Banos, Ecuador is a tourist village at the base of a rather large volcano called Tungurahua. It’s not far from Cuenca, a major city and college town, and it’s considered the adventure-sport capital of Ecuador. European and North American backpackers are everywhere, as are Ecuadorians on vacation.
It’s a place you go to try new things, be it rappelling, whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, or competing in salsa dancing competitions with drag queens. Some of these activities are slightly more advertised than others.
The hostel I was at was full of young travelers like myself. After playing a few game of Kings (a drinking game), I and the other guys at our hostel wondered to a bar not far down the street where we were supposed to meet a group of American girls who were studying abroad in Cuenca and were in Banos on vacation. We met them in the street in front of the bar, doing our best to not betray what an amazingly efficient inebriater Kings is. It was a fairly busy street, in a fairly busy part of town, so we didn’t think it was that unusual when a huge white pick-up truck, with its bed full of people, stopped in front of us.
A smaller man with bad teeth jumped off the back of the truck. I could see instruments tucked between several of the bodies, some stringed, some percussion.
We told him yes, mostly. I explained where everyone was from, which included the not very specific “Scandanavia somewhere” when describing the homeland of my friend Magnus. Language was not very precise at this point, and it was only going to get cloudier.
He invited us to a party. His English was good, if not great. The whole town would be there, he assured us. Dancing, beautiful women, una fiesta grande. He assured us there would be room in the truck, and that it wasn’t far. The few of us listening to him the most intently looked at each other. We all shrugged. Sure, why not?
We somehow managed to get everybody in the back of the pick-up; I am convinced that the physics of vehicle occupancy is different in the third world. The Ecuadorians handed us instruments that none of us knew how to play. The truck blasted Spanish music as we moved away from the center of town. At first I kept an eye on where we were going, but eventually the music, the loud strumming on bizarre stringed instruments and banging on hand drums (as well as the bottle of rum being passed around) totally won me over. I was yelling Spanish gibberish off-key while using some kind of ukelele as a drum.
We stopped in front of a gymnasium on a dirt road. Our new friend hadn’t lied about the size of the party; there were cars and motorbikes parked everywhere out front. He hurried us into the gymnasium, which was packed, and quickly took us backstage.
“I need the men,” he said, and we stepped forward, reporting for duty like an army platoon or an offensive line. There were four of us. “See? Beautiful girls!” he pointed at the stage. There were four women, certainly dressed extravagantly, standing in the half-posing way of beauty queens on stage. There was a voice over a loudspeaker that I couldn’t understand, but I could tell it was getting the crowd fired up.
“Go! Go! Choose a girl!” he said to us, and pushed us on stage. We walked on stage, bewildered, and the crowd began to cheer. I approached one of the women. She was tall, with lots of make-up, a big smile, even bigger hands, and yes, an Adam’s apple. These were dudes.
Salsa music suddenly ripped through the gymnasium. My drag queen grabbed my hands and I realized very quickly that I was in a dance off. Now, my salsa is bad enough that I would have been embarrassed dancing salsa on stage in front of hundreds of people with a real beautiful woman. The thing about the drag queen was that he didn’t seem to know how to follow, and of course, neither did I. But I gave it my best, with lots of out-of-time foot flourishes, and my favorite move when fumbling through salsa, just spinning my partner around over and over. It turns out spinning your partner is a bit more difficult when your partner has three inches and forty pounds on you. But we made it work. We seemed to be getting a lot of laughs, which I supposed was good. I assumed no one on stage was being very graceful.
The music stopped and the applause was impressive. The emcee came out and, from what I could tell, asked the audience to applaud each contestant, one at a time, to determine the winner. We won second place, which was obviously totally incorrect — perhaps the result of a conspiracy against me and “Maria.” Lots of photos were taken with the winners, and we walked off the stage. The American girls had the watery-eyed, red-cheeked look of people who have just recovered from a violent laughing attack.
“Beautiful women, yes?” our friend asked.
I laughed and nodded. As far as scams on unsuspecting gringos go, this was about as good a one as you could hope to find yourself fooled by.