Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 7

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AFTER the last ball, the good General insisted upon staying and ascertaining the quality of the remainder of the Doctor's three dozen of beer; and at three a. m., seeing that it was likely to be an all-night session, I crept into the kitchen and took possession of one of the hammocks. This kitchen was the usual structure devoted to that use in Yucatan, of loose poles driven into the ground, forming a square pen, topped by a roof of thatch. Lorenzo Acosta, who owned the house the Doctor hired, and who piloted me to this retreat, had a rancho in the logwood district, which he invited me to visit, promising plenty of flamingoes and wild turkeys. We were to start early in the morning, before the Consul and John would be stirring, and, as the ride was to be a long one, had made good our escape from the General in order to gain a few hours' sleep. Two old women and a boy occupied this apartment, but the latter was unceremoniously ejected from one of the hammocks, which Lorenzo and I appropriated.

Perhaps the reader is not acquainted with the Yucatan way of sleeping, two in a hammock, and I will proceed to enlighten him. As the first one lies down in the hammock, he carefully takes up only one half, measured longitudinally, leaving the remainder for his friend. This the latter occupies, with his feet toward and parallel with the other's head, so that the two are packed "heads and points," like sardines. This leaves a kind of partition between the sleepers which effectually separates them; though, if one is inclined to kick in his sleep, the other must guard well his nose. In any event, a person at all fastidious might object to this style of packing, and prefer sleeping family fashion, crosswise the hammock. But when one abandons himself to the guidance of a stranger, upon whose hospitality he is dependent, he must promptly check any qualms of his sensitive soul, and be duly grateful for what he can get.

It was so cold that I awoke several times during the brief space we occupied the hammock, and tried to remember that this was what they term the "hot" season. From the great flat surface of rock exposed to the rays of a powerful sun during the day in Yucatan, and the extremely rapid radiation at night, a degree of cold is sometimes reached that produces nocturnal freezing. During the hot, dry season, the cool nights are in most delightful contrast to the heated atmosphere of day, and induce sweet slumber, if one is properly guarded from extremes of temperature.

At about seven in the morning we were off for the logwood camp, by the way of the town of Ɔilam. This inverted C, with which Ɔilam is spelled, is a necessity arising from the retention of the ancient Maya names, and has the power of Ts, the word, consequently, being pronounced Tsilam. Don Alonzo could speak excellent Spanish, but what availed that to me when I was but in my first lessons in that language? He could not speak English, but he had a new "Ollendorff," and with this and my "conversation-book" in our hands, we rode through the cool woods, startling the birds with our blunders, and laughing at our many mistakes.

After an easy ride of four short leagues we arrived at Ɔilam, entering its principal street between low, white-walled houses. Going to a house near the great square, we tied our horses, and I paid the man who brought my luggage two reals—twenty five cents—for his services, and four reals for the horse, and he returned to Timax. We were provided with breakfast in a tienda,—a shop,—and while we were eating, the proprietor played the Toro for us on a guitar. After a siesta in a hammock, drowsily watching a girl of graceful figure, clad only in a snowy uipil, combing for an hour her abundant tresses, I was taken out and introduced to the Presidente as the "learned naturalist, author, and discoverer, Señor Don Federico."

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By him I was promised seven Indians, with whom to make an excavation in the great mound. I should explain here, that Ɔilam is celebrated for its great aboriginal mound, four hundred feet in length and fifty in height This occupies one side of the great plaza of the town, and towers above the church and principal buildings, which were all built of stone from its ruins. It was visited by Stephens, and carelessly examined by him, a somewhat fanciful sketch of it being given in his second volume on Yucatan. He attached great importance to it as being the centre of a population at the time of the first visit of the Spaniards, quoting Herrera in confirmation that it was then "a fine Town, the Lord whereof was a youth of the Race of the Cheles, then a Christian, and a great Friend to Captain Francis de Montejo, who received and entertained them."

From the summit of this mound the country for leagues around can be seen, and the eye ranges over a vast extent of scrub, with no village in sight but the one about its base. A second mound lies north of this one, running east and west, while this larger and contiguous one has its longer axis north and south. The limits of these great tumuli once greatly exceeded their present area, as dressed stones can be seen in the streets, in position, which run out into the scrub for a great distance. Under guidance of Don Juan we climbed the smaller mound, and some little boys commenced to throw out the dirt and stones from a small hole in the top. They soon brought out fragments of pottery and plaster, the former finely glazed and tinted, the plaster colored bright red, drab, and green, and all the tints fresh as if put on but yesterday. After the adult Indians arrived, more plaster was exhumed, and a room disclosed filled with débris from above. It proved to be arched, in a way similar to the "Akabná," at Aké. They opened it sufficiently to show its shape, but did not find any more pottery or plaster, which was evidently above and outside the building. So I caused the earth to be removed from the top, and soon revealed great pieces of stucco, showing bright colors and elaborate ornamentation and design; but not enough to satisfy me, though I was obliged to desist digging before finding much, as the sun was setting. Its last rays shone directly into the chamber we had opened. Half the men and boys of the village were gathered by this time, and all assisted eagerly at the work, even the Presidente and the schoolmaster. I paid the Indians a real apiece, and the boys a medio, and all were delighted. The ruins of a building upon this mound would seem to indicate the use of these vast accumulations of earth as foundations for palaces or temples. In a flat country, like Yucatan, it would be necessary to elevate the public buildings in this manner in order that they could be seen from a distance. Though the ruinous state of the structure was so complete that no satisfactory outline could be obtained, its stones covering all sides of the mound, and large trees and agaves growing upon the summit, yet it seemed to have been composed of successive platforms, each one covered with a thick layer of cement or plaster. Stephens did not visit it, but states that the padre, a young man of thirty (when he was there, forty years ago), remembered when a building still remained "with open doorways, pillars in them, and a corridor all around," and was called El Castillo,—the castle.

It should be remembered that Ɔilam, though leagues away, is the only port of the large town of Izamal, where there is an immense mound and a gigantic sculptured head, and a road leads straight from the coast, through Timax, to that aboriginal city.

Alonzo and I occupied a hammock in a large, empty building belonging to Don Juan, and slept again à la Yucateca, the feet of each in close proximity to the other's head, which is almost as compact a style as that denominated "spoon fashion." We were to start at four the next morning, but did not rise till five; and though I expected to get on our journey by sunrise, it was nine o'clock before we left the town. This might have been expected, for the day before it was to have been muy temprano,—very early,—and we left Timax three hours behind time. No one was stirring in the plaza, but a baker's shop was open, with the usual knot of men in cotton pants, shivering in their sarapes; and here we got a cup of chocolate. While waiting for my horse, we visited the old churchyard, a walled-off corner, with orange trees in it. It must have been formerly used as a cemetery, for there were heaps of boxes—wine cases, brandy and soap boxes—full of dead men's bones; and in a recess in the church wall were arm and leg bones, and grinning skulls, that seemed inclined to dispute our entrance. Don Juan took us to see an old stone, with a strange inscription on it: probably, as he said, the work of Indians under Spanish direction; and he held up a wooden cross while we removed from it the boxes of bones.

Having thus been cheerfully fortified for the journey, I thought Alonzo would start; but he lingered here and there, buying meat and bread, till eight o'clock; then we mounted our horses, bade our friends "Adios" and rode down the street to a hut, where he asked for breakfast. This consumed another hour, though the Mestiza girl worked hard to prepare it for us, being hindered by the admiring and amorous Alonzo, who haunted the kitchen, teasing the pretty cook for a caress. Her mother, a wrinkled old lady, learning that I could not speak Spanish, pulled a dolorous countenance and called me pobrecito,—poor little fellow,—and wanted to know where in the world I lived, that the people could not speak "Castellano." We finally got fairly astride our steeds at the cross of San José, near a big ceibo tree, and turned into a narrow trail that was, its whole length, very stony, or muy pedragoso. This led into the forest forming part of the belt that lines the eastern and northern coasts of Yucatan, the trees gradually increasing in size, and becoming more open as we advanced. Birds grew more numerous, especially the queer bird called the road-runner,—el corre-camino,—a species of cuckoo, or the chaparral cock. We had to walk our horses, the road was so slippery; very little soil covered the coral rock, which was full of holes, caves, and cenotes, nearly all leading to water. At noon we halted at a small cenote, where there was an opening in the rock, down which our Indian went, and got a calabash full of pure water. A team of pack mules came up just then, and their owner sat down with us and joined in a refresco Yucateco. Into the calabash of water Alonzo put a big ball of atole, or mixture of corn, procured of the Mestiza in the morning, and stirred it up with his fingers. When of proper consistency it was passed to me, and, drinking of it, I found it sweet and refreshing. This is prepared by the women, of maize, spiced and sweetened, and is in universal use in Yucatan and Southern Mexico, forming, with water, a pleasant and strengthening drink. We drank all around from the same calabash, then mounted and went on again. The great woods were open at times, sweet, clean, and inviting, and the leaves lay on the ground as in autumn in the North; but I had no relish for this sight, desiring to reach the end of a ride that promised to be interminable.

Late in the afternoon, we reached a change in the dry, hot road, an aguada, or small pond; and here, at a sign from Alonzo, I got off my horse and crept toward the water with my gun. Through the bushes I saw a gallinule, a beautiful bird, which I shot, and immediately after another, that flew up at the report of the gun. These Alonzo secured by wading into the dark pool, notwithstanding he had sore feet, as our Indian, though bare-legged, refused to secure them. The aguada was deep, its surface well covered with lilies and water plants, and fringed with an abundance of dead snail shells. My friend had hitherto ridden perched upon two packs of luggage, and I had used his horse, while the Indian carried a great load on his back, supported by a band passing across his forehead. We both dismounted here and pursued the rest

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of our way on foot; and I shot a chachalalka, a kind of pheasant, and from a little gem of an aguada we put up three large ducks. The gallinules, Alonzo tells me, are pajaros preciosos, or very precious birds; and they are, indeed, a rare species, and a valuable addition to my collection. The whole character of the forest changed after this; the aguadas were more frequent, and the entire country appeared as though at times submerged. Of this, in fact, my friend assured me, adding that, when he came here, in June, the place where he had his camp, now dry land, was entirely under water.

I was very weary when we at last reached a meadow, in which some horses were feeding, and was told that we were near the rancho. To my great surprise my friend's rancho—from the name of which I was led to expect a small farm—proved to be nothing more than a collection of four huts of palmetto leaves, merely roofs to shed the rain, with open ends and sides. They were on the southern rim of a lovely aguada, surrounded by palmetto and deciduous trees. A pile of logwood, thatched with leaves, a bath-house of palm leaves, and a leaf roof over some hollow logs that served as beehives, completed the establishment.

On the road we had met a train of mules, each with a great plank, fifteen feet long and two wide, lashed on each side, one end projecting beyond his ears, the other dragging on the ground. This is the only way in which Western Yucatan can get its timber, all the west and central portion being covered with scrub or second growth.

About twenty Indians and Mestizos, with bare bodies and legs, sandals, and great cutlasses, were lounging about as we rode in. Three Indian women and a comely Mestiza were busy about their household duties. Upon a large plank, three feet wide, supported on four legs, were two metates, with rollers, used for grinding corn for tortillas; and in addition to this there were a few tubs, a grindstone, and all the things necessary to a camp in the forest. From pole to pole, under the thatched roofs of the open huts, were stretched hammocks of Sisal hemp, and two great mosquito bars told their own tale of insects at night.

We rode into this logwood camp, and I was invited to a hammock, while they talked over news and business, for Alonzo had been gone some time. I noticed one man, a Mestizo, who had an uneasy look, and one woman, a Mestiza, who was comely and had an anxious look, though a very sympathetic one,—as they say here, muy simpatica. Of the other women, one was fat and restless, and the other old and honest. They all worked well, not intermitting their labors for a minute. Supper was soon ready. After the fashion of the country, we first washed our hands in a calabash, and five minutes later that same calabash was brought in full of water to drink. Poor Alonzo had but two bowls besides calabashes, for he was only camping, and had no knife, fork, or spoon; so I took my jackknife, while they ate with fingers and tortillas. Tortillas and frijoles (beans) are the main stay of a Mexican cuisine. Upon the tortillas, as plates, you spread the beans, and with another corn cake, rolled up in shape of a spoon, you scoop in the frijoles. When the latter are finished, you eat the spoon, and then the plate, leaving no troublesome dishes to bother the cook.

Our companion was a Spaniard, lately from Europe, a pleasant, black-eyed young man, who was sent by a firm there to look after their interests in the logwood. There were no chairs, of course, and we sat in hammocks, while the food was placed on a box on a clean cloth. As we ate, more tortillas were brought, hot from the fire, handed to us on a cloth by the cook, and taken by us and clapped down on the table. Quite a pile was heaped up before we left, and these were taken and warmed over for the men. After eating, a calabash was passed around, full of water, for rinsing the mouth. The proper way is to fill the mouth with water, and, after inserting the finger and scrubbing the teeth, to spit it out. This custom prevails throughout Mexico, even among well-to-do people. Coffee and cigarettes then followed; the latter, in fact, were going all the time. By this time darkness had settled down, and some of the men retired to their hammocks. Though surrounded by strangers, and some with not very pleasant faces, I left all my arms outside the mosquito bar as I retired, conscious that they, as well as myself, were safe. Later in the season, in the highlands of Mexico, I would have sooner slept without my blanket than without my revolver; for the Aztecs are as treacherous and faithless as the people of Yucatan are honest and true.

After a second coffee we all sought our hammocks, where Alonzo and I reclined, smoking and chatting. I was anxious to go on to the coast for flamingoes, but my host told me I could not,—that I was at his disposal; which remark rather irritated me, until he added, with a smile, "And I am at yours, also." I had got accustomed to this polite insincerity, however. On the way I asked him if the horse he rode was his, and he replied: "Si, señor, y de usted, tambien,"—"Yes, sir, and yours as well." After that I ventured but one more question of the kind, and that was when, in the house of the young lady who had prepared our breakfast, I asked if she was his sweetheart. The customary reply came readily to his lips: "Si, amigo mio, and yours also."

I fell asleep, as soon as the insects feasting on me, ticks, sand-flies, fleas, and chinches, would permit, but soon awoke suddenly, conscious that Alonzo had darted out from under the mosquito bar and was in angry expostulation with the man with the evil eyes. This man, early in the evening, had gone raving to his hammock, and after crying there awhile he had come tearing out, and seized his wife,—the sympathetic one,—dragging her away from her work. She had submitted, though expecting a beating, merely glancing at her torn uipil; but one of the men jumped at him as he drew her along, and quieted him for a while. Now he had broken out afresh, threatening to kill Alonzo if he did not immediately pay him his wages, and brandishing a great machete furiously. Alonzo was in no wise frightened, but sprang at him like a jaguar, promising him a beating that would answer for his wages. And I have no doubt the Indian would have got it, though my friend is a little man, for in Ɔilam he had flown at a man who talked insolently to him, slapped his face, and pounded him well, until he ceased from talking. So they had it out in talk, and piled fresh fuel on the fire as though they intended to be at it all night, making my hut as light as day. The fight ended, Alonzo quietly entered the mosquito bar, which was made large enough for both our hammocks, and ordered coffee and cigarettes for two. When he had asked me to enter, he had said, in Maya, "Kom in," which is the equivalent in that language for "Come in." There are also other words similar in sound and signification to ours. In the morning, after coffee and cigarettes, we all went into the woods to inspect the logwood—the palo tinto or palo de Campeche—which the men had cut during Acosta's absence. It was then very hot, though the night had been freezing cold.

The wood they had cut lay in little heaps where they had felled the trees. It was trimmed of all the bark and white outer wood, and was in color from light red to dark purple. One of the men had a steelyard with him, and this was hung from a tree, and the wood, piled on a suspended platform, was weighed, four arrobas, or one hundred pounds, at a time. This was noted down, with the name of the man who cut it, and we passed on to the next, being engaged in this way several hours. The horses were then led up, and a load of four arrobas packed on each, and carried to the camp.

The logwood tree, Hamatoxylon Campechianum, is found bordering all the great lagoons and a good portion of the seacoast of Southern Mexico. Campeche especially—a name which this tree bears as its specific appellation—exports vast quantities. It is a tree of medium size and peculiar appearance, attaining a height of twenty or thirty feet. The trunk is gnarled and full of cavities, and separates a short distance above the ground; the leaves are pinnated, the flowers small and yellowish, hanging in bunches from the ends of the branches. The bark is dark, while the sap-wood is yellowish, and the heart, the valuable portion, deep red. The logwood forests are nearly all flooded in the rainy season, though the tree is found in the hills as well as on the plains. It is in the dry season that the cutting begins, and in the rainy season the wood is floated to the embarcaderos, or wharves, on the rivers and lagoons, and thence to the ports to be laden in foreign vessels.

Many other valuable woods are found in Yucatan, including the mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), and dye-woods and dyeing plants, such as the archil (Rocella tinctoria) and madder (Rubia tinctorium).

The sun was blazing hot, butterflies played about us, birds sang in the thin-foliaged trees, and a native quail, or faisan, got up at intervals. We saw one deer, venado, and one turkey, pavo del monte, but not near enough for a fair shot. There were many caves and depressions in the limestone surface, with water in them, looking cool and inviting for a bath; but numerous adders swimming across the water rendered them less attractive. Thousands of dead snails lay in windrows, but not a live one was to be found, though I searched diligently under the dead logs and leaves.

The logwood was brought into camp and stacked, whence it will be carried to the port of Ɔilam and shipped. There seem to be vast quantities of it, but it is in remote sections, where it is difficult and expensive to get it out. As we returned to camp, my friend was taken with cramp in the stomach, and howled and cried, and the man with whom he had quarrelled in the morning was the first to hasten to his aid. I suspected then it was but a ruse to bring about a change of sentiment through sympathy. In the evening Alonzo brought out a big bag of silver which he had brought to pay the men with, and proceeded to devote it to that purpose. I admired the pluck of my little friend, that would not let him be browbeaten into paying it out before he was ready, though in apparent danger from the Indian with the bad-looking eyes. We walked out in the cool of the evening toward the aguadas, or ponds; the birds were still, and a quiet brooded over the lonely place, except for the cries of the gallinules in the marsh, one of which Alonzo shot, and waded into the water waist-deep to secure it. Sometimes the simplest thing will awaken thoughts of home when in a strange country where the scenery is different; and mine were carried back to the North by the sight of a group of cat-tail flags, growing as in Northern meadows.

The industry of the Indian women of Yucatan is a matter of wonder. From long before daylight till late at night, even after we had retired to our rest, they were toiling at the metates. It is the most laborious of occupations, to work the stone roller over a smooth slab of stone all day long. I saw two girls in Timax who worked twelve hours a day at the metates, grinding castor beans, for which they received eighteen cents per day. Our women were kept employed unusually late that night, in cooking up a store of tortillas for our journey next day, for we were to go to the coast for flamingoes.

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