In all honesty, the older I get the less interested I am in wild revelry on New Year’s Eve. Full disclosure, I have also become one of those people who turns off all the lights and pretends I am not home on Halloween now that my own children are grown. But, I kind of figured I should find out how the locals ring in the new year.
Al and I pulled up our shallow roots in Cuenca, where we had been living for five weeks, and made our way to Loja on the afternoon of December 30th. That did not give us much time to orient ourselves to a new town before the last night of the year but we did what we always do when we arrive somewhere new and started exploring on foot. We walked for hours, covering the city streets and into the surrounding hills, getting a lay of the land. Loja, like Cuenca, is a mountain town nestled in a high altitude valley and surrounded by verdant mountains on all sides. Geographically Loja is about seven times larger than Newton (where we lived in Massachusetts) and has more than double the population. It has the feel of a developing nation city with many buildings in a state of permanent partial build, rough roads, and livestock living amongst the people. That said, the tap water is safe to drink, there is a good public bus system and plenty of city conveniences. But back to New Year’s Eve.
I learned from my Ecuadorian Spanish language teacher in Cuenca that there are many customs practiced for the new year here. For example, women wear special lingerie on the night of the 31st – something red to attract good romance for the coming year and something yellow to attract wealth. Many people place money in their right shoe as another way to ensure a prosperous year ahead. Both men and women bathe in herb and floral infused water. The plants chosen represent what you hope to have in the coming year. She told me that you might see people walking around their neighborhood toting luggage during the night in the hopes that it brings one good travel juju and adventure.
Ecuadorians have adopted the Spaniards’ practice of eating twelve grapes (or cherries, if grapes are hard to come by) at midnight. According to the All-Knowing Web, “the 12 Grapes of Luck (las doce uvas de la suerte) is a Spanish tradition that consists of eating a grape with each of the twelve clock bell strikes at midnight of December 31 to welcome the New Year. Each grape and clock bell strike represents each of the coming twelve months.” I gather that kissing your loved one or the person who happens to be standing closest to you at the stroke of midnight is just not a thing here. I guess that is fortunate since it might be challenging to kiss someone with both your mouths stuffed with grapes.
There are two other regional traditions we saw plenty of: the viudas (widows) and the manigotes or año viejos (Old Year dolls). The viudas are men dressed in drag, oftentimes with large balloons on their backsides and chests, under their clothing, to exaggerate the female form. On New Year’s Eve they head out to the streets where they block drivers’ cars, make lewd and sexual motions and forbid the drivers from passing until they have given the so-called widows a little plata (cash) for permission to drive on. Al and I started to see examples of the viudas around Cuenca starting in the days preceding Christmas, mostly just parading about town, and continuing through the night of the 31st here in Loja.
Manigotes are doll-size to life-size human figures made from stuffing old clothing, much like our scarecrows in the States, with sawdust, shredded paper and firecrackers, or formed with papier maché. Along with these combustibles, people put pieces of paper inside on which they have written their hopes and wishes for change. If, for example, their year has been plagued with ill health they may write how they want it to be better for the coming year.
The manigotes wear a mask of some popular, famous or infamous figure (think SpongeBob, Ecuadorian president Lasso or Donald Trump) and at midnight every family heads outside to set their effigy on fire. Imagine the sight, smell and sound of all those figures exploding and burning at once throughout the city! Once the fire has died down a bit, the family members jump over the remains twelve times for good luck.
Al and I went for a stroll through the center of Loja at around 9:00 p.m. in search of New Year’s revelers. We were surprised at the lack of action in the streets, although perhaps we shouldn’t have been, because Covid restrictions and precautions are real here, and pretty universally followed. Beyond a few small clusters of young friends sharing drinks, a group of tween girls making Tik Tok videos, and some drunk viudas interfering with the few cars out and about, the streets were pretty quiet. We walked down one side street between the main plaza and the river and passed street vendors desperately trying to sell off the last of their sparklers and firecrackers as well as one man with piles of lacy, yellow panties for sale for one dollar each. Aside from that, only a hairdresser’s shop with clients and a couple of fruit and vegetable stores with no customers were open. We could hear music thumping from a few discos and the occasional burst of firecrackers but otherwise the partying seemed to be confined to people’s private spaces.
At about 10:30 I stuffed ear plugs in my ears, took a melatonin and settled into bed. At midnight I woke to the sound of fireworks and horns blaring but it ended pretty quickly. Al was awake and looked out from our balcony—which has a panoramic view of the city—but all he saw was smoke hovering low in pockets among the buildings. Close behind our apartment, there was a loud party with a DJ blasting cumbia and Latin American pop music that finally went quiet toward dawn. Now, on the first morning of 2022, the city is tranquil save for the ever-present barking of the dogs and the occasional earworm jingle of the propane delivery trucks.
Later today we will head out for another walk through the city to see the aftermath of New Year’s Eve. I am curious what we will find in our future travels, in different countries and hopefully in a post-pandemic era. However you celebrated the end of 2021 and the start of 2022, I hope you enjoyed yourself. May the coming year bring you abundant joy, health, riches and love. Feliz año nuevo.