Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 20


Incidental Occurrences at the Antigua.—Return to the Capital.—Visit to the Theatre.

As my stay at the Antigua was drawing to a close, it was settled, before the party left, that we should, the next day, employ ourselves in visiting the more beautiful spots in the neighbourhood of the town: accordingly, by eight o'clock, the whole party were ready to set out: many of them were mounted in the double saddle: there was a mule caparisoned in this fashion which was intended for Doña Joanita and one of her servants. It being suggested to me that politeness required I should propose taking charge of her in the saddle, the offer was made and accepted, but not put into effect: her servant, having mounted my horse, found him so intractable, he was compelled to alight, leaving me to relinquish my proffered gallantry in his favour.

After proceeding about a mile and a half through the town and suburbs, we entered into some dark lanes so overshadowed with luxuriant foliage, that they hardly admitted of two persons riding a-breast: a mile farther on, just at the base of the Water Mountain, we came to a large building much shattered by the earthquakes, but exhibiting the remains of a palace, which indeed it formerly had been: it commanded a fine panoramic view of the city, and might be well worth repairing, if any of the "Incorrigibles" were hardy enough to undertake it. We passed a rancheria, or small farm, where they were preparing vaynilla, the substance which gives that fine flavour peculiar to Spanish chocolate: the pods of this plant, which are about the size of a child's finger, after having been exposed to the sun, and rubbed over with oil, were being made up into small parcels, covered over with plantain leaves. The plant itself resembles the vine, and climbs to the top of the highest trees: the flowers are white, intermixed with red and yellow, and, when these fall off, the fruit succeeds in small green pods, in shape not unlike the plantain. The pods are at first green, then yellow and finally brown: they are gathered in the second state, before they begin to burst, and are then laid in small heaps, for two or three days, to ferment: they are afterwards exposed to the sun, being flattened with the hand and occasionally rubbed over with cocoa-, palm- or other oil. As moisture, heat, and shade are requisite for the production of vaynilla, the Antigua is well adapted for its cultivation; but the quantity made is very trifling; though it might become a lucrative article of exportation, and, I have no doubt, will be so, as soon as the commerce of the country is settled on a more solid basis.

We returned home to dinner about mid-day: I went into the kitchen to view the preparations, for the purpose of observing the style of cooking: the whole was effected by charcoal stoves: there was no open fire place for roasting; and about half a dozen earthen pans with handles formed the whole Baterie de Cuisine. On the floor was lying a turkey as if it were in a fit; and another was standing over it evincing the greatest distress at its situation: I hardly ever remember having witnessed so much feeling in any animal as that exhibited in the action and manner of this disconsolate bird: its companion, which, it seems, had been dosed with brandy so as to stupify it, was destined to die under the paroxysms of intoxication, for the purpose of rendering its flesh immediately available for the table. I had always remarked, both here and at Mexico, that the turkeys were delicately tender: we all remember that Horace prescribes a little vinegar for the purpose, but, perhaps, the plan of deadly intoxication is not so generally known. A large apartment next to the kitchen was occupied by some female domestics who were assorting cochineal, and packing it in small bags for market: the quantity was considerable, and might be worth from 4,000 to 5,000 dollars.

In the evening, I was applied to on the part of one of these damsels, for my medical assistance and advice. As I have somewhere before observed that it is useless for any Englishman to express his ignorance or incapacity, as the people will have you to be well acquainted with every thing relating to the healing art, I desired the patient to be introduced:—she was a bouncing young woman of about eighteen years of age, plump and rosy: her large dark-gray eyes were sparkling and animated, and she had altogether the appearance of vigorous health. As she came into the apartment, I was aroused from a half doze which I was taking on one of the two beds with which the room was furnished: the other had been occupied by Don José my companion; but he had finished his siesta and had gone:—when a man knows but little about a case, it is difficult for him to judge of it, even when wide awake, and almost impossible that he should form any right notion of it when half asleep. Labouring, partly under both of these difficulties, I rubbed my eyes, and, fixing them on my patient, began seriously to consider what it was that she expected me to prescribe for her.

There are certain moments and situations in which the gravest man can scarcely refrain from lending his feelings to the excitement of whimsicality: his moodiness is taken by surprise, as a sudden ray of light invades a closed apartment; and he becomes abruptly cheerful, in spite of himself. I said I was much puzzled to guess what could possibly be the matter with the girl: she had the appearance of any thing but an invalid, and I was concerned to believe, as I was far from skilful in phlebotomy, that she was plethorick, and wanted bleeding: I was glad to find this was not the case, and that she had only the tooth-ache;—I say only, because I have before alluded to an immediate and specific remedy for this excruciating complaint; which I applied successfully on the present occasion:—for the benefit of those so afflicted I will repeat more fully the manner of the application: the patient must lie down, with the head reclined on the side on which the pain is seated: the operator pours a little spirit, rum is the most approved, into the ear which lies uppermost: about a table-spoonful is sufficient, and it must be allowed to remain there till the pain is gone; which is generally the case in the course of three or four minutes: the sensation to the patient is by no means distressing: it resembles the whizzing experienced on the immersion of the head under water, but is much more astounding; and, I am not quite sure if, upon the only occasion on which I found it necessary to undergo the operation, it was not attended with a slight, though momentary, feeling of syncope: but, be this as it may, it is certainly not dangerous, and, those who will submit to it, experience infallible relief.

I had called in the morning on Don Gregorio Salazar, the gefe politico of New Guatemala; and having collected from him, at this interview, some addition to the store of statistical information which I had already acquired respecting this part of the republic, I resolved upon accompanying Don José the next day, back to the metropolis. We had the pleasure of escorting Doña Maria, who was also returning to her mother at the Nueva.

We left the Antigua about eight o'clock, on one of the most beautiful mornings I ever witnessed. She was mounted on a double saddle, after the manner of the country, on an able mule, directed by a trusty servant of the family: the day soon became excessively hot, and, after having proceeded about two leagues, we halted to refresh ourselves at an Indian hut: detached from the regular dwelling was a small square apartment in which we, as the visitors, were accommodated with our breakfast, a very good one, owing to the provident hospitality of our late hostess Doña Joanita. When we had done justice to it, Don José left us to take his siesta at a little distance, under a natural bower at the end of the garden, as our talking might disturb him;—for I was too gallant, myself, to think of going to sleep, and Doña Maria was polite enough to wave that ceremony, in spite of my offering to leave her the cabin for the purpose. The consequence was, that we continued chatting together very sociably till it was time to depart. I was glad to find that, although she had not slept, she was much refreshed by the rest; for she was of a delicate, sensitive constitution, and her servant had provided her with a temporary couch, which he had formed of his manta and other materials of dress and furniture peculiar to the equestrian equipments of the country. My armas de agua, spread upon the ground, furnished me with adequate materials for recumbent repose. Opposite the door-way of this rural abode, for it had no windows, and at a small distance, was an orange tree, with its pearly flowers and golden fruit, sparkling in the midday sun, and beyond was a partial screen of olives, with their silvery foliage quivering in the light air: through the branches appeared the sky, like a blue, bright, mantle, without freckle or cloud, and the line of the distant Andes softly blended upon its edge, like some airy fringing of Nature's best workmanship. But it is impossible to describe the beauty and tranquillity of the scene, or the feelings with which I beheld it:—one thing I recollect was; that it seemed as though there were no living things in the creation but my companion and myself.

Those who have been accustomed to no other mode of travelling than that which is enjoyed by the rich and luxurious in England, who have their elliptical springs, their air, live-hair, or metallic squabs, their minute-timed posters and Macadamized surfaces to guard them against the duly unpremeditated shock of a stone or of a moment's delay, can hardly appreciate the pleasure of a journey in which every twenty yards will offer some fresh difficulty to encounter. The road for about a league from the post we had left was of the latter description; but not one tenth part so bad as some tracts which I had passed in my journey from Mexico to Vera Cruz, and might be considered in the language of the country as, "corriente", or very tolerable.

I gave two rials, about a shilling, for a hat full of peaches, to some Indians who were carrying them to market, and found that I had paid considerably more than their value: they were pretty well flavoured, but by no means equal to the peaches cultivated in the common gardens of England, being more like apricots than peaches both in appearance and in taste. The delicious quality of what may be termed European fruits, found in these countries, has been greatly overrated; at least it was never my lot to meet with any species of them equal in flavour to those which are brought to perfection in the old hemisphere by the effects of cultivation.

Having reached the capital about two o'clock, I went, in the evening, to see the chief school or university: the number of pupils was rather limited, not exceeding 300; but a great portion of the youth of the metropolis, as well as in the provinces, were instructed by private means: indeed, it will hardly be credited that the whole number of children receiving education in the public schools, did not amount, according to an official return, to more than 672. This deficiency had excited the attention of the government, who were looking out for a professor on the Lancastrian system: they were publishing a translation of the new method of studying the Latin language lately established in France: they had also proposed to the university to open a course of history after the method of M. Strass, and had digested a plan for a new military college; having already established a mathematical academy, and opened a school for botany: — but what most seemed to deserve the attention of European and other nations was the charge which they had given to their agents in foreign countries to endeavour to form a scientific expedition, composed of astronomers, geographers, and naturalists "for the purpose", as they alleged, "of procuring more exact notices of the vast continent of which their republic is the central portion."

Sunday, 26th June. In the course of this day, after the usual services of the church, there existed much bustling and visiting. Whilst I was sitting, in the evening, reading in my apartment, the Chinese, my servant, quietly entered, and deliberately took out all the chairs, helping himself to them one by one, leaving me no other than that which I occupied: he stood patiently behind me, when, annoyed by his intrusion, I arose from my seat, and he immediately availed himself of the opportunity to seize that also. I looked out of the window, and saw two Indians laden with the furniture, hastening down the street. I was so predisposed in favour of this poor fellow, on account of his blunt honesty, that I seldom interfered with any thing he did, finding that it almost always contributed to my advantage and comfort; but, being doubtful as to the validity of these points, in the present instance, I called him to me, and asked him what he meant by it? "Coliseo, Señor, el coliseo:" "The play, Sir, the play," was his answer. The family were going to the play: this was all right; for the boxes of the theatre had no benches, and it was the custom of the parties who took them, to accommodate themselves with their own chairs. My good hostess had ordered her carriage, and, about five o'clock, we all set off together, a very merry party.

We had the stage box: the curtain was not drawn up, but the house was more than half full. The orchestra was lighted with about two dozen candles, and there were nearly as many more separately affixed to the pillars which divided the lower tier of boxes. The deficiency was, however, compensated by some holes in the roof of the building, which admitted the daylight so profusely as to make the candles a work of supererogation.

The play was something about the "Glory of Independence", and abounded with allusions, which an English auditory would term "clap-traps." The acting was, however, equal to any I had seen at Mexico; and the audience, altogether, appeared to evince as much indifference to the pieces represented, as the best bred company in any European theatre could affect to do: I took suckets, as Johnson has it, with the young ladies, and was rather pleased, than otherwise, with the performance. We had also some glasses of champaign occasionally handed round to us, which excited, as I thought, the envy of some gentlemen in the pit, who had been smoking incessantly, and might consequently be rather thirsty.

There was a scene, not badly drawn, representing the temple of the sun: one of the actors was describing the indestructible glory of Anahuac, and had just said that its brilliance should never be dimmed, when a tremendous shower, accompanied with thunder and lightning, took place. The rain dashed down in torrents on the crazy theatre, and spouted in volumes through the crevices of the broken roof: the audience were not to be affected by words; but, acknowledging that facts were stubborn things, mustered themselves indiscriminately in patches in the pit, or jumped into the boxes to escape the effects of the tornado. There is little encouragement given to plays at Guatemala; probably not more than was found in England previously to the time of Elizabeth.

I was glad to return from this scene of desolation; and, having, with my party, regained the carriage, was conveyed home, hoping to enjoy the comforts of a good supper and all the indescribable et cæteras of an English fireside: but, in this, I was partly disappointed: a good supper, much better than play-goers generally have in England, was ready for us, but the et cæteras were sadly deficient. The comedor, or eating room, had two doors, one leading into a long passage communicating with the kitchen, and the other with the court-yard; I should have said door-ways, for there were doors to neither:—the inhabitants suffer so much, in general, from heat, that they never guard against the probability of cold or inclement weather, but rather court its influence as an agreeable exchange, and seem to "shiver with delight" whenever they feel it. Not being of this temperament, I had ordered the Chinese to suspend a curtain against the door-way which opened upon the court yard, and with many shrugs and misgivings, which were not equally participated by the rest of the company, despatched my meal, and, covering myself with three good English blankets, soon fell asleep;—caring little for the temple of the sun, nor having a reflection to spare on the indestructible glory of Anahuac.