El Año Viejo y El Año Nuevo

Conflate Guy Fawkes' Night, a 50th birthday party with guests including your cousin's best-friend's dog, and the apocalypse, and you've got something resembling New Year's Eve in Ecuador.


In each neighbourhood of the city, Cuencans erect giant 'Año Viejos' - stuffed papier maché statues which satirise something, or someone, from the past year. By the side of the River Tomebamba, an enormous Uncle Sam showed off his rotten teeth in a horrible grin, overlooking a scene of polluted animals and trees. People dressed as members of an Amazonian tribe danced across the black tarpaulin oil spill, shaking their spears at Uncle Sam, and spraying water from their mouths at the crowd.

'Mano Sucia of Chevron Perdon Chavron Por Sucio Cochino, Mentirosa tras las rejas' read the poster. 'Dirty Hand of Chevron Pardon Chavron for being a Dirty Pig, a Liar through the Teeth'. It went on to detail the '# de afectados: un país el ECUADOR y un Mundo entero' - '# of people affected: the country of ECUADOR and the whole World'. 



Chevron is in Ecuadorian bad books for failing to pay the $18 billion of compensation demanded of them by an Ecuadorian court in 2011, to be paid to the peoples of the Amazon for the damage caused to their land and livelihoods. From 1972 - 1992 Texaco (later bought by Chevron) were prospecting for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon, under an agreement with the Ecuadorian government that they would not be held responsible by the state for any environmental damage caused. The controversy lies in the fact that this agreement did not free Texaco from obligations caused to third parties. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has recently launched a campaign - 'Chevron's Dirty Hand' - asking for a global boycott of the company if it fails to cough up.




Blocking a street closer to the centre, the10 ft tall Ecuadorian football team gathered in front of a picture of Rio de Janeiro. Members of the crowd ducked under the tape barrier to have their pictures taken with the national squad. Staring sadly at the scene was an effigy of Cristian 'Chucho' Benitez, sporting a pair of wings; the player died earlier in the year from a heart attack.

At traffic lights, cars are approached not by the usual window washers and food sellers, but by 'viudas' (widows) begging for money. Thankfully, these are widows only of the 'Año Viejo' (the Old Year). They are also all men in drag.


Instead of heading into town with friends, most Ecuadorians gather together as a family to welcome in the New Year. 1 litre Pilsener bottles are lined up along the wall, and a vat of stewed chicken awaits the new year. At my family's party, Juan Pablo stepped into his usual role as entertainer, organising games with pretty heavy sexual innuendo. Up first, aunts and uncles, cousins and cousin-in-laws, had to line up facing each other; men on one side, women on the other. With a toilet roll holder lodged between their legs, the guys had to spear and extract the loo roll wedged between their wife/girlfriend's thighs and carry it back to the other side. The whole procedure was then repeated backwards, and on all fours. Given that the majority of Ecuadorians live at home until they are married, and are nominally all virgins until then, the glee with which the game was received seemed a little bizarre. 


As midnight approached, the 'testamento' was hurriedly finished off, and I was ushered into the middle of the room to deliver my last speech. As this year's chosen 'Año Viejo', it was my duty to say a few final words to my dearly beloved family, before being burnt on the bonfire. (Symbolically.) 


'Queridos familiares y amigos - Dear friends and family', I began. 'I have come here from my dear Sigsig (a local town where there are an unusual number of blonde Ecuadorians - hence the joke) to say a few last words.' The testamento then turned to rhyme, and I 'gifted' each member of the family a humorous present to help them in the coming year. Some were funnier than others - whips to beat naughty children, a lightsaber to punish a misbehaving newly wed husband, a hat to keep a bald head warm - but hey, I didn't write the script. 


With five minutes to go, the sacrificial dummies were carried outside and doused in petrol. They went up in smoke with 2013, and fireworks were set off by the roadside, propped up in beer bottles. Looking up and down the street, you could easily imagine yourself on the set of a film about the end of the world. Every 20 metres a fire was burning, and home-made firecrackers went off with menacing bangs.



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