Land of Snails – Stories from the Bolivian Upper Rainforest
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Magi, But Not So

On January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany, when the Three Kings bring gifts for the children of Bolivia. This is a story set on the night before Epiphany, when children set out their shoes with letters to the kings.

The Three Magi by Huáscar I. Vega Ledo
(Based on the inspirations and contributions of Jaime Molina Escóbar)
Translator: Marcelo Villacres

Just like rain
the news arrived
soaking everyone.

A little elderly woman pulled, from her wrinkled copper bosom, a silver cross and stuck it in the mud, she pushed it until the top of her cane hit the ground; after pulling the cane she covered the hole while she prayed and prayed in aymará and a bit of latin -who knows where she learned the latter. Some pious old women, known for being gossipers and sort of witches, brought scissors and placed them open as crosses over the mud. Other pious women brought a couple of knives and placed them one of the other also as a cross over the mud. These wicked things they did while mumbling a refrain as if they were school girls:

“Farmer San Isidro,
pray to God for the sun to come out.
Farmer San Isidro,
pray to God for the sun to come out…”

Mud slides had blocked all the roads. There was no one dead, but akin to that is an incommunicated town. The rain destroyed some of the fields. Some terraces holding the coca fields had lost their right angles. The roots of some of the young orange trees looked like curled up hands of drowned bodies trying to grab onto the fog.

While the astonished children watched this mini hecatomb, the town’s priest walked around murmuring: “Oh Lord, what have we done? Could it be that we have sinned of gluttony on Christmas? Could it be that we abused of the New Year’s wine? Why do you punish us Lord? Open a breach. Do it for the children, for the happiness of those innocent little lambs. Open at least a thread of a road for the Kings to arrive, please oh Lord, please.”

A miracle! A miracle! El Chojolulo arrived screaming. Everyone’s sadness turned to hope and they looked up to the sky. But it still rained. What miracle? What is going on? “What happened little orphan?” asked one of the pious old women.

El Chojolulo did not answer, he did not like being called by his old name, he was now Chojolulo and was very proud of his name. The elderly indians of Churuhuasca had explained to him that since Colonial times, the Laws of the Indies specified, as norms and customs, “that the indians must give their children the names of the fathers, mothers, and grand parents, but not those of the moon, birds, animals, stones, snakes or rivers.” Since he didn’t have parents nor grandparents, and besides being different times, he had the right to those names. And the little orphan was so happy with that name of a bird, and with it he had been able to fill the space left by his progenitors and the history of their ancestors.

The elderly woman, who previously buried the silver cross, understood those feelings quite well for she was half indian and half white, and for that reason she asked: “tell us, what happened son? suma lulitu, Chojolulitu? It was then when they found out that a river of mud, stones and tree trunks had invaded Doña Eugenia Dolores’ house, it had demolished the living room walls and had destroyed almost everything in its path. Everything but the Nativity; the best Nativity in town and all surrounding towns; it held a baby Jesus from Cuzco, it was made out of marzipan that looked like porcelain, its clothes were embroidered with antique thread of gold made by the yauiñckepa people. It was a miracle that saved baby Jesus as well as the sheep, the Magi, Virgin Mary, everything.

From that moment on the days passed without the sun, though as if there were. The inhabitants regained their faith and made plans and started the reconstruction. Crews were organized to clean the creeks, they picked up the small fallen trees and used them to build small bridges for pedestrians. To the mud they added plant fibers or straw to use it as mortar and to restore with the stones the multitude of steps that really make up the streets of this town as they crawl the sides of the hill. The roof leaks…? Those with tile roofs used tiles -if they had them- or halves of carved out tree trunks. Those with thatched roofs used straw or tender leaves from banana trees. It almost seems that they are fulfilling the promises they made while drunk on News Year’s eve. These are the first four days of the new year and for some it was the first day they did not drink. That is due to two reasons, the Nativity that was spared despite of the mud slide, and the lack of roads for any alcohol to be transported into town. They finished all the guarapos made from fermented pineapple, the orange cocktails, the cherries that had been macerated in singani for several months, and the always present “tiger’s milk”.

To remember the midnight of the thirty first of December is to remember the “half-nucha” leaving with their bags, walking around (this is what people who want to travel in the upcoming year do). The “chausito’s” daughter ate a grape for each ring of the bell (this is done so food and drink will be plentiful throughout the year). Juana, a black woman more desirable that a house next to the river, changed her underwear in less than twelve seconds! (her reasoning, to change her attitude and to improve in all possible ways).

The celebration continued until dawn, everyone danced cuecas, huayñitos, polkas and bailecitos. The conversations were over the conversions. “This year I will plant something else.” “This year I will be different.” “It is time find a different woman.” “I promised I will build a fence around the orchard.” “Yes son, I will take you to La Paz.” “We will leave this town once and for all.” “We won’t return to Europe, we will stay in Churuhuasca, to grow and export crops, “This year we will change priests, this one has not done a thing to make the rain stop.”

Parallelling these desires, the indian elders whispered something that sounded like “mara” (year), waiting for “alli” or “sapa mara” (the year of good crops), beginning on this month of “chino pahkhsi” (January). They spoke of the “uru” and “aruma” (day and night) and of the “kharuru” (tomorrow) and went on and on in very complex Aymará. They spoke of the “wara wara” (stars) and the ‘hacha wara wara” (planets). And for listening and trying to understand these ancient sciences is that the seven year old boy’s eyes and wonder grew so much.

Fortunately on the fourth day the true “sapa mara” began, as everyone was working to fulfill their promises. Almost all the collective labors of maintenance were carried at the sound of hualaychos, Those able used improvised drums, quenas, small guitars, chulluchullos, and whatever they could; they sung the latest popular villancicos or huayños or bailecitos, changing the lyrics and amicably laughing about life and the deeds of the town’s people.

Chojolulo became the central figure as all the groups of hualaychos wanted him to be their singer, besides, he turned out to have an agile mind to make up humorous verses, given that he was an orphan and that his short life had been spent bouncing from home to home and, thus, learning the comings and goings of almost everyone in town, things he related with subtlety and irony in verses and songs.

Everyone was happy. Even the children could sing about the town’s Santa Rita without being pinched nor having their ears pulled. It even seemed that Angelucho -el malcriaducho- (Angel, the bad-behaved one) created these verses but because of his chaja-voice he could not sing it so he gave it to Chojolulo:

“Niño Manuelito, suma lulitu.
Ay! Santa Rita,pita faced.
When will the Magi arrive,
with their magueyes,
We are not bad, give us presents!
Ay! Santa Rita,Ulupica nose
Let us play on you altar.
Before the Magi arrive and beat you.
Please let us, please let us”

Finally the Magi were coming, January fifth and no rain nor sun. The roads were still blocked. Some adults were waiting in vain for the mail and parcels. All the children were happy and dressed in their best clothes, and well behaved, not rolling in the dirt, not being mischievous, not playing with mud and splashing the dirty water from the puddles onto the women’s calves and dresses.

Some giant drops remained hanging from the window sills, they looked like multi-colored frogs waiting with their mouths open. They were the little shoes and stockings that are usually hung from windows. Some children would hang up to three pairs of shoes, thinking that they would get more presents. Other changuitos hung their ventiúnico pair, other shoes looked old and with holes on their soles, the indians would hang their abarcas and thus would remain barefoot, their eyes sparkling with hope. Some grandmothers would hang stockings they had knitted for their infant grandchildren.

Meanwhile the adults prepared their last wine or cocktail demijohns. They prepared the truths and lies they would in the shoes indicating where they had hidden the presents -when the presents were too big, as they frequently were.- The adults hid the presents under piles of firewood, or inside holes in trees, on the roof line, inside large jars in the kitchen, inside the adobe oven, amongst the fruit sacks, beneath the broken floors, always in the most unimaginable places. That tradition caused the children to start watching the adults actions from an early hour, it was some sort of policemen and thieves game, where neighbors, grandparents, uncles, servants, everyone participated and covered it up. This went on until midnight when all the changos would jump through and out to the windows, seeking the present or the note in their shoes, and then hurry to “uncover” the present before a friend or cousin did it first, and all ended up in fight and tears.

In the plantation’s main house, uncle Abundio smiled trying to conceal his worries. -How would he come out of Los Yungas? The day after tomorrow he should be travelling to La Paz, then he will return to his second country. Will the roads be repaired by then? He wondered. This country is not good for anything, it doesn’t even have decent roads, that is why I left, that is why I am leaving. He repeated to himself. At the same time, seeing the joy of his people, remembering why every year he would die to return to these lands, he erased what he said before, and licking his moustache he smiled and said: Who gives a damn about these shitty roads! What matters is my people, my heart is here, with the candor and warmth of my people.-

We could say that the scream of happiness of his seven year old nephew woke him up; the changuito was drunken with the present the old-grandfather had brought for all the children. The collection of books “Treasures of Youth” had made him remember moments when the grandfather tried to teach him to read and told him marvelous things about those books and promised to give them to him once he could read. But the old-grandfather died before, and though it may seem strange, the boy learned to read thanks to Candelaria. That indian woman didn’t read very well for her age, but she could read. She used to teach the indian children to read, and this changuito from the plantation “snuck in,” and thanks to his intelligence and Candelaria’s natural pedagogy he learned very quickly. The boy was so happy that he seemed to have his grandfather’s smile while he read out loud on the “Treasures of Youth,” to the delight of the whole family and some guests, for he read with the phonetic deformations of the cholada, for instance, instead of nuevo (new) he read”Noivo,” instead of que pasa (what is happening) he read “ki pasa.” And though he became aware of those errors, he went on doing them just to be mischievous. But deep inside, he felt the vortex of the vast human knowledge opening up right before his eyes. He felt as if the spiral of the history absorbed him like a whirlpool and forced him to follow it curled like a snail. Finally he fainted and the adults laughed thinking it was another prank of his, not realizing that time was taking him for a ride.

Adults and children stayed up until dawn, the first eating and drinking, the others playing and sharing their toys with friends, cousins and brothers. All were having fun. All were willing to play with tablapayasos, ckulluwawas, wheeled horses, ckusillo dolls, kgarwa, ttejheña soldiers and cholitas, tops, chocas, puzzle cubes, etc.

In all the town homes the atmosphere was the same. Notwithstanding, life’s contradictions made Chojolulo the most fortunate one, as he received his present in the plantation, ate at Doña Eugenia’s, received some clothes from Candelaria, new abarcas from the shoe maker, the owner of the store on the townsquare gave him notebooks and pencils, the priest gave him sweets and a catechism, and on and on, almost the entire town gave him something. Thus what uncle Abundio said was confirmed, “Who gives a damn about the roads!. The route is in the hearts of people!”.

Finally the roads were opened and the parcels arrived, uncle Abundio left the next day. On January eighth everyone returned to planting, to their everyday chores, to fixing and making everything pretty again. A good number of the crafty hands began making the miniatures for the Alasitas festivity. The men carving tiny pigeon eggs, making little tea sets that fit on the palm of a hand, so detailed that one can even fill the pot with water and pour it in the cups. They also made pots, kitchen utensils, ladles, tables, armories, beds, nothing bigger than a fistful of a five year old guagua and most of them made out of orange wood. Meanwhile the women used bread crumbs to make tiny dolls, ladies in colonial clothing, bowls with tiny fruit, fruit of all sorts and colors, bundles of flowers no bigger than the third of a pinky, and many other little things. They also made small coconut sweets shaped like bananas, oranges, watermelons, etc. And of course, they baked the mini bizcochuelos yungueños, which are sought after by paceña during the Alasitas festivity.

Along with these activities, the children played and played until they collapsed exhausted, other children joined in the farming work to help their parents, yet others helped with the handy crafts. Normalcy was gaining room.

A score of cousins, boys and girls from the plantation, returned little by little to their homes. By the third week the only ones remaining were the ones who lived in La Paz and Cochabamba. It didn’t rain much anymore, but through one of the windows, the eyes of the little grandmother seemed to melt and run down the crevices on her face, just as the creeks and rivers come down to hug this land.

The Alasitas festivity is takes place on January twenty fourth in the city of La Paz, and some yungueños crafts people worked until midnight of the twenty third, and in the morning they climbed on the trucks, on top of all the fruit and drums of coca. They headed for La Paz to sell their merchandise. Some guaguas cried for they wanted to go with their parents, or they wanted to go sell the tiny cars and horses that so excitedly carved. The parents claimed in all truth- that the road was too dangerous and that they would be better off staying here, in Churuhuasca, and besides, sleeping in the tambos was not very healthy for children. But the kids refused to understand, and worse when they saw the last children from the plantation climb onto the trucks and started eating and playing with the fruit, as if for them it weren’t dangerous to travel, as if they were the owners of the fruit.

Finally the trucks departed. The guaguas remained crying. And the last Magi of January, Ekeko, was waiting in the festivities of La Paz.

The girlish-grandmother made the sign of the cross while staring out the window. She was no longer crying. Her grandchildren had to leave, they had to go study. The school year was about to begin. And the habit of living the unexpected kept her from throwing herself onto the road to stop the vehicles and play with the children. The bulging and terrified eyes of the seven year old boy penetrated the elderly woman’s clothes until they tickled her soul, she smiled, looked at him, pinched his cheek lovingly and said: go my child, go get one of the “Treasures of Youth” and read something for me, while I sleep, while I calm down.


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