A Mexican Diary -- Part IV
By Ernest L. White
November 10, 1881 - December 15, 1956
Hampton, New Hampshire
It has been frightfully hot. How I would like a good cool drink We have only river water to drink here, warm and insipid. We keep the drinking water in a sort of porous jug which sweats on the outside and this evaporation does cool it a little, but for all that, it is the warm river water in which every one bathes, the women wash clothes and the cattle and horses wallow around in the shallow places.
I saw the largest snake today I have ever seen. I was returning on horseback after a visit with Wain, who has started the men to cleaning the upper block of rubber trees. All at once my horse snorted and whirled around, nearly throwing me. As I swung him back on the trail again, I saw the repulsive thing going across the narrow path. I did not see its head, but I watched foot after foot of it crawl by and thought it would never have an end. I won't try to estimate its length but its body was as big around as my arm. I tried to get a shot at it but had all I could do to control my horse.
Sunday. The men worked half a day today. It is the custom here and so ordered by the man higher up. The afternoon they have to themselves. Most all of the men and women went in bathing together and washed their clothes. No bathing suits in evidence. I doubt if they ever heard of such a thing. Today they acted like carefree children; threw mud on one another, splashed water, sang and danced naked on the river bank, or waited patiently while their clothes (the only ones they own) dried in the hot sun. It's funny what poor boatmen they are. We have a sort of scow to transport things over the river or shift the men, and quite a few tried to paddle across, but not one was able to do it. Once they nearly swamped the thing and I was afraid they might be swept into the rapids just below, so with Pancho's help we got them ashore and I forbid them to use it again. The river is steadily rising and getting swifter on account of the thunder-storms we get nearly every night. It is becoming hard to ford it on horse-back and we have to swim the horse or mule a short distance in the middle of the stream.
Was very busy in the store today. Would never dream it was Sunday. The only sweet thing we have is a crude sugar that comes done up in corn husks. It is a dark sticky mess and in this hot weather keeps oozing out of the husks and attracts swarms of flies and bugs. It tastes something like fudge, but Wain cautioned me not to eat much of it. We don't sell much of it, the mozo evidently preferring his aguardiente (whisky) and cigarettes, and occasionally a large red pepper which he eats as I would an apple. They are not supposed to take any of the bananas or any other fruit grown here, but they are plentiful and I, for one, shut my eyes.
My medical practice is steadily growing.
Took a shot at an alligator today without result. Went to bed tired out, after removing three eggs from the middle of my canvas cot that three thrifty hens had dutifully left there for my breakfast. It's a regular thing now, this use of my cot for a nest. I appreciate the eggs and would not mind, if that were all friend hen left behind her, but I find my bed is getting full of lice. It seems impossible to keep the hens out of the house, built as it is, but I must have Pancho see what he can do about it tomorrow. Our first mail was delivered today, but I did not get a thing and was dreadfully disappointed. The cook gave us quite a spread; chicken and rice flavored with garlic and red peppers floating around in the liquid.
Have sent Ortaz for sixty more laborers.
The men are clearing up a piece of ground today to plant corn. As fast as a place is cleared a man goes ahead with a pointed stick, making holes in the ground where he sees a likely place and another follows close, dropping the corn in these holes and pushing a little dirt on top with his toes. Of course, there can be no regular rows, and no Yankee farmer would ever dream there would ever be any crop to harvest, but I am assured that there is generally a good one, even if not touched again until ready to harvest.
I was called out last night to treat a man who was having, I think, a fit. When I got to him he was rolling around on the ground and going through some terrible contortions. Every stitch of clothing had been torn off him by the two men trying to hold him and they looked much the worse for wear. I did not know just what to do for him, but we managed, with the help of spectators, to hold him still on his back, while I poured a double dose of salts in his mouth and rubbed his Adam's Apple much as one does a horse to make him swallow. I don't suppose this was the right treatment and I guess we nearly strangled him, but in a little while he was better. I was expected to do something and I did it.
Today we had some fresh beef, the first I have had since coming down here. The animal heat was scarcely out of it when delivered to us, and it tasted bully. We gave a ration to the men and had a little left over, which Pancho and the cook cut up in long narrow strips and hung on a pole in the hot sun to dry. It immediately became the meccas of all the flies and bugs in Mexico and soon took on a dark, dirty color. They tell me that when dried this way it will keep quite awhile.
I watched some Indians fishing today with a gill net. They stretched it across part of the river, went upstream and threw stones and splashed water to scare up the fish, and as soon as one became entangled in the net, dove down, unfastened it and brought it ashore. They also have a small hand net, with weights fastened around the bottom, which they drop over a fish and cage it. This is used in quiet waters where a fish can be seen. You can't catch these fish with hook and line. I tried to buy one from them but without success. Wain says I didn't go about it right; I should have offered them some aguardiente and then I could have gotten all I wanted.
We lost our first man today. It has been extremely hot and he died of sunstroke. One of the men brought him in on his back, late in the afternoon and I thought I could feel a little pulse. I worked over him for half an hour hoping to revive him and was still at it when the rest of the mozos came home. They clustered around muttering in an undertone, and I paid little attention, until suddenly I noticed an ugly note creeping in and I was advised by Ledesma to stop, for in their ignorance they thought I was desecrating the dead. He might be alive now if only a little attention had been given him when first overcome, but he had been lying in the hot sun until Wain, who had been away an hour or two, showed up and then it was too late. Three others were overcome but were revived.
A few of the women gathered around the body of the dead man and started a sort of mourning chant, but most of the others seemed uninterested and ate their supper, laughed and talked as usual. As I write this the body lies within six feet of me, covered with a piece of burlap bagging, and already gives off a faint odor (or do I imagine it?). Once these laborers were buried on the plantation on which they died and no questions asked, but now, to keep the law, the body must be inspected by the presidente of the nearest village, to guard (in a measure) against foul play. So tomorrow he must be taken to Usila, an Indian village fifteen miles away, to be viewed and buried. I am sitting up late, for I am afraid of what these rats may do to the body.
The little funeral train started for Usila at 4 A. M. We had to bribe the pallbearers heavily with aguardiente before they started and Wain, who was in charge, carried a liberal supply to keep them going.
It's a rough, hard trail and Wain had a good deal of trouble with the half-drunken men, for twice they let the body fall, and once it slipped over a ledge and fell seven or eight feet. When they finally reached Usila it was quite badly bruised, so much so that Wain feared the presidente might be suspicious and ask questions. But Wain tells me that after he had given the Indian presidente all the aguardiente he could drink he was in no condition to ask questions. A little shallow grave was dug, not over two feet deep, and the body rolled into it and a little dirt thrown over. To quote Wain "the body was plum ripe" and he prophesied the pigs will have it out of the ground in short order. It seems that there is a drove of razorback pigs pastured in this cemetery. It is hard to believe but so are lots of other things down here.
One of our riding mules, the best one we have, has so far eluded all our efforts to catch her, so today we organized a regular and systematic hunt and rode her down. What a time we had: We finally got a rope on her after half a day of hard riding through thick weeds, brush, rivers and briars, tearing our clothes and getting well scratched up. The minute she found she was captured her disposition changed from a half wild animal to a peaceful mule. She is much larger than the rest. Some of the others are so small that one's stirrups will touch the ground sometimes when the paths are narrow and deep and the rocks and banks high.
We also captured a razorback pig for one of our Indian neighbors, who tied a rope on one hind leg and started towards home. It was great fun to watch him get started on his two-mile journey. As long as piggy went in the direction of home, everything was all right, but he seldom went that way, so the Indian simply tied the rope around some convenient tree or bush, sat down, and calmly watched the pig's frantic struggles to free himself. Finally the squeals would grow fainter, the struggles less violent and the exhausted pig stretch out on the ground, panting like a dog. The Indian all the while sat placidly smoking an enormous cigar, his face expressionless. When the pig showed signs of recovering the Indian would guide him once more in the right direction, and the procession would start again, only to proceed perhaps ten feet, when the same performance was repeated. Late in the afternoon they were still at odds about a mile up the trail, but as time means nothing to an Indian and his patience seems inexhaustible, I imagine he will get his pig home sometime.
Pancho killed a big lizard, (an Iguana), one of the eatable kind, and we had his tail nicely cooked for supper. He looked anything but palatable before being prepared for the table and it took much coaxing to make me taste it. To my great surprise it tasted pretty good after an almost continuous diet of stewed beans and tortillas. How I miss the white bread of the States: A few of the men under my directions have started preparing a nursery for our expected rubber seed. We have a yoke of half-wild steers, and our plow is only a crooked stick, which of course turns no furrow, but simply tears up the ground. The oxen have no yoke, such as we have at home, but pull on a stout pole lashed on their horns, and cannot be driven, but each is led by a piece of rawhide fastened into the ring in his nose.
I am going to try and raise some vegetables if I can get the seed. All the vegetables we get here are wild ones procured by the cook or house boy and are all strange to me except the tomatoes, which are about as large as cherries and grow in clusters.
A very busy day with a rather disagreeable ending. I worked on the accounts, doctored my patients and tried to settle a dispute between two of the men. I searched all of them for any knife or machete they might have smuggled in or hidden, so they could not get to fighting among themselves. I had so much to attend to that Wain kept the store. It is a rule here to close the store at eight and the men know it, but pay little attention to it. As Wain and I sat in his hut after the tiresome day, a mozo called for the senor to come down and sell him some cigarets. I could see Wain was provoked, but was hardly prepared for what followed. As we paid no attention to him, except to tell him that the store was closed, the man became more bold, started climbing the little ladder leading to the platform where we sat, and insolently demanded his cigarets. As his head came even with us Wain, without a word, kicked him in the face with all his might.
He was wearing a pair of heavy brogans of mine and so hard was his kick that the mozo was knocked off the ladder to the ground where he lay for a minute unconscious and bleeding. It was a brutal thing to do. I turned on Wain and scolded him roundly for his brutality. He sneered at me, called me a sissy and left me to my thoughts ... our first real break.
Had a visit from the secretary at Usila. Each village has a presidente and his secretary. The presidente is chosen by the village men and is an Indian. The secretary is appointed by the government and is the real authority, he having almost unlimited power over his territory, and sometimes uses it to further his personal gains. He is appointed to collect taxes, etc., and make reports to the government. Illiteracy is prevalent here and I doubt if any can read or write in the whole village outside of the secretary and the storekeeper or trader. It is amusing to see the presidente plodding along barefoot, with scarcely any clothes on, in the wake of the secretary, who is mounted on a spirited horse, with silver-mounted saddle. He is dressed in the most lavish costume, and, all asparkle in the sunlight, he radiates authority. Bob, who has been sick for some weeks now, has decided to return to the States; can't say I blame him, for bloody dysentery can become a pretty serious thing without good medical care, which he can't get here.
Wain, our foreman, is experienced and all right when he isn't drunk, but lately he's been hitting it up most of the time and when he is drunk is a most disagreeable and cruel man. Only a couple of days ago he beat up one of the woman cooks. Nearly killed her and probably would have if I hadn't forcibly interfered and stopped him. Don't think he ever wholly approved of me, and now he most certainly doesn't. He has a most sarcastic tongue in his head and knows how to use it. I'm a green horn and lack the experience that he has and perhaps warrant his contempt. But I don't like to be reminded of it, especially before our interpreter, the only other man that speaks English on this plantation. I know I can't trust the interpreter. I've caught him in a lot of lies. Lately he's been hobnobbing with some stranger hombre that seems to be hanging around here. Pancho, my house boy, seems to be all upset about the matter and has been trying to tell me something for days now. Good old Pancho, I know I can trust him.