NYE in Quito
A burly 20-something man lifts his skirt, exposing a taped-on maxi-pad with red stains painted on it. We make awkward eye contact for a fleeting moment, and then he takes a swig of his beer and continues to gyrate wildly in front of stopped traffic. It’s 2pm on December 31 and we are walking through a residential street just outside of Old Town, Quito, the capital of Ecuador. I know I’m in for an interesting night.
This interaction is not rare; in fact I encountered dozens of similar men in a 100-metre stretch of road. All dressed in full drag, wigs, short skirts, heels and showy makeup to boot. It’s a tradition for young men to honour widows on New Year's Eve by donning these racy outfits, getting plastered and then stopping cars with makeshift roadblocks before doing a provocative dance until the driver throws a few coins into their handbags. There are literally thousands of these spectacles taking place all over Quito throughout the day - it's like transvestite Halloween. I think they must get extra points for dancing with a gringo as I must have bumped and grinded with more dudes in less an hour than George Michael does in a year!
After a few warm-up drinks on our hostel’s roof terrace, it’s time to tackle the throbbing streets of La Mariscal; a.k.a. Gringolandia. An inner-city enclave of restaurants, bars, clubs, and hostels coupled with an “anything goes” attitude. This is where the backpackers and locals mix with a large population of police, drug dealers and street vendors all keeping their eyes on each other.
We assembled a motley crew of backpackers from all corners of the globe in Vibes Hostel, known for its party atmosphere. After sampling a couple of bottles of local rum, we headed out into the night. Right in front of Vibes there was a largish bonfire in the middle of the road. Cops looked on as fireworks were thrown into the blaze, shooting fireballs in every direction. A closer look revealed that fuel for the fire was actually human-sized dolls made of papier-mâché, which are painted and dressed in clothes. Another Ecuadorian NYE tradition is to burn effigies, which basically rids oneself of any badness from the previous year and creates a clean slate moving forward. Some effigies are so massive they take days to burn.
Minutes before midnight we push our way into Foch Square, the centre of Gringolandia. The place is packed, fireworks crackle, cops look nervous and gringos stagger around wasted. Huge bonfires light up excited faces anxiously awaiting the countdown. Pissed locals and courageous foreigners leap through 1.5 metre-high flames, garnering shrieks and high fives from friends and strangers alike. 10,9,8,7… Another effigy thrown into the blaze…6,5,4,3,2,1! Balloons drop from the smoky sky and the crowd cheers, bringing in 2015.
Quito brought the party big time. For a South American nation that’s not known for being big drinkers, Ecuadorians sure know how to cut loose when it counts. There were no big expectations; no fancy dresses, no $300 entry fees, and family and friends came first. I don’t think I’ll ever have a NYE as interesting as this one, but I hope I can add a little bit of Ecuadorian traditions to future New Year's celebrations. I’ve got my eye on a cute black dress for next year already… Better start working on my dance routine!