As I stepped out of the Land Cruiser I saw Coen photographing a heap of something on fire. We were in the parking lot of Saraguro’s hospital and, as it was the end of the day, I feared they were burning waste material from the hospital.
They weren’t. As I moved closer I saw it was the man-sized effigy that we had seen propped up against the wall of the hospital earlier that afternoon. People stood around it, wishing each other a happy new year. It was December 28. What was going on?
We were soon told that the burning of paper effigies is a New-Year’s Eve ritual in Ecuador (later we heard it also exists in Peru). As the hospital was going to be closed until Jan 2 (with the exception of the emergency room, that is) the employees were now having their New Year’s Eve toast. If we wanted to join them? And so we got to drink an intriguing mixture of milk with un trago (a liquor, or a shot).
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador
Meanwhile, we are in Cuenca, where there is more to learn, see, and experience with regard to the traditions and rituals of New Year’s Eve in Ecuador. Downtown many vendors were selling masks, which at a first glance reminded us of the masks we had seen during the Paucartambo Festival in Peru (read about it here).
The Burning of Effigies
The masks are made papier mâché and depict human faces or animal heads, like monkeys, or cows. People may wear these masks during New Year’s Eve, but during the day we mostly saw the masks put on paper Effigies that sat or stood before houses, shops or other buildings.
When a shop closed for the day, the employees set the effigy on fire to finish the old year together. During the day an increasing number of cars started driving around with effigies on the front of the car, or on its roof. A selection: The burning of the effigies signifies the burning of the bad that happened during the past year, so everybody can start with a clean slate. When talking to people about the ritual, it was beautiful to see with how much pride they talk about this old tradition.
Some effigies are filled with firecrackers, making you kind of jumpy when standing around the fire.
Then another activity took place in a number of streets: men dressed up as women, stopping traffic and asking the driver for a donation. Not sure what the tradition of ritual is here, but everybody was clearly having a lot of fun.
On the market we discovered people had their bodies cleansed of bad energy, evil spirits or anything else that is negative. Apparently this ritual exists in Peru and Bolivia as well, but we have never seen it. Here it is very popular on New Year’s Eve, but you can do this any time of the year. “You can do it yourself, but it’s better to find somebody to do it for you, preferably with a very strong character,” a local man explained to me.
Below a staircase in the market were five or six women incredibly busy performing cleansing rituals, among which on many babies and toddlers. We decided to give it a try ourselves. I was asked to sit down and the lady took a bouquet of herbs out of a bag, crushed them and pushed them in my face. I don’t have olfactory organs, but now an incredibly strong scent was pushed up my nose and/or into my throat, I’m not sure what it was, but it stayed with me for a long time. That put me off balance, for sure.
The lady took the herbs and hit me all over the place with it while mumbling prayers: on my head, my stomach, back, arms, legs, the works. On and on it went. There was a lot to get rid of, I suppose.
Next step was the egg. She took an egg and caressed it all over my body for minutes on end, continuing her prayers. The local man, whose daughter I had watched being cleansed before me, had explained to me that all the bad and negative would be drawn into that egg.
Subsequently she broke the egg into a cup and analyzed it. From the little girl she had drawn a ‘bad eye’, in my case it was ‘negative energy’ and in Coen’s case it was ‘nerves’.
In some cases it appeared not enough bad energy/spirit had been drawn, as after the egg reading the lady resumed with the herbs and once more did another egg touching. But in both our cases enough bad had been extracted and so our last step was to be sprayed with a liquid.
This the women do by taking a sip and spraying it on different parts of the body, after which we were blessed with black dots/crosses of what I think was a kind of ash on our foreheads, stomach and back.