Land of Snails – Stories from the Bolivian Upper Rainforest
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A Story of the All Saints Day Festival in the Amazon Rainforest.

Angel by Huáscar I. Vega Ledo
“All-Saints Day”, November, 1996
(Based on the inspirations and contributions of Jaime Molina Escóbar)

He was about fifty years old. Yet he envisioned himself as a child, peering into his old eyes with eyes innocent as any seven-year-old’s, both leaning with their backs against a door. It was obvious to the man that his other self was much younger, but the door upon which both reclined their backs was even more so: barely four days old. The original door had been replaced; the beautiful huge wooden door carved out of palo-santo had been converted into a casket. The grandfather signaled for them to come towards him. He was lying down in the same spot where both of them would also one day lie. The grandfather whispered to them, “Don’t look at me; look at the door where my back rests now. I want my back to always rest on this Yungas rainforest lumber, on this palo-santo tree that I took care of myself, when I was young. Palo-santos do not grow around here any more, you have to look for them in the lower hinterland farther than Churuhuasca, beyond Caranavi, even farther than Colopampa, deep in the rainforest, Palos Blancos, Alto Beni. I took care of this palo-santo, and now I want him to take care of me.”The grandfather had died five days ago. The replacement door was already in place. It was another huge door. On it, ten times forty-three backs of seven-year-old children could be reclined. But it was not made here nor with local lumber. It had been made in La Paz and with wood from other pagos.

The little old man is not buried yet. He rests in the main hall of the manor house of the old hacienda. His family and the regional Indians who shared with him the Reforma Agraria era are awaiting. They are waiting for the Fiesta de Todos Santos (All Saints Day Festivity) to arrive. Everybody would like to bury him that same day. Mother-Nature herself appears to be in suspenseful expectation. Despite of the rainforest heat and humidity, even though the casket is still open, the body of the little old man stinks less now dead than when he was a bit alive.

The Fiesta de Todos Santos finally arrives. Upon the completion of the seven night wake, all the relatives started arriving for the burial ceremonies. Close relatives, distant relatives and in-between relatives… they all came. It is not known if they really loved the little old man so much or if they simply wanted to start a binge and to eat a few free tantaguaguas. To tell the truth, they all seemed to arrive almost at the same time, as if the Pachamama would have compelled them all to this solitary spot. What changed the appearance of the old hacienda the most, what lately being empty, lonely and almost abandoned, was the sheer number of people that came. An entire family of families.

The scant out-of-season tangerines growing in the orchards rapidly disappeared in the noisy throats of the changuitos. The oranges, the bananas, papayas and pineapples, all the fruits appeared to be alive. They ran all over the old house; through all the patios, through all the hidden corners and the dark trails. The little ones seemed to get so dazed and frantic that they would take off their clothing just about anywhere. Inevitably there was an elder who would step on one of those scattered peels and slip. While falling they would voice all kinds of curses upon those little devils who were setting the fire of color, seeds and accidents in the dead man’s hacienda.

The adults and all the children managed to sleep like little angels. The weariness of the travel precluded another night of the prolonged wake. They had all come from far away: from La Paz, Potosí, Santa Cruz, Brasil, Argentina, Mexico, USA, France and Germany. Nobody had ever doubted the pollen qualities of this family’s sperm. It didn’t matter how far away they lived or where they were born, Pachamama would compel them to come to this “greenburnid” (my way of calling humid, hot and green) hole. Nobody would ever forget these lands and not a single one of them ever wasted the chance to come and spend a few days in their rainforest. To get sick before the trip was never an option! No one would miss out from returning to and walking along the fields of cocales, along the creeks, along the orchards and along the flowery paths filled with firewater made of pineapples and chuchuhuasi.

Early at dawn, the adults were already grooming and primping themselves, donning clothes of mourning. In the meantime, the little ones would run to the adobe oven to be with Candelaria. An old coppery chola with long and thick braids, of gentle gaze as sweet as a suspiro, firm and tender with the children, tight and ornery with strangers. Candelaria had always been single and yet, had always been in love. An oldtime platonic love, the kind you don’t find anymore, had always burned within her cholita’s chest. It was because of that love that she cared and shined her beautiful hair. Single young cholitas do not wear a hat.

Candelaria, eager to keep the flame alive in her own wooden oven, bartered with and convinced the kids to go and swipe some firewood from the manor house. But not just any piece of wood; old Candelaria wanted the leftover remnants of the palo-santo door. In order to get them, she offered in exchange more than 85 eggs, 1/4 quintal of flour, 1/2 arroba of sugar, her own labor; everything she would need to make bizcochuelos. But the changuitos were not dummies. Almost immediately the little captain of the group, the irreverent Angelucho, told her “Doña Cande, Cum’on…. aren’t we yungueños? Perhaps in La Paz you make them with wheat flour, but here we make them with tapioca starch, with jamachpeke”. He demanded for his gang not only jamashpeke, but also more flour and more sugar so they could also make maicillos, tantaguaguas, rosquetes y suspiros. Clever Candelaria, she did not wait to be begged; she closed the deal and the palo-santo remnants were hers.

“What a disaster, what a mess”, Candelaria muttered while looking at the kids who were practically destroying her kitchen. Angelucho already almost 13 years old, quite a big boy for his age, wanted to whip the bizcochuelo mix. He sat in front of a rectangular piece of kitchen furniture, somewhat of a double table made with two super-imposed tops; like a small table placed on top of a larger table. In the middle of both tops there was a hole through which a rod passed. This wooden rod had the diameter of a medium-sized orange. At the lower end of the rod there were whipping blades. This wooden gadget was called a “whipping bench”. A belt around the rod was pulled to exert a whipping, alternating motion so the blades would whip the mix back and forth. This task required a lot of strength and also for somebody to help keep the table steady so it would not move. This task is really not for children to perform; otherwise the batter may spoil and it would not become soft and spongy as it should. Angelucho frantically whipped the eggs and the sugar in a copper container as big as a coca tambor-drum broken in half. He whipped and whipped the mix splattering some of it on purpose; his little cousins would struggle so they could lick the spoils. Old Candelaria had to pull him off and make the master baker whip the mix before the bizcochuelo spoiled or be left without nothing. In the meanwhile, other children were over the mixed, already sieved jamashpeke powder. Other little cousins were also helping by preparing the paper cups. Bizcochuelo mix was poured into these paper containers prior to baking. The puckered-lip Chabela and another group of girl-cousins arranged several wooden boards on the patio, on which they could make pastries in the shapes of little animals as well as little babies; little dolls wrapped up like newborns, like mummies, like sleeping pharaos. The chubby, big-tummied Raquel, together with other little girl-cousins, and imillitas were mixing eggs, sugar and Lord knows what else to later drop on sheets of paper in conical shapes to create the suspiros. Candelaria, that day not as stern and a bit more affectionate with the kids, stopped chewing her coquita, gathered the other children who were not playing with the flour and taught them to make maicillos with cornmeal, butter, sugar and a little secret only she knew about.

By noon, everything was baked and had come out of the oven including the rosquetes which were made by God only knows. The only thing pending was to paint the miniature masks to look like cherubs, pussycats, wild Indians and skulls. They would later place them on the bread dolls to make them look like faces; they would then finish them by decorating the bread faces and the bread legs with more sugar and colored dyes. It is to say that they would transform the bread dummies into the shapes of little creatures. Candelaria had her teeth tinted a greenish color from chewing the coca so long and had her eyes fixed upon the burning coals, searching for old memories. A few tears were in competition with her beautiful mother of pearl ear-rings. Her quick tongue quickly would retrieve those tears; it was with them that she would sparkle her own teeth. All of a sudden she stood up and told the kids: “Angelucho and company, vámonos; by eleven the funeral will pass. Let’s go to the plaza and get to see the Funeral procesión”.

The seven year-old kid hurried to gather up his unusual tantaguaguas. It was customary to make them in the shape of little horses, llamitas and other animals, but little snails? Even the dead would laugh at the changuito. The other children started to harass him and to make fun of him. Fiero Isidorito (called “fiero”, not because of his ferocious nature but because of his mistake of having scratched himself when he had the smallpox) stood up for him, challenging the other kids: “And you? Why do you make tantaguaguas this way or that way, eh??” Nobody replied. It was then when the seven-year old little child started to think about the spirals of the snail and in the “why” of everything.…

Old Candelaria paid no attention to the incident. Before leaving, she simply, carefully gathered up and kept the stolen palo-santo wood pieces, placing some flowers on top. She kneeled down, rapidly mumbled a few words in aymará, made the sign of the cross and poured out a few tears, thick and heavy like a wave.

She did not want to think what she was thinking. She wanted to forget it all. It was because of this that she began telling the kids “black Jacingo’s story” while on their way to church. All the time caressing the tantaguagua that had come out a bit overbaked.

The town’s plaza was crowded. Most people were dressed in white or in black. The faithful, the penitents and the priests were dressed in cloths of a purple tinge. The sky was cloudless. November’s sun burned the tops of the peoples’ heads. Their hands held the burning candles. An almost completely naked man of stucco with open arms, his feet and hands nailed to crossed timbers stood in between four men. He had his head slightly turned to the left. He looked quiet; he seemed to shrug his shoulders while saying: “What in the hell are you all doing here? So much sun and you dressed in black? And besides, why the little candles in your hands? Why? I do not understand…” The four men would walk him around, and he was smiling. That was the detail that had always perplexed the little orphan. He did not understand why that man appeared to be smiling when he was practically showered in blood and had thorns around his head. However, what the little orphan really loved was how people would throw multicolor petals to the stucco man. And he was fascinated with the purple bouganvillias and the white jasmines flying together with butterflies on top of the crowd of people. He also loved the smell of the captivating throng of the flowers, stems trapped in between the fingers of the mourning people. But what he really liked even more, was to imitate and dance with the musical groups, especially with the mardi-gras schools of waca-wacas, kusillos, and auqui-auquis. For the rest of All Saints Day they danced. They danced the following day, and continued dancing the remaining days of the whole week because it was fiesta after fiesta. The dancing schools would come out now and then to get rid of the drunkeness by dancing through the town. The dancing never seemed to end.

At the head of the funeral procession was the pueblo priest followed by his deacon and two altar-boys with burning incense. Behind followed four chosen men carrying the stucco man. Farther behind them, the contingent of prominent neighbors and of residents more severely affected by some disgrace the past year. They would parade through the main streets of the pueblo, rained on by flowers, tears, cries and prayers. When they passed, the nearby dancers would take off their masks, the natives would remove their hats, and almost evryone placed their right hand palm on their chests while they muttered something like a promise or like a pledge. The musical groups or the dancing schools would not vibrate their instruments; it was traditional to wait until the procession would return to the town’s church. When that happened the little orphan saw that the stucco man appeared to come toward him, to embrace him. The stucco man would show him his bleeding back. When the orphan was about to cross the church atrium, the man appeared to turn around, giving him a slant look and asking him in a paternal way: “And now, my little changuito, what are we going to do?” At that same moment, the fifty year old man thought about his own back, the back of the dead grandfather and about the backs of all the people who returned to town.

It wasn’t that they didn’t respect the dead. It was not a time for sadness for anyone. It was a time to commemorate the past and the present. It was also an atmosphere of communion; but of natural communion, not the mere religious kind. Or better perhaps, a mixture of both types. It was the time when people would get close to their dead relatives. By contacting them, by feeling them close, by talking to them even though most of them would not answer back. This was the time when people, without fear of being called crazy, would say that they had seen or talked to their dead and even that they had touched them. It is a time of pleasant mystery and even a bit playful. The lovers take advantage to secretly meet; each lover covers-up by asking permission to go and express their condolences to this neighbor and to that one. Instead, they get together and kiss and while their hands crawl they murmur into each other’s ear: “If I die first or if you die, it does not matter. We are going to continue meeting in the day of Todos Santos”.

It was really fun. Even more fun for the kids. They would go praying from home to home “let me pray for you, please, let me pray…” They would approach that way. And if the grieving people would accept, the kids in exchange for the prayers would get candy, fruit, guarapo maicillos and, of course, tantaguaguas. Some of them, like little Isidor – the poxed face boy, stuffing themselves with so many goodies, would be haunted by terrible subsequent indigestion. The most daring of kids, like Angelucho, started their first binges by stealing liquor from the dead. It was a custom for relatives to provide favorite food and drink for the dead relatives. They would place on a table the same type of food given to family and guests. And, of course, there was always a little bottle of spirits open; a little glass of vino or some other little liquor. It was then that, subreptiously, a little one would grab the cup or little bottle and would wet their little throat with that spirited drink. ¡Uyuyuy! grand happiness abounded when the adults would discover that the liquor had diminished or when there was nothing left in he glasses. “I think that he/she is enjoying the little wine” they would happily exclaim, referring to their dead relatives and they would pass the news around. Perhaps they knew it was the kids, but they preferred to believe it was their dead relatives who had enjoyed the drinks.

Before dawn all the guaguas are asleep. Each lover returns to their own house. Some of the adults still partying are beginning to talk drunken silliness. The morning dew adds liquid to the soups and stews being cooked in the open air. As the sun finally comes out, the aroma of the local criolla food stops the orchestras, the dancers, the drinking and the gossip. The mourning souls of the past, the present, and the future wait in line to get their plates fully loaded, served like little mounds and hills. Then they sit down to eat as they wake up.


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