Maloca in the Amazon

Ready to Celebrate

I heard the cries from the forest. Far away at first, damped by the noise of the cicadas,1 but approaching fast. The cries were human: They originated from people that were coming nearer, and from all I could tell there were a lot of them. Even though I had been warned in advance, it still gave me the creeps.

I was standing in the darkness outside the ceremonial house in the middle of nowhere, not even sure if I was still in Colombia, or already on the Brazilian side of the border. Down here in the Amazon, nobody cared.

As the people approached, I stood in awe: They were walking way after dusk, crossing the pitch-black forest without any lights, while I already felt lost when merely departing more than three steps from the door.

With the first Indians reaching the house – smiling, joking, laughing – my tension vanished: The guests had finally arrived, and the festival was ready to begin.

[¶]

“You have to celebrate when you’ve got the chance,” a German proverb goes.2 Unfortunately, we are often so entrenched in our daily routines that we don’t even notice the upcoming chances to celebrate – and if we do, we let them pass because “tomorrow we’ve got to work,” or “there is still so much else to do.”

I observed this recently when talking to my friend Christine about how we got our college degrees, but never really found the moment to celebrate it. Between the hand-over of our thesis and the emission of our marks and diplomas, so much time had passed that we simply forgot about it.

A similar thing almost happened after finishing Beyond Rules. Instead of celebrating, I stressed out about getting my inbox back to zero and keeping up with other commitments. I was about to enter “do mode” once again; a state that obviously doesn’t really allow for true celebration.

From a tempo giusto perspective, forgetting to celebrate is ultimately an indication of time anxiety and even poverty: “A festival is essentially a phenomenon of wealth; not, to be sure, the wealth of money, but of existential richness,” Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote. It is this existential richness that I needed to reconnect with, and my experience down there in the jungle between Colombia and Brazil seemed to be the clue that I needed.

[¶]

In the afternoon, I had helped the chief to prepare his birthday soup. One of the men had brought a capybara from the woods, the largest rodent in the world, akin to a giant guinea pig. He had skinned it and chopped it into pieces, while the rest of us had gotten wild lemons and cilantro leaves, and prepared a tasty stew with exclusively natural ingredients. Meanwhile, we had talked and snorted tobacco.

Coca leavesBurning leaves

I had also been present during the preparation of mambe, a powder made of toasted coca leaves and the ashes from burnt Cecropia leaves. The Indians enjoy chewing it, and they chew whenever they can. After a ceremonial introduction, my friends and I were allowed to chew it, too. We almost suffocated because of ignoring the chief’s advice to not breathe for a minute after taking the fine powder into our mouths; but after a while, we got the hang of it, and we enjoyed it just the way the Indians did.

Now, everything was prepared, and the other guests were arriving: It was a gathering of five indigenous tribes, somewhere in the deep woods of the Amazon rain forest – and I was right in the middle.

[¶]

If I compare the chief’s birthday to most birthday parties back at home, the Indians win hands down. There were no people worrying about next day’s work, or complaining about their bosses or low salaries. As Nietzsche said, “the trick is not to arrange a festival but to find people who can enjoy it.” And the guests at the chief’s birthday certainly knew how to do that!

As much as I think about it, I have rarely attended a feast so harmonious and absorbing. Unfortunately, festivals and parties in Western cities are often boring, over-commercialized, and in some strange sense unfulfilling. For Josef Pieper, the diagnostic is clear: According to him, a real festival has to be based on a religious ground.

In the rain forest, there certainly was some religious aspect to it: Snuffing tobacco and chewing mambe was at least as much a sacrificial offering to Mother Earth as it was personal indulgence; and the group dances and songs during the night were at least as much an incantation of the guardian spirits as mere entertainment.

But even if we ignore his call for a religious component of any worthwhile festival, Pieper has a point when he writes: “To celebrate a festival means to do something which is in no way tied to other goals, which has been removed from all ‘so that’ and ‘in order to’. True festivity cannot be imagined as residing anywhere but in the realm of activity that is meaningful in itself.”

Could it be that, over our obsession with work, productivity, and efficiency, we have forgotten how to celebrate?

[¶]

What really stuck with for months after the birthday party in the Amazon was its intensity: Everything was purposeful, from the repartition of the food, to the coca-chewing, to the jokes that were told in smaller groups. Every couple of minutes, someone would make the same cry I had heard earlier, and the whole lot of people in the house would join in. It was a cry of approval, of happiness, of general agreement with what was happening and with the stories that were told.

Dog sleeping inside the malocaHours later, the visitors were ecstatically dancing in the ceremonial house, me among them. Still later, I was dozing completely exhausted in my hammock in the same room, while the elders continued to dance and chant.

I don’t know if it was the coca, or their happiness, or their overall condition, but it certainly was impressive: These elders were all past retirement age. They had hiked for three or more hours in difficult terrain. Many of them didn’t even have shoes. And they still were dancing and singing and laughing all night long, until dawn, and then some. When the sun started to rise, they hugged the chief and set about to walk another three or more hours back to their villages.

“You have to celebrate when you’ve got the chance.” The Indians certainly had taken theirs.

[¶]

This brings me back to my question: Have we forgotten how to celebrate? From personal experience, I cannot agree completely. Even though it doesn’t happen every day, there are some wonderful festivals going on pretty much anywhere, no matter who’s around, when it occurs, and where you’re at.

Still, many of those parties, club nights, and sit-ins lack this special feeling that makes a festival really worth our time: How often do we get to the point where we transcend our normal lives and enter a kind of sacred zone, this curious place where we can be totally relaxed and totally ecstatic at the same time?

Celebrating a festival means approving the world at large, even if we may not approve the details – “such affirmation [is not] shallow optimism, let alone … smug approval, of that which is.  [It] is not won by deliberately shutting one’s eyes to the horrors in this world. Rather, it proves its seriousness by its confrontation with historical evil,” as Josef Pieper puts it.3

Despite the bullshit that’s happening in the world, there is still a reason to celebrate, and this reason is that there is something rather than nothing, life rather than merely dead matter. I leave it to you if you want to attribute this astonishing fact to God, Mother Earth, the Spaghetti Monster, or the Big Bang. But I wholeheartedly agree with Pieper that the fact alone is worth celebrating – and by celebrating it, we grab an opportunity to transcend the world of work, rationality, lack, and worry.

I suppose the way to attain this state more often is to be open for it. Let’s celebrate when we’ve got the chance, even if we didn’t put it on our agenda weeks ahead. This may mean partying hard, or sitting down to meditate, or going on a road trip with a friend, or visiting our grandmother with lots of time for tea and cookies. But it definitely means taking some time out of our busy schedules, and embracing the moment and the occasion – simply because we can. Even if we have to walk a couple of hours through a metaphorical rain forest around us.

“The cult has in regard to time a similar meaning as the temple in regard to space,” Pieper writes. By celebrating, we can take time out of its normal context, and dedicate it to the Gods, or to life, or to whatever we feel comfortable. It is, in this way, a huge and enjoyable step towards living tempo giusto.

  1. A marvelous noise, by the way. Click that link and listen to tracks number 7 and 16 to get an idea. []
  2. Interestingly, I couldn’t find an English equivalent. The closest seems to be “One must make hay when the sun shines,” but that of course comes from a work rather than a leisure perspective. If you have any additions, feel free to post them in the comments! []
  3. The English-language quotes taken from this site. It also provides a good overview over Pieper’s theory of festivity. []

Comments 12

  1. Cristhyano April 22, 2011

    Capivaras (capybara) is like a plague in Brazil. Sometimes when i go to the zoo here in my city, the tiny ones walks among us.
    Marvelous text, it was nice to read that. Must have been a wonderful travel.

    • Fabian April 22, 2011

      Haha, I remember we were followed by one in the zoo of Manaus, too! :)
      Tastes fine, though… ;)

      Thanks for dropping by, Cristhyano!

  2. Philipp April 26, 2011

    I am impressed. A great piece of writing in my eyes. I fully agree. What you are writing about is a real celebration of life. Very inspiring! Thanx for sharing this experience and your thoughts.

    Have a beautiful day Fabian,

    Philipp

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  4. Sarah December 28, 2011

    Great stuff – been spending a lot of time thinking about how we culturally forget how to have fun when we grow up; sitting in a bar and kvetching doesn’t make the list in my book. The question is how to let go of all that other stuff an be able to celebrate and find people who can do the same… Anyway, lots to think on – need to write on this at some point, but thanks for the smile. I will definitely be looking for ways to bring this into my life (short of going to the Amazon… at least at the moment.) Looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

    • Fabian January 4, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Sarah! There are certainly many nice spots to celebrate outside the Amazon! :)
      Happy new Year and all the best!

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