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Tropical Mexico | 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



It is merely a long jump with a drop of two thousand feet from Orizaba to Córdoba. But the train takes eighteen miles of winding, squirming, and tunneling to get there. On the way is some of the finest scenery in Mexico. The route circles for miles the yawning edge of a valley dense with vegetation, banana and orange trees without number, with huts of leaves and stalks tucked away among them, myriads of flowers of every shade and color, and here and there coffee bushes festooned with their red berries. The dew falls so heavily in this region that the rank growth was visibly dripping with it.

At somnolent Córdoba I left the line to Vera Cruz for that to the southward. The car was packed with the dirty, foul-tongued wives and the children and bundles of a company of soldiers recently sent against the rebels of Juchitan. Ever since leaving Boca del Monte the day before I had been coming precipitously down out of Mexico. But there were still descents to be found, and the train raced swiftly without effort in and out through ever denser jungle, magnificent in colors, alive with birds, a land in each square yard of which the traveler felt a longing to pause and dwell for a while, to swing languidly under the trees, gazing at the snow peak of Orizaba now growing farther and farther away.

Our conveyance was a species of way-freight, which whiled away most of the day at a speed fittingly respectful to the scenery about us. With every station the population grew perceptibly more lazy. The alert, eager attitude of the plateau gave place to a languorous lethargy evident in both faces and movements. People seemed less sulky than those higher up, more communicative and approachable, but also, strangely enough, less courteous, apparently from laziness, a lack of the energy necessary for living up to the rules of that Mexican virtue. They answered readily enough, but abruptly and indifferently, and fell quickly into their customary somnolence. For a time we skirted the Río Blanco, boiling away toward the sea. Oranges were so plentiful they hung rotting on the trees. The jungle was dense, though by no means so much so as those of the Far East. On either hand were hundreds of native shacks,—mongrel little huts of earth floors, transparent walls of a sort of corn-stalk, and a thick, top-heavy roof of jungle grass or banana leaves, set carelessly in bits of space chopped out of the rampant jungle. Now and then we passed gangs of men fighting back the vegetation that threatened to swallow up the track completely.

Beautiful palm-trees began to abound, perfectly round, slender stems supporting hundreds of immense leaves hanging edgewise in perfect arch shape, perhaps the most symmetrical of all nature’s works. What is there about the palm-tree so romantic and pleasing to the spirits? Its whisper of perpetual summer, of perennial life, perhaps. Great luscious pineapples sold through the windows at two or three cents each. The peons of this region carried a machete in a leather scabbard, but still wore a folded blanket over one shoulder, suggesting chilly nights. The general apathy of the population began to manifest itself now in the paucity of hawkers at the stations. On the plateau the train seldom halted without being surrounded by a jostling crowd, fighting to sell their meager wares; here they either lolled in the shade of their banana groves, waiting for purchasers to come and inspect their displays of fruit, or they did not even trouble to offer anything for sale. Why should man work when his food drops year by year into his lap without even replanting? Moreover, flat noses and kinky hair were growing more and more in evidence.

Not all was jungle. As the mountains died down and faded away in the west there opened out many broad meadows in which were countless sleek cattle tended by somnolent herdsmen on horseback. Much sugar-cane grew, lengths of which were sold to the brawling soldiers’ wives and the carload in general, which was soon reeking with the juice and chewed pulp. By afternoon jungle was a rarity and most of the country was a rich sort of prairie with cattle without number, and here and there an immense tree to break the monotony. These rich bottomlands that seemed capable of producing anything in unlimited quantities were almost entirely uncultivated. At several stations there bulked above the throng white men in appearance like a cross between farmers and missionaries, the older ones heavily bearded. For a time I could not catalogue them. Then, as we pulled out of one town, two of what but for their color and size I should have taken for peons raced for the last car-step, one shouting to the other in the strongest of Hoosier accents:

“Come on, Bud, let’s jemp ‘er!”

Which both did, riding some sixty feet, and dropped off like men who had at last had their one daily excitement. Inquiry proved that they belonged to a colony of Mormons that has settled in several groups in this region, where nature sets their creed a prolific example.

Unbroken prairies, in their tropical form, now stretched as far as the eye could reach, with just the shade of a shadowy range in the far west. The heat had not once grown oppressive during the day.

With dusk it turned almost cold. We wound slowly on into the damp, heavy night, a faint full moon struggling to tear itself a peep-hole through the clouds, and finally at ten, seat-sore with fifteen hours of slat-bench riding, pulled up at Santa Lucrecia.

It was just such a town as dozens of others we had passed that day; a plain station building surrounded unevenly by a score or so of banana-grove huts. Here ends the railroad southward, joining that across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. From the track of the latter a wooden sidewalk that rang drum-hollow under my heels led across a gully of unknown depth in the black night to the Hotel “El Sol Mejicano,” standing-room for which had been gashed out of the jungle. It was a wooden and sheet-iron building on stilts, swarming even at night with dirty children, pigs, chickens, and yellow dogs, and presided over by a glassy-eyed, slatternly woman of French antecedents, the general shape of a wine-skin three-fourths full, and of a ghoulish instinct toward the purses of travelers. In one end were a dozen “rooms,” separated by partitions reaching half way to the sheet-iron roof, and in the other a single combination of grocery and general store, saloon and pool-table, assorted filth and the other attributes of outposts of civilization. The chambers were not for rent, but only the privilege of occupying one of the several beds in each. These fortunately were fairly clean, with good springs and mosquito canopies, but with only a quilt for mattress—unless it was meant for cover—a single sheet, and the usual two little, round, hard mountainous pillows. Otherwise the cabins were wholly unfurnished, even to windows. The train that had brought us in spent the night bucking and jolting back and forth near by; even a barefoot servant walking anywhere in the building or on the veranda set the edifice rocking as in an earthquake; two Mexicans occupying the “room” next to my own—more properly, the one I helped occupy—bawled anecdotes and worse at the top of their voices most of the night; guests were hawking and spitting and coughing incessantly in various parts of the house; at three a servant began beating on the door with something in the nature of a sledge-hammer to know if I wished to take the train Atlantic-bound, and refused to accept a negative answer; my room-mate held the world’s record for snoring; at the first suggestion of dawn every child, chicken, and assorted animal in the building and vicinity set up its greatest possible uproar; and I was half-frozen all night, even under all the clothing I possessed. Except for these few annoyances, I slept splendidly. There was at least the satisfaction of knowing that a traveling millionaire obliged to pass a night in Santa Lucrecia would spend it no better.

Everything was dripping wet when I fled back across the aërial sidewalk to the station. It was not hot, but there was a dense, heavy atmosphere in which one felt he could be as lively and industrious as elsewhere, yet found himself dragging listlessly around as the never-do-anything-you-don’t-have-to inhabitants. Even the boyish train auditor had an irresponsible lackadaisical manner, and permitted all sorts of petty railway misdemeanors. The childishness of tropical peoples was evident on every hand. There was no second-class car on this line, but one third, all but empty when we started, evidently not because most bought first-class tickets but because the auditor was of the tropics. Endless jungle covered all the visible world, with only the line of rails crowding through it. The cocoanut palms and those top-heavy with what looked like enormous bunches of dates soon died out as we left the vicinity of the coast. At Rincon Antonio the car filled up, and among the new-comers were many of the far-famed women of Tehuantepec. Some were of striking beauty, almost all were splendid physical specimens and all had a charming and alluring smile. They dressed very briefly—a gay square of cloth about their limbs, carelessly tucked in at the waist, and a sleeveless upper garment that failed to make connections with the lower, recalling the women of Ceylon. The absence of any other garments was all too evident. Almost all wore in their jet-black hair a few red flowers, all displayed six inches or more of silky brown skin at the waist, and the majority wore necklaces of gold coins, generally American five and ten dollar gold pieces. To see one of them stretched out at full length on a seat, smoking a cigarette and in animated conversation with a man that five minutes before had been a total stranger, might have suggested a certain looseness of character. But this was denied by their facial expression, which bore out the claim of a chance acquaintance long resident among them that they are very frank, “simple,” and friendly, but far more apt to keep within a well-defined limit than the average of tropical women. Tehuantepec, indeed, is the land of “woman’s rights.” The men having been largely killed off during the days of Diaz, the feminine stock is to-day the sturdier, more intelligent, and industrious, and arrogates to itself a far greater freedom than the average Mexican woman. Many of those in the car spoke the local Indian dialect, Zapoteca, but all seemed possessed of fluent Spanish.

Yet how different was all the carload from what we have come to consider “civilized” people. If the aim of humanity is to be happy in the present, then these languid, brown races are on the right track. If that aim is to advance, develop, and accomplish, they must be classed with the lower animals.

For a half hour before reaching Rincon Antonio, we had been winding with a little brawling river through a hilly gorge dense-grown with vegetation. The town was in the lull between two revolts. A bare four days before, a former chief and his followers had been taken by the populace and shot behind the water-tank beside where we paused at the station. A week later new riots were to break out. But today the place was sunk in its customary languor, and only a few bullet-ridden walls and charred ruins hinted its recent history.

I had pictured the Isthmus of Tehuantepec a flat neck of land from ocean to ocean. But the imagination is a deceitful guide. Beyond the town of the water-tank we wormed for miles through mountains higher than the Berkshires, resembling them indeed in form and wealth of vegetation, though with a tropical tinge. The jungle, however, died out, and the train crawled at a snail’s pace, often looping back upon itself, through landscapes in which the organ-cactus was most conspicuous. Even here the great chain known as the Rockies and the Andes, that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia, imposes a considerable barrier between the two seas. There was a cosmopolitan tinge to this region, and the boinas of Basques mingled with the cast-iron faces of Americans and sturdy self-possessed Negroes under broad “Texas” hats. An hour beyond the hills, in a thick-wooded land, I dropped off at the town of Tehuantepec, an intangible place that I had some difficulty in definitely locating in the thickening darkness.

Here was a new kind of Mexico. In many things, besides the naked, brown waists of the women, it carried the mind back to Ceylon. There were the same reed and thatched huts, almost all surrounded by spacious yards fenced by corn-stalk walls through which the inmates could see easily but be seen with difficulty. Here, too, boys went naked until the approach of puberty; the cocoanut palms, the dense banana groves, even the huge earthen water-jars before the houses recalled the charming isle of the Singhalese, and if the people were less kindly to the stranger they were much more joyful and full of laughter than the Mexican of the plateau. In this perhaps they had more in common with the Burmese. The men, often almost white in color, wore few large hats, never one approaching those of the highlands. The hotter the sun, the smaller the hat, seems to be the rule in Mexico. Here it was hot, indeed; a dense, thick, tangible heat, that if it did not sap the strength suggested the husbanding of it.

A fiesta raged on the night of my arrival. The not too musical blare of a band drew me to a wide, inclined street paved in sand, at the blind end of which were seated five rows of women in as many gradations, and everywhere shuttled men and boys, almost all in white trousers, with a shirt of the same color, Chinese-fashion, outside it, commonly barefoot with or without sandals. A few even wore shoes. I hesitated to join the throng. The subconscious expectation of getting a knife or a bullet in the back grows second nature in Mexico. Few foreigners but have contracted the habit of stepping aside to let pass a man who hangs long at their heels. The approach of a staggering, talkative peon was always an occasion for alertness, and one that came holding a hand behind him was an object of undivided curiosity until the concealed member appeared, clutching perhaps nothing more interesting than a cigar or a banana. Mexicans in crowds, mixed with liquor and “religion,” were always worth attention; and here was just such a mixture, for the fiesta was in honor of the Virgin, and the libations that had been poured out in her honor were generous. But the drink of Tehuantepec, whatever it might be—for pulque is unknown in the tropics—appeared to make its devotees merely gay and boisterous. The adults were friendly, even to an American, and the children shouted greetings to me as “Señor Gringo,” which here is merely a term of nationality and no such opprobrious title as it has grown to be on the plateau.

A few rockets had suggested an incipient revolution while I was at supper. Now the scene of the festivities was enlivened by four huge set-pieces of fireworks, each with a bell-shaped base in which a man could ensconce himself to the waist. One in the form of a duck first took to human legs and capered about the square while its network of rockets, pin-wheels, sizzlers, twisters, cannon-like explosions, and jets of colored fire kept the multitude surging back and forth some twenty minutes, to the accompaniment of maudlin laughter and the dancing and screaming of children, while the band, frankly giving up its vain attempts to produce music, gazed with all eyes and blew an unattentive, never-ending rag-time of some two strains. A monster turkey took up the celebration where the charred and disheveled duck left off, capering itself into blazing and uproarious oblivion. The finale consisted of two gigantic figures of a man and a woman, with a marvelous array of all possible lights and noises that lasted a full half-hour, while the two barefoot wearers danced back and forth bowing and careering to each other. The aftermath ran far into the night, and brought to naught my plans to make up for the sleepless night before.

Though most of the inhabitants of Tehuantepec live on earth floors in reed and grass houses, there is scarcely a sign of suffering poverty. Little Spanish is heard among them, although even the children seem quite able to speak it. Their native Indian tongue differs from the Castilian even in cadence, so that it was easy to tell which idiom was being spoken even before the words were heard. It is the chief medium of the swarming market in and about the black shadows of a roof on legs. Here the frank and self-possessed women, in their brief and simple dress, were legion. Footwear is unknown to them, and the loose, two-piece, disconnected dress was augmented, if at all, with a black lace shawl thrown over the shoulders in the, to them, chilly mornings. But the most remarkable part of the costume, of decorative properties only, is the head-dress common to a large per cent, of the women in town. From the back of the otherwise bare head hangs to the waist an intricate contrivance of lace and ruffles, snow-white and starched stiff, the awful complications of which no mere male would be able to describe beyond the comprehensive statement that the ensemble much resembles a Comanche chief in full war regalia. Above this they carry their loads on their heads in a sort of gourd bowl decorated with flowers, and walk with a sturdy self-sufficiency that makes a veranda or bridge quake under their brown-footed tread. They are lovers of color, especially here where the Pacific breezes turn the jungle to the eastward into a gaunt, sandy, brown landscape, and such combinations as soft-red skirts and sea-blue waists, or the reverse, mingle with black shot through with long perpendicular yellow stripes. The striking beauties of many a traveler’s hectic imagination were not in evidence. But then, it is nowhere customary to find a town’s best selling sapotes and fish in the market-place, and at least the attractiveness ranked high compared with a similar scene in any part of the world, while cleanliness was far more popular than in the highlands to the north.

The foreigner in Mexico is often surprised at the almost impossibility of getting the entree into its family life. American residents of high position are often intimate friends for years of Mexican men in their cafés and male gatherings, without ever stepping across their thresholds. Much of the seclusion of the Moor still holds, even half a world distant from the land of its origin. Yet his racial pseudo-courtesy leads the Mexican frequently to extend an invitation which only long experience teaches the stranger is a mere meaningless formality. On the train from Córdoba I spent considerable time in conversation with a well-to-do youth of Tehuantepec, during which I was formally invited at least a dozen times to visit him at his home. He failed to meet me at the rendezvous set, but was effusive when I ran across him in the evening round of the plaza:

“Ah, amigo mío. Muy buenas noches. Como ‘stá uste-e-é? So delighted! I was grieved beyond measure to miss you. I live in the Calle Reforma, number 83. There you have your own house. I am going there now. Do you not wish to accompany me? I have….”

“Yes, I should like to look in on you for a few moments.”

“Ah, I was so sorry to miss you,” he went on, standing stock still. “I must give you my address and you must write me, and I you.”

There followed an exchange of cards with great formality and many protestations of eternal friendship; then an effusive hand-shake and:

“Mil gracias, señor. May you have a most pleasant voyage. Thanks again. So pleased to have met you. Adiós. May you travel well. Hasta luego. Adiós. Que le vaya bien,” and with a flip of the hand and a wriggling of the fingers he was gone.

That evening I returned early to the “Hotel La Perla.” Its entire force was waiting for me. This consisted of Juan, a cheery, slight fellow in a blue undershirt and speckled cotton trousers of uncertain age, who was waiter, chambermaid, porter, bath-boy, sweeper, general swipe, possibly cook, and in all but name proprietor; the nominal one being a spherical native on the down-grade of life who never moved twice in the same day if it could be avoided, leaving the establishment to run itself, and accepting phlegmatically what money it pleased Providence to send him. The force was delighted at the pleasure of having a guest to wait upon, and stood opposite me all through the meal, offering gems of assorted wisdom intermingled with wide-ranging questions. I called for an extra blanket and turned in soon after dark. There reigned a delicious stillness that promised ample reparation for the two nights past. Barely had I drowsed off, however, when there intruded the chattering of several men in the alleyway and yard directly outside my window. “They’ll soon be gone,” I told myself, turning over. But I was over-optimistic. The voices increased, those of women chiming in. Louder and louder grew the uproar. Then a banjo-like instrument struck up, accompanying the most dismally mournful male voice conceivable, wailing a monotonous refrain of two short lines. This increased in volume until it might be heard a mile away. Male and female choruses joined in now and then. In the snatches between, the monotonous voice wailed on, mingled with laughter and frequent disputes. I rose at last to peer out the window. In the yard were perhaps a half-hundred natives, all seated on the ground, some with their backs against the very wall of my room, nearly all smoking, and with many pots of liquor passing from hand to hand. Midnight struck, then one, then two; and with every hour the riot increased. Once or twice I drifted into a short troubled dream, to be aroused with a start by a new burst of pandemonium. Then gradually the sounds subsided almost entirely. My watch showed three o’clock. I turned over again, grateful for the few hours left … and in that instant, without a breath of warning, there burst out the supreme cataclysm of a band of some twenty hoarse and battered pieces in an endless, unfathomable noise that never once paused for breath until daylight stole in at the window.

At “breakfast” I took Juan to task.

“Ah, señor,” he smiled, “it is too bad. But yesterday a man died in the house next door, and his friends have come to celebrate.”

“And keep the whole town awake all night?”

“Ay, senor, it is unfortunate indeed. But what would you? People will die, you know.”

Sleep is plainly not indigenous to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

From the neighboring town of Gamboa there runs southward a railway known as the “Pan-American.” Its fares are high and a freight-train behind an ancient, top-heavy engine drags a single passenger-car divided into two classes with it on its daily journey. The ticket-agent had no change, and did not know whether the end of the line was anywhere near Guatemala, though he was full of stories of the dangers to travelers in that country. A languid, good-natured crowd filled the car. We are so accustomed to think of lack of clothing as an attribute of savages that it was little short of startling to see a young lady opposite, naked to the waist but for a scanty and transparent suggestion of upper garment, read the morning newspaper and write a note with the savoir-faire of a Parisienne in her boudoir. She wore a necklace of American five-dollar gold pieces, with a pendant of twenties, the Goddess of Liberty and the date, 1898, on the visible side, and as earrings two older coins of $2.50. Nearly every woman in the car was thus decorated to some extent, always with the medallion side most in evidence, and one could see at a glance exactly how much each was worth.

In a long day’s travel we covered 112 miles. At Juchitán the passengers thinned. Much of this town had recently been destroyed in the revolution, and close to the track stood a crowded cemetery with hundreds of gorged and somnolent zopilotes, the carrion-crow of Mexico, about it. The country was a blazing dry stretch of mesquite and rare patches of forest in a sandy soil, with huts so few that the train halted at each of them, as if to catch its breath and wipe the sweat out of its eyes. Once, toward noon, we caught a glimpse of the Pacific. But all the day there spread on either hand an arid region with bare rocky hills, a fine sand that drifted in the air, and little vegetation except the thorny mesquite. A few herds of cattle were seen, but they were as rare as the small towns of stone huts and frontiers-man aspect. The train passed the afternoon like a walker who knows he can easily reach his night’s destination, and strolled leisurely into Tonolá before sunset.

Beyond the wild-west hotel lay a sweltering sand town of a few streets atrociously cobbled. We had reached the land of hammocks. Not a hut did I peep into that did not have three or four swinging lazily above the uneven earth floor. In the center of the broad, unkempt expanse that served as plaza stood an enormous pochote, a species of cottonwood tree, and about it drowsed a Sunday evening gathering half seen in the dim light of lanterns on the stands of hawkers. On a dark corner three men and a boy were playing a marimba, a frame with dried bars of wood as keys which, beaten with small wooden mallets, gave off a weird, half-mournful music that floated slowly away into the heavy hot night. The women seemed physically the equal of those of Tehuantepec, but their dress was quite different, a single loose white gown cut very low at the neck and almost without sleeves. One with a white towel on her head and hanging loosely about her shoulders looked startlingly like an Egyptian female figure that had stepped forth from the monuments of the Nile. Their brown skins were lustrous as silk, every line of their lithe bodies of a Venus-like development and they stood erect as palm-trees, or slipped by in the sand-paved night under their four-gallon’ American oilcans of water with a silent, sylph-like tread.

The train, like an experienced tropical traveler, started at the first peep of dawn. Tonolá marked the beginning of a new style of landscape, heralding the woodlands of Guatemala. All was now dense and richly green, not exactly jungle, but with forests of huge trees, draped with climbing vines, interlarded with vistas of fat cattle by the hundreds up to their bellies in heavy green grass, herds of which now and then brought us almost to a standstill by stampeding across the track. In contrast to the day before there were many villages, a kind of cross between the jungle towns of Siam and the sandy hamlets of our “Wild West.” A number had sawmills for the mahogany said to abound in the region. Now and then a pretty lake alive with wild fowl appeared in a frame of green. There were many Negroes, and not a few Americans among the ranchers, sawmill hands and railway employees, while John Chinaman, forbidden entrance to the country to the south, as to that north of the Rio Grande, put in a frequent appearance, as in all Mexico. It was a languorous, easy-going land, where day-before-yesterday’s paper was news. The sulky stare of the Mexican plateau had completely disappeared, and in its place was much laughter and an unobtrusive friendliness, and a complete lack of obsequiousness even on the part of the peons, who elbowed their way in and out among all classes as if there were no question as to the equality of all mankind. The daily arrival of the train seemed to be the chief recreation of the populace, so that there were signs of protest if it made only a brief stop. But there was seldom cause for this complaint, for the swollen-headed old engine was still capable of so much more than the schedule required that it was forced to make a prolonged stay at almost every station to let Father Time catch up with us.

The rumor ran that those who would enter Guatemala must get permission of its consul in Tapachula. But our own representative at that town chanced to board the train at a wayside hamlet and found the papers I carried sufficient. Two fellow countrymen raced away into the place as the train drew in, and returned drenched with sweat in time to continue with our leisurely convoy. Dakin was a boyish man from the Northern States, and Ems a swarthy “Texican” to whom Spanish was more native than English, both wandering southward in quest of jobs, as stationary and locomotive engineers respectively. They rode first-class, though this did not imply wealth, but merely that Pat Cassidy was conductor. He was a burly, whole-hearted American, supporting an enormous, flaring mustache and, by his own admission, all the “busted” white men traveling between Mexico and Guatemala. While I kept the seat to which my ticket entitled me, he passed me with a look of curiosity not unmixed with a hint of scorn. When I stepped into the upholstered class to ask him a question he bellowed, “Si’ down!” The inquiry answered, I rose to leave, only to be brought down again with a shout of, “Keep yer seat!” It is no fault of Cassidy’s if a “gringo” covers the Pan-American on foot or seated with peons, or goes hungry and thirsty or tobaccoless on the journey; and penniless strangers are not conspicuous by their absence along this route. As a Virginia Negro at one of the stations put it succinctly, “If dey ain’t black, dey’se white.”

A jungle bewilderment of vegetation grew up about us, with rich clearings for little clusters of palm-leaf huts, jungles so dense the eye could not penetrate them. Laughing women, often of strikingly attractive features, peopled every station, perfect in form as a Greek statue, and with complexions of burnished bronze. Everywhere was evidence of a constant joy in life and of a placid conviction that Providence or some other philanthropist who had always taken care of them always would. Teeth were not so universally splendid as on the plateau, but the luminous, snapping black eyes more than made up for this less perfect feature.

Nightfall found us still rumbling lazily on and it was nearly an hour later that we reached Mariscal at the end of the line, four or five scattered buildings of which two disguised themselves under the name of hotels. Ems and I slept—or more exactly passed the night—on cots in one of the rooms of transparent partitions, while Dakin, who refused to accept alms for anything so useless, spread a grass mat among the dozen native women stretched out along the veranda.