Land of Snails – Stories from the Bolivian Upper Rainforest
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Jacingo and the little boy may no longer exist but their legend will live forever.

Jacingo by Jaime Molina Escóbar


The pensive man was about to celebrate his fifty-fifth birthday. He was leaning on the garden fence of the veranda, looking at the twisting mountain dirt road across the valley where heavy trucks were slowly climbing. Further up, almost surrounded by clouds, he could see the multicolored little houses of Churuhuasca. Bartholomew looks intently as the old man looked across the road at the twisting valley.Towards one side, under the brilliant sun of August, a few metal roofs were shining in the town of Chulumani. In a few days, the whole region would be celebrating the fiesta of San Bartolome but he wasn’t ready for a party and certainly in no mood for any celebration. Since the death of his grandpa, every time he gazed at the curves of the dirt road, he couldn’t avoid thinking about the spiral of the snail and the twisting turns of life. The road evoked the unavoidable recurrent questions about the meaning of life and its events that had tortured him since childhood. Looking at the slowly-moving trucks, the image of the snail with its own cargo struck his tormented mind once again. The burdensome cargo, the constant question mark carried on his back along the entire journey of his existence. What is the reason for life? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the reason for our anguish and for our pains? Why did he have to die? Why? Why? Why?

Since the death of the grandfather nothing seemed to be the same. Even though in reality, everything was just the same. Just like it used to be when he’d run across the fields as a free child, happy and innocent. Just like it used to be when, accompanied by his grandfather, he enjoyed watching the schools of dances and musicians in St. Bartholomew’s fiestas. But those festivities and that past joy appeared to have occurred so long ago and so far away! In his mind, they were dreams of another dimension and from a faraway site. Inspite of everything, the whole thing was really the same. The old house, the orchards, the river, everything was essentially the same. The coffee plantations, the coca fields, the green splendor of the rain forest were the same. The whispering of the evening breeze — he had heard it once before. All of a sudden, the flowers and their fragrance, the trees and their leaves, the rocks with their silence, and the birds with their songs, all seemed to be the same and as he remembered them. Everything appeared static as if time had stopped in the rain forest. The only thing that had changed was him. The child of yesterday had become an old man. The old grandfather had died and now it was his turn to be the new grandfather.

The death of the old man had inexorably transformed his life. After almost a year, that painful event had been a necessary process itself to unfold the enigma of his own existence. The new grandfather was about to understand and to resolve his pain and he was ready to accept the irreparable physical loss of the old dead grandpa. The answer to the question of the snail was taking shape. With the death of the old man, only a transitory pause had occurred. Now, he was finally beginning to understand the reason for this life. Everything would continue in a never-ending spiral; the chain of continuous links of sperms and vital blood all the way to infinity. Now, it was time to take care of the interior garden, just like the dead old man had done it and as he had tried to teach him in his final days. Because old age is truly a time to reflect, to forgive, and to learn to abandon and put aside all the material baggage. It is time to assess the personal offering and heritage. It is time to come out from the frame of the painting and to evaluate how our legacy may fit in the true bigger picture of this world. These are years to be able to transmit any accumulated wisdom and to practice altruism in ways never before considered. It is time to contemplate God in any manner, that one conceives it. And away from diminishing our contribution or of slowing the march and our drive, it is the maximum and ultimate opportunity for total renewal, for the rebirth and for total fulfillment.

Completely absorbed in his thoughts, the man seemed to be oblivious to the increased traffic of vehicles passing by the hacienda, on their way to Chulumani. All of a sudden, one of the noisy mountain trucks with open muffler, passing by the house released an infernal backfire that exploded like a bomb that paralyzed the meditation of the man. Jolted back to reality, the memory of Jacingo filled his head. Jacingo had been his first encounter with death. And that, he would never forget.

Jacingo was the black servant, caretaker of Bartolito. Bartolito was the old man’s retarded deaf and mute little cousin. Bartolito had been born with congenital deformities but also with the smile and the blessed gift of an angel’s attitude and disposition. Externally ugly, he was grotesque, hunchback, had a bulbous lacayote-like nose, coarse straw-like hair, burro-like hairy ears, and teeth like corn kernels. Jacingo, on the other hand, was tall, svelte and good-looking. In contrast with the weak guttural noises that the little mute boy proffered with difficulty, the clear resonant voice of Jacingo was like a sonorous laughter of a scandalous and mischievous, cantankerous black man. His body was symmetrical and muscular. His tar skin was smooth. His white teeth were glistening and perfectly aligned. But despite of such an impressive and handsome appearance, something didn’t seem to fit right. He had an unusual shifty-eyed gaze, a furtive, distrustful and half-empty look at times. At the deep end of his pupils it was dark, tenebrous and murky. He had not always had that furtive gaze and distrustful look. He had acquired it one evening of another fiesta of San Bartolo when he dared to make fun of the “palla-pallas”…

In the evening prior to the fiesta of San Bartolo, dancers and musicians from everywhere would come to town to drink and dance like they had never done before. They would come and they would mix hot pisco with half-cold beers and with lukewarm cheap wine made with currants and canned alcohol. Getting drunk, the men would don attires made with banana leaves, tied with banana bark and adorned with multicolored paper ribbons. They painted their faces with black-shoe polish or they would darken them with charcoal. In such manner, they would become the notorious “loco-pallapallas” of the night of St. Bartholomew. Drunk and gyrating frenetically, they would then dance the whole night until sunrise to the rhythm of bombos, of gigantic zampoña-panflutes and of long and strident pinkillo-flutes. Under the moonlight and in a background of eerie music, they would alternate rhythms native to the Andes with the African-rooted Candombe of the Saya. Drunk, they would then act up pretending to be demented. They would hit the few spectators who dared to congregate to watch them with noisemakers and they would threaten them with whips and with sticks. Drinking and dancing and gesticulating, making all kinds of faces, they would continue doing so past midnight until a few minutes before dawn. Before the sunrise, all of a sudden, they would run downhill like wild horses, to the edge of the “jalancha” cliff. The cliff at that time was the town dump; in those days there was no drainage and there were no public services. When they reached the edge of the cliff, they would remove all their attires until they would remain completely naked. They removed their costumes, the entire banana leaves and paraphernalia and threw them to the bottom of the precipice. They “had to get rid off all costumes”; that was their superstition. Because if they didn’t do it before dawn, they would truly become crazy.

It was on one of those nights, the eve of another fiesta of San Bartolo, when Jacingo, at that time still a raucous adolescent, sneaked in among the musicians and all the dancers. He had dressed himself like one of them and he passed unnoticed. He also got drunk and had fun pretending to be a crazy loco-pallapalla. However, when he arrived to the edge of the cliff, utterly drunk, he refused to take off his clothes and instead he started making fun of the naked men. Grabbing a whip, he started hitting them on the buttocks and on the skinny flesh as well as on their fatter parts. That night, Jacingo alone caused more terror than all the “loco palla-pallas” put together when they were frightening the spectators earlier in the evening. After the initial surprise, the drunk naked men reacted, they were very upset and they gave the rambunctious black man a tremendous beating. All of a sudden Dona Candelaria suddenly recognizing him, cursed him, telling him “Oh, Jacingo, bad, bad black boy. You have been damned. You will become one day a true nut, sooner or later. Oh, Jacingo, negro pingo mandingo!” Since that night, he started looking with shifty distrustful eyes. That night the dark man developed his furtive gaze.

Bartolito and Jacingo were inseparable. What the little deaf-mute could not say with words, his hazel eyes expressed the affection that he felt for Jacingo. Seeing Jacingo walk always next to the child, seeing how he protected him and how he stood up for the little cretin, one could understand the tight bond existent between them. To the child, he was the kindest servant and his best pal. Jacingo was totally dedicated to his little master. His dedication to the child was no subject of question. No one doubted it, especially when sometimes the black man would get into fistfights with outsiders who would make fun of Bartolito. Especially those big city tourists, those ignorant Chukutas, who ignored Bartolito was the cherished town mascot even if nobody knew if that was so because of pity or because of true love. The truth is that wherever Bartolito went in the town the Cholas as well as the ritzier ladies would treat him like one of their own. They would open their hearts and their pantries and would uncover their breadbaskets for him. Here they would give him a little empanada, over there a little enquesado and over here a little kauka and in other places candy, soda and other goodies. They would not forget the black man either. To Jacingo the town women would give whole-wheat tulos and dark coffee sweetened with brown sugar where he would avidly dunk the bread. Bartolito and his inseparable bodyguard would happily run all over town, up and down from the outskirts to the town square, through all the narrow streets, from one edge to the other end of town.

Every year around this time, they would anxiously wait for another fiesta of San Bartolo. The two of them were fascinated by the troops of musicians and schools of dance who came from everywhere but more than anything, they were fascinated with the fireworks, with the Bengal lights and firecrackers with which the town people would celebrate the Saint. It was then, on one morning of another twenty-fourth of August, when they got up much earlier than usual because they didn’t want to lose one single minute of their favorite day. That day, it appeared as if the whole town had started earlier to celebrate the saint with early fireworks, but this time the noise seemed to be stronger. It wasn’t simple firecrackers, this time there were deafening detonations. Even Bartolito seemed to hear the noise and all the commotion, even though he had been born deaf. They went out of the house running, to see what was going on. They shot back almost immediately all frightened when they found out that there were dynamite cartridges exploding in the air and being thrown by drunk miners who had come from the mines in search of women and beer. Those miners, when drunk, were true savages. Just imagine, throwing cartridges of dynamite into the air, causing confusion and terror among all the babies, the chickens, the dogs and all the decent people of the town. Aunt Pasaku and Dona Candelaria were in full agreement: -“Those bastards deserved a whipping. A whipping on their naked butts. Just like Jacingo had done it with the loco palla-pallas”.

Once he recovered from the initial fright, Jacingo started laughing out loud. Relieved of the sudden fear, Bartolito started hee-hawing, convulsively laughing, sounding like a braying burro. Later that day, Jacingo had managed in some way to get himself a dynamite cartridge. As a copycat, he wanted to do the same thing the miners had done. He wanted to blow up his own firecrackers. Jacingo easily convinced Bartolito to go to the outskirts of town where he lit a cartridge. The black man lit the dynamite cartridge but he couldn’t or didn’t want to release it. A tremendous and terrifying explosion occurred. In front of Bartolito, Jacingo instantaneously died, shattered into little pieces like a melon thrown onto a concrete floor. Poor Jacingo.The old man said to himself: That was my first encounter with death! Poor Bartolito! He ran away crying, crying all frightened, as he had the devil within himself. When they informed Uncle Donato and Aunt Saturnina, Bartolito’s parents, about the tragedy, another nightmare ensued. Tears and painful cries of anguish overtook the group. A frantic search for Bartolito started.

– “Where is my Bartolito, where is my cululi?”

– “Oh, he went that way.”

– “We saw him running towards town.”

– “Oh, he was over there crying.”

But they could not find him anywhere. All the family and all the neighbors started to frantically look for him. By this time the crowds were filling the streets of the town. The procession of the priests had finished and the bands of musicians and dancers continued the celebration. The sicuri dancers competed with the kullawadas and with the llameradas, auqui-auquis and morenadas and with the favorite caporales dancing the local say a yungueña, a blend of native Andean music and imported African slave beats.

Searching for Bartolito among the increasingly drunken dancers and musicians and amidst the noise, strident music and general confusion was indeed macabre. It was ghastly to see Aunt Saturnina, grandma and the other aunts disconsolately crying amidst the jubilant celebrants. It was spooky to see the background of jumping devil-dancers (diabladas) from Oruro and see the women desperately running among the multitude searching for the missing child. All the friends and relatives seemed to be in search of Bartolito and nobody could find him.

– “I hope he didn’t also kill himself.”

– “Oh, my dear baby, my cululi! Where are you my sweetie, my ananita?”

– “Bartolitoy, Bartolo, Bartolitóóóó!!!”

They couldn’t find him and it was already dusk. In the meanwhile the town fiesta continued, with all its splendor and noise… Dancers, spectators and musicians kept on dancing, laughing, singing and drinking. It was then that Uncle Manucho suggested that they should go to the matuasi, the warehouse, where the harvested coca leaves and the coffee beans were stored and where, much earlier, the uncles had taken the rescued remains of Jacingo. They went to the warehouse. It was dark. They turned on flashlights and miners’ lamps because in the old warehouse there was no electrical connection. Inside the building, on top of an old rickety table one could see a big package that was covered with dirty bloody sheets. Two small flickering candles stood one side. Getting closer, they found Bartolito sobbing embraced to bloody package with the remains of Jacingo. The uncles tried to prevent the other children from seeing the dead man. However, the mischievous seven year old managed to uncover the sheets. His eyes ran into the half gaze of the broken bloody face of Jacinto and saw what he shouldn’t have seen…

That was my first encounter with death, the man thought and made another futile attempt to erase from his mind the vivid recollection. Down the patio, he saw Gumersinda, the housekeeper of the old house sweeping the tiles. She turned around and her eyes met with the eyes of the man who was about her same age. They had played together when she, reportedly one of the distant numerous illegitimate cousins, was a little Indian girl with short braids. Now her hair was even whiter than the man’s. They stared at each other. She wondered what the pensive man had been thinking for so long and so quietly. Almost simultaneously, he asked himself if she remembered Jacingo and that twenty-fourth of August. He managed to change his thoughts and to forget the tragic memory and addressed himself to her:

– “Dona Gumi, are you going to the fiesta in Chulumani?”

– “Of course, Señor. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

In his mind and his eyes the land he loved so much was engraved forever.

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