When the Stars Spilled from the Sky

Kirin Gupta - Ecuador


December 22, 2011

I was running, chasing the elusive breeze. The greenery was thick on either side of the thin, winding road, and sharp rocks beneath my feet on the dirt path were painful through the thin soles of my shoes.

A strange sight, the foreign girl running through the jungle at 4 in the morning, before the first light, eyes focused on the endlessness above. I was determined to track every pinprick of light in the stars that littered the night sky. In clusters and strewn carelessly, there seemed too many, too close together. The bright, distant lights formed web after interconnected web of diamond teardrops, but shed no light on the dark path ahead of me. For this, I ran with my eyes to the sky.

My feet fell with the sound of rolling pebbles as I advanced down the unfriendly path. The rolling pebbles slowly worked into a constant drumbeat, rhythmic and steady, like the pace of a runner who had reached the point of unconscious competence. But the drums, to me, were tangible. I stopped where I stood as the sound grew louder, coming a little from the east, and veered off the path, not thinking seriously about the change of direction. It felt natural.

The vines and intertwined trees of the jungle thickened tangibly with each footfall. And accompanying the drumbeat was a lilting melody, more and more noticeable as I neared the music. The tune whistled through the trees, caressing the currents of the wind. It was some kind of flute. And though I knew it was the instrument making the noise, as the greenery thinned again, many steps away from the path, the music touched me like a trill of laughter running down my spine.

And then, scattered clearings began to appear. Chozas, small wood houses with thatched roofs, glowed with lamps from the inside. Already, at this small hour of the morning, half of this hidden community was awake. I jogged into a bigger clearing, and the music around me swelled. Almost all of the women who lived in the houses that encircled an open space, which seemed the central “town centre,” were outside, lifting their feet and natural-skirts as they swayed and danced, arms around each other, stepping in concentric circles from one end of the square to the other in a sashay of swirling skirts. There were three or four women sitting in the center, swaying, eyes closed, as they played the drums – and one of them, a strange type of wooden flute.

I closed my eyes too, feeling strange, out of my own body. I had happened upon something I was very clearly not intended to see, yet I somehow felt a part of it. And I inhaled deeply, because something caught my attention when I could no longer see. Simply listening and breathing, I caught a single scent, heavy in the air, enveloping the familiar aroma of rain under the Amazonian canopy. Guayusa was brewing, in several large ollas, just nearby. The leafy, heavily caffeinated classic drink of the Ecuadorian lowlands, is, in these small inner communities, brewed every morning by the women to aliment the men before they leave to work long days of manual labor in the equatorial sun. The drink itself is halfway to magic in what it can do for you in the early morning.

A woman walking from one of the houses further away to join the circle of women dancing, approached me where I was standing watching, stockstill with my arms at my sides. She recoiled at first, and I turned to smile at her. Something so small, and she took my arm into hers and pulled me forward. It took a moment for my feet to remember how to work again, but she had my arm pressed tight between her own arm and her exposed left breast, and didn’t give me an option. We joined the women in the arm-interlinked semi-circle, quietly, and the music swept straight through us, gently guiding the direction in which we stepped, lyrically, following no one’s lead in particular, yet all in sync.

I worried for a moment, about wearing a shirt, thin as it was, and shorts, instead of the identical natural-made skirts the women wore. But they had their arms around me, and I had twined myself around them, and no one seemed to notice anything the least bit foreign in their midst. I was aware, on some level, that it was out of my norm, what I was doing, but that level of awareness was not functioning in my realm of conscious thought.

The music undulated, the flute trickling children’s laughter and tears over the heads of the dancers, and we moved, swaying and stepping and determinedly turning in unison. We moved, and the music didn’t cease, and the scent of guayusa grew stronger in the air as the brews reached completion. It had been many long minutes, and I had closed my eyes, allowing myself to happen into the steps, feeling in it the bodies of the women next to me. I opened them, after a deep rhythmic switch to a lighter beat. Light was beginning to fall from the sky.  And the melody of the flute seemed to tremble, as did all the women, and the voices of men collecting their things and readying themselves for work became more audible, tangling up with the tremors of the music. All of us, having nearly stilled, seemed to shiver simultaneously again, and I felt it run upwards within me, from my toes to the tips of each hair on my head.

The melody unraveled into us, granting us an ephemeral incandescence. It seemed to break free of control, and the dancing became lithe and more confused, less united. A few arms unlinked and the women seemed lighter on their feet, as though gravity itself had altered beneath us. Groups of dancers separated, and a few sang out loud as the music transcended the physical movement and understanding, and I turned my face up, again, to devour the invigorating air. The sky seemed to have opened, and the stars were spilling forth, shedding daylight. The night sky was tearing at invisible seams, as clouds and stars chased each other across the sky, running from the approaching sun.

Before I could think of how I would make my way home, stunned and slower, having conversed with no one and yet feeling connected to each individual, we were finishing. As we smiled and stepped willingly into the crescendo, I felt the stars were falling upon us.

Kirin Gupta