We are the only gringos for miles. Mike, Kelly and I dodge our way through a crowd of bucket-wielding teenagers. This is not what we were expecting. We were expecting a nice quiet hike to a secluded waterfall where we could take some photographs and generally relax in the sunshine. What we found instead was chaos. The taxi driver asked us to roll up our windows. Armies of Otavaleños flung water at the car as we passed. Garbage cans waited full of muddy river water on the side of the street. What had we gotten ourselves into?
We enter the plaza and find that a full blown festival is in progress. Earthy odros waft from food stalls. Flute-heavy music bounces off percusive bodies. A boy walks by with a face stained red. There are hundreds of people. Thousands. Our pale skin is like a mirror in the sunshine and the reflection catches everyone`s eye. We figure the only way we can survive is if we are armed. Mike and I buy aerosol cans filled with soapy foam. We break the safety tabs off and shake. We re-enter the line of bodies and follow the pulsing vein towards the trailhead.
The attacks are at first infrequent and harmless. The trail is a two way highway of bodies. Most of the people who are leaving are wet. T-shirts hang heavy from shoulders, hems drip, sandals leave muddy footprints. Others are covered in green, pink, blue foam. Bathsuds that take a while to pop away. The smell of chemicals. Groups of giggling girls pass by and spray Mike and I with foam. Groups of young men target Kelly. There seems to be an unwritten law to the attacks, but its not quite clear to us. At first, we only attack as an act of revenge. Since Kelly has no weapon, we try to retaliate against her aggressors, but soon it is impossible to stay united.
The waterfall beckons from a distance. In between it and us there is a gauntlet of soldiers on a hillside. They are dumping bucket upon bucket of water on the entire line of people. The shower is incessant, impossible to avoid. The three of us pause at a turnout in the trail. Our mistake becomes immediatly obvious. We are surrounded. The attacks come from all directions. A young man sneaks up behind me while I am holding off a classic pincer movement and slaps a hand full of flour into my face and eyes. His punishment comes swiftly. I fill his mouth with foam. Kelly, being a defenseless redheaded gringita, is swarmed. I don`t see what happens but when Kelly emerges from the frey she is covered in died-green flour and multicolored foam. Mike`s beard is also stained green and he can`t hear what I`m saying because of the deafening popping of the foam in his ears.
“We gotta keep moving dude!” I scream.
“Yeah, can`t stay put. That was suicide.”
“How`s your weapon supply?”
“Almost out. You?”
“I got a little left. What do you think?”
“I don`t want to go through that gaunlet. Retreat and regroup?”
“I agree. The enemy is too strong here. Retreat.”
As we walk back towards the plaza every single person we pass–hundreds of people–either laughs or attacks. Our battle wounds are obvious. We are not shy gringos. We like to get involved, have fun. It is now open season on us and our retreat is much more diffucult than our entry. But we make it. When we reach the trailhead we have a discussion.
“I almost want to go back in there and get revenge,” says Mike.
“I`d be down. That was a fucking riot,” I say.
“I could go back, but I think I need a weapon,” says Kelly, brushing green powder out of her eyes.
“Well I need another bottle too. I`m out,” says Mike.
“Let`s get three more then and head back in.”
We get the big bottles this time. Laughing, pointing, staring from small children. We punish insolence with faces full of foam. One wrong look and we strike without mercy. We grow eyes in the backs of our heads, coordinate complex defensive maneuvers, fight with the passion of the druken Irish and the creativity of the Brazilian soccer team. No one is safe. We keep our eyes peeled for other gringos, hoping beyond hope that we will have a chance to humiliate another foriegn army, but we see none. Before we reach the most intense area of fighting, we remember that we are going to walk all the way back to the hotel. We remember the groups of people throwing water at the taxi and we decide we better save some weaponry for them.
As we stroll through the plaza we are watched by everyone. We are like clowns at a black-and-white ball, three apples in a pile of bananas. I make eye contact with a young man who has yellow flour all over his face. My spider sense tingles. I hang back and let Mike go first. He is struck from the side with a face full of flour. He runs after his attacker, corners him on a stairway, and pummels him with foam. Yellow face turns to assist his companion and I seize the moment. It is a suprise attack. I just fill his eyes and face with foam. Just cover him. He swings blindly with a handful of yellow powder and catches me in the cheek. The can of foam is knocked loose from my hand, tumbles over the cobblestones. I run after it and as I am bending to pick it up I am struck with more flour. Can in hand, I flee.
Nothing but smiles, laughs, thumbs up. Our adversaries become our friends. Our passionate participation garners respect. Walking home, we get into a few minor skirmishes, but nothing we can`t handle. Everyone smiles as we pass. Thumbs up. Nods of the head. I open the door and Jorge laughs at me. I fill his face with foam. He tells me tomorrow is the most intense day of all, the last day of celebration. I strip and hang my clothes on the laundry lines. My shirt is ruined, stained blue with dye. I realize that I have lost my necklace, the cowbone fish hook I have had for almost ten years. I imagine it is being trampled by soaked sandals right now, but I hardly even care. I am still high on adrenaline and something else; the feeling of having an experience that not many tourists will ever have. The feeling of having a great story to tell. I grin deeply at Jorge even after he dumps a bucket of freezing water over my head. We throw water balloons from his balcony at screaming children that pass by. The sunset halts all wars, but only for a night.
Imagine a water fight that encompasses a city. Everything is shut down. The faint of heart should not leave their houses. This is not like a sunny summer day in the Northwest. No. This is civil war. For me, the fight begins at my host family`s house. We prepare hundreds of bombas–water balloons–and spend the morning in a fight with the neighbors and each other. From the balcony, we unleash hell. Unlike buckets of cool water or squirt guns, the bombas sting when they strike your skin. As a result, everyone is wary of bombardiers. The kids below dodge with skill and a direct hit is rare. When we run out of bombas we head to the streets. There is no longer any reason to try to remain dry. We douse each other with buckets full of water.
Jorge and I round up Mike at his hotel. He comes back to the house with us and joins in the fun. It is not long before the older Jorge, the father of the family, pulls up in front of the house with his pick-up truck. The strongest warriors, which includes Mike and I, pile into the bed of the truck while the parents and youngest kids reside comfortably in the cab. We bring along a big garbage can full of water, which we dip into with smaller containers. Jorge warns us to watch out for bombas, to cover our heads, to be very careful. Yesterday, we had seen many truckloads patrolling the streets and making driveby attacks. Mike and I are again getting involved in something that I am sure very few gringos get to experience. We are both excited.
The garbage can is empty after the first two blocks. We are nearly drowned, freezing from the windchill, crouched uncomfortably in the truck bed. There are armies on every rooftop. Bombas rain down on us and we protect or heads with buckets, pails, pots and pans. On every corner there is a group of people who absolutely drench us. The thing about being in a truck is that you have nowhere to run. We are sitting mallards, only without the irridescent feathers. The driver has no sympathy. He slows down to give our attackers a fair chance. There is nothing we can do.
Eventually he takes us to the river, where we fill the garbage can as full as possible without making it too heavy for three of us to carry. We conserve the water this time. Children, gringos, potential assailants. As we pass by two young women, a blonde and a redhead–obviously tourists–I fling a bucketful of water at them. Direct hit! They shout at me angrily, sticking their hands up in the air questioningly. “Somos gringos,” I shout back. We are white people too. Granted, we are the only white people crazy enough to be tooling around in the back of a pick-up with a garbage can full of water, but we are still white people. And we`re absolutely soaked. You don`t see me complaining. I mean if you`re going to get angry over a little water then don`t leave the safety of your hotel on the last day of carnaval. They are pretty much the only gringos we see and they are also the only people that don`t have a constant smile on their face. I`m disgusted. I want to circle back around and teach them a lesson, but I`m not driving. We continue on.
Even after we all ask him to take us home, the father circles the block one more time. Maybe he wants to make sure we get our fill. This only happens once a year after all. Water rushes through my hair, bombas explode on my back, I shiver. My legs are burning from having crouched in the truckbed for over an hour. We dismount.
“I think I`m going to run back to the hotel and take a warm shower,” says Mike.
“Sounds good dude. Dinner tonight?”
“Yeah. Same place. That was awesome by the way,” and he looks me in the eye.
“I don`t think we could have experienced the true nature of carnaval in Ecuador any more fully.”
“Yeah dude, we did it right.”
“I`ll come by around 7 then?”
“Yep, that`s when the place opens I think.”
“Sweet. See you soon.”
A few hours later we are drinking wine and eating hearts-of-palm salad. The sweet red liquid warms me to the core. The nachos taste amazing. The pizza is fabulous. We eat slowly, savoring every bite. The flavor of rosemary, bay leaf, chilli peppers and olive oil lingers in my mouth as we meander back to the hotel. This is where we part ways for about a week. Mike and Kelly will head to Baños while I finish my Spanish classes and attempt to climb Cayambe this weekend. After that, we will rendezvou for more adventures. We hug in golden light and say goodbye. My retreating footsteps are muffled by the layer of water in the street.