Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 8

 
 

VIII.

 

NORTH COAST OF YUCATAN.

 

THE glassy surface of the aguada, soon after dawn, reflected the rosy hues of the sky, the sun crept slowly up, dissipating the coolness of the night, and before seven it was very hot. The sand-flies came out and enlivened us, while the birds commenced their cries. I dressed and went out. Coffee was ready, and cigarettes, and, after taking breakfast, we were ready to start for the coast. We were to have started muy temprano,—very early,—but the sun climbed higher and higher, and still the horses were munching their corn, and my friend still unprepared. It is always mañana—to-morrow—in this country; mañana temprano, early to-morrow; but it is ever mañana and never temprano. The people lose the best hours of morning, and work in the heat of the day.

Across the aguada there was a strange bird, called the marinero, or sailor, that uttered a succession of harsh cries for hours. The woods were full of birds of certain species, such as orioles, flycatchers, blackbirds, doves, and a host of others. I shot a very beautiful trogon, with a yellow breast, and parrots were crying out all the time. Temprano meant ten o'clock, when the sun nearly blistered our backs; yet even then Alonzo wanted to know if I would not like to wait till later.

Many of the trees that composed the wood we first entered supported great nests of the white ants, which looked at a little distance like black bears. We passed through a broad area covered with wild henequen, showing whence the plants come with which the plantations are stocked. Near some lovely aguadas was a new rancho, with a nice-looking girl preparing tortillas; and some hundred rods beyond we saw an Indian mound of shells. An hour later I saw a man-of-war bird (Tachypetes aquila), and felt that, from this sign, the sea could not be far off; nor was I mistaken, for we soon struck a sandy plain with small salt ponds, and espied the great lagoon that connects with the sea.

Mangroves and stunted trees had been features of the landscape thus far, but a mound of green coco palms now rose up and relieved the monotony. This was the cerro, or hill, we were looking for, a shell-heap made by the ancient Indians, covered and surrounded with a few hundred coco palms. Here were two small thatched and wattled huts, dilapidated and dirty, within which were two Indian women cooking some fish. They had nothing else except a little corn; but they brought a great fish, called lisa, which had been broiled on the coals in its own fat, and this was delicious. It was, as it lay split open, nearly two inches thick, and we ate and relished exceedingly great flakes of it. These women had never seen a spoon, table-knife, or fork; and, as we had none with us, we used our fingers and tortillas, each one taking his turn at the fish and gravy. Fortunately, we had hundreds of coco nuts at hand, and were not obliged to drink the dirty coffee they boiled for us, but had, instead, the refreshing water of the cocos. A man came along as we finished our cigarettes, and we engaged him to take us in his boat to a point up the lagoon where there were, according to him, "muchos flamingos!" The cerro is at a point where the lagoon meets the sea, called Boca de Ɔilam and Puntas Arenas, or point of sand. There are long sandbars and shoals, and naturally the fish congregate by millions, and the sea-birds by thousands. A wall of mangroves comes down to the border of the lagoon, and beyond the sand point is the open ocean. Flocks of pelicans, sea-gulls, terns, cormorants, peeps, plover, snipe, herons, egrets, and spoonbills were flying, wading, and swimming, in and above the water. Here, it is said, the flamingoes come by hundreds on the bar, about a gunshot from the huts among the palms; but they were not there then,—they would come that night, or mañana. The man poled the boat up the lagoon, disturbing hundreds of snipe and sandpipers, to a point where the stream narrowed, and where the mangroves reached even to the water's edge, forming solid green walls, with the placid water between them. These trees were dotted with white herons and cormorants, and at a place where there was a spring,—a spring of fresh water[1] bubbling up in this salt water lagoon,—we put up a hundred ducks and two dozen spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) which were roosting on the trees.

Having shot some of these birds we tried to land, but the mud was so soft, and we sank so deep, that it was impossible, and we were obliged to leave them. Quitting the main channel, we entered a narrow water lane, where many egrets and night-herons, with broad boat-bills, flapped across our bows. The mangroves were in bloom, the small concealed flower being hardly perceptible. At last we reached the point where the flamingoes ought to have been, but where they were not,—a broad mud flat, where they always had fed till that day. Disappointed, we turned the boat about, after causing it to be pushed over the mud as far as possible, and returned.

The sun was down then, and the water smoother, and all the little water birds and the greater ibis and herons were going to roost, some on the sand-bars, others on the trees. Our dinner, when we reached the hut, was the same as our breakfast,—a large broiled fish, laid out on a palmetto fan, which we ate by the light of an attenuated candle, stuck near by on a metate table. The interior of the hut was black with smoke, dried fish were stuck up all about, nets and other paraphernalia of a fisher's hut hung in the corners, and one end was filled by a great pile of coco nuts. Into the six hammocks, hung side by side in the centre, ten people stowed themselves as night came on, though Alonzo and I, in virtue of our silver, had a single one each. I slept uneasily, because they told me the flamingoes would come in the night, and we must get up at moonrise and hunt them. Insects of some kind—I could not tell what, nor how many, save that I knew they were numerous and sanguinary—were crawling over me all night. The hammock next me was occupied by an old woman with two babies, and she, with the men and boys on either side, was smoking and spitting all night. It was very dark, and the wind was howling through the spaces of the hut during all those weary hours, and in the morning there was a perfect "norther," and the long leaves of the coco palms were lashing their trunks in fury. At sunset the Indians told us the flamingoes would come at midnight, then at dawn, and when daylight came they were on an island two leagues off, and would appear mañana. When I heard this last, I knew the case was hopeless, and prepared to depart. The only sight of flamingoes we obtained was early in the morning, when two long lines flapped over the water far at sea, distinguishable miles away by their bright color.

Forty years ago, Mr. Stephens and Dr. Cabot had similar fortune to mine in this same locality, having been lured here from the port of Ɔilam by the stories told them of the abundance of ibis and flamingoes, and having still returned empty-handed. Then, as now, Puntas Arenas was simply a station for fishermen, and had but a single hut. I perfectly agree with the distinguished traveller, that, "for mere sporting, such a ground is not often seen, and the idea of a shooting lodge, or rather hut, on the shores of Punta Arenas for a few months in the season, presented itself almost as attractively as that of exploring ruined cities."

Stephens was then on his way back from an extended exploration of the ruins on the island of Cozumel and the east coast of the peninsula; and perhaps, as this is the nearest point we shall reach in that direction, it will be well to interpolate a short description of that portion of Yucatan. The first point at which the Spaniards under Cordova touched upon the then unknown kingdom of Mexico was at its northeastern extremity, now called Cape Catoche. An Indian chief invited them ashore, saying, "Con-escotoch," which signifies, "Come to our town"; and from this he gave it the name of Punta de Cotoche. It is situated in latitude 21° 34' North, longitude 86° 57' 51" West.

"It was determined by us to accept the invitation," says the old chronicler, "observing the proper precaution of going all in a body, and by one embarkation, as we perceived the shore to be lined with Indians." They were attacked by these, their first acquaintances of the new country, and fifteen of the company wounded. "These warriors were armed with thick coats of cotton, and carried, besides their bows and arrows, lances, shields, and slings; they also wore ornaments of feathers on their heads. . . . Near the place of this ambuscade were three buildings of lime and stone, wherein were idols of clay, with diabolical countenances, and several wooden chests, which contained similar idols but smaller, some vessels, three diadems, and some imitations of birds and fishes in alloyed gold. The buildings of lime and stone, and the gold, gave us a high idea of the country we had discovered. On our return to the shore we had the satisfaction to find that, while we were fighting, our chaplain, Gonzales, had taken care of the chests and their contents, which he had, with the assistance of two Indians of Cuba, brought off safely to our ships. Having re-embarked, we proceeded as before, coasting to the westward."

The island of Cozumel was discovered the next year, 1518, on the voyage of Grijalva, and for it Cortes set sail in 1519. "There was," says Bernal Diaz, "on the island of Cozumel a temple, and some hideous idols, to which all the Indians of the neighboring districts used to go frequently in solemn procession." These idols Cortes and his companions cast down, and substituted the cross in their place, which the Indians finally consented to accept. Here they heard of two Spaniards in captivity among the Indians, one of whom they rescued, and who proved of great service afterwards as an interpreter.

North of the great island of Cozumel is Isla Mujeres, about six miles from the coast, five or six miles in length by half a mile wide. Here some of the sailors with Cortes went on shore, and found in the town, near by, four temples, the idols in which represented human female figures of large size, for which reason they named this place Punta de las Mujeres, or Women's Cape. TLM D152 Terra-cotta figure.jpgTERRA-COTTA FIGURE. What Stephens, in 1842, did for Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, in a superficial manner, the archaeologist Dr. Le Plongeon has since done more thoroughly and satisfactorily. In a communication, printed in 1878, he gives a complete survey (the first) of the Isla Mujeres, locating the ancient buildings, the shrine, or temple, formerly containing the idols spoken of, and the "altar." A valuable discovery by the Doctor was made there of a terra-cotta female figure, which had formed the front of a brasero, or incense-burner. It was of excellent workmanship, and valuable, not only from this fact, but owing to the extreme rarity of works of the ceramic art on and near the peninsula of Yucatan.

He carefully surveyed the ruins, and made photographs of the "temple," which shows that it has suffered from the hand of time since the visit of Stephens. He, however, locates it at the south end of the island, while Stephens erroneously places it at the north. The building is of stone, twenty-eight feet long and fifteen deep; the interior is divided into two corridors, the ceiling has the triangular arch, and it gives evidence of being the work of the builders on the mainland. Portions of the structure have been used for building purposes, but to-day, says the Doctor, the people obtain stone from a large ruined city on the mainland opposite Mujeres, where they go with fear and trembling, lest they should meet with Indians from Tulum, and be made prisoners. "A very happy confirmation of the statement of Diaz that these people burned incense was made here. Desiring to varnish some negatives, in order to carry them safely home, I put some live coals in the bottom of the incense burner, and entered the shrine to be protected from the wind; when lo! a slight vapor arose from among the coals, and a sweet, delicious perfume filled again the antique shrine as in the days of its splendor, when the devotees and pilgrims from afar used to make their offerings, and burn the mixture, carefully prepared, of styrax, copal, and other aromatic resins, on the altar of the goddess."

The ancient inhabitants of Yucatan and the coasts of Mexico made great use of the gums of storax, and copal as incense.

Says the chronicler of Grijalva's expedition (1517), speaking of their visit to the temple in Cozumel, "While they were at the top of the tower an old Indian put in a vase with very odoriferous perfumes, which seemed of storax; he burned many perfumes before the idols which were in the tower, and sang in a loud voice a song, which was always in the same tune."

An historian of Yucatan, Landa, says: "The very travellers carried incense with them in a small dish. At night, wherever they arrived, they placed together three small stones, depositing upon them grains of incense."

The Spaniards, in their first voyages to these coasts, found it the custom to fumigate all strangers, and burn odorous gums before the idols in the temples. One of the complaints of an early voyager was against this prevailing custom, for he was often nearly choked by the fumes, odoriferous though they were. This was not done, probably, to kill any germ of infectious disease which the stranger might have about him, but as a token of respect. The soldiers of Cortes were at first much flattered, because they fancied themselves saluted as gods by this token of homage. In the churches, at the present day, native gums are burned in the censers. This discovery, on the coast of

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FRONT OF "INCENSE BURNER."

Yucatan and British Honduras, of braseros, or incense burners, confirms the truth of those statements of the historians.

The northern and eastern shores, especially the latter, are dotted with ruins; a cordon of ruined villages, cities, temples, and palaces is drawn along the coast. None more interesting has been described than the city of Tulum, which Stephens identifies, with much show of reason in his support, with the great cities of lime and stone seen by the first Spanish visitors. Here he found a grand "castle" and extensive buildings, some with roofs of beams still supporting a crust of mortar. Buried in a dense forest, he found sculptured stones, altars, watchtowers, paintings, stucco-work, and buildings of a beautiful style of architecture. The whole northeastern portion of Yucatan is a wilderness, a section of country that was once teeming with people, and full of populous cities.

From this long detour northward, let us return once more to Puntas Arenas, where I left my friend Alonzo ready to renew the search for flamingoes. He was determined to find some, and to put me within gunshot of them, even if we had to go to the Rio Lagartos, fifteen leagues away; for he had promised the Consul he would. But I was determined to leave for Ɔilam and civilization, as by another day's delay I might miss the steamer down the coast, and be hindered another week in my journey to Mexico. Finding me obdurate, he yielded gracefully, and to his already numerous favors added the crowning one of giving me his horse to ride, while he returned to the rancho. Then he embraced and patted me on the back, commended me to the old Indian who had been our guide, and started on his walk of three leagues to the rancho, while I turned his horse's head westward, and we parted to meet no more.

My guide, a withered and wrinkled old man, mounted astride a little stallion, between two packs, and his legs hanging down by the horse's neck, led the way. I thought my misfortunes ended; but this was an ill-starred trip, for we had not been ten minutes on the trail before my horse got stuck in the soft mud of the shore, and, rearing up, fell over on me, pinning one leg in the soft ooze. How I escaped from the wildly-floundering animal is something I do not understand to this day; but I remember scrambling over the mud sidewise like a crab, on hands and knees, and afterward picking up cartridges, silver, and a broken watch-chain, while my guide captured the horse. After being scraped, I again mounted, experiencing much trouble after this, for the horse, made fearful by his fall, snorted and fell to trembling at every soft place in the sand. At the frequent sloughs I was obliged to dismount and pound the horse with the branch of a tree from behind, while the old Indian dragged him ahead from in front. There were two long leagues of this kind of travelling, and we were much rejoiced when some straggling huts announced the approach to the seaport of Ɔilam. A large portion of the way was through a mangrove forest, where I had good opportunities for studying this peculiar tree, noticing how it sent out and down its aerial roots for a foothold in the water and at the border of the sea, and the entire absence of such adventitious shoots back a little distance on firm land.

At the Puerta—a collection of thatched houses and a half completed church—we sought for breakfast, and, seeing a fine-looking girl in a doorway, with a tray of fruit on her head, I asked if we could get it there. She said yes, and gave me some tortillas and frijoles; but the table was destitute of plate, knife, or spoon, though it was clean. After breakfast I reclined in a hammock in an inner room, while the young girl swung in another a few feet distant, with a plump babe of a year or so in her lap. She was hardly fourteen, large and finely formed, with lovely oval face, and large dark eyes. She looked so young and childlike, despite her maturity and maternity, that I could hardly believe her the mother of such a bouncing child, and asked if it were really hers. "Si, señor," she answered, slowly raising the lashes from her beautiful eyes, "es mio,"—" it is mine,"—and she added, with a charming frankness that astonished me, "And yours too if you will accept it." I had intended saying something neat in compliment before I got this answer, but such an excess of politeness as an offer of a joint interest in a child I had never seen before that hour fairly overwhelmed me, and I silently withdrew, settled my bill, mounted, and rode away.

The two leagues between the port and Ɔilam proper were soon gone over, and I slept that night in the casa of Don Juan el viejo,—of Mr. John the old man. "Manana temprano" was the order I gave my Indian for the morrow, and for a wonder he appeared at daylight. It rained at intervals as we rode towards Timax, but the air was pure, and sweet with the odors of flowers, and the many birds in the thickets enlivened our journey, so that we arrived at our destination without fatigue.

I was in season to go the rounds with the Doctor among his patients of the village, and was pleased to find that he had lost but three during my absence, and had only two in a critical condition. One man, who had been expected to die of a protracted debauch, the Doctor had physicked in vain, and this morning he mixed up some powerful calomel pills, quietly remarking, "If these don't do the business, that Indian will pass in his checks before noon." They did not kill him, and my friend thereby added another laurel to his wreath, and had another convalescent to extend his fame as a medico. I could not refrain from reciting those classic lines of the poet:—

"They prepared some pills of hydrargyrum,
And their patient travelled to kingdom come."

The last day of my stay the doctor-naturalist arranged for a grand poo, or turkey hunt, and early in the morning, after giving his patients some quieting medicines, we galloped out to a rancho, ten miles distant. It was almost entirely abandoned, being solely in charge of Indians. The mayoral, or head man, had on, like all the rest, simply a breech-cloth, hat, and sandals, and carried a machete, or great knife. His skin was hard, brown, and polished. These poor people had nothing to eat except roots from the woods and what animals they could kill. The corn crop of this year had failed, and half the population of Eastern Yucatan were subsisting on roots, small game, lizards, and snakes. Speculators had got control of American corn, and many people were starving in consequence, though every steamer from the United States was bringing vast quantities to Progreso, and notwithstanding the fact that in many of the interior States of Mexico corn was selling at twenty cents per bushel.

We waited an hour under a big ceibo tree, while an Indian knocked down some coco nuts, and brought us pawpaw fruits as large as pumpkins, which tasted like muskmelons. Then we were taken across a large milpa, or cornfield, in the blazing sun, and posted in a wood, while our Indians ranged about to beat up the game. In the dry, dead woods, which in this dry season much resemble our Northern forests in autumn, we waited for hours. My only visitors were a brown and golden hummingbird, a chachalaka, and some inquisitive blue-jays; but the Doctor got a shot at a flying gobbler, TLM D158 Fruit-seller of Yucatan.jpgFRUIT-SELLER OF YUCATAN. which escaped; and that ended the hunt. We walked back to the rancho in the heat, covered with garrapatas, ticks that are so small as to be hardly visible, yet bite like red ants. In the evening we strolled through the town, seeing many pretty faces, as at that time the ladies appear, and sit in their doorways, and chat and smoke.

The next morning the Indians brought in three turkeys, the result of our inciting them to hunt for them, and among them was one fine old gobbler, whose plumage was resplendent with sheen of polished copper and gold, who had two buckshot through the lungs. This was undoubtedly the one the Doctor had shot, and which the wily Indians had tracked to its hiding-place after our departure. This magnificent bird, representing the finest of his race, the Doctor presented to me as a souvenir of the occasion; his assistant aided me in skinning and preserving it, and it is now in the fine collection of Wheaton Seminary, at Norton, Massachusetts. My friend had a "corner" on these ocellated turkeys, having killed and bought over one hundred. All were shipped to Paris, to a large dealer in bird skins, who supplied the museums of Europe. Never before had so many been sent to the museums, though even now there are not a dozen in the United States.

Since my departure, the Doctor has returned to his home in the North. If he can be prevailed upon to prepare his adventures for publication, the record of his three years' sojourn in the solitary forests of Yucatan, the world will be delighted with the richest mine of sylvan and aboriginal lore ever opened to the public.

The events above narrated occurred in 1881. Two years later, I unexpectedly met my friend in New Mexico, and passed a week with him in a cosy log cabin which he had erected in a cañon, nine miles above the ancient city of Santa Fé. There I saw, a thousand miles distant from their habitat, many of the animals (in skins and feathers) which we had collected in the wilds of Yucatan; I slept in the same hammock, and upon the same tiger-skin; and our talk, as we lay awake at night, was almost exclusively of the historic peninsula and its delightful inhabitants.

The correo, or mail-coach, left at two in the afternoon for Merida, with myself and two Yucatecos as passengers. In learning that they were Yucatecos I naturally inferred that they were gentlemen, as they were, and that they would linger at every possible point on the road, which they did, first at a fiesta, where there had been a bull-fight, corrida de toros, and then at a dance. We reached the town house of the General just in time for dinner, stayed with him an hour or two, parted from him with an affectionate embrace, and arrived at Motul at dark. Here my companions ordered supper, refusing to let me pay for it, or share in the expense, saying that I was a stranger and their companion, and that it was their duty to see me through.

We changed mules at Motul, and galloped nearly the whole distance to Merida, stopping now and then to stretch our limbs and smoke. As there were four of us, including the driver, the volan was full. There was no room for reclining, and we were cramped in unnatural positions throughout the long twenty leagues. It was one o'clock in the morning, by the dim light of a waning moon, that we entered the suburbs of the capital, and waked the echoes of the silent streets by driving furiously to the Plaza.

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  1. Perhaps the reader may recall the accounts given of the wonderful fresh-water spring in the Atlantic, off St. Augustine, on the Florida coast, known forty years ago. "On the northern coast of Yucatan," says Humboldt, "at the mouth of the Rio Lagartos, four hundred metres from the shore, springs of fresh water spout up from amidst the salt water. It is probable that from some strong hydrostatical pression the fresh water, after bursting through the banks of calcareous rocks between the clefts of which it had flowed, rises above the level of the salt water." Florida and Yucatan are of similar geological formation; hence the appearance of these springs on the coasts of both peninsulas.