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A 15th Birthday Party

In the "Cult of Escapism": A 15th Birthday Party

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A 15th Birthday Party

To celebrate their daugher´s 15th birthday, my third host family made 15 pounds of rice, chicken and vegetables* and shared it with the extended family (of which I am an honorary member / the token gringo). However, rather than sit around a table together, mother Anglea simply handed out plates of food and people scattered, returning home (they live within sight of one another), or finding chairs around the house. I was seated on the opposite side of the house from the kitchen, alone, so she walked over, handed me my food, and walked away. A rousing party. Before you judge however, realize this is more than most people here do for their birthdays, which is nothing.

It wasn´t always like this – it used to be much worse.

Traditionally, when Ngöbe women turn 15, they begin an exciting four day celebration. During those thrilling days, the women are locked in a room and work 21-22 hours a day. They make traditional bags, pound rice, grind corn, wash clothes and brand their tongues with a hot iron every half hour. Ok, they don´t do that, but they are allowed, quote, “a minimum of two and maximum three hours of sleep.” Then they take a 3am shower in the cold river. Awesome.

If you´re really traditional, the elder women in the family put thorns in your mouth every time you talk. The lesson – shut the hell up. Or, only talk to close family members.

Now, before you feminist types get too heated, let´s go over a man´s four day 15th: work in the fields, fish, hunt, make hats, build/repair a house – for 22 hours a day. The work may be more interesting but it´s also way more exhausting. Though, admittedly, they don´t have to chew on thorns.  

And when the four days are over, they do that kind of work every day for the rest of their lives. No wonder the Ngöbes are tough. Think about quinciñeras and Bar Mitzvahs in the States. If I were a Ngöbe teen, I´d try and convince my parents that they must but getting old, my birthday´s not till October! Of 2050.

So what´s the suburban American equivalent of a traditional Ngöbe 15th? Forced into a cubicle, where you write reports, do research and make copies for four days? On two hours of sleep in your ergonomic chair, followed by an icy shower and more work? Sounds thrilling - remind me not to turn 15 again.  

However, those days exist only in memory where I live. I hear the more remote, mountainous Ngöbes continue the tradition and a few of the super-old in Soloy went through it as teens.  

No wonder the old women dont say hi to me on the street.

*Does anyone else hate the expression “veggies”?


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