In the 1950s, Santo Domingo de los Colorados* was a village ( it\’s a city now) in the western part of Ecuador, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. It was little more than a clearing in the jungle, which meant that it was hot and humid, and the bugs were spectacular.
Some of those still give me the creeps today, when I think about them: four-inch locusts that would fly in through the hotel\’s open doors in the evening, attracted by the light. They were so big that you could hear the sound they made when they alighted on, say, the table at which you were eating dinner. The suction pads on their feet were strong enough that, when one flew onto the white blouse of a friend who was eating with us, the man sitting next to her had to grab hold of the bug and pull, to get it off her. The village dogs would jump up and snap at them, and I lived in a perpetual state of alarm lest one of those monster grasshoppers should land on me.
On Saturday evenings, at the hour of the locusts, the Colorado Indians would come striding out of the jungle and promenade around the unpaved square of the town. They were a sight to see. The men–tall, muscular, and healthy looking–wore as their only garment a kind of very short skirt of blue-and-white striped fabric. Their faces and bodies were painted in dark blue horizontal stripes. Their heads were shaved almost to the top, and the remaining hair was gummed together and combed forward with a red paste of grease and achiote, so that they seemed to be wearing flat, stiff caps. Over their shoulders they wore lengths of brightly colored satin.
Behind these apparitions came the women, their bodies also painted in stripes, their skirts similar to the men\’s but reaching below the knee. Their long black hair hung straight down from a middle part. They wore a great many necklaces–some with small mirrors hanging from them. And like the men, they were bare above the waist. But like the females of the brightly colored birds of the jungle, in comparison with the men the women seemed drab and ordinary.
The sight of these people in their splendor went a long way to mitigate the heat, the mosquitoes, the filthy hotel, and the terrible food of the place. But as my parents sat over after-dinner coffee, one of the locusts flew perilously close to my head. I dove under the table, spilling my father\’s coffee into his lap, after which I was sent to bed.
When I got up the next morning I looked out my window, and couldn\’t believe my eyes. There on the dirt of the square lay the Colorados, in piles, as if they had been massacred during the night. The satin cloths were stained with filth, the red caps were melting in the heat and streaming down the men\’s faces. The women were there too, in the piles, their mirror necklaces glinting in the sun. Nobody was moving, despite the swarming flies.
\”Es la chicha,\” the hotel manager told us. We already knew the name of the strongly alcoholic drink that the native people drank from the mountains to the jungle, but this time the hotel manager gave us the recipe.
You put a big canoe made out of a hollowed-out tree trunk in the clearing of a jungle settlement. You call the old women of the tribe and hand them a big pile of cassava roots. The women sit on the ground next to the pile, bite off chunks of cassava, chew them thoroughly, and spit them into the canoe. When the last of the cassava is chewed up, you cover the canoe with banana leaves and let it sit in the tropical sun for probably not very long. Between the salivary enzymes and the heat, before you know it you have a brew that can fell strong men.
By midday the people on the square started to move around, and soon, their body paintings smeared, the women\’s hair full of dust, the Colorados formed a single file and disappeared back into the jungle. We piled into our 1948 Dodge–whose second gear used to slip, requiring my mother to hold it up with a forked stick while my father drove–and took the single-lane road that climbed up out of the jungle and into the mountains, back to Quito.
*The indigenous people of the area have since reclaimed their original name: Tsachila. At the time we were there, they were ordinarily known as the Colorados, which means \”red\” in Spanish.