Richard Harding Davis.

Three gringos in Venezuela and Central America online

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halted for the night. I do not know which was
the worst of the mosos, although Emilio seems
to have been first choice with all of us. We
agreed, after it was all over, that we did not so
much regret not having killed them as that they
could not know how frequently they had been
near to sudden and awful death.

The people of Honduras, where all the travel-
ling is done on mule or horse back, have a pretty
custom of riding out to meet a friend when he
is known to be coming to town, and of accom-
panying him when he departs. This latter cere-
mony always made me feel as though I were an
undesirable citizen who was being conveyed out-
side of the city limits by a Vigilance Committee ;
but it is very well meant, and a man in Hon-
duras measures his popularity by the number
of friends who come forth to greet him on his
arrival, or who speed him on his way when he


sets forth again. We were accompanied out of
San Pedro Sula by the consular agent, the able
American manager of the thirty-seven miles
of railroad, an'd his youthful baggage-master, a
young gentleman whom I had formerly known
in the States.

Our escort left us at the end of a few miles,
at the foot of the mountains, and we began the
ascent alone. From that time on until we
reached the Pacific Ocean we moved at the rate
of three miles an hour, or some nine leagues a
day, as distances are measured in Honduras, ten
hours being a day's journey. Our mules were
not at all the animals that we know as mules in
the States, but rather overgrown donkeys or
burros, and not much stouter than those in the
streets of Cairo, whether it be the Street in
Cairo of Chicago, or the one that runs in front
of Shepheard's Hotel. They were patient, plucky,
and wonderfully sure-footed little creatures, and
so careful of their own legs and necks that, after
the first few hours, we ceased to feel any anxiety
about our own, and left the entire charge of the
matter to them.

I think we were all a little startled at sight of
the trail we were expected to follow, but if we
were we did not say so at least, not before Jeffs.
It led almost directly up the face of the moun-
tain, along little ledges and pathways cut in
the solid rock, and at times was so slightly


marked that we could not see it five yards ahead
of us. On that first day, during which the trail
was always leading upward, the mules did not
once put down any one of their four little feet
withe at first testing the spot upon which it was
to rest. This made our progress slow, but it
gave one a sense of security, which the angle
and attitude of the body of the man in front
did much to dissipate. I do not know the
name of the mountains over which we passed,
nor do I know the name of any mountain in
Honduras, except those which we named our-
selves, for the reason that there is not much in
Honduras except mountains, and it would be as
difficult to give a name to each of her many
peaks as to christen every town site on a Western
prairie. When the greater part of all the earth
of a country stands on edge in the air, it would
be invidious to designate any one particular hill
or chain of hills. A Honduranian deputy once
crumpled up a page of letter-paper in his hand
and dropped it on the desk before him. " That,"
he said, " is an outline map of Honduras."

We rode in single file, with Jeffs in front,
followed by Somerset, with Griscom and myself
next, and Charlwood, the best and most faith-
ful of servants, bringing up the rear. The pack-
mules, as I have said, were two hours farther
back, and we could sometimes see them over
the edge of a precipice crawling along a thou-



sand feet below and behind us. It seemed an
unsociable way for friends to travel through a
strange country, and I supposed that in an hour

or so \ve would come
to a broader trail and
pull up abreast and
exchange tobacco
pouches and grow
better acquainted.
But we never came
to that broad trail
until we had trav-
elled sixteen days,
and had left Tegu-
cigalpa behind us,
and in the fore-
ground of all the
pictures I have in
my mind of Hondu-
ras there is always a
row of men's backs
and shoulders and
bobbing helmets dis-
appearing down a
slippery path of rock,
or rising above the


edge of a mountain
and outlined against

a blazing blue sky. We were generally near
enough to one another to talk if we spoke in


a loud voice or turned in the saddle, though
sometimes we rode silently, and merely raised
an arm to point at a beautiful valley below or
at a strange bird on a tree, and kept it rigid
until the man behind said, " Yes, I see," when
it dropped, like a semaphore signal after the
train has passed.

Early in the afternoon of the day of our set-
ting forth we saw for the last time the thatched
roofs of San Pedro Sula, like a bare spot in the
great green plain hundreds of feet below us,
and then we passed through the clouds we had
watched from the town itself, and bade the
eastern coast of Honduras a final farewell.

The trail we followed was so rough and uncer-
tain that at first I conceived a very poor opinion
of the Honduranians for not having improved it,
but as we continued scrambling upward I ad-
mired them for moving about at all under such
conditions. After all, we who had chosen to
take this road through curiosity had certainly no
right to complain of what was to the natives
their only means of communication with the At-
lantic seaboard. It is interesting to think of a
country absolutely and entirely dependent on
such thoroughfares for every necessity of life.
For whether it be a postal card or a piano, or a
bale of cotton, or a box of matches, it must be
brought to Tegucigalpa on the back of a mule
or on the shoulders of a man, who must slip and


slide and scramble either over this trail or the
one on the western coast.

Sometimes this high-road of commerce was cut
through the living rock in steps as even and sharp
as those in front of a brownstone house on Fifth
Avenue, and so narrow that we had to draw up
our knees to keep them from being scratched
and cut on the rough walls of the passageway,
and again it led through jungle so dense that
if one wandered three yards from the trail he
could not have found his way back again ; but
this danger was not imminent, as no one could
go that far from the trail without having first
hacked and cut his way there.

It was not always so difficult ; at times we
came out into bare open spaces, and rode up the
dry bed of a mountain stream, and felt the full
force of the sun, or again it led along a ledge of
rock two feet wide at the edge of a precipice, and
we were fanned with cool, damp breaths from the
pit a thousand feet belo\v, where the sun had
never penetrated, and where the moss and fern
of centuries grew in a thick, dark tangle.

We stopped for our first meal at a bare place
on the top of a mountain, where there were a
half-dozen mud huts. Jeffs went from one to
another of these and collected a few eggs, and
hired a woman to cook them and to make us
some coffee. We added tinned things and bread
to this luncheon, which, as there were no benches,



we ate seated on the ground, kicking at the dogs
and pigs and chickens, that snatched in a most
familiar manner at the food in our hands. In
Honduras there are so few hotels that travellers
are entirely dependent for food and for a place
in which to sleep upon the people who live along
the trail, who are apparently quite hardened to
having their homes invaded by strangers, and
their larders levied upon at any hour of the day
or night.

Even in the larger towns and so-called cities
we slept in private houses, and on the solitary
occasion when we were directed to a hotel we
found a bare room with a pile of canvas cots
heaped in one corner, to which we were told to
help ourselves. There was a real hotel, and a
very bad one, at the capital, where we fared much
worse than we had often done in the interior ;
but with these two exceptions we were depend-
ent for shelter during our entire trip across Hon-
duras upon the people of the country. Some-
times they sent us to sleep in the town-hall, which
was a large hut with a mud floor, and furnished
with a blackboard and a row of benches, and
sometimes with stocks for prisoners ; for it served
as a school or prison or hotel, according to the
needs of the occasion.

We were equally dependent upon the natives
for our food. We carried breakfast bacon and
condensed milk and sardines and bread with us,


and to these we were generally able to add, at
least once a day, coffee and eggs and beans. The
national bread is the tortilla. It is made of corn-
meal, patted into the shape of a buckwheat cake
between the palms of the hands, and then baked.
They were generally given to us cold, in a huge
pile, and were burned on both sides, but untouched
by heat in the centre. The coffee was always
excellent, as it should have been, for the Hon-
duranian coffee is as fine as any grown in Central
America, and we never had too much of it ; but
of eggs and black beans there was no end. The
black-bean habit in Honduras is very general ;
they gave them to us three times a day, some-
times cold and sometimes hot, sometimes with
bacon and sometimes alone. They were fre-
quently served to us in the shape of sandwiches
between tortillas, and again in the form of pud-
ding with chopped-up goat's meat. At first, and
when they were served hot, I used to think them
delicious. That seems very long ago now. When
I was at Johnstown at the time of the flood, there
was a soda cracker, with jam inside, which was
served out to the correspondents in place of
bread ; and even now, if it became a question of
my having to subsist on those crackers, and the
black beans of Central America, or starve, I am
sure I should starve, and by preference.

We were naturally embarrassed at first when
we walked into strange huts; but the owners


seemed to take such invasions with apathy and
as a matter of course, and were neither glad to
see us when we came, nor relieved when we de-
parted. They asked various prices for what they
gave us about twice as much as they would
have asked a native for the same service ; at least,
so Jeffs told us; but as our bill never amounted
to more than fifty cents apiece for supper, lodg-
ing, and a breakfast the next morning, they can-
not be said to have robbed us. While the wom-
an at the first place at which we stopped boiled
the eggs, her husband industriously whittled a
lot of sharp little sticks, which he distributed
among us, and the use of which we could not
imagine, until we were told we were expected
to spike holes in the eggs with them, and then
suck out the meat. We did not make a success
of this, and our prejudice against eating eggs
after that fashion was such that we were partic-
ular to ask to have them fried during the rest of
our trip. This was the only occasion when I saw
a Honduranian husband help his wife to work.

After our breakfast on the top of the moun-
tain, we began its descent on the other side.
This was much harder on the mules than the
climbing had been, and they stepped even more
slowly, and so gave us many opportunities to
look out over the tops of trees and observe
with some misgivings the efforts of the man in
front to balance the mule by lying flat on its


hind-quarters. The temptation at such times
to sit upright and see into what depths you
were going next was very great. We struck a
level trail about six in the evening, and the mules
were so delighted at this that they started off of
their own accord at a gallop, and were further
encouraged by our calling them by the names of
different Spanish generals. This inspired them
to such a degree that we had to change their
names to Bob Ingersoll or Senator Hill, or oth-
ers to the same effect, at which they grew dis-
couraged and drooped perceptibly.

We slept that night at a ranch called La Pieta,
belonging to Dr. Miguel Pazo, where we experi-
mented for the first time with our hammocks,
and tried to grow accustomed to going to bed
under the eyes of a large household of Indian
maidens, mosos, and cowboys. There are men
who will tell you that they like to sleep in a
hammock, just as there are men who will tell
you that they like the sea best when it is rough,
and that they arc happiest when the ship is
throwing them against the sides and superstruct-
ure, and when they cannot sit still without brac-
ing their legs against tables and stanchions. I
always want to ask such men if they would pre-
fer land in a state of perpetual earthquake, or in
its normal condition of steadiness, and I have al-
ways been delighted to hear sea-captains declare
themselves best pleased with a level keel, and the


chance it gives them to go about their work with-
out having to hang on to hand-rails. And I had
a feeling of equal satisfaction when I saw as many
sailors as could find room sleeping on the hard
deck of a man-of-war at Colon, in preference to
suspending themselves in hammocks, which were
swinging empty over their heads. The ham-
mock keeps a man at an angle of forty-five de-
grees, with the weight of both his legs and his
body on the base of the spinal column, which
gets no rest in consequence.

The hammock is, however, almost universally
used in Honduras, and is a necessity there on ac-
count of the insects and ants and other beasts
that climb up the legs of cots and inhabit the
land. But the cots of bull -hide stretched on
ropes are, in spite of the insects, greatly to be
preferred ; they are at least flat, and one can lie
on them without having his legs three feet higher
than his head. Their manufacture is very sim-
ple. When a steer is killed its hide is pegged
out on the ground, and left where the dogs can
eat what flesh still adheres to it ; and when it
has been cleaned after this fashion and the sun
has dried it, ropes of rawhide are run through
its edges, and it is bound to a wooden frame
with the hairy side up. It makes a cool, hard
bed. In the poorer huts the hides are given to
the children at night, and spread directly on the
earth floor. During the day the same hides are


used to hold the coffee, which is piled high upon
them and placed in the sun to dry.

We left La Pieta early the next morning, in
the bright sunlight, but instead of climbing labo-
riously into the sombre mountains of the day
before, we trotted briskly along a level path be-
tween sunny fields and delicate plants, and trees
with a pale-green foliage, and covered with the
most beautiful white-and-purple flowers. There
were hundreds of doves in the air, and in the
bushes many birds of brilliant blue-and-black or
orange-and-scarlet plumage, and one of more so-
ber colors with two long white tail-feathers and a
white crest, like a macaw that had turned Quaker.
None of these showed the least inclination to
disturb himself as we approached. An hour af-
ter our setting forth we plunged into a forest of
manacca-palms, through which we rode the rest
of the morning. This was the most beautiful
and wonderful experience of our journey. The
manacca-palm differs from the cocoanut or royal
palm in that its branches seem to rise directly
from the earth, and not to sprout, as do the oth-
ers, from the top of a tall trunk. Each branch
has a single stem, and the leaf spreads and falls
from cither side of this, cut into even blades,
like a giant fern.

There is a plant that looks like the manacca-
palm at home which you see in flower-pots in the
corners of drawing-rooms at weddings, and conse-


quently when we saw the real manacca-palm the
effect was curious. It did not seem as though
they were monster specimens of these little plants
in the States, but as though we had grown small-
er. We felt dwarfed, as though we had come
across a rose-bush as large as a tree. The branch-
es of these palms were sixty feet high, and occa-
sionally six feet broad, and bent and swayed and
interlaced in the most graceful and exquisite con-
fusion. Every blade trembled in the air, and for
hours we heard no other sound save their perpet-
ual murmur and rustle. Not even the hoofs of
our mules gave a sound, for they trod on the dead
leaves of centuries. The palms made a natural
archway for us, and the leaves hung like a por-
tiere across the path, and you would see the man
riding in front raise his arm and push the long
blades to either side, and disappear as they fell
again into place behind him. It was like a scene
on the tropical island of a pantomime, where ev-
ery thing is exaggerated both in size and in beau-
ty. It made you think of a giant aquarium or
conservatory which had been long neglected.

At every hundred yards or so there were
giant trees with smooth gray trunks, as even and
regular as marble, and with roots like flying-but-
tresses, a foot in thickness, and reaching from
ten to fifteen feet up from the ground. If these
flanges had been covered over, a man on mule-
back could have taken refuge between them.


Some of the trunks of these trees were covered
with intricate lace -work of a parasite which
twisted in and out, and which looked as though
thousands of snakes were crawling over the
white surface of the tree ; they were so much
like snakes that one passed beneath them with
an uneasy shrug. Hundreds of orchids clung to
the branches of the trees, and from these stouter
limbs to the more pliable branches of the palms
below white- faced monkeys sprang and swung
from tree to tree, running along the branches
until they bent with the weight like a trout-rod,
and sprang upright again with a sweep and rush
as the monkeys leaped off chattering into the
depths of the forest. We rode through this
enchanted wilderness of wavering sunlight and
damp, green shadows for the greater part of the
day, and came out finally into a broad, open
plain, cut up by little bubbling streams, flashing
brilliantly in the sun. It was like an awakening
from a strange and beautiful nightmare.

In the early part of the afternoon we arrived
at another one of the farm-houses belonging to
young Dr. Pa/,o, and at which he and his brother
happened to be stopping. We had ridden out
of our way there in the hopes of obtaining a few
days' shooting, and the place seemed to promise
much sport. The Chamdicon River, filled with
fish and alligators, ran within fifty yards of the
house ; and great forests, in which there were



bear and deer and wild-pig, stretched around it
and beyond it on every side. The house itself
was like almost every other native hut in Hon-
duras. They are all built very much alike, with
no attempt at ornamentation within, or land-
scape-gardening without, although nature has
furnished the most beautiful of plants and trees
close on every side for just such a purpose. The
walls of a Honduranian hut are made of mud
packed round a skeleton of interwoven rods ;
the floor is of the naked earth, and the roof is
thatched with the branches of palms. After the
house is finished, all of the green stuff growing
around and about it is cleared away for fifty
yards or so, leaving an open place of bare and
barren mud. This is not decorative, but it helps
in some measure to keep the insects which cling
to every green thing away from the house. A
kitchen of similarly interlaced rods and twigs,
but without the clay, and covered with just such
layers of palm leaves, stands on the bare place
near the house, or leans against one side of it.
This is where the tortillas are patted and baked,
and the rice and beans are boiled, and the raw
meat of an occasional goat or pig is hung to
dry and smoke over the fire. The oven in the
kitchen is made of baked clay, and you seldom
see any cooking utensils or dishes that have
not been manufactured from the trees near the
house or the earth beneath it. The water for


drinking and cooking is kept in round jars of red
clay, which stand in rings of twisted twigs to
keep them upright, and the drinking-vessels are
the halves of gourds, and the ladles are whole
gourds, with the branch on which they grew still
adhering to them, to serve as a handle.

The furnishing of the house shows the same
dependence upon nature; the beds arc either grass
hammocks or the rawhide that 1 have described,
and there arc no chairs and few benches, the peo-
ple preferring apparently to eat sitting on their
haunches to taking the trouble necessary to
make a chair. Everything they eat, of which
there is very little variety, grows just beyond
the cleared place around the hut, and can be
had at the cost of the little energy necessary to
bring it in-doors. When a kid or a pig or a
steer is killed, the owner goes out to the near-
est peak and blows a blast on a cow's horn,
and those within hearing who wish fresh meat
hurry across the mountain to purchase it. As
there is no ice from one end of Honduras to the
other, meat has to be eaten the day it is killed.

This is not the life of the Honduranians who
live in the large towns or so-called cities, where
there are varying approaches to the comfort of
civili/.ed countries, but of the country people
with whom we had chiefly to do. It is as near
an approach to the condition of primitive man
as one can find on this continent.


But bare and poor as are the houses, which are
bare not because the people are poor, but because
they are indolent, there is almost invariably some
corner of the hut set aside and ornamented as an
altar, or some part of the wall covered with pict-
ures of a religious meaning. When they have no
table, the people use a shelf or the stump of a
tree upon which to place emblematic figures,
which are almost always china dolls, with no
original religious significance, but which they
have dressed in little scraps of tinsel and silk,
and which they have surrounded with sardine-
tins and empty bottles and pictures from the
lids of cigar- boxes. Everything that has color
is cherished, and every traveller who passes adds
unconsciously to their stock of ornaments in the
wrappings of the boxes which he casts away be-
hind him. Sometimes the pictures they use for
ornamentation are not half so odd as the fact
that they ever should have reached such a wil-
derness. We were frequently startled by the
sight of colored lithographs of theatrical stars,
advertising the fact that they were playing under
the direction of such and such a manager, and
patent- medicine advertisements and wood- cuts
from illustrated papers, some of them twenty
and thirty years old, which were pinned to the
mud walls and reverenced as gravely as though
they had been pictures of the Holy Family by a
Raphael or a Murillo.


In one hut we found a life-size colored litho-
graph of a woman whom, it so happened, we all
knew, which was being used to advertise a sewing-
machine. We were so pleased at meeting a fa-
miliar face so far from home that we bowed to
it very politely, and took off our hats, at which
the woman of the house, mistaking our deference,
placed it over the altar, fearing that she had been
entertaining an angel unawares.

The house of Dr. Pazo, where we were most
hospitably entertained, was similar to those that
I have described. It was not his home, but
what we would call a hunting-box or a ranch.
While we were at luncheon he told a boy to see
if there were any alligators in sight, in exactly
the same tone with which he might have told a
servant to find out if the lawn-tennis net were in
place. The boy returned to say that there were
five within a hundred yards of the house. So,
after we had as usual patiently waited for Griscom
to finish his coffee, we went out on the bank and
fired at the unhappy alligators for the remainder
of the afternoon. It did not seem to hurt them
very much, and certainly did us a great deal of
good. To kill an alligator it is necessary to hit
it back of the fore -leg, or to break its spine
where it joins the tail ; and as it floats with only
its eyes and a half-inch of its nose exposed, it is
difficult to reach either of these vital spots.

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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 4 of 11)