Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras
By Harry A. Franck
HURRYING THROUGH GUATEMALA
The three of us were off by the time the day had definitely dawned. Ems carried a heavy suitcase, and Dakin an awkward bundle. My own modest belongings rode more easily in a rucksack. A mile walk along an unused railroad, calf-high in jungle grass, brought us to a wooden bridge across the wide but shallow Suchiate, bounding Mexico on the south. Across its plank floor and beyond ran the rails of the “Pan-American,” but the trains halt at Mariscal because Guatemala, or more exactly Estrada Cabrera, does not permit them to enter his great and sovereign republic. Our own passage looked easy, but that was because of our inexperience of Central American ways. Scarcely had we set foot on the bridge when there came racing out of a palm-leaf hut on the opposite shore three male ragamuffins in bare feet, shouting as they ran. One carried an antedeluvian, muzzle-loading musket, another an ancient bayonet red with rust, and the third swung threateningly what I took to be a stiff piece of telegraph wire.
“No se pasa!” screamed the three in chorus, spreading out in skirmish line like an army ready to oppose to the death the invasion of a hostile force. “No one can pass the bridge!”
“But why not?” I asked.
“Because Guatemala does not allow it.”
“Do you mean to say three caballeros with money and passports—and shoes are denied admittance to the great and famous Republic of Guatemala?”
“Not at all, senor, but you must come by boat. The Pope himself cannot cross this bridge.”
It would have been unkind to throw them into the river, so we returned to a cluster of huts on the Mexican bank. Before it drowsed a half-dozen ancient and leaky boats. But here again were grave international formalities to be arranged. A Mexican official led us into one of the huts and set down laboriously in a ledger our names, professions, bachelordoms, and a mass of even more personal information.
“You are Catholic, señor,” he queried with poised pen, eying me suspiciously.
“Ah, Protestant,” he observed, starting to set down that conclusion.
There came a hitch in proceedings. Plainly there was no precedent to follow in considering the application of so non-existent a being for permission to leave Mexico. The official smoked a cigarette pensively and idly turned over the leaves of the ledger.
“Será ateo,” said a man behind him, swelling his chest with pride at his extraordinary intelligence.
“That doesn’t fill the bill either,” I replied, “nor any other single word I can think of.”
But the space for this particular item of information was cramped. We finally compromised on “Sin religión,” and I was allowed to leave the country. A boatman tugged and poled some twenty minutes before we could scramble up the steep, jungle-grown bank beyond. At the top of it were scattered a dozen childish looking soldiers in the most unkempt and disheveled array of rags and lack thereof a cartoonist could picture. They formed in a hollow square about us and steered us toward the “comandancia,” a few yards beyond. This was a thatched mud hut with a lame bench and a row of aged muskets in the shade along its wall. Another bundle of rags emerged in his most pompous, authoritative demeanor, and ordered us to open our baggage. Merely by accident I turned my rucksack face down on the bench, so there is no means of knowing whether the kodak and weapon in the front pockets of it would have been confiscated or held for ransom, had they been seen. I should be inclined to answer in the affirmative. In the hut our passports were carefully if unintelligently examined, and we were again fully catalogued. Estrada Cabrera follows with great precision the movements of foreigners within his boundaries.
In the sandy jungle town of Ayutla just beyond, two of us multiplied our wealth many times over without the least exertion. That Dakin did not also was only due to the unavoidable fact that he had no multiplicand to set over the multiplier. I threw down Mexican money to the value of $8.30 and had thrust upon me a massive roll of $150. The only drawback was that the bills had led so long and maltreated a life that their face value had to be accepted chiefly on faith, for a ten differed from a one only as one Guatemalan soldier differs from his fellows, in that each was much more tattered and torn than the other. After all there is a delicate courtesy in a government’s supplying an illiterate population with illegible money; no doubt experience knows other distinguishing marks, such as the particular breeds of microbes that is accustomed to inhabit each denomination; for even inexperience could easily recognize that each was so infested. I mistake in saying this was the only drawback. There was another. The wanderer who drops into a hut for a banana and a bone-dry biscuit, washed down with a small bottle of luke-warm fizzling water, hears with a pang akin to heart-failure a languid murmur of “Four dollars, señor,” in answer to his request for the bill. It is not easy to get accustomed to hearing such sums mentioned in so casual a manner.
A little narrow-gage “railway” crawls off through the jungle beyond Ayutla, but the train ran on it yesterday and to-morrow. To-day there was nothing to do but swing on our loads and strike off southward. The morning air was fresh and the eastern jungle wall threw heavy shade for a time. But that time soon came to an end and I plodded on under a sun that multiplied the load on my back by at least the monetary multiple of Guatemala. Ems and Dakin quickly demonstrated a deep dislike to tropical tramping, though both laid claim to the degree of T. T. T. conferred on “gringo” rovers in Central America. I waited for them several times in vain and finally pushed on to the sweltering, heat-pulsating town of Pahapeeta, where every hut sold bottled firewater and a diminutive box of matches cost a dollar. Grass huts tucked away in dense groves along the route were inhabited by all but naked brown people, kindly disposed, so it required no exertion, toward a passing stranger. Before noon the jungle opened out upon an ankle-deep sea of sand, across which I plowed under a blazing sun that set even the bundle on my back dripping with sweat.
But at least there was a broad river on the farther side of it that looked inviting enough to reward a whole day of tramping. The place was called Vado Ancho—the “Wide Wade”; though that was no longer necessary, for the toy railroad that operated to-morrow and yesterday had brought a bridge with it. I scrambled my way along the dense-grown farther bank, and found a place to descend to a big shady rock just fitted for a siesta after a swim. Barely had I begun to undress, however, when three brown and barefoot grown-up male children, partly concealed in astounding collections of rags, two with ancient muskets and the third with a stiff piece of wire, tore through the bushes and surrounded me with menacing attitudes.
“What are you doing here?” cried the least naked.
“Why the idle curiosity?”
“You are ordered to come to the comandancia.”
I scrambled back up the bank and plodded across another sand patch toward a small collection of jungle huts, the three “soldiers” crowding close about me and wearing the air of brave heroes who had saved their country from a great conspiracy. Lazy natives lay grinning in the shade as I passed. One of the lop-shouldered, thatched huts stood on a hillock above the rest. When we had sweated up to this, a military order rang out in a cracked treble and some twenty brown scarecrows lined up in the shade of the eaves in a Guatemalan idea of order. About half of them held what had once been muskets; the others were armed with what I had hitherto taken for lengths of pilfered telegraph wire, but which now on closer inspection proved to be ramrods. Thus each arm made only two armed men, whereas a bit of ingenuity might have made each serve three or four; by dividing the stocks and barrels, for instance. The tatterdemalion of the treble fiercely demanded my passport, while the “army” quickly degenerated into a ragged rabble loafing in the shade.
I started to lay my rucksack on the bench along the wall, but one of the fellows sprang up with a snarl and flourished his ramrod threateningly. It was evidently a lèse militarismus worthy of capital punishment for a civilian to pass between a pole supporting the eaves and the mud wall of the building. I was forced to stand in the blazing sunshine and claw out my papers. They were in English, but the caricature of an officer concealed his ignorance before his fellows by pretending to read them and at length gave me a surly permission to withdraw. No wonder Central America is a favorite locale for comic opera librettos.
I descended again to the river for a swim, but had not yet stretched out for a siesta when there came pushing through the undergrowth three more “soldiers,” this time all armed with muskets.
“What’s up now?”
“The colonel wants to see you in the comandancia.”
“But I just saw your famous colonel.”
“No, that was only the teniente.”
When I reached the hilltop again, dripping with the heat of noonday, I was permitted to sit on an adobe brick in the sacred shade. The colonel was sleeping. He recovered from that tropical ailment in time, and a rumor came floating out that he was soon to honor us with his distinguished presence. The soldiers made frantic signs to me to rise to my feet. Like Kingslake before the Turkish pasha, I felt that the honor of my race and my own haughty dignity were better served by insisting on social equality even to a colonel, and stuck doggedly to the adobe brick. The rumor proved a false alarm anyway. No doubt the great man had turned over in his sleep.
By and by the lieutenant came to say the commander was in his office, and led the way there. At the second door of the mud-and-straw building he paused to add in an awe-struck whisper:
“Take off your hat and wait until he calls you in.”
Instead I stepped toward the entrance, but the teniente snatched at the slack of my shirt with a gasp of terror:
“Por Diós! Take off your revolver! If the colonel sees it….”
I shook him off and, marching in with martial stride and a haughty carelessness of attitude, sat down in the only chair in the room except that occupied by the commander, with a hearty:
“Buenas tardes, colonel.”
He was a typical guatemalteco in whole trousers and an open shirt, but of some education, for he was writing with moderate rapidity at his homemade desk. He also wore shoes. His manner was far more reasonable than that of his illiterate underlings, and we were soon conversing rationally. He appeared to know enough English to get the gist of my passport, but handed it back with the information that I should have official Guatemalan permission to exist within the confines of his eighteen-for-a-dollar country.
“You carry an apparatus for the making of photographs,” he went on. “Suppose you had taken a picture of our fortress and garrison here?”
“Gar—How’s that, señor?”
“It is the law of all countries, as you know, not to allow the photographing of places of military importance. Even the English would arrest you if you took a picture of Gibraltar.”
It was careless of me not to have noted the striking similarity of this stronghold to that at the entrance to the Mediterranean. Both stand on hills.
“And where do I get this official permission?”
But I still carried Mexican cigarettes, a luxury in Guatemala, so we parted friends, with the manners of a special envoy taking leave of a prime minister. The only requirement was that I should not open my kodak within sight of this hotbed of military importance. I all but made the fatal error of passing between the sacred eave-post and the wall upon my exit, but sidestepped in time to escape unscathed, and left the great fortress behind and above me.
After all I had been far more fortunate than a fellow countryman I met later, who had had a $200 camera smashed by this same ragged “garrison.”
Siesta time was past and I struck on out of town. In the last hut an old woman called out to know why I had gone down to the river, and showed some suspicion at my answer.
“There are so many countries trying to get our war plans,” she explained.
A trail wide enough for single-wheeled vehicles crowded its way between jungle walls. In the breathless, blazing sunshine the sweat passed through my rucksack and into my formal city garments beyond, carrying the color of the sack with it. For some time no one was abroad except a dripping “gringo” and a rare cargador in barely the rags necessary to escape complete nakedness, who greeted me subserviently and gave me most of the road. The Indians of the region were inferior in physique to those of the Mexican plateau, ragged beyond words, and far from handsome in appearance. Their little thatched huts swarmed, however, and almost all displayed something to sell, chiefly strong native liquor in bottles that had seen long and varied service. There was nothing to eat but oranges green in color. The way was often strewn with hundreds of huge orange-colored ones, but they were more sour than lemons and often bitter. A tropical downpour drove me once into the not too effective shelter of the jungle, and with sunset a drizzle set in with a promise of increase. A woodchopper had told me I could not reach my proposed destination that night, but I pressed forward at my best pace up hill and down through an all but continuous vegetation and surprised myself by stumbling soon after dark upon electric-lighted Coatepeque, the first real town of Guatemala, and not a very real one at that.
However, a burly American ran a hotel where the bill for supper and lodging was only $15, and if the partitions of my room were bare they were of mahogany, as were also the springs of the bed. The pilfering of an extra mattress softened this misfortune somewhat, and toward morning it grew cool enough to stop sweating. When I descended in the morning, Ems and Dakin were sitting over their coffee and eggs. They had paid $5 each to ride in a covered bullock cart from Vado Ancho—and be churned to a pulp.
Reunited, we pushed on in the morning shadows. Ems and Dakin divided the weight of the former’s suitcase; but even after the “Texican” had thrown away two heavy books on locomotive driving, both groaned under their loads. The sun of Guatemala does not lighten the burdens of the trail. Ems had boarded the bullock cart the proud possessor of a bar of soap, but this morning he found it a powder and sprinkled it along the way. Soap is out of keeping with Guatemalan local color anyway. Dense forests continued, but here almost all had an undergrowth of coffee bushes. Some of the largest coffee fincas of Guatemala lie along this road, producing annually to hundreds of thousands in gold. Such prosperity was not reflected in the population and toilers. The natives were ragged, but friendly, every man carrying a machete, generally in a leather scabbard, and the women almost without exception enormous loads of fruit. They were weak, unintelligent, pimple-faced mortals, speaking an Indian dialect and using Spanish only with difficulty. Ragged Indian girls were picking coffee here and there, even more tattered carriers lugged it in sacks and baskets to large, cement-floored spaces near the estate houses, where men shoveled the red berries over and over in the sun and old women hulled them in the shade of their huts.
Jungle trees, often immense and polished smooth as if they had been flayed of their bark, gave us dense cool shade, scented by countless wild flowers. But en cambio the soft dirt road climbed and wound and descended all but incessantly, gradually working its way higher, until we could look out now and then over hundreds of square miles of hot country with barely a break in all its expanse of dense, steaming vegetation. Coffee continued, but alternated now with the slender trees of rubber plantations, with their long smooth leaves, and already scarred like young warriors long inured to battle. The road was really only an enlarged trail, not laid out, but following the route of the first Indian who picked his way over these jungled hills. Huts were seldom lacking; poor, ragged, cheerful Indians never. In the afternoon the trail pitched headlong down and around through a rock-spilled barranco with two sheer walls of the densest jungle and forest shutting it in. Where it crossed a stream, Dakin and I found a shaded, sandy hollow scooped out behind a broad flat rock in the form of a huge bathtub of water, clearer than any adjective will describe. Ems, whose swarthy tint and strong features suggested the opposite, was the least able to endure the hardships of the road, and lay lifeless in the shade at every opportunity.
The road panted by a rocky zigzag up out of the ravine again and on over rough and hilly going. Here I fell into conversation with an Indian finca laborer, a slow, patient, ox-like fellow, to whom it had plainly never occurred to ask himself why he should live in misery and his employers in luxury. He spoke a slow and labored, yet considerable, Spanish, of which he was unable to pronounce the f or v; saying “pinca” for finca and “pale” for vale. Those of his class worked from five to five shoveling coffee or carrying it, with two hours off for breakfast and almuerzo, were paid one Guatemalan dollar a day, that is, a fraction over five cents in our money, and furnished two arrobas (fifty pounds) of corn and frijoles and a half-pound of salt a month. Yet there are no more trustworthy employees than these underpaid fellows. As pay-day approaches, one of these same ragged Indians is given a grain sack and a check for several thousand dollars gold and sent to the town where the finca owner does his banking, often several days’ distant. The sack half filled with the ragged bills of the Republic and their customary microbes, the Indian shoulders it and tramps back across the country to the estate, stopping at night in some wayside hut and tossing the sack into a corner, perhaps to leave it for hours while he visits his friends in the vicinity. Yet though both the messenger and his hosts know the contents of his bundle, it is very rare that a single illegible billete disappears en route.
We plodded on into the night, but Ems could only drag at a turtle-pace, and it became evident we could not make Retalhuleu without giving him time to recuperate. The first large hut in the scattered village of Acintral gave us hospitality. It was earth-floored, with a few homemade chairs, and a bed with board floor. Though barely four feet wide, this was suggested as the resting-place of all three of us after a supper of jet-black coffee, native bread, and cheese. Dakin and I found it more than crowded, even after Ems had spread a petate, or grass-mat, on the ground. The room had no door, and women and girls wandered indifferently in and out of it as we undressed, one mite of barely six smoking a huge black cigar in the most business-like manner. The place was a species of saloon, like almost every hut along the road, and the shouting of the family and their thirsty townsmen seldom ceased even momentarily until after midnight.
Having occasion to be in Guatemala City that day, I rose at two and, swallowing a cup of black coffee and two raw eggs and paying a bill of $12, struck out to cover the two long leagues left to Retalhuleu in time to catch the six-o’clock train. The moon on its waning quarter had just risen, but gave little assistance during an extremely difficult tramp. All was blackest darkness except where it cast a few silvery streaks through the trees, the road a mere wild trail left by the rainy season far rougher than any plowed field, where it would have been only too easy to break a leg or sprain an ankle. Bands of dogs, barking savagely, dashed out upon me from almost every hut. Besides four small rivers with little roofed bridges, there were many narrower streams or mud-holes to wade, and between them the way twisted and stumbled up and down over innumerable hills that seemed mountains in the unfathomable darkness. When I had slipped and sprawled some two hours, a pair of Indians, the first to be found abroad, gave the distance as “dos leguas,” in other words, the same as when I had started. I redoubled my speed, pausing only once to call for water where a light flickered in a hut, and seemed to have won the race when at the edge of the town I came to a river that required me to strip to the waist. As I sprinted up the hill beyond, the sound of a departing train drifted out of the darkness ahead and an Indian informed me that it had been scheduled to leave at five. Fortunately I continued, for it turned out to be a freight, and the daily passenger left at six, so that just as the east began to turn gray I was off on the long ride to the capital.
The train takes twelve hours to make this run of 129 miles by a three-foot-gage railroad, stopping at every cluster of huts along the way. The third-class coach was little more than a box-car with two rough benches along its sides. The passengers were unprepossessing; most of them ragged, all of them unclean, generally with extremely bad teeth, much-pimpled faces, emaciated, and of undeveloped physique, their eyes still possessing some of the brightness but lacking the snap and glisten of those of Tehuantepec and the plateau. Many were chrome-yellow with fever. Ragged officers of law and disorder were numerous, often in bare feet, the same listless inefficiency showing in their weak, unproductive, unshaven features. The car grew so crowded I went to sit on the platform rail, as had a half-dozen already, though large signs on the door forbade it.
It was after noon when we reached the first important town, Esquintla. Here the tropics ended and the train began to climb, so slowly we could have stepped off anywhere, the vegetation visibly changing in character with every mile. On the now crowded platform two natives alternately ordered American beer of the train-boy, at $5 a bottle! At Palin we were assailed by tattered vendors of all manner of fruit, enormous pineapples selling for sixty guatemalteco cents. Amatitlan also swarmed with hawkers, but this time of candy in the form of animals of every known and imaginable species. Thereafter we wound round beautiful Lake Amatitlan, a dark, smooth stretch of water, swarming with fish and bottomless, according to my fellow platformers, flanked by sloping, green, shrub-clad banks that reflected themselves in it. The train crossed the middle of the lake by a stone dyke and climbed higher and ever higher, with splendid views of the perfect cone-shaped volcanoes Agua and Panteleón that have gradually thrown themselves up to be the highest in Guatemala and visible from almost every part of the republic. It was growing dark when the first houses of Guatemala City appeared among the trees, and gradually and slowly we dragged into the station. A bare-footed policeman on the train took the names and biographies of all on board, as another had already done at Esquintla, and we were free to crowd out into the ragged, one-story city with its languid mule-cars.
In the “Hotel Colon” opposite Guatemala’s chief theater and shouldering the president’s house, which is tailor-shop and saloon below, the daily rate was $12. The food was more than plentiful, but would have been an insult to the stomach of a harvest-hand, the windowless room was musty and dirty, the walls splashed, spotted, and torn, and the bed was by far the worst I had occupied south of the Rio Grande, having not only a board floor but a mattress that seemed to be stuffed with broken and jagged rocks. Notwithstanding all which I slept the clock round.
If there is any “sight” in Guatemala City besides its slashing sunlight and its surrounding volcanoes, and perhaps its swarms of Indians trotting to and from the market on Sundays, it is the relief map of the entire Republic inside the race-course. This is of cement, with real water to represent the lakes and oceans and (when it is turned on) the rivers. Every town, railway, and trail of any importance is marked, an aid to the vagabond that should be required by law of every country. On it I picked out easily the route of my further travels. The map covers a space as large as a moderate-sized house and is seen in all its details from the two platforms above it. Its only apparent fault is that the mountains and volcanoes are out of all proportion in height. But exaggeration is a common Central-American failing.
The city is populous, chiefly with shoeless inhabitants, monotonously flat, few buildings for dread of earthquake being over one story, even the national palace and cathedral sitting low and squat. An elevation of five thousand feet gives it a pleasant June weather, but life moves with a drowsy, self-contented air. Its people are far more obliging than the average of Mexico and have little or none of the latter’s sulkiness or half-insolence. Here reigns supreme Estrada Cabrera; exactly where very few know, for so great is his dislike to assassination that he jumps about incessantly from one of his one-story residences to another, perhaps, as his people assert, by underground passages, for he is seldom indeed seen in the flesh by his fond subjects. In less material manifestations he is omnipresent and few are the men who have long outlived his serious displeasure. A man of modest ability but of extremely suspicious temperament, he keeps the reins of government almost entirely in his own hands, running the country as if it were his private estate, which for some years past it virtually has been. It is a form of government not entirely unfitted to a people in the bulk utterly indifferent as to who or what rules them so they are left to loaf in their hammocks in peace, and no more capable of ruling themselves than of lifting themselves by their non-existent boot-straps. Outwardly life seems to run as smoothly as elsewhere, and the casual passer-by does not to his knowledge make the acquaintance of those reputed bands of adventurers from many climes said to carry out swiftly and efficiently every whispered command of Guatemala’s invisible ruler.
On Sunday a bull-fight was perpetrated in the plaza de toros facing the station. It was a dreary caricature of the royal sport of Spain. The plaza was little more than a rounded barnyard, the four gaunt and cowardly animals with blunted horns virtually lifeless, picadors and horses were conspicuous by their absence, and the two matadors were not even skilful butchers. A cuadrilla of women did the “Suerte de Tancredo” on one another’s backs—as any one else could have on his head or in a rocking-chair—and the only breath of excitement was when one of the feminine toreras got walked on by a fear-quaking animal vainly seeking an exit. All in all it was an extremely poor newsboys’ entertainment, a means of collecting admissions for the privilege of seeing to-morrow’s meat prepared, the butchers skinning and quartering the animals within the enclosure in full sight of the disheveled audience.
The train mounted out of the capital with much winding, as many as three sections of track one above another at times, and, once over the range, fell in with a river on its way to the Atlantic. The country grew dry and Mexican, covered with fine white dust and grown with cactus. At Zacapa, largest town of the line, Dakin was already at work in a machine-shop on wheels in the railroad yards, and Ems was preparing to take charge of one of the locomotives. Descending with the swift stream, we soon plunged into thickening jungle, growing even more dense than that of Tehuantepec, with trees, plants, and all the stationary forms of nature struggling like an immense multitude fighting for life, the smaller and more agile climbing the sturdier, the weak and unassertive trampled to death underfoot on the dank, sunless ground. We crossed the now considerable river by a three-span bridge, and entered the banana country. English-speaking Negroes became numerous, and when we pulled in at the station of Quiraguá, the collection of bamboo shanties I had expected was displaced by several new and modern bungalows on the brow of a knoll overlooking the railroad. Here was one of the great plantations of the United Fruit Company. From the veranda of the office building broad miles of banana plants stretched away to the southern mountains. Jamaican Negroes were chiefly engaged in the banana culture, and those from our Southern States did the heavier and rougher work. Their wages ran as high as a dollar gold a day, as against a Guatemalan peso for the native peons of the coffee estates in other sections. Much of the work was let out on contract. There were a number of white American employees, college-trained in some cases, and almost all extremely youthful. The heat here was tropical and heavy, the place being a bare three hundred feet above sea-level where even clothing quickly molds and rots. My fellow countrymen had found the most dangerous pastimes in this climate to be drinking liquor and eating bananas, while the mass of employees more often came to grief in the feuds between the various breeds of Negroes and with the natives.
In the morning a handcar provided with a seat and manned by two muscular Carib Negroes carried me away through the banana jungle by a private railroad. The atmosphere was thick and heavy as soured milk. A half-hour between endless walls of banana plants brought me to a palm-leaf hut, from which I splashed away on foot through a riot of wet jungle to the famous ruins of Quiraguá. Archeologists had cleared a considerable square in the wilderness, still within the holdings of the fruit company, felling many enormous trees; but the place was already half choked again with compact undergrowth. There were three immense stone pillars in a row, then two others leaning at precarious angles, while in and out through the adjacent jungle were scattered carved stones in the forms of frogs and other animals, clumsily depicted, a small calendar stone, and an immense carved rock reputed to have been a place of sacrifice. Several artificial mounds were now mere stone hills overgrown with militant vegetation, as were remnants of old stone roadways. Every stone was covered with distinct but crudely carved figures, the most prominent being that of a king with a large Roman nose but very little chin, wearing an intricate crown surmounted by a death’s-head, holding a scepter in one hand and in the other what appeared to be a child spitted on a toasting fork. All was of a species of sandstone that has withstood the elements moderately well, especially if, as archeologists assert, the ruins represent a city founded some three thousand years ago. Some of the faces, however, particularly those toward the east and south from which come most of the storms, were worn almost smooth and were covered with moss and throttling vegetation. Through it all a mist that was virtually a rain fell incessantly, and ground and jungle reeked with a clinging mud and dripping water that soaked through shoes and garments.