A Tribute to the Jején by Douglas Brown
When asked what I consider to be the single most significant animal species
in the vicinity of San Blas, Nayarit, my immediate and unequivocal response is the
jején. This nearly invisible insect, variously known as the sand flea, the no-see-um,
or, to the scientifically inclined, Voz haitiana, is the first line of defense of the
region's charm and character. Although aided in no small part by the mosquito, it
is the jején that has prevented San Blas from becoming the ugly, glitzy, over priced,
condominium and fast-food-chain infested tourist trap typified by the two closest
port cities to the north and south.
When this apparently insignificant creature alights on the skin, it appears, to the naked eye, to be only a small black dot, the size of a pin point. True appreciation of this tiny predator requires a microscope. Magnification reveals the beauty of the three segmented body. A soft, stubby black abdomen merges almost indistinguishably into the hard, chitinous thorax. A small head pokes out in front on a short, slender neck. Six sinuously spindly legs provide a stable undercarriage when this minute guardian is not using its transparent, black-veined wings for locomotion.
But of most interest is the head. Here, just beneath the two round, glittering, compound eyes topped by a pair of small antennae, is found the business end of this minuscule defender of the natural landscape. The mouth parts descend like two tiny, curved scimitars, ready at a moment's notice to carve a minute flowing well of nutritious, red blood from the exposed skin of any mammal they might encounter.
If it were only the actual bite of the jejénes that one need worry about, they would not be the effective deterrent to noxious, pale-skinned invaders that, in fact, they are. The physical discomfort as they sink their minute blades into their victim is, like themselves, relatively small. Unlike the hypodermic needle injections of mosquito bites, which often are not felt until the animal has finished feeding, the jején's attack is easily detected at the outset. Thus, it is a simple matter for the afflicted victim to simply brush them away or crush them to death at the first sign of discomfort.
Fortunately, these infinitesimal warriors also have a secondary mode of assault. Like the mosquito, the jején spits a protein into its prey as it bites. A significant portion of species homo sapiens--casual observation suggests it could be as many as one person out of four--produces an antibody to this protein which causes large red welts to appear on the skin. These inflammations are often accompanied by a fierce itch that can last for several days. Even the most determined party of fast-food addicts is certain to be routed by a 25% casulty rate.
Another of the jején's advantages is numbers. In his wildest dreams Genghis Khan could never have contemplated deploying so many soldiers in his Golden Hoard. But their troop strength is far from constant. Rather, their numbers vary in a semi-lunar cycle, peaking the day after the full and the new moons, and rapidly diminishing as it waxes or wanes. I suspect this phenomenon is related to the exceptionally high tides which occur at these two times. It seems a reasonable hypothesis that they lay their eggs at the tidal fringe, and when the water reaches them , they hatch.
The jején's role is not, however, limited to defense. This useful insect also makes important contributions to the local culture. The famous "San Blas Salute" is one significant example. This activity, which can be observed whenever two or more people stop to converse on the street, consists of waving a handkerchief, diaper, towel or other appropriate piece of fabric in front of the face. The resulting spectacle, late in the afternoon on the day after a full moon, can be quite striking-- comparable to a religious ritual.
Another social contribution of the jején is the conversational gambit it supplies. In temperate climates, where the weather exhibits great variability, comments on the temperature or the excess or lack precipitation provide a safe, uncontroversial means of starting a conversation. The unvarying weather of the tropcs presents a serious problem. Imagine how boring it would be to hear, "Well, its sunny and 86 degrees again today," every time two people came together. Remarks on the state of the jején population neatly plug this cultural gap for the San Blaseños.
Formidable as it is, the jején is far from invincible. Chemical warfare, in the form of DEET, can be effectively employed by those not overly concerned about the genetic consequences to their progeny. The local residents deploy large clouds of smoke generated by smoldering fires burning whatever trash they can find--wood, plastic, fiberglass resins, used motor oil, coconut shells, whatever. While the long term effect of this practice on the lungs and the contribution it makes to the greenhouse effect is open to question, it is effective. It also has the added benefit of keeping the streets relatively clean.
The principal vulnerability of the jején, however, is that he is a weak flier. The merest puff of wind sends him careening out of control. Thus, while he owns the still early morning and late afternoon, from the time the sea breeze begins to blow until it drops, he is banshed from the places it reaches: most notably the beach. The local cogniscenti exploit this weakness by developing a thorough knowledge of the location of every fan in every public building in the town.
Unfortunately, the norteño invasion is not the only threat to the character of the area. Inexorable human population pressure is causing extremely rapid and irreversible alterations to the local landscape. The mangrove forest is being converted to agriculture and artificial shrimp ponds. The mountain slopes, formerly covered by complex tropical forest ecosystems, are yielding to avocado and mango monocultures. The once pristine beaches are rapidly being sub-divided and fenced in. Against these titanic economic forces the jején can provide but feeble resistance. But, for those of us who do not wish to have a fast-food emporium on every corner, or hundreds of broad, Bermuda-short clad bottoms promenading the streets of the town, one can only say, "Thank the great earth goddess, in all her wisdom, for providing such a valiant defender."