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Into the Cooler South | Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras

Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras
By Harry A. Franck
Published 1916
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10



You are really in Mexico before you get there. Laredo is a purely—though not pure—Mexican town with a slight American tinge. Scores of dull-skinned men wander listlessly about trying to sell sticks of candy and the like from boards carried on their heads. There are not a dozen shops where the clerks speak even good pidgin English, most signs are in Spanish, the lists of voters on the walls are chiefly of Iberian origin, the very county officers from sheriff down—or up—are names the average American could not pronounce, and the saunterer in the streets may pass hours without hearing a word of English. Even the post-office employees speak Spanish by preference and I could not do the simplest business without resorting to that tongue. I am fond of Spanish, but I do not relish being forced to use it in my own country.

On Laredo’s rare breeze rides enough dust to build a new world. Every street is inches deep in it, everything in town, including the minds of the inhabitants, is covered with it. As to heat—”Cincinnati Slim” put it in a nutshell even as we wandered in from the cattleyards where the freight train had dropped us in the small hours: “If ever hell gets full this’ll do fine for an annex.”

Luckily my window in the ruin that masqueraded as a hotel faced such wind as existed. The only person I saw in that institution during twenty-four hours there was a little Mexican boy with a hand-broom, which he evidently carried as an ornament or a sign of office. It seemed a pity not to let Mexico have the dust-laden, sweltering place if they want it so badly.

I had not intended to lug into Mexico such a load as I did. But it was a Jewish holiday, and the pawnshops were closed. As I passed the lodge on the north end of the bridge over the languid, brown Rio Grande it was a genuine American voice that snapped: “Heh! A nickel!”

Just beyond, but thirty-six minutes earlier, the Mexican official stopped me with far more courtesy, and peered down into the corners of my battered “telescope” without disturbing the contents.

“Monterey?” he asked.

“Sí, señor.”

“No revólver?” he queried suspiciously.

“No, señor,” I answered, keeping the coat on my arm unostentatiously over my hip pocket. It wasn’t a revolver; it was an automatic.

The man who baedekerized Mexico says Nuevo Laredo is not the place to judge that country. I was glad to hear it. Its imitation of a street-car, eight feet long, was manned by two tawny children without uniforms, nor any great amount of substitute for them, who smoked cigarettes incessantly as we crawled dustily through the baked-mud hamlet to the decrepit shed that announced itself the station of the National Railways of Mexico. It was closed, of course. I waited an hour or more before two officials resplendent in uniforms drifted in to take up the waiting where I had left off. But it was a real train that pulled in toward three, from far-off St. Louis, even if it had hooked on behind a second-class car with long wooden benches.

For an hour we rambled across just such land as southern Texas, endless flat sand scattered with chaparral, mesquite, and cactus; nowhere a sign of life, but for fences of one or two barb-wires on crooked sticks—not even bird life. The wind, strong and incessant as at sea, sounded as mournful through the thorny mesquite bushes as in our Northern winters, even though here it brought relief rather than suffering. The sunshine was unbrokenly glorious.

Benches of stained wood in two-inch strips ran the entire length of our car, made in Indiana. In the center were ten double back-to-back seats of the same material. The conductor was American, but as in Texas he seemed to have little to do except to keep the train moving. The auditor, brakeman, and train-boy were Mexicans, in similar uniforms, but of thinner physique and more brown of color. The former spoke fluent English. The engineer was American and the fireman a Negro.

Far ahead, on either side, hazy high mountains appeared, as at sea. By the time we halted at Lampazos, fine serrated ranges stood not far distant on either hand. From the east came a never-ceasing wind, stronger than that of the train, laden with a fine sand that crept in everywhere. Mexican costumes had appeared at the very edge of the border; now there were even a few police under enormous hats, with tight trousers and short jackets showing a huge revolver at the hip. Toward evening things grew somewhat greener. A tree six to twelve feet high, without branches, or sometimes with several trunk-like ones, growing larger from bottom to top and ending in a bristling bunch of leaves, became common. The mountains on both sides showed fantastic peaks and ridges, changing often in aspect; some, thousands of feet high with flat tableland tops, others in strange forms the imagination could animate into all manner of creatures.

A goatherd, wild, tawny, bearded, dressed in sun-faded sheepskin, was seen now and then tending his flock of little white goats in the sand and cactus. This was said to be the rainy season in northern Mexico. What must it be in the dry?

Toward five the sun set long before sunset, so high was the mountain wall on our right. The sand-storm had died down, and the sand gave way to rocks. The moon, almost full, already smiled down upon us over the wall on the left. We continued along the plain between the ranges, which later receded into the distance, as if retiring for the night. Flat, mud-colored, Palestinian adobe huts stood here and there in the moonlight among patches of a sort of palm bush.

Monterey proved quite a city. Yet how the ways of the Spaniard appeared even here! Close as it is to the United States, with many American residents and much “americanizado,” according to the Mexican, the city is in architecture, arrangement, customs, just what it would be a hundred miles from Madrid; almost every little detail of life is that of Spain, with scarcely enough difference to suggest another country, to say nothing of another hemisphere. England brings to her colonies some of her home customs, but not an iota of what Spain does to the lands she has conquered. The hiding of wealth behind a miserable facade is almost as universal in Mexico of the twentieth century as in Morocco of the fourth. The narrow streets of Monterey have totally inadequate sidewalks on which two pedestrians pass, if at all, with the rubbing of shoulders. Outwardly the long vista of bare house fronts that toe them on either side are dreary and poor, every window barred as those of a prison. Yet in them sat well-dressed señoritas waiting for the lovers who “play the bear” to late hours of the night, and over their shoulders the passerby caught many a glimpse of richly furnished rooms and flowery patios beyond.

The river Catalina was drier than even the Manzanares, its rocky bed, wide enough to hold the upper Connecticut, entirely taken up by mule and donkey paths and set with the cloth booths of fruit sellers. As one moves south it grows cooler, and Monterey, fifteen hundred feet above sea-level, was not so weighty in its heat as Laredo and southern Texas. But, on the other hand, being surrounded on most sides by mountains, it had less breeze, and the coatless freedom of Texas was here looked down upon. During the hours about noonday the sun seemed to strike physically on the head and back whoever stepped out into it, and the smallest fleck of white cloud gave great and instant relief. From ten to four, more or less, the city was strangely quiet, as if more than half asleep, or away on a vacation, and over it hung that indefinable scent peculiar to Arab and Spanish countries. Compared with Spain, however, its night life and movement was slight.

Convicts in perpendicularly striped blue and white pajamas worked in the streets. That is, they moved once every twenty minutes or so, usually to roll a cigarette. They were without shackles, but several guards in brown uniforms and broad felt hats, armed with thick-set muskets, their chests criss-crossed with belts of long rifle cartridges, lolled in the shade of every near-by street corner. The prisoners laughed and chatted like men perfectly contented with their lot, and moved about with great freedom. One came a block to ask me the time, and loafed there some fifteen minutes before returning to his “labor.”

Mexico is strikingly faithful to its native dress. Barely across the Rio Grande the traveler sees at once hundreds of costumes which in any American city would draw on all the boy population as surely as the Piper of Hamelin. First and foremost comes always the enormous hat, commonly of thick felt with decorative tape, the crown at least a foot high, the brim surely three feet in diameter even when turned up sufficient to hold a half gallon of water. That of the peon is of straw; he too wears the skintight trousers, and goes barefoot but for a flat leather sandal held by a thong between the big toe and the rest. In details and color every dress was as varied and individual as the shades of complexion.

My hotel room had a fine outlook to summer-blue mountains, but was blessed with neither mirror, towel, nor water. I descended to the alleyway between “dining-room” and barnyard, where I had seen the general washbasin, but found the landlady seated on the kitchen floor shelling into it peas for our almuerzo. This and the evening comida were always identically the same. A cheerful but slatternly Indian woman set before me a thin soup containing a piece of squash and a square of boiled beef, and eight hot corn tortillas of the size and shape of our pancakes, or gkebis, the Arab bread, which it outdid in toughness and total absence of taste. Next followed a plate of rice with peppers, a plate of tripe less tough than it should have been, and a plate of brown beans which was known by the name of chile con carne, but in which I never succeeded in finding anything carnal. Every meal ended with a cup of the blackest coffee.

Out at the end of calle B a well-worn rocky path leads up to a ruined chapel on the summit of a hill, the famous Obispado from which the city was shelled and taken by the Americans in 1847. Below, Monterey lies flat, with many low trees peering above the whitish houses, all set in a perfectly level plain giving a great sense of roominess, as if it could easily hold ten such cities. At the foot of the hill, some three hundred feet high, is an unoccupied space. Then the city begins, leisurely at first, with few houses and many gardens and trees, thickening farther on. All about are mountains. The Silla (Saddle), a sharp rugged height backing the city on the right, has a notch in it much like the seat of a Texas saddle; to the far left are fantastic sharp peaks, and across the plain a ragged range perhaps fifteen miles distant shuts off the view. Behind the chapel stand Los Dientes, a teeth or saw-like range resembling that behind Leceo in Italy. Only a young beggar and his female mate occupied the ruined chapel, built, like the town, of whitish stone that is soft when dug but hardens upon exposure to the air. They cooked on the littered floor of one of the dozen rooms, and all the walls of the chamber under the great dome were set with pegs for birds, absent now, but which had carpeted the floor with proof of their frequent presence.

At five the sun set over the city, so high is the Dientes range, but for some time still threw a soft light on the farther plain and hills. Compared with our own land there is something profoundly peaceful in this climate and surroundings. Now the sunshine slipped up off the farther ranges, showing only on the light band of clouds high above the farther horizon, and a pale-faced moon began to brighten, heralding a brilliant evening.

Fertile plains of corn stretched south of the city, but already dry, and soon giving way to mesquite and dust again. Mountains never ceased, and lay fantastically heaped up on every side. We rose ever higher, though the train kept a moderate speed. At one station the bleating of a great truckload of kids, their legs tied, heaped one above the other, was startlingly like the crying of babies. We steamed upward through a narrow pass, the mountains crowding closer on either hand and seeming to grow lower as we rose higher among them. The landscape became less arid, half green, with little or no cactus, and the breeze cooled steadily. Saltillo at last, five thousand feet up, was above the reach of oppressive summer and for perhaps the first time since leaving Chicago I did not suffer from the heat. It was almost a pleasure to splash through the little puddles in its poorly paved streets. Its plazas were completely roofed with trees, the view down any of its streets was enticing, and the little cubes of houses were painted all possible colors without any color scheme whatever. Here I saw the first pulquerías, much like cheap saloons in appearance, with swinging doors, sometimes a pool table, and a bartender of the customary I-tell-yer-I’m-tough physiognomy. Huge earthen jars of the fermented cactus juice stood behind the bar, much like milk in appearance, and was served in glazed pots, size to order. In Mexico pulquería stands for saloon and peluquería for barber-shop, resulting now and then in sad mistakes by wandering Yankees innocent of Spanish.

There were a hundred adult passengers by actual count, to say nothing of babies and unassorted bundles, in the second-class car that carried me on south into the night. Every type of Mexican was represented, from white, soft, city-bred specimens to sturdy countrymen so brown as to be almost black. A few men were in “European” garb. Most of them were dressed á la peón, very tight trousers fitting like long leggings, collarless shirts of all known colors, a gay faja or cloth belt, sometimes a coat—always stopping at the waist. Then last, but never least, the marvelous hat. Two peons trying to get through the same door at once was a sight not soon to be forgotten. There were felt and straw hats of every possible grade and every shade and color except red, wound with a rich band about the crown and another around the brim. Those of straw were of every imaginable weave, some of rattan, like baskets or veranda furniture. The Mexican male seems to be able to endure sameness of costume below it, but unless his hat is individual, life is a drab blank to him. With his hat off the peon loses seven eights of his impressiveness. The women, with only a black sort of thin shawl over their heads, were eminently inconspicuous in the forest of hatted men.

Mournfully out of the black drizzling night about the station came the dismal wails of hawkers at their little stands dim-lighted by pale lanterns; “Anda pulque!” Within the car was more politeness—or perhaps, more exactly, more unconscious consideration for others—than north of the Rio Grande. There were many women among us, yet all the night through there was not a suggestion of indecency or annoyance. Indian blood largely predominated, hardy, muscular, bright-eyed fellows, yet in conduct all were caballeros. Near me sat a family of three. The father, perhaps twenty, was strikingly handsome in his burnished copper skin, his heavy black hair, four or five inches long, hanging down in “bangs” below his hat. The mother was even younger, yet the child was already some two years old, the chubbiest, brightest-eyed bundle of humanity imaginable. In their fight for a seat the man shouted to the wife to hand him the child. He caught it by one hand and swung it high over two seats and across the car, yet it never ceased smiling. The care this untutored fellow took to give wife and child as much comfort as possible was superior to that many a “civilized” man would have shown all night under the same circumstances. Splendid teeth were universal among the peons. There was no chewing of tobacco, but much spitting by both sexes. A delicate, child-like young woman drew out a bottle and swallowed whole glassfuls of what I took to be milk, until the scent of pulque, the native beverage, suddenly reached my nostrils.

The fat brown auditor addressed señora, the peon’s wife, with the highest respect, even if he insisted on doing his duty to the extent of pushing aside the skirts of the women to peer under the long wooden bench for passengers. A dispute soon arose. Fare was demanded of a ragged peon for the child of three under his arm. The peon shook his head, smiling. The auditor’s voice grew louder. Still the father smiled silently. The ticket collector stepped back into the first-class car and returned with the train guard, a boyish-looking fellow in peon garb from hat to legging trousers, with a brilliant red tie, two belts of enormous cartridges about his waist, in his hand a short ugly rifle, and a harmless smile on his face. There was something fascinating about the stocky little fellow with his half-embarrassed grin. One felt that of himself he would do no man hurt, yet that a curt order would cause him to send one of those long steel-jacketed bullets through a man and into the mountain side beyond. Luckily he got no such orders. The auditor pointed out the malefactor, who lost no time in paying the child’s half-fare.

This all-night trip must be done sooner or later by all who enter Mexico by way of Laredo, for the St. Louis-Mexico City Limited with its sleeping-car behind and a few scattered Americans in first-class is the only one that covers this section. Residents of Vanegas, for example, who wish to travel south must be at the station at three in the morning.

Most of the night the train toiled painfully upward. As a man scorns to set out after a hearty meal with a lunch under his arm, so in the swelter of Texas I had felt it foolish to be lugging a bundle of heavy clothing. By midnight I began to credit myself with foresight. The windows were closed, yet the land of yesterday seemed far behind indeed. I wrapped my heavy coat about me. Toward four we crossed the Tropic of Cancer into the Torrid Zone, without a jolt, and I dug out my gray sweater and regretted I had abandoned the old blue one in an empty box-car. Twice I think I drowsed four minutes with head and elbow on my bundle, but except for two or three women who jack-knifed on the long bench no one found room to lie down during the long night.

From daylight on I stood in the vestibule and watched the drab landscape hurry steadily past. No mountains were in sight now because we were on top of them. Yet no one would have suspected from the appearance of the country that we were considerably more than a mile above sea-level. The flat land looked not greatly different from that of the day before. The cactus was higher; some of the “organ” variety, many of the “Spanish bayonet” species, lance-like stalks eight to ten feet high. The rest was bare ground with scattered mesquite bushes. Had I not known the altitude I might have attributed the slight light-headedness to a sleepless night.

Certainly a hundred ragged cargadores, hotel runners, and boys eager to carry my bundle attacked me during my escape from the station of San Luis Potosi at seven, and there were easily that many carriages waiting, without a dozen to take them. The writer of Mexico’s Baedeker speaks of the city as well-to-do. Either it has vastly changed in a few years or he wrote it up by absent treatment. Hardly a town of India exceeds it in picturesque poverty. Such a surging of pauperous humanity, dirt, and uncomplaining misery I had never before seen in the Western Hemisphere. Plainly the name “republic” is no cure for man’s ills. The chief center was the swarming market. Picture a dense mob of several thousand men and boys, gaunt, weather-beaten, their tight trousers collections of rents and patchwork in many colors, sandals of a soft piece of leather showing a foot cracked, blackened, tough as a hoof, as incrusted with filth as a dead foot picked up on a garbage heap, the toes always squirting with mud, the feet not merely never washed but the sandal never removed until it wears off and drops of its self. Above this a collarless shirt, blouse or short jacket, ragged, patched, of many faded colors, yet still showing half the body. Then a dull, uncomplaining, take-things-as-they-come face, unwashed, never shaved—the pure Indian grows a sort of dark down on his cheeks and the point of the chin, the half-breeds a slight beard—all topped by the enormous hat, never missing, though often full of holes, black with dirt, weather-beaten beyond expression.

Then there were fully as many women and girls, even less fortunate, for they had not even sandals, but splashed along barefoot among the small cold cobblestones. Their dress seemed gleaned from a rag-heap and their heads were bare, their black hair combed or plastered flat. Children of both sexes were exact miniatures of their elders. All these wretches were here to sell. Yet what was for sale could easily have been tended by twenty persons. Instead, every man, woman, and child had his own stand, or bit of cloth or cobblestone on which to spread a few scanty, bedraggled wares. Such a mass of silly, useless, pathetic articles, toy jars, old bottles, anything that could be found in all the dump-heaps of Christendom. The covered market housed only a very small percentage of the whole. There was a constant, multicolored going and coming, with many laden asses and miserable, gaunt creatures bent nearly double under enormous loads on head or shoulders. Every radiating narrow mud-dripping street for a quarter-mile was covered in all but the slight passageway in the center with these displays. Bedraggled women sat on the cobbles with aprons spread out and on them little piles of six nuts each, sold at a centavo. There were peanuts, narrow strips of cocoanut, plantains, bananas short and fat, sickly little apples, dwarf peaches, small wild grapes, oranges green in color, potatoes often no larger than marbles, as if the possessor could not wait until they grew up before digging them; cactus leaves, the spines shaved off, cut up into tiny squares to serve as food; bundles of larger cactus spines brought in by hobbling old women or on dismal asses and sold as fuel, aguacates, known to us as “alligator pears” and tasting to the uninitiated like axle-grease; pomegranates, pecans, cheeses flat and white, every species of basket and earthen jar from two-inch size up, turnips, some cut in two for those who could not afford a whole one; onions, flat slabs of brown, muddy-looking soap, rice, every species of frijole, or bean, shelled corn for tortillas, tomatoes—tomate coloradito, though many were tiny and green as if also prematurely gathered—peppers red and green, green-corn with most of the kernels blue, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, carrots, cabbages, melons of every size except large, string-beans, six-inch cones of the muddiest of sugar, the first rough product of the crushers wound in swamp grass and which prospective purchasers handled over and over, testing them now and then by biting off a small corner, though there was no apparent difference; sausages with links of marble size, everything in the way of meat, tossed about in the dirt, swarming with flies, handled, smelled, cut into tiny bits for purchasers; even strips of intestines, the jaw-bone of a sheep with barely the smell of meat on it; all had value to this gaunt community, nothing was too green, or old, or rotten to be offered for sale. Chickens with legs tied lay on the ground or were carried about from day to day until purchasers of such expensive luxuries appeared. There were many men with a little glass box full of squares of sweets like “fudge,” selling at a half-cent each; every possible odd and end of the shops was there; old women humped over their meager wares, smoking cigarettes, offered for sale the scraps of calico left over from the cutting of a gown, six-inch triangles of no fathomable use to purchasers. There were entire blocks selling only long strips of leather for the making of sandals. Many a vendor had all the earmarks of leprosy. There were easily five thousand of them, besides another market on the other side of the town, for this poverty-stricken city of some fifty thousand inhabitants. The swarming stretched a half mile away in many a radiating street, and scores whose entire stock could not be worth fifteen cents sat all day without selling more than half of it. An old woman stopped to pick up four grains of corn and greedily tucked them away in the rags that covered her emaciated frame. Now and then a better-dressed potosino passed, making purchases, a peon, male or female, slinking along behind with a basket; for it is a horrible breach of etiquette for a ten-dollar-a-month Mexican to be publicly seen carrying anything.

One wondered why there was not general suicide in such a community of unmitigated misery. Why did they not spring upon me and snatch the purse I displayed or die in the attempt? How did they resist eating up their own wares? It seemed strange that these sunken-chested, hobbling, halt, shuffling, shivering, starved creatures should still fight on for life. Why did they not suddenly rise and sack the city? No wonder those are ripe for revolution whose condition cannot be made worse.

Policemen in sandals and dark-blue shoddy cap and cloak looked little less miserable than the peons. All about the covered market were peon restaurants, a ragged strip of canvas as roof, under it an ancient wooden table and two benches. Unwashed Indian women cooked in several open earthen bowls the favorite Mexican dishes,—frijoles (a stew of brown beans), chile con carne, rice, stews of stray scraps of meat and the leavings of the butcher-shops. These were dished up in brown glazed jars and eaten with strips of tortilla folded between the fingers, as the Arab eats with gkebis. Indeed there were many things reminiscent of the markets and streets of Damascus, more customs similar to those of the Moor than the Spaniard could have brought over, and the brown, wrinkled old women much resembled those of Palestine, though their noses were flatter and their features heavier.

Yet it was a good-natured crowd. In all my wandering in it I heard not an unpleasant word, not a jest at my expense, almost no evidence of anti-foreign feeling, which seems not indigenous to the peon, but implanted in him by those of ulterior motives. Nor did they once ask alms or attempt to push misery forward. The least charitable would be strongly tempted to succor any one of the throng individually, but here a hundred dollars in American money divided into Mexican centavos would hardly go round. Here and there were pulquerías full of besotted, shouting men—and who would not drink to drown such misery?

There was not a male of any species but had his colored blanket, red, purple, Indian-yellow, generally with two black stripes, the poorer with a strip of old carpet. These they wound about their bodies, folding them across the chest, the arms hugged together inside in such a way as to bring a corner across the mouth and nose, leaving their pipe-stem legs below, and wandered thus dismally about in the frequent spurts of cold rain. Now and then a lowest of the low passed in the cast-off remnants of “European” clothes, which were evidently considered far inferior to peon garb, however bedraggled. Bare or sandaled feet seemed impervious to cold, again like the Arab, as was also this fear of the raw air and half covering of the face that gave a Mohammedan touch, especially to the women. To me the atmosphere was no different than late October in the States. The peons evidently never shaved, though there were many miserable little barber-shops. On the farther outskirts of the hawkers were long rows of shanties, shacks made of everything under the sun, flattened tin cans, scraps of rubbish, two sticks holding up a couple of ragged bags under which huddled old women with scraps of cactus and bundles of tiny fagots.

Scattered through the throng were several “readers.” One half-Indian woman I passed many times was reading incessantly, with the speed of a Frenchman, from printed strips of cheap colored paper which she offered for sale at a cent each. They were political in nature, often in verse, insulting in treatment, and mixed with a crass obscenity at which the dismal multitude laughed bestially. Three musicians, one with a rude harp, a boy striking a triangle steel, sang mournful dirges similar to those of Andalusia. The peons listened to both music and reading motionless, with expressionless faces, with never a “move on” from the policeman, who seemed the least obstrusive of mortals.

San Luís Potosí has many large rich churches, misery and pseudo-religion being common joint-legacies of Spanish rule. Small chance these creatures would have of feeling at home in a place so different from their earthly surroundings as the Christian heaven. The thump of church bells, some with the voice of battered old tin pans, broke out frequently. Now and then one of these dregs of humanity crept into church for a nap, but the huge edifices showed no other sign of usefulness. On the whole there was little appearance of “religion.” A few women were seen in the churches, a book-seller sold no novels and little literature but “mucho de religión,” but the great majority gave no outward sign of belonging to any faith. Priests were not often seen in the streets. Mexican law forbids them to wear a distinctive costume, hence they dressed in black derbies, Episcopal neckbands, and black capes to the ankles. Not distinctive indeed! No one could have guessed what they were! One might have fancied them prize-fighters on the way from training quarters to bathroom.

There is comparative splendor also in San Luís, as one may see by peeps into the lighted houses at night, but it is shut in tight as if fearful of the poor breaking in. As in so many Spanish countries, wealth shrinks out of sight and misery openly parades itself.

Out across the railroad, where hundreds of ragged boys were riding freight cars back and forth in front of the station, the land lay flat as a table, some cactus here and there, but apparently fertile, with neither sod to break nor clearing necessary. Yet nowhere, even on the edge of the starving city, was there a sign of cultivation. We of the North were perhaps more kind to the Indian in killing him off.