Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 1

 

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I.

 

A GLIMPSE OF YUCATAN.

 

"WE sailed at hazard towards that part of the horizon where the sun set." In these words Captain Bernal Diaz, companion of Cortés, tells of the approach of the Spanish fleet to Yucatan, in 1517.

We came, like those first Spanish navigators, from the east, from the fair island of Cuba, and we too sought the land that lay beyond the western horizon; but not at hazard, and when a long, low line of sand appeared, one morning, we knew it was the coast of the mysterious peninsula.

Easternmost land of Mexico, it presents the farther front of that ancient continent that may once have extended to Cuba, and beyond,—to Atlantis, to Africa. Without it, perhaps, there would have been no Gulf Stream; and that warm river of the sea, diverted from our Northern shores, would have fertilized and vivified other countries instead. Had it not stood so boldly out, inviting those reckless Spaniards to conquest and plunder, Mexico might have remained till now as the aboriginal Culua, and the world of to-day be enjoying the benefits of its wonderful civilization. But what Yucatan might have been had it been different, or left to the people who ruled it four hundred years ago, we may better speculate upon after we have seen it. Let us go on shore.

The coast lay full in sight at daybreak, and at nine o'clock the steamer anchored, several miles from shore. Scarce rising above the sea, a white sand-bank, relieved by groups of palms, a few tile-covered houses, and a long wharf, lay blazing in the sun. This was Progreso, only port of entry of Yucatan. Some vessels lay at anchor there, and a dozen lighters put out from the beach and sailed towards us. As they neared the steamer, we could note that their crews wore cotton garments, and were clean; some wore no shirts, and some no trousers, but all were clean. This is said to be the notable difference between Yucatecans and Aztecs: these are clean, those are dirty.

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THE CUSTOM-HOUSE.


The wind was fair, we were soon on shore, and the customs officials were examining our luggage. Then we were conducted to the hotel, a thatched structure with stone walls, and a sleeping apartment over the stable. This dormitory contained four hammocks and a wash-basin; and enough spiders and scorpions were supposed to lurk in the thatch overhead to make it interesting.

Besides the hotel and the custom-house, there were a few score of tiled houses and thatched huts, several stores, a market, and a church. As the shipping port for the vast quantities of Sisal hemp raised in Yucatan, this place is of great importance; and as it has a reputation for health, though very hot, it is much resorted to in summer by people from the interior. It has only one wharf, or jetty, which is provided with wooden cranes, and is over five hundred feet long. There is no harbor here, and all vessels are obliged to anchor far from shore, the steamers at a distance of three miles. This open roadstead is exposed to all the winds that blow, and in the season of "northers" is positively unsafe. The old port of Sisal, some distance farther down the coast, has been abandoned; and as it has no railroad into the interior, it will never more be the place of export for the hemp that bears its name, and which constitutes the wealth of the country.

A railroad connects Progreso with Merida, a distance of twenty-five miles; and though all the iron, equipments, and rolling-stock for that road were brought from England and the United States and landed at the port, they were carted to the interior terminus and the road commenced at that end. At first sight, this will seem one of the foolish undertakings of that unprogressive country; but let us see. The contractor wished to secure at once the benefit of freights, and, as all the hemp came from the interior, it was advisable, apparently, to begin at the end nearest the freight; hence everything was hauled to Merida, and the road begun there. As soon as the first few miles were laid, this wary contractor commenced to haul hemp over his rails by mule power, so far as they went. Again, he got a concession, or grant of money from the government, for every mile of road when finished. The portion nearest Merida was the easiest to build, and all the laborers were there also. Thus, in many ways, did this sagacious man make his enterprise pay him from the very start, until to-day it is considered one of the most profitable railroads in the world. According to the terms of his contract with the government, the owner of the railroad was compelled to carry passengers from port to capital for a certain reasonable sum, when it should be completed. As a consequence, he built to within a mile or two of the coast, and then charged at a very unreasonable rate; now, however, it is finished. There are two trains daily each way, besides the freight cars, forenoon and afternoon.

Back of the dunes of the coast there is a broad lagoon, hundreds of miles in length, varying in depth and breadth with the season. Here many of our Northern summer birds spend the winter: duck and teal, snowy-plumaged herons, ibis and egrets, snipe and sandpipers, curlews, snake-birds, and cormorants. Beyond the lagoon, the bed of coral rock, composing the entire territory of Yucatan, rises above the level of the water. The vegetation is not exuberant, and the soil is thin and dry.

Soon after leaving the lagoon, the road passes through the henequen plantations, with miles and miles of Sisal hemp on either side the track, the immense fields neatly walled, to prevent the roaming cattle from getting in and eating the plant. The dwellings of the planters are surrounded with coco palms, and are approached by long lanes terminating in arched stone gateways. Excepting the hemp plantations, there is little to interest one, as the prevailing vegetation is low and scrubby. But the people alone are sufficiently strange to Northern eyes, for they are wholly peculiar to this country; they are Indians, descendants of the original inhabitants found here by Cortés and Cordova. We meet them in little groups that grow larger as we near the city suburbs, until (this being Sunday, and consequently a holiday) they pass along the road in processions of hundreds. The men and women are all neatly clad in garments of white, white as snow, the former wearing shirts with ruffled bosoms and plaited backs, the women their traditional dress of three centuries ago,—a skirt from the waist to the ankles, and an outside nipil, or overskirt, from the shoulders to the knees. It is evident that the engine has not ceased to be a wonder with them, as many have a timorous expression on their faces, and every time the whistle blows, or steam escapes, start back in affright. It seemed that intense curiosity only had overcome their fear of this monster. These great crowds of Indians, gathered here to inspect the steam marvel of the white man, recall to mind those passages in the narratives of the explorers of this

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CATHEDRAL AND PLAZA

country, when the ancestors of these same people collected by thousands, eventually to oppose the march of the invaders, but prompted solely at first by no stronger motive than that of curiosity.

The train, drawn by an American engine and composed mainly of cars manufactured in the States, passed through a narrow, crowded street, and rested finally at the station. As in Northern cities, there were cabmen here, but they were perfectly indifferent as to whether one hired them or not. We finally captured one, succeeded in making him understand that we wished to engage him, and were driven through broad streets, between stone-walled houses, to the hotel.

The buildings display a style of architecture peculiar to the country, combining with the picturesqueness of Moorish and Spanish something that recalls the ruins of the Indian civilization upon which they are built. The larger structures, such as the hospital. Governor's palace, and city hall, have balconies projecting from their upper windows, while many of them are supported upon arches, the long colonnades of which have an imposing appearance. Most prominent among the peculiar features are the grated windows of all the houses. There is no glass in use here, but every window is enclosed by a grating of half-inch iron bars, which projects from the wall about a foot. Through these prison-suggestive windows, as we rode along in the gloom of early evening, I could see most attractive groups of lovely faces. Though there were here and there some with pale complexion, many that we saw that evening seemed of Indian descent. All had black hair, and great black, lustrous eyes, and most of them looked quite bewitching,—as they should, for they were señoritas, young ladies and misses.

The Hotel Mexico, where we stopped, faced the Plaza Mayor, or great central square, about which are arranged the principal buildings: the cathedral, with lofty towers and walls two centuries old, fronts the Casa Municipal, or city hall, erected sixty years ago; the hotel is one of a long block supported upon effective arches of masonry; opposite it, on the south side of the Plaza, is the oldest house in the city, built in 1549. A great mound once covered the space now occupied by the Plaza Mayor, and on and around it, in 1540, a terrible battle was fought,—forty thousand Indians against two hundred Spaniards, says the old historian. The mound was razed, and from its materials and the many pyramids of stone erected by the Indians in ages past, the city of Merida was built. The last of these mounds, an immense artificial elevation containing an aboriginal arch, has just been dug away for the building-stone composing it.

There are fifteen plazas in the city, and each one has facing it a church; like the cathedral, erected in 1667, on the great plaza, of ancient date and most attractive and quaint architecture. Though these churches are now impoverished, and some of them in decay, the number of the faithful is sufficient to maintain a suggestion of former grandeur. Since the expulsion of the Jesuits, some twenty years ago, religious processions have been forbidden, the various streets and plazas have changed names, and many large colleges and monasteries have changed owners. One of the pleasantest of the squares is the Parque Hidalgo, formerly known as the Plaza de Jesus. The largest of all had a fountain, which is soon to be replaced by a fine statue of marble, in its centre, smooth walks, an abundance of flowers, and is shaded by trees. The streets of the city cross each other at right angles; they were formerly designated by figures of birds and beasts, as the bulk of the Indian population could not read. On each corner was painted the figure representing the street, or an image was perched on the wall. Few of these objects remain, but one may yet find the "Street of the Elephant," of the "Flamingo," and the "Street of the Two Faces." The elephant is large as an ox, with a body big as a barrel, and curved trunk and tusks. Nearly all the streets of the city terminate in ancient gateways, high arching above the pavement, with niches and spaces in them, containing some saint, the Virgin, or a cross.

Though under the federal government of Mexico, the State of Yucatan has its separate governor and legislature. The Governor is generally an efficient man, and interested in the welfare and

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CASA MUNICIPAL

development of the country. He has a salary of $4,000, with an appropriation of $16,000 for himself and staff, in which this is included. The Lieutenant-Governor gets $1,500, the Vice-Governor and Council, $5,000, total. Other salaries are:—

Judicial body (twelve members) $16,500
Clerks, etc 13,500
Remaining officials, about 35,000

The appropriations for the year 1881 were:—

For public schools, about $50,000
Public improvements, railroads, roads, etc. 43,000
Police 14,000
National Guard 25,000

Every man, from twenty-one years to fifty, is subject to military duty, and may at any time be drafted. He then gets the extraordinary pay of six cents per day, and finds himself in food.

The total budget for 1881 was about $300,000, of which the officials absorbed such a portion as seemed to them best for the public good—and themselves. It is a noteworthy fact, that, out of the various sums appropriated, but $300 was set aside for the Museum: this in a country richer in archaeological remains than any other known portion of America. But a fact still worthier of comment is, that they should have established a museum at all. The Museo Yucateco is not large nor well conducted, and its few specimens are poorly arranged; but it contains many a prize that our archaeologists would like to secure.

There are several newspapers here, the Eco and the Revista being the commercial papers. The former is published three times a week, the latter daily, and both are very well edited. There are also a semi-weekly official organ, and two religious papers, one Catholic and one independent. There is a bank in Merida, and drafts can also be obtained on New York and Europe from the hemp exporters, who are the heaviest business men of the city. Premium on drafts about fifteen per cent, at sixty days' sight. The rate of interest here is from one to two per cent a month. Travellers coming here should bring American gold, as it is always at a high premium and pays no duty.

For a city so isolated, and in a climate so totally antagonistic to the development of literary talent, Merida contains many writers of more than local distinction. Her list embraces authors of valuable historical works, writers of fiction, poetry, and the drama. One work, a Dictionary of the Maya, the aboriginal language of the peninsula, is especially valuable; and a recent drama written here has been produced in Havana and Madrid. It may seem strange that men of education and reputation should prefer to live in this remote section of the world; but there seems to be a charm about this old city that draws them to it. There are here men of great wealth, men who have crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, were educated in London and Paris, and have passed years on the Continent, who yet love the city beyond anything else in the world.

Though lying just midway between Havana and Vera Cruz in point of longitude,—cities smitten with yellow-fever every summer,—Merida rarely suffers from this scourge. But few cases annually occur, it not often becomes epidemic, and it is said that at no time has the vomito existed in Merida and in its seaport, Progreso, at the same time. The city is generally in a very healthy condition, though its only supply of water is derived from the clouds and from subterranean caverns.

The climate is hot as the hottest, but the furnace heat of midday is tempered by cool breezes; night and day the wind is blowing, rendering life more than endurable here. The temperature ranges from about seventy-five to ninety-eight degrees, in the shade. Though one would suppose the hottest months would be August and September, yet it is said that March and April have that distinction, when, added to the heat generated by the sun, is that from burning corn-fields, which are fired all over the country.

The houses are freer from vermin than is usual in tropical countries, owing perhaps to their manner of construction. There are two thick walls with a filling of stone, sometimes from four to six feet deep. The rooms are lofty and spacious, though generally barren of ornament, and washed or painted white. The great beams supporting the stone roof are visible overhead, and are painted a different color. The floors are cemented, the courts tiled, and there is no woodwork except in the doors and windows. Rooms of this vault-like character are gloomy and depressing to a stranger, but they at least offer no harbor of refuge

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ANCIENT HOUSE.

for spiders, centipedes, or scorpions, and one may retire to his hammock with a sense of security not always felt within the tropics. The furniture of these houses is simple and plain, and, except in those of the very rich, there is little beyond what necessity requires. No earthquakes or hurricanes disturb the equanimity of the Yucatecos, their heaviest blows seldom exceeding the limits of temporales, or strong winds. Many of the houses here were built two hundred years ago, and their beams and rafters are as hard as iron. The most ancient of these old buildings is one erected in the year 1549, by the Adelantado, Don Francisco Montejo, the conqueror of Yucatan. Its façade is a grotesque combination of Moorish-Indian architecture, representing knights in armor trampling upon prostrate Indians.

The lamented archaeologist, J. L. Stephens, whose writings on the ruins of Central America and Yucatan have secured him permanent fame, resided here forty years ago, in company with his artist, Mr. Catherwood, and Dr. Cabot, of Boston. The house he then occupied, and rented at four dollars a month, is now leased for sixty dollars. A corresponding rise in real estate has been steady, and now it is next to impossible to find a house to let or for sale. Business is active, prices ranging about the same as in Havana. To summarize a comprehensive glance over the State, the following figures are appended: Capital and largest city, Merida; port of entry, Progreso;

Number of other cities 7
Towns 13
Villages 143
Abandoned settlements 15
Haciendas 333
Ruined cities 62

Many of the "cities" are beginning to decay; many of the "towns" are composed entirely of thatched huts, and many of the haciendas comprise enormous estates, with mile on mile of territory; so that Yucatan, though dotted with indications of civilization on the map, is yet mainly a wilderness, with perhaps less territory developed than when Cordova landed here, or when Montejo conquered its aboriginal inhabitants.