I was typing at my desk on the 17th floor of a Jersey City high-rise overseeing the Hudson when my cell-phone rang: “Alo! Luminita?” Static interrupted the familiar voice of Alex, the oldest son of the shaman: “My sister Lidia is getting married in December. My father invites you”. Gazing outside the window at the big city lights I accepted the invitation somewhat amused and immediately made travel arrangements to attend my first Quechua wedding in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Two months later I was on a bus crossing the mighty Andes in rhythms of cumbia and bachata. Bare, round-topped hills rolled by my sweaty window. I was the only tourist among indigenous fellow travelers crowding the aisle and leaning on me at every curve. After reaching 4000 meters, the road started its descent towards the Oriente, the area sank in lush jungles of eastern Ecuador.
While my friends were attending fancy bridal parties in Napa Valley or the Bahamas, I was heading to probably the most peculiar wedding ceremony one could attend. I was lucky to have a high tolerance for ambiguity: besides the date and approximate location, I knew no further party details.
At the end of the bus line, Alex and his younger sister Lilia were waiting for me. Happy to see them, I leaned for a hug, they tried to respond to my western salute and we engaged in a graceless, uncoordinated dodge dance.
We continued our trip on a local bus through intensely green, sweltering tropical countryside, mostly in awkward silence and embarrassed giggles. It always took my friends a while to readjust. The rugged road cut through incredible tall grass and palm trees, and ended on the bank of Napo River.
We crossed Napo in a colorful canoe for only one dollar and hitch-hiked a pickup truck on the other side. We rode in the back along 12 other Quechuas, their babies, bags and banana bunches, jolting and jerking until we all had our bones rearranged. This 30 minutes mini ordeal to ahuano was as close as I got to a limo ride to the wedding location.
Ahuano is a sleepy village with one paved main road bordered by flat-roofed cement houses. In its ‘suburbs,’ with no running water and no paved road, many Quechua families established their home after leaving their communities in the rainforest.
My friend Lilia, 17, already married and expecting her first child, was living here with her 19 year old husband and his family. By now, my friends overcame their shyness.
While we cooked dinner, they brought me up to date with who was pregnant, who got married, who left the community to work outside. We ate on the floor, under a pale light-bulb swarmed by exotic bugs, sitting around a huge banana leaf that served as table. The rice with vegetables and plantains was delicious. I had a comfortable, strange feeling of being so close to my friends yet belonging to such a remote world.
Over dinner, I received my tutorial on Quechua marriage. The novios live together first, and if they get along, they marry, if not, the pair separates and goes back to live with the parents. The older sister, Lidia, 20 years old, had been living with her fiancé
Pablo, 21, for 2 years and already had two babies. Now it was time to tie the knot.
The next morning, I was awakened by chatter coming from outside. I took a trip to the bathroom, among the banana trees behind the hut, washed thoroughly with tepid water springing out of a rubber tube and dressed up in festive clothes – white peasant cotton shirt and cargo pants.
Alex assessed my looks then pulled out a bottle of Johnson Baby Oil and thoroughly greased my hair: “Better. This is how our women make their hair beautiful and shiny”. Maybe their thick, gorgeous hair. My hair became thinner, definitely shinier, with the kind of luster you get from not bathing for a month. Thus dressed and oiled, I was ready to go. We grabbed the presents for the bride and groom and started walking towards Pablo’s house following a dusty road. It was fairly early, but the sizzling sun was beaming down our heads, heating up the aluminum bowls we were carrying.
Pablo’s hut, a thatched roof home erected on pillars, was located in a green meadow surrounded by rainforest and yucca gardens. We passed by a patch of cement big as half a basketball court covered with a zinc roof, the wedding salon.
A few serious looking women were carrying logs under the roof, making two concentric rectangles of benches where the guests would sit. At one end of the enclosing, four shirtless lads were testing a sound system that could embarrass even a New York DJ, spinning cumbias and jumpy Quechua songs, even some salsa, a good mix for all tastes.
Nothing else moved in the scorching heat. A white pillar of smoke stretched deep in the spotless sky, the only clue to human presence around Pablo’s house. As I got closer, I heard voices coming from the yard. Twenty women, all from the groom’s family, were peeling chicken, stirring in huge aluminum pots, or cutting yucca. I felt hungry, it all looked so good. Some men were bringing wood for fire, others were smoking and chatting. I greeted everybody and sat around to observe the wedding preparations.
Around 11am, Lidia’s family arrived loaded with bags, babies, and boxes. First came the shaman and his wife, the parents of the bride. We greeted joyfully, it had been a year since I last saw them. Within seconds, the meadow was crowded with 50 something sweaty, exhausted and sun baked Quechuas.
They were coming straight from their community, a three hours walk through rough and dense jungle. As everybody settled down on the benches, two of Pablo’s aunts brought a huge cauldron filled with a much needed thirst quencher and energy booster, chicha, a fermented yucca drink. The ladies scooped the chicha with a small bowl and fed it directly into the mouth of each person. To me, this serving process broke all sanitary rules: not only the chicha contained water from the river, but the same bowl went in everybody’s mouth.
Although I like chicha and its sweet-and-sour refreshing taste, I could not stop a shiver of nausea when I saw the lady sink her cracked hand into the bowl, swirl the liquid thoroughly before pushing the metal rim into my mouth. She locked it between my wisdom teeth with a naughty smile, sending all the chicha directly into my stomach.
According to local good manners, I had to empty the bowl. I complied slurping the liquid to the last drop and my stomach extended close to its bursting limit. I leaned half conscious against a pole, with a bulging stomach, almost as big as Lilia’s 8 months belly. I was calculating my chances of getting diarrhea while my friends were praising my drinking skills.
The wooden benches were now occupied by more than 100 people and their voices filled the air with a pleasant hum. I was the only outsider, lost in a crowd of indigenous faces, but felt bizarrely at home. I was sitting in the second row with my friends, until one of the aunties made space for me next to her, in the first row. She would help translate the ceremony in Spanish, which I badly needed as I spoke no Quechua.
All chatter stopped when Pablo, tall, bony and serious, with his enormously shy fiancée at his side appeared on the floor. I was surprised to see they both were wearing just t-shirt and jeans like everybody else. The couple was flanked by two pairs of godparents dressed in white cloaks with a red cross sewn on the back, bearing a strange resemblance to Spanish conquistadores.
The men and women faced each other silently while all eyes were on them. The master of ceremony, a chubby middle aged man from Pablo’s family, took the microphone, and, accompanied by a violin and a drum, started singing the song of pedida in a high pitched voice, ceremonially asking for the bride’s hand. The bridal ensemble started trotting languidly back and forth with small rhythmic steps and expressionless faces.
The song, repetitive and slow, became hypnotic after thirty minutes and I felt I was witnessing a mystical pre-Incan ritual. When the music stopped, the women sprung up, creating chaos and clamor, and took Lidia outside, near the brim of the forest. I followed the crowd, hand in hand with three kids that would not let go of me. Surrounded by all the women, the bride started stripping down to her undergarments with slow movements. Subdued, eyes in the ground, she was not speaking a word.
A cascade of yells and shouts in Quechua was pouring out of the godmothers’ mouths, adding a dizzying soundtrack to the whole scene. I did not get the words, but I understood they were marriage advice. Delivered in loud shrieking voices it sounded scary. I realized that even in the rainforest married life was extremely complicated.
The tallest of the godmothers started combing Lidia’s long hair, adding oil drops to make it sleek and smooth. The other one hang a pair of golden earrings on her lobes and adorned her head with red ribbons and shiny hair pins. The bride, a new woman now, was freed to go back to the wedding court. The newlyweds sat on chairs in the middle of the room.
One by one, each person deposited gifts in front of the couple and congratulated them. Soon the two disappeared behind a pile of pots, cauldrons, mattresses, blankets, and machetes, everything one needs to start a life in Oriente. I headed to the big stack of gifts, found the bride and handed her a pocketbook with $60. I had no idea what the etiquette required from me, but when I saw the pile of one dollar bills next to the groom I knew I did ok. Later on, the bride’s aunt eating next to me expressed her awe: “They made $96, you never make that much money at a wedding”. I smiled, happy that I made this event unusual in my own little way.
It was finally time to eat. The food was distributed extremely fast, following a disciplined, well rehearsed process. A handful of young men formed a line from the women who put food on plates to the guests, and passed each dish from hand to hand. The line moved around like a clock’s arms and everybody was served. I received my plastic bowl filled with a creamy soup in which I found big pieces of chicken, beef ribs, potatoes, and a whole boiled yucca root. One of the boys pulled my arm: “You have to eat like us, with your hands”, and so I did. It was surprisingly tasty. The main course was a huge plate of rice and pasta, topped with half a braised chicken and a humongous piece of smoked beef the size of a small coffee table. Needless to say the chicha ladies kept making their tour, filling our stomachs with the yoghourty drink and making us tipsy.
Music was blasting from huge boxes, everybody was dancing and drinking up a storm. As we advanced cheerfully in the wee hours of the night, nobody seemed to get tired, only drunk, but this was overcome with a catnap under a bench or under a nearby tree. A thirty-something round faced lady, dragged me in the middle of the floor laughing and dancing around, her baby hammock bouncing pretty hard off her hips.
I looked at the baby bag worriedly and she opened it up: “Look, my baby, I gave birth 2 days ago”. I glanced at the tiny creature sleeping with his clenched fists over his face. I stared at her in slight disbelief then thought of all the post partum drama new moms deal with in my world. Two days after giving birth, this woman walked three hours through the jungle, drank, danced the whole night away, and had to return to her community the next day. My hat off to you, sister!
I spent the night skipping and spinning along everybody else. I could not tell if I had a buzz from the alcohol or from my dance moves. All the men, women, and children invited me to dance. I have never been so popular on the dance floor in my whole life. “Vamos a amanecer”, they were telling me, we will party until the sun rises. And so we did: one foreigner, pregnant ladies, new moms, toddlers and children, grandmas, newlyweds, did not close an eye until the sun was shining up on the sky.
Another round of soup with yucca was served at 11 am to whoever was sober and still standing, accompanied by the ubiquitous chicha. The 24 hour wedding was officially over. Everybody was getting ready to walk back home. Only my home was much farther than a 3 hours walk through the jungle.
Photo by gaborbasch on Flickr