Tuesday, July 19, 2011

San Juan dice que sí...

As soon as I saw the canisters of gasoline, I knew a great night lie before us.

Last Saturday night, Kevin and I headed out to what I guess counts as a suburb, for a San Juan party.  Already twice delayed, we had high expectations for this event.  Around 5:30 (super early for parties in these parts) our middle sister drove Kevin, our mom, and me over to a large piece of fenced-in land owned by a friend of the family.  Since our mom owns a dispensia (a small convenience store run out of the house, sort of like having a 7 Eleven in your garage) she managed beverages (coke, beer, wine).  We came early to set up, along with other members of the family who presided over food, music, and games.

Someone prepared and labeled the games and traditional activities before we arrived.  A small cast iron skillet, labeled “mBeju”, hung from a tree branch.  (MBeju, my current favorite Paraguayan dish and San Juan stronghold, resembles a meaty, crumbly, cheesy tortilla.)  From the opposite branch hung two ceramic pots titled “kambuchí jejoká” and waiting for blindfolded children to smash open, releasing candy.  A bag of sacks, labeled “carrera vosá” and our favorite pin/tail/pig game (kure ñembohu guái) could have fit in at any BBQ across the US of A.  And then my eyes fell on a sign hidden by shadows, “pelotas tatá.”  Aka balls of fire.  And what about this sign lifted my spirits to a dizzying effect?  It hung from two plastic jugs of gasoline and nothing else.

With the next few hours, about fifty friends and family trickled in.  Food started almost immediately and games shortly thereafter.  Our family pushed us out onto a field with about fifteen kids as someone lit a rag, soaked in gasoline and tied into a ball, with a match.  Our first pelota tatá soared across the property as kids ran to the fire, fighting over who got the next turn.  Fire left streaks in its wake as it danced across the yard.  I couldn’t say how long it lasted, time disappeared as Kevin and I both managed to get in a few good kicks.  After a while, the “ball” started to die and splinter into several smaller fire bursts.  Eventually, an adult came and tossed the carnage over the fence.  (I’d add something sarcastic here about responsible choices, but this story already focuses on children and fire.)  Then, the whole thing started again.  Just like heaven.

Later in the night, after a short theatrical performance (this country loves skits) came time for a moment of pure horror: the toro kandil.  Two grown men manned the body of this thing whose head was a real bull skull lit on fire.  I have no clear pictures of the toro kandil, because evidently San Juan does not care about the documentary spirit.  The toro kandil chases down everyone in sight.  As if this wasn’t enough, as we sprinted breathless from this creature that rivals the terror of any slasher film, someone started launching more pelotas tatá (no longer one at a time) into the crowd.  This time the object changed from friendly pass back and forth to see who you can nail in the face with the ball of fire.  As the head of the bull started to die out, someone placed it under the Judas kái (that night an effigy of a Brazilian fútbol player stuffed with fireworks and doused in gasoline) to introduce more fire and noise into an already totally surreal situation.

Paraguay,... I think I love you.

***For those who may have noticed the lack of hot coals....  Although folks celebrate San Juan for weeks, the man of the hour only protects your feet from burning on the actual feast day.  Therefore, people only walk across hot coals on June 24th.

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