Six Months In Mexico/Chapter 3
Fire and brimstone! It is nothing to the torments of an American prisoner in a Mexican jail. Two meals, not enough to sustain life in a sick cat, must suffice him for an entire week. There are no beds, and not even water. Prisoners also have the not very comfortable knowledge that, if they get too troublesome, the keepers have a nasty habit of making them stand up and be shot in the back. The reports made out in these cases are "shot while trying to escape."
In the afternoon I exchanged my money for Mexican coin, getting a premium of twelve cents on every dollar. I had a lunch prepared, and as the shades of night began to envelop the town, we boarded the train for Mexico. After we crossed the Rio Grande our baggage was examined by the custom-house officers while we ate supper at a restaurant which, strangely enough, was run by Chinamen. This gave us a foretaste of Mexican food and price.
It was totally dark when we entered the car again, and quite ready to retire. There were but two other passengers in the car with us. One was a Mexican and the other a young man from Chicago.
We soon bade them good-night, and retired to our berths to sleep while the train bore us swiftly through the darkness to our destination.
ALONG THE ROUTE.
"Thirty minutes to dress for breakfast, was our good-morning in Mexico. We had fallen asleep the night previous as easily as a babe in its crib, with an eager anticipation of the morrow. Almost before the Pullman porter had ceased his calling, our window shades were hoisted and we were trying to see all of Mexico at one glance.
That glance brought disappointment. The land, almost as far as the eye could carry, which which is a wonderful distance in the clear atmosphere of Mexico, was perfectly level. Barring the cacti, with which the country abounds, the ground was bare.
"And this is sunny Mexico, the land of the gods!" I exclaimed, in disgust. By the time we had completed our toilet the train stopped, and we were told to get off if we wanted any breakfast. We followed our porter to a side track where, in an old freight car, was breakfast. We climbed up the high steps, paying our dollar as we entered, and found for ourselves places at the long table. It was surrounded by hungry people intent only on helping themselves. Everything was on the table, even to the coffee.
I made an effort to eat. It was impossible. My mother succeeded no better.
"Are you not glad we brought a lunch?" she asked, as her eyes met mine.
We went back to the car and managed to make a tolerable breakfast on the cold chicken and other eatables we found in our basket.
But the weather! It was simply perfect, and we soon forgot little annoyances in our enjoyment of it. We got camp chairs, and from morning until night we occupied the rear platform.
As we got further South the land grew more interesting. We gazed in wonder at the groves of cacti which raised their heads many feet in the air, and topped them off with one of the most exquisite blossoms I have ever seen.
At every station we obtained views of the Mexicans. As the train drew in, the natives, of whom the majority still retain the fashion of Adam, minus fig leaves, would rush up and gaze on the travelers in breathless wonder, and continue to look after the train as event of their if it was the one lives.
As we came to larger towns we could see armed horse-riding at a 2:09 speed, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake, to the stations. When the train stopped they formed in a decorous line before it, and so remained until the train started again on its journey. I learned that they were a government guard. They do this so, if there is any trouble on the train or any raised at the station during their stop, they could quell it.
Hucksters and beggars constitute most of the crowd that welcomes the train. From the former we bought flowers, native fruit, eggs, goat milk, and strange Mexican food. The pear cacti, which is nursed in green-houses in the States, grows wild on the plains to a height of twenty feet, and its great green lobes, or leaves, covered thickly with thorns, are frequently three feet in diameter. Some kinds bear a blood-red fruit, and others yellow. When gathered they are in a thorny shell. The Mexican Indians gather them and peel them and sell them to travelers for six cents a dozen. It is called "tuna" and is considered very healthy. It has a very cool and pleasing taste.
From this century-plant, or cacti, the Mexicans make their beer, which they call pulque (pronounced polke). It is also used by the natives to fence in their mad houses, and forms a most picturesque and impassable surrounding.
The Indians seem cleanly enough, despite all that's been said to the contrary. Along the gutters by the railroad, they could be seen washing their few bits of wearing apparel, and bathing. Many of their homes are but holes in the ground, with a straw roof. The smoke creeps out from the doorway all day, and at night the family sleep in the ashes. They seldom lie down, but sleep sitting up like a tailor, strange to say, but they never nod nor fall over.
The whirlwinds, or sand spouts, form very pretty pictures on the barren plain. They run to the height of one thousand feet, and travel along the road at a 2:04 gait, going up the mountain side as majestic as a queen. But then their race is run, for the moment they begin to descend their spell is broken, and they fall to earth again to become only common sand, and be trod by the bare, brown feet of the Indian, and the dainty hoofs of the burro.
Some one told me that when a man sees a sand spout advancing, and he does not want to be cornered by it, he shoots into it and it immediately falls. I don't know how true it is, but it seems very probable.
We had not many passengers, but what we had, excepting my mother and myself, were all men. They all carried lunch-baskets. Among them was one young Mexican gentleman who had spent several years in Europe, where he had studied the English language. He was very attentive to us, and taught me a good deal of Spanish. He had been away long enough to learn the Mexicans had very strange ideas, and he quite enjoyed telling incidents about them.
"When the Mexican Railway was being built," he said, "wheelbarrows were imported for the native laborers. They had never seen the like before, so they filled them with earth, and, putting them on their backs, walked off to the place of deposit. It was a long time before they could be made to understand how to use them, and even then, as the Mexicans are very weak in the arms, little work could, be accomplished with them.
"You would hardly believe it," he continued, "but at first the trains were regarded as the devil and the passengers as his workers. Once a settlement of natives decided to overpower the devil. They took one of their most sacred and powerful saints and placed it in the center of the track. On their knees, with great faith, they watched the advance of the train, feeling sure the saint would cause it to stop forever in its endless course. The engineer, who had not much reverence for that particular saint or saints in general, struck it with full force. That saint's reign was ended. Since then they are allowed to remain in their accustomed nooks in the churches, while the natives still have the same faith in their powers, but are not anxious to test them."
"Come, I want you to see the strangest mountain in the world," interrupted the conductor at this moment.
We followed him to the rear platform and there looked curiously at the mountain he pointed out. It rose, clear and alone, from the barren plains, like a nose on one's face.
It seemed to be of brown earth, but it contained not the least sign of vegetation. It looked as high as the Brooklyn bridge from the water to top, and was about the same length, in an oblong shape. It was perfectly straight across the top.
"When this railroad was being built," he explained, "I went with a party of engineers in search of something new. Through curiosity alone, to get a good view of the land, we decided to climb that strange looking mountain. From here yon cannot see the vegetation, but it is covered with a low, brown shrub. Can you imagine our surprise when we got to the top to find it was a mammoth basin? Yes, that hill holds in it the most beautiful lake I ever saw." "That seems most wonderful!" I exclaimed, rather dubiously.
It is not more wonderful than thousands of other places in Mexico he replied. "In the State of Chihuahua is a Laguna, in which the water is as clear as crystal. When the Americans who were superintending the work on the railway found it, they decided to have a nice bath. It had been many days since they had seen any more water than would quench their thirst—in coffee of course.
Accordingly, some dozen or more doffed their clothing and went in.
Their pleasure was short-lived, for their bodies began to burn and smart, and they came out looking like scalding pigs.
The water is strongly alkaline; the fish in the lake are said to be white, even to their eyes; they are unfit to eat.
I give his stories for what they are worth; I did not investigate to prove their truth.
"We do not think much of the people who come here to write us up," the conductor said one day, "for they never tell the truth.
One woman who came down here to make herself famous pressed me one day for a story. I told her that out in the country the natives roasted whole hogs, heads and all, without cleaning, and so served them on the table. She jotted it down as a rare item."
"If you tell strangers untruths about your own land can you complain, then, that the same strangers misrepresent it?" asked my little mother, quietly.
The conductor flushed, and said he had not thought of it in that light before.
While yet a day's travel distant from the city of Mexico, tomatoes and strawberries were procurable. It was January. The venders were quite up to the tricks of the hucksters in the States.
In a small basket they place cabbage leaves and two or three pebbles to give weight; then the top is covered with strawberries so deftly that even the smartest purchaser thinks he is getting a bargain for twenty-five cents.
At larger towns a change for the better was noticeable in the clothing of the people.
The most fashionable dress for the Mexican Indian was white muslin panteloons, twice as wide as those worn by the dudes last summer;
- Pronounced Che-wa-wa.