No matter where in the world I have been, ringing in the new year has always meant explosives. Regardless of race, climate, religion, it’s all the same – in order to properly send out the the old year, you have to blow something up. In most of the Western world, this means closely-controlled fireworks, so that no one gets hurt. It has almost gotten to the point where no one has fun either – or rather it’s closely-controlled fun.
In Ecuador, the safety-first memo has not arrived yet, and Ecuadorians ring in the New Year with explosive and pyrotechnic style.
A few months before the New Year, Ecuadorian artists start working on these massive papier-mâché figurines, called monigotes. They simbolize the old year (año viejo), and as such, they are to be blown up, or set on fire, in order to properly start the new one. Ecuadorians manage this by creating big bonfires where they pile the monigotes, or viejos as a lot of us say, stuffed with fireworks or other explosives. The safety of this should probably be questioned, but there is something absolutely amazing about seeing a large pile of figurines on fire and hearing the firecrackers explode on the inside. If that isn’t ringing the new year in with a bang, I don’t what is.
Back to the viejos themselves….this tradition is so prevalent in the New Years culture here that there are contests to see how big and how intricate these statues can get. In Guayaquil, you can go drive around the city and see these 20-foot creations of the characters from Madagascar, Batman, Transformers, you name it. That’s right, most of the viejos are inspired by movies or cartoons. Don’t ask me why Batman represents the old year, he just does.
Throughout December, you can find these artisans working at markets throughout the city and buy one of their pre-made ones or place an order with your own design. You have to shop early, though, because the really good ones go quickly. A decent size one (about 1 meter) can go for about $20-$30, depending on the detail. The day before New Years, you can still find people on the side of the road selling smaller, quickly made ones, which in the end, burn just as well.
My husband and I, along with almost the entirety of Southern Ecuador, decided to spend our New Years in Salinas, the largest beach town in the South. This meant that everywhere you turned you saw people, viejos, and fireworks. Now, I must emphasize that *anyone* can buy any type of firework, which means that every kid in Salinas was able to talk their parents into buying the big one and every kid got a chance to light them on the beach. At about 9 P.M. the explosives start and they don’t end until 1 A.M.
Although I do enjoy the carefully-controlled but awesomely designed fireworks in the U.S., there is something to be said for 4 hours of never-ending light and sound. I was watching this all from an apartment on the 14th floor of a building and fireworks exploded literally right in front of the window.
At one point in time, still from the safety of my 14 stories, I saw a person throw their viejo onto one of the bonfire-piles and run very quickly away. This wasn’t that unusual, but the speed at which he was running made me pause to wonder. About 30 seconds later, I got my answer. He had put one of the large, multi-explosion fireworks into his viejo. He was running because he knew that those fireworks had an equal chance of going off into the sky as into the crowd, and he wasn’t taking his chances with the latter. Ever notice in movies how people always run directly away from their purser (whether it’s a person or fire or whathaveyou) instead of running to side to get out of their line of fire? You always scream at them “run to the side!” but no one does. It seems that people do this in real life too, and even though the firework had a clear trajectory, so that a quick jump to side would have been enough, most people ran backwards in that very line. Despite this, no one got hurt as the firework had a shorter range than most.
The last thing I have yet to mention about this explosive tradition is that Ecuadorians stuff pieces of paper in the viejo right before it puts in the bonfire. These pieces of paper are lists of all the bad things that happened in the previous year that are not to be carried into the next one. Burning the viejo then symbolizes that next year, we get a chance to start with a clean slate.
In the car ride to the beach, I sat and thought about what I wanted to write, and about all the things that I would want to stay in 2012. Come midnight, my Papa Smurf (yep that was my viejo) was set on fire with nothing inside. I realized that although there were many difficult times last year, many fights, and many confusing nights – I learned from every one of them. Every time I learned something more about myself or my relationships and every time things got better. I don’t want to forget that, and in fact, I want to celebrate it and learn from it. From now on, whether or not I’m in Ecuador, I’m going to always strive to have a year where I learn despite the hardships, so that come December 31st, my viejo is always empty.
A very Happy New Year to you all.