Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 8


Occurrences between Aguachapa and Zuaquiniquiniquilapa.

On Sunday, the 15th of May, we left Aguachapa about six o'clock. The country through which we passed was champaign, but studded, at intervals, in the distance, with fine forest trees. On the left, was a large lake, a solitary waste of water, but which, being lighted, instantaneously, by the tropical sun, in his rapid rising, dazzled like a mirror, when its reflection is suddenly flashed upon the sight. The brilliancy of the scene, and the freshness of the morning air, were highly exhilarating: my companion was lively and chirping. I found he had many small commissions to do for the young ladies, besides the important one above detailed,—such as combs and other trinkets. He informed me that the latter could only be repaired in the capital, where they were made. He shewed me a particular kind of twisted gold chain, properly designated Guatemalian, as another kind, perfectly distinct in structure, is called Panamian. I brought one of the former with me to England, and, having broken it, for it is very delicate, have never been able to get it properly repaired, even by the best London workmen.

The tree which I had seen in my route to Acapulco, bearing cherries, without leaves, was here very common: my companion informed me that it was called picaro. How this term applies, which means rogue, with all its variety of senses, as applied either to the offender at the Old Bailey, who is sometimes forgiven after the commission of the act, or to the transgressor in the coteries of the Mesdames Vitula and Lubentia, who feels that he is forgiven whilst he commits it,—I cannot, I confess, conceive: perhaps, however, it meant that the fruit was piquant: in truth, it was very sour.

The next natural curiosity we met with was the zopilote: about fifty or sixty of these birds were standing in state round a dead mule, whilst one, distinguished by a tuft or civic cap upon his head, was perched upon the carcase and contemplating it with an hurried air of dignity and satisfaction: he leered into each morsel, first with one eye and then with the other, as a gentleman surveys a well-loaded table with his quizzing-glass. When I last saw a portion of this extraordinary community, they were taking their siesta, or sleeping after dinner;—they were now in watchful expectation of the moment when they might commence that repast. Don Simon told me that the bird who was playing so conspicuous a part was the one who had had the good fortune to find the mule, and was consequently considered the alcalde, or lord mayor, whilst the others, who had kindly congregated to help him to eat it, were senadores, or common council men. Indeed it looked very like it,—for, after a reverent bow of the head on the part of the alcalde, which might be compared to a short grace, this worshipful and worshipping company flew helter skelter upon the repast. We waited some time to see the end of it,—but despairing of doing so, proceeded on our route.

About mid-day, we came to the edge of a river, half as wide over as the Thames, at the new tunnel. We had passed, for the last six miles, along its banks, through a country so beautiful as to make it difficult to describe it. The road was a smooth, green, turf, skirted with luxuriant and flowering shrubs, now contracted, and now opening into spacious glens, and so winding in its course, that, every now and then, the river, which seemed to oppose our further progress, was, quickly, in our rear, and snatched from our speculation. We came, however, at length to "that bourne from which no traveller returns"—who determines to go forward: we were on the bank of the river, and, to my astonishment, learnt we had to wade through it. Whilst deliberating on the nature of this aquatic excursion, I was agreeably surprised at finding a large party, chiefly women and young girls, who, it seems, had been to church at a hamlet on this side of the water, and were now returning, already congregated on the bank. They walked boldly into the river, and raising their garments as they advanced, contrived to effect a tolerably dry and decent landing. If the river had been deep enough, it would have been well calculated for a tunnel, for its bed was rocky: the rocks, which are now smooth from the rapidity of the current, will probably be worn through before a tunnel is built under them.

We had progressed, as the Americans properly term it, a small distance on the other side of the river, when we came to a dale, interspersed with plots of rising ground, studded with palm-trees and thick dwarf verdure. It was now midday, and the vertical position of the sun scarce threw a shadow upon the sward; but as the foliage was at intervals impenetrable to its rays, the ground was dappled with abrupt variations of light and shade: under the latter, we found a party of travellers bivouacking: they consisted of two or three native gentlemen and their servants, who had made a fire and were cooking some fowls and other edibles for their dinner: the proximity of the river assisted these culinary operations; contributing also, by the purity and freshness of its water, to the invigoration of man and beast; for they all drank freely of it together; verifying the, abstractedly true, but uncourteous, remark, that "a water-drinker drinks like a beast." Two or three other persons had fallen in with, and were accompanying, the party in question; amongst them, was an old seaman: he had been a British sailor, and residing some time at Sonsonate, where he had endeavoured to obtain a livelihood in the capacity of a cook. The poor fellow was suffering under a complication of disorders; the first of which was old age, the others being rheumatism, asthma, lameness, and I know not what besides. He was, now, going to the Atlantic coast, to get some sea-bathing, and also to put himself under a course of the guaco, which Don Simon informed me was considered an infallible cure in cases where mercury was no longer efficacious. Although the man was a disgusting object, I might, perhaps, have allowed him to fall in with our retinue, but I was assured he was a bad character, and gave him a trifle to wash my hands of him.

The journey continued, this evening, through the picturesque scenes which I have attempted to describe; and, at three o'clock, we had reached a small Indian hut, at which they were unloading our mules. It was situated about a stone's throw out of the green lanes through which we were passing, surrounded with lofty, umbrageous, trees: under one of these, near the cottage and a pig-sty, preparations were made for our repast. The fowl was admirably dressed with red Chile pepper, and, being eaten with garbanzas, or beans, was savoury and wholesome. This dish is, in fact, to the natives of America, what the curry is to the Asiatics.

In these countries, a man never shaves himself on a journey: he omits the operation, also, when he is, however slightly, indisposed. In travelling, there is an evident advantage in not shaving too often: the moustache is a great protection to the lips, by shading and preventing them from chapping. After dinner, I called for my dressing-case, not having shaved for some days, and commenced the operation, to the evident astonishment of Don Simon, who shewed, by his gestures, that he considered the act as bordering upon madness,—and to the discomfiture of my barber-servant. Henrico, who thought it an encroachment upon his privileges. The fact was that, what with the growth of my beard and the peculiarity of my dress, I hardly knew myself, and resolved, before I put down the glass, to know what manner of man I was. I had scarcely finished my rural toilette, when it was time to start. Don Simon was already mounted, with a fresh lighted cigar, and we set off together, on companionable terms; for I had, myself, acquired the habit of smoking, first in my own defence, and now for my amusement and satisfaction. This habit is considered salutary, and, in many parts of the country, especially in the low swampy situations, absolutely necessary for the preservation of health. The Dutch Government enforces the use of smoking amongst the soldiery, and the guardhouses are supplied, during the summer, with turf, for the purpose of lighting their pipes. I attribute much of the good health I enjoyed in my travels to conforming to the practice and usages of the places through which I passed; and I would advise every traveller, in South America, to do so as far as he is able.

The insect, called the cigarra, makes a chirping noise like the cricket, but which, when heard from the multiplied throats of these insects, which seem to line all the paths by myriads, resembles the hissing of boiling water. When the rays of the sun have parched up the plain, and the heat is glimmering in the atmosphere, these little insects seem, unnecessarily, to be reminding you that it is "hissing hot." My companion told me that Æsop had written a fable about them, called the Horniga and Cigarra; that they died singing, and that they were vulgarly called chicharra.

We now entered some lanes, with gates, here and there, so disposed as to impound or keep out cattle, and giving one the idea of those leading into an English village. That at which we arrived contained about 1,000 souls. As every Spanish town and settlement is formed on the same model, which varies only as to elegance and size, this village had, of course, its grand Plaza, in the middle of which was a tree, and which, for it was, certainly, one of the largest I had seen in these parts, completely shadowed with its branches the whole area of the place. A few of these trees would be very useful on Hounslow Heath, on a rainy review day; for each of them is calculated to shelter at least half a regiment of horse. Of course, our mules and horses wanted no other stabling, and there was plenty of accommodation left for the retinue of a large party of ladies and gentlemen who arrived shortly after us, on their way from the capital to the interior. They were all mounted on mules; some of them with single and others with double saddles: the lady's single saddle consists of a small dickey, or three-sided cushioned seat, with a step for the feet; in short it is a lady's Brighton donkey-saddle. When they ride double, the gentleman sits on the mule's haunches, with a saddle properly shaped for the purpose, having a flat square surface in front, on which his fair companion is seated, with her legs on the off side or rather shoulders of the animal: in this case, she has no step or stirrup to support her feet, but generally sits cross-legged, trusting, for her equilibrium, to the good offices of the gentleman, whose left arm thus, naturally, surrounds her waist: his bridle is held in the right hand, which, as all my readers know, is the wrong one, but the other being engaged, he has no opportunity of helping himself, or even of lighting his cigar; so that this business devolves, as a matter of course, upon his companion; and thus the journey is accompanied, as might be expected, with a general interchange of mutual good offices. I never passed a party of these travellers but I remarked that those, who were riding in this fashion, seemed to be the most cheerful and contented amongst them, and the least tired with the journey;—a circumstance very difficult to account for, since the position of each is thus rendered very cramped and uncomfortable.

A stout, handsome negro-like woman, a real Patagonian in stature, with her long black hair falling in crisp corkscrew ringlets down her neck, and more scantily attired than decency would suggest, received me at the door of her hut, with a courteous smile. She was about thirty years of age, which, in this country, is far beyond the period of youth; and her face was slightly wrinkled; but her teeth exhibited an unbroken palisade of untarnished ivory, behind the embankments of two wide pouting lips: she was a fine specimen of the caste between the African and Indian: in her youth, she must have been extremely handsome, and, I doubt not, have had many admirers. She was very civil and obliging, by giving us such accommodation as her house afforded: this consisted of two small apartments, one entering into the street, and, by another door, into the yard behind, and the other leading from the former by a door-way, on the side. The latter was the bed-room; and the former, being totally unoccupied by any particle of furniture, we disposed our beds in it; which, being done, left a very small portion, at the other end, vacant for the operation of cooking our supper. Our hostess was accompanied in this duty by two other females, the one an ugly weird old woman, with a copper face, and white hair, and the other a little delicate girl about sixteen years old, with fair complexion, slightly bronzed, and with auburn coloured ringlets. The old woman was squatted down, before the cauldron, like one of the witches in Macbeth; whilst the young one seemed a fairy who did her bidding; and, as Henrico was communing with the gigantic hostess, in the doubtful glimmer with which the hut was lighted, I bethought me of the Knight of Salamanca in obsequious parley with some enchantress of his fancy.

The meal was now dished and ready to be served, but, as there was no table to put it upon, two or three trunks properly arranged before my bed, fully answered the purpose; whilst the latter fulfilled, very conveniently, the office of seats; on which we could recline or sit upright, at option. This was, so far, better than the " incumbunt epulis" of the Romans, who had only one posture at their meals, and every body knows that was lying. As the supper disappeared, my companion suggested the propriety of anticipating our wants for the next day's journey; as the place we were about to stop at would, in all probability, not be provided with any thing we could eat: accordingly, something was prepared, which, however, kept the cooking business going on, to our great annoyance, for an hour or two longer; and it was midnight before I could close my eyes. This was the more disagreeable, as we started, the next morning, at half past four, and as my rest had been disturbed, even during this short interval, with a rather peculiar occurrence: the fact was, I was awakened, about an hour after I had fallen asleep, with a sort of tickling sensation in my face; and, jumping up, I thought I could distinguish something black upon my pillow: at first, I guessed it was the cat, as it seemed to make a sort of purring noise, and felt hairy: I accordingly flopped it with my handkerchief, and off it popt through a hole in the partition of the room which was composed of matting and broken reed-work, and constituted the head of the bed: whilst imagining what kind of animal it could possibly be, the matting was again slightly raised, and I immediately discovered my mistake:—it was merely the negress's head which had inadvertently borrowed a part of my pillow, placed in close contact with her own on the other side of this moveable partition: I could not be offended with the whimsical tête-à-tête, though it was certainly a very extraordinary intrusion.

We travelled nine leagues without drawing bit, when we stopped at a hamlet, called El Oratorio, to lunch. I confess I was half asleep when I set off, and the servants seemed to be quite so, for they had left the lunch behind them which they had been sitting up all night to dress. We passed through a barrier which appeared like a small turnpike gate, and came on a green lawn, shaded with two or three large trees, under which we reposed, consoling our appetites with maize-fritters, tomates, and other light refreshments which the place afforded. Six leagues from hence, is the village of Los Esclavos, which we reached about five o'clock in the evening; passing over a fine stone bridge of five arches thrown across a foaming cataract rather than a river. This architectural work, which appeared to be the only one that I had seen, since my landing, as a structure worthy of remark, and as testifying the civilization of the country, was erected so late as the year 1792, and repaired in 1810. The village itself is a poor place, consisting, chiefly, of Indians who are employed in agriculture. It was formerly of much greater consequence; and, independently of the bridge, the road in and out of the town is not only good, but has the appearance of being actually kept in repair;—a circumstance which, I since understood, is, in some measure, the fact, and so much the more remarkable, as it is, probably, almost the only road that is repaired throughout the whole of the continent of South America.

On proceeding out of the town towards the capital, you ascend a hill about a mile and a half long, a little winding, with ditches on the sides to carry off the water, and with plastered embankments, surmounted by a railing: it had quite a European look, and only wanted the Brighton Rocket or Birmingham Balloon to come rattling down it at the rate of seventeen miles an hour, to assure you that it was a veritable piece of McAdamism. What added to the delusion, on my part, was the meeting with two sportsmen with shooting-jackets and guns, who were getting over the fence into the road, as we passed: a boy accompanied them, carrying a fawn which they had just killed, and which we, of course, wished to purchase, seeing that we were in the habit of living chiefly by pot-luck: our request was ungraciously refused, the object of it being retained and carried off rather in an unmannerly way: it was, doubtlessly, the lord of the manor and his game keepers that we had fallen in with.