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Balseria Part 1: Balseria 2012

In the "Cult of Escapism": Balseria Part 1: Balseria 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Balseria Part 1: Balseria 2012

Despite its reputation in Panamanian media, Balseria is more than just drunken Indians punching each other and throwing logs – it's the combination of a sport and a festival and a unique cultural blend of competition, camaraderie and celebration. On the night of February 17th and day of February 18th, I attended my second balseria.

On this blog, I almost always try to make posts short, interesting and funny. However, balseria is one of the most interesting events I've ever been to and deserves more than 500 words. I have thus broken my overall experience into three posts: A long and analytical look at balseria; my deul with Pacquiao; and my post-balseria reputation in site. Enjoy.

Balseria Part 1: Balseria 2012

This year's balseria was held in my friend Jess's site, on the other side of the Comarca. I arrived the day before the games to do some technical work with Jess and to get a first impression of the event. Four other volunteers joined us – another girl and three guys.

Balseria is held once or twice a year, during the dry season. One town invites (challenges) another and is thus responsible for hosting the event. Four is a significant number in Ngabe culture - I'm still trying to figure out why - so balseria is technically a four day event. Day one and four are arrival and departure. On day two, officially, the host feeds the challengers food and fermented liquors (chicha fuerte) and prepare for the match. Unofficially, everyone parties. Day three is the day of the games, which begin at dawn and end at dusk.

The following observations and experiences were gathered the night before and the morning of the games.

The Ceremony
Day three of balseria (the games) begins with a ceremony at dawn. We (the volunteers) walked the grounds in the predawn, wondering where the ceremony would be held. Minutes later, we could make out two large groups forming on either side of an open field. People ran to join one of the groups (which were people from my town and people from Jess's) and there was a chorus of horns, whistles and wild yelling from all sides. The best balseros (men who compete in the balsa) led each group toward each other, until they formed a tight circle, twelve people deep, with maybe six people in the middle.
The "Ceremony"

 At this point, I was expecting something formal to happen. Instead, the men in the middle grabbed balsa sticks and started hurling. Spectators fought to recover the balsas and when they did, they squared off and hurled as well. Horns blared, whistles squealed and everyone was either chanting or yelling. Much hurling occurred, but definitely no ceremony. This happened for maybe fifteen minutes and then, inexplicably, the large circle dispersed and balseros approached each other and began the games. Someone standing next to me said, “the ceremony is over.” What ceremony?

A Balsa Match
A balsa match is initiated with a challenge. The most competitive and interesting match I saw all day began like this: six men from my town approached a known balsero from Jess's town and proposed a match of four men, 25 throws each. The balsero accepted and recruited three of the best men he could think of to represent their region. The “captains” then met, decided on the order and the location and sent their first two balseros to face off. A rectangle of spectators formed around the match and the attention from then on fell only on the two competing balseros.
Alexi throws mid-match

The first balsero threw 25 balsas in succession, receiving fresh sticks from a teammate holding a vertical stack of maybe 10 sticks (the thrown balsas are recovered by teammates and spectators and placed back in the stack). The balsero may take as long and get as close to his opponent as he wants. Some prefer to dance and feint quite a bit before each throw, others throw rapid fire. Meanwhile, the opponent dances in place, rhythmically blowing a whistle and carefully watching the thrower. The thrower must hit his opponent below the knees, otherwise both sides break into argument and potentially a brawl.

There is no point system, the only way to win is by incapacitating your opponent (i.e. he can no longer stand). Click here for a short video of a balsa match. Note that I'm trying to secretly film from the hip.

After the match, the teams sit together and drink chicha. I saw three fights break out between Jess's boys and mine, yet after the match they were all drinking chicha together. Camaraderie above all.

Despite the madness captured in your first glance, balsa is a sport. It is quien es mas macho at the most primordial level and if you enjoy boxing, UFC, wrestling, or any other type of sport martial art, you would enjoy a well-regulated balsa match.

Balseria taps into the basic enjoyment we derive from regional and national rivalries – think Boston vs. New York, Barcelona vs. Madrid, or USA vs. China in the Olympics. In the month leading up to the event, the participant towns choose their balseros and blow horns and whistles every night to signal the impending competition. Like most sporting events, not everyone attends, but most know who will be competing and afterward, who won.

Balseria has been criticized for the ubiquity of fighting during the event. If you don't like seeing two shirtless men punch each other in the face, the criticism is valid. However, these fights are different from what we typically see in bar brawls and street fights.

In a balseria fight, you can only punch in the head - no kicking, no body shots. The fight never goes to the ground and weapons are never used. The majority of fights that I saw began with one man challenging another, the two removing their shirts and squaring off and a group forming around the fighters, to watch and to regulate. The fighters punch each other and if one falls, the other simply waits to see if he wants to get up and continue.

An argument
When someone has had enough, a spectator (I'm guessing a friend) usually steps between the fighters and waves his hands in front of his chest, like a ref in a boxing match. Mostly, the fighters then go opposite ways, but sometimes they will share a drink and talk for a while. When fighters break the rules (e.g. by kicking or sucker-punching), spectators typically break them up or otherwise prevent them from deteriorating into a “dirty” brawl.

Women fights are the most brutal – it's all hair grabbing and hammer fists to the face. While the men typically look intense and concentrated during a fight, the women look furious and insane. I'd much rather fight a Ngäbe man.

Chicha Fuerte
I drank four kinds of fermented corn liquor during balseria, all presented in the sketchiest containers you can imagine (one was literally a former kerosene bottle). My reigning favorite thing to ferment (out here) is still corn and as such, I drank mostly corn liquor. I also had fermented banana, which they refer to as “witch juice,” as well as palm wine and something called guarapo. I don't know what guarapo is made of but it smells and tastes like vomit. Seriously. I was convinced that I had consumed someone else's vomit, until I returned to my town and someone explained that that's just how it tastes.

A half liter bottle of whatever was 25 cents, though in about eight total hours (between two days) of consistent consumption, I probably only spent a dollar. Being gringos and therefore inherently fascinating, there was a constant flow of random people approaching us and insisting that we drink with them. Although, their interpretation of drinking “with” them sometimes involved them handing us a sketchy container, with a sketchier fermented liquid and watching us drink the whole thing in one go. Most people assumed we would pass it around, but some would force us, sometimes physically, to finish the contents of the container.
Would you like some chicha?

One guy, who we started calling “The Feeder,” insisted on pouring the drink into our mouths himself. This was a problem since he was like five feet tall and so drunk that he couldn't stand still. So he would reach up, wobbling, and attempt to feed us. At one point, he poured the chicha straight down my shirt, missing my mouth entirely and I uttered the now infamous line, “You have to put it in my mouth!” I actually said that. I'll never live that one down.

Luckily, I would place the liquor's strength at about 3% (a beer is usually about 5%) and not everyone was as aggressive as The Feeder, so I never got drunk drunk. Tipsy yes, but drunk no. Which is against the spirit of balseria, but probably a good move for a gringo.

Being a Gringo at Balseria
The majority of people were excited that we were there. Hence all the free fermented liquor. Many were wary and only maybe three people the whole day were hostile. The few hostile interactions were basically fueled by suspicion and xenophobia and are otherwise not even worth mentioning.

Look at that gringo blow

Our most consistent conflict was that many did not want any pictures of the event. We were repeatedly warned not to sell the photos we had taken. Unfortunately, journalists have attended balserias and presented the event as nothing more than a large gathering of drunken Indians punching and throwing logs at each other. Racism against the indigenous is already widespread in Panama and a negatively painted article about their only festival exacerbates their images as stupid, drunken Indians.

That obviously wasn't our motivation for taking pictures, but I can understand why people were wary. However, even those who asked us not to take pictures were ultimately friendly. One balsero threatened to take my camera away and five minutes later handed me a bowl of banana liquor. The message: I'm glad your here, sharing our culture, just don't take any fucking pictures. Fair enough.

Keeping with ancient tradition, many of the participants from my town walked three days across the Comarca to reach the balseria. On arrival, they were greeted with chicha and food and escorted to their accommodations (a field). They could have, like me, taken public buses and arrived in less than five hours, but they wanted to do things the traditional way (that is, they are masochists).

In addition to the game itself, balseria, is a festival of cultural survival. While the Ngäbe population may be growing, the language and culture are dying through neglect and dilution with outside influences. Balseria is the only Ngäbe festival that I am aware of and involves a sport unique to the Ngäbes. Those in attendance dress and decorate themselves traditionally, painting their faces and wearing hats with feathers, jewelry and animal skins. There is deliberate effort to speak only Ngäberre and some even sing in Sabanero – a dialect that will probably die in the next 20 years. Ngäbes are always proud, stubborn and strong and I've never seen them more proud than at balseria.


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