Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras
By Harry A. Franck
ON THE TRAIL IN MICHOACÁN
My compatriot strongly opposed my plan of walking to Uruapan—at least without an armed guard! The mountains were full of bandits, the Tarascan Indians, living much as they did at the time of the Conquest, did not even speak Spanish, they were unfriendly to whites, and above all dangerously superstitious on the subject of photography. There are persons who would consider it perilous to walk the length of Broadway, and lose sight even of the added attraction of that reputed drawback.
I was off at dawn. Hundreds of Indians from the interior had slept in scattered groups all along the road to town, beside the produce they had come to sell on market day. For it is against the law to be found out of doors in Zamora after ten! My compatriot had twice fallen foul of the vigilant police there and been roundly mulcted—once the bolt of the hired carriage in which he was riding broke, the conveyance turned turtle, mashed his foot, and covered his face with blood, and he was imprisoned and fined for “escándalo.” On another occasion he spent some time in jail because his mozo behind him accidentally knocked over the lantern of a policeman set in the middle of the street.
But let us leave so straight-laced a spot behind. The rocky “road” could not hold to the same opinion for a hundred consecutive yards, but kept changing its mind as often as it caught sight of some new corner of the landscape. The Indians, who crowded the way during the first hour, were not friendly, but neither did they show any dangerous propensities, and never failed in greeting if spoken to first. There were many of them of pure aboriginal blood. The stony road climbed somewhat to gain Tangantzicuaro, then stumbled across a flatter country growing more wooded to Chilota, a large town with a tiny plaza and curious, overhanging eaves, reminiscent of Japan, stretching down its checker-board streets in all directions.
The trail, which had gone a mile or more out of its way to visit the place, no sooner left it than it fell abruptly into the bed of what in other weather would have been a rocky mountain torrent, and set off with it in a totally new direction, as if, having fallen in with congenial company, it had entirely forgotten the errand on which it had first set forth. The land was fertile, with much corn. In time road and river bed parted company, though only after several attempts, like old gossips, and the former took to climbing upward through thin forests of pine in which the wind whispered an imitation of some distant, small waterfall. For some miles there were no houses. Up and down and in and out of valleys thin with pine we wandered, with now and then a rough shelter of rubbish and thatch, halting places of traveling Indians or the guard-houses of their fields, while the sky ahead was always filled half-way up by peaks of many shapes wooded in every inch with brightest evergreens. Michoacán is celebrated for its forests.
The population showed no great difference from the peasants elsewhere. I ran early into their superstitions against photography, however, their belief, common to many uncivilized races, being that once their image is reproduced any fate that befalls it must occur to them in person. When I stepped into a field toward a man behind his wooden plow, he said in a very decided tone of voice, “No, señor, no quiero!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Porque no quiero, señor,” and he swung the sort of small adze he carried to break up the clods of the field rather loosely and with a determined gleam in his eye. I did not want the picture so badly as all that.
There was no such objection in the straggling town made of thatch and rubbish I found along the way early in the afternoon. The hut I entered for food had an unleveled earth floor, many wide cracks in the roof, and every inch within was black with soot of the cooking-stove—three large stones with a steaming earthen pot on them. There was carne de carnero, tortillas and water, all for five cents. The weak-kneed table was spread with a white cloth, there were several awkward, shallow, home-made chairs, and against the wall a large primitive sideboard with glistening brown earthen pots and carefully polished plates and bowls. When I had photographed the interior, la senora asked if I would take a second picture, and raced away to another hut. She soon returned with a very small and poor amateur print of two peons in Sunday dress. One of them was her son, who had been killed by a falling pine, and the simple creature fancied the magic contrivance I carried could turn this tiny likeness into a life-size portrait.
Beyond, were more rocks and wooded mountains, with vast seas of Indian corn stretching to pine-clad cliffs, around the “shores” of which were dozens of make-shift shacks for the guardians against theft of the grain. Later I passed an enormous field of maize, which more than a hundred Indians of both sexes and every age that could stand on its own legs were harvesting. It was a communal corn-field, of which there are many in this region. They picked the ears from the dry stalks still standing and, tossing them into baskets, heaped them up in various parts of the field and at little temporary shanties a bit above the general level on the surrounding “coast.” As I passed, the gang broke up and peons in all colors, male, female, and in embryo, went away in all directions like a scattering flock of birds.
Thus far there had been no suggestion of the reputed dangers of the road. But trouble is never far off in Mexico, since the failure of its rapidly changing governments to put down bands of marauders has given every rascal in the country the notion of being his own master. The sun was just setting when, among several groups coming and going, I heard ahead five peons, maudlin with mescal, singing and howling at the top of their voices. As they drew near, one of them said something to his companions about “armas.” I fancied he was expressing some idle drunken wonder as to whether I was armed or not, and as he held a hand behind him as if it might grasp a rock, I kept a weather eye on him as we approached. Had the weapon I carried in sight been a huge six-shooter, even without cartridges, it would probably have been more effective than the toy automatic well loaded. As the group passed, howling drunkenly, a veritable giant of a fellow suddenly jumped toward me with an oath. I drew my putative weapon, and at the same moment the hand I had guessed to be full of rock appeared with an enormous revolver, shining new. With drunken flourishes the peon invited me to a duel. I kept him unostentatiously covered but continued serenely on my way. To have shown fear would have been as dangerous as for a lion-tamer in the cage with his pets. On the other hand, to have killed or seriously wounded one of the group would in all likelihood have meant at least a none-too-well-housed delay of several years in my journey, for the courts of Mexico seldom admit pleas of provocation from a “gringo.” The group bawled after me and finally, when I was nearly a hundred yards beyond, the fellow fired four shots in my general direction. But as his bright new weapon, like so many furnished his class by our enterprising arms factories, was made to sell rather than to shoot, and his marksmanship was distinctly tempered with mescal fumes, the four bullets harmlessly kicked up the dust at some distance on as many sides of me, with danger chiefly to the several groups of frightened peasants cowering behind all the rocks and rises of ground in the vicinity.
The dangers of the road in Mexico are chiefly from peons mixed with fire-water. When he is sober, the native’s attitude verges on the over-cautious. But it is a double danger to the wandering “gringo,” for the reason above mentioned, while the native who kills a foreigner not infrequently escapes with impunity, and “gun toting” is limited now among all classes of the men only by the disparity between their wealth and the price of a weapon.
As I passed on over the rise of ground ahead, huddled groups of men, women, and children fell in after me as if for protection from their own people. At dusk I entered Paracho with a good thirty miles behind me. It was a quaint little town in a lap of valley surrounded by pined hills and with the overhanging Japanese eaves peculiar to the region. The inhabitants were entirely peons and Indians, none in “European” dress. The vision of being carried into the place with a few stray bits of lead lodged in one’s anatomy was not alluring, and the dark dirty little cárcel on the plaza looked equally uninteresting.
I turned in at the “Mesón de la Providencia.” The keeper gave his attention chiefly to his little liquor and corn shop wide-opening on the street. There were several large rooms above, however, facing the great corral where mules and asses were munching and arrieros had spread their straw and blankets for the night, and in at least one of them was not merely a wooden-floored cot but two sheets to go with it. I bathed in the tin washbasin and turned out redressed for a turn through the town. It swarmed with liquor-shops. Apparently any one with nothing else to do could set up a little drunkery or street-stand without government interference. There was no pulque, the maguey being unknown to the region, but bottled mescal and aguardiente de caña amply made up for it. It seemed uncanny that one could talk with ease to these unlettered dwellers in the wilderness in the same tongue learned in a peaceful class-room of the far North. A towsled woman or child drifted now and then into the mesón shop to buy a Mexican cent’s worth of firewood. The woman who kept the shanty fonda down the street boasted of having lived nineteen months in California in her halcyon days, but was obliged to borrow enough of me in advance to buy the ingredients of the scanty supper she finally prepared. By eight the corral was snoring with arrieros and I ascended to my substantial couch.
A wintry cold of the highlands hung over Paracho when dawn crawled in to find me shivering under a light blanket. As I left the place behind, the sun began to peer through the crest pines of a curiously formed mountain to the east, and to rend and tear the heavy fog banks hanging over the town and valley. Peons tight-wrapped in their blankets from eyes to knees slipped noiselessly past. There was a penetrating chill in the air, the fields were covered white with what seemed to be hoar frost, and the grassy way was wet with dew as after a heavy shower.
Within half an hour the way began to rise and soon entered an immense pine forest without a sign of habitation. Tramping was delightful through what seemed a wild, untamed, and unteutonized Harz, with only the faint road and an occasional stump to show man had passed that way before. Huge birds circled majestically over the wooded hills and valleys of which the trail caught frequent brief but wide vistas. The road would have just suited Hazlitt, for it never left off winding, both in and out through the whispering forest and in and out of itself by numberless paths, often spreading over a hundred yards of width, and rolling and pitching like a ship at sea. As in most of Mexico, wheeled traffic would here have been impossible.
By eight I could stuff my coat into my knapsack. The day’s journey was short, and twice I lay an hour on a grassy knoll gazing at the birds and leisurely drifting clouds above and listening to the soft whispering of the pines. Then an unraveled trail led gradually downward, fell in with a broad sandy “road” that descended more sharply to a still swifter cobbled way, and about me grew up a land reminiscent of Ceylon, with many frail wooden houses on either side among banana groves, fruit for sale before them, and frequent streams of clear water babbling past. But it was only half-tropical, and further down the way was lined with huge trees resembling the elm.
Uruapan was just high enough above the real tropics to be delightful. The attitude of its people, too, was pleasing. If not exactly friendly, they lacked that sour incommunicativeness of the higher plateau. Very few were in modern costume and to judge from the crowd of boys that gathered round me as I wrote my notes in a plaza bench, the arrival of a white man in this largely Indian town was an event not to be slighted. There was a general air of more satisfaction with life in the languid country place where nature rewards all labor quickly and well, and where nearly all have gardens and orchards of their own to make them independent of working for others at a scanty wage.
Its plaza lies a bit higher than the rest of the town, and from it straight streets of one-story houses, all of different slope, flow gently down, to be lost a few blocks away in greenery. The roofs of tile or a long untapered shingle are not flat, as elsewhere, but with a slope for the tropical rains. Patio life is well developed. Within the blank walls of the central portion all the rooms open on sun-flooded, inner gardens and whole orchards within which pass almost all the family activities, even to veranda dining-rooms in the edge of the shade. Dense groves of banana and coffee trees surround most of the uncrowded, adobe dwellings. In the outskirts the houses are of wood, with sharp-peaked roofs, and little hovels of mud and rubbish loll in the dense-black cool shadows of the productive groves and of the immense trees that are a feature of the place. Flowers bloom everywhere, and all vegetation is of the deepest green. On every side the town dies away into domesticated jungle beyond which lie such pine forests, vast corn fields, and washed-out trails as on the way thither from Zamora.
There is not a “sight” of the slightest importance in Uruapan. But the place itself is a sight worth long travel, with its soft climate like the offspring of the wedded North and South, a balmy, gentle existence where is only occasionally felt the hard reality of life that runs beneath, when man shows himself less kindly than nature. A man offered to sell me for a song a tract bordering the river, with a “house” ready for occupancy, and had the place and all that goes with it been portable we should quickly have come to terms. For Uruapan is especially a beauty spot along the little Cupatitzio, where water clearer than that of Lake Geneva foams down through the dense vegetation and under little bridges quaint and graceful as those of Japan.
The sanitary arrangements, of course, are Mexican. Women in bands wash clothes along the shady banks, both sexes bathe their light-chocolate skins in sunny pools, there were even horses being scrubbed in the transparent stream, and below all this others dipped their drinking water. Here and there the water was led off by many little channels and overhead wooden troughs to irrigate the gardens and to run little mills and cigarette factories.
In the outskirts I passed the city slaughter-house. A low atone wall separated from the street a large corral; with a long roof on posts, a stone floor, and a rivulet of water down through it occupying the center of the compound. The cattle, healthy, medium-sized steers worth fifteen dollars a head in this section, were lassoed around the horns and dragged under the roof, where another dexterously thrown noose bound their feet together and threw them on the stone floor. They were neither struck nor stunned in any way. When they were so placed that their throats hung over the rivulet, a butcher made one single quick thrust with a long knife near the collarbone and into the heart. Boys caught the blood in earthen bowls as it gushed forth and handed it to various women hanging over the enclosing wall. The animal gave a few agonized bellows, a few kicks, and died. Each was quickly skinned and quartered, the more unsavory portions at once peddled along the wall, and bare-headed Indians carried a bleeding quarter on their black thick hair to the hooks on either side of pack horses which boys drove off to town as they were loaded. There the population bought strips and chunks of the still almost palpitating meat, ran a string through an end of each piece, and carried it home under the glaring sun.
All this is commonplace. But the point of the scene was the quite evident pleasure all concerned seemed to take in the unpleasant business. Most of us eat meat, but we do not commonly find our recreation in slaughter-houses. Here whole crowds of boys, dogs, and noisy youths ran about the stone floor, fingering the still pulsating animal, mimicking its dying groans amid peals of laughter, wallowing in its ebbing blood, while fully as large an assemblage of women, girls, and small children hung over the wall in a species of ecstatic glee at the oft-repeated drama. Death, especially a bloody one, appeared to awaken a keen enjoyment, to quicken the sluggard pulse of even this rather peaceful Tarascan tribe. One could easily fancy them watching with the same ebullient joy the dying struggles of helpless human beings butchered in the same way. The killing of the trussed and fallen animal over the rivulet recalled the cutting out of the heart of human victims on the sacrificial stones amid the plaudits of the Aztec multitude and the division of the still quivering flesh among them, and the vulgar young fellows running around, knife in hand, eager for an opportunity to use them, their once white smocks smeared and spattered with blood, brought back the picture of the savage old priests of the religion of Montezuma. The scene made more comprehensible the preconquest customs of the land, as the antithesis of the drunken and excited Indian to the almost effeminate fear of the same being sober makes more clear that inexplicable piece of romance, the Conquest of Mexico.
There is less evidence of “religion” in Uruapan than in Zamora. Priests were rarely seen on the streets and the church bells were scarcely troublesome. Peons and a few of even higher rank, however, never passed the door of a church even at a distance without raising their hats. Twice during the day I passed groups of women of the peon class carrying in procession several framed chromo representations of Saint Quién Sabe, bearing in his arms an imaginary Christ child, all of them wailing and chanting a dismal dirge as they splashed along through the dust in their bare feet.
A Tragedy: As I returned in the soft air of sunset from the clear little river boiling over its rocks, I passed in a deep-shaded lane between towering banana, coffee, and larger trees about three feet of Mexican in sarape and overgrown hat rooted to a certain spot and shedding copious tears, while on the ground beside him were the remnants of a glazed pot and a broad patch of what had once been native firewater mingled with the thirsty sand. Some distance on I heard a cry as of a hunted human being and turned to see the pot remnants and the patch in the self-same spot, but the hat and the three feet of Mexican under it were speeding away down the lane on wings of terror. But all in vain, for behind stalked at even greater speed a Mexican mother, gaining on him who fled, like inexorable fate, not rapidly but all too surely.
The only train out of Uruapan leaves at an unearthly hour. The sun was just peering over the horizon, as if reconnoitering for a safe entrance, when I fought my way into a chiefly peon crowd packed like a log-jam around a tiny window barely waist high, behind which some unseen but plainly Mexican being sold tickets more slowly than American justice in pursuit of the wealthy. For a couple of miles the way lay across a flat rich land of cornfields, pink with cosmos flowers. Then the train began to creak and grind upward at dog-trot pace, covering four or five times what would have been the distance in a straight line and uncovering broad vistas of plump-formed mountains shaggy with trees, and vast, hollowed-out valleys flooded with corn. Soon there were endless pine forests on every hand, with a thick, oak-like undergrowth. A labyrinth of loops one above another brought us to Ajambarán and a bit of level track, with no mountains in the landscape because we stood on the summit of them. Little Lake Zirahuén, surrounded on all sides by sloping hills, half pine, half corn, gleamed with an emerald blue. The train half circled it, at a considerable distance, giving several broad vistas, each lower than the preceding, as we climbed to an animated box-car station higher still. From there we began to descend. Over the divide was a decided change in the landscape; again that dry, brown, thinly vegetated country of most of the Mexican highlands. Miles before we reached the town of the same name, beautiful Lake Pátzcuaro burst on our sight through a break in the hills to the left, and continued to gladden the eyes until we drew up at the station.
While the rest of the passengers repaired to the mule-tram, I set off afoot for the town, a steady climb of two miles by a cobbled road, up the center of which runs a line of large stones worn flat by generations of bare feet. The man who baedekerized Mexico says it is a “very difficult” trip afoot. Perhaps it would be to him. From the central line of flat stones there ran out, every yard, at right angles, lines of stones a bit smaller, the space between being filled in with small cobbles, with grass growing between them. The sun was powerful in this thin atmosphere of more than seven thousand feet elevation. I was barely settled in the hotel when the mule-tram arrived.
Patzcuaro is one of the laziest, drowsiest, most delightful pimples on the earth to be found in a long search. It has little in common with Uruapan. Here is not a suggestion of the tropics, but just a large Indian village of mud and adobe houses and neck-breaking, cobbled streets, a town older than time, sown on and about a hillside backed by pine-treed peaks, with several expanses of plazas, all grown to grass above their cobbled floors, shaded by enormous ash-like trees with neither flowers, shrubs, nor fountains to detract from their atmosphere of roominess. About them run portales, arcades with pillars that seem at least to antedate Noah, and massive stone benches green with age and water-logged with constant shade, as are also the ancient stone sidewalks under the trees and the overhanging roofs of one-story houses supported by carved beams. Along these wanders a chiefly peon population, soft-footed and silent, with a mien and manner that seems to murmur: “If I do not do it to-day there is tomorrow, and next week, and the week after.” The place is charming; not to its inhabitants perhaps, but to us from a land where everything is distressingly new. To the man who has anything to do or a desire to do anything, Patzcuaro would be infernal; for him who has nothing to do but to do nothing, it is delightful.
Those who wish may visit crooning old churches more aged than the plays of Shakespeare. Or one may climb to “Calvary.” The fanatical inhabitants, abetted by the wily priests, have named a road, “very rocky and very hilly,” according to the Mexican Baedeker, leading to a knoll somewhat above the town, the “via dolorosa,” and have scattered fourteen stations of plastered mud niches along the way. From the aged, half-circular, stone bench on the summit is another of the marvelous views that abound in Mexico. It was siesta-time, and not a human being was in sight to break the spell. The knoll fell away in bushy precipitousness to the plain below. As I reached the top, two trains, bound back the way I had come, left the station two miles away, one behind the other, and for a long time both were plainly visible as they wound in and out away through the foothills, yet noiseless from here as phantoms, and no blot on the landscape, since all colors, even that of a railroad cutting, blended into the soft-brown whole.
The scene was wholly different from that about Uruapan, 1700 feet lower. There was very little green, and nothing at all of jungle; only a sun-faded brown tapestry backed by a jumble of low mountains covered with short bristling pines. Here and there a timid, thin-blue peak peered over a depression in the chain. A panoramic glance, starting from the west, showed range after range, one behind the other, to the dimmest blue distance. Swinging round the horizon, skipping the lake, the eye took in a continuous procession of hills, more properly the upper portions of mountains, losing their trees toward the east and growing more and more bare and reddish-brown, until it fell again on the doddering old town napping in its hollow down the slope. Below the abrupt face of “Calvario,” the plain, with a few patches of still green corn alternating with reddish plowed fields, but for the most part humped and bumped, light wooded with scrub pine, was sprinkled with mouse-sized cattle, distinct even to their spots and markings in this marvelous, clear air of the highlands, lazily swinging their tails in summer contentment.
But the center of the picture, the picture, indeed, for which all the rest served as frame, was Lake Pátzcuaro. It is not beautiful, but rather inviting, enticing, mysterious for its many sandy promontories, its tongues of mountains cutting off a farther arm of the lake with the old Tarascan capital, and above all for its islands. One of these is flat, running out to sand at either end, and with something of an old town among the trees that cover its slightly humped middle. Then there is Xanicho, pitched high in mound-shape, suggestive of Capri, rocky, bare, reddish-brown, and about its bottom, like a narrow band on a half-sunken Mexican hat, a long thin town of white walls and tiled roofs visible in all detail, a church towering above the rest to form the bow of the ribbon. It is strange how the human plant grows everywhere and anywhere, even on a patch of rock thrust forth out of the sea. A bit to the east and farther away lies a much smaller island of similar shape, apparently uninhabited. Farther still there stands forth from the water a bare precipitous rock topped by a castle-like building suggesting Chillon; and beyond and about are other islands of many shapes, but all flat and gray-green in tint, some so near shore as to blend with the promontories and seem part of the mainland, thereby losing their romance.
Over all the scene was a light-blue, transparent sky, flecked only with a few snow-white whisps of clouds, like bits of the ostrich plume that hung over Uruapan in the far west, and from which a soft wind tore off now and then tiny pieces that floated slowly eastward. The same breeze tempered the sunny stillness of the “Calvario,” broken occasionally by the song of a happy shepherd boy in the shrub-clad hills and the mellow-voiced, decrepit, old church bells of Pátzcuaro below.
Some miles away from the town, at the far end of Lake Pátzcuaro, behind the hills, lies the ancient Indian village of Tzintzuntzan, at the time of the Conquest the residence of the chief of the Tarascans and ruler of the kingdom of Michoacán, which was not subdued until ten years after the fall of Mexico. I planned to visit it next day. As I strolled around the unkempt plaza grande in a darkness only augmented by a few weak electric bulbs of slight candle-power, with scores of peons, male and female, wrapped like half-animated mummies in their blankets, even to their noses, I fell in with a German. He was a garrulous, self-complacent, ungraceful man of fifty, a druggist and “doctor” in a small town far down in Oaxaca State until revolutions began, when he had escaped in the garb of a peon, leaving most of his possessions behind. Now he wandered from town to town, hanging up his shingle a few days in each as an oculist. His hotel room was a museum. None can rival the wandering Teuton in the systematic collecting, at its lowest possible cost, of everything that could by any stretch of the imagination ever be of service to a traveler. This one possessed only a rucksack and a blanket-wrapped bundle, but in them he carried more than the average American would be caught in possession of in his own home. There were worn and greasy notebooks full of detailed information of the road, the cheapest hotels of every known town of Mexico, with the lowest possible price and the idiosyncrasies of their proprietors that might be played upon to obtain it, the exact café where the beer glasses grew tallest, the expenditures that might be avoided by a foresighted manipulation; there were shoes and slippers, sleeping garments for each degree of temperature, a cooking outfit, a bicycle-lamp with a chimney to read by, guns, gun-oil, gun-cleaners, flannel cloth to take the place of socks for tramping, vaseline to rub on the same—it would be madness to attempt a complete inventory, but he would be inventive indeed who could name anything that Teutonic pack did not contain in some abbreviated form, purchased somewhere second hand at a fourth its original cost. The German had learned that the parish priest of Tzintzuntzan wore glasses, and we parted agreed to make the trip together.
Patzcuaro is summery enough by day, but only the hardy would dress leisurely at dawn. A fog as thick as cheese, more properly a descended cloud, enveloped the place, a daily occurrence which the local authorities would have you think make it unusually healthful. An ancient cobbled road leads up and over the first rise, then degenerates to the usual Mexican camino, a trail twisting in and out along a chaos of rocks and broken ground. The fog hung long with us and made impossible pictures of the procession of Tarascan Indians coming in from Tzintzuntzan with every species of red pottery, from cups to immense water-jars, in great nets on the backs of horses, asses, men, and women. Beyond the railroad the trail picked its way, with several climbs over rocky spur-ends, along the marshy edge of the lake, which was so completely surrounded by mud and reeds that I had to leave unfulfilled my promised swim in it. The trip was made endless by the incessant chatter of the “doctor,” who rattled on in English without a break; and when I switched him to German his tongue sped still faster, though fortunately more correctly. No wonder those become fluent linguists who can outdistance and outendure a man in his own tongue long before they have begun to learn it.
Along the way we picked up any amount of shining black obsidian, some in the form of arrow-heads and crude knives that bore out the statement that the Indians once even shaved with them. It was nearly eleven when we sighted, down among the trees on the lake shore, the squat church tower of the once capital of Michoacán. A native we spoke with referred to it as a “ciudad,” but in everything but name it was a dead, mud-and-straw Indian village, all but its main street a collection of mud, rags, pigs, and sunshine, and no evidence of what Prescott describes as splendid ruins. Earthquakes are not unknown, and the bells of the church, old as the conquest of Michoacán, hang in the trees before it. Inside, an old woman left her sweeping to pull aside the curtains of the reputed Titian, a “Descent from the Cross,” while I photographed it from the pulpit, for which privilege the young peon sexton appeared in time to accept a silver coin.
The German, with whom business always took precedence over pleasure, had gone to find the house of the priest. When I reached the door of it on the blank main street, he was sitting on a wooden bench in the hallway with a dozen old women and peons. We were admitted immediately after, as befitted our high social standing. A plump little padre nearing sixty, of the general appearance of a well-stuffed grain sack draped in black robes, but of rather impressive features—and wearing glasses—greeted us with formality. The “doctor” drew a black case from his pocket, went through some hocuspocus with a small mirror, and within two minutes, though his Spanish was little less excruciating than his English, had proved to the startled curate that the glasses he was wearing would have turned him stone-blind within a month but for the rare fortune of this great Berlin specialist’s desire to visit the famous historical capital of the Tarascans. The priest smoked cigarette after cigarette while my companion fitted another pair of crystals and tucked the dangerous ones away in his own case—for the next victim. He did not even venture to haggle, but paid the two dollars demanded with the alacrity of a man who recognizes his good fortune, and to whom a matter of a few pesos more or less is of slight importance. For were there not a score of Indians waiting outside eager to pay as well for masses, confessions, and all the rest of his own hocuspocus? There followed a social chat, well liquefied, after which we took our ceremonious leave. Once outside, I learned the distressing fact that the shape of the padre’s bows had required crystals costing twelve cents, instead of the customary nine-cent ones.
The German set off in the blazing noonday at his swiftest pace. He was obliged to be back at the hotel by three, for the dinner must be paid for whether eaten or not. I fell behind, glad of the opportunity. Many groups of peons were returning now, without their loads, but maudlin and nasty tempered with the mescal for which they had exchanged them. My automatic was within easy reach. The oculist had criticized it as far too small for Mexican travel. He carried himself a revolver half the size of a rifle, and filed the ends of the bullets crosswise that they might split and spread on entering a body. In the outskirts of Patzcuaro there came hurrying toward me a flushed and drunken peon youth with an immense rock in his hand. I reached for my weapon, but he greeted me with a respectful “Adiós!” and hurried on. Soon he was overtaken by two more youths and dragged back to where an older peon lay in the middle of the road, his head mashed with a rock until trickles of brain protruded. The event seemed to cause little excitement. A few stood at their doors gazing with a mild sort of interest at the corpse, which still lay in the road when I turned a corner above.
Mules drag the tram-car of Pátzcuaro laboriously up the three kilometers from the station to the main plaza, but gravitation serves for the down journey. When enough passengers had boarded it to set it in motion, we slid with a falsetto rumble down the cobbled road, a ragged boy leaning on the brake. Beyond the main railroad track a spur ran out on a landing-stage patched together out of old boards and rubbish. Peons were loading into an iron scow bags of cement from an American box-car far from home. Indians paddled about the lake in canoes of a hollowed log with a high pointed nose, but chopped sharp off at the poop. Their paddles were perfectly round pieces of wood, like churn-covers, on the end of long slim handles.
We were soon off for Morelia, capital of the State, across plains of cattle, with an occasional cut through the hills and a few brown ponds. At one station we passed two carloads of soldiers, westbound. They were nearly all mere boys, as usual, and like the policemen and rurales of the country struck one as unwisely entrusted with dangerous weapons. Morelia is seen afar off in the lap of a broad rolling plain, her beautiful cathedral towers high above all the rest. It was brilliant noonday when I descended and walked the mile into town.
The birthplace of José Morelos and of Yturbide, first emperor of Mexico, sits 6200 feet above the sea and claims 37,000 inhabitants. It is warm and brown with dust. Architecturally it is Mexican, with flat roofs and none of the overhanging eaves of Pátzcuaro and Uruapan. From the “centro”—the nerve-center of the “torpid State,” with two well-kept plazas, the plateresque cathedral of a pinkish stone worn faint and spotted with time, and the “seat of the powers of the State,” all on the summit of a knoll—the entire town slopes gently down and quickly fades away into dirty, half-cobbled suburbs, brown and treeless, overrun with ragged, dust-tinted inhabitants, every street seeming to bring up against the low surrounding range. Its natural advantages are fully equal to those of Guadalajara, but here pulque grows and man is more torpid. All the place has a hopeless, or at least ambitionless, air, though in this splendid climate poverty has less tinge of misery and the appearance of a greater contentment with its lot. There is a local “poet’s walk” that is not particularly poetic, a wild park beyond that is more so, and a great aqueduct over which sprawl enormous masses of the beautiful purple bourgainvillea. This ancient waterway resembles, but is far less striking than that of Segovia, for it runs across comparatively level ground and has only single arches of moderate height and too polished construction, instead of the massive cyclopean work of immense blocks of stone without mortar of its Spanish counterpart. Views and sunsets too often tempt the traveler in Mexico, or I might mention that from a little way out of town at the top of the road to Mexico City, where the cathedral towers all but reach the crest of the backing range, over which hung the ocher and light-pink and saffron-yellow clouds of the dying day.
The “Hotel Soledad” asserted its selectness by the announcement: “En este hotel no se admiten compañías de cómicos ni toreros,” but the solitude of its wooden-floored beds at least was distinctly broken and often. The pompous, squeeze-centavo, old landlady sat incessantly in her place near the door between dining-room and kitchen, with a leather handbag from which she doled out, almost with tears, coppers for change and the keys to the larder, to the cringing servants and conferred long with them in whispers on how much she dared charge each guest, according to his appearance. But at least Mexico feeds well the traveler who is too hungry to be particular. He who will choose his dishes leads a sorry life, for the hotels are adamant in their fare and restaurants are almost unknown, except the dozens of little outdoor ones about the market-places where a white man would attract undue attention—if nothing less curable—among the “pela’os” that make up 80 per cent. of the population.
The passengers to Acámbaro included two ladies of the fly-by-night species, who whiled away a somewhat monotonous journey by discussing the details of their profession with the admiring train-boy and drumming up trade in a coquettish pantomime. The junction town was in fiesta, and the second-class car of the evening train to Celaya was literally stacked high with peons and their multifarious bundles, and from it issued a stench like unto that of a congress of polecats. I rode seated on a brake, showers of cinders and the cold night air swirling about me, until the festive natives thinned down enough to give me admittance. By that time we were drawing into Celaya, also in the throes of some bombastic celebration.
Like many another Mexican city the traveler chances into when the central plaza is bubbling with night life, light, and music, Celaya turned out rather a disappointment in the sunny commonplace of day. Its central square is a little garden, but almost all the rest of the town is a monotonous waste of square, bare, one-story houses with ugly plaster facades and no roofs—at least to be seen—each differing a bit from its neighbor in height, like a badly drawn up company of soldiers. The blazing sun and thick dust characteristic of all the high central plateau are here in full force. Like most Spanish things—conquests, history, buildings—it looked more striking at a distance than when examined in detail.
Celaya is far-famed for its candy. All over the republic sounds the cry of “Cajetas de Celaya!” Mexico shows a great liking for sweets; no block is complete without its little stands or peregrinating hawkers of all manner of temptations to the sweet-toothed, ranging from squares of “fudge” in all colors of the rainbow to barber-pole sticks a half-yard long. The station was surrounded with soap-less old women, boys, and even men offering for sale all sizes of the little wooden boxes of the chief local product, in appearance like axle-grease, but delicious far beyond its looks, and with vendors of everything imaginable, to say nothing of a ragged, dirty multitude of all ages with no business there—nor anywhere else.
When I had spread out over two wooden seats of the big, bustling El Paso Limited I was quickly reminded of the grim, business-bent, American engineer in gray hair, the unlit half of a cigar clamped tightly between his teeth, of whom I had caught a half-conscious glance in the cab window. One could literally feel his firm American hand at the throttle as the heavy train gathered steady headway and raced away to the eastward. Across the car sat two handsome, solidly-knit young bull-fighters, their little rat-tail coletas peering from behind their square-cut hats. We sped steadily across the sun-flooded, dry, brown plateau, slightly rolling, its fields alternating between the dead tint of dry corn and newly plowed patches. Here for the first time were pulque producing fields of maguey, planted in long, straight, emerald-green rows.
As Irapuato for its strawberries, and Celaya for its sweets, so Queretaro is famed for its huge, cheap hats, of a sort of reed, large enough to serve as umbrellas, and for its opals. From the time he steps off the train here until he boards it again, the traveler, especially the “gringo,” is incessantly pestered by men and boys offering for sale these worthless bright pebbles—genuine and otherwise. Here again are the same endless rows of one-story, stucco houses, intersecting cobbled and dust-paved streets, running to the four corners of the compass from a central plaza planted with tall, slim trees, the interwoven branches of which almost completely shade it. The cathedral houses, among other disturbing, disgusting, and positively indecent representations of the Crucifixion and various martyrdoms done in the Aztec style of bloody realism, a life-size Cristo with masses of long real hair and a pair of knee-length knit drawers for decency’s sake. One might fancy the place weighed down by a Puritan censorship. The local museum contains among other rubbish of the past the keyhole through which Josefa whispered in 1810 the words that started the revolution against Spanish power! Here, too, is what purports to be an authentic photograph of the execution of Maximilian, theatrical to a Spanish degree, the three victims standing in their places, the once “Emperor of the Mexicans” holding a large crucifix, and several of the boy soldiers who executed them crowded eagerly into the corners of the picture. More impressive to the incredulous is the plain, tapering, wooden coffin in which the chief body was placed, the bottom half covered with faded blood and on one of the sides the plain, dull-red imprint of a hand, as if the corpse had made some post-mortem effort to rise from the grave. The portrait of the transplanted scion of Austria shows a haughty, I-am-of-superior-clay man, of a distinctly mediocre grade of intellect, with a forest of beard that strives in vain to conceal an almost complete absence of chin.
History records that the deposed ruler reached by carriage his last earthly scene in the early morning of June 19, 1867. I arrived as early, though afoot. It is a twenty-minute walk from the center of town across the flat, fertile vega, green with gardens, to the Cerro de las Campanas, a bare, stern, stony hill, somewhat grown with cactus bushes, maguey, and tough shrubs, rising perhaps seventy feet above the level of the town. It runs up gently and evenly from the south, but falls away abruptly in a cragged, rock precipice on the side facing Querétaro, providing the only place in the vicinity where poorly aimed bullets cannot whistle away across the plain. Before them, as they faced the youthful, brown file of soldiers in their many-patched and faded garb, the three had a comprehensive view of the town, chiefly trees and churches sufficient to house the entire populace several times over. Nine immense structures, each with a great dome and a tower or two—steeples are unknown in Mexico—stand out against the bare, brown, flat-topped range beyond that barely rises above the highest tower. The last scene he looked on must have struck the refuted emperor as typical of a country he was sorry then ever to have seen, in spite of his regal control of facial expression,—a hard, stony plateau, the fertility and riches of which succumb chiefly to an all-devouring priesthood. Cold lead plays too large a part in the history of Mexico, but certainly its most unjust verdict was not the extinction of the “divine right” in the person of this self-styled descendant of the Cæsars at the hands of an Indian of Oaxaca. To-day a brown stone chapel, erected by Austria, stands where Maximilian fell, but the spot remains otherwise unchanged, and no doubt the fathers of these same peons who toiled now in the gardens of the vega under the morning sun lined the way through which the carriage bore to its American extinction a system foreign to the Western Hemisphere.