Wednesday 13 January 2010

Legends of the Cordillera de los Frailes

Not far from Sucre, in the mountains of Cordillera de los Frailes, on the banks of the Mama Huasi river, there is a deserted Spanish hacienda. Three household buildings and a small church remember the times when, on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, battles were fought for Bolivia's independance. The white walls of the homestead listened to the bang of consecutive rifle volleys; volleys fired by Spaniards towards rebels hiding in the mountains. They, however, soon realized that their enemies in the valley couldn't see who they were aiming at. A trap was prepared: local costumes were put on trees, in the hope that, due to the height, the Spaniards wouldn't see the difference. While the gunshots continued, the rebels crept down the mountain and surrounded their enemies, killing them all very quickly. Winning that battle didn't end the fighting though: the Spaniards soon caught one of the uprising's leaders. In front of the locals, his arms and legs were tied to four horses that were then whipped to the four directions. The man died a martyr's death, dismembered alive.

Revenge had to come quickly. The indigenous, indignant at the brutal treatment of their hero and used to being treated as slavish man-power on the Spanish hacienda, decided to rebel against its residents. On an autumn night in the eighteenth century, the Spaniards were woken by Quechuan screams outside their home. The smell of burning grass wafted through the air, smoke squeezing itself into the white buildings, wood crackling. When members of the family rushed towards windows and doors, they were already all very well barricaded. Fire was ravaging the hacienda, the bamboo roof caving in under its power, the Spanish family slowly dying inside their own four walls. Whether it was the grandmother, or her daughter, nobody knows today, but one thing is for sure: amidst the stench of burning skin, under the yellow-red sky, somebody cursed the locals. The curse prevailed over the hacienda for a few centuries, causing people to avoid the place. And though a few years ago the buildings were restored, today serving as someone's granary, still none of the locals are brave enough to spend the night. Supposedly, one can hear inhuman screams, cracks of broken roofs, Quechuan chants; supposedly fire will squeeze itself into your nostrils: you will wake up the next morning, having lost all your senses.

Some time ago a small boy got lost in the area, and, too exhausted to continue walking, he fell asleep against the walls of the hacienda's. The very next day, when he was found, he couldn't even recognise his own family, "he went crazy". Today he is a grown man, living high in the mountains, next to a cemetery, along with his father (or grandfather, nobody is sure anymore); supposedly every night he screams wildly, unable to fall asleep..


Cordillera de los Frailes hides many incredible stories. Locals say that once a year, on an August night, its slopes shine with gold and silver. Spaniards, fleeing from the rebels, supposedly hid their treasure high in the mountains, not wanting its weight to slow them down. Deeply convinced that they would return for it as soon as they crushed the rebellion, the Spaniards buried their blood money in the ground. Life had different plans though: Bolivia gained its independence and the Spaniards never returned for their gold. The treasure is still there, waiting to be discovered.

They say that one who is lucky enough to be in that area on a special August night, will see blue flames lighting up the slopes. If he wants to be rich, he should then, as soon as possible, head toward the flames, thrust a knife into the source of the fire, and leave without delay. The next day, the knife will mark the location of the treasure. Locals will also happily lead people to the gold, running away as soon as they start digging. Careful though! Before reaching the treasure, a deadly gas will erupt from the ground, killing the unprepared. Without a human sacrifice to Pachamama, the valuables cannot be touched... Supposedly, every now and then, families of local farmers build impressive buildings in the centre of Sucre. Nobody knows where these recently-poor people get the money for these projects. Do they find Spanish gold, after sacrificing someone's life to Pachamama?


Or do they have luck talking to the Devil?

Supay Huasi, the Devil's Cave, is hidden between rocks high in the mountains. Rain and snow washed away the path that, until only a few years ago, led through the area, quite close to the cave itself. Today one has to climb slippery rocks, with the remains of the old trail barely visible. Without a guide this is impossible. When a tenacious wanderer finally reaches this cave, he will see red paintings on the walls. They show small figures that represent the pre-Inca underworld. One of the paintings represents the Devil. It is He who rules this place, feasting here once every year with His entourage.

Once upon a time, a young man was returning home, following the path that has since been washed away. Accompanying him was a donkey burdened with a huge bag of coal, bought by Uruchi in a village a few kilometers away. There was a smell of frost in the air, foreshadowing the rapit onset of winter. The coal was crucial to Uruchi's large family's survival. The prices in the village had gone up and the boy spent more time than usual haggling, now it was getting dark and he still had a fair distance to cover. He knew he wouldn't reach home by nightfall, and even if he hadn't been so tired, a hike in the darkness wouldn't be the best idea: hordes of wild animals were roaming the area, eager to tear to pieces anyone foolish enough to cross their path. Uruchi knew that, aside from the cave around the bend, there was no shelter nearby. The cave always terrified him, even when passing it in daylight, because of all the horrible stories people told about it. Supposedly, once a year, right about this time, residents of the valley below saw lights in the hills, where the cave could be seen by day. Incoherant screams and loud singing began around midnight, keeping people awake for what seemed like forever, but was probably only an hour or so. And after things quieted down, there was a distinct smell of sulphur in the air. Supposedly. Uruchi had never heard those songs, never seen the lights, his house was a few kilometers up the valley. Tonight though, he felt he didn't have much choice, he had to seek shelter within the walls of the cave. Maybe he would have some luck, and tonight wouldn't be that mysterious night?

The cave was enveloped in darkness, but Uruchi somehow managed to untie the bag of coal from the tired donkey's back. The animal thanked him with a twitch of its ears and made its way to the other end of the cave. Shivering with cold, exhausted by the hours of hiking uphill, terrified at this place he found himself in, Uruchi huddled in a corner and hid under a blanket. The blanket slowly became damp, as water dripped off the wall of the cave. Uruchi must had fallen asleep, as he was awakened by chaotic song. The cave had changed beyond all recognition: its walls were lit by the flames of massive candles, a huge monster was seated on a throne that appeared out of nowhere, and horrifying creatures danced around the embers of a slowly fading coal fire. The unbearable music abated, as the monster rose to his feet. Uruchi tried to pretend he wasn't there, but he knew he had been noticed. The monster approached the boy: "The coal that lies in the corner, is it yours?" "Yes, my lord", the scared boy somehow managed to mumble. "As you can see, ours is about finished. Shall we trade?", asked the monster, pointing at a similarly sized bag beside his throne. Uruchi could only nod, too afraid to upset the creature with a refusal. "Fine then, put my bag on your donkey tomorrow morning. But don't you dare look inside before you reach your house, no matter what!", the monster turned his back to Uruchi, snapped all three of his fingers and disappeared together with his entire entourage. The cave looked as before and only a foul smell remained as evidence that something strange had happened here. Dawn was breaking. Uruchi rubbed his tired eyes and, still not sure whether he had just awoken from the weirdest dream of his life, or whether he had met the Devil himself, fastened his sack to the back of the donkey. The coal seemed unusually light, the walk home unexpectedly easy and finally, much sooner than he had expected, Uruchi reached his home. Inside the small house, his older brother sat by the hearth. Seeing Uruchi, he shouted: "Why so late?! And why do you bring such a small bag?! I am doing everything I can here, and you can't even handle the simple task of purchasing coal! I bet this stupid donkey could have carried twice as much!". Uruchi hid his head in his arms, as Thaluki grabbed the bag and dumped its contents on the floor. The little house was suddenly lit up by glittering reflections: gold brightened the room much more than the fire of the hearth ever could. Thaluki forced the astounded Uruchi to spit out the story of his unexpected meeting, and at that moment the older brother swore he would seek even more riches next year.

The year seemed like an eternity for the impatient Thaluki. Disgusted by the stupidity of his brother, who kept wasting his money helping others, Thaluki dreamt of a bigger house and purchasing hundreds of donkeys and lamas. The field was spoiling unused, but Thaluki did not care: soon he would be rich. When the right time finally arrived, he set off for the village to buy coal. By the time Thaluki finally reached the cave, his poor donkey could barely move under the weight of two gigantic sacks, but Thaluki was too excited to unload the creature. Hurrying in his younger brother's footsteps, he went inside and huddled against the wall, covering himself with a blanket. He didn't fall asleep though, he waited patiently for the party to appear. At last, around midnight, candles lit up, a camp-fire burned, and the cave became full of dancing demons. As soon as the Devil appeared on His throne, Thaluki threw off his blanket and ran towards Him. He was brought to an abrupt halt by dozens of spears, and only their master's rough voice prevented disgusting creatures from impaling him right there. "What do you want?", asked the monster. "I have a proposal for you. I want to exchange those two bags my donkey is carrying, for two bags of yours!", Thaluki responded without needless ceremony. "Oh, really? That is good, we need coal!', the monster laughed, and the deal was made. The lights went out, the singing silenced, the hellish ballroom became merely a cave once again. Thaluki couldn't believe it was that easy, that he himself had just talked to the Devil. He called for the donkey, but couldn't hear it braying anywhere in response. He searched the immediate vicinity, but to no avail. The stupid donkey, finally relieved of its load, must have wandered off foraging for food. Well, or it might itself have been eaten. Thaluki promised himself that as soon as he found it, he would give it a good beating, but until then he would have to carry the bags of gold himself. He struggled with the load, the sacks seemed to get heavier and heavier with every step. He could barely breathe when he finally reached his house, much later than usual. Drenched in sweat, he threw the bags to the ground and tore them open. Then he fell to the ground beside them, vomiting helplessly in disgust: inside, instead of the anticipated gold, were the bowels of his hapless donkey. The Devil mocked Thaluki, teaching him a lesson: it is not a man who chooses to deal with the Devil, but the Devil - a man.


I pass the hacienda, I walk by the crazy man's house, I pause by the cemetery on my way to Supay Huasi, the cave hidden in the hills. Luckily it is a hot day, the sun blazing overhead in a cloudless sky, so I am not at all frightened by the stories I hear on my way. It is a beautiful landscape: birds singing in the trees, majestic mountains towering over the river winding through the valley, their slopes are covered with green. A few hours of hiking through surroundings like this, is a pleasure. During lunch, our guide tells a tale of himself and his friend getting lost in the area. Fortunately, they had a tent, when they stumbled across a clearing, so they pitched it in the darkness and slept. In the middle of the night they were woken up by voices outside. Neither of them was brave enough to check what was going on. When the first reys of sun finally entered the tent, the boys left the tent and spent an hour looking for signs of human presence in the area, but to no avail: there wasn't even a single footprint on the ground... I laugh at the story, it seems strangly unlikely to me.

It's odd though, on this long a long hike, I only find four-leaves clovers in places belonging to the dead: near the cemetery and on the hacienda...

1 comment:

The past!