Just to the east, over the mountains from the eclectic congregation of foreign retirees that is Boquete Panama, you find the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle. Comarca, meaning “reservation” in Spanish, is the homeland of the Ngobe and Bugle peoples of Panama. Staunch in stature and stoic in nature, the Ngobe-Bugle are among the most impoverished group of Panamanians. Some men labor for $2 per day. The women dress in naguas, colorful frocks with triangular designs that are meant to represent the mountains, valleys and rivers that comprise their homeland. They produce coffee and small woven artisan bags known as chacaras. They are unemotional, and often unnoticed next to the more popular Kuna and Emberá groups of Panama, but every March they practice a unique martial custom of catharsis known in their dialect as krün, or more commonly, the Spanish balsaria.
Villages gather from miles away; some villagers walk for many hours to join the festival. Men and women alike come with a common goal: to get completely obliterated-drunk, and beat the ever-living-tar out of each other. Dressed in colorful attire with feathers and face paint, many Ngobe cannot accurately recount when or why the first balsaria commenced. There is some speculation as to how the balsaria came to be, due to the fact that Ngobe history is largely unwritten. Some prevailing theories I have heard involve the exchange of spouses (to the winners, naturally) to diversify the gene pool. Others claim tradition as the reason for perpetuating the balsaria, a la Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. There is a large dose of town pride involved, equivalent to coffeeshop conversations about how the local football team may fare in the upcoming playoffs.
Now, you may think you can come up with better reasons to pick a fight than tradition. Perhaps another person cast a lustful eye on your significant other. Maybe someone assassinated an Archduke of a country with whom you have a loose, convoluted alliance (even if you can barely identify it on a map). Or it could be that you thought you smelled the faint scent of Weapons of Mass Destruction being produced over yonder. These would all be valid excuses to tap your offender on the shoulder, smite him aside the face with your glove, and suggest a melee in the parking lot. However, unlike most parking lot fights, the balsaria is bound by some semblance of rules and structure.
As with any brawl, there need to be large quantities of booze, so the Ngobe whip up large batches of chicha fuerte, literally “strong juice,” a corn-based moonshine. In one type of fighting, two teams are made and someone gets a balsa stick that is around 5 ft long and 4 inches in diameter. The person with the stick selects a target person from the other team and his objective is to hit that target in only the legs. The thrower then does a little dance, and proceeds to run toward the target while hurling the stick like a javelin at his opponent. Not that this merits mentioning, but it is the opponent’s objective to avoid the stick via his own little dance while generally facing away from the attacker and watching over his shoulder. The stick then switches teams and is fired back at the first team. This is done in succession for many hours, often resulting in severe damage and immense pain. YAAAY TRADITION!
In the other form of battle, fighters select one another on a basis of similar size and level of drunkenness. They often wind up in bear hugs, head-butting and hammer-fist punching each other until someone finally taps out. Though their techniques would never stand up against, say, muay-thai or judo, it’s interesting to see how consistent their styles are. There is no kicking when anyone is down and other such rules of sportsmanship, although this hardly prevents the vast amount of injuries that result from the 4-day-long marathon bludgeoning.
You can find a little further explanation and pictures of balsaria traditions, oddly enough, by visiting a Peace Corps blog.
It’s worth noting, according to some friends of mine who have participated in the balsaria, that fighting a Ngobe is like fighting a zombie. No matter how many times you knock them down, they bounce back up… so I suppose you could say that what they lack in martial arts, logic, and respect for their own bodies, they make up for in tenacity. On a personal level, I’m reluctant to step into the ring with a man that has worked hard labor every day of his life just to be able to eat. As the Spanish saying goes, “The cemetery is full of brave men.”