It’s hot and humid on the last day of August. It’s even hotter inside the small dance hall in Santa Rosa de Aguan, the village on a peninsula bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the front side and the Aguan River on the backside.
Tonight is my first time attending a dance in the village. A traditional Garifuna band is center stage and the crowded house is dancing the “Punta.” The custom is to form a line and move in a circle around the hall. Some older women have Christmas decorations in their hair, and the streaming silver tinsel adds something special to the evening.
A bar is located at the back of the hall, and shots of rum are part of the ritual honoring Santa Rosa in this week-long festival. If you’re feeling it, you might take a swig of Gifiti, a lethal mix of herbs and roots mixed with aguardiente. The locals encourage me to take a shot, the newcomer to Aguan.
The Gifiti sits on the bartop in a narrow-necked, two-foot high, slim, clear glass container.
“What’s in this?” I ask. Everybody laughs.
The men revere the drink, which has a medicinal quality that affects the body and soul. The women, however, stay away. They sip frescos and sit together on wooden benches against the wall.
There is a dance every night this week, and they go all night or as long as the band can stay upright. After all, they’re sampling Gifiti also.
It’s midnight and the hall is full. The band is hot. Suddenly, a man busts through the entrance, waving a knife. He holds it out front and moves in a slow circle as dancers scatter. The band keeps playing but a touch softer as the knife wielder moves to the center of the dance floor. Someone shouts, “Gabino,” he turns and three men rush out and tackle him from behind, forcing the knife from his grip. They carry Gabino, a ladino man, “from across the river,” not a local Garifuna, out the door and drop him twenty yards away, face down in the sand. He remains that way, arms out to the side.
The crowd moves back inside. The remaining people are excited now that an element of danger has been introduced to the festivities. The band starts again. I take a few shots of Gifiti and join the Punta line when it passes. The irregular line circles the hall, fifty dancers moving to the rhythm.
There’s a crash and Gabino is back, shirtless, wielding a machete this time, in a Samurai stance. He’s crouched, moving in his circular way toward center stage. We scatter to the corners. I grab a chair and hold it in front of me. Gabino turns slowly, the machete out front, held in both hands. He has sand on his back and the side of his face. He seems determined not to go easy this time. The music stops. Someone yells, “Vive Gabino,” and two men rush him from his backside and take him down. People pile on like it’s a scrum. There is a mixture of cursing and applause as Gabino is deposited fifty yards away this time, face down again in the sand.
Back inside a story circulates. Gabino is upset because he thinks the entrance fee to the dance is excessive, hence the outbursts. Also, he was disqualified when he attempted to run for mayor of Aguan last month because he’s not a resident. The two incidents, taken together, appear to have pushed Gabino over the edge. Tonight seems like his attempt at retribution.
It’s now 3:00 a.m. and the end seems near. The band is playing but the dancers have split off into the corners. The Punta line is irregular. I’m ready to go as the alcohol intake and no rest for three days is catching up to the revelers. But before I can exit, there’s a commotion at the front door and Gabino is back. He’s holding a four-foot-long bamboo pole and he’s in his samurai stance again. He’s covered in sand, his shirt is torn and he’s barefoot.
Before I leave, I want to take up a collection and just pay Gabino’s entrance fee. I think he’s earned it. He hasn’t hurt anyone, and he’s provided excitement for an otherwise leisurely event, a tale that will be retold for some time.
I see an opening by a side door and make my escape, leaving the hall and jogging away toward my temporary lodgings when I hear “Vive Gabino,” just as the sky brightens. If I could vote, I’d vote for Gabino as mayor.
I continue to my room and collect enough change to pay Gabino’s entrance fee. I think he deserves a chance to enter the dance with dignity and enjoy the few hours left in this celebration honoring Santa Aguan, the patron saint of peace. And maybe get a few shots of Gifiti before the rising sun signals the end.
Patrick Cleary earned an M.A. in English from San Diego State University and divides his time between San Diego and Honduras, where he built a casita on the beach. He writes stories and dreams of speaking perfect Spanish someday.