In my second week in Ecuador, my family invited me to a velatorio, which, in that sense, was a Kichwa Ecuadorian memorial service. I was exhausted from work and it was about 8 at night already, so I hesitantly asked how long we would be out.
No mas que una hora.
No more than one hour.
Okay, no problem. We’ll be back by 9:30 latest and I’ll have time to read a little before bed. Off we went, all piling into the family pick-up truck. On the winding cobblestone streets, we passed many small groups of people walking in the darkness. Every few minutes or so, my host dad would flash the headlights and we would stop to pick up some relative or friend and bring them up the mountain. By the time we got to our destination, we had six adults and three kids in the bed of the pick-up with four in the back seat and three in the front. I learned very quickly this is just how cars function here.
The sixteen people half-climbed/half-fell out of the truck onto a beautiful flat plain overlooking the city of Otavalo. There were no lights on the mesa except for a single bare bulb on the outside of a lonesome concrete structure about a hundred yards away. The view was astounding. The lights of civilization twinkled far, far below and I traced the paths of roads with my eyes.
I tear myself away from the view to follow my host family up the path to the building. We walk on a moonlit dirt path between giant spiky agave plants to what looks to me like an old concrete house or barn of some kind. There are a few people sitting outside and the dogs that are always around. We turn to enter the building. Above the door there is a wooden sign with gold paint on the embossed letters: Funeraria IndÌ_gena.
We entered what looked like an old barn to me, complete with rusty saws hanging on the wall. I was almost blinded by the brilliance of the set up in the center of the room. There, resting on four golden pedestals was a bright white coffin with silver cherubs on the corners. Around it were four foot tall golden candelabras and an army of thin white candles flickering on cinder blocks on the ground. Flowers were draped over every part of the display. I was struck by the extravagance of the display; it was unlike anything I had seen in Ecuador before.
There was a group of people sitting on the benches closest to the casket. I was surprised to see them talking and laughing in hushed tones; one man even answered his cell phone while sitting no more than four feet from the deceased. I have only been to one funeral in my life, but I thought funerals were supposed to be somber events. Answering a phone call is definitely not allowed. I sat with my host family for a long time on a threadbare couch in the corner while people I didn’t know came by to greet us or offer us food.
We stayed there until 12:30am. I am ashamed to say that I fell asleep on my little chair for a lot of the ceremony. However, I can tell you that I was not the only or first person to take a little snooze. At that moment I really appreciated the laid-back attitude of the culture. I did get some well-deserved teasing after I woke up.
This experience proved to be a sort of template for every other social gathering I went to with my absolutely wonderful host family. I usually didn’t understand what was going on, there was always tons of food, and everything tended to start late and end later.
Although I always stuck out, I was never an outsider.
**I don’t have any pictures of this experience because I thought it would be callous to bring my camera to a funeral. The picture above is from New Year’s Eve