Volunteer Experiences Culture, Doubts Objective Reality

I had heard about purísimas, but I had only the vaguest idea of what they consisted of. In general I knew that they’re religious-inspired events put on by families where people sing and pray and then pass out food, candy, and drinks. I imagined it to be a kind of hybrid between a prayer session and Halloween, and I wasn’t far off. When the opportunity presented itself, I joined my friend Enoe (pronounced ‘en-o-a’) and her little brother-in-law Marvin and walked down the road toward the purísima. As we approached we saw a group of about 60 people spilling into the street; some were children seemingly cuing up in semi-organized lines and the rest were mothers and little ones gathering around the entrance to a house. We met up with Ruth, another friend, and took up positions near the perimeter to people-watch, waving and nodding to familiar faces. My friend Herty belongs to one of the families that was hosting the event, so he was wandering around and helping prepare. Soon some of the women near the front of the group began singing a song about mother Mary and everyone joined in. It was a short song, mostly for the children, but clearly part of an unspoken deal: sing and you’ll get treats. As the singing began there was a powerful blast from not far away that made me recoil suddenly, though I seemed to be the only one not prepared for it. Someone was tossing powerful firecrackers into the road above and below the crowd during the song. I would see a smoking canister sail through the air and then hear and feel a CRACK that felt like artillery landing in our midst. I began mentally preparing for the possibility of a misfire heading into the crowd and wondered if I’d be able to grab it quickly enough to toss it out before it blew up in my face. I calculated that the chances were high that I would lose a hand in the process, so I’m glad it didn’t come to that. Shortly after the singing and explosions stopped the children surged forward and I saw adults carrying plastic bins and pails over their heads passing out plastic bags filled with fruit juices. A sea of people of all ages, but especially children, began calling out to the goody-carriers to give them one of whatever they were carrying. The carriers were like mother birds surrounded by chirping chicks clamoring for food. More distributors of goods came out from the house with all kinds of things in their baskets, from cooked corn on the cob to sugarcane to rice pudding in bags to sweet lemons to gift bags with chips and candies and all manner of colored bags of juice. The shouting and pressing up to the distributors to grab at the stuff before they ran out took on a force of its own and led to a barely controlled mass of grabbing, pushing, tugging, and stumbling people. I stared in wonder at the clamor and insistence of adults and children alike. Old women were tapping and grabbing at the water-balloon-bags of juices and children pouted and punched each other when they didn’t get a coveted treat.

I was handed four or five fruit juices, a sweet lemon, a gift bag, and a bag of rice pudding while still processing what I was seeing. I was fascinated by the change from individual to crowd dynamics and the glazed looks on the faces of those handing out the goodies. My friends Enoe and Ruth would call out to Herty and other relatives, trying to lay claim to this or that flavor of juice or type of food, muttering half-jokingly after not getting the item that they weren’t going to speak to them again. They couldn’t understand why their closest relatives and friends were ignoring their calls and entreaties. I was in sensory overload and could only just barely maintain a grip on my slippery, dripping bags while watching wide-eyed at the scene around me.

After about 15 minutes of watching and passively accepting anything that was handed my way I noticed Herty struggling to hold a sack of gift bags out of the reach of grabbing hands and I asked Ruth, chuckling, if maybe I shouldn’t lend him my height to lift the sack out of the fray. Her eyes widened with surprise and the prospect of an entertaining outcome and said “Sí, sí! Vaya! Dame las bolsas y vaya!” I handed over the bags and my lemon and walked over to him. I caught his eye and called out “Te ayudo!” He understood immediately and seemed thankful to be relieved of his duty. The way it worked in my mind was that I would hold the sack up high and would hand the bags to Herty, who would then distribute them, but as Herty handed over the sack and stepped away I found myself suddenly responsible for handing out the bags myself. The forest of fingers shifted their focus from him to me and I saw people’s surprised amusement at my height and the novelty of a white guy handing out the gift bags. As soon as the shouting and jostling rose to meet me, however, my surroundings took on a fluid and indistinguishable quality. Everything was colors, shapes, and noise and it was all I could do to take out the few remaining bags and drop them into the open hands that crossed my immediate field of vision. My mind was nearly blank except for the necessary motor functions of remaining standing, breathing, and mechanically passing out the goods. The only face I recognized was Herty’s and as I handed him the last few bags I dropped my arms in surrender. The crowd quickly realized that there was nothing more to be had and shifted its attention to the next nearest source. I chuckled, stunned, as I made my way back to the sidelines.

For the next few minutes people I knew walked up to me and, with disappointed looks and good-natured rebukes, asked me why I hadn’t given them a bag when they were calling my name? I could only stutter an apology and reply that I hadn’t heard them or seen them. They shook their heads, disbelieving, and turned away. I could see that from where they were standing they were speaking perfectly clearly and were the most visible people in the world. They were perplexed by my obliviousness or possibly intentional ignoring, but from my perspective the experience was radically different. If I were blind and deaf I would hardly have had more trouble distinguishing anything within the formless sea of sounds, shapes, and colors swirling around me. It was like having tunnel vision, but without the narrowness that ‘tunnel’ implies. I had my full field of vision, but the meaning of what my senses were taking in was being entirely lost, as if someone had cut the cable that went from my video camera to my processor. The images were displayed, but nobody was decoding them. It reminds me of descriptions that Oliver Sacks gives of the perceptual difficulties some of his patients have. Everything they see is a collection of meaningless lines and shapes and they are unable to connect them to their significance(click for more information). Our experience of the world is contingent on our ability to give meaning to what we see.

We take for granted that we recognize a person or a house instantly, but what really goes on is that we see a collection of colors and shapes and our brain unconsciously compares this pattern with templates built up over our lifetimes and matches it with the concept of ‘person’ or ‘house’ and all the associations that you have with those ideas. We tend to think of perception as a direct experience of reality. What you see is what you get. But my experience highlights the intermediate steps between what is and what we perceive that are affected by a whole slew of environmental, chemical, and neurological variables. Drugs interfere with perception, as do emotions and the previous experiences that literally shape our neural connections. In moments of intense experience our perception can change radically. They can be warped, hindered, heightened, or deepened depending on the situation. Think of how time slows down during an intense or dangerous experience. How quickly our senses prick up when we’re frightened. How carried away we become as we’re swept up in a crowd. If our perceptions and actions are so sensitive to changes in our internal and external environment, it brings into question the existence of an objective truth, reality, and even a free will(I talk about these topics in my review of The Social Animal). What is real when little chemical or neurological differences can fundamentally change the way we perceive reality? What is free will when our bodies act instinctively and unconsciously conform to social or environmental stimuli? To pick a metaphor, I think we’re more like kayakers without a paddle in a strong river current than motorboat captains on a placid lake. I think we like thinking we’re in control despite the evidence to the contrary.

But I’ve gotten far from my original experience. I left off at my realization of the radically different perceptual experiences in the purísima. My friends thought I willfully ignored them because they based their reasoning on their perceptual framework, while I had a very different perceptual experience and was not conscious of their presence. People quickly began disbursing and the event ended as quickly as it had begun, though with fewer fireworks. I went home and stashed my loot in my fridge, pondering all these things. It was a fun experience; I learned about a cultural tradition in Nicaragua, saw a bit of how crowd psychology works, and experienced firsthand the fragility of perception. I wish I had taken pictures.

Next up: I’d like to talk about how the purísima fits into a larger cultural trend I see here of generosity in the community, so stay tuned!


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet Boddy on December 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Very interesting! I love where this experience took you. Can’t wait for your post about generosity.


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