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Tramping the Byways | 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



Heavy weather still hung over the land to the southward. Indian corn, dry and shriveled, was sometimes shocked as in the States. The first field of maguey appeared, planted in long rows, barely a foot high, but due in a year or two to produce pulque, the Mexican scourge, because of its cheapness, stupefying the poorer classes. When fresh, it is said to be beneficial in kidney troubles and other ailments, but soon becomes over-fermented in the pulquerías of the cities and more harmful than a stronger liquor.

Within the car was an American of fifty, thin and drawn, with huddled shoulders, who had been beaten by rebel forces in Zacatecas and robbed of his worldly wealth of $13,000 hidden in vain in his socks. Numbers of United States box-cars jolted across the country end to end with Mexican; the “B. & O.” behind the “Norte de Méjico,” the “N. Y. C.,” followed by the “Central Mejicano.” Long broad stretches of plain, with cactus and mesquite, spread to low mountains blue with cold morning mist, all but their base hung with fog. Beyond Jesús María, which is a sample of the station names, peons lived in bedraggled tents along the way, and the corn was even drier. The world seemed threatening to dry up entirely. At Cartagena there began veritable forests of cactus trees, and a wild scrub resembling the olive. Thousands of tunas, the red fruit of the cactus, dotted the ground along the way. The sun sizzled its way through the heavy sky as we climbed the flank of a rocky range, the vast half-forested plain to the east sinking lower and lower as we rose. Then came broken country with many muddy streams. It was the altitude perhaps that caused the patent feeling of exhilaration, as much as the near prospect of taking again to the open road.

As the “garrotero” (“twister,” or “choker” as the brakeman is called in Mexico) announced Dolores Hidalgo, I slipped four cartridges into my automatic. The roadways of Mexico offered unknown possibilities. A six-foot street-car drawn—when at all—by mules, stood at the station, but I struck off across the rolling country by a footpath that probably led to the invisible town. A half-mile lay behind me before I met the first man. He was riding an ass, but when I gave him “Buenos días,” he replied with a whining: “Una limosnita! A little alms, for the love of God.” He wore a rosary about his neck and a huge cross on his chest. When I ignored his plea he rode on mumbling. The savage bellow of a bull not far off suggested a new possible danger on the road in this unfenced and almost treeless country. More men passed on asses, mules, and horses, but none afoot. Finally over the brown rise appeared Dolores Hidalgo; two enormous churches and an otherwise small town in a tree-touched valley. The central plaza, with many trees and hedges trimmed in the form of animals, had in its center the statue of the priest Hidalgo y Costilla, the “father of Mexican independence.” A block away, packed with pictures and wreathes and with much of the old furniture as he left it, was the house in which he had lived before he started the activities that ended in the loss of his head.

Well fortified at the excellent hotel, I struck out past the patriot priest’s house over an arched bridge into the open country. As in any unknown land, the beginning of tramping was not without a certain mild misgiving. The “road” was only a trail and soon lost itself. A boy speaking good Spanish walked a long mile to set me right, and valued his services at a centavo. A half-cent seemed to be the fixed fee for anything among these country people. A peon carrying a load of deep-green alfalfa demanded as much for the privilege of photographing him when he was “not dressed up.” He showed no sign whatever of gratitude when I doubled it and added a cigarette.

The bright sun had now turned the day to early June. The so-called road was a well-trodden sandy path between high cactus hedges over rolling country. An hour out, the last look back on Dolores Hidalgo showed also mile upon mile of rolling plain to far, far blue sierras, all in all perhaps a hundred square miles visible. There were many travelers, chiefly on foot and carrying bundles on their heads. The greeting of these was “Adiós,” while the better-to-do class on horse or mule back used the customary “Buenas tardes!” Thirst grew, but though the country was broken, with many wash-outs cutting deep across the trail, the streams were all muddy. Now and then a tuna on the cactus hedges was red ripe enough to be worth picking and, though full of seeds, was at least wet. It was harder to handle than a porcupine, and commonly left the fingers full of spines. Two men passed, offering dulces, a species of native candy, for sale. I declined. “Muy bien, give us a cigarette.” I declined again, being low in stock. “Very well, adiós, señor,” they replied in the apathetic way of their race, as if it were quite as satisfactory to them to get nothing as what they asked.

The Rancho del Capulin, where night overtook me, was a hamlet of eight or ten houses, some mere stacks of thatch, out of the smoky doorway of which, three feet high, peered the half-naked inmates; others of adobe, large bricks of mud and chopped straw, which could be picked to pieces with the fingers.

From one of the kennels a woman called out to know if I would eat. I asked if she could give lodging also and she referred me to her husband inside. I stopped to peer in through the doorway and he answered there was not room enough as it was, which was evident to the slowest-witted, for the family of six or eight of all ages, more or less dressed, lying and squatted about the earth floor dipping their fingers into bowls of steaming food, left not a square foot unoccupied. He advised me to go “beg license” of the “señora” of the house farther on, a low adobe building with wooden doors.

“There is nothing but the place opposite,” she answered.

This was a sort of mud cave, man-made and door-less, the uneven earth floor covered with excrement, human and otherwise. I returned to peer into the mat-roofed yard with piles of corn-stalks and un-threshed beans, and met the man of the house just arriving with his labor-worn burros. He was a sinewy peasant of about fifty, dressed like all country peons in shirt and tight trousers of thinnest white cotton, showing his brown skin here and there. As he hesitated to give me answer, the wife made frantic signs to him from behind the door, of which the cracks were inches wide. He caught the hint and replied to my request for lodging:

“Only if you pay me three centavos.”

Such exorbitance! The regulation price was perhaps one. But I yielded, for it was raining, and entered, to sit down on a heap of unthreshed beans. The woman brought me a mat three feet long, evidently destined to be my bed. I was really in the family barnyard, with no end walls, chickens overhead and the burros beyond. The rain took to dripping through the mat roof, and as I turned back toward the first hut for the promised frijoles and tortillas the woman called to me to say she also could furnish me supper.

The main room of the house was about ten by ten, with mud walls five feet high, a pitched roof of some sort of grass with several holes in it. In the center of the room was a fireplace three feet high and four square, with several steaming glazed pots over a fire of encinal fagots. The walls were black with soot of the smoke that partly wandered out of an irregular hole in the farther end of the room. The eight-year-old son of the family was eating corn-stalks with great gusto, tearing off the rind with his teeth and chewing the stalk as others do sugar-cane. I handed him a loaf of potosino bread and he answered a perfunctory “Gracias,” but neither he nor any of the family showed any evidence of gratitude as he wolfed it. The man complained that all the corn had dried up for lack of rain. The woman set before me a bowl of “sopita,” with tortillas, white cheese, and boiled whole peppers. A penniless peon traveler begged a cigarette and half my morning loaf, and went out into the night and rain to sleep in the “chapel,” as the mud cave across the way was called. There several travelers had settled down for the night. A girl of seventeen or so splashed across from it to beg “a jar of water for a poor prostitute,” apparently announcing her calling merely as a curious bit of information.

The family took at last to eating and kept it up a full hour, meanwhile discussing me thoroughly. Like most untutored races, they fancied I could not understand their ordinary tones. When they wished to address me they merely spoke louder. It is remarkable how Spain has imposed her language on even these wild, illiterate Indians as England has not even upon her colonies. As the rain continued to pour, I was to sleep in the kitchen. Drunken peons were shouting outside and the family seemed much frightened, keeping absolute silence. The four by two door with its six-inch cracks was blocked with a heavy pole, the family retired to the other room, and I stretched out in the darkness on the unsteady wooden bench, a foot wide, my head on my knapsack. I was soon glad of having a sweater, but that failed to cover my legs, and I slept virtually not at all through a night at least four months long, punctuated by much howling of dogs.

It was still pitch dark when the “senora” entered, to spend a long time getting a fire started with wet fagots. Then she began making atole. Taking shelled corn from an earthen jar, she sprinkled it in the hallow of a stone and crushed it with much labor. This was put into water, strained through a sieve, then thrown into a kettle of boiling water. It was much toil for little food. Already she had labored a full hour. I asked for coffee, and she answered she had none but would buy some when the “store” opened. It grew broad daylight before this happened and I accepted atole. It was hot, but as tasteless as might be the water from boiled corn-stalks. There had been much discussion, supposedly unknown to me, the night before as to how much they dared charge me. The bill was finally set at twelve centavos (six cents), eight for supper, three for lodging, and one for breakfast. It was evidently highly exorbitant, for the family expressed to each other their astonishment that I paid it without protest.

At the very outset there was a knee-deep river to cross, then miles of a “gumbo” mud that stuck like bad habits. My feet at times weighed twenty pounds each. Wild rocky hillsides alternated with breathless climbs. Many cattle were scattered far and wide over the mountains, but there was no cultivation. I passed an occasional rancho, villages of six or seven adobe or thatch huts, with sometimes a ruined brick chapel. Flowers bloomed thickly, morning glories, geraniums, masses of a dark purple blossom. The “road” was either a mud-hole or a sharp path of jagged rolling stones in a barren, rocky, tumbled country. Eleven found me entering another rancho in a wild valley. My attempts to buy food were several times answered with, “Más arribita”— “A little higher up.” I came at last to the “restaurant.” It was a cobble-stone hut hung on a sharp hillside, with a hole two feet square opening on the road. Two men in gay sarapes, with guns and belts of huge cartridges, reached it at the same time, and we squatted together on the ground at an angle of the wall below the window and ate with much exchange of banter the food poked out to us. The two had come that morning from Guanajuato, whither I was bound, and were headed for Dolores. It was the first time I had any certain information as to the distance before me, which had been variously reported at from five to forty leagues. We ate two bowls of frijoles each, and many tortillas and chiles. One of the men paid the entire bill of twenty-seven centavos, but accepted ten from me under protest.

Beyond was a great climb along a stony, small stream up into a blackish, rocky range. The sun shone splendidly, also hotly. Apparently there was no danger to travelers even in these wild parts. The peons I met were astonishingly incurious, barely appearing to notice my existence. Some addressed me as “jefe” (chief), suggesting the existence of mines in the vicinity. If I drew them into conversation they answered merely in monosyllables: “Sí, señor.” “No, jefe.” Not a word of Indian dialect had I heard since entering the country. Two hours above the restaurant a vast prospect of winding, tumbled, rocky valley and mountain piled upon mountain beyond opened out. From the summit, surely nine thousand feet up, began the rocky descent to the town of Santa Rosa, broken by short climbs and troublesome with rocks. I overtook many donkeys loaded with crates of cactus fruit, railroad ties, and the like, and finally at three came out in sight of the famous mining city of Guanajuato.

It would take the pen of a master to paint the blue labyrinth of mountains heaped up on all sides and beyond the long, winding city in the narrow gorge far below, up out of which came with each puff of wind the muffled sound of stamp-mills and smelters. As I sat, the howling of three drunken peons drifted up from the road below. When they reached me, one of them, past forty, thrust his unwashed, pulque-perfumed face into mine and demanded a cigarette. When I declined, he continued to beg in a threatening manner. Meanwhile the drunkest of the three, a youth of perhaps seventeen, large and muscular, an evil gleam in his eye, edged his way up to me with one arm behind him and added his demands to that of the other. I suddenly pulled the hidden hand into sight and found in it a sharp broken piece of rock weighing some ten pounds. Having knocked this out of his grasp, I laid my automatic across my knees and the more sober pair dragged the belligerent youth on up the mountain trail.

For an hour the way wound down by steep, horribly cobbled descents, then between mud and stone huts, and finally down a more level and wider cobbled street along which were the rails of a mule tramway. The narrow city wound for miles along the bottom of a deep gully, gay everywhere with perennial flowers. The main avenue ran like a stream along the bottom, and he who lost himself in the stair-like side streets had only to follow downward to find it again as surely as a tributary its main river. Masses of rocky mountains were piled up on all sides.

The climate of Guanajuato is unsurpassed. Brilliant sunshine flooded days like our early June, in which one must hurry to sweat in the noon time, while two blankets made comfortable covering at night. This is true of not only one season but the year around, during which the thermometer does not vary ten degrees. July is coldest and a fireplace not uncomfortable in the evening. An American resident who went home to one of the States bordering on Canada for his vacation sat wiping the sweat out of his eyes there, when one of his untraveled countrymen observed:

“You must feel very much at home in this heat after nine years in
Whereupon the sufferer arose in disgust, packed his bag, and sped south to mosquitoless coolness.

The evening air is indescribable; all nature’s changes of striking beauty; and the setting sun throwing its last rays on the Bufa, the salient points of that and the other peaks purple with light, with the valleys in deep shadow, is a sight worth tramping far to see.

I drifted down along the gully next morning, following the main street, which changed direction every few yards, “paved” with three-inch cobbles, the sidewalks two feet wide, leaving one pedestrian to jump off it each time two met. A diminutive streetcar drawn by mules with jingling bells passed now and then. Peons swarmed here also, but there was by no means the abject poverty of San Luis Potosi, and Americans seemed in considerable favor, as their mines in the vicinity give the town its livelihood. I was seeking the famous old “Alóndiga,” but the policeman I asked began looking at the names of the shops along the way as if he fancied it some tobacco booth. I tried again by designating it as “la cárcel.” He still shook his head sadly. But when I described it as the place where Father Hidalgo’s head hung on a hook for thirteen years, a great light broke suddenly upon him and he at once abandoned his beat and led me several blocks, refusing to be shaken off. What I first took for extreme courtesy, however, turned out to be merely the quest of tips, an activity in which the police of most Mexican cities are scarcely outdone by the waiters along Broadway.

The ancient building was outwardly plain and nearly square, more massive than the rest of the city. High up on each of its corners under the rusted hooks were the names of the four early opponents of Spanish rule whose heads had once hung there. Inside the corridor stood the statue of the peon who is said to have reached and fired the building under cover of the huge slab of stone on his back. When I had waited a while in the anteroom, the jefe político, the supreme commander of the city appointed by the governor of the State, appeared, the entire roomful of officials and visitors dropping their cigarettes and rising to greet him with bared heads. He gave me permission to enter, and the presidente, a podgy second jailor, took me in charge as the iron door opened to let me in. The walls once red with the blood of Spaniards slaughtered by the forces of the priest of Dolores had lost that tint in the century since passed, and were smeared with nothing more startling than a certain lack of cleanliness. The immense, three-story, stone building of colonial days enclosed a vast patio in which prisoners seemed to enjoy complete freedom, lying about the yard in the brilliant sunshine, playing cards, or washing themselves and their scanty clothing in the huge stone fountain in the center. The so-called cells in which they were shut up in groups during the night were large chambers that once housed the colonial government. By day many of them work at weaving hats, baskets, brushes, and the like, to sell for their own benefit, thus being able to order food from outside and avoid the mess brought in barrels at two and seven of each afternoon for those dependent on government rations. Now and then a wife or feminine friend of one of the prisoners appeared at the grating with a basket of food. Several of the inmates were called one by one to the crack of an iron door in the wall to hear the sentence the judge had chosen to impose upon them in the quiet of his own home; for public jury trial is not customary in Spanish America.

In the fine gallery around the patio, in the second-story, we were joined by an American from Colorado, charged with killing a Mexican, but who seemed little worried with his present condition or doubtful of his ultimate release. From the flat roof, large enough for a school playground, there spread out a splendid view of all the city and its surrounding mountains. There were, all told, some five hundred prisoners. A room opening on the patio served as a school for convicts, where a man well advanced in years, bewhiskered and of a decidedly pedagogical cast of countenance in spite of his part Indian blood, sat on his back, peering dreamily through his glasses at the seventy or more pupils, chiefly between the ages of fifteen and twenty, who drowsed before him.

There is a no less fine view from the hill behind, on which sits the Panteon, or city cemetery. It is a rectangular place enclosing perhaps three acres, and, as all Guanajuato has been buried here for centuries, considerably crowded. For this reason and from inherited Spanish custom, bodies are seldom buried, but are pigeonholed away in the deep niches two feet square into what from the outside looks to be merely the enclosing wall. Here, in more exact order than prevails in life, the dead of Guanajuato are filed in series, each designated by a number. Series six was new and not yet half occupied. A funeral ends by thrusting the coffin into its appointed pigeonhole, which the Indian employees brick up and face with cement, in which while still soft the name of the defunct and other information is commonly rudely scratched with a stick, often with amateur spelling. Here and there is one in English:—”My Father’s Servant—H. B.” Some have marble headpieces with engraved names, and perhaps a third of the niches bear the information “En Perpetuidad,” indicating that the rent has been paid up until judgment day. The majority of the corpses, however, are dragged out after one to five years and dumped in the common bone-yard, as in all Spanish-speaking countries. The Indian attendants were even then opening several in an older series and tossing skulls and bones about amid facetious banter. The lower four rows can be reached readily, but not a few suffer the pain of being “skied,” where only those who chance to glance upward will notice them.

There were some graves in the ground, evidently of the poorer Indian classes. Several had been newly dug, unearthing former occupants, and a grinning skull sat awry on a heap of earth amid a few thigh bones and scattered ribs, all trodden under sandaled foot-prints. In one hole lay the thick black hair of what had once been a peon, as intact as any actor’s wig. There is some property in the soil of Guanajuato’s Panteón that preserves bodies buried in the ground without coffins, so that its “mummies” have become famous. The director attended me in person and, crossing the enclosure, opened a door in the ground near the fourth series of niches, where we descended a little circular iron stairway. This opened on a high vaulted corridor, six feet wide and thirty long. Along this, behind glass doors, stood some hundred more or less complete bodies shrouded in sheets. They retained, or had been arranged, in the same form they had presented in life—peon carriers bent as if still under a heavy burden, old market women in the act of haggling, arrieros plodding behind their imaginary burros. Some had their mouths wide open, as if they had been buried alive and had died shouting for release. One fellow stood leaning against a support, like a man joking with an elbow on the bar, a glass between his fingers, in the act of laughing uproariously. Several babies had been placed upright here and there between the elders. Most of the corpses wore old dilapidated shoes. In the farther end of the corridor were stacked thighbones and skulls surely sufficient to fill two box-cars, all facing to the front. I asked how many deaths the collection represented, and the director shrugged his shoulders with an indifferent “Quién sabe?” He who would understand the Mexican, descendant of the Aztecs, must not overlook a certain apathetic indifference to death, and a playful manner with its remains.

Once on earth again, I gave the director a handful of coppers and descended to the town, motley now with market-day. The place swarmed with color; ragged, unwashed males and females squatted on the narrow sidewalks with fruit, sweets, gay blankets and clothing, cast-off shoes and garments, piles of new sandals, spread out in the street before them. Amid the babel of street cries the most persistent was “Agua-miel!”—”Honey water,” as the juice of the maguey is called during the twelve hours before fermentation sets in. From twelve to thirty-six hours after its drawing it is intoxicating; from then on, only fit to be thrown away. But the sour stench from each pulquería and many a passing peon proved a forced longevity. Several lay drunk in the streets, but passers-by stepped over or around them with the air of those who do as they hope to be done by. Laughter was rare, the great majority being exceedingly somber in manner. Even their songs are gloomy wails, recalling the Arabs. A few children played at “bull-fight,” and here and there two or three, thanks to the American influence, were engaged in what they fancied was baseball. But for the most part they were not playful. The young of both Indians and donkeys are trained early for the life before them. The shaggy little ass-colts follow their mothers over the cobbled streets and along mountain trails from birth, and the peon children, wearing the same huge hat, gay sarape, and tight breeches as their fathers, or the identical garb of the mothers, carry their share of the family burden almost from infancy. Everything of whatever size or shape was carried on the backs or heads of Indians with a supporting strap across the forehead. A peon passed bearing on his head the corpse of a baby in an open wooden coffin, scattered with flowers. Trunks of full size are transported in this way to all parts of the mountain town, and the Indian who carries the heaviest of them to a mine ten miles away and two thousand feet above the city over the rockiest trails considers himself well paid at thirty cents. Six peons dog-trotted by from the municipal slaughter-house with a steer on their backs: four carried a quarter each; one the head and skin; and the last, heart, stomach, and intestines. Horseshoers worked in the open streets, using whatever shoes they had on hand without adjustment, paring down the hoofs of the animal to fit them. Here and there a policeman on his beat was languidly occupied in making brushes, like the prisoners of the Alóndiga, and two I saw whiling away the time making lace! Several of them tagged my footsteps, eager for some errand. One feels no great sense of security in a country whose boyish, uneducated, and ragged guardians of order cringe around like beggar boys hoping for a copper.

Saturday is beggar’s day, when those who seek alms more or less surreptitiously during the week are permitted to pass in procession along the shops, many of which disburse on this day a fixed sum, as high as twenty dollars, in copper centavos. Now and then the mule-cars bowled over a laden ass, which sat up calmly on its haunches, front feet in the air, until the obstruction passed. All those of Indian blood were notable for their strong white teeth, not one of which they seem ever to lose. In the church a bit higher up several bedraggled women and pulque-besotted peons knelt before a disgusting representation of the Crucifixion. The figure had real hair, beard, eyebrows, and even eyelashes, with several mortal wounds, barked knees and shins, half the body smeared with red paint as blood, all in all fit only for the morgue. Farther on, drowsed the post-office, noted like all south of the Rio Grande for its unreliability. Unregistered packages seldom arrive at their destination, groceries sent from the States to American residents are at least half eaten en route. A man of the North unacquainted with the ways of Mexico sent unregistered a Christmas present of a dozen pairs of silk socks. The addressee inquired for them daily for weeks. Finally he wrote for a detailed description of the hectic lost property, and had no difficulty in recognizing at least two pairs as the beak-nosed officials hitched up their trousers to tell him again nothing whatever had come for him. Not long before my arrival a Mexican mail-car had been wrecked, and between the ceiling and the outer wall were found over forty thousand letters postal clerks had opened and thrown there.

I drifted into an “Escuela Gratuita para Niños.” The heavy, barn-like door gave entrance to a cobbled corridor, opening on a long schoolroom with two rows of hard wooden benches on which were seated a half hundred little peons aged seven to ten, all raggedly dressed in the identical garb, sandals and all, of their fathers in the streets, their huge straw hats covering one of the walls. The maestro, a small, down-trodden-looking Mexican, rushed to the door to bring me down to the front and provide me with a chair. The school had been founded some six months before by a woman of wealth, and offered free instruction to the sons of peons. But the Indians as always were suspicious, and for the most part refused to allow their children to be taught the “witchcraft” of the white man. The teacher asked what class I cared to hear and then himself hastily suggested “cuentitas.” The boys were quick at figures, at least in the examples the maestro chose to give them, but he declined to show them off in writing or spelling. Several read aloud, in that mumbled and half-pronounced manner common to Mexico, the only requirement appearing to be speed. Then came a class in “Historia Santa,” that is, various of the larger boys arose to spout at full gallop and the distinct enunciation of an “El” train, the biblical account of the creation of the world, the legends of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s travels with a menagerie, all learned by rote. The entire school then arose and bowed me out.

A visit to a mixed school, presided over by carelessly dressed maidens of uncertain age and the all-knowing glance of those who feel the world and all its knowledge lies concentrated in the hollow of their hands, showed a quite similar method of instruction. On the wall hung a great lithograph depicting in all its dreadful details the alleged horrors of “alcoolismo.” Even the teachers rattled off their questions with an atrocious, half-enunciated pronunciation, and he must have been a Spanish scholar indeed who could have caught more than the gist of the recited answers. This indistinctness of enunciation and the Catholic system of learning by rote instead of permitting the development of individual power to think were as marked even in the colegio, corresponding roughly to our high schools. Even there the professor never commanded, “More distinctly!” but he frequently cried, “Faster!”

On the wall of this higher institution was a stern set of rules, among which some of the most important were:

“Students must not smoke in the presence of professors,” though this was but mildly observed, for when I entered the study room with the director and his assistant, all of us smoking, the boys, averaging fifteen years of age, merely held their lighted cigarettes half out of sight behind them until we passed. Another rule read: “Any student frequenting a tavern, café chantant, or house of ill-fame may be expelled.” He might run that risk in most schools, but none but the Latinized races would announce the fact in plain words on the bulletin-boards. The director complained that the recent revolutions had set the school far back, as each government left it to the next to provide for such secondary necessities.