Las Fiestas de Quito En Shanghai, Proudly Ecuadorian
The very last place I would ever expect to celebrate a national Ecuadorian holiday would be in China. Let alone be in a South American restaurant, eating South American delicacies and being surrounded by familiar dialects from a tiny north western Latin American country.
Three bold blue coloured balloons attached to white plastic sticks clung next to the bamboo fenced entrance. The restaurant’s sign read ‘Ceviche’ – a popular Latin American seafood dish – and the decorative balloons were branded with the unmistakable Ecuadorian tourism logo. With no official Ecuadorian eatery established (yet) in Shanghai, the Consulate General Office of Ecuador chose a Peruvian outlet to host its event to celebrate the Fiestas de Quito. The occasion marks the founding of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, in 1534. Alhthough December 6th is the official date, traditionally a week long of activities would include lots of drinking, bullfights and fiercely-fought rounds of the national card game cuarenta (‘forty’).There were certainly no bullfights, not a lot of heavy drinking but the entire afternoon was dedicated to Shanghai’s first ever cuarenta championship. How I even ended up receiving a personal invite to the event showed the closeness of the Latin American community residing in Shanghai. It had only been three weeks earlier and through a mutual friend from Honduras I was introduced to María Gabriela Fernández (Gaby) who just happened to work at the Ecuadorian Consulate.
Immediately latching on to the fact that I was from Ecuador, I got a text followed by an email for me to join other fellow Ecuadorians in Shanghai for a day of national pride. Apart from one other good friend from Quito (who incidentally has now moved to Guangzhou in south China) – my path had never crossed with others from my homeland.Ushering us in from the cold, host Gaby was efficiently pre-checking her checklist of food, music and games items. Ceviche’s décor was distinctively Peruvian with paintings showing Andean imagery, not unlike what you’d see in places like Ecuador’s famed Indian market Otavalo. Sitting down to glasses of freshly made limonada – a Latin American lime drink, the feeling of nostalgia was unstoppable as melancholic songs like from one of Ecuador’s iconic singers, the late Julio Jaramillo, were playing.
It is estimated that there are about 55 Ecuadorians living in Shanghai and out of that, 25 odd were present that afternoon. Those were the few precious needless plucked out of a hay stack of millions. To put it in perspective, Ecuador’s total country population of 14.5 million doesn’t even come close to Shanghai’s city of 24 million residents. So it was to be expected that practically everyone had met everyone else before – except for the newbies Lezil and myself.
And the inevitable happened. Yours truly with my white, more British-looking face, as opposed to Lezil’s more tanned, exotic appearance had everyone assuming that Lezil was the compatriot and I was the foreigner husband tagging along. Chatting with Ecuador’s Consul General Jorge Hidalgo who, upon hearing my naturally-tinged serrano Spanish accent, said that he had thought that Lezil was “one of us”. He then switched over to English looked Lezil square in the eyes, gesturing towards me, and said, “Please look after him. He is one of our country’s assets…”.It’s not every day you hear a remark from someone who is representing your nationality in a colossal Asian country in a way that truly makes you feel proud of your heritage. Señor Hidalgo wasn’t the only diplomat in attendance that afternoon. Jackie Eldan, the Consul General for Israel, came with his wife, an Ecuadorian national from Quito, and their two adorable children. These two kids are what I would call, global identities. With their fascinating Israeli/Ecuadorian mix, already at such a young age they have managed to master four languages: Hebrew, Spanish, English and Mandarin.
Standing in the middle of the cosy restaurant the Eldan kids were in obvious Ecuadorian mode dressed in traditional attire. The young girl was later crowned queen in a mock La Reina de Quito ceremony, a take on the actual beauty pageant which happens annually in Ecuador. I had to keep peeping outside the door towards the busy Shanghai high street to remind myself that this indeed was still China. Local Ecuadorian slang like que bestia and de ley peppered people’s banter as we spoke about our families in various cities like Guayaquil, Cuenca, Riobamba, Ambato and of course the capital itself.Bottles of imported Cristal – an Ecuadorian fermented liquor drink made from sugar cane – were used to make a cocktail called ‘Cristal Sour’ (essentially Cristal and lime juice). Appetising dishes of ceviche, empanadas de carne (meat patties) and mini orange tarts just kept coming. Each table also had a good helping of chifles (plantain chips) which is now being imported into China, thanks to a young Ecuadorian entrepreneur living in Shanghai. That, I have to admit, made my day. Plantain is non-existent in shops and so the luxury of being able to feast on a snack that I grew up with on the streets of Quito was an utter treat.
Gaby announced the start of China’s first official cuarenta card competition (all very grand sounding). Everyone paired up. I was with Lezil and we went up against Carlos and Jaime who had some considerable card-playing experience as opposed to Lezil the complete novice and myself who could barely remember the rules. After a couple of test runs, we started the game in earnest and by some fluke Team Freeman got off to a blazing start. In a nutshell, the first pair to amass 40 points wins – hence the name of the game ‘cuarenta’ (forty).It was a fluid succession of caídas (card sweeps) for Lezil and I as we stormed to a surprise victory of 40-22. We eventually reached the semi-finals but were convincingly beaten by a couple of young chicas who might as well have been seasoned pros. In the end, the winners turned out to be the Consulate General himself, Jorge Hiraldo, and another young quiteña.
I long for the day to take Lezil to Ecuador to introduce her to my huge family and to experience the incredible diversity of the land and culture. But as a one-day teaser, the Ecuadorian Consulate did me proud in embracing my South African wife so warmly and showing just how life-loving and hospitable Latinos are. So proud of mi gente Ecuatoriana (my Ecuadorian people).