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In the "Cult of Escapism": Balserilla

Thursday, March 24, 2011


For the eyes there are drunken men sleeping scattered in a field, straddled by shirtless, bloody boxers and men in dresses throwing logs. For the ears there are whistles – plastic and tin – conch shells, bull horns and shouting. Thick, humid air and a lack of shade draw the sweat out in a steady pour and stain painted faces black and red. The nose detects blood, sweat and fermented corn alcohol. The senses thus assaulted, we entered Balserilla.

About Balserilla: Balserilla is a longstanding Ngöbe tradition with disputed roots. Many claim it is a Ngöbe invention but I’ve heard it may have originated in Africa. Either way, when a town feels they have sufficient funds and desire to host a Balserilla, they invite (challenge) another town to come face them. The host is responsible for three days’ worth of food and chicha fuerte (fermented corn alcohol), an acceptable location (i.e. a field), and a massive pile of balsa sticks. Those invited form a “team” to formally bring to the host town. This generally consists of the best Balseros (best players) and maybe a few notoriously tough fighters. However, once word is out, many others are likely to come (like curious Peace Corps volunteers), though the host is not responsible for feeding all. I’ve heard that in the past, it was just about the game - now it is more of an opportunity for hundreds to gather and get drunk and fight and throw sticks at each other. Balserilla is a three day event.

Day One: The challengers arrive and the hosts feed them and the two sides spend all day trying to intoxicate the opponent in order to decrease their ability during the game. Many others will be present, drinking, fighting and generally enjoying themselves but the game-related activity centers around the official participants.

Day Two: The Game. At 5:00am, the best Balseros face off, one man against another, throwing anywhere from 20 to 60 balsa sticks (made from balsa wood, the sticks are about four feet long and five inches wide; see picture below) while the other dances. The thrower tries to hit the dancer below the knee, while the dancer dodges. There are no lines, no limits – the thrower can get as close as he wants and wait as long as he wants to throw. While he feints, the dancer blows a whistle and more or less runs in place, doing a mini-splits at the last second to dodge the stick. If the dancer can still stand after all sticks are thrown, it’s his turn.

A Balsa stick

Here, at dawn, is where legends are made and hosts either defend their honor or suffer a humiliating upset loss. Once finished, these titans of Balsa resume drinking and eating through till day three, when they drink and eat and fight some more and then depart. Unfortunately, I learned all this three days after I went to Balserilla and in my ignorance, showed up promptly at 9:00am – the height of amateur hour.

Deep in the mountains of the Comarca, myself and five female volunteers heard the field before we saw it. The horns and whistles were loud but the dull, drunken chorus of shouting was what caused pause in the group. We agreed to stay together and leave if things got bad. Balserilla’s date and location are unknown outside of the Comarca and foreigners are not invited. Additionally, foreign females are coveted and we had only one male (that’d be me).

The first fifteen minutes were the worst of the day. We were immediately surrounded upon entering – some were curious and some angry. Some asked if we were journalists and warned us not to take pictures or tell anyone about this (whoops). Eyes level, determined and angry, a stocky Ngöbe woman with a black eye punched her open hand and approached my friend Carolyn. I stepped between them and stopped the woman with an outstretched arm. She didn’t even look at me. Eyes on Carolyn, she repeatedly tried to go around until her friends pulled her back. Surrounded and overwhelmed, we struggled to understand drunken questions, explained repeatedly who we were and why we were there (just to watch), and turned down marriage requests and fight challenges.

With such a friendly reception, we decided to keep moving and fortunately myself and another volunteer found community members in the crowd and were able to relax and look around.
The scene: There are hundreds of people and everyone is drunk. About ¼ of the people are paired off and fighting; another ¼ are splayed passed out on the ground; ¼ are mingling, drinking, watching, and the final ¼ are playing the Balsa.

With some chicha fuerte and a feathered community member

At this point in the day, the real Balseros were done and those still competing were playing with only eight sticks (which seemed like a lot to me at the time). There was no tournament or even system, one man simply approaches another and challenges him and they begin. The only rule I heard of was that those from the same town never face one another.

The dress: Many paint their faces with black and red stripes. Some men wear a typical Panamanian farmer’s hat with feathers sticking out of the top and others wear traditional female dresses to hide their legs while they dance for the game. A handful wore dried animal carcasses like backpacks (I found out afterwards that those with mountain lion carcasses or large bull horns are true Balseros). Many blow conch shells or bull horns, like air horns at a basketball game. Almost everyone had either a tin or plastic whistle.

Shell, whistle, painted faces, and back right is a man in a dress

Once we settled, we talked with community members and drunken passerby. The women turned down more marriage proposals and I earned a lot of respect when I would explain that all five were “with me.” We had a chance to take some pictures and some video without too much harassment. A stranger challenged me to the game – my chance. Worried that he was only challenging me in order to serve a gringo a whopping, I declined. There are few things I regret more in my life. Next year…

After about three hours, the heat and chicha fuerte had us woozy and burned (inside and out) and we decided to hike back out. At the entrance, I turned back for one last picture. As I set up the shot, one man knocked another to the ground and as I hit the shudder, he kicked him in the back. Turning, I stepped over a splayed body and walked away from the drunken violence. 
A last look; note shirtless man kicking fallen red shirt


At March 31, 2011 at 4:51 PM , Blogger Joy said...

hahaha. "let's get drunk and throw trees at each other!" "yeah!! great idea dude let's turn this into a cultural event!"

also, my favorite line in this: The women turned down more marriage proposals and I earned a lot of respect when I would explain that all five were “with me.”


At January 28, 2013 at 11:20 AM , Blogger bama said...

Wow! I am exhausted from reading about this. What a peek you have given me into an amazing mountain tradition.


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