May 5, 2004
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Andean Adventure

February 23, 1998

We took to the streets with
our water balloons
Carnival, an outrageous outpouring of energy and exuberant human excess. Naked bodies spiral through a tangle of sweaty flesh; sequined costumes flash; revelers scream: "It's Carnival!"

At least that's how I imagine the scene in Rio de Janiero. Here in Ecuador it's another story. "Water, water and more water," is how a friend described the local approach to Carnival. Squirt guns, balloons, buckets, and water canons — anything goes in the publicly sanctioned right to douse every unsuspecting passerby. There's still a week to go and errant teenagers are tossing giggling girls into the neighborhood fountain.

Needing a break from Quito and apprehensive of the approaching mayhem, we escaped again to the jungle. An eight-hour bus ride over the 15,000-foot crest of the Andes brought us to the bosom of the Amazon — the Rio Aguarico and the Cuyabeno Reserve, some of the most pristine rainforest in Ecuador.

Unfortunately, the town of Lago Agrio abutting the reserve is home to the world's oil giants. Discovery of black gold in 1967 led to a nationwide oil boom and transformed Ecuador's economy forever. Oil interests and rainforest ecology make a precarious mix; inevitable conflicts have shaped Lago Agrio as an aggressive giant on the edge of a threatened wilderness.

The town's character is reflected in its approach to Carnival. We see shoe shine boys diligently transferring the contents of their oil cans, preparing for their next victim.

Fearing the worst in my white button-down shirt, we head to the back streets. Suddenly a crash of water and Nancy's shriek. Laughter breaks from the sky and we see two men with buckets leaning off a three-story building. We shelter in the courtyard of a hostel where one of the guests offers to sell us a baby jaguar for $70. Its pale blue eyes flash wild in the midday sun; its speckled belly is soft like new hair.

Back on the streets we find that it's impossible to hide and soon we're dragging our soaked skins to the nearest squirt gun dealer. We also buy a sack of balloons and thus armed head off to the nearest alley to load. We take turns at the faucet with the neighborhood kids exchanging complicit looks as we ready our armadas.

But out on the street it's a different story. I have trouble mustering the lack of regard to pelt an innocent bystander. Perhaps there is an implicit code of conduct governing acceptable targets. No one looks like they want to be hit. I fear the wrath brought about from soaking an unwilling participant. Instead, I befriend a young waif to act as my war counsel. I supply his artillery and watch as he pegs one person after another. Passengers on open-sided jungle buses are ideal targets. So too is a passing cyclist doubling his girlfriend and a middle-aged woman in Sunday best. "Carnival!" he shrieks as she shakes a scolding finger. He is without remorse.

Finally, it comes time for us to depart. We load our weeks supplies on to the roof of our bus and people crawl in through the sides. The engine starts and I see my little friend sizing up our group. I react first with he reckless disregard he has taught me and my missile explodes in a burst of water across his startled face. He looks up at me, smiling through a watery mask, a scrap of balloon still sticking to his forehead.

"Carnival!" I yell as we pull away.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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