Here and There in Yucatan/Beautiful Cozumel

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Ten miles from the eastern coast of Yucatan lies the Island of Cozumel, one of Nature's favored spots, where there is perpetual spring, and to live in the open air is a delight. We wanted a house, nevertheless, and were by no means charmed when informed that it would be very difficult to find a lodging. The centre of the village of St. Miguel is an immense grass-grown square, bounded on the west by the sea, on the east by a thatched church, and on north and south by thatched dwellings. The rest of the village is scattered along the beach and a little way back, not far, for there are only five hundred inhabitants.

Having no tent to pitch, we emphatically insisted on a house, and were at last allowed to take possession of a one-room residence at the southeast corner of the square. It was gloomy, damp, dirty; the floor thickly strewn with dry cocoa-nuts. It had two doors but no window. In one corner there was a pile of cocoanuts, to which we immediately began adding others. We were throwing one after another as fast as possible when the old priest of the village introduced himself and said he was glad to find out what the noise was, as he had feared it might be an earthquake coming on; though they had never had one in Cozumel. Father Rejon was in shirt sleeves, for, said he, "I cannot afford to wear a coat every day." He invited us to go and play cards with him in the evening; and also gave us the welcome intelligence that our house was haunted.

We were still throwing the nuts when an Indian girl came running across the square to invite us to dine with her mistress. We therefore locked our doors and went to the house of Dona Concha. In her sitting-room we found Captain Low—in whose schooner Aryetis we had arrived—and several unfortunate hens tied in pairs by the feet, struggling on the floor. The poultry of Cozumel are of superior size and quality, and when taken to Key West always fetch a good price. Captain Low wanted five dozen that had to be collected from all over the village. He paid 36 cents for each, though for the same birds the villagers only charged each other 25 cents. The captain also wanted a load of fruit; but that he could not have, because Dona Concha said only a week or two before a tornado had swept over the island uprooting every fruit tree.

These periodical tornadoes are the only drawback to life in Cozumel. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is almost uninhabited. Nevertheless when the Spanish Conquerors arrived there, more than 350 years ago, the population numbered 100,000, besides 50,000 pilgrims who yearly visited the shrines. The island was then called Cuzamil, which means in Maya language "the swallows."

The soil is strewn with vestiges of ancient dwellings that are concealed beneath forests rich with valuable timber. Among the trees are the ebony, brazil-wood, cedar, sapote, ramon, rosewood, and the zac-ha-na (house of white water) under whose roots there is always a spring of pure, clear water. The thickets are alive with pheasants, quails, pigeons and other game. With a little care every kind of tropical fruit, of very fine quality, grows abundantly; vanilla is found wild: plenty of copal can be gathered from the trees, as well as honey and wax, the product of harmless wild bees.

Only labor is needed to turn all this to wealth. The natives have quite as much work as they care to do, being contented to live from hand to mouth. We found a few Americans from New Orleans and Key West living there. They said that they could make plenty of money if they had good laborers.

Tobacco grown in Cozumel is quite equal to the weed produced in Cuba, and many cigars sold as "Havanas" are from Cozumel, whence they are sent boxed ready for the market. The principal planter there, Mr. J. Anduze, took us through his plantation, fifteen miles from St. Miguel, and gave us a little useful information. When the plant is two feet high, the top is broken off to prevent further growth, that the whole strength and virtue may be taken up by the leaves already formed; only a few plants are left to run to seed. The same soil does not serve for tobacco more than one year, but during that time three crops can be raised. Such leaves as turn yellow before the weed is ready to pluck must be cut off; they are used in second-rate cigars. The ground must be kept perfectly free of all other weeds. When ripe the plant is hung up for eight or ten days, within doors, to dry thoroughly. Each leaf is then separately moistened in a decoction of tobacco and strung on a fine wire. The wires are stretched in lines, one above another, in a building kept for the purpose. The operation of drying and moistening is repeated four or five times, after which the leaves are tied up in bundles, put in hogsheads, and covered over to "sweat." It is upon this "sweating" operation that the flavor and odor of the cigar depend. The principal occupation of the islanders is tobacco growing and cigar making.

Near the plantation there were some curious little buildings that had once served as temples to a very diminutive race of people, whose existence is proved by whole cities of similarly small houses on the east coast of Yucatan. We examined the edifices, but the owner of the plantation said that there were some much more interesting at a place called Buena Vista. We decided to go, though the Indian selected as a guide said the road was bad. We started with him and his four small hunting dogs, and soon acknowledged that the road might be better. The fact is there was no road, nothing but a footpath through the dense forest, so obliterated in places, owing to the tornado, that even our guide paused from time to time to consider whether he was keeping in the track. We were walking on coral rocks over which there was a perfect net-work of small roots, just like ropes, spreading in every direction, the interstices being of a most convenient size to catch heel or toe. From time to time the dogs made off in quest of fancied prey; then losing their way, set up a dismal howling for their master to guide them back with his voice. These dogs, though small, fearlessly chase the boar and hold it at bay till the hunter comes to kill it, which is generally done with a wooden spear.

When we had walked about five miles, and were as tired as if we had been tramping for twenty-four hours on a good road, we asked our guide, who had not once opened his lips, except to whistle to his dogs, if we were near Buena Vista. "Not half way," was the crushing reply. We dared not rest for more than a few minutes, as the forest was cool and damp, and we were profusely perspiring from continual efforts to keep from stumbling. Another mile—the rocky hills getting steeper and steeper. Then we observed that our boots were falling to pieces! The Indian seemed to chuckle inwardly at our misery when he informed us that there was no place to rest at Buena Vista, much less any cobbler to mend our boots. It was evident that, even if we came in sight of the old houses—not worth looking at, in the opinion of our guide—this would be a bootless journey anyhow. Our feet were already blistered; so we turned homeward, vowing that the next time an Indian said a road was bad we would be content to take his word for it.

We arrived at the plantation limping as though we had been on a nine days' tramp, and before we could reach shelter a shower of rain drenched us to the skin. The consequence was a burning fever all night, our torture being increased by hundreds of tiny wood-ticks that had worked their way under our skin. To complete our chagrin, we were assured, by one who had been there, that at Buena Vista there was a building ornamented with hieroglyphics sculptured in stone: we did not decide to try it again.

Our journey back to the village was a delightful contrast to the attempted trip to Buena Vista. We went, on horseback, along the shore, through groves of palm-trees, passing now and then by plantations where luxuriant sugar-cane and many other products showed the wonderful fertility of the soil, and how at the time when this ancient Mecca was frequented by thousands of devout pilgrims, it could, being thoroughly tilled, easily yield abundant nourishment for all.

We then made up a boat party with some of our countrymen who were trying to form a colony there. The boat belonged to them; it was not more than fifteen feet long, but big enough to accommodate five people. After an hour's sail along the coast we stopped to see the place where the American colony was to be. It was a lovely spot. The first house was being built. The owner complained bitterly that the native workmen did as little as possible, and charged twice as much as they usually received from their own people.

Further down the coast we stopped at a plantation belonging to Señor Angulo. We had an opportunity to see immense fields of garlic, ginger, sweet potatoes, and sago: from this last article excellent starch is made. These productions are exported principally to British Honduras, Island Mugeres, and Cuba; a little to the mainland, particularly to Campeche: boats coming from the islands seldom touch at Progreso.

Near Mr. Angulo's habitation we saw a cave only three feet high, within which there is a square room built of comparatively large stones, and having vestiges of colored designs on the outside. In this cave we found the frontal bone of a skull. Judging by its size, one would take it to be that of a child six years old, but its extreme thickness and the condition of the sutures, show that it was that of an adult.

Leaving the plantation we continued our way along the coast, seeking an entrance to a certain lake. Night overtook us before we found it; we therefore hauled our boat up on the beach, and sought shelter in a fisherman's deserted hut.

Next morning, after two hours' sailing, we found the channel by which we were to reach the lake. The boat had to be borne across the beach that there forms a sandbar, over which flows only a few inches of water, to the mouth of the creek. This was about five yards wide, and closed overhead by mangroves. The water proved to be only five feet deep, and with a swift current, as it was low tide, coming from the lake. We struggled forward for about an hour, cutting away the low boughs: as in that time we had only advanced a little more than half a mile, the idea of penetrating to the lake was abandoned. We therefore backed out of the channel and continued along the coast till we came to a place where the water was crystalline and shallow. A number of large conchs lay on the sandy bottom; we secured some and went ashore to breakfast.

The conch-shell is exceedingly hard, but large turtles, that abound in these waters, break them between their jaws without apparent effort. We roasted some conchs, but found they were much nicer uncooked, though they had to be softened by hammering them with a stone.

We sailed all day, and toward evening saw in the distance some huts that we decided should be our hotel that night. We were lured on by what appeared to be a massive and extensive wall; only after landing we discovered that what looked like a magnificent fortification was in fact millions of shells, principally conchs, that formed a high perpendicular bank. There was also a smaller shelf composed of thousands of tons of dry sponge and seaweed that might be utilized for commercial purposes. Near by, on the top of a rock, was a small shrine and a stone snake-head. Afterward we found others of the same kind at intervals along the coast. They were altars, to which at the time of the conquest—according to the historians—fishermen went to make offerings and burn copal to their divinities of the sea.

Heavy clouds warned us to hasten to our boat, and sail back to the huts. We found them in good condition, and some dry wood close by. Happily the rain held off; we, therefore, soon had a blazing fire, and supper, consisting of coffee, bread, conchs, and a heron, whose breast was even a better tidbit than that of a young parrot—which is saying a good deal. During the night it rained in torrents, but under shelter of the sheds we were not disturbed by it.

Next morning we sailed to the end of the island, or as near as possible; it is an iron-bound coast that would afford no protection to any shipwrecked crew. We went back a little way, and hauled our boat up on the beach at the end of the bay where we had found shelter the night before. Near by there were turtle tracks, and soon we had transported one hundred eggs from the nest to our boat.

After examining the country around we launched the boat. When it was necessary to put it on the right course every member of the party wanted to be captain; we consequently stranded on the beach five times; each time the sails had to be lowered and the captains to get into the surf to shove off again. When tired of that fun the command was unanimously given to Dr. Le Plongeon. We then succeeded in starting homeward, and reached San Miguel village just in time to escape a tempest, for on entering our house we heard a small lizard making a noise in a corner of the roof; half an hour later a regular "norther" set in. This lizard is small and dark, subsists on insects, and is a veritable living barometer. It has a loud voice that is never heard except just previous to bad weather: this is so well authenticated that, even if the weather is fair, no sailor will venture out when warned by that lizard.

The roaring wind and heavy rain beating on the broad leaves of the banana-trees around the house prevented us from sleeping. When the storm abated, just as we were passing into dreamland, slumber was rudely dispelled by violent clanging of the church bells. A dozen peaceable citizens, disturbed from their rest, went to see what was the matter. They found an old woman pulling vigorously at the rope. She was quite demented and refused to stop her music. They drove her home, which so provoked her that in the morning she threw one of her grandchildren into a well, saying "it must be killed." The child's father being at hand, it was rescued uninjured, though much terrified.

In the villages throughout Yucatan, baptisms and funerals are great events, a wake being regarded as a mild entertainment. In Cozumel we had occasion to see one of those friendly gatherings.

The patient was a young woman who had lived alone. Being suddenly stricken down in a fit, from which she never recovered, a neighbor had taken her in. What little property was found in her home—fifty dollars, some gold ornaments, and clothes—was appropriated by the same kind neighbor to defray expenses. The unconscious woman was placed on a camp-bed, and preparations for the wake were at once begun. A demijohn of strong liquor was bought with the money of the patient, also a lot of cake, four pounds of chocolate, and plenty of black wax candles.

Soon the room was full of men and women, regaling themselves with "drinks" and cigarettes. Young girls with flowers in their hair and powder on their faces were seated around the room, in expectation of cake and chocolate. On one table there were sundry small ornaments, and a wooden crucifix before which burned wax candles. On another, a pitcher of water, glasses, cigars, and beneath it, the demijohn of rum.

An old woman came in; the hostess offered her a cigar, which she accepted, saying: "Thank you, ma'am. Have you got her chickens?"

"Yes," replied the other; "they are all in the coop. She will be dead presently, and they will be killed for this good company."

"Yes, yes," rejoined the dame, lighting her cigarette; "woe to us! what are we in this world!"

The wake lasted two days and nights; by the time the woman really expired, her money was all gone. A grave had been dug the day she fell sick; now she was carried to it in a deal coffin. The priest was not called to utter a prayer over the corpse, because, said they, there was no money to pay him.

That affair was a nine days' scandal, even among those simple-minded people.

One Sunday evening we received a pressing invitation to the house of Señor Mendiburu, the Alcalde, whose youngest child was to be baptized. We found the parlor illuminated with three or four lamps, several women seated on one side of the room, men on the other. Upon a table there were goblets, and bottles of ale, more expensive there than the best Spanish wine, hence preferred.

The baby was brought from the bedroom to be taken to church by the sponsors and the male guests, the women remaining at home with the parents. On their return the infant was carried back to the bedroom, no one manifesting the least interest in it.

Sponsors are expected to offer a gift according to their means. In the peninsula, well-to-do families scatter silver medios among those who follow the procession to the church. The guests are presented with pretty cards that have a silver or gold coin attached to them. On the card is printed the name of the child, the date of its birth, and a floral design or verses.

Having baptized the baby, Cura Rejon came to the house of its parents; then the bottles were opened, the host himself handing glasses of ale to the ladies, and inviting the gentlemen to help themselves. He expressed much regret at not having a band of music as intended—the musicians had been called to Island Mugeres—but hoped to do better next time.

It was remarkable that hardly a word was uttered on this occasion—the silence was almost solemn; whereas at the wake there had been much animated conversation. Do they think death less to be regretted than birth? It is a fact that in those countries anciently, when a child was born, the first words addressed to it were: "Alas for thee! thou hast come to this world to suffer and weep." Looking upon a corpse, they invariably say: "At rest! to suffer and toil no more!" If the deceased is an infant, they wreathe it in garlands, exclaiming: "Another little angel!"

Cura Rejon was called from the baptism party to a death-bed. Bidding us good night, he said: "Ah yes! one after another I lay them to rest as they fall like autumn leaves around me, but there will be no one to minister the last sacrament to poor old Father Rejon when his time comes."

At three o'clock on the following afternoon the funeral cortège started. The cura, dressed in his robes, led the way. On his right walked an acolyth carrying a vessel of holy water; on his left, one with a prayer-book. They were followed by three or four amateur musicians; next, six men bearing the coffin, black, ornamented with white. It was open, the corpse, dressed in black, exposed. A man walked beside, with a table on his head. Men, women, and children, some mourners, others idlers, brought up the rear. The men were bareheaded, the women wore mantillas as at church. They looked sad, but the absence of a black hearse, and other funeral paraphernalia, seemed to rid death of half its horrors.

The followers sang a dirge. At each corner the procession halted, the table was put on the ground, and the coffin placed on it. The priest, with his face toward the deceased, then chanted in a sonorous musical voice, the people responding. The sky was black with an approaching storm, the thunder's distant peal mingling its deep tones with theirs, like a note from the grand organ of the Supreme Being. After each prayer the priest sprinkled the corpse with holy water. Thus they slowly wended their way to the church. At the door the prayers were again repeated; the body was then carried in, the bell tolling while the funeral service was performed.

From the church to the grave the coffin was at the head of the procession, priest and mourners following with the musicians, who played a slow march.

Before lowering the coffin into the earth, the lid was nailed on, and a bottle of rum passed round among those present—a parting cup, to wish the lamented friend godspeed on his long journey.

  1. Published in "New York Tribune."