Mexico – Pleasures Of Mexico City

I HAD communicated my plan to revisit the mines to Don Alfredo and Dona Marciana, and had received from them a behest to rejoin them as soon as convenient, and an admonition to make the journey over the Durango mountains before the beginning of the winter rains. I had set my heart on passing the Christmas holidays at the mines; but it was still September, and with the holiday prospect in view, I lingered on in Mexico, enjoying the pleasures of the capital city.

November was already far advanced when I began to take seriously Don Alfredo’s admonition to cross the mountains before the rains set in. I knew they were due any time in December, and I decided to start at once. I packed one of my horsehide trunks, wrote and posted a few home letters, passed the last afternoon in leave-takings, and in the early morning took train for Durango.

For me Durango will always be associated with the charm of surprise. From it I had my first revelation as to Mexico’s cities. I learned then that it was one of the most primitive, or rather conservative, of all the cities. It was Semana Santa and the place was given over to the accustomed rites, which were attended with much more austerity than in the capital; the penitential season being followed by a bullfight, my first spectacle of los toros. I don’t rail against bull-fights. I know centuries of custom are a powerful factor, not to be treated lightly. I simply keep away from them. The nearest approach to trouble I ever saw in the casa de huespedes where I lived in Mexico, was the result of my expressing my feelings on the subject, one day, when there were about thirty young Mexicans, with a sprinkling of Spaniards and Cubans in the dining-room. About half of them sided with me and the battle waged hot and heavy. They talked so fast, I could n’t understand a word and I was relieved when there was a slight lull, resulting from lack of breath on the part of the combatants, and I was enabled to interpose a diversion in the shape of a gringo blunder regarding the sport, which raised a laugh.

When I was in Durango before, the beautiful plaza was ablaze with yellow roses and the seats all filled, at every hour in the day, with the people, mostly of the working class. There were few foreigners in evidence. Now I noticed a marked decrease in the peones and a corresponding increase in foreigners. I even saw some fair young country-women of mine sitting on the plaza reading, and the sight gladdened my eyes. Durango is the center of the mining district and the mine owners congregate there, along with a miscellaneous assortment of men who have been working in the mines and are waiting to go out; and of others who are seeking work and are waiting to go in.

Durango is a busy place, although one would not think so at first sight. The busy scenes are within the patios of the immense supply houses, where mozos are busy from morning till night, nailing and sewing up stores for the various mining haciendas. Occasionally you will see a freighter with anywhere from fifty to eighty pack-mules, preparing for his long trip into the mountains. After much tugging and cinching on the part of the men, and much bucking and shying on the part of the mules, each beast is finally loaded with a pack weighing from eight to twelve arrobas (two hundred to three hundred pounds) and the long train winds out of the city and up the mountain, to begin a journey of two weeks or more. Twice I had been there in April, and found it ideal spring weather; and now in these first December days, the mornings and nights were like those of a sharp, Northern fall, with a midday like Indian summer.

The men of Durango, particularly of the working class, seem larger and of a more vigorous type than in the Southern cities. There is much beauty among the women, also of rather a distinctive order; in fact one could almost tell a Durango woman of the middle class, from a certain similarity of expression and the slow but musical, drawling accent. The cargadores who are always most prominent among the workers of a city are a brawny, stalwart set, eminently clean and decent in appearance. They nearly all wear heavy blue overalls and jumpers, with thick shoes and a shaggy, white felt hat which seems their special badge. Indeed, all the common people impressed me as a superior set, and a young man, a native of the capital, remarked the same thing in most forceful terms. In journeying towards the north, I missed more and more the cry of the street vender.

I made an early visit to my favorite Baños de las Canoas and had rather an extended talk with the owner, who treated me as an old and valued customer. I asked him if he was of Durango and he said he was not; but that he had lived there forty years and felt he might reasonably claim it as his home. I asked him where his tierra was and after some meditation, he said that he grew up in San Luis, but that he was born at sea. His father was bringing his young mother from Spain and she died in giving him birth. This seemed to me very sad and I said as much. He meditated again and responded, ” Well, yes,” in a deprecatory tone, as though it had never occurred to him in that light. When he first came to Durango the chaparral covered the spot where the depot now stands. He approved of railroads and prophesied that when the lines were completed there would be an opening up of new mining properties that would astonish the natives. He assured me that Durango was very ancient: that it began as a rancho, followed by a hacienda and then the city: and that Torreon was nothing more than a cluster of huts forty years before.

Durango’s cathedral is over three centuries old. The altars were originally of wood, but were renewed by the wealthy mine-owner, Zambrano, who was once proprietor of the famous ” Mina Candelaria,” now the property of a California company. Zambrano built a magnificent house in Durango, which is now a government building, and a theater for his own entertainment. It is said that on the occasion of a grand banquet and ball, he caused the patio of his house to be entirely relaid with silver bricks. The descendants of this mining prince reside in Spain.

Crossing the plaza one evening, I encountered an unexpected treat in the form of a serenata, by a fine string band. I was informed that it was a testimonial from some enamored swain to his sweetheart, and as a number of dark-eyed beauties were promenading, I speculated a good deal as to which might be the favored one. Several young caballeros were seated in the shade of a rose arbor and I singled out one, who muffled his chin in his cape with unusual mystery, as probably being the lover. There was a fine band concert on Sunday night, and the manner of the paseo was the same as in other cities, the ladies walking together and the men in the opposite direction. I saw many lovely faces and many of the girls were without hats, though millinery was also affected by the upper class.

I had a great deal on my mind while. l was in Durango — mountains in fact. Ever since I had looked on them, towering in the distance, they had seemed to say, ” Come!” Among innumerable other things had been saddle horses, pack-mules andmozos. I presume I tried every horse for sale, within a radius of twenty kilometers; and every one had something the matter. If his wind was n’t broken, he had a sore back, or was bad about the head and would n’t take the bit. As soon as I found a horse that I felt a liking for, all the gentlemen at the hotel, horsemen every one of them, began telling me his bad points, and before they had finished I would n’t have had him for a gift. It is no fun at this season, when the night winds are cold and snow may fall any time, to be caught in the mountains with a leg-weary horse, and have to dismount and drag him up the trail. So I decided to take a mule. A mule may be joggy but she always gets there. Manuel, my mozo, advised this from the start, and now that I acted on his advice, he was delighted. Manuel’s chief anxiety seemed to relate to the cocina (kitchen) as he called our box of provisions. He suggested gordas and tamales, to which I acceded; and shortly after, he appeared with two women, each laden with immense baskets, one of which was filled with gordas and the other literally running over with tamales. I tried one and found it good and Manuel said when they were hot they were much better. I asked him rather doubtfully if he thought we could eat all the gordas,— they looked enough for a regiment,— but Manuel said when he was on the trail, he could himself eat an almud of corn a day. He was a sturdy, lusty chap, light on his feet, and I fancied would be a good hand to keep the fire going at night and look out for the animals. He had a jolly face and I doubted not could sing. I like a singing mozo. When you are riding five days at a stretch with no other companion, it helps out amazingly.

On the night before our departure I experienced that sense of peace and contentment I had felt before, on the eve of a mountain journey. Now but a few hours intervened between me and the mountains, with their rugged heights; the dim woods and the silent places; sleeping under the stars by the camp-fire, and up and away at the crack of dawn. Long I gazed on them from the corridor of the hotel. A warm wind was blowing straight from the hills, and I fancied it brought the smell of pine woods and the chaparral. Manuel came to inquire at what time we should start, and signified his readiness to be on hand with the mules at 4 A. M. We compromised on six o’clock. The one thing I did not like was the sound of Manuel’s feet on the stone floor of the corridor, as he came to bring some oranges I had sent him for. There was a halting, disconnected sort of flap to his sandals that made me look to see what was up; and I found he was stepping high and putting his feet down carefully, as though he were treading on eggs. Besides there was a fixed glare in his eye, that showed things had begun to go round, and that he found his only safety in putting his gaze on one object and holding it there. I told him to call me at five o’clock sharp and that we would start at six; and then sent him away with some misgivings as to whether he would show up at all or not; but at five o’clock, while it was still pitch dark, there came a rap on my door and, ” Here I am, señor!” Manuel had slept off his slight indisposition and was ready for business. From that time to the end of our journey he refused even a small capita, though I knew he was often tired and cold. He always said, ” I don’t know how to drink.” I am convinced this was true and that one social cup with a friend the last night had gone to his feet.

When Manuel was roping the cargo on the mules I saw him give a short, searching glance at the sky. I noticed that it was rather leaden, but thought the sun would remedy that. I got on my mule and Manuel came and fixed the rosaderas, two long strips of bear-skin which hung from the pommel, covering my legs and feet and fastening back of the saddle. I felt like an infant being tied into a perambulator and the things struck me as absurd, but I was glad enough to have them ere the day was over. Before we got outside the city, a light, drizzling rain began falling; but I relied on the sunrise to set all right. The morning broke, cold and dismal, and the drizzle increased. Manuel said it would be worse in the mountains. The weather was not without its compensation, as the dampness brought out all the aromatic odors of grass and shrubs, making me breathe longer and deeper than I had for months. This action seems involuntary, as though the lungs had been craving sweet, pure air and were greedy to get their fill of it.

As we turned a bend in the trail, we came upon a young girl sitting on the ground, laughing at the top of her voice; while a peon and an older woman were busily picking up some loose corn they had evidently upset. The girl called out, “Adios, senor!” and then ” Where are you going?” I told her, at which she shouted, ” Won’t you take me?” ” Yes ! Why not? Come on!” I replied. At this she began screaming and laughing again and I heard her long after she was out of sight. By this time the drizzle had turned into a cold, soaking rain which was directly in our faces. The two women we had just passed were riding burros, and with no covering save their thin, cotton dresses, and pieces of white stuff that looked like coarse bagging. The peon was on foot, and they were bound for La Mina Trinidad, a good five days’ journey, Manuel said.

As we crossed the first ridge, the rain and wind in-creased and there came a dull, sullen roar from the mountains. I looked at Manuel and asked what it was. There was a scared look on his face as he answered that it was the sea. He said it was muy malo (very bad), that it meant bad weather, with much rain and snow. It seemed incredible that it could really be the roar of the ocean, so far inland; but I have no other theory to offer, as it was neither thunder nor wind. We heard it several times and it sounded dreary enough. The only other human beings we saw were a peon and his woman, the latter mounted on a little burro which the peon was hurrying cityward; and a woman driving several animals loaded with firewood, which she had undoubtedly cut herself, as the ax was lashed to one of the cargoes. She was thinly clad and her bare feet projected from her ragged shoes as she trudged along in the storm. At two o’clock we reached the rancho, San Jose, an ordinary ride of three hours which had taken us seven; and as the rain showed no sign of holding up, I decided to stay there for the night. There was no other house we could possibly make and Don Lucio, the caporal, kindly opened a room in the owner’s cottage, where I could be very comfortable. While Manuel made a fire before the door and got dinner, Don Lucio came in and sat with me. He was a short, fat, little man, about fifty years old, in a leather charro suit and a big hat. He had never been farther than the city of Durango in his life; and he combined the native dignity and courtesy of his race with the simplicity of a child. He inquired ingenuously if I had a traguito (a little drink) and some cigarros; and these being forthcoming, he seated himself on my trunk and relapsed into mute admiration for my various belongings, broken only when something elicited a “Que bonito!” (How fine!) or a ” Que chistoso!” (How funny!) Don Lucio admired my blankets, doted on my revolver and chuckled over my woolen gloves, which he said were very big and hairy like bear’s paws. Don Lucio’s delight was so spontaneous I did n’t even trouble to say, ” At your orders.” He did n’t want my gloves, I had n’t the least idea of giving them to him, and I considered idle compliments a waste of breath.

Don Lucio stayed to dinner and he also dropped around for supper. After the latter feast, he braced himself, cleared his throat and said he wished with my permission, to ask me something. I supposed it would be, at the very least, a request for a donation of coffee, which, in the mountains, is valued above almost any other beverage, unless it be tequila. Now hear how I misjudged Don Lucio ! He gazed at me earnestly for a moment and then asked if I had ever seen a people called the Chinese. I said that I had. He eyed me again as though making sure that I was telling him the truth and then went on. He had heard there was another people uglier still than the Chinese and black — black, who wore little or no clothing and were bought and sold like beasts, and he wanted to know if it was true. I felt that I was on my honor and returned Don Lucio’s gaze as steadfastly as the occasion would permit, as I replied that there was such a people, that they were still bought and sold in some countries, and that in their own tierra they wore no clothes at all. Don Lucio drew his zarape about him with an air of offended modesty and asked if their tierra was near there. In vain I cast about for some means of enlightening Don Lucia as to the dark continent. I started to compare it with South America, but found that would n’t go. Then I told him it was many times larger than Mexico but Don Lucio only stared. At last I told him it was a big country over the sea and we let it go at that.

When Don Lucio told me he had never seen the President’s portrait and asked me if he was fine looking, I felt that my duty was plain. I had a portrait of President Diaz in my trunk, and I soon had the ropes untied and Don Lucio was gazing in rapture on the face of his President. He exclaimed, ” How tall ! How powerful!” admired each individual medal on the front of the General’s uniform and added solemnly, ” It is he who commands everything.” The chickens were going to roost on the trees near the door and Don Lucio said, ” May you pass a good night!” and retired, literally too full for further utterance.

” Early to bed and early to rise ” is a safe motto for mountain travel. While Don Lucio was admiring the photograph, Manuel had made my bed, which he announced was ready and requested me to lie down saying, ” I will cover you up afterwards, senor.” I started to draw off my boots but Manuel flew at me and had them off in a jiffy. He then proceeded to cover me up with two blankets and two zarapes each of which he laid on separately, tucking them well about me. It was quite different from having all put on together. Each one seemed to strike some particular spot, where it was most needed. Seeing him preparing to go to bed on the floor at my feet, I asked him why he did n’t take the other cot; but he said he preferred the ground. I must have slept an hour when I heard a hammering on the door and a voice shouting, “Manuel ! Here I bring a bed!” Manuel only grunted. I managed to strike a match, and in staggered Don Lucio, with a mattress, sheets and pillows. The rain had stopped and the kind-hearted fellow had brought me the best he had. I was so heavy with sleep I began thanking him in English. Of course I had to get up and have my bed made over. I was quite reluctant at the time, but was glad enough be-fore morning, as it grew very cold.

When I awoke it was four o’clock. Manuel had started the fire and gone after the mules. It was still pitch dark when he returned with them, gave them their corn and commenced getting breakfast. Don Lucio soon appeared and prophesied a good day, which was encouraging. The animals were loaded up by the light from the fire and with the first streaks of day, we were ready to start. Don Lucio requested a mananita (morning draught), and wished me felicidades as he drained the cup, assuring me that in him I had a friend. This I knew was so: that in future, whenever I passed that way, Don Lucio was good for a roof and a bed. Of course he expected some small favors in return, but they were as nothing compared with benefits received. In fact, I find the rule of the world is give and take; and Don Lucio’s demands were modest ones. As he shook my hand he said, ” May God aid you in your journey,” and with this kindly farewell we rode away. It was nipping cold, and I could hear the mules’ feet break the ice in the little puddles that had formed in the trail. When at last the sun rose, I saw everything coated with frost. The tall, dry grass on either side of the trail seemed tipped with red, blue and yellow diamonds: every tree had a glittering mantle, and the blackened stumps were set with brilliants. We were ascending the mountain, and the valley back of us presented a beautiful sight. The mist lay close to the earth, a deep, intense blue: higher up, where the sun touched it, there was a bank of white fleecy cloud; and above that, the pine-clad mountain. Half way up the mountain we came to a little pool, close to the trail and quite frozen over. The first mule broke the ice with her nose and all the animals drank from the same hole. Gradually as the sun got higher, I began shedding coats and sweater; and by noon it was delightfully warm. We stopped for dinner near a little stream, and while Manuel was cooking I took a snap-shot at him. He had tied a red handkerchief over his head for the cold and had worn it all day. Manuel took the kodak as a matter of course. He said all the senores Americanos have maquinas (machines) and photograph their mozos cooking, walking and on horseback. While talking about the various Americanos he had traveled with, he cut a bad gash in his thumb with a beef tin he was opening, but he only took a pinch of earth and clapped it on the wound, refusing all offers to have it tied up. When we started again and I made for the trail, Manuel pointed off across the fields and gave me a Palo seco (dry tree) to steer for. On reaching it, I saw the trail again; he assured me we had saved a good hour. Manuel was famous for short cuts and he continually left the beaten path for some special byway of his own. He said he grew up ” walking in the mountains ” and when I asked him how many times he had crossed them, he said, ” quien sabe? ” but he thought more than a hundred. When he was with the freighters, he wore sandals and walked all the way. But now that he was mozo he had shoes, though his sandals were tied on the back of his saddle; I presumed for the home trip.

He told me of a very important mission he went on once, when he was only fifteen years old. A rich man in Durango sent him to Mazatlan, with a belt filled with gold onzas: he did n’t know how many, but it was heavy and he got very tired of wearing it next his skin, night and day. Besides he had mucho miedo (much fear). He bought his tortillas and beans at the ranchos in the daytime and took care to sleep in the open, where he was quite alone. When people asked why he hurried so, he said, ” My father is dying in Mazatlan.” He delivered his charge in safety, was given important papers aid told to hurry back. He returned by another road and when the people, still curious, asked, ” Why so fast? ” he replied, ” My father is dying in Durango.”

We went into camp early the second night, after riding about ten hours. Manuel said it was too cold to sleep on the ground, and as we reached a rancho about sundown, I thought best to stay there. There was plenty of water, but no grazing for the animals, and I paid fifty cents each for small bunches of hoja (dried corn stalks). When I rode up to the hacienda, which was a forlorn barracks of a place, a girl was in the corral feeding chickens. I asked if I could have a room for the night and at first she said no; but finally pointed to a sort of shed, which she said was very dirty, but was at my disposal if I cared to sleep there. Manuel had the packs off the animals at short order and began cleaning out the shed. The girl came and looked on, and, though shy, she could not seem to tear herself away from the sound of human voices. It seemed unusual to find a young girl quite alone in such a place; but her replies to my inquiries were evasive. The caporal and servants of the rancho had their huts at some distance from the main buildings; and not one of them paid her the slightest attention. I asked if she was not very lonely and she said yes; but that she was fond of animals and that she amused herself during the day, caring for the chickens and pigs; at night, a little girl from the servants’ quarters came to stay with her, but she had not seen her all day. Quien sabe! Perhaps she was sick. I bought some eggs of her and gave her some tamales; and, as she still hovered about our fire, asked her to eat supper with us. She accepted with alacrity, saying she had not fire herself; that the kitchen was full of pigs. There were several new families of young pigs, it seemed, and, fearing a storm, she had shut them all in the kitchen. She immediately began helping Manuel get supper, and fried the eggs in a deft fashion that made him open his eyes. Manuel fried an egg all right on one side; then he attempted to flap it over and the result was a strange mess, between a scramble and an omelette. She turned them as lightly as she would a feather, and transferred them to my plate, not overdone, but just right and good enough to eat. Then she brought from the house some little fried corn cakes, like diminutive doughnuts, which she warmed and presented to me. I was sure they were all she had to eat on the rancho except eggs. She refused to taste a morsel till I had finished, but flitted about, bringing me hot coffee and more corn cakes, and keeping up a constant prattle, like a child who has been lonesome and is bubbling over with delight at finding companions. At last she bade me good night and promised to be up to help the mozo get breakfast, and to bring more corn cakes. She was a slip of a thing, certainly not over sixteen, untidy and wretched looking, but with a bright, honest face, and a kind, womanly heart.

The sky was clear and bright with stars, and I could hear the mules munching their feed in the corral and the blazing fire was pleasant; but Manuel, who was waiting to take my boots off, said, ” It is time now to sleep,” and I obeyed! He had fixed one blanket to his satisfaction and was putting on the second, when we heard wild yells and the gallop of horses’ feet. The next moment there came a great banging on the door and a voice shouting, ” Open the door.”

” I go immediately,” answered Manuel, ” I am occupied at this moment.” Then he put his finger to his lips for me to remain silent, and went on tucking in the blankets. The man kept on banging and yelling for admittance and Manuel kept saying, ” Immediately, immediately ! ” At last he went and unbarred the door and said, ” Walk in.” Thinking that he knew what he was about, I adopted the role of the Gringo who does not speak the language and lay staring fixedly at them. The fire-light made the room as bright as day. There were three men in the party, and the spokesman was quite drunk; but the others seemed steady enough.

” You come out,” they said to Manuel, and, as he hesitated they added, ” You ‘re afraid.”

” Not at all,” said Manuel. ” But I have no shoes on: to tell you the truth, I was just going to bed.” ” Who is your patron?” they asked.

” He is a senor Americano and we are going to San Dimas,” answered Manuel, adding, ” and he is very tired. But walk in.”

” No,” said the men. ” You put on your shoes and come with us. We have plenty of mescal.”

Then Manuel proved himself a diplomat of the first order. Oh, that he were free to join them! He did so like a paseo with good companions. But he was with his patron and of course could not leave him. Some other time he should be only too happy. These honeyed words did their work. The bottle was passed and Manuel apparently drank long and deep. Then he stood in the piercing cold, in shirt and trousers only, bare-footed and without a hat, bowing and saluting with true Mexican grace, till they finally got into their saddles and rode away. Manuel closed the door softly and barred it with extra precaution. Then he began choking and spitting on the floor. ” How bad is this mescal!” he said. Then he proceeded to muffle his head in his blanket, and, leaving his feet to take care of themselves, went to sleep without more ado.

I was awakened by a rat who was making his break-fast off one of my boots. It was four o’clock and I called Manuel. There was a thick fog and it was dark as midnight. I always felt rather sorry for him when he started off at this hour, it was so intensely cold; but he did n’t seem to mind it. I awoke from a. doze and heard him calling, “Voy, señor” (I go) as though I had called him. It was the second time this had happened, and both times it had been at this dismal hour in the early morning. Before, when I said I had not ad-dressed him, he looked scared; so this time I let it go and asked if he had all the mules: as though Manuel would come back without them all. He handled them like kittens, with funny whistles and hissing noises which they understood. We made a quick breakfast on tortillas and coffee, as we had a long day’s march ahead; and could barely distinguish the lines of the hacienda buildings as we started off into a sea of fog. Soon it began to grow light. We were ascending the mountains again, and we left the mist below us in the valley like a great inland sea. By nine o’clock we were reveling in sunshine and the glories of Mexico’s mountains, with their lights and shadows, and endless vistas of blue-clad heights beyond. On the loftier peaks there was snow, and as we went up and up, it lay in patches by the trail, till we crossed the summit, about 10,000 feet above sea level, and dipped into another lovely valley. It was eleven o’clock and I was ravenous; so we stopped for almuerzo, as Manuel calls it, by a little stream, whose waters were clear as crystal and cold as melted ice, which they really were. Manuel concocted a remarkable dish of canned beef and breakfast bacon, which looked greasy and uninteresting but had a fetching smell, and a seductive flavor. I found oranges and lemons invaluable on this trip. They became ice-cold at night and retained the cold through the heat of the day. With a bit of sugar and a dash of tequila they made a delicious punch at mid-day; and at night, when the cold makes a fellow shake in his boots, this same punch, boiled over the coals, is a fine night-cap. The gordas and tamales were disappearing slowly but surely. They seemed an impossible under-taking, but one never knows how much he can eat till he gets into the mountains.

Soon after midday we took the trail again. The only human beings we saw that day were a woman and some children at a little hut. I took a picture of them, but could not get very near as they had already caught sight of the black box and started to scamper away. There was no rancho in sight at sundown, so we camped under a big rock. I had a bed of pine boughs, and the pines formed a roof overhead. Manuel was busy cooking: he still had the red handkerchief over his head and was whistling for the first time. He seemed to like the open as well as I did. Ranchos are very well, but for real luxury, give me a supper by the camp-fire, a piney couch, and sound, sweep sleep beneath the stars.