A Very Juncal Christmas

Libby Goldman - Ecuador


March 10, 2014

I wake up to the sounds of laughter and salsa music outside my door. My eyes jerk open, and I lunge for my watch to check the time. 7:23 PM – shoot, I overslept.  I rip off my thin sheet and warm alpaca blanket and yank open my drawer to find something half-decent to put on. I opt for my green corduroys, white knit tank top, and red beaded necklace recently bought from the Otavalo artisanal market. Seems festive enough to me, I think to myself, knowing I’ll stick out no matter what I wear. I reluctantly check my hair and overall appearance in the mirror, figuring this will do. I slowly creep out of my room into the hall saturated with cousins, aunts, uncles, and other unclassified relatives. I squeeze through the ordered chaos, dodging knee-height children, into the small kitchen, to find my cousins Sara and Crystal hovering over the crowded stove preparing the rice and chicken, and faces I don’t recognize talking and laughing around the modest kitchen table. I make my rounds around the room greeting everyone with the customary hug and cheek kiss, sure to wish each an enthusiastic Feliz Navidad. I wander through the open door to the outside, where I see yet more bodies riddled around the house. I’m welcomed with shouts of “Libby, ven!” and warm hugs from familiar aunts with whom I’ve finally become close. I find Olga, my host mom, and she briefs me on the names of all the people I haven’t met yet – the cousins from Quito. Jhomaira, Mayté, Paca, y Daniela, I repeat in my head over and over. After half-listening to the overly animated conversation full of flying hand gestures between Aunt Anabela and cousin Angelo, Olga decides it’s time to head over to church for the service.

Our massive pack heads down the unpaved path that leads us into the pueblo, the upbeat mood continuing. I catch a glimpse of the expansive sky above, and remember how the sheer amount of conspicuous twinkling stars in Juncal never ceases to amaze me. The town is alive with boys riding around on bikes, groups of people socializing on dilapidated plastic chairs, and gaggles of gossiping teens, all illuminated by the sepia-toned light cast by the flickering street lamps. We make our way into the church, lucky enough to cram into a few pews near the front. I note everyone dressed in their Sunday’s finest, tight jeans and stilettos galore. Though not Catholic myself, I relish in the songs and traditions the beautiful service puts forth. I intently admire the impressively large nativity scene right in front of the altar, furnished with an intricate Baby Jesus and complete thatched overhang. The children’s choir half sings, half screams, Spanish Christmas carols mixed with traditional Afro-Ecuadorean chants, accompanied by the bomba, the enticing Afro drum. The service ends after about an hour, and the merry crowd begins to herd towards the doorway at the back. I’m instantly stopped by a loud, popping noise. I double back, slightly apprehensive, and see bright, dangerously real fireworks being set off smack dab between the choir and the nativity scene.

What?! Fireworks inside, are you kidding me? Thoughts like this race through my mind, worrying about the safety of the singing children slowly backing away from the growing fireworks display, and looking around at the rest of the stunned, though intrigued, crowd.

The fireworks are building, sparks flying in every direction. Glancing around nervously, I wonder if I should do something. Just as I flinch to say something to Olga, a particularly large spark lands directly
on the nativity overhang. My jaw drops open. I see the crowd’s expressions turn from naïve awe to shocked worry within seconds. The flames are growing, and instantaneously the masses begin to shove themselves through the slight doorway and into the safety of the street. I’m rushed forward with them, holding back a chuckle at the ridiculousness of the situation. Once we arrive at the fresh air
outside, the town is frantically gossiping about the gravity of what just happened. My inner-gringa can’t help but surface, and I decide I have to get a picture of the flaming nativity scene for the sake of memory. Just as I whip out my camera and head to the doorway to capture the fiasco, Juncal’s macho, self-proclaimed pseudo-firemen rush at the entrance to put out the flames. Karma hits quick, and I feel the wet slosh down my back as a full tub of water collides with my body. Everyone around me who saw the unfortunate event erupts in uncontrollable fits of laughter, enjoying my misfortune. I ring out as much water as I can from my soggy clothes, and shrug it off as an act of fate.

Just as we turn to head back to the house, Don Pedro comes rushing out of the church with something held high in his hands, reminiscent of Rafiki with Simba. I peer over with muted curiosity, as the rest of the community scampers over to see what it is. Behold, he has saved the Baby Jesus from the fire! Sighs of relief are heard all over, and one woman even faints. But the relief can’t last too long – soon enough Doña Carmela, a saint of a woman who gives herself to her community and church, comes barreling out of the double doors sobbing. I catch bits and pieces of her cries, exclaiming “what will the people think of me?!” “My reputation is ruined!” “Please, Oh God, forgive me!” Turns out it was her idea to add that extra “spice” to Christmas mass.

I look back down at my watch. 11:16 PM. My stomach grumbles angrily, recognizing that I haven’t eaten since lunch. Our troop detaches itself from the greater Juncal cluster, and heads back to the house to have Christmas dinner. My two little cousins Alina and Marcela quickly snatch each of my hands and giggle incessantly as we parade back. As we get closer, I notice an obscenely large pile of sticks and brush assembled in the plot next to the house. Oh no… Once we all arrive, Fabio, my host dad, announces we’re going to have a bonfire. Great, I think to myself, did we learn nothing from what just happened? Perhaps we shouldn’t play with fire. Fabio proceeds to strike a match and toss it nonchalantly into the disaster waiting to happen. Having gone to sleep away camp for years, I know the way to make a safe and successful fire, and this certainly is NOT it. Naturally, the whole thing goes up in flames almost instantly. I shield my eyes from the blazing light, fairly sure this is the most fiery Christmas I’ve ever experienced. Women start screaming and crossing themselves repeatedly. Cries of “el cable! El cable!” can be heard over the general panic. I squint up, and realize they’re right. The fire is growing taller and taller, flames licking at the telephone wire delicately hung above. Fabio and my cousins Angelo and Diego frantically grab picks and large branches to try to control the hungry flames. After seemingly endless minutes of hysteria, the fire eventually descends, without taking the wire with it.

The family finally settles down along with the fire, and the mood shifts. Fabio commences by reading a passage from the Bible, and I notice everyone’s heads cast downward and hands held together. I hastily make my body match the rest. After complaints from various kids about being cold, the whole party moves inside, but the ambiance stays consistent. The 30+ of us pile into the living room, plopped onto the tiny sofa, dining room chairs, stools, and many making themselves comfortable on the floor. I’m seated between my great aunt Ismeria and my aunt Tanya, half sitting on my lap to make room for her daughter Marcela. We form one great, misshapen circle, pegged up against the brick walls.

Olga dims the lights. Her usual joyful, carefree expression is replaced by something more serious, something I can’t put my finger on. She begins by thanking everyone for coming tonight, and proceeds to divulge the meaning of family to her. I see her eyes glisten with tears as she explains how important every single person in the room is, thanking God repeatedly for all he has done (including saving them for two near-death experiences that night). Her strong, never faltering persona is temporarily broken down as she spills her heart out to the crowd. I’m touched instantly, feeling so ridiculously grateful for this family I’m now a part of. I gaze around the jam-packed room, smell the scent of burning candles and too many bodies, and notice no woman in the room has dry eyes. My mind wanders back to my family at home. I wonder what they’re doing right now, if they miss me… Though I don’t want to admit it, I long for the comfort, words, and smiles of my own family. I love this family and know they love me, but can’t help but feel slightly isolated from the group, like an outsider looking in. After all, I’m an American formerly nonexistent to this family only three months ago. After Olga finishes her eloquent declamation, people around the room begin speaking up, taking turns voicing their gratitude for one another and for God. I feel warm and happy, and somewhat uncomfortable at the same time. There is so much passion, love, care, and respect exuding from this tightknit family, and I yearn to be a true part of it. I long for my family back home, knowing how much they love me and realizing you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I feel an embarrassing lump creep up my throat and my eyes get hot with tears. I sniffle and try to play it off as allergies, praying no one sees me in this vulnerable state. I stare down at my nervous hands and pick at my fingernail, trying to distract myself from the surge of emotion that begins to consume me. Tanya, who never misses a beat, places a tender hand on my shoulder and rubs lightly. I dare to glance over, see her caring eyes, and let the tears flow. Crying is healthy, I tell myself. Confusing, charged thoughts jerk through my head as I let myself fall apart on the inside. I miss most of what the next few people announce, as I try to compose myself and get my thoughts straight.

Soon enough, the tears dry and the lights are turned back on. Hugs are given, music cranked up, and the happy laughter resumes. The house fills back up with humor and gaiety and I let myself enjoy a sigh of relief. I see the time flash on my watch. 12:27 AM. I creep out of the hefty circle and head into the kitchen, seeing if I can’t hurry up the process to finally serve the food. As soon as I cross the threshold into the modest space, I’m handed a heaping plateful of steaming food and a plastic cup full to the brim with chicha. A broad smile spreads across Sara’s face as she exclaims “toma!” and gives me the overweight plate. I move back into the living room, and within minutes everyone is served. I sit myself down at the cozy dining room table nestled between a few other cousins, and admire the work that went into this meal. Huge hunk of chicken leg, not without an entire pork chop resting underneath; mountain of rice that rivals Kilimanjaro; “salad” of choclo, broccoli, and tomato coated in a mysterious white sauce; and the fermented rice drink, traditional of Ecuador. Olga has always assured me that Mami Fredi, her mother, makes the best chicha you’ll ever taste. I bring the off-white liquid up to my lips, feel the refreshing coolness drain down my throat, not caring if it was made with purified water or not. I continue like the rest of the family, mercilessly digging in to this monster of a meal. After finally mopping up the last few grains of rice, I wonder if I look as much like the Pillsbury Dough Boy as I feel.

Then the real party begins. Plates are tossed into the kitchen, chairs haphazardly thrown to the side, and bodies thrust to the center of the room to dance. The music is turned up even louder, challenging my
eardrums not to explode. I stay seated at the table, watching Angelo yank Emilia onto the dance floor to command her body. I’ve been to fiestas here before, but I can’t help feeling the nerves build up higher and higher inside me like an unsteady game of Jenga. Pretty soon, I’m the only one still on the outskirts of the room, taking in the incredible hip-shaking and foot work going on right in front of my eyes. My Aunt Anabela’s eyes lock with mine right as a raunchy salsa song begins to blare from the oversized speakers. She rhythmically dances her way over to my corner of safety and motions for me to join her. After a split second of hesitation and a nervous laughter-type smile, I leave my inhibitions behind me and confidently follow her into the heart of the madness. I follow her lead, remembering the basic salsa step I learned while attending my host mom’s dance class last Wednesday. We slowly pick up steam, adding in more and more moves. I yell over the music that where I’m from, we don’t dance at parties. “Y que haces entonces? Que aburrido!” “Then what do you do? How boring!” I laugh at her reaction, and quickly realize how right she is. I don’t care if I’m making a fool of myself; the dancing is intense, fun, and freeing. Song after song comes on, and I begin to recognize the different styles of music, and the moves that accompany them. Salsa, Salsa Choke, Salsa Romantica, Bachata, Reggaeton, Bomba, I think over and over as I follow the mob around me. Feet are flying, and hips moving faster and more sensually than I once thought possible.

“No pares, sigue que sigue!” bellows from the speakers, the most popular Salsa Choke song in Juncal. Knowing looks are shared, and anyone sitting down for a brief break lunges out of their seat to join the throngs on the floor. My cousin Mayté spontaneously screams “chicos contra chicas,” insinuating a boys vs. girls dance off. My eyebrows rise as I wonder how this is about to go down. The guys scramble into two neat lines at one end of the room, and the girls mirror their actions. I take the last spot in the back line behind the rest of the women, and am instantly shoved to the front and center. Shouts of “dale Libby!” are directed at me, and I know everyone is waiting for the gringa to prove herself.

The boys start. My cousin Pibe leads the pack, starting with the usual three-step rapid move back and forth. Within moments, every boy catches on and the mass is flowing in rhythmic synchronization. The moves get increasingly boisterous, throwing in hand, hip, and feet movements. They go for the entirety of the song, dominating the space and advancing up onto us. Mayté finally shuts them down, telling them it’s time for the girls to show them how it’s done. Every female in the family, ranging from teens to grandmothers, prepares herself to dance her heart out. The next song comes on, and we immediately start flying, taking things over. We throw in new exaggerated hips thrusts and turns, me struggling to keep up as the music progresses. The boys egg us on, and we feed off their excited energy. The dance off soon ends in everyone pairing up to savor the rest of the song, no clear winner actually chosen. My cousin Diego grabs me, and leads me through the fun new moves he’s so good at thinking up.

The rest of the night consists of sharing too many dances with my drunken grandfather, a sensual bachata with my cousin Katu, sneaking out of the horde to try to catch my breath and snag something to quench my thirst, witnessing a lap dance given by my cousin and received by my aunt, and showing off my American moves inside the raging dance circle. Before I know it, it’s 5:30 in the morning, and my legs feel like noodles. I collapse into a vacated armchair, trying to calm my beating heart. Jhomaira and Endri are the only ones left moving, shuffling their feet sluggishly to the last Prince Royce song. Right as the energy reaches an all-time low, Olga reveals the two apple pies I had made earlier that day to share with the family. Tired eyes around the room strain to gaze over and see what she’s brought out. I help her pass out plates and forks, witnessing the confusion and curiosity painted on everyone’s face. I encourage them to dig in, clarifying that this is a traditional American dessert, and trying to explain the concept of a good, flaky crust. I finally award myself my own piece, reveling in the sugary, American goodness. The apple pie is widely enjoyed, and I even get a few requests for the recipe. I feel a sense of accomplishment wash over me. As sunlight begins lurking in from the windows, people start gathering their things, collecting the sleeping children from the bedrooms, and heading out.

Once the room is finally empty, I look around at the crumpled up napkins under the table, discarded cups strewn about, and forgotten sweaters on seat backs. I glance over at Olga, and see her noticing the same things. “Mañana,” she mouths at me, letting me know we won’t worry about the mess until tomorrow.

I tip toe on tender feet back to my room, peel off my sweaty clothes and slip into shorts and a T-shirt, and topple onto my bed. As I lay my heavy head down onto my soft pillow with the rising sun, I attempt to reflect upon the ridiculous night I just experienced. Lovely church service, watching it all go up in flames, almost burning down a telephone wire, breaking down emotionally, stomaching an absurd amount of food, forgetting embarrassment, and going crazy on the dance floor. A feel a faint smile surface on my lips, and fall asleep to the realization that my family, town, and life are nothing short of crazy, but that there’s absolutely no place I’d rather be. This is where I belong.

Libby Goldman