Getting into the Christmas Spirits: Holiday Chaos in Isinlivi
hygge n. (Danish): The pleasant, genial, and intimate feeling associated with sitting around a fire in the winter with friends.
Before this trip, I had only ever spent one Christmas away from home. In 2014, I traded in my beloved cold, white Montana Christmas for a hot and humid one in Orlando, Florida. The only things that made it all bearable was spending a month with my best friend, Jeffrey. Now, I would be spending another Christmas even farther away from home in the slightly colder but no more snowy Andes Mountains of Ecuador.
We weren’t bothered by it. Maybe it was because neither Chris nor I place much stock in hallmark holidays like Christmas, or perhaps because the concept of home becomes muddled for the traveler, but Isinlivi felt just as much of a holiday home for us as anywhere else. We had become comfortable there, developing habits and traditions of our own. We spent our free time playing cards, either with ourselves or with the guests, creating makeshift workout routines using our climbing webbing and the beams of the farmhouse, and making a commotion with Jenga. We had fallen into a little routine over the week and a half we had been there, just in time for Christmas to shake it all up.
During the week spanning from Christmas Eve to News Years Day, Isinlivi goes from quaint, silent village to a chaotic party in the streets when all those hard-working farmers decide to go on a weeklong bender. According to Eva, the locals look forward to Christmas all year long and it’s the only time of the year where “anything happens in the village”. And “anything”, we discovered, really meant anything. From purely noise-making fireworks that seemed to go off every hour on the hour to random village women wandering the streets offering free liquor to anyone who passed by, we never knew what to expect. The only thing that was consistent was the constant cacophony of noise. All day and all night for the days around Christmas, a parade marched around and around the single square that was Isinlivi, picking up and dropping people as they went. The brass players were always off- tempo and off from each other. I figured they probably never played those instruments except during the week of Christmas. If nothing else, I was impressed that they all didn’t drop from exhaustion.
Since chaos is contagious, the hostel was equally as insane. Starting on Christmas Eve, we were booked solid for days, and still we had walk-ins showing up on our doorstep hoping for a bed that night. None of us could get over the stupidity of people to hike into a mountain village with two hostels on Christmas Eve without a reservation and the expectation of a place to stay. But in good conscious, we couldn’t just turn people away, so we went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate. To paint a picture, in our time preceding that point, we saw an average of maybe 20 guests per night, one night reaching as low as 8 and one as high at 28). On Christmas Eve, we had a whopping 42 guests staying in the hostel. This required us to drag in more tables and chair to the dining room and to shuffle around the room arrangements quite a bit. First, we cleared out a loft above the reception desk overlooking the living room, reachable only by balancing across a wide brick beam, and drug a mattress up there. Christian gave up his semi-private room to stay in a cabana with Eva, owner Christian, and their two kids.
We provided a tent and sleeping bag to one kind Australian man traveling on his own and offered to let him camp on the hostel grounds. Chris and I even ended up agreeing to share our own private room with a late arriving couple, Farhad and Janine. Since we had a decent amount of floor space in our private room, we drug in a spare mattress next to our bed so they might have a place to stay on Christmas Eve. They were so kind and grateful to us, that upon leaving the next day, they left us a bag of their coveted marshmallows (quite difficult to find in Ecuador) after we had discussed how perfect it would be to roast marshmallows on the fire the night before. It wasn’t a traditional Christmas by any means, but that generous holiday spirit and warmth was still the same.
On Christmas Eve, before the chaos of the guest arrival, Christian and Eva organized a giant feast for all of the hostel staff and gave us each little thank you gifts. Chris and I got some delectable dark Ecuadorian chocolate. It was thankfully our one reprieve of the day, as we spent the rest of the evening scrambling about trying to accommodate as many guests as possible. By the time 10pm rolled around, we were exhausted, but we seemed to be the only ones. Everyone else in town was still partying hard and even all the guests were wide awake, drinking and looking forward to the firework show that would be launched off the huge wooden structure they had built on the top of the hill overlooking Isinlivi. Rain had already postponed the firework show and since nothing in Ecuador seemed to happen on time anyway, there was no way we were going to stay awake until who knows when to see them.
Sleep was a tenuous process and the fireworks and blaring trumpets woke us up every few hours. By the time Christmas morning finally rolled around, we hadn’t slept much and somehow seemed worse off than the village that hadn’t slept at all. It was 7:00am and the music was already (or maybe still would be the better word) blasting from the town square. Despite having stayed awake late into the night, the guests were up and out early, hoping to make it to Chugchilan in enough time to get space at the hostels so as to avoid the crisis many had faced the night before at Llullu Llama. As they filtered out, we allowed ourselves to breathe then prepared to do it all over again.
I drew the short scheduling straw and was unluckily stationed at the hostel all day. “Hey Oliver, I know I’m working today, but would you mind keeping an eye on things for like a half an hour during the bullfights so I can just go see Chris fight?”
"Yeah, sure,” he told me.
Chris had been determined to participate in the bullfights ever since he had heard he was allowed to do it, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him kill himself unless I got it on film. The bullfights were scheduled to go off until later that afternoon. During the early part of the day, between check-out and check-in, I decided to walk up to the town square to check out some of the other festivities. Pretty much everyone from the surrounding area had gathered under the open walled Quonset roof to watch the dancing of the local youth. Young girls of the village wore brightly colored dressed and boys wore bright red shirts with furry brown pants, weaving in and out of each other in a less-polished cotillion form. As they performed, clowns dragging around a man dressed as a dog on a leach and other people dressed in creepy masks wandered drunkenly around the perimeter, joking and playing with the crowd. In America, I’m sure such a performance would have been found degrading and offensive, but there everyone was too drunk care.
Eventually, I returned to the hostel in order to catch the incoming guests who should be arriving soon. Chris took his turn away from the hostel to go check out the festivities and the upcoming bullfights. Oliver, who had promised to relieve me, was nowhere to be found. Hours later, Chris returned, beaming heroically from having apparently conquered the bulls. He explained to me how it worked. The bullfights function in rounds. They would call for a group of volunteers, about ten or so men. At first, the officiator seemed hesitant to let the gringo fight, but Chris managed to talk him into it and he quickly became a crowd favorite (though they were probably just as much hoping to see him get gored). Each round, the bull increased in size and ferocity and the fighters could come and go as they pleased. Chris stayed in all the way through the second to last round, but decided not to risk his life with an extremely large, mean looking bull in the finals.
He had already had one close call in an earlier round where a bull drove him onto the side of the fence and head-butted (literally) him directly in the rear. “Those bulls are way more agile than you might think. They can turn so fast, and they know that’s you’re hiding your legs behind the edge of the cloth. They can seriously fuck you up on a dime.”
As Chris regaled me with the story of his surprising and heroic triumph, with a little help from some of the guests who had seen him do it, I found an unsettling feeling overcoming me. This was the first time I had seen Chris really excited about something on the trip. We had faced so much disappointment, so many struggles, and now he finally had something worth telling stories about. And I hadn’t been there to share in it with him. Not that I had any intentions of getting in the arena myself (I’m brave, not stupid), but I wanted to at least see him do it, to witness this strange Christmas tradition that was so unlike anything I had ever experienced. But no. Instead, I got stuck in the hostel because Oliver was too selfish to bear me in mind, even though I had specifically asked to be able to go see the fights that day. I resented him so much in that moment, him and his stupid beard and his stupid British accent and the fact that Maria and Gladys actually liked him. The worst part was that he hadn’t even been at the bullfights himself. He had simply been off on a walk by himself, something he could do and had done dozens of other times during his time at the hostel. Instead, he chose to do it during the one time I had really asked to have a break, the one time I really had something I wanted to do.
Rather than let it all out, I pushed it down, where it would fester until later. I didn’t want to ruin the rest of Christmas, after all. Chris had also brought home a friend from the bullfights. They were bull-brothers, now. His name was Antony and he didn’t speak a word of English, but Chris and I spoke enough broken Spanish to chat with him for a few hours. When our knowledge failed, the two defaulted to using Google translate to converse back and forth. It was actually pretty cute.
By the time all the guests had rolled in that evening, we found ourselves surprised that it was a little less chaotic than the night before. Since Eva, Christian the Greater, and their children had left, sadly taking Christian the Lesser with them, we had entire cabana freed up, and while we still ended up filling every room and the loft above the reception desk, we at least didn’t have roommates again that evening. Things were going smoothly as we skated through the worst of the holiday chaos… until about 2am, that is.
The night was, if possible, even louder than the previous one, even without the firework show. It seemed that the villagers had attempted to stay sober enough that they wouldn’t pass out and get trampled during the bullfights. Now that they were over, however, everyone was going all out, drinking as though the world were ending. They seemed to have mistaken the Christmas spirit for Christmas spirits. The screaming and slurring persisted into the night, jarring us out of our sleep every half hour or so.
Finally, we managed to drift off a bit only to be woken by the thunderous pounding on the downstairs door. We figured it was probably some drunk, as we had been warned that was likely to happen. But then it kept going for near ten minutes. Through the music and other yelling, we heard the muffled words, “Please let us in!” Properly pissed off, Chris and I rose to go tell whoever it was to go away. Oliver had already beaten us to the door and was chatting to three American guys pathetically standing there and begging for a place to stay. Apparently, they had gotten into Sigchos after dark and still thought it was somehow a good idea to push on to Isinlivi. Between the gauges in their ears and their slick undercut haircuts, I could tell they didn’t belong on a backpacking trip and the predicament in which they had found themselves proved that. Only a complete idiot could possibly think it was a good idea to hike ten kilometers in the dark on a trail already difficult enough to navigate in the daylight rather than just stay in one of the many hostels in Sigchos.
All I can say is that they were incredibly lucky it was Oliver who answered the door and not me, because I would have pointed to the grassy flat next to the hostel and callously told them to sleep there. Oliver let them in and told them they could stay on the couches. He immediately regretted his decision; rather than settle right down and go to sleep, they stayed up talking and rustling around, not quietly. Maybe it’s just me, but if someone goes out of their way to let you into a hostel in the middle of the night, even though they have no space and no obligation to do so, one would think the appropriate action would be to thank them and attempt to cause as little further disruption as possible. Not these guys.
All three of us treated them coldly the next morning, and suggested they apologize to the guests at breakfast for causing such a raucous in the middle of the night. Despite they fact that they hadn’t gotten dinner or a real bed, we charged them the full price if no other reason than the inconvenience they had caused not only us, but the other guests who had followed all the rules.
The streets of Isinlivi were finally quiet that morning, silence settling in the chaotic aftermath of the holiday. The flowerpot outside our hostel was shattered and bottled were strewn about the streets. I could practically feel the collective hangover in the air.
For a few days after Christmas, things settled down and returned to somewhat of a normal state, though we still had a slightly increased volume of guests. In that time, we made room for another volunteer. Ana, also from England, was set to be there for a shorter amount of time than any of us. She had pretty much been called in just to help with the holiday chaos, though had arrived too late to really be of much help in that department. Even still, she provided a much needed reprieve for Chris and I. With another set of hands to help, we could redo the schedule such that two of us could actually have two full days off, and would simply rotate those days off between each pair. Ana was very sweet, and best of all, she distracted Oliver from us, which was good because I was still royally pissed off that his selfishness had caused me to miss the one Christmas tradition there I had been looking forward to.
But it got worse. On New Year’s Eve, another set of bullfights were scheduled and I was determined to make these ones. “They’re at 5pm,” Oliver reassured me. Turns out, they weren’t at 5pm. They were at 2pm in a different location down the road to Sigchos and I had once again missed them because of Oliver. In my frustration and rage, I left the hostel in the pouring rain and dark and trudged down the road toward this mysterious new location, determined to catch something of the New Years festivities. After walking several miles along the dark, muddy road, following nothing more than the blaring music in the distance, I gave up, unable to find the party. I was soaking wet and my feet were coated in slick mud to my ankles. As I slogged back in defeat, I cried, allowing my tears to get washed away in the rain, darkness, and self-pity. What an awful holiday season it had been.
Upon returning to the hostel, I stomped past Oliver, jumped straight into a hot slower to remove the mud coating my legs, and went immediately to bed, in absolutely no mood to celebrate. I’ve never exactly cared much for News Years anyway. Personally, I think it’s just an arbitrary day in which people delude themselves into thinking they’ll actually make some sudden change in their life. It’s a day of unkept promises and a serious flawed vision of change. Change is gradual. It doesn’t happen in a night or on the drop of a ball. The last year of my life had been nothing but change; I had gotten my heart broke, graduated college, gotten into a long term relationship, moved away from home, and spent five months living out of either a car or backpack. That was real change. My new year had started long ago and the changing of one digit just seemed arbitrary now. It was a small comfort to the disappointments I had faced over the last week. My New Year’s celebration consisted of going to bed at 9pm and when midnight came and the hostel noise woke us both up, we sleepily mumbled, “Happy New Year,” and passed back out.