprehensible. Why would you throw flour at people and burn old clothes? 

Why cut down a pine tree to put in your house and dedicate a day to eating turkey?

A grand part of it all is the unity of a culture in everyone celebrating it together – a spirit enveloping the community so to speak.

It’s holiday celebrations that bond families together, and maintain them. I can’t help wondering where I’ll be next year, as my host family celebrates various Ecuadorian holidays and I’ll have a regular work or school day. I wonder what they think of me celebrating various Polish and American traditions that they don’t understand very well. Certainly I offer to explain and share, but my goal is to learn something here instead of pushing my culture on others and assuming I can teach anyone anything.

Goodbyes are bittersweet at best, and some of the hardest things to do at worst, but our shared family reunions and holiday celebrations will highlight all my experiences and memories, as well as provide a thread of unity and shared piece of culture I can relate with others I meet during my future travels.

I hope I find little ways to celebrate the culture I’ve grown accustomed to, and fell in love with.