Every 31st of August, the town of Nejapa in El Salvador turns into a battleground of men running through the streets, their faces painted like skeletons, tossing balls of fire into the air. This is the festival “Las Bolas de Fuego.” I was part of the crazy crowd of onlookers who line the streets to be part of the adrenaline rush.
The celebration is rooted in the history of the town of Nejapa. In 1658 the nearby volcano, El Playon, erupted and forced the villagers to flee to the area that is now Nejapa. Originally the town was called Nixapa. There is also the legend that their patron saint San Jeronimo fought the devil with balls of fire.
Young boys and men form teams that battle one another with the balls fire. I didn’t notice any women participating, but it was hard to tell with the face paint and masks. They had faces painted like skeletons, warriors and demons, some wearing black ski masks or hats. Others showed their fearlessness by having their faces completely exposed. All the participants had on protective black gloves. The balls are made with wire that binds together rags soaked with kerosene.
Food vendors lined the entrance. Crowds of people wound their way through kiosks of carne asada, pupusas, hot chocolate and churros as they made their way to where the madness would commence.
Our group found a spot and anxiously waited for the game to begin. I watched photographers and television reporters pace back and forth, analyzing how they were going to approach the madness to get a good shot.
From somewhere up ahead the cries of the crowd rose into the crisp dark night. I knew it was about to start. But I really had no idea what to expect. Through my view between the bodies of people in front of me I watched as the warriors emerged, like creatures of the night. They were tossing balls of fire back and forth in their gloved hands, teasing the spectators with the possibility of tossing one of the balls in their direction. Then they started to run, kicking and throwing their weapons.
Eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I made my way to the curb. I was shocked to see the players throw the balls of fire directly into the crowd. The leg of the guy next to me caught on fire and my foot almost got burned. It happened while I was taking video with my camera and you can hear me saying, “Oh my god, oh my god.” I still resort to my native tongue when I’m freaked out.
I watched as the crowd put out a fire on the head of another young man across the street from me. Someone explained to me that most of the time when people catch on fire it is very brief and there are no injuries. I guess the flame is not very strong. However, people do get burned and people have died as well. If anything, the pure adrenaline and chaos that ensues could cause someone to get trampled. I’m not sure if this has happened, but I would not be surprised.
I decided to go closer to the central area of the battle they call “Vietnam.” There are breaks in the action in which the street clears for a bit. People hesitantly make their way to the center to spot where the next group of flamethrowers will emerge.
While I was standing with some friends in the center of the street, a ball hit the beer I was drinking and knocked it out of my hand. Fortunately it was not on fire. But it still scared me.
This area called “Vietnam” is where people go who want to get closer to the fire. It is where the players converge to really get down to business. Balls of fire arch through the air, cutting back and forth across the sky. We found a spot behind some of the emergency staff to watch. But we were only there for maybe two minutes when all of a sudden one of the balls flew into our crowd and everyone scurried to get away. The emergency staff quickly reacted to put the fire out. I noticed there was very little security or emergency staff on hand. I was thinking if an event like this took place in the U.S. (not that something like this ever would occur in the U.S.) the place would be filled with ambulances, fire trucks and police. I did not think of this as a good thing or a bad thing, just an observation. Although a few times I was a little scared, I loved the thrill of it. It made me feel really alive to be so close to something relatively dangerous. It was as close to a “line of fire” as I ever hope to be.