“This is everything my parents told me never to do” I said to my friend as I grabbed her hand and pulled myself up into the back of the old pickup truck with the paint flaking off all sides.
The ancient machine groaned under the weight of each new person that climbed in; at least 15 of us now stood in the bed of the truck, holding tightly to each other for support.
My traveling group of nine Americans and a single Scotsman formed most of the huddle; we were smack in the middle of a three-week adventure-oriented foray into Ecuador, and had just rolled into town to work on a re-forestation project as part of a community service assignment. We’d barely had time to drop our bags at our homestays before we were rushed down the road to the waiting pickup.
Crowded around us and hanging off the tailgate were an assortment of locals from the town of Morocho. The tiny village is a purely indigenous community that sits high on the mountain overlooking Otavalo, a small city nestled beneath the Cotacachi volcano in the Imbabura region of Ecuador. Although the country is 95% Catholic, ancient traditions revolving around nature and the seasons have stood the test of time in these parts, and we were on our way to witness just such a ceremony.
As the sun set behind the mountaintop the town was perched upon, the truck began rolling its way down the hill. We picked up speed and the wind threw my hair into knots and I clenched my fists tightly around my week-old friends. Our local adventure-mates each held a fistful of stinging nettles in their hands that would occasionally rub against the backs of our bare legs and elicit wails of discomfort from our mouths. I felt the knot in my stomach that had been there all day; I did not want to do this, I did not want to do this, I did not want to do this. But GOD I’d be so furious if I didn’t.
As we rambled onward, we could see the town of Otavalo down below, where we had spent the morning exploring a sprawling indigenous market, the largest in the Americas. We had snacked on fried puffs of dough, struggled to use our badly broken Spanish, and stared sadly at the guinea pigs we knew were not being sold as pets. From above, the lights of the city flickered and danced between the clouds as we continued barreling down the dusty, bumpy, weaving road.
At what appeared to be no particular spot, the truck stopped and we extricated ourselves from each other’s death grips. Our self-appointed local guide led us to a trailhead between some shrubbery on the roadside, and down we went.
To describe this route as a “path” would be accurate, but to describe our descent as “walking” would not be. Fat tree roots and jagged rocks sought to disrupt our trek at every step, as we raced the sun around switchback after switchback to reach our destination. Our descent hugged one side of a triangular valley, and we could hear running water as we approached the bottom. We made it to the end with a little more dirt on our bodies and a little less blood in them.
Our guide showed us to an area of thick, damp, flattened grasses next to a fire pit, where we were told to disrobe. The sun had officially clocked out for the day, and the mountain air temperatures were dropping quickly. I bit my lip, resisting the temptation to stomp my 16-year-old foot and refuse to remove my thick fleece Patagonia sweater and thermal leggings and yell about how dumb this all was and why couldn’t we do it in the daytime and it’s all sexist since they won’t let the other women come anyway. I (barely) kept my nasty thoughts inside my head and slowly, agonizingly, bared my skin to the rapidly decreasing temperatures.
The summer solstice is an important time of year for the indigenous peoples of the Andes, and the people of Morocho were no different. The week that surrounds the longest day of the year is called Inti Raymi in the local Incan-offshoot Quichua dialect, meaning the festival of the sun. All week long, celebrations and ceremonies would be taking place throughout regions of Peru and Ecuador, in the cities as well as the countryside. That evening, we were participating in a cleansing ceremony performed in this community each year on the day of the solstice.
Traditionally, this ceremony is reserved for the men of the village, is performed at midnight, and is done so in the nude. For the group of curious gringos, however, the locals had moved the appointment to just after sunset, agreed to a swim-suited uniform, and even made room for the girls. We watched from behind the fire that was quickly gaining strength as the men prepared for the evening’s events.
“Who’s first?” our smiling guide asked as he turned to face us. One of the two boys of the group, Zack*, jumped at the chance; he was annoyingly chipper and always the first to try anything he could later describe as “amazing”. We were not surprised.
He approached the shaman and stood before him, bare but for his fluorescently-colored swim trunks. The old man grabbed a fistful of nettles as we stared wide-eyed from behind our groupmate. The other local men had formed a sort of circle encompassing a shallow pool that was the meeting point of two creeks; this spot was considered a sacred cleansing tool by the community, and was the reason for our slide down the mountain. The shaman splashed his nettles around in the snow-melt water, which somehow rendered their sting powerless. He began speaking in Quichua (sounds like Russian, structured like Japanese, NOT easy to learn), and shaking frigid water over the head of his subject. The old man brushed him wet from head to toe, and then started the real show.
An assistant handed him a glass bottle filled with a clear liquid; we could smell the alcohol fumes from ten feet away. The shaman shook the homemade corn liquor over the nettles and held them up between him and Zack. Another assistant lit the leaves ablaze with a drugstore cigarette lighter. I held my breath. The shaman then took a big swig from the bottle, and proceeded to transform into a human dragon as he spewed liquor across the blazing nettles, sending forth a wall of fire that grazed across Zack’s skin just long enough to singe the hairs on his chest. The shaman repeated these movements across both arms, down both legs, and again on the reverse side. Zack choked out a laugh mixed with shock and delight, and was guided into the shallow pool to his right.
Knee-deep in the swirling waters, Zack was splashed at and spit on with water and fire and cackles of the men around him, who were clearly enjoying the shock and awe of their American comrades. He returned to the fireside gushing “Amazing, that was amazing!” as we all formed a line. I went to the back. My strong dislike for cold water had just deepened into a fervent hatred.
I watched my friends go through the same procedure, each with apprehension in their eyes before, and pure excitement after. Some yelped, some giggled, some were silent as a stone. My anxiety swelled. You have to do this! I don’t want to do this. But you have to! My teenage inner monologue raged on.
Eventually, it was my turn. I swallowed all my anger and anxiety and told myself to just f**king do it. The shaman smiled as I picked my way across the muddy ground between us, my skin riddled with goosebumps from the cold night air. I stood in front of him and squeezed my eyes and fists shut; everyone laughed. He flung a fresh cluster of nettles into the water and slapped them atop my head; I gasped as the first drops of liquid ice rolled down my back. COLD was all I felt and all I thought. COOOOLD! as I was slathered head to toe with mountaintop runoff. And then, HOOOOT! as I felt the flames kiss my skin and hug my chest. In a blurry flurry of excitement, I was flamed like a rotisserie chicken and shoved into the waist-high water. What felt like buckets of the physical incarnation of absolute zero was thrust upon me, as the men around me giggled and smiled at the shock and awe written on my face. “Frio o caliente?” one man asked, in between breaths of fire aimed at my head. “CALIENTE. MUY!” I shouted back, earning an uproar of laughter from my audience. I smiled with my mouth closed, attempting to avoid the spray of liquor that occasionally made it through the fireballs.
I clambered out of the pool and raced over to the fire to dry myself and join my friends in chattering away about the crazy cool experience we’d just had. Now we all thought it was “Amazing!”
I was riding high on a wave of excitement and adventure as we hopped, skipped, and tripped our way back up the mountain. Our views were whatever dirt and plant debris our headlamps could enlighten in the next three feet of path, alongside the explosion of stars above us. The milky way curled and spread across the sky like, well, milk, and our eyes glazed over with enchantment at the beauty before us. The total lack of light pollution was a stunning revelation for these city kids.
We were giddy and giggly when we reached the truck and talking our mouths off as we rode back into town. After squeaking to a stop outside the community center, we jumped out of the car with high spirits, but low energy, after such an exhausting day. My roommates and I waved goodbye to the group as we walked toward our homestay down the road.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” our Scotsman, Joe*, yelled. “The fun’s not over yet!”
And so we followed our new local friends (now using the liquor for intoxication rather than inflammation) to the front courtyard area of one of the local houses. And then the dancing started.
The shaman and another tiny, leather-faced man pulled out two wooden flutes and began to hop around each other in a circle, playing an ancient, lyricless tune. Immediately a swarm of men surrounded them, stomping, clapping, yelling, and moving in a tight circle. We were quickly pulled into the fray.
Stomp, hop, clap, yell, hop, clap, stomp, yell, change directions! Repeat! Repeat! No one was singing, but everyone was shouting. It was a rowdy scene, set in the center of a sleepy courtyard next to a deathly quiet house. I began to wonder how long we would intrude on the inhabitants’ evening, when a light appeared in a window. The little mass of little people cheered and yelled and stopped their dancing advance. A small woman with two long braids opened the door and emerged with a basket of gigantic corn kernels, toasted and salted. The mob descended on her and tossed handfuls of the crunchy, salty treat into their mouths. I tossed in a few of my own, smiling in wonder at the strange night I was having on top of this mountain in Ecuador.
When the basket had been emptied of its treats, the group started singing and hopping again, a goodbye salute, and headed down the road to the next house. “Apparently, the point is to harass the homeowners until they give you food, and then you move on to someone else,” Joe told us. Someone asked how long the little party would continue. “All night, all week.”
After the third house, we managed to make our escape and sneak back to our little homestay down the hill. My three bunkmates and I changed ourselves into the only clean clothes we had left after discovering that the electric shower would not be providing warm water that evening. Our host mother later told us that the elders of the village believed hot water was bad for one’s health, and so chose only to cleanse themselves in icy baths. I considered the Pigpen reputation I would soon gain from these options. I still really hated cold water.
We fell asleep hard and fast as our heads hit the alpaca wool-stuffed pillows. At some point deep in the night, we awoke to the now-familiar song and dance happening outside our window. We groaned out loud and smiled into the darkness, and eventually fell back to sleep after the dancers had been fed and satisfied. And promptly spent the next few hours cursing the rooster in the yard that had absolutely no intention of waiting for sunrise to perform his daily duties.
*Names have been changed.