Richard Harding Davis.

Three gringos in Venezuela and Central America online

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there were beautiful macaws which had once
been painted in brilliant reds and greens and
yellows, and which we tried to carry off one
night, until we found that they also were made
of iron. We would have preferred the statue of
Morazan as a souvenir, but that we doubted its
identity. Morazan was a smooth-faced man with
a bushy head of hair, and this statue showed him
with long side- whiskers and a bald head, and in
the uniform of an English admiral. It was prob-
ably the rejected work of some English sculptor,
and had been obtained, no doubt, at a moderate
price, and as very few remember Morazan to-day
it answers its purpose excellently well. We be-
came very much attached to it, and used to burn
incense to it in the form of many Honduranian
cigars, which sell at two cents apiece.


When night came on, and the billiard-room
had grown so hot that the cues slipped in our
hands, and the tantalizing sight of an American
ice-cooler, which had never held ice since it left
San Francisco, had driven us out into the night,
we would group ourselves at the base of this
statue to Morazan, and throw rocks at the buz-
zards and pigs, and let the only breeze that dares
to pass over Amapala bring our temperature
down to normal. We should have plotted a revo-
lution by rights, for the scene was set for such a
purpose, and no one in the town accounted in any
other way for our climbing the broken iron rail-
ing nightly, and remaining on the steps of the
pedestal until two the next morning.

Amapala, I suppose, was used to heat, and
could sleep with the thermometer at ninety, and
did not mind the pigs or the buzzards, and if we
did plot to convert Honduras into a monarchy
and make Somerset king, no one heard us but
the English edition of Morazan smiling blandly
down upon us like a floor-walker at the Army
and Navy Stores, with his hand on his heart
and an occasional buzzard soaring like Poe's ra-
ven above his marble forehead. The moonlight
turned him into a figure of snow, and the great
palms above bent and waved and shivered un-
ceasingly, and the sea beat on the rocks at our

It was an interesting place of rendezvous, but


we tired of a town that grew cool only after mid-
night, and in which the fever stalked abroad by
day. So we chartered a small boat, and provi-
sioned it, and enlisted a crew of pirates, and set
sail one morning for Corinto, seventy- five miles
farther south. There was no steamer expected
at Corinto at any earlier date than at Amapala,
but in the nature of things one had to touch
there some time, and there was a legend to which
we had listened with doubt and longing to the
effect that at Corinto there was an ice -machine,
and though we found later that the ice-machines
always broke on the day we arrived in port,
we preferred the chance of finding Fonseca Bay
in a peaceful state to yellow-fever at Amapala.
It was an exciting voyage. I would now, being
more wise, choose the yellow-fever, but we did
not know any better then. There was no deck
to the boat, and it was not wide enough for one
to lie lengthwise from side to side, and too
crowded to permit of our stretching our bodies
fore and aft. So we rolled about on top of one
another, and were far too miserable to either
apologize or swear when we bumped into a man's
ribs or sat on his head.

We started with a very fine breeze dead astern,
and the boat leaped and plunged and rolled all
night, and we were hurled against the sides and
thumped by rolling trunks, and travelling-bags,
and gun- cases, and boxes of broken apollinaris


bottles. The stone- breaker in a quarry would
have soothed us in comparison. And when the
sun rose fully equipped at four in the morning
the wind died away absolutely, and we rose and
sank all day on the great swell of the Pacific
Ocean. The boat was painted a bright red in-
side and out, and the sun turned this open red
bowl into an oven of heat. It made even our
white flannels burn when they touched the skin
like a shirt of horse -hair. As far as we covild
look on every side the ocean lay like a sea of
quicksilver, and the dome of the sky glittered
with heat. The red paint on the sides bubbled
and cracked, and even the native boatmen cow-
ered under the cross-seats with their elbows fold-
ed on their knees and their faces buried in their
arms ; and we had not the heart to tell them to
use the oars, even if we had known how. At
noon the chief pirate crawled over the other
bodies and rigged up the sail so that it threw a
shadow over mine, and I lay under this awning
and read Barrie's Lady Nicotine, while the type
danced up and down in waving lines like the let-
ters in a typewriter. I am sure it was only the
necessity which that book impressed upon me of
holding on to life until I could smoke the Arca-
dia mixture that kept me from dropping over-
board and being cremated in the ocean below.

We sighted the light -house of Corinto at last,
and hailed the white custom-house and the palms


and the blue cottages of the port with a feeble

The people came down to the shore and
crowded around her bow as we beached her in
front of the custom-house, and a man asked
us anxiously in English, " What ship has been
wrecked ?" And we explained that we were not
survivors of a shipwreck, but of a possible con-
flagration, and wanted ice.

And then, when we fell over the side bruised
and sleepy, and burning with thirst, and with
everything still dancing before our eyes, they re-
fused to give us ice until we grew cooler, and
sent out in the meanwhile to the comandancia in
search of some one who could identify us as
escaped revolutionists. They took our guns
away from us as a precaution, but they could
have had half our kingdom for all we cared, for
the wonderful legend proved true, and at last we
got the ice in large, thick glasses, with ginger
ale and lemon juice and apollinaris water trick-
ling through it, and there was frost on the sides
of the glasses, and a glimpse of still more ice
wrapped up in smoking blankets in the refrigera-
tor ice that we had not tasted for many days
of riding in the hot sun and through steaming
swamp-lands, and which we had last seen treated
with contempt and contumely, knocked about at
the bow of a tug -boat in the North River, and
tramped upon by many muddy feet on Fifth Av-


enue. None of us will ever touch ice hereafter
without handling it with the same respect and
consideration that we would show to a precious

The busybodies of Corinto who had decided
from the manner of our arrival that we had been
forced to leave Honduras for the country's good,
finally found a native who identified me as a
filibuster he had met during the last revolution
at Leon. As that was bringing it rather
home, Griscom went after Mr. Palaccio, the Ital-
ian who serves both England and the United
States as consular agent. We showed him a rare
collection of autographs of secretaries, ambassa-
dors, and prime-ministers, and informed him that
we intended taking four state-rooms on the
steamer of the line he represented at that port.
This convinced him of the necessity of keeping
us out of jail until the boat arrived, and he satis-
fied the local authorities as to our respectability,
and that we had better clothes in our trunks.

Corinto is the best harbor on the Pacific side
of Nicaragua, but the town is not as large as the
importance of the port would suggest. It con-
sists of three blocks of two-story houses, facing
the harbor fifty feet back from the water's edge,
with a sandy street between each block of build-
ings. There are about a thousand inhabitants,
and a foreign population which varies from five
residents to a dozen transient visitors and stew-


ards on steamer days. The natives are chiefly
occupied in exporting coffee and receiving the
imported goods for the interior, and the princi-
pal amusement of the foreign colony is bathing
or playing billiards. It has a whist club of four
members. The fifth foreign resident acts as a
substitute in the event of any one of the four
players chancing to have 'another engagement,
but as there is no one with whom he could have
an engagement, the substitute is seldom called
upon. He told me he had been sitting by and
smoking and watching the others play whist for
a month now, and hoping that one of them
would have a sunstroke.

We left Corinto the next morning and took
the train to Lake Managua, where we were
to connect with a steamer which crosses the
lake to the capital. It was a beautiful ride,
and for some distance ran along the sea-shore,
where the ocean rolled up the beach in great
waves, breaking in showers of foam upon the
rocks. Then we crossed lagoons and swamps on
trestles, and passed pretty thatched villages, and
saw many beautiful women and girls selling
candy and sugar-cane at the stations. They
wore gowns that left the neck and shoulders
bare, and wrapped themselves in silk shawls of
solid colors, which they kept continually loosen-
ing and rearranging, tossing the ends coquet-
tishly from one shoulder to the other, or drawing

; W ; :


them closely about the figure, or like a cowl
over the head. This silk shawl is the most
characteristic part of the wardrobe of the native
women of Central America. It is as inevitable
as the mantilla of their richer sisters, and it is
generally the only bit of splendor they possess.
A group of them on a feast-day or Sunday, when
they come marching towards you with green,
purple, blue, or yellow shawls, makes a very strik-
ing picture.

These women of the pueblo in Honduras and
Nicaragua were better-looking than the women
of the lower classes of any country I have ever
visited. They were individually more beautiful,
and the proportion of beautiful women was great-
er. A woman there is accustomed from her
childhood to carry heavy burdens on her head,
and this gives to all of them an erect carriage
and a fearless uplifting of the head when they
walk or stand. They have never known a tight
dress or a tight shoe, and they move as easily
and as gracefully as an antelope. Their hair is
very rich and heavy, and they oil it and comb it
and braid it from morning to night, wearing
it parted in the middle, and drawn tightly back
over the ears, and piled upon the head in heavy
braids. Their complexion is a light brown, and
their eyes have the sad look which one sees in
the eyes of a deer or a dog, and which is not so
much the sign of any sorrow as of the lack of in-


telligencc. The women of the upper classes are
like most Spanish-American women, badly and
over dressed in a gown fashioned after some for-
gotten Parisian mode, with powder over their
faces, and with their hair frizzled and curled in
ridiculous profusion. They are a very sorry con-
trast to a woman of the people, such as you see
standing in the doorways of the mud-huts, or
advancing towards you along the trail with an
earthen jar on her shoulder, straight of limb, and
with a firm, fine lower jaw, a low, broad forehead,
and shy, sad eyes.

Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, is a most
dismal city, built on a plain of sun-dried earth,
with houses of sun-dried earth, plazas and parks
and streets of sun-dried earth, and a mantle of
dust over all. Even the stores that have been
painted in colors and hung with balconies have a
depressed, dirty, and discouraged air. The streets
are as full of ruts and furrows as a country road,
the trees in the plaza are lifeless, and their leaves
shed dust instead of dew, and the people seem to
have taken on the tone of their surroundings,
and very much more of the dust than seems ab-
solutely necessary. We were there only two
days, and felt when we left as though we had
been camping out on a baseball diamond ; and
we were sure that had we remained any longer
we should have turned into living statues of clay
when the sun shone, and of mud when it rained.


There was no American minister or consul at
Managua at the time of our visit, but the English
consul took very good care of us, and acted as
our interpreter when we called upon the presi-
dent. Relations between the consul and Presi-
dent Zelaya were somewhat strained at that time,
and though we knew this we told the consul to tell
the president how much he was admired by the
American people for having taken the stand he
did against the English on the Mosquito Coast
question, and that we hoped he would see that
the British obtained no foothold near our canal.
At which the English consul would hesitate and
grin unhappily, and remark, in a hurried aside,
" I'll be hanged if I'll translate that." So we con-
tinued inventing other pleasant speeches deroga-
tory to Britons and British influence in Nicaragua
until Somerset and his consul protested vigorous-
ly, and the president saw what we were doing
and began to enjoy the consul's embarrassment
and laughed, and the consul laughed with him,
and they made up their quarrel for the time
being, at least.

Zelaya said, among other things, that if there
were no other argument in favor of the Nicaragua
Canal than that it would enable the United States
to move her ships of war quickly from ocean to
ocean, instead of being forced as she is now to
make them take the long journey around Cape
Horn, it would be of inestimable benefit. He also


said that the only real objection that had been
made in the United States to the canal came from
those interested in the transcontinental railroads,
who saw in its completion the destruction of their
freight traffic.

He seemed to be a very able man, and more a
man of the world than Bonilla, the President of
Honduras, and much older in many ways. He
was apparently somewhat of a philosopher, and
believed, or said he did, in the survival of the fit-
test as applied to the occupation of his country.
He welcomed the gringos, he said, and if they
were better able to rule Nicaragua than her own
people, he would accept that fact as inevitable
and make way before them.

We returned to Corinto after wallowing in the
dust-bins of Managua as joyfully as though it
were a home, and we were so anxious to reach
the ocean again that we left Granada and Leon,
which are, so we are told, much more attractive
than the capital, out of our route.

Corinto was bright and green and sunny, and
the waters of the big harbor before it danced
and flashed by day and radiated with phosphor-
escent fire by night. It was distinctly a place
where it would occur to one to write up the back
pages of his diary, but it was interesting at least
in showing us the life of the exiles in these hot,
far-away seaports among a strange people.

There was but one hotel, which happened to be



a very good one with a very bad proprietor, who,
I trust, will come some day to an untimely death
at the end of one of his own billiard-cues. The
hotel was built round a patio filled with palms
and ramparts of empty bottles from the bar, cov-
ered with dust, and bearing the name of every
brewer and wine-grower in Europe. The sleep-
ing-rooms were on the second floor, and looked
on the patio on one side and upon a wide cov-
ered veranda which faced the harbor on the
other. The five resident gringos in Corinto lived
at the hotel, and sat all day on this veranda
swinging in their hammocks and swapping six-
months-old magazines and tattered novels. Read-
ing-matter assumed an importance in Corinto it
had never attained before, and we read all the
serial stories, of which there was never more than
the fourth or sixth instalment, and the scientific
articles on the Fall of the Rupee in India, or the
Most Recent Developments in Electricity, and
delighted in the advertisements of seeds and
bicycles and baking-powders.

The top of our veranda was swept by a row
of plane-trees that grew in the sandy soil of the
beach below us, and under the shade of which
were gathered all the idle ones of the port.
There were among them thieving ships' stewards
who had been marooned from passing vessels,
ne'er-do-wells from the interior who were " comb-
ing the beach " and looking for work, but not so


diligently that they had seen the coffee planta-
tions on their tramp down to the coast, and who
begged for money to take them back to " God's
country," or to the fever hospital at Panama.
With them were natives, sailors from the rolling
tug-boat they called a ship of war, and bare-
footed soldiers from the cartel, and longshore-
men with over-developed chests and muscles, who
toil mightily on steamer days and sleep and eat
for the ten days between as a reward.

All of these idlers gathered in the shade around
the women who sold sweet drinks and sticks of
pink-and-yellow candy. They were the public
characters of the place and the centre of all the
gossip of the town, and presided over their tables
with great dignity in freshly ironed frocks and
brilliant turbans. They were very handsome and
very clean-looking, with bare arms and shoulders,
and their hair always shone with cocoanut oil,
and was wonderfully braided and set off with
flowers stuck coquettishly over one car. The
men used to sit around them in groups on the
bags of coffee waiting for export, and on the
boxes of barbed wire, which seemed to be the
only import. And sometimes a small boy would
buy a stick of candy or command the mixture
of a drink, and the woman would fuss over her
carved gourds, and rinse and rub them and mix
queer liquors with a whirling stick of wood that
she spun between the palms of her hands. We


would all watch the operation with great interest,
the natives on the coffee-sacks and ourselves upon
the balcony, and regard the small boy while he
drank the concoction with envy.

The veranda had loose planks for its floor, and
gaping knot-holes through which the legs of our
chairs would sink suddenly, and which we could
use on those occasions when we wanted to drop
penknives and pencils and water on the heads of
those passing below. Our companions in idle-
ness were the German agents of the trading-
houses and young Englishmen down from the
mines to shake off a touch of fever, and two
Americans who were taking a phonograph
through Central America. Their names were
Edward Morse and Charles Brackett, and we will
always remember them as the only Americans
we met who were taking money out of Central
America and not bringing it there to lose it.

Every afternoon we all tramped a mile or two
up the beach in the hot sun for the sake of a
quarter of an hour of surf-bathing, which was de-
lightful in itself, and which was rendered espe-
cially interesting by our having to share the
surf with large man-eating sharks. When they
came, which they were sure to do ten minutes
after we had arrived, we generally gave them our

The phonograph men and our party did not
believe in sharks; so we would venture out sorne


distance, leaving the Englishmen and the Ger-
mans standing like sandpipers where the water
was hardly up to their ankles, and keeping an
anxious lookout for us and themselves. Had
the sharks attempted to attack us from the land,
they would have afforded excellent protection.
When they all yelled at once and ran back up
the beach into the bushes, we knew that they
thought we had been in long enough, and we
came out, and made as much noise as we could
while doing so. But there would be invariably
one man left behind one man who had walked
out farther than the others, and who, owing to
the roar of the surf, could not hear our shrieks
of terror. It was exciting to watch him from
the beach diving and splashing happily by him-
self, and shaking the water out of his ears and
hair, blissfully unconscious of the deserted waste
of waters about him and of the sharp, black fin
that shot like a torpedo from wave to wave.
We would watch him as he turned to speak to
the man who the moment before had been
splashing and diving on his right, and, missing
him, turn to the other side, and then whirl about
and see us all dancing frantically up and down
in a row along the beach, beckoning and scream-
ing and waving our arms. We could observe
even at that distance his damp hair rising on his
head and his eyes starting out of their sockets
as he dug his toes into the sand and pushed


back the water with his arms, and worked his
head and shoulders and every muscle in his
whole body as though he were fighting his way
through a mob of men. The water seemed very
opaque at such times, and the current appeared
to have turned seaward, and the distance from
shore looked as though it were increasing at
every step.

When night came to Corinto we would sit out
on the wharf in front of the hotel and watch the
fish darting through the phosphorescent waters
and marking their passage with a trail of fire, or
we would heave a log into it and see the sparks
fly just as though we had thrown it upon a
smouldering fire. One night one of the men
was obliging enough to go into it for our benefit,
and swam under water, sweeping great circles
with his arms and legs. He was outlined as
clearly in the inky depths below as though he
wore a suit of spangles. Sometimes a shark or
some other big fish drove a shoal of little fish
towards the shore, and they would turn the whole
surface of the water into half-circles of light as
they took leap after leap for safety. Later in
the evening we would go back to the veranda
and listen to our friends the phonograph im-
presarios play duets on the banjo and guitar,
and in return for the songs of the natives they
had picked up in their wanderings we would
sing to them those popular measures which had


arisen into notice since they had left civiliza-

This was our life at Corinto for ten idle days,
until at last the steamer arrived, and the passen-
gers came on shore to stretch their legs and buy
souvenirs, and the ship's steward bustled about
in search of fresh vegetables, and the lighters
plied heavily between the shore and the ship's
side, piled high with odorous sacks of coffee.
And then Morse and Brackett started with their
phonograph through Costa Rica, and we con-
tinued on to Panama, leaving the five foreign
residents of Corinto to the uninterrupted enjoy-
ment of their whist, and richer and happier
through our coming in an inaccurate knowledge
of the first verse and tune of "Tommy Atkins,"
which they shouted at us defiantly as they pulled
back from the steamer's side to their quiet haven
of exile.


'F Ulysses in his wanderings had at-
tempted to cross the Isthmus of Pan-
ama his account of the adventure
would not have been filled with en-
gineering reports or health statistics, nor would
it have dwelt with horror on the irregularities
of the canal company. He would have treated
the isthmus in language full of imagination, and
would have delivered his tale in the form of an
allegory. He would have told how on such a
voyage his ship came upon a strip of land join-
ing two great continents and separating two
great oceans ; how he had found this isthmus
guarded by a wicked dragon that exhaled poison
with every breath, and that lay in wait, buried
in its swamps and jungles, for sailors and travel-
lers, who withered away and died as soon as
they put foot upon the shore. But that he,
warned in time by the sight of thousands of
men's bones whitening on the beach, hoisted all
sail and stood out to sea.


It is quite as easy to believe a story like that
as to believe the truth : that for the last century
a narrow strip of swamp land has blocked the
progress of the world ; that it has joined the
peoples of two continents without permitting
them to use it as a thoroughfare ; that it has
stopped the meeting of two great oceans and
the shipping of the world, and that it has killed
with its fever half of those who came to do battle
against it. There is something almost uncanny
in the manner in which this strip of mud and
water has resisted the advance of man, as though
there really were some evil genius of the place
lurking in the rnorasses and brooding over the

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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 8 of 11)