Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 6



"With us ther was a Doctor of Physike,
In all this world ne was ther won him like
To speak of physike, and of surgerie."

IT was drawing near the close of my stay in Yucatan, and there was but a week remaining; but the Consul had planned one last trip into the country that should eclipse all previous expeditions. He promised to take me on a grand turkey hunt. The magnificent turkey of Yucatan, the Melcegris ocellatus, is found only there and in Honduras and Guatemala. It is the most beautiful of the whole family. Though there are three species in North America, one peculiar to the United States and another to Mexico, and though our species is the largest, the ocellated turkey of Yucatan surpasses them all in the metallic sheen and lustre of its plumage. It was to capture this glorious bird, then, that this final journey in Yucatan was undertaken.

At eleven o'clock at night, our volan drove up to the door, and the Consul, and John, myself, and another man, crawled into it and wedged ourselves together The reader doesn't know John, but I do; and that is where I have the advantage of the reader. John was a dentist, one of the few practitioners of the bloody art of dentistry who could draw a tooth without gloating over the misery he caused. In token that we appreciated this manly quality of his gentle nature, we took him along to let him see us shoot turkeys.

"'Alerta!" the watch-cry of the sentinel pacing in front of the municipal palace, rang clear on the midnight air, as we climbed into our volan. "Who goes there?" shouted another sentinel at the city gate, as we dashed beneath its arched portal and sped away into the country.

"Amigos!" was our reply, and, settling ourselves snugly on the mattress, we prepared for sleep.

We set out on our journey at midnight. The heat of day in Yucatan is so great that all travel is done by night.

"Now, José," said the Consul, "put the mules to their best, because we have sixty miles to do before to-morrow noon."

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"Si, señor," replied José, and then he stood out on the dashboard and plied the whip till the speeding mules were hidden in a cloud of dust.

Stretching ourselves on our bed, we almost immediately went to sleep, José's cries of "Moola, moola! hoo, hoo, hoo!" acting as a lullaby.

A volan is intended for only two persons, who lie extended upon the mattress, and take refreshing naps as they are driven along. But we four had to double ourselves up, resting our chins on our knees; a revolver was pressed against my spine, a small bird-gun tangled up with my legs, and all the legs of our trousers crawled up above our knees, where they remained in uncomfortable wads. We finally got to sleep, however, leaving the driver whooping and yelling at the mules, just as we hove in sight of the white walls of a hacienda. Even though the position was uncomfortable, it was pleasant to reflect that the volan would be going all the time we were sleeping, and our journey of sixty miles would be so much shorter when we awoke.

It might have been three hours later that we were awakened by loud cursing and howling, and, looking out of the volan, saw Señor Acosta, our compañero, by the side of the road, thrashing the driver. Having walloped him to his heart's content, he crawled back among us and explained that, while we were indulging in a nap, the driver also had taken one; and, if we would look out, we should see the same hacienda that was in sight before we closed our eyes. This was discouraging, but we took it out of the mules and the driver, from there on, by taking watch and watch. At three in the morning we drove into the silent, deserted square of a village. All the houses were closed, of course, but the mules were taken out and given a refreshing change; that is, the inside mule was put on the outside. A long row of buildings was in front of us, and our driver commenced at one end and pounded at every door till he reached the farther end; then he began again and went down the whole row, till the last of them was opened. I inquired what was the matter, and, being told that one of the cart-wheels was twisted, supposed they were stopping for something to remedy the twist; but, after we all had been invited in and had a drink of habanero, we went on again, as before.

It was yet dark, though the road was fairly crowded with Indians going to Merida to market, some of whom had come from a distance of thirty or forty miles, staggering beneath heavy loads of grass, vegetables, and charcoal. Passing another volan, our driver raced with it, each man standing out on the shafts and encouraging the jaded mules with loud yells and repeated applications of a raw-hide thong. We finally passed the other volan, but a sudden pulling up of the mules caused us all to look out, when we saw that we had run into a party of Indians, and unhorsed a woman, who picked herself up out of the dust and limped to the roadside, sullenly and without a word, while her terrified steed dashed away out of sight. Then we went on again, furiously, and at daylight were entering the street of an inland town called Motul, ten leagues from Merida. Already many people were in the street, and we entered a house and got a cup of chocolate, after which John and I visited the cathedral, built in 1651. The altar was nearly stripped of ornaments, but there yet remained two massive candelabra of solid silver. TLM D123 Ramon Seller (Vendedor de Ramon).jpgRAMON SELLER (Vendedor de Ramon).

A mile from the plaza, we came to the famous cenote of Motul, one of those used by the aborigines of Yucatan. It is the deepest hereabouts, and the water can only be seen by looking down a deep well; but there is an entrance by a larger hole, through which you reach a great chamber, very dark and gloomy, and swarming with bats and lizards. Undressing in this chamber, you enter the water, the glimmer of which is visible by going in some ways, and swim towards the light, then, by diving under a ledge that falls from the roof above nearly to the surface, you find yourself in the circular opening some sixty feet beneath the surface of the earth. It is not a pleasant place to bathe in at all, but it is cool and dark, and in refreshing contrast to the glare and heat outside.

A strange bird lives in these cenotes, called the "Toh," a species of Momotus. He is about a foot in length, with fine silky feathers and a very curious tail. It is formed of two long feathers, which are stripped nearly to their tip, only the naked shafts remaining.

A friend. Professor George Gaumer, who has spent two years in Yucatan, says that he has often found the cenotes swarming with alligators at times, when at others not one could be found. From this he very reasonably infers an underground connection with large bodies of water by subterranean rivers.

There is said to be a cenote in the town of Tabi, in the centre of which, at midday, when the sun is perpendicularly above the water, there appears the image of a most beautiful palm tree. Near Tikoh is another, into which, says Cogolludo, writing in 1655, if any one enters without holding his breath, he dies instantly; therefore, none are desirous of bathing in it. In breathing, or making any other noise, they say the commotion of the water is excessive, and that the noise poisons the water, and that it has caused the death of many Indians while drawing water from it.

Another writer mentions another cenote, one of the largest in the peninsula, in the centre of the public square of the village of Telchaquillo. At a distance "the square seemed level and unbroken; but women walking across with cantaros, or water jars, on their heads, suddenly disappeared, and others seemed to rise up out of the earth."

There are many palm trees about Motul, and pawpaws, and other tropical plants. The flowers are profuse and beautiful, and the Mestiza girls as lovely as they can be. Yet we did not tarry long, but drove on, after a breakfast and a nap, through a fertile country of Sisal hemp and corn, to the next town. Driving rapidly over a good road, we entered the unending scrub plains of Yucatan. We passed a great many Indians, mostly women, and mostly more or less inebriated; not violently drunk, but enough to make them happy and smiling. At two o'clock we drove into the large open square of Cansahcab, a neat little town, mostly of thatched houses, containing the best-preserved church and presbytery in the State. The meaning of the name of this town, which is Indian, is, that you may hunt a long time for water and not find it. This the Consul proved to be true, for he looked everywhere for a drink, but came back to us without having found it. As it was in the heat of the day, everybody was in his hammock, and every house was closed. Great flocks of blackbirds were in the square, the only living things in sight. The number of birds about these Indian villages, and their tameness, speak well for the gentle nature of the inhabitants.

Though we had but twelve miles farther to go, it would not do to pass through the town without seeing the head man; so we waited while he was sent for. After an hour, he came galloping in from his hacienda,—a great, good-looking, sensible man, of about fifty, in loose shirt, drawers, and sandals. He was delighted to see us, and ordered beer and refreshments at once, declared that we were going no farther that day, and turned our mules directly into his enclosure. This is the way they travel throughout Yucatan,—two or three hours on the road, and six or eight in drinking and chatting. Our host. General Theodosio Canto, was one of the famous men of the State. He has served a short term as Governor, and is the greatest man, the chief, of this portion of Yucatan. He has headed several revolutions, fighting long and obstinately. A long scar over his eye shows where he was terribly cut in one fight, when, also, his nose was nearly severed, and he was left on the field; yet he was out and fighting again two weeks afterward. He says that the blood he had in him then flowed out, and what he has now is all new.

The General told us that his town was seldom honored with such distinguished visitors as we, and that night he would give us a grand Mestiza ball. After an early dinner we went with the General and invited all the young ladies to the ball: the old ones and the men and boys were sure to come without asking. These young ladies had rather short notice, but then they had but little preparation to make, for they wear generally but two garments. They have only to change the over and under skirt, dust a little powder over their arms and shoulders, dab a little rouge here and there, and hang on all the chains and jewelry they own, and then they are ready for anything.

At eight o'clock the village band came to escort us to the Casa Municipal, or the city hall, the corridor of which (one hundred feet long) had been swept, and decorated with palm branches. A great throng followed us, letting off rockets and fire-crackers, and in this way we were escorted to the scene of festivity. As we arrived, the crowd about the portales parted right and left, and we were conducted to the seats of honor. The sight that greeted our eyes nearly took our breath away; for there, ranged in chairs along the wall, was a row of the prettiest Mestiza girls we had ever seen. They were dressed in their becoming costume of snowy white, and some of them fairly glittering in gold chains and ornaments. The ancient national costume of the Mayas, from whom these Indians are descended, was, for the women, two skirts of fine white linen: the under skirt reaches from the waist to the ground, and is called pic; the upper, called uipil, falls from the shoulders, over the lower, to the knees. These are embroidered in gay colors, and often edged with lace. According to an ancient law, there should be no button or fastening on the uipil, and it is cut square, very low in the neck and back, so that it can be slipped over the head, and worn without any fastening. As a race, these people are symmetrically shaped, and the loose dress of the females sets off their beautiful shoulders to great advantage. About fifty of these lovely damsels sat awaiting our arrival. From among these the General, John, and the Consul selected partners, and were soon treading the light fantastic toe. I did not dance, and sat solitary in a secluded corner, enjoying the bright scene: the long, broad corridor lit with torches, the dark masses of Indians hemming us in, and the señoritas and caballeros in their gay costumes.

An old man, who had fixed his eyes on me some time previously, approached and asked me if I would not sit by his daughter and talk English to her. She was a sweet, blooming damsel, fair to look upon, in sooth, and I had not the heart to refuse such a reasonable request; so I went as directed, and opened a conversation.

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Soon I noticed that, though she paid the closest attention, and nodded her pretty head and winked her lovely eyes at intervals, still she made no replies, save Si, señor, and No, señor, and not always bringing these in at the right place. Then it dawned upon me that my aged friend was playing a game on me by getting me to talk English to a girl who didn't understand one word of the language. But when I expostulated with him, he replied, innocently and in good faith, that his daughter could not speak English certainly, and, moreover, she had never heard it spoken before, nor had any other of the young ladies in the room; but he hoped I would not refuse to gratify her curiosity to hear it. And just then the blushing beauty smiled bewitchingly, and said that she understood my English very well, and that the old man could just go along about his business, or words to that effect.

Well, we talked English together for quite a while, though it was a rather one-sided conversation, for she could only understand Spanish and Maya. Pretty soon the other girls wanted to talk English, too, and grew so anxious that the dancing was entirely suspended. As there were only three of us, and not enough to go round if but one young lady were assigned to each, it was proposed by the General that we make speeches in English. This was not so agreeable a method as taking each damsel separately and conversing to her in private; but we consented, and it fell to my lot to lead off. Now, not a mother's son, or daughter, of that assemblage could understand a syllable of anything but Spanish and Maya, and I am ashamed to confess that I presumed upon their ignorance in a way that was not fair. I recited, "The boy stood on the burning deck"; and when the Consul assured them it was a beautiful English poem, my own composition, they believed him, and applauded furiously. Then the Consul and John made speeches, the former passing off something of Daniel Webster's as an original oration, and when we were through it was midnight. Refreshments were then brought in, and, after toasting the bright eyes, etc. of the Yucatecas, we all departed for our respective dwellings.

On the morrow the General insisted upon going with us to the end of our journey, and so had his private volan hitched up, and about nine o'clock we reached our destination. In this town of Timax (pronounced Teemash) we found the only American in this section, in response to whose invitation we had undertaken this sixty-mile ride. He was a naturalist, who, after spending some time in Cuba, had now been two years or more in Yucatan. Tired of living entirely in the woods, where he had collected every known bug, bird, and beast, he had at last settled in this remote town, and was now practising as a physician. As he was the only one in these parts, he had a very profitable practice, though his only authority was a "Warren's Household Physician." In truth, his entire curriculum embraced no more than he had grubbed in a few months from between the lids of that book. Yet he was as successful as physicians who have had the advantage of colleges and medical schools, and could manage to kill almost as many as they could, even with their improved methods and medicines. He then had a practice of fifty dollars a week, and usually lost not more than half his patients. We did not find the Doctor in, but we took possession of his house and hammocks, and when he returned were very much at home. He was extremely delighted to see us, not having had a chance to speak his native tongue for several months.

He it was who was to conduct us to the haunts of the wild turkey, and we put all our guns in order, and were anxious to start at once. The report of a cannon startled us and made our cheeks turn pale, for that was a signal that the indefatigable General had organized and ordered another ball. As it was to be given in our honor, we could not well avoid attending, and thus the turkey hunt must be postponed. This was to be a grand affair,—what the negroes would call a "dignity ball,"—and the ladies who attended wore pure white, and were elegantly attired, while the gentlemen were in faultless evening dress. The jefe politico, or mayor of the town, had all the streets swept and cleaned, and the Casa Municipal decorated, and sent us a courteous invitation to attend, couched in elegant Spanish. A great crowd of Mestizos and Mestizas surrounded the side and two ends of the corridor, and gazed upon the aristocratic dancers with whom they were not allowed to mingle. The old General excited our curiosity by not appearing during the afternoon and early evening, but towards nine o'clock he came out "fresh as a daisy," saying he had been sleeping, and at once marched on to the floor, demanded the prettiest girl there for a partner, got her, and led the dance. The ball ended at one o'clock in the morning, and then the General saw us home, and kept our medical friend up all night, during which time he severely punished nineteen bottles of beer, one after the other. "To-night," said he, as we parted from him at dawn, "you're going to see something; I 'm going to get up the grandest fandango Timax ever had." Hearing this, we despaired of our turkey hunt entirely, as we were obliged to return to Merida two days later, or lose the steamer of that week for Mexico.

The General was as good as his word. At dark the musicos—musicians—came for us, headed by our friend, whom all the Indians and Mestizos of that section blindly worshipped. The musicos were clad in cotton drawers and shirts only, with high crowned straw hats; but they played as sweetly as if all were graduates from a musical college, and cost only fifty cents a head. The soul of the native-born Mexican and Yucateco takes as naturally to music as a woodchuck to clover; he twangs the guitar and blows the dulcet horn as perfectly as he dances, and he commences both immediately he leaves the cradle. The President and Chief Judge carried round some of the invitations. When we reached the Casa the General was seated in his robe of state,—a flowing camisa,—and smiled benignantly over everybody and everything. The same dazzling array of beautiful, jewel-bedecked Mestiza girls beamed upon us this evening as at the first baile, and soon all my friends were busy filling their books for the dances. There was no prescribed style of dress for the men: some wore their linen outside, fluttering in the evening air, some wore it inside, and some of the more aristocratic even wore coats, but all wore their hats.

Unobserved, in a corner, I was watching the strange costumes with keen relish, when the sharp eye of the General espied me, from his chair of state, beneath his own portrait draped in Mexican colors. "Hi, Señor Federico! why are you not dancing?" "Señor General, I don't know how."

"Yes you do; you've got to dance, any way." With that he approached me, and, when I tried to dart through the crowd, caught and led me sternly back. "Here," beckoning to a lovely girl, "come, my darling, and dance with el señor extranjero."

The girl came and stood in front of me.

"That is my niece, the prettiest girl in the room, and the best dancer in the canton. Take her, now, and the Lord help you.

My explanations and protestations TLM D131 The prettiest girl in the room.jpg"THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN THE ROOM." that I never danced were of no avail. He only repeated, "There 's my niece; look at her!"

True enough, there she was, waiting for me to take her out. O, she was a handsome girl! with regular features, shapely shoulders, and hung all around with gold ornaments. Though she could not understand a word of my language, she must have seen that I did not want to dance with her; but when the music struck up she merely smiled, and said, in the sweetest of tones, "Vamonos!"

Vamonos[1] means "Come along!" but I would not go. Perplexed and confused, I stood there trying to frame an adequate answer from a somewhat limited Spanish vocabulary. At last I had it. "Señorita," I began, "yo no sé this kind of a dance, you see; it's all Greek to me. A Virginia reel, now, or a sailor's hornpipe, for instance; pero este baile—" That precious sentence of Hispano-English was never finished, for she advanced at that, seized me about the waist, and said, in a decided sort of manner, "Vamonos!''—and I went.

Well, that young lady sailed all about me, like a swan. While I hopped up and down, stepped on her skirt, and trod on her toes, she remained as serene as a summer sky, pulled me this way and that, whirled me round and round till I was giddy, and ended by flinging me into a seat; while the whole audience, who had remained thunder-struck with awe and amazement at my war-dance, burst into loud cries of "Viva Americano!"

The girls sat ranged all along the wall, and waited till a caballero waltzed up to them and snatched one away. That was considered the proper thing to do,—when you saw a girl you wanted, to go up and lift her off her seat. Seeing that I was slow in coming forward, they reversed the order of things, and, before I was well aware, I was spinning away with another lady. One of the dances was the toro, or bull-dance; and another, the zopilote, or turkey-buzzard dance, in which a man and woman take the floor, each with a handkerchief, and go through a very extraordinary performance.

About midnight the Doctor looked in, on his way to visit a dying patient, and, wishing to see a new phase of native life, I went with him. Entering the thatched pole-hut of a poor Indian, we found ourselves in a dark room, feebly lighted by a small candle. It was a decided contrast to the bright ball-room, this gloomy and miserable hut, the abode of poverty and pain. In a hammock lay an Indian woman, the death-damp already gathering on her forehead, and a group of other women kneeling despairingly before a picture of the Virgin. Three hammocks hung from the smoke-blackened rafters, and these, with a few rude cooking utensils, were all the furniture of this cheerless abode.

The Doctor told them of her condition, and the information was communicated to the dying one, who changed neither position nor expression. Doubtless, she was glad to escape from a life that offered nothing but drudgery and toil; for these Indians have no fear of death, always welcoming it, and rejoicing rather than mourning over the departure of a friend.

Out in the night air it was cool, bright, and pleasant, for a norther had just passed over. As we reached the corridor, the ball was just breaking up, and toasts were being drunk, to Mexico and the United States, to the señoritas and ourselves. Good feeling pervaded us all, and we parted from these kind and unsophisticated people with great regret, the band of musicos escorting us to the Doctor's house with lively music, and amid vivas for the two republics.

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  1. Vamonos is purely colloquial, answering to the imperative of the verb Ir.