Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras
By Harry A. Franck
TENOCHTITLAN OF TO-DAY
The El Paso Limited picked me up again twenty-four hours later. Beyond Querétaro’s ungainly aqueduct spread fields of tobacco, blooming with a flower not unlike the lily; then vast, almost endless stretches of dead, dry corn up low heights on either hand, and occasional fields of maguey in soldierly files. At San Juan del Rio, famous for its lariats, a dozen men and a woman stood in a row, some forty feet from the train, holding coils of woven-leather ropes of all sizes, but in glum and hopeless silence, while a policeman paced back and forth to prevent them from either canvassing the train-windows or crying their wares. Evidently some antinuisance crusade had invaded San Juan.
Mexico is a country of such vast vistas that a man might easily be taken and executed by bandits within plain sight of his friends without their being able to lend him assistance. Nowhere can one look farther and see nothing. Yet entire companies of marauders might lie in wait in the many wild rocky barrancos of this apparently level brown plain. Up and up we climbed through a bare, stone-strewn land, touched here and there with the green of cactus, sometimes with long vistas of maize, which here hung dead in its half-grown youth because of the failure of the summer rains. Fields of maguey continued. The air grew perceptibly cooler as we wound back and forth, always at good speed behind the American engineer, mounting to the upper plateau surrounding the capital, not through mountains but by a vast, steadily rising world. Sometimes long, unmortared stone fences divided the landscape, more often mile after unobstructed mile of slightly undulating brown plain, tinted here and there by maguey, rolled by us into the north.
A special train of soldiers, with a carload of arms and munitions, passed on the way to head off the latest revolted “general.” The newspapers of the capital appeared, some rabidly “anti-American,” stopping at nothing to stir up the excitable native against alleged subtle plans of the nation to the north to rob them of their territory and national existence, the more reputable ones with sane editorials imploring all Mexicans not to make intervention “in the name of humanity and civilization” necessary. The former sold far more readily. The train wound hither and yon, as if looking for an entrance to the valley of Mexico. Unfortunately no train on either line reaches ancient Anahuac by daylight, and my plan to enter it afoot, perhaps by the same route as Cortez, had been frustrated. A red sun was just sinking behind haggard peaks when we reached the highest point of the line—8237 feet above the sea—with clumps and small forests of stocky oaks and half Mexico stretching out behind us, rolling brown to distant bare ranges backed by others growing blue and purple to farthest distance. The scene had a late October aspect, and a chilling, ozone-rich wind blew. By dusk the coat I had all but thrown away in the sweltering North was more than needed. We paused at San Antonio, a jumble of human kennels thrown together of old cans, scraps of lumber, mud, stones, and cactus leaves, with huge stacks of the charcoal with the soot of which all the inhabitants were covered, even to the postmaster who came in person for the mail sack. That week’s issue of a frivolous sheet of the capital depicted an antonino charcoal-burner standing before his no less unwashed wife, holding a new-born babe and crying in the slovenly dialect of the “pela’o”: “Why, it is white! Woman, thou hast deceived me!”
At dark came Tula, ancient capital of the Toltecs, after which night hid all the scene there might have been, but for glimpses by the light of the train of the great tajo cut through the hills to drain the ancient valley of Anáhuac. On we sped through the night, which if anything became a trifle warmer. Gradually the car crowded to what would have been suffocation had we not soon pulled in at Buena Vista station, to fight our way through a howling pandemonium of touts, many shouting English, among whom were the first Negroes I had seen in Mexico.
Mexico City was a great disappointment. The hotel only a block from the cathedral and the site of the great teocalli of the Aztecs, to which the German in Pátzcuaro had directed me, differed not even in its smells from a Clark-street lodging-house in Chicago. The entire city with its cheap restaurants and sour smelling pulquerias uncountable, looked and sounded like a lower eastside New York turned Spanish in tongue. Even morning light discovered nothing like the charm of the rest of Mexico, and though I took up new lodgings en famille in aristocratic Chapultepec Avenue, with a panorama of snow-topped Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, her sleeping sister, and all the range seeming a bare gunshot away, the imagination was more inclined to hark back to the Bowery than to the great Tenochtitlan of the days of Cortez.
In a word, the capital is much like many another modern city, somewhat bleak, cosmopolitan of population, with strong national lines of demarkation, and a caste system almost as fixed as that of India, but with none of the romance the reader of Prescott, Mme. Calderón, and the rest expects. Since anarchy fell upon the land, even the Sunday procession of carriages of beauty in silks and jewels, and of rancheros prancing by in thousand-dollar hats, on silver-mounted and bejeweled saddles, has disappeared from the life of the capital. To-day the Mexican is not anxious to parade his wealth, nor even to venture it in business. He is much more minded to bury it in the earth, to hide it in his socks, to lay it up in the great republic to the north, where neither presidents corrupt nor Zapatistas break in and steal.
By day moderate clothing was comfortable, but the night air is sharp and penetrating, and he who is not dressed for winter will be inclined to keep moving. Policemen and street-car employees tie a cloth across their mouths from sunset until the morning warms. Ragged peons swarm, feeding, when at all, chiefly from ambulating kitchens of as tattered hawkers. The well-to-do Mexican, the “upper class,” in general is a more churlish, impolite, irresponsible, completely inefficient fellow than even the countryman and the peon, in whom, if anywhere within its borders, lies the future hope of Mexico. To him outward appearance is everything, and the capital is especially overrun with the resultant hollow baubles of humanity.
There are a few short excursions of interest about the capital. Bandits have made several of them, such as the ascent of Popocatepetl, unpopular, but a few were still within the bounds of moderate safety. Three miles away by highway or street-car looms up the church of Guadalupe, the sacred city of Mexico. It is a pleasing little town, recalling Puree of the Juggernaut-car by its scores of little stands for the feeding of pilgrims—at pilgrimage prices. Here are evidences of an idolatry equal to that of the Hindu. Peons knelt on the floor of the church, teaching their babies to cross themselves in the long intricate manner customary in Mexico. A side room was crowded with cheap cardboard paintings of devotees in the act of being “saved” by the Virgin of Guadalupe—here a man lying on his back in front of a train which the Virgin in the sky above has just brought to a standstill; there a child being spared by her lifting the wheel of a heavy truck about to crush it. It would be hard to imagine anything more crude either in conception or execution than these signs of gratitude. To judge by them the Virgin would make a dramatist of the first rank; there was not a picture in which the miraculous assistance came a moment too soon, never & hero of our ancient, pre-Edison melodramas appeared more exactly “in the nick of time.” The famous portrait of the miraculous being herself, over the high altar, is dimly seen through thick glass. Inside the chapel under the blue and white dome pilgrims were dipping up the “blessed” water from the bubbling well and filling bottles of all possible shapes, not a few of which had originally held American and Scotch whisky, that are sold in dozens of little stands outside the temple.
These they carry home, often hundreds of miles, to “cure” the ailments of themselves or families, or to sell to others at monopoly prices.
Good electric cars speed across amazingly fertile bottom lands crisscrossed by macadam highways to Xochimilco. Nearing it, the rugged foothills of the great mountain wall shutting in the valley begin to rise. We skirted Pedregal, a wilderness of lava hills serving as quarry, and drew up in the old Indian town, of a charm all its own, with its hoar and rugged old church and its houses built of upright cornstalks or reeds, with roofs of grass from the lake. Indians paddled about in clumsy, leaky boats through the canals among rich, flower-burdened islands, once floating.
Another car runs out to Popotla along the old Aztec causeway by which the Spaniards retreated on that dismal night of July 2, 1520. Now the water is gone and only a broad macadamed street remains. The spot where Alvarado made his famous pole-vault is near the Buena Vista station, but no jumping is longer necessary—except perhaps to dodge a passing trolley. Instead of the lake of Tenochtitlan days there is the flattest of rich valleys beyond. The “Tree of the Dismal Night,” a huge cypress under which Cortez is said to have wept as he watched the broken remnants of his army file past, is now hardly more than an enormous, hollow, burned-out stump, with a few huge branches that make it look at a distance like a flourishing tree still in the green prime of life. The day was rainy and a cold, raw wind blew. The better-clad classes were in overcoats, and the peons in their cotton rags wound themselves in blankets, old carpets, newspapers, anything whatever, huddling in doorways or any suggestion of shelter. Cold brings far more suffering in warm countries than in these of real winters.
The comandante of notorious old Belén prison in the capital spoke English fluently, but he did not show pleasure at my visit. An under-official led me to the flat roof, with a bird’s-eye view of the miserable, rambling, old stone building. Its large patios were literally packed with peon prisoners. The life within was an almost exact replica of that on the streets of the capital, even to hawkers of sweets, fruit-vendors, and the rest, while up from them rose a decaying stench as from the steerage quarters of old transatlantic liners. Those who choose, work at their trade within as outside. By night the prisoners are herded together in hundreds from six to six in the wretched old dungeon-like rooms. Nothing apparently is prohibited, and prisoners may indulge with impunity in anything from cigarettes to adultery, for which they can get the raw materials.
The excursion out to the Ajusco range, south of the city, was on the verge of danger. Zapata hung about Cuernavaca and marauders frequently approached the very outskirts of the capital. Under our knapsacks we struck upward through the stony village where the train had set us down, and along a narrow road that soon buried itself in pine forests. A bright clear stream came tumbling sharply down, and along this we climbed. A mile or more but we picked up at a thatched hut an Indian boy of ten as burden-bearer and guide, though we continued to carry most of our own stuff and to trust largely to our own sense of direction. Above came a three-hour climb through pine-forested mountains, such as the Harz might be without the misfortune of German spick and spanness. He who starts at an elevation of 7500 feet and climbs 4000 upward in a brief space of time, with a burden on his back, knows he is mounting. Occasionally a dull-gray glimpse of the hazy valley of Mexico broke through the trees; about us was an out-of-the-way stillness, tempered only by the sound of birds. About noon the thick forest of great pine trees ceased as suddenly as if nature had drawn a dead-line about the brow of the mountain. A foot above it was nothing but stunted oak growths and tufts of bunch-grass large as the top of a palm-tree. On the flat summit, with hints through the tree-tops below of the great vale of Anáhuac, we halted to share the bulk of our burdens with the Indian boy, who had not brought his “itacate.” The air was most exhilarating and clear as glass, though there was not enough of it to keep us from panting madly at each exertion. In the shade it was cold even in heavy coats; but merely to step out into the sunshine was to bask like lizards.
Our “guide” lost no time in losing us, and we started at random down the sharp face of the mountain to the valley 4000 feet almost directly below us. Suddenly a break in the trees opened out a most marvelous view of the entire valley of Mexico. Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl stood out as clearly under their brilliant white mantles of new-fallen snow as if they were not sixty but one mile away, every crack and seam fully visible, and the fancied likeness of the second to a sleeping woman was from this point striking. The contrast was great between the dense green of the pine forests and the velvety, brown plain with its full, shallow lakes unplumbed fathoms below. Farther down we came out on the very break-neck brink of a vast amphitheater of hills, with “las ventanas,” huge, sheer, rock cliffs shaped like great cathedral windows, an easy stone-throw away but entirely inaccessible to any but an aviator, for an unconscionable gorge carpeted with bright green tree-tops lay between. I proposed descending the face of the cliff below us, and led the way down a thousand feet or more, only to come to the absolutely sheer rock end of things where it would have taken half the afternoon to drop to the carpet of forest below.
There was nothing to do but to climb out again and skirt the brink of the canyon. In the rare air we were certain a score of times of being about to drop dead from exhaustion, yet a two-minute rest always brought full recovery. Then came a wild scramble of an hour along sheer rocks thick-draped with moss that pealed off in square yards almost as often as we stepped on it, and threatened to drop us more than a half-mile to the tree-tops below. Climbing, clinging, and circling through a wilderness of undergrowth amid the vast forest of still, dense-green pines, but with such views of the valley of Mexico and the great snow-clads as to reward any possible exertion, we flanked at last the entire canyon. In the forest itself every inch of ground was carpeted with thick moss, more splendid than the weavings of any loom of man, into which the feet sank noiselessly. Everywhere the peaceful stillness was tempered only by a slight humming of the trees, and the songs of myriad birds, not a human being within screaming distance, unless some gang of bandits stalked us in the depth of the forest. More likely they were by now sodden with the aftermath of Sunday festivities, and anyway we were armed “hasta los dientes.”
At length, as the day was nearing its close, we fell into what had once been a trail. It was moss-grown and wound erratically in and out among the trees, but went steadily down, very level compared to the work of the preceding hours, yet so steep we several times spread out at full length to slide a rod or more. The sun was setting when we came to the bottom of “las ventanas” only a couple thousand feet from where we had first caught sight of them hours before. Thereafter the trail moderated its pace and led us to the most beautiful thing of the day, a clear ice-cold stream at the bottom of the cliffs. We all but drank it dry. Then on out of the canyon and across a vast field of rye, back of which the great gorge stood like some immense stadium, with stalwart athletic pines filling all the seats. This is the spot where Wallace’s “Fair God” burst forth upon the valley. We descended between immense walls of pines, half unseen in the dusk and framing a V-shaped bit of the vale of Anahuac, a perfect crimson fading to rose color, culminating in the pink-tinted snow-clads above.
At dark we left the boy at his hut, on the walls of which his father had just hung the two deer of that day’s hunt. There was no hope of catching the afternoon train from Cuernavaca, and we laid plans to tramp on across the valley floor to Tizapan. But Mexican procrastination sometimes has its virtues, and we were delighted to find the station crowded with those waiting for the delayed convoy that ten minutes later was bearing us cityward through the cool highland night.
I had hoped to walk from Mexico City to the capital of Honduras. That portion of the route from former Tenochtitlan to Oaxaca and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, however, was not then a promising field for tramping by any one with any particular interest in arriving. I concluded to flank it by train. It was a chilly gray day when the little narrow-gage train bore us close by the miraculous temple of Guadalupe, with its hilltop cemetery and stone sails, and into the vast fields of maguey beyond. Peons and donkeys without number, the former close wrapped in their colored blankets, the latter looking as if they would like to be, enlivened the roads and trails. We skirted the shore of dull Lake Texcoco, once so much larger and even now only a few inches below the level of the flat plain, recalling that the Tenochtitlan of the Conquest was an island reached only by causeways. At San Juan Teotihuacan, the famous pyramids lost in the nebulous haze of pre-Toltec history bulked forth from the plain and for many miles beyond. The smaller, called that of the Moon, was a mere squat mound of earth. But the larger had lately been cleared off, and was now of a light cement color, rising in four terraces with a low monument or building on the summit. It contains about the same material as the pyramid of Cheops, but is larger at the base and by no means so high, thereby losing something of the majesty of its Egyptian counterpart.
A cheery sun appeared, but the air remained cool. Fields of maguey in mathematically straight lines stretched up and away out of sight over broad rolling ridges. I had put off the experience of tasting the product until I should reach Apam, the center of the pulque industry. At that station an old woman sold me a sort of flower-pot full of the stuff at two cents. I expected to taste and throw it away. Instead there came a regret that I had not taken to it long before. It was of the consistency and color of milk, with a suggestion of buttermilk in its taste and fully as palatable as the latter, with no noticeable evidence of intoxicating properties. No doubt this would come with age, as well as the sour stink peculiar to the pulquerías of the cities.
The train made a mighty sweep to the northward to escape from the central valley, bringing a much closer and better view of the two snow-clads, first on one, then on the farther side. By choice I should have climbed up over the “saddle” between them, as Cortez first entered the realms of Montezuma. A dingy branch line bore us off across broken country with much corn toward Puebla. On the left was a view of Malinche, famous in the story of the Conquest, its summit hidden in clouds. I was now in the Rhode Island of Mexico, the tiny State of Tlaxcala, the “Land of Corn,” to the assistance from which Cortez owes his fame. The ancient state capital of the same name has been slighted by the railway and only a few decrepit mule-cars connect it with the outer world. I slighted these, and leaving my possessions in the station of Santa Ana, set off through a rolling and broken, dry and dusty, yet fertile country, with the wind rustling weirdly through the dead brown fields of corn. The inhabitants of the backward little capital were even more than usually indifferent to “gringoes,” seldom giving me more than a glance unless I asked a question, and even leaving me to scribble my notes in peace in a shaded plaza bench.
There is nothing but its historical memories of special interest in Tlaxcala. It is a town of some 3000 inhabitants, a few hundred feet higher than Mexico City, with many ancient buildings, mostly of stone, often mere ruins, from the seams of surely half of which sprout grass and flowers, as they do between the cobbles of its streets and its large rambling plaza. I visited the old church on the site of which Christianity—of the Spanish brand—was first preached on the American continent. Here was the same Indian realism as elsewhere in the republic. One Cristo had “blood” pouring in a veritable river from his side, his face was completely smeared with it, his knees and shins were skinned and barked and covered with blood, which had even dripped on his toes; the elbows and other salient points were in worse condition than those of a wrestler after a championship bout, and the body was tattooed with many strange arabesques. There were other figures in almost as distressing a state. A god only ordinarily maltreated could not excite the pity or interest of the Mexican Indian, whose every-day life has its own share of barked shins and painful adversities. It was amusing to find this village, hardly larger than many a one about the home of Mexican hacendados, the capital of a State. But the squads of rurales and uniformed police and the civil employees of Government were very solemn with their responsibilities. I had seen it all in an hour or two and drifted back along the five lazy miles to Santa Ana. Tlaxcala lies between two gaunt broken ridges, with rugged chains all about it, yet the little State is by no means so completely fenced in by nature as the imagination that has fed on Prescott pictures.
Puebla, third city of Mexico, is even colder than the capital. The snow-clads of the latter look down upon it from the west, and far away to the east stands Orizaba, highest peak of Mexico. In the haze of sunset its great mantle of new-fallen snow stood out sharply, darker streaks that ran down through the lower reaches of snow dying out in nothingness, as the mountain did itself, for as a matter of fact the latter was not visible at all, but only the snow that covered its upper heights, surrounded above, below, and on all sides by the thin gray sky of evening. By night there was music in the plaza. But how can there be life and laughter where a half-dozen blankets are incapable of keeping the promenaders comfortable? In all the frigid town there was not a single fire, except in the little bricked holes full of charcoal over which the place does its cooking. Close to my hotel was the “Casa Serdan,” its windows all broken and its stucco front riddled with bullet holes, for it was here that two brothers, barricading themselves against the government of Porfirio Diaz, spilled the first blood of the long series of revolutions and worse that has followed. Already the name of the street had been changed to “Calle de los Mártires de Noviembre, 1910.”
It is nearly three hours’ walk from the plaza of Puebla to that of Cholula, the Benares of the Aztecs, and for him who rises early it is a cold one. What little romance remains would have fled had I made the trip by mule-car. As it was, I could easily drop back mentally into the days of the Conquest, for under the brilliant cloudless sky as I surmounted a bit of height there lay all the historic scene before me—the vast dipping plain with the ancient pyramid of Cholula, topped now by a white church with towers and dome, standing boldly forth across it, and beyond, yet seeming so close one half expected an avalanche of their snows to come down upon the town, towering Popocatepetl and her sister, every little vale and hollow of the “saddle” between clear as at a yard distance. Then to the left, Malinche and the rolling stony hills of Tlaxcala, along which the Spaniards advanced, with the beautiful cone of Orizaba rising brilliant and clear nearly a hundred miles away. The great rampart separating them from the cherished valley must have brought bated breath even to the hardy soldiers of Cortez.
This unsurpassed view accompanied all the rest of the peaceful morning walk. By nine I was climbing the great pyramid from the top of which the intrepid Spaniard tumbled down the ancient gods, and about which occurred the first of the many wholesale massacres of Indians on the American continent. To-day it is merely a large hill, overgrown on all sides with grass, trees, and flowers, and with almost nothing to bear out the tradition that it was man-built. From the top spreads a scene rarely surpassed. Besides the four mountains, the ancient and modern town of Cholula lies close below, with many another village, especially their bulking churches, standing forth on all sides about the rich valley, cut up into squares and rectangles of rich-brown corn alternating with bright green, a gaunt, low, wall-like range cutting off the entire circle of the horizon. The faint music of church bells from many a town miles away rode by on a wind with the nip of the mountain snows in it. But Prescott has already described the scene with a fidelity that seems uncanny from one who never beheld it except in his mind’s eye.
To-day the pyramid is sacred to the “Virgin of the Remedies.” Gullible pilgrims come from many leagues around to be cured of their ills, and have left behind hundreds of doll-like figures of themselves or the ailing limb or member made of candle wax that breaks to bits between the fingers. Then there are huge candles without number, martyrs and crucifixions, with all the disgusting and bloody features of elsewhere; every kind and degree and shape and size of fetish. Cholula needs badly another Cortez to tumble her gods down to the plain below and drive out the hordes of priests that sacrifice their flocks none the less surely, if less bloodily, than their Aztec predecessors.
A bright red sun came up as the train swung round to the eastward, hugging the flanks of Malinche, and rumbled away across a sandy, very dry, but fertile country, broken by huge barrancas or washouts, and often with maguey hedges. Most of my day was given up to Mr. —— come to think of it, I did not even get his name. He drifted into the train at the junction and introduced himself by remarking that it was not bad weather thereabouts. He was a tall, spare man of fifty, in a black suit rather disarranged and a black felt hat somewhat the worse for wear. He carried a huge pressed-cardboard “telescope” and wore a cane, though it hardly seemed cold enough for one. His language was that of a half-schooled man, with the paucity of vocabulary and the grammar of a ship’s captain who had left school early but had since read much and lived more. Whenever a noun failed him, which was often, he filled in the blank with the word “proposition.” Like myself, he traveled second-class because there was no fourth.
It may be that the biography which pieced itself unconsciously together as he talked needs a sprinkle of salt here and there, but it all had the earmarks of veracity. He was a Briton, once a surgeon in the British army, with the rank of captain, saw service with Roberts in Egypt, and was with Kitchener at the relief of Khartum. Later he served in India with the Scotch Grays. He looked the part, and had, moreover, the accent and scars to go with it. Glimpses through his conversation into the background beyond suggested he had since been in most parts of the world. He liked Argentina best and the United States least, as a place of residence. Practising as a physician and oculist, he had amassed a moderate fortune, all of which he had lost, together with his wife and child, and possibly a bit of his own wits, in the flood of Monterey. Since that catastrophe he had had no other ambition than to earn enough to drift on through life. With neither money nor instruments left, he took to teaching English to the wealthier class of Mexicans in various parts of the country, now in mission schools, now as private tutor. A Methodist institution in Querétaro had dispensed with his services because he protested against an order to make life unpleasant to those boys who did not respond with their spending money to a daily call for alms at the morning assembly. Six months ago he had drifted into a little town near San Marcos, wearing the title of “professor,” and got together a class of private pupils, chief among them three daughters of a wealthy hacendado. Rebels came one day and in the exuberance that follows a full meal long delayed, with pulque embroidery, one of them fired two shots through the window not far from his venerable British head. The “professor” picked up a two-foot mahogany ruler, marched out into the plaza and, rapping the startled rebel over the skull, took his rifle away from him and turned it over to the delighted jefe político. From then on his future seemed assured, for if the rest of the town was poor, the hacendado’s wealth was only rivaled by his daughters’ longing for English.
But life is a sad proposition at best. On the Monday preceding our meeting the “professor” sat with his pupils in the shade of the broad hacienda veranda when he saw two priests wandering toward the house “like Jews with a pack of clothing to sell.” “It’s all up with the Swede,” he told himself according to his own testimony. The prophecy proved only too true. The padres had come to order that the three daughters be god-mothers to the “Cristo” (in the form of a gaudy doll) that was to be “born” in the town on Christmas eve and paraded to the cathedral of Puebla. As their ticket to heaven depended upon obedience, none of the faithful señoritas dreamed of declining the honor, even though it involved the expenditure of considerable of papá’s good money and required them to spend most of the time until Christmas rehearsing for the ceremony and “praising the glory of God” with the priests in a room of the church, locked against worldly intruders. Naturally this left them no time for English. His mainstay gone, the “professor” threw up the sponge and struck out for pastures new, carrying his trunk-like “telescope” two hot and sandy leagues to catch this morning train.
At Esperanza the Briton went me one better on my own custom of “living on the country.” To the enchiladas, large tortillas red with pepper-sauce and generously filled with onions, and the smaller tortillas covered with scraps of meat and boiled egg which we bought of the old women and boys that flocked about the train, he added a liter of pulque. Not far beyond, we reached Boca del Monte, the edge of the great plateau of Mexico. A wealth of scenery opened out. From the window was a truly bird’s-eye view of the scattered town of Maltrata, more than two thousand feet almost directly below in the center of a rich green valley, about the edge of which, often on the very brink of the thick-clothed precipice, the train wound round and round behind the double-headed engine, traveling to every point of the compass in its descent. The town rose up to us at last and for the first time since mounting to San Luís Potosí two months before, I found myself less than a mile above sea-level. Instead of the often bare, wind-swept plateau, immense weeds of the banana family grew up about us, and a beautiful winding vale reeking with damp vegetation stretched before and behind us as we slid onward. High above all else and much farther away than it seemed, stood the majestic, snow-white peak of Orizaba. In mid-afternoon we descended at the city of that name.
It was large, but really a village in every feature of life. Here again were the broad eaves of one-story, tile-roofed houses, stretching well out over the badly cobbled streets, down the center of which ran open sewers. The place was unkempt and unclean, with many evidences of poverty, and the air so heavy and humid that vegetation grew even on the roofs. I wandered about town with the “professor” while he “sized it up” as a possible scene of his future labors, but he did not find it promising. By night Orizaba was still well above the tropics and the single blanket on the hotel cot proved far from sufficient even with its brilliant red hue.