This is another thing I wrote a while back, this time in Peace Corps. I’ve got lots of actual work these days, so writing blogs has suffered, which is alright, I suppose. In any event, I hope to post something new soon. For now, enjoy this!
I recently went to visit a friend of mine who was living in Balinsula, a maroon community (maroons are runaway slaves that made villages in the Suriname interior a while back). This was a Saramaccan village (that’s the particular tribe). So we were in the lovely Saramaccan village of Balinsula. It was really cool. Among other things I got to participate in a ritual wash with the villagers. My friend, Marci, and I stumbled upon them while strolling through the village after downing an enormous shot of 180 proof alcohol each.
It happened like this: Marci suggested we go to the shop near her house and have a shot of ‘Palm’, which is supposedly rum but in actuality resembles nothing other than rubbing alcohol. Naturally I agreed. We arrived, and the shop owner gave us dubious looks and provided tall glasses of water along with what were closer to double shots than singles. ‘We don’t need any water!’ we exclaimed, laughing merrily in our naïveté. A few seconds later there was not enough water in the world to quench our thirst.
The initial effect of this ‘rum’ was to completely dry out my mouth and then my entire body. It was like being flash dehydrated, and for a brief moment I imagined that I was a sea monkey. Then it got bad. I became uncomfortably aware of the fact that all of my internal organs were liquefying, and somehow, through my molten esophagus, I managed to say to Marci, ‘I’m dying.’ It sounds funny now, but at the time I was terrified. The water did not help. In fact, it only intensified the burn so that I felt as though I had been flash dehydrated and then set on fire.
As my life began to flash before my eyes and I wondered what death would really be like after all, a funny sensation occurred. It was pain. The initial shock that my stomach had experienced upon encountering the poison that I had so happily fed it was being replaced with furious, vengeful cramps. My stomach had decided that mine would be a painful death indeed. Somehow I managed to remain on my feet, even though my brain registered that it had long ago snaked down to my toes to get closer to the ground. I had to hold on to the shop counter, which was now fighting terribly to fly away into oblivion, and it was all I could do to hold it down. I looked at Marci, and her face read the same as mine must have: we are stupid, stupid people. ‘I’ve never done that before,’ she finally said. Well, great.
Eventually it became evident that my stomach had reanalyzed the situation and come to a new decision. It was not going to put up with this nonsense and was getting ready to send me a strong message to that effect. The shop woman seemed to divine this from my expression, and her eyes grew wide. They tapered off to thankful when I hurried out the door, Marci not far behind. The world outside was chaos. The trees seemed to point down, which could only mean that I was pointed the wrong way entirely. This did not matter as long as I could find a private bush that would be the scapegoat for my sin of being a dumb American. The bush that I found was spared, however, because somehow everything settled a moment later and left me feeling woozy and aching but no longer sick.
Marci and I then walked around for a while, still teetering on the edge of the good-time/oh-my-gosh-I’m-going-to-die axis. Just about then we came across a ceremony involving lots of topless people and some funny white powder. No, we had not stumbled upon a traditional Hollywood party. The powder was some kind of chalk. So it goes.
Anyway, they sprinkled this powder all over everyone’s chest and shoulders (I had quickly become topless myself), and shook their hands in front of us. Pretty cool. Then it was announced that we all had to go to the river to wash. So everybody moved toward the river, and when we got there, I began emptying my pockets to get in. Suddenly, all the women started shouting that I had to take off my pants. I looked around…everyone else still had their pants on. Now, I’ve never been one to miss the oppourtunity to be naked (some people have issues with nudity, I take issue with clothing. I’m convinced it’s really unhealthy), but I was a little suspicious. Marci assured me I didn’t have to, and the men of the village said the women were just trying to get me to take off my pants…hmmm.
So after much back and forth with Marci and her villagers, I finally told her that as long as I wasn’t going to offend anyone, I had no qualms about baring my booty. However, no sooner did I have one leg out of my shorts than three men were helping me back into them. “A puu en!” everyone screamed, “Don’t take them off!” And I, of course, sheepishly put them back on. After much shouting it was determined that they all thought I was wearing underwear. Come on! How can you assume that about someone? That they’re naturally going to be wearing underwear? Perhaps I’ve lost touch with social norms, however. It seems most everyone does. I took a poll.
Interestingly, it turns out that there’s only been one other white guy in the village for such a ceremony, and he was extremely shy (by that I mean that he was always keeping his pants on). In other words, it is quite possible that for many of those villagers, mine was the first live-action white penis they’d ever seen.
Anyway, somebody handed me a cloth wrap and told me to put it on BEFORE I took off my shorts. Needless to say, I complied fully. Marci assured me, between laughs, that the villagers thought it was funny and weren’t mad at me for exposing myself. I did my best not to take the laughter personally, good-natured human that I am. And then things got really cool. Everybody got into the water about waist deep and kind of splashed around, and these guys came by with huge leaf bouquets and used them to splash water on everyone. The leaf water smelled soooo good, and it felt great. So people were stirring up the water where the leaves were, while the guys with the leaves walked around and shook the leaf water on people. At first I tried to kind of stay out of the way. It wasn’t my village, after all, and I hadn’t even met most of these people. But they just grabbed me and pushed me into the fray. That was probably the coolest part, just them wanting me to be there and experience everything and being happy that I wanted to do it.
Then the guys went around hitting everyone with the leaves and getting us all, well, leafy. When it was almost over, everyone went up to one of the leaf guys and either bent their heads down toward the leaves or spit on them. Most people just bent their heads, and this was a relief. I liked these leaves and did not want to disrespect them. I get that the whole ‘spitting=disrespect’ thing might not have been true for this situation, but I was still happy just to nod.
As we were leaving this guy with a bowl of leaf mush that he’d been grinding threw this milky leaf-juice on everyone and we all went home. Very awesome. It turns out it was a strength and long-life ceremony, so it looks like the world and I will be seeing each other for quite a while longer. I told Marci that I was cool with that.