Land of Snails – Stories from the Bolivian Upper Rainforest
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Niños Manuelitos

A Christmas Story in the Upper Amazon Rainforest

Niño1 by Jaime Molina Escóbar
with contributions from Huáscar I. Vega Ledo

The rainy season had arrived much early. It was Christmas Eve. It was raining. It was raining without remedy and without stopping. The sky was shattering itself in slivers of wet glass. One could not hear anything except for the deafening rainstorm bouncing on the rocks, rolling down the cliffs and slapping the leaves and branches of the trees and shrubbery. The singing of the little birds and their flight had been forced to a pause. The rain noisily was falling in the rainforest coves. That day, all outdoor activities had been paralyzed in the main house of the Hacienda and none of the children was allowed to go outside. Jailed in, restless and bored, the kids were raising a tremendous fit already tired of playing several hours within closed doors. Only the seven-year old appeared a little calm and he was pensively looking through the large glass windows wandering how the afternoon was diluting itself in one hundred thousand crystals.

Near the window, the grandmother-child was sitting on her rocking chair holding the youngest of the grandchildren on her blessed lap. Rocking, rocking she was murmuring a tiny thread of voice, that transformed into nostalgia her favorite old poem and lullaby song :

“Aserrín, aserrán, los maderos de San Juan,
piden queso piden pan,
los de roque alfandoque,
los de rique alfeñique,
los de trique triquitrán,
triqui triqui, triqui tran,
triqui triqui triqui tran.
Aserrín, aserrán,
los maderos de San Juan…”

On hearing those verses about wood, the rest of the children, became more restless and more intent in trying to go outside and roll around in the wet sawdust or to play with little swords made of leftover wood or to run across the corridors of recently cut wooden boards or to jump over the logs piled up near the workshop.

In what pertained to him, the changuito with everlasting eyes of astonishment, was silently musing. How much he loved to listen to the grandmother-child sing that song about wood while rocking at the same time in her wooden chair carved out of noble walnut lumber from the upper rainforest! It was perhaps this way or perhaps rolling over the sawdust that he had started his fascination with anything related to wood… The song. the sawdust, the carved chair, the giant logs lying on the ground as sleeping anacondas; the shiny and fragrant white wooden boards, piled up in the patio of the hacienda; the magic of the native people who transformed that lumber into guitars, walking canes, furniture, tools and toys. All those things cradled the child as a huge umbilical cord that tied him to this land; botanical link that would never break and which one day he would finally understand. One day when he would finally fully comprehend why he loved so much this land of roots, of flowers, of magical springs, enchanted waterfalls and huge trees majestically standing aloft.

Suddenly the rain slowed down a bit. Almost instantaneously he saw quickly run the furtive little fieldmice called achakus and he saw a hairy chai opposum change her position in the brush. Near a pacaya tree the black and gold uchis were swarming, noisily breaking the monotony of the rainfall. All of a sudden he saw a jutíuw-jutíuw bird twice cross the patio. Surprised, he turned towards the grandmother and their eyes met. She had also seen the announcing little bird. The grandmother, who perhaps loved this child a tiny bit more because he reminded her of the grandfather- poet, told him then: “Yes, my little one. Two impending visits he is announcing. Baby Jesus-Niño Manuelito should return tonight and by this hour, Uncle Abundio should have already arrived…”

Around this time of the year, tío Abundio returned from abroad loaded with gifts but not as a Papa Noel or a Santa Claus, but as a prodigious Ekeko.

Tío Abundio had been delayed by the torrential rains and by the mudslides in the dirt road to the valley. The mud completely obstructed the traffic. A wall of mud and river stones blocked the movement of all motorized vehicles. A wall of mud and stones separated the dull and dirty trucks coming down from the altiplano from the multicolored trucks, overloaded with fruit and coca noisily coming out from the jungle. Near the crossroad of Las Tres Marías, very close to the waterfall named Velo de la Novia. Tío Abundio and his fantastic cargo had to be carried across. Muscular Indians had to carry him across lifted on a litter; just as the stucco man was carried in the religious processions. Besides, Tio Abundio had to be lifted across because he wouldn’t allow his shiny patent boots or his English gabardine riding pants to get dirty. The boxes with Christmas gifts were also being transported across by ten taciturn Indian servants. All of a sudden, a loud, strident cry of grief and surprise by all present rose up in unison when they saw the largest and the heaviest of the packages fall into the muck. In that same instant, tío Abundio amazingly jumped in to fetch the package and rescued it from being buried forever in the mire of mud. It did not matter his boots or expensive garb. That box with gifts and those waiting children mattered much, much more.

Tío Abundio finally made it to Churuhuasca. When he got off the truck, his boots were once again clean and they shined even more than the wet street cobblestones; they shined again almost as much as his contented smile.

After the usual welcome kisses, little abrazos, welcoming words and tender expressions, the little ones were paying more attention to the boxes of gifts than to the effusiveness of tio Abundio. He would make all adults laugh aloud with his tall tales, his innumerable jokes and also his mischievous practical jokes. The children eagerly wanted to open up the Christmas gift boxes right on the spot as soon as tio Abundio arrived to the house. Those boxes wrapped up in glistening multicolor Christmas paper, to the children’s eyes were magic boxes of mystery. But grandma, Santa Rita del Pueblo, decided for everyone that they would not. The packages were not to be open now. Christmas was the celebration for Baby Jesus, only for Niño Manuelito. Other good little children would have to wait until the day of Epiphany, until the Day of the Three Magi, past New Year’s Eve, until January the 6 to open up their gifts. Aunt Eulalia Francisca, always pious but always mean, with sarcastic malice re-emphasized, for added distress to the children, what grandma had said. At the same time, she gave one of her notorious painful pinches to Fierito Isidorito who had dared to touch one of the packages. The helpless disconsolate little children had to resign themselves to wait. It was perhaps then that they first learned to have some patience. Doing things well and patiently doing them right, is more important than simply doing them.

The adults started sipping and toasting with ponchecitos and with coctelitos yungueños and also with cognac and with red and white special wines imported, according to tío Abundio, from France and the also distant Spain. Everybody would also start eating with indescribable gusto first the Christmas picana navideña and after that, they would stuff themselves with buñuelitos, bombones , Alicante turrones and with Ipico’s chamuña; they would also drink hot and foamy chocolate accompanied by cocadas and suspiros and also with enquesaditos and empanaditas specially prepared for this day by tía Pasaku and the chola woman Candelaria.

After the Christmas Eve banquet, close to midnight everybody went to church to attend mass and sunrise services. Despite of the time of the day, the seven year-old kid was bright and awake and rambunctiously high spirited as young goat in mating season.

Inside the immense hall of the pueblo church the kid was delighted listening to the Christmas carols; he was fascinated not only by the music but by the color and the fragrance of all the flowers, the madreselvas and the palm trees. Suddenly, it started pouring again. It was raining cats and dogs again. The thunder reverberated and through the stained glass windows one could see the fantastic glare of the Andean lightning. It was then that he remembered a true story the grandmama-child would repeat to him every time they went together to this church. Such a story he pretended to facetiously dislike and not hear but, in reality, he truly loved to listen the grandmama say it over and over again. It was said that when he was barely two, when he first saw the statue of Santiago located in the same church, he had started to run around all over the sacred place and all the way to the altar; as if he would be a horseman riding an imaginary beast. All at the same time, he would cry: “Pacha, mula! Paacha, pacha, pacha, paacha” eliciting laughter and disturbance among the parishioners and much consternation and despair out of the celebrating priest.. When he remembered such story, at that moment, he imagined the real Santiago galloping across the clouds on his white stallion, pouncing the skies with thunder while kicking his sparkling gold and silver spurs and brandishing his látigo whip made of fire. Almost at the same time, he remembered the dead grandfather when he himself would proudly ride his Alto-Peruvian paso horse. And the child thought about that beautiful horse of the long mane and tail and about the grandfather’s leather saddle with embossed silver filigrees that the grandpa himself had inherited from his own grandfather.

Outside, in another hidden corner of Churuhuasca, protected only by the stars, the singing-child, the little town orfan, was also awaiting for his Christmas. He well knew that tío Abundio was not his real uncle but he knew better that he had also brought him a little present. He also did not want to wait until January 6. He wanted to cry but he wouldn’t because he was a rainforest machito so, instead, he decided to sing. He started quietly almost mumbling but later, pretty and loud, he poured out his soul into his voice. He sang and sang so sweetly that night that the next day everybody would start calling him “El Chojolulo” and never more “El Huerfanito”.

Inside the church the little boy, the changuito, started to fall asleep lying his tiny back on the hard wooden bench awaiting the arrival of the Three Kings so he could open his gifts. It wasn’t like the adults would tell the all kids how Christmas was. It was more beautiful. It wasn’t like the pictures found in the European journals tío Abundio had brought from Europe and certainly, it wasn’t like tia Francisca Eulalia would tell and it was not even like in St. John’s gospel. There was no snow and it was not cold in the rainforest Christmas. Perhaps sometimes there was a pesky rain. But if the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph would have come to Churuhuasca instead of going to Bethlehem, they would have received immediate welcome and shelter. In Churuhuasca, Baby Jesus-Niño Manuelito would never have been allowed to be born in a barn. The seven-year old changuito couldn’t understand either why the old beatas would cast pieces of cotton supposedly to imitate falling snow. He couldn’t figure that out since it was so much more beautiful to throw petals of roses and jasmines. Besides, it was never cold in Churuhuasca; it was always spring time. And instead of freezing your behind and shivering because of the ice and snow of cold lands, it was so much better to feel the warm tropical rain roll down one’s cheeks…

He started to fall asleep, dreaming with his eyes open. Finally, he leaned against the grandmama-child, caressing her hands and playing with her veil, tracing images of spirals and snails, he ultimately closed his eyes.

In the distance, el Chojolulo, the singing child, continued singing, singing…

“Niño Manuelito, caga buñuelito.
Este niño viejo cada año nace,
cada año vuelve,
cada año llega.
Niño Manuelito,
caga-buñuelito,
en su chijipampa.
Huiskiki, huiskiki,
saltando saltando…”

Singing and singing,
dreaming and dreaming…

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