A Mexican Diary -- Part II
By Ernest L. White
November 10, 1881 - December 15, 1956
Hampton, New Hampshire
9:00 P. M. I am finishing today's long entry here in a little room which is minus a door, leading from the courtyard in the half-hotel, half-store of Don Victor Ahuja of Tuxtepec. We were met at El Hule by Doctor Harcourt as per schedule, our baggage packed on mules, ourselves mounted on others, and we started at once for this place, a ride of about twelve miles. It was fast getting dark. I have ridden a horse many times in my life, as Dad always kept one, and I rather prided myself on my riding ability, but I found that a mule was a different proposition. All he knows (or at least this one) is a walk or trot. We started off trotting and we ended up trotting, with his great hairy ears flopping in perfect time with his gait, in spite of all my efforts to make him change his gait once in a while. But I forgave him for the awful shaking he gave me, for he stopped dead in his tracks and patiently waited for me to mount again, after I had been unceremoniously thrown over his head, as he jumped like a cat down a steep bank. The others were ahead of me, and what a hole I would be in now if he had bolted off and left me in the dark. I have been putting in most of my time since we arrived here trying to keep down the warm water we are obliged to drink or go thirsty. It fails to quench my thirst; only nauseates me. I must try and get a little sleep now. This has been a long and exciting day.
The first thing that greeted my eyes this morning, as I looked out of my window, was a flock of turkey buzzards, hopefully perched on the tile roof opposite. As there are no sanitary arrangements here, they are useful. Before breakfast we went for a bath and swim in the river. There were quite a few there before us of both sexes. Some of the women were washing clothes. I hesitated about taking a bath, as we had no bathing suits, but neither did any one else, and as Ledesma assured us it was perfectly all right and the custom here, we hastily undressed and jumped in without a blush. I felt greatly refreshed after my bath. We donned some lighter clothes and started back for breakfast, which consisted of black beans, stewed, black bitter coffee and tortillas. The tortillas are a sort of big pancake, made of corn, round, thin and tough. No more white bread or pastry for us. Our rations now will consist mostly of beans and corn.
We were entertained while eating, by two Americans who were in town buying supplies for their plantation. One, a tall thin man, did most of the talking, his companion being deaf on account of taking so much quinine to keep in check the malarial fever from which he was suffering. He told some amazing yarns. How much truth there was in them I do not know, but they ranged from wholesale death by fever, the usual and unusual snake stories, to the tamer and no less interesting ones of the raising of coffee and rubber and the peculiar customs and living conditions of the laboring class, or mozo. If but half is true the life of the mozo must be hard, practically slavery. Doctor Harcourt listened to their talk and nodded agreement several times, and as I judge he is conservative and honest there may be a good deal of truth in these stories of men eating snakes and lizards and monkeys, and of laborers being left to die where they drop, to fester and pollute the air, on these outlying plantations. I rather like Doctor Harcourt, but he is not popular with most people. He is apparently a very religious man. He was most surprised and hurt when Bob told him the company no longer needed him, and while he is silent and preoccupied most of the time he treats us very courteously and seems to hold no grudge against Bob, who supersedes him. He did not ask why he was discharged but I know from what I heard in the States, it was mostly because he is a "religious fanatic". His discharge is a tough thing for him, for he has a wife and daughter to provide for and is heavily in debt. For that reason alone, he cannot leave the country even if he had the money to carry him back to his home in Canada. One law here is that a debtor can not legally leave this country until his debt is paid in full; and furthermore, his creditor can seize him and force him to work out his debt, if he, the creditor, so wishes. Unless Doctor Harcourt can find other employment (a very unlikely thing), he will be forced to co to work for the storekeeper here until his debt is paid, which, if one can believe Ledesma, will be never. He was left to "hold the bag", when a certain coffee plantation failed a few years ago. He and Bob are discussing supplies and purchasing them, and making arrangements for transportation. We will start for Cafetal La Estrella tomorrow. I wonder just what kind of conditions we will find there. Harcourt says they are bad. I have been greatly entertained today watching the people and visiting the town. Parrots, both wild and tame, are abundant. Tropical fruits are plentiful. The most satisfying drink I have had is the milk from coconuts which can be picked up most anywhere on the outskirts of the town. Tame monkeys are not uncommon, pretty little fellows with long busy tails like an angora cat. It was 115 in the shade at one time today, and I was glad when evening came and it cooled off a little.
We left today about 4:00 A. M. We made quite a picture as we slowly trotted away, Harcourt leading, dressed in American clothes with leggings and spurs, but with a large Mexican hat. Bob followed more gaily decked out after the Mexican style, and I next in full Mexican riding costume, most gorgeous and bright. My mule, however, failed to live up to the glory of his master, and persisted in trotting unromantically along, head down and ears flopping. Ledesma came behind me, dark and picturesque, with a cigarette hanging loosely from one corner of his mouth, and bringing up the rear, our airriero with his string of pack mules, each with a large load tied to the pack-saddle, which must be very uncomfortable, unpadded as it is. We all have bright-colored blankets, tied to the kendal of our saddles, holding our personal belongings. Revolvers on our hips, well-filled cartridge belts and a machete hanging from the saddle-horn under our right legs. Our airriero carries a rifle besides and urges on his pack-train with much shouting and swearing in Spanish. Our saddles have very high kendals and pommels, the former with two holes left in the rawhide-covered tree, which make fine hand holds when we are going downhill. The bits are wicked things, with a curb, and also a ring that holds the under jaw fixed in such a way that the least pressure causes pain, and a hard yank will bring blood. It's no uncommon thing to pass a horse whose chest and muzzle is covered with bloody foam. The spurs which every one wears are great big affairs, the rowel being three or four inches from point to point, but not sharpened much.
Great flocks of brightly colored parrots flew chattering by; a buzzard soaring here and there. Great trees with their roots grown partly out of the ground and the limbs hung thick with vines. In places the foliage was so dense and thick it completely roofed over our narrow trail and shut out the sun. In other pieces we rode through swamps covered with coarse, razor-sharp grass as high as our heads and patches of growth like our skunk-cabbage up hone, only enormously enlarged. In the sluggish water were great lily-pads with leaves as large as a table. We occasionally passed an Indian hut or two with sometimes a pig tied to the door. The air seemed thick and heavy and over all was the hum of insects. The heat kept getting worse all the time and I for one was glad when Harcourt stopped at the Arrayo Sal for our siesta. We have covered about half of our ride of fifty-two miles, but not the roughest, according to Harcourt. I have stood the journey very well so far, although with due deference to a certain tender portion of my body, I am very careful as to where and how I sit down. We rested about three hours, washed, had lunch and tried to sleep a little. I was pretty stiff when Harcourt gave the order to re- mount and continue on. The trail got steep and rocky as we climbed over a shoulder of the mountain. I trusted to my mule, who is steadily rising in my esteem, to carry me down precipices and along ridges of rock, through dark ravines and narrow steps out in the rocks like winding stairs, without mishap. I was frightened a good many times, but he never minded, and plugged happily along and brought me safely to the valley beyond where we came to Santa Rosa. This is a large plantation, bordering the trail for twenty-one miles, and devoted to raising tobacco, rubber, and coffee. From here to our place the trail was easier and we arrived at dusk, tired, sore and lame.
Seldom have I ever been as disappointed as I was last night as we wearily rode into La Estrella, our plantation. No friendly light greeted us, as we stopped before a rough pole shack with a thatch roof. Harcourt told us it was the casa grande or main house, where we were to live. He shouted something in Spanish and out of the dense weeds came a mozo, and shortly afterwards another, who helped the airriero with the packs and to whom we surrendered our mounts.
One of these fellows was to be our house-boy and our cook lived in a hut near by, from which she shortly appeared to get us something to eat. Harcourt showed us into the house, first lighting a sort of torch, or lamp, made of tin with a wick soaked in kerosene, but no chimney, helped arrange our blankets on a couple of canvas cots, promised to see us early in the morning and show us around and departed for his home across the river where he lives with his wife and daughter. Well, here we are, Bob and I, alone in what is to be our home for some time. Such a desolate place as it is, too. The house is set up off the ground quite a bit and we enter it by means of a ladder. It is bare of all furniture with the exception of four canvas cots (one ripped nearly in two), a rough board table and two benches, and a few tin dishes the worse for rust. That was all until our house boy brought in our supplies and baggage and piled them in a heap in a corner. Later he brought us some beans and tortillas and some of the bitterest coffee I ever tasted, unsweetened, and without milk. We were too tired to eat much and soon made ourselves as comfortable as possible, considering our aching bodies, and tried to sleep.
This morning we were greatly surprised and pleased to be greeted by an Englishman, Sohn Wain, who, we find, is living with a native wife a few rods from our house. How he drifted here and why, I do not know, out his debt. It is seldom that these unfortunates ever get out of debt again, it being the policy of their employers to keep them in debt and thus always have help. Of course they try to run away and have to be watched during the day and locked up at night in what is called a gelerra, a long building made of poles set in the ground, interwoven with barbed wire and with a roof of thatch. We have three of these on this plantation.
Dr. Harcourt invited us over today for religious services, but I was the only one to accept. The buildings here form quite a little settlement and I intend to move over here when. Harcourt leaves. They are only native huts but are set in quite a little clearing and it seems much more pleasant than on the Concordia side of the river. He and his family live in the largest hut, partitioned off with poles into three rooms. Part of the roof is made of sheets of tin. A cook house is near, also a large gelerra and numerous small shacks in which live the free laborers and their families, that is, men who are not in debt, and being more reliable are used as petty bosses, etc. All these buildings are erected without a single nail being used. They are lashed and tied together with crude ropes made from the bark of the mejaque tree. The thatch roofs are very thick, making a fine retreat for all kinds of vermin. Mrs. Harcourt greeted me very cordially and made my visit very pleasant. The daughter is about fifteen, very shy, and hardly spoke. After service they invited me to stay to dinner. Mrs. Harcourt does her own cooking and I greatly enjoyed the chicken, wild vegetables and real pie. It seemed good to get some food like we have up home, but how she managed to get such a meal over an open fire is more than I can see. A little gloom was cast over this otherwise pleasant day by the evident worry and sadness showing in the faces of my hosts.
Bob has wished the bookkeeping on me, and Harcourt has promised to "show me the ropes" before he leaves. He deplored the custom of selling liquor to the natives, the mode of procuring labor, and their living conditions of practical slavery. He told me about the work I will have to do. I am to deal out rations, keep the books, make out reports and last, but not least, play bartender. It is the custom of selling liquor to the help that plays the principal part in keeping them in continual debt to the plantation, a custom which is firmly rooted here and works to advantage of the employer. It is not uncommon for a laborer to drink up in an evening more than he has earned during the day. As he only earns a few cents a day it does not take long to use it up. Late in the evening I forded the river back to the casa grande and after an exciting and unsuccessful rat battle, turned in.
We were treated last night to a most awe-inspiring thunder-storm, Flash after flash of lightning and an almost continuous roar and rumble of thunder echoed and reechoed back from the mountains hemming in our narrow little valley and the rain at times seemed like a solid sheet of water. Wain says we must expect these storms pretty often now as they are the forerunner of the rainy season. This morning I amused myself while waiting for breakfast by watching and trying to catch some of the little house lizards that all buildings here are infested with, They are harmless little rascals, quick as lightning and great fly and bug catchers. They dart across the floor, up the walls, across the beds and table, and do not hesitate to use me for a hunting-ground if I keep perfectly still, but the least motion sends them scurrying to cover.