Birthday Celebration, Kichwa-Style

I am visiting Edmundo Salazar’s and Irene Mamallakta’s home in Rukullakta, in Ecuador’s Napo province, for the birthday celebration of my friend, Chris Jarrett.  Chris is an anthropology student living with Edmundo and Irene.  Rukullakta, located in Ecuador’s Oriente (Amazonian region), is a Kichwa word that means “old village.”

The festivities get started around seven PM in the meeting house.  There are about thirty people sitting on benches around the perimeter, mostly people from the community, dressed semi-formally, the men in long pants, clean shirts, some of the women in dresses, others in pants and blouses, talking quietly, many of the men smoking cigarettes.  Kichwa pop and cumbia play from Edmundo’s huge speakers but not too loudly.  Some people stand outside, as if not quite comfortable or ready to enter.  Children run around laughing and playing.

The first serving of guarapo, a type of chicha (a fermented beverage made by the women) with the addition of ripe plantain, is passed around in pilches (large round dried seed pods cut in half) by women in traditional dresses, some with faces painted with vegetable dye, bracelets and necklaces made from different sorts of beans and seeds.  I receive the offered guarapo from a friendly woman with a “pagarachu” (thank you) and take a good deep drink, draining the pilche, as is the custom, everyone watching and smiling as I swallow the beige, sweet, thick liquid swimming with small pieces of yuca and plantain.

More guarapo comes around followed by chicha and I am feeling an energy I hadn’t before, a pleasant buzzing of the cheeks along with a kind of elevated sensation, as if my neck were an inch or so longer.  People are smiling and so am I, nodding at Kichwa I have seen before and some I have not.  A somber but attractive middle-aged woman whom I know from around the village comes in with her husband, a very friendly guy, and they sit next to me, saying hello.  Carlos and Maria, Edmundo’s parents and respected village elders, arrive, greeting me warmly.  There is a nice feeling in the room, no doubt helped by the generous offerings of chicha and guarapo, but the Kichwa love gatherings and parties and are interested in seeing Chris’s birthday celebrated in the traditional way, knowing he is in for a lot of good natured thrashing.  The odd, apparently universal custom of being spanked once for every year of your existence is observed in Kichwa culture as well, with particular if harmless sadism involving not only hearty smacks on the ass but also a whipping on the back with hortiga, a plant in the nettle family.

There is an interesting relationship to physical pain in Kichwa culture.  Ordinary and often not so ordinary mishaps, bumps and bruises are laughed at by both victims and observers, as if an essential, ongoing lesson in toughness, though if the accident is serious there is no laughter but instead commensurate concern and response.  This morning as I was standing at the table in Carlos’s and Maria’s choza helping with the food, two children were playing roughly and, I felt, dangerously, in a hammock and sure enough one fell out, landing hard on his back.  Hurt and stunned, the boy, about six, clearly wanted to cry.  For a moment everyone, including the girl he was playing with, looked to see if he was okay.  As there was no apparent concussion, blood or broken bones everyone started to laugh and so did he.  I have seen this several times.  But there is a line, when crossed, where empathy and care come to the fore, and I have seen this too.

After the third or fourth round of guarapo and chicha some women in traditional garb come out with the locro that has been cooking much of the day, the thick soup filled with chicken, yuca and vegetables and everyone gets down to business.  The soup finished, the women circulate again, this time with dinner, served on large, broad leaves, each aesthetic offering resplendent with a large piece of fish and a generous helping of rice.  There is a wonderful grace, dignity and humor in the women’s manner, very colorful in their dresses, making every effort to see that all are well provided for, the guests responding with politeness and enthusiasm.  There is an air of anticipation surrounding the evening’s festivities and Chris is in a happy mood, the center of attention, sitting with his girlfriend, Janet, at last with a moment’s respite after the work she has been doing all day.  When the meal is finished the women collect the leaves, plastic utensils and food scraps and deposit them in plastic garbage cans.

It is time for the birthday boy’s celebration and punishment and dignitaries gather in the middle of the room to make speeches and conduct the ritual.  Carlos begins with some words in Spanish and a blessing in Kichwa, but before that he has presented a few people with ceremonial necklaces made of colorful beans and I am pleased and flattered to be one of the recipients.  Others present their testimonials to Chris, followed by the young man himself with a short speech.  Carlos sits him down and presents him with necklaces and small handmade ceremonial items.  There is a gleeful anticipatory tension in the room, with some calling out and making jokes at Chris’s expense.

Now it is time.  One of the larger young men is summoned and Chris is instructed to jump on his back, which he does self-consciously and a bit awkwardly, but smiling also, as he must, but what follows will be done with affection and fun, without the slightest hint of malice.  With portentous flair Edmundo removes his belt, a black leather strap with a chrome buckle, and doubles it over.  The crowd laughs and hoots as the man carrying Chris, a strong guy with thick black hair, bends over with Chris on his back.  Chris, his clothed and vulnerable rump exposed to the crowd, laughs and jabbers in Spanish, a broad smile on his bright, crimson face.  There will be 23 blows delivered by 23 people.  Edmundo delivers the first with a huge windup and gentle slap that causes laughter and much good-natured urging for harder blows.  Twenty-two others follow, males and females, each in his or her own fashion, the males tending to hit harder and with more flair.  I deliver my smack with as much fanfare as I can muster.  With their turns the teenage girls giggle self-consciously and get it over with quickly.

I imagine Chris’s ass a little sore but this is only the first part of the birthday beating, the lashing with the hortiga branch next, the onlookers, their appetites whetted, eager for the more traditional punishment with the stinging nettles.  The green, nasty-looking branch is revealed, brandished by a smiling Carlos.  Chris’s smile is broader, his face, if possible, even redder.  The people in the room are shouting and laughing.  The guy holding Chris is getting tired and with a little jump hoists him farther up on his back.  Carlos rolls up Chris’s shirt exposing skin and everyone hoots and hollers.  Carlos bends over, makes a show of examining Chris’s back, smiles, makes a comment, raises his arm and comes down with a soft blow that disappoints everybody.  This crowd is out for pain, or at least some good welts.  Edmundo takes the branch from Carlos and gives a sound whack that causes the birthday boy to yell out, more to please the crowd, I think, because I doubt it hurt that much, but then, after 21 more, it might be different.  As with the belt everyone takes turns and when I deliver mine I see that Chris’s back is red with a network of raised lines, but he’s laughing.  The hortiga branch is in worse condition than Chris’s back, sad, limp and oozing fluid.

At last the ritual is done.  The guy lets Chris down and stretches.  People come over and examine Chris’s back.  Janet gives him a hug.  He is laughing and talking like mad, takes a long gulp of guarapo from an offered pilche.  Someone cranks on the music. People start dancing, Kichwa, townies, Chris and Janet.  A lot of people are smoking.  I am sitting next to a young Kichwa man of about 20 with a shy but inquisitive manner and we have a halting, friendly conversation.  The music blasts.  He offers me a cigarette and I accept.  The last of the guarapo comes around but there is still plenty of chicha.  The music is Kichwa pop, cumbia, salsa, with some reggaeton for spice.  A young man with long black hair and a yellow soccer shirt is the dj.  The Kichwa music is sweet, rhythmic and innocent.

The floor is full of dancers and I am damned if I am just going to sit.  I get up and go over to the solemn, attractive middle-aged woman whom I know and take her (gently) by the hand out to the floor.  She is distracted and unhappy-looking, only once or twice acknowledging my friendliness and then fleetingly, with the barest of forced smiles.  After the song she retreats quickly to her seat and waiting bottle of beer.  Her husband is talking to some friends and nods to me when I return with his wife.

The Kichwa style of dance is consistent with the music, a sort of gentle up and down with little pelvic action.  It is a kind of throwback happy style I find exceptionally charming, the joy of dancing with only the barest intimations of later stops along the continuum, though as the night progresses things will change.  For now this is still a birthday party, a family affair, not some bacchanalian mash.

I had decided earlier that if I got the chance I would dance with Maria, Carlos’s wife, and now I go over.  She gets up in her colorful dress with a broad semi-toothless smile creasing her beautiful brown face marked with geometric lines of vegetable dye and we dance in the signature gentle rhythmic up and down style favored by the majority, adhering to a certain decorum, though there is nothing prudish or inhibited about these people.  The older tend to dance this way and I am perfectly comfortable, feeling no pressure to display my sexy moves or dispel gringo stereotypes.  The younger couples dance more sensually and aggressively, naturally enough, and when the reggaeton comes on Chris and Janet get right into their thing, dancing perreo style, a level beyond everyone else.  I wonder what people think about this, though no one seems to pay the slightest attention.

After we finish, Maria sits down rather abruptly and I am left to briefly ponder the gulf between us, between cultures, personalities, and again the impediment resulting from my lack of fluency.  Irene, Edmundo’s wife, has not been around but now she appears, emanating an aggressive, sexual energy, obviously a bit high, though with her I am beginning to understand it could be nothing more (or less) than a swing in her mood.  She is wearing tight jeans and an orange jersey and gets right into the dancing, switching partners and flirting openly with the men, Edmundo aware of her, apparently unconcerned, this obviously an old routine.  Not for the first time I wonder if Irene’s sexual posturing has gone beyond mere flirtation.  Edmundo is much more agreeable, stable and gentle than she, and much wiser too, seeming to tolerate her behavior with the perspective of an older brother, though certainly she has caused him considerable pain.  Irene has always been a little reserved around me but now she comes up and asks me to dance and, swept up in her energy, I dance more aggressively myself, an occasional glance at Edmundo, who is drinking beer and talking with the dj.  The music stops and there is a slight awkward moment but Irene’s attention is captured by something else and she is gone before I can say anything in my fourth-grade Spanish.  I am left standing alone.

The music starts in and surprisingly, Jennifer, Edmundo’s and Irene’s oldest daughter, asks me to dance, though her manner is self conscious and I get the feeling she has been put up to it by someone in the family.  But I am glad she has asked and I feel more or less part of the proceedings.  Though Jennifer disappears quickly when the music ends another Kichwa female, a woman in her thirties and pretty damned sexy, requests a dance and I am pleased and full of illicit thoughts, but she too filters away after the music.

It is getting late and the intensity of the music and dancing increases, the elders merging into the darkness and disappearing.  Carlos and Maria are gone.  It is around 11.  A Kichwa woman I have never seen before is dancing with inebriated abandon.  She is in her late thirties or early forties, good-looking.  Others are getting into it too, drinking more, a bottle of aguardiente passed around, voices raised, much laughter.  Chris has told me some Kichwa will party until sunrise, which means seven or more hours of this.  I am thinking about sleep, slipping away over to Edmundo’s and Irene’s house, shutting myself in.  A different bunch has displaced the earlier crowd, noisier, drinking, shouting.  Chris and Janet appear and disappear, dancing crazy perreo then suddenly going off again.  I keep looking at the new wild woman, trying to be discreet.  My somber dance partner is drinking beer and laughing but then she and her husband abruptly leave.  Only the hard core remains.  This is not my scene, even if I don’t feel at all uncomfortable.

I wait a few more minutes sitting and watching, then exit the building, walking carefully in the dark, the noise and laughter echoing behind me.  Edmundo’s and Irene’s little blue house is nearby, on the other side of the dirt road.  Thankfully the door is unlocked.  No one is home.  There is a dim light on in the living room. I go into my cinder block room, close the door and lie in the dark on the moldy mattress listening to the music and faint bursts of shouting and laughter.  It is not too bad and I figure I will be able to get some sleep, which I do, but about an hour later I am awakened by the music turned full volume crashing out of Edmundo’s huge speakers, reverberating throughout the village as if some rock concert in a soccer stadium.  I resign myself to a sleepless night but can at least appreciate the unusual circumstances, though after a while the music, the laughter, the drunken shouts sound like any other wild party and I wish it would go away.

There are periodic lulls that last for 10 or 15 minutes and with each I drift off, thinking at last it is over but then everything starts in again louder and crazier than ever.  I try to visualize just what these wild Kichwa are doing, wondering if Chris and Janet are in there dancing too, wondering about Irene, wondering what happens during those brief quiet moments.  I have accepted the reality of an all-night Kichwa party but cling to the faint hope that maybe it will end sooner than usual, but I suspect it won’t.

Then everything goes quiet.  I hear people walking around, calling to each other, laughing, voices receding, the sounds of a party winding down, tired people going home at an eminently sensible hour, about 4 AM, which, under the circumstances, gives rise to a pleasant sense of well-being.  At least I will be getting three or four hours sleep as compared to the possibility of one, or maybe none.

Comforted, I drift off for about 10 minutes but am suddenly awakened by the front door bursting open and drunken, laughing, shouting people piling into the living room, in the grip of some kind of unsettling, manic energy, whooping and wild.  They have dragged the giant speakers with them and in a few minutes the music is going full blast, the shouting and shrieking rising above it.  Only a thin door separates me from this alien, unrestrained bacchanal.  I have no idea what the hell they are doing—dancing, of course, but what manner of drunken Kichwa revelry can this be, and how many are there?  There is a lot of wild whooping and shouting, as if couples are taking turns dirty dancing surrounded by inmates from a local asylum having a collective out-of-body experience.

I try to visualize just what the hell is going on, but I am effectively blind and captive to my imagination, as if locked in a steamer trunk onstage at a rock concert.  The option of going out and joining them, or at least watching, which occurs to me, is dismissed.  I dread the possibility of some drunken reveler crashing against my door, which is only wedged shut.  There are bumps that cause my heart to jump.  I picture the door flying open and drunken Kichwa piling into my room.  As with the partying in the building across the street there are moments of relative quiet, though the proximity of so much psychic and physical energy leaves me anything but calm.

With each lull I hope the party is over but each time it starts in again with renewed energy, the whooping, the shouts, the clapping hands.  I am still curious about what the hell is going on out there, accompanied by an insincere urge to check things out, but really, it would take something like my room catching fire or a boa constrictor crawling into my bed to get me to the leave the room.  I can’t imagine what the reaction would be if I suddenly appeared.

I listen for Chris’s distinctive high-pitched voice but can’t hear it.  I think I hear Irene’s voice.  Where is Edmundo?  And these are my last thoughts because then, inexplicably, against all the laws of Morpheus, as if some benevolent Oriente dream spirit has reached in and touched my forehead, I fall into a kind of turbulent sleep, dreaming I am in the engine room of a WWI Kichwa submarine, a creaky, orange rusting Nautilus, the engine a strange raucous music, shouting drunken sailors, red and turquoise waves all around, dancing pink squids, water everywhere.  Some time later I awaken to quiet and the thin light of morning filtering into my room.  The party is over.

Richard Ward lives in Ecuador. He can be reached at:

Richard Ward divides his time between New Mexico and Ecuador. His novel about the early 70s, Over and Under, can be seen here. He can be reached at: