Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?


Now izz zee time on Sprockets venn vee READ!


So says one of my favorite David Bowie songs.


Well.  I feel that in the last few years I've gotten quite a lot.   When the Earth had orbited the sun five fewer times than it has today, I was living in Tongariro National Park on the North Island of New Zealand.  Surrounded by volcanoes, rolling green hills, a fascinating cultural mix of peoples, and countless endemic animal and plant species to thrill the senses on every wild excursion.   Now I'm a world away from the smoking craters and uncurling palm fronds of the South Pacific, and yet the marvel of daily life is strangely similar.   Ecuador shares the diversity, the uniqueness, the cultural abundance, and the limitless chance for adventure that I found Down Under, only now I'm speaking Spanish and eating rodent.   My days are again filled with possibilities, and seemingly around every corner there is an opportunity to learn, to do, to taste, to feel, and of course, to just go upstairs and doze through the tropical warmth in my hammock.   Five years ago on December 31 I stayed up late to count down the seconds to the New Year, drinking warm stout beers with friendly strangers at 4,500 feet or so on the side of a volcano and watching the moon rise over the black horizon blood-red from forest fires in Australia.  I spied the moons of Jupiter with a borrowed pair of binoculars.  People took photos of me with their cameras and promised to mail them when they returned from their trips.   I never saw any of the photos and it didn't matter a bit.  The morning of the first day of 2002 I was restless and was up before the sunrise.   I walked over to the East to perch myself on the top of an igneous boulder at the edge of the slope that plummeted a few thousand feet down to the Rangipo Desert and waited for the sun to rise, writing and sketching in my journal.   Behind me the bulk of Mount Tongariro accepted into its Red Crater the white pearl of the setting full moon as the red eye of the sun crept up over the sawtoothed ridge of some mountain range I only remember started with a K (I think).   When my bones were sufficiently warmed I scampered back to the warden's quarters and threw together a day pack.  In the mid afternoon I returned and collapsed onto the bunk, having climbed up past the Emerald Lakes, around the trail-less lip of Red Crater, down into Central Crater, up the solid kilometer scree climb of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films), then back down through the otherworldly blocks and spires and dunes of the Oturere valley.   The last bit was across a thirsty desert of tan-colored pumice sand baking in the Southern Hemisphere sun, feeling every bit as hot as the eruption that created it thousands of years before.   In my Nalgene was ice cold water though, as I'd swiped a scoop of lingering late spring snow from the crater of Ngauruhoe.  Fire and ice.   Cold and heat.  Old and new.


So here I am five years later, still seething like a boiling Rotoruan mud pit to know what's around that next corner of the trail, of the river, of the highway, of life.   I'm never sure what to expect, but I have a good feeling.


New Year's in Ecuador is quite the spectacle.  There is a character referred to here as " El Año Viejo."  (The Old Year)  The folklore is that the old guy is going to die, making way for the New Year.   As far as I can tell, in Zaruma there is no Baby New Year like we have in the States (at least in New Orleans) and all of the energy and focus and fuss is made over the passing of the old year.   The custom here is to make papercraft effigies of people and have them sitting out in front of your house for a few days before January 1.  Some of these are all paper and cardboard and paint, like an elaborate piñata, others are just a painted head put onto a scarecrow's body of stuffed old clothes.   Some have shoes, some have hands holding fake cigarettes, and some have neither.  They look happy for the most part.   That, I suspect, is because they have no idea what's in store for them.


In Zaruma, walking around on December 31, I noticed many groups of people sitting on their porches or in front of their businesses chatting, drinking, and having a good old time with their Años Viejos sitting right there next to them in a chair, grinning stupidly.   It seems that they were giving their old years one last cheerful drunken goodbye before the night's festivities.  As darkness descended over the green slopes of the Andes however, any of these effigies that could have gotten up and run certainly WOULD have, because the time to die was drawing near.  Partiers would gather up their loosely stuffed friends and keep them close to the action.   7pm.  8pm.  9pm.  10pm.  Some of them would calmly place fireworks (illegal but overlooked around here) into the clothes among the torn newspapers or corn husks.  The music would drift or thump or pound from every crevice and misty alleyway of the city.   Each stairwell and window pulsed with the thrum of life, but the rising fever of the night was to celebrate not a life, but a death … of the old year.   Earlier in the day young boys and even some tattooed, liquor-breathed youth would line the roads and hold ropes across the streets to stop traffic.  They asked any passersby for a little ayudita, a little monetary contribution, for the grieving viudas (widows) of the poor dead Año Viejo.  While declining to donate was acceptable, it was met with disappointed frowns from the children and tipsy discontented flicks of the cigarette by the older boys.  All were dressed as women by the way.   Slinky black dresses, with red brassieres peeking out at the shoulders.   High heels on seven year olds.  Lipstick and eye shadow and blush on muscular mustachioed  18 year olds wearing feather boas.  Outrageously colored wigs that would look right at home on Bourbon Street.  In a country absolutely dripping with machismo and patriarchal double standards, here was a day where the testosterone took a back seat and the bizarre spectacle of boys and men running around in spaghetti straps would have brought a tear to Lou Reed's eye.  


Back to the death at hand.  Just a few minutes before midnight the blissfully ignorant effigies were taken from their perches on chairs and benches and curbsides and escorted by their mob of friends and family into the street.   There they were laid down and in most cases, anointed by some manner of flammable liquid.  Then someone with a match or a lighter would send them to their maker (well their maker probably lives in Machala so maybe that's not entirely accurate) while everyone looked on.  People tried not to stand too close because every now and then a firework hidden inside would blow, sending sparks and bits of burning paper and clothing out in an incendiary cloud.   Perhaps the old man wouldn't light very easily, and so groups of industrious children would busy themselves with the morbidly serious task of burning a body in their front yard or driveway or street.   Take the head off, try to get the paint to burn first, use some liquor from grandpa's unattended bottle, remove some stuffing, add some stuffing, throw more fireworks onto the thing… they'd try whatever seemed reasonable until El Año Viejo went up in smoke.   We hugged and wished one another well after the midnight bell had rung.  And then we ate.  I had three dinners that night.   Turkey, seasoned rice, apple and corn and potato salad, chips, and more plastic cups of whisky than I care to remember.  And that's how we did it in Ecuador when 2006 became 2007.  I hope everyone out there had a good time, and best of wishes for you, whatever adventure lies ahead.


Blogger Achim said...

Hi Ben,

happy new year to you as well from cold & rainy Germany. It's always a pleasure to read your blog entries. You should consider creating a book out of them ... ever read anything from Bruce Chatwin? I think you could step into his shoes if you try.


4:20 AM  

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