This happened two days ago. You know that Facebook feature that randomly posts photos of your past life? Facebook posted this. This actually happened six years ago and it made me laugh as hard two days ago as it did when Patch Adams (that’s him on the right in the photo) and his merry band of clowns tried to kidnap me in Ecuador. When I didn’t go willingly they insisted on a group nose-picking pose.
It happened because I was traveling with my peregrine son through Ecuador which found us passing through Quito for an overnight stay three times during the trip. We stayed in the Mariscal area, a touristy but easy place to find cheap food, a good latte and information from fellow travelers. It also had La Casa Sol, an inexpensive guest house that let us safely leave bags of non-usable stuff as we ventured on multi-day trips that took us from the tropical jungle to the chilly mountains. When we arrived the last time late at night after a day long bus ride, the guesthouse was filled with clowns. Lots of them. Uber enthusiastic, red-nosed, horn-honking clowns. My peregrine son looked about and announced he was leaving to find another hostel. I stayed. I was too tired and too curious.
It turned out my charming hostel was hosting a Go!Clown mission, part of Patch Adam’s global outreach program at his Geshundheit Institute. I’d seen the 1998 movie based on his life starring Robin Wlliams so I knew something about the back story. But when you’ve just come out of a week in the remote Amazon jungle to discover you’re the only non-clown in a hostel full of them (always in costume and character….always!) it requires some re-entry time no matter how famous the sponsor. Which is what I was doing the following morning contemplatively sipping my coffee in the breakfast room when blown soap bubbles landed in my cup. I moved over a chair to let three clowns join me and sat on a whoopee cushion. I had inadvertently become an audience of one for their rehearsal of the day’s activities. What I discovered in between their magic tricks and making of balloon animals was that the group was headed to the Quito Womens’ Prison for the day to bring joy and happiness to the inmates. Later that afternoon I happened upon them on the main drag of touristy Mariscal performing for confounded backpackers. And even later in the evening in the sitting area just outside my room earnestly debriefing the day under the guidance of Patch Adams himself using the Institute’s educational philosophy about problem solving. And that is when I quit being disgruntled that I was surrounded by constant clowns. This was a volunteer humanitarian mission born out of a philosophy that spontaneous play in sad places (prisons, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, places that have been ravaged by civil war and trauma) incrementally heals the mind and body.
The next morning Hunter “Patch” Adams wandered into the breakfast room before the rest of his volunteers and I had a chance to meet the person underneath the clown costume. The 1998 movie never did produce the dream he had when he allowed the rights to his life and mission to be made into a movie. He wanted enough attention and funding to let him build a hospital that implemented his model of medical therapy on the 300 acre West Virginia Geshundheit Institute. He wanted the Go!Clown missions, which were annually in Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and Russia to expand to other countries despite the fact that he was already traveling 300 days a year doing lectures and leading the missions. And he had a new idea – to include traumatized U.S. military veterans on the clown missions to provide a healing opportunity for them.
The rest of the exuberant clowns honked, tooted and danced into the breakfast room to leave for their day’s work at two Quito hospitals. They tried to get me to join them but we had a flight home that morning and so the photo op happened. Two days ago when Facebook memory prompted me, I checked the Geshundheit Institute website. He’s still fundraising for that hospital. He’s taking Go!Clown missions to other countries. And last year a group of military veterans donned clown costumes and joined a mission.
A theme is emerging in my December posts about how the Christmas holidays are celebrated elsewhere. Right below my Halloween birthday, the holiday season around Christmas ranks second on my list of favorite celebrations. Sometimes I’m home for Poulsbo’s very Scandinavian December and sometimes I like to venture further afield as I did here and here to experience the festivities elsewhere. It’s interesting how religion often shapes the most exuberantly celebrated days of the Christmas season, particularly in Catholic majority countries. In Ecuador, its Christmas Eve Day. While here at home, December 24th is filled with last minute shopping and the opening of gifts, Ecuador celebrates Christmas Eve with Pase del Nino, a religious procession from the neighborhoods to a central church or plaza in the city in honor of the birth of Jesus . The day culminates at Misa de Gallo, midnight mass or literally translated as Rooster Mass.
In Cuenca, Ecuador where I landed for a Christmas, the celebration is called Nino Viajero, “the traveler child”. It’s an all day colorful procession with 50,000 participants from Cuenca and the surrounding villages and over 200,000 spectators whose route passed the hostel we were staying in allowing a close street view of everything. Cuenca claims it is the largest Pase del Nino in all of Latin America. We (my peregrine son and I) got up early for the 10AM parade start assuming it was something akin to parades back home where people stake out spots early on the parade route. We hung out alone for a couple of hours. The crowd showed up just in advance of the procession.
The pase had women and girls in colorful dresses and elaborate hats riding horses, often adorned in their own equine finery.
Everywhere there were beautiful children dressed as shepherds and angels, some in the procession and others watching with us on the street.
There were Santa Clauses and dancers. Also lively brass bands. The procession is a combination of Catholic and indigenous traditions and has lately been heavily influenced by media. There have been years when costumed cartoon characters are part of the parade.
And there were food offerings – whole stuffed pigs, slabs of beef, whole roasted chickens and fruit and vegetables adorning floats.
The parade accompanies an 1823 statue of Jesus, the traveling child. Unique to Cuenca, their statue of the Christ child was taken to Bethlehem and to Rome for the blessing of the Pope in 1961 and has since been called the traveling child. The parade ends beyond a park in the central part of Cuenca late in the afternoon giving both participants and spectators a chance to go home to prepare for Rooster Mass.