Spending holidays outside the United States can be challenging when you are so far away from family and friends, and you have to celebrate without the traditions you are accustomed to. I’ve spent a decent amount of holidays abroad in the past, but I’ve always known that I would be home soon afterwards. Here in Ecuador, it’s different because I don’t have a trip planned back home for a while. Since we’ve arrived in this country, we have celebrated Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Carnaval, Ash Wednesday, and Semana Santa (Holy Week) here.
Obviously, each holiday is celebrated differently. Valentine’s Day was probably the most similar; people still buy their loved ones chocolates and flowers here in Ecuador just like in the US. They also go out to nice dinners, which I got to do with my host family and friends while I was staying in Santo Domingo. However, I did not see one Valentine’s Day card throughout the whole day, which is a huge part of our American tradition for celebrating the holiday.
St. Patrick’s Day was probably the most difficult holiday for me here. I am used to wearing green, going to parades, and celebrating with family and friends. Here, Ecuadorians do not typically celebrate the holiday at all. But don’t worry, I still wore green! I also had the chance to teach some of my host family the American customs for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and I got to celebrate with a beer with some of my Peace Corps friends. While being so far from home was a challenge, I realized that I can still celebrate my Irish heritage here and maybe even teach some new people about it.
As a predominantly Catholic country (90% of Ecuadorians are Catholic), Ash Wednesday and other holy holidays are taken much more seriously here by the general population. For example, almost every person in Nayón (the town I was living in) got ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. I went to the 6:00pm mass with my friend, and there were so many people that the mob in the back of the church spread out onto the street. (Luckily, it is normal for Ecuadorians to show up late, so we were able to get seats when we showed up on time.) The churches here also offer ashes throughout the day since there is such a high demand for them and not everyone can attend the masses at the same times. The service itself and the readings are also the same as in the States, except they are obviously all in Spanish here.
While Ash Wednesday is celebrated similarly here, the days leading up to it are very different. This time period is called Carnaval, and it is one of the biggest Latin-American traditions. Here in Ecuador, there is no school or work on the Monday or Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The celebrations start on Friday night and continue throughout the long weekend. The easiest way to describe it is an extended, more intense Mardi Gras. Everyone spends time with their families and there is a huge amount of espuma (foam spray), water, and eggs. Nowhere is safe on the streets during these four or five days. You are guaranteed to get hit with water, foam, or an egg at least a few times before the celebrations are over. Everyone dresses up in a variety of traditional costumes too. I am glad I got to be a part of this exciting tradition, and I am already looking forward to celebrating again next year!
As I was moving to my new home and also spending time with my new host family the past weekend, this was the first year in my life that I missed Easter mass. I was a little upset about it, but I have been reminded that missing mass does not change anything. Easter is still Easter, and Jesus still rose from the grave.
Furthermore, being able to experience Semana Santa here in Ecuador was an amazing experience. I went to Palm Sunday mass at the little church in Nayón, where hundreds of people brought palms to be blessed. I have also been able to watch the processions pass by on the street from my roof. On any day of Biblical importance, there is always a mass of people proceeding down the street in costumes. On Good Friday in Quito, people dress as Cucuruchos in purple garments and walk down the streets as penance in a procession called Jesús del Gram Poder (Jesus of Great Power). Oftentimes, they also carry crosses or walk barefoot or with chains.
I was also lucky enough to try Fanesca (the traditional Ecuadorian dish for Semana Santa) during the past week. This soup is made of 12 different grains, resembling the 12 Disciples. Due to the religious traditions of not eating meat, it does not contain any. However, it is often served with hard boiled eggs, dough balls, avocados, cheese, and/or mini empanadas. There are many Ecuadorian legends about Fanesca, including one that claims that it originated when people were mourning the death of Jesus and shared all of their grains to make soup together.
Overall, being away from home for the holidays can be tough, but there are also many benefits. Being able to share cultures is an amazing opportunity. I have been able to teach Ecuadorians about American traditions for St. Patrick’s Day, and I have also learned about the Ecuadorian culture surrounding Carnaval and Semana Santa. These festivities are especially great times to embrace our differences and learn from one another. In fact, every day here in Ecuador is both challenging and rewarding simply because it is different than the United States. Even though differences can be scary, they are how we learn best. Life can be so much more rewarding if we talk to the strangers instead of staring at them, and if we hear their stories instead of avoiding them for not matching ours.