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High church and low jungle: a busy day in Ecuador


I don’t double book events. Not a wedding and a baptism in the same day. Even more so if the wedding takes place in an Ecuadorian jungle community and the baptism in a small town two hours away by foot, boat and car. My Ecuador vacation was booked with events even before I left. I was some sort of socialite of the Amazon – wedding, visits, baptism. I thought I planned my vacation well, but I learned that business in Ecuador does not match plans one makes in New York.

My soon to be godson Suyu, his parents and I were waiting in the courtyard of the Catholic church in Tena, small tropical town of 13,000. We had became friends a few years ago while I was visiting Tena and its surrounding rainforest as tourists. Suyu’s parents, Quechuas and very much following their indigenous beliefs, decided to get their son baptized just in case.

The nun in charge of baptisms was busy. Tiny, bulky woman slipping into old age, dressed in a white ensemble that included an apron and head scarf, she looked mean. She had already yelled at me twice for stiking my nose into the tiny room where she was wrapping up a godparent prep class. Peeping through the door-less entrance, I saw a dozen confused adults gazing at a huge whiteboard dominated by a scary red diagram: two circles marked heaven and earth connected by many furious red lines. She scribbled godparents over the menacing clutter of lines. I never imagined god-parenthood that complicated. After leaving us bake in the December sun for an hour, the nun decided she would see us. We had to establish a date for Suyu’s baptism, easy admin task a westerner would think. It took one exhausting hour of bargaining involving two rounds of bribery and zero questions about my religious affiliation and fitness to be godmother to set the date. After my pockets were empty, the baptism was set for Thursday, 6:45 pm, be there or be square, no room for negotiations. On the way back home I realized with horror the wedding was on the same day. Could I choose between all the fun of a wedding in the rainforest and the responsibility of getting a child baptized? How could I prioritize? Historically, first came the wedding invitation from the Quechua community I had been visiting for a few years now in the rainforest around Tena. A remote, traditional and pretty closed community I managed to befriend and get attached to. It was a great honor to be invited to such an intimate event, it was truly a once in a lifetime event not to miss. When I announced my friends in Tena I would be in their neck of the woods, they expressed the ardent desire to have me as international godmother to their 5 year old son. It was an offer I could not refuse mostly for moral reasons.

Date set and paid, I left my soon to be godson in Tena and went to join the family of the bride in her community. Three of the eight siblings of the bride picked me up from the Tena marketplace. We rode for one hour on a local blue buss who took us on the banks of Napo River. We crossed Rio Napo in a red and yellow canoe, and on the other side we hitchhiked a pickup truck that drove us inland for half an hour into a small, one-street village. Our final destination was 45 minutes outside this village: a thatched roof hut shoved in a dense patch of vegetation where the bride’s inlaws were dwelling.

It was the night before the wedding/baptism combo and I was excited. And nervous. My busiest day lay ahead of me. Unluckily, the next hut neighbor had one immense speaker which he used to its maximum capacity all through the night. Instead of listening to soothing insects clacking and wind rustling through tropical foliage I squirmed desperately on the hard mattresses, loud music blasting my lungs out of my thorax and nearly bursting my eardrums. At 5am, an unearthly hour for a late sleeper like me, I had to wake up. Dressed elegantly in cargo pants, white peasant shirt, dark circles around my eyes and loaded with presents I followed my friends to the wedding location – the groom’s house, a long walk away, through sizzling sun. I arrived half broiled and completely soaked in sweat. The bride’s family appeared soon after, much perkier than me despite their 3 hours walk through jungle carrying heavy loads of food and kids. I mingled with the guests, drank chicha, sort of a rainforest creamy manioc beer, and kept solving physics formulas involving time, space, and speed. I was really hoping I would make the wedding ceremony. I could skip the meal and starve, but I had to be present at the Quechua marriage rites, this is why I flew from New York. Luckily, the wedding rites started at noon and I saw them in all their splendor: asking of the bride’s hand, the godparents dance, the changing of the bride in new clothes, the bride’s dance. I even get to eat the first course, a yummy creamy manioc soup with big chunks of meat in it. Around 4pm I almost hijacked a pickup truck that dropped some latecomers to the wedding and off I went towards Rio Napo. My three friends accompanied me to Tena, for them it was more fun to travel with me than attend their sister’s wedding. We reached Tena by dark. I left my friends in the marketplace, hopped in a cab and drove to Suyu’s house. In classic Ecuadorian style, people were still running around in underwear, bathing, or looking for clothes to put on even though they had 15 minutes till the service started. Suyu was sitting alone in front of the house, dressed up in a white sailor suit gazing down the street with a stray look. As good future godmother I paid the cabdriver extra to wait for the family to get ready. Sucks when you wait on your money.

Dozens of soon to be baptized kids along with countless relatives were flocking through the church door. Will I make it back to the wedding? I panicked elegantly on the inside while smiling to my friends, and painfully embraced a more relaxed attitude. In the church door I was introduced to an Ecuadorian couple – the other pair of godparents. I did not see this coming. I felt betrayed. Ok, I live far away, and could not remotely guide Suyu spiritually. But I could be the foreign (aka rich) godmom, how cool was that! Trapped in a parent scheme, horrified by the long wait, I took my seat in the front bench. Suyu fell asleep instantly, his tiny nose covered in sweat drops. The nun was zooming across the aisles holding a mic and barking loud instruction to intimidated relatives. I was tapping the floor tenaciously trying to peak at the neighbor’s watch. When my feet cramped, I started snapping pictures of cute girls in their princess dresses and of the sailor boys wondering what baptism and sailing had in common. The service began and went pretty fast until the sermon part when the priest could not stop talking. As his passion grew, so did the noise in the church. Realizing he was losing his audience, he wrapped the sermon in a short Amen and asked all the godparents to line up with their corresponding godchildren along the main aisle. The mass-baptism started with very well executed gestures: pour water, pray, bless, step to the side, pour water, pray, bless, step. Suyu’s turn came: pour water, pray, bless. We retreated to our place and I resumed my tapping and fidgeting. It was already 9 pm. The wedding was unfolding as I was waiting for 50 more kids to be baptized.

At 11 pm I descended on the banks of Napo River after an intense car race, that almost gave me a heart attack. It was pitch black and no boats on the river. Five muchachos were yelling in front of the boatman’s house: “Luis, oye, Luiiiiiiis!” They turned to me hopelessly: “He’s up there drunk and sleeping”. I pushed them aside: “Ok, let me try”. I filled my lungs with fresh tropical air and started in the most loud and feminine voice: “Luis, baja! Una senorita extranjera needs to cross the river!”. Miraculously, a light turned on above, and a sleepy Luis tumbled down the stairs. Half drunk and half sleepy he could not refuse to help a stranded foreign lady cross the river in the middle of the night. 30 minutes later we were on the same side of the river as the wedding. We proceeded on foot, through the darkest dark, more feeling than seeing the road, fearing for stray dogs or malefactors, but still joking around. The tall trees were casting spooky shadows and silver moonlight was twinkling through the thick vegetation. I heard feeble sounds of music through the pitch black night. It must be our wedding! Just like Cinderella I made it shortly before midnight back to the wedding where almost every male was drunk, a dozen people were napping under benches or on the concrete dance floor, women and children were dancing or chatting. I jumped right in the party, drinking and dancing, happy and relieved that I made it through my busiest day. The late hours of the night, the rain pouring down for an hour, the alcohol, or sleepy eyes could not stop me dancing. I deserved it.

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