The road leading into the south end of the town, winding through it’s tired, dusty buildings, and exiting from the northeast end after a couple of miles hasn’t changed in a century, probably more. Mostly dirt, some rock, but certainly no pavement. One comes into Nuevo Comienzo only after a slow four-hour trek through the Amazon, passing a handful of tiny villages, home to maybe a couple of dozen inhabitants living in grass and mud huts. And this, only after a grueling fifteen-hour ride on the Yungus Highway, often referred to as the most dangerous road in the world, with the journey interrupted briefly by a leisurely ferry crossing at Rurrenabaque.
By the time the road curves to the left and crosses the bridge, constructed of two massive tree trunks, into the town, the site of anything resembling civilization seems almost like a miracle. The women washing their clothes in the river below pause to watch the vehicle cross. The children splashing in the water stop their playing and run alongside laughing and looking to see who’s aboard. It’s in a place like this that an incoming truck, or bus, is somewhat of a novelty, as few from the outside actually come here on purpose and those who call this place home transport themselves on bicycles, or motorcycles, or horses, or on foot.
Nearly every building is as old as the road. The majority of the structures are places where men and women go to drink and listen to music or sing along, like the Karaoke Noemar. There is a store or two and a couple of restaurants, if one could actually call them that. They consist of a room with a few tables, usually attached to a house, with a kitchen out back where the family meals are prepared alongside those of patrons over an open fire. Chickens walk freely around the tables. Dogs wander in and out. Birds roost in the rafters dropping occasional “condiments” on the plates below. A small television might sit in the corner broadcasting a fuzzy picture of some Latin variety show beamed from a distant transmitter.
Homes are scattered amongst the bars and restaurants with the most financially well-off families, as rare as they are, living in crafted wood or concrete structures while the majority of residents live in dwellings framed with tree trunks, covered with palm roofs, with dirt floors.
As the road curves to the north the structures are fewer, the open grass spaces are larger, and a makeshift soccer field lies to the left. Near the northern end of the town sits one of the nicest buildings in not only the town, but the whole district. It’s called the Palace Nuevo Comienzo, a large three-story red brick hotel with running water and air conditioning units that offer a respite from the heat during the four hours per day that electricity flows through the town. People occasionally come here for nature tourism, or missionary work, and these are the most comfortable accommodations one can find, complete with hammocks in the courtyard and talking parrots.
Across the street from the Palace is an open field, with a long stretch of compacted soil where an occasional airplane might land amongst wandering cattle.
Finally, at the northern end of the town sits the Internado. Out of a four-acre plot of land, at the edge of the rainforest, emerges a three-story brick building with bedrooms, and bathrooms, a kitchen, classrooms, and a workshop surrounded by plots of land growing banana trees, cacao, yucca, and various other crops. From dawn until dusk the sound of children’s voices, laughter, and singing, fills the air. It’s in this place that, for nearly a generation, children from abusive homes in distant villages, with no hope for an education or better life, have sought refuge and experienced the very best of the human spirit. Countless men and women, now out in the world living full, meaningful lives, at one time or another had their first hot meal, or their first non-violent night under this roof.
Today is not a typical day in Nuevo Comienzo. In fact, if asked, most of her inhabitants would say that this day has been like no other that anyone can remember. The town looks different, feels different, smells different, and the typically peaceful and quiet setting has been anything but peaceful and quiet for the past 24 hours or so.
From the southern end of the town to the northern end, every electrical pole has been painted with a twelve-inch wide purple colored stripe of paint encircling the pole, about five and a half feet from the ground. A strange custom to commemorate someone of significance from the town. The purple has replaced the nearly completely faded orange applied to the poles to commemorate a local political candidate who had aspirations of moving into the presidential palace in La Paz many years ago.
For as long as it’s existed the town has never experienced what could be considered a traffic jam. However, for nearly a day the streets have been clogged with buses, large freight trucks carrying human cargo, and cars and SUVs that are seldom ever seen.
Four planes have landed between the cows, more than this town typically sees in a month. And the Palace Nuevo Comienzo is full. From the landing strip the passengers can see the Internado which on this day is the focal point of all the unusual activity.
A young boy with dirty shoeless feet and tattered clothing, not a resident of the Internado but one who lives in a nearby house, presses his way through the crowd of strangers toward a pavilion situated halfway between the kitchen and the river, drawn by the strong scent of flowers. As he pushes past people speaking languages both common and strange, he reaches the front of the crowd, and a few feet away, in the center of the covered pavilion, lies a man, cold, still, surrounded by various loose flowers trucked in from a distant place, his body stiff, wrinkled, and worn by age, his eyes closed, and his lifeless expression conveying what one might perceive as a sense of satisfaction over a life well lived.
Men and women quickly changed their plans and adjusted their schedules and traveled from various places around the country and around the globe to this place, on this day, for one reason.
Liam Francis has died.
He was 94.