December 9-12 2010
My recent trip to the campo occurred during high school graduation. I never plan it, but I always seem to show up during some sort of festival. This is not a reflection of my good luck, but a reflection on how many celebrations are on their calendar.
It was also well into summer now and the mid-day temperatures were not as pleasant as I had experienced on previous trips. Everyday from about 11-3:00 was spent in-doors reading or sleeping, but Saturday’s graduation would all-day event. Make that an all-weekend event.
Ten boys and two girls stood atop a make shift stage in the basketball/soccer court under the 100 degree mid-day sun. The boys’ wore new grey suits, and the girls a grey skirt jacket combo. The sun was relentless and the boys’ jackets soon became heat shields during continuous speeches. Outside the school gates were tables of cheap plastic flowers and other worthless Chinese made trinkets that are traditional gifts for the grads – stuff that that nobody should ever want or have.
Later, under the cool cover of darkness, I returned to the basketball court. The festivities had continued through my naptime and into the late afternoon. Now, most of the town folk were sitting around tables with a bucket of chicha acting as a centerpiece. (Chicha is the two-week old fermented corn beer that is popular in the campo.) A band was playing (“more drum machine please”) and there was some line dancing by the new grads and some adults. I got an eye full and left, but the party was full-tilt until 2:00am.
The next morning, during my coffee and bread, Damian approach and said that we had some work to do. I pointed to the cornfields where I had done some work with a hoe the day before, and he said no, and pointed in the opposite direction. Santusa came along and we all walked down the street to a neighbor’s house. Today was to be a party and feast in celebration of graduation. I wasn’t clear on the details but it sounded like we were going to prepare a special meal where the graduates would all stop by and partake.
Damian took me out to the woodpile and asked if I could chop wood. It was 8:00 in the morning and this was the last thing I wanted to do. My experience with their dense wood and dull axes was not my idea early morning fun. Also, wearing flip-flops, I didn’t want to have to travel two hours to the nearest hospital with a chief complaint of only having eight toes. I took a couple of half-hearted swings, and that was enough for Damian - I had failed my audition. He abruptly took me back inside the mud-brick courtyard and into one of the small dwellings. There I crouched onto a small wooden “pedestal” and began peeling potatoes with the old ladies. This was more my speed.
I soon poked my head into the adjacent room where Santusa and some of the other women were working. My stomach did a quarter turn when I saw an entire cow dismantled on the concrete floor atop a blue tarp. For a split second, in my brain’s eye, it appeared as though they had spread out of the parts and were trying to reassemble the cow, like you would a car engine or other complex mechanism. Of course the cow was not to be so lucky and within three hours the group had carved up all the “parts” until there wasn’t much left, but a head and a fetus (never figured out this part).
Soon the party moved outside, slicing and dicing onions, greens, tomatoes, and more potatoes – always more potatoes. Huge pots of soup were bubbling and plastic tubs filled with salad. There was no shortage of toothless grins or laughter, both were in abundance. I wish I could say that I saw someone wash their hands sometime during the day, but I cannot. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger", right? Later, I ventured next door where men from another party house were roasting an entire pig in one of the “pizza ovens”. They were standing around the grill shooting the shit drinking corn beer, while the women were inside doing everything else – hmm, just like any BBQ back home.
Eventually the meal was prepared and the receiving room was decorated. The family’s proud graduate appeared in her finest blouse and pleated skirt and it was finally “go time”. I had gotten it all wrong; the graduates did not visit the different houses, the party house hosted a single graduate, usually a family member. The people of the village traveled to each house congratulating the person of honor by pinning money on a “money scarf” hanging around the graduate’s neck. Once the money has been given, you are energetically thanked and presented with a dentist cup of warm herb infused alcohol, some chicha, and a complete meal - whatever they had been preparing during the day.
I was a bit intimidated when I entered the crowded room, not knowing the exact protocol. People lined the walls drinking with music blaring and everyone having a good time. (Sometimes, being the only outsider, I often think that I should leave them alone to their rituals and celebrations, but I am almost always proven wrong and welcomed wholeheartedly.) I approached the table where the person of honor stood. On the wall behind her was a makeshift alter of plastic flowers mounted on a hanging blanket, and her new diploma authenticated by all its various rubber stamps. Streamers of toilet paper hanging from the ceiling completed the shrine. She stood covered in white confetti waiting for me.
Once face to face with her, I suddenly felt like I was at prom, not knowing where or how to pin the money, so I just handed her the 20 Boliviano note ($2.85) and shrugged my shoulders. She motioned for me to come forward and remove my hat, and she “blessed me” with a handful of white confetti over on my head. Her father patted me on the back and thrust a cup of chicha in my hand, as a woman put a plate of food in the other. I found a place along the wall to crouch and soaked it all in. “How cool is this?”, I thought and soon found three more house where my technique improved, but I got to the point of not being able to eat anymore food as good as it all was.