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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER II.
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It was nine o'clock in the evening when the train reached Laredo from San Antonio, and our friends found that they would have to pass the night in the town. They had been recommended to patronize the Commercial Hotel; their informant said he could not speak loudly in its praise. "It is the least bad of the hotels in the place," said he, "and a great deal better than sleeping on the ground in the open air, as you would have been obliged to do here only a few years ago. In the language of the far West, it beats nothing all out of sight."
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There was a sign of civilization in the shape of an omnibus, rather a rickety and weak-springed affair, it is true, but still an omnibus, and it carried them safely to the hotel, whither their baggage followed in a wagon. The crowd around the station when the train arrived was a mixture of American and Mexican, with a few Indians by way of variety. The population of the frontier is quite a puzzle to the ethnologist at times, and the work of classification is by no means easy. Some of the patrons of the hotel were Mexicans of the better sort, and they mingled freely with the Americans who had lived long enough in Texas to feel at home. The Texas towns along the border contain a goodly number of residents who are engaged in defrauding the revenue of Mexico by engaging in the business of smuggling goods into that country; there is also a fair amount of smuggling from Mexico into the United States, and the customs officials on both sides are kept reasonably busy in seeing that the rights of their respective nations are defended. The peculiarity of revenue laws all the world over is that every country considers it quite proper to violate those of any other, but is very indignant if its own regulations are not respected.
Supper at the hotel was endurable by hungry travellers, but would have failed to meet the desires of the epicure; and the same may be said of breakfast on the following morning. As the train for Mexico started at eight o'clock,[2] there was not much time for sight-seeing after breakfast, though sufficient to discover that Laredo was a comparatively new town, whose existence was mainly due to the railways that lead to it. There was a town there in the early days of the Spanish colonization, but it was completely destroyed in the frontier troubles, and the site was deserted until Texas became one of the United States. The International and Great Northern Railway runs to San Antonio and beyond: one division of the Mexican National Railway, known as the Texas-Mexican, connects Laredo with Corpus Christi, on the Gulf of Mexico, 160 miles away; and the next, called the Northern Division, unites it with the City of Mexico. Other railways are projected, and those who have corner or other lots in Laredo predict a great future for the city.
The Rio Grande is not an imposing river at Laredo, and our young
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 friends were disappointed when they saw it. They had looked for a stream of magnitude, as implied by the name, and were not prepared for one that could be forded without much danger, and was so diminutive as to remind them of those rivers of the Western States where it is necessary to use a sprinkling-pot at certain seasons of the year to let strangers know where
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 the stream is. The Doctor told them that the Rio Grande was known as the Rio Bravo in the lower part of its course, and Frank suggested that it was because the river was very brave to come so far with such poor encouragement.
"But the stream which now looks so insignificant," Doctor Bronson explained, "is subject to periodical floods, owing to the melting of the snows in the mountains where it takes its rise. They begin in April, reach their greatest height in May, and subside in June, and while they last they fill the whole bed of the stream, and overflow the banks wherever they are low. Some of its tributaries at such times are roaring floods, while ordinarily they are only dry beds, where not a drop of water can be seen for many miles. But if you dig a few feet into the sandy bed of these streams you will find water; emigrants travelling through this country carry an empty barrel from which both heads are removed, and by sinking this barrel into the sand they obtain a plentiful supply of water. A knowledge of this fact has saved many lives, and ignorance of it has caused deaths by thirst when suffering might easily have been avoided."
The first bridge erected by the railway company at Laredo was of wood; it served its purpose until the first flood, when it was torn from its foundations and carried away. The present bridge is a substantial one of iron, and promises to last a long time.
From Laredo the train moved slowly across the river, along a bridge whose height was intended to make it secure against the severest floods, until it reached the station of Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side, two or three miles from Texan Laredo. Here there was an examination of baggage by the Mexican customs officials; they were polite, and our friends had learned from long experience in custom-houses to be polite in return. The result was that the examination of their belongings was very slight, while that of some of the passengers who displayed ill manners was much more severe. The Doctor and the youths produced the keys of their trunks and opened them before being asked to do so, and promptly announced the contents of the receptacles. They had nothing dutiable, and in a very few minutes the ordeal was ended.
Frank made the following note about the Mexican custom-house:
"Mexico is a land of high tariffs, and pretty nearly everything that can be imported is taxed. Machinery was formerly imported free, but it is now subject to duty, and so is almost everything except agricultural and scientific instruments and books. There is also a duty on packages apart from their contents, and there is a heavy duty on all kinds of carriages. Baggage for personal use is admitted free of duty, unless there is reason
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 to suspect that the owner has an intention to sell; two or three suits of clothing will pass without question, but ten or twelve would be liable to detention and duty. The laws require that the examination of baggage shall be conducted 'liberally, and with prudence and moderation,' and certainly we have no occasion to complain of discourtesy. In addition to clothing 'not excessive in quantity,' a traveller may have two watches with their chains, a cane, an umbrella, one or two pistols with equipments and cartridges, one hundred cigars, forty small packages of cigarettes, a rifle or fowling-piece, one pound of smoking tobacco or snuff, and any musical instruments in actual use except pianos and organs. When a resident of the United States crosses the Rio Grande into Mexican territory with his own carriage he must pay the duties on the vehicle, or give a bond for their payment in case he does not return to the United States.
"As the relations of the United States and Mexico increase in intimacy, it is probable that there will be a reciprocity treaty; negotiations to that end have been going on for some time, but are delayed by the usual 'hitches' that arise in such matters. At the entrance of Mexican cities there is an examination something like the octroi of European cities, but so far as tourists are concerned it is very slight. They merely declare
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 that they have nothing dutiable, and are allowed to pass on. There is an examination on leaving Mexico, as there is an export duty of five per cent. on bullion, and a prohibition against taking antiquities from the country. As a matter of fact, a good many antiquities are carried away, but as the greater part of them are fictitious the restriction is not rigidly enforced.
"We have heard several stories about how the Mexican custom-house is defrauded by the bribery of officials, but have no means of knowing if they are true or false. Certainly we did not offer any money to the men at the custom-house, and none of them intimated that he desired to be bribed. If a quarter of the stories have any truth at all, there must be a great deal of dishonesty along the frontier, but it is not confined to the Mexicans.
"Pack-trains loaded with dutiable goods start openly from the frontier towns of Texas, ford the river, and make their way into the interior of Mexico. The trade is so large that it could hardly be carried on without official connivance. The author of 'Mexico of To-day' says in regard to this subject: 'Those well informed with regard to trade interests agree that a great deal of smuggling exists, owing to the high tariff and the great frontier stretch that invites law-breakers. It is said that
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 millions more of American goods find their way into Mexico than show in the statistics prepared by either Government.'
"Another writer says: 'The traveller is permitted to enter all his personal apparel free of duty; in fact everything that he really needs. A great many things he does not need may be taken in also, for the official's pay is meagre and he loves to gaze on the portraits of American worthies as depicted on our national currency. It is well to caution the traveller that he must, if requested, state to the proper authorities his name and profession.'"
In due time the train rolled out of Nuevo Laredo, and our friends were contemplating the scenery of northern Mexico. For the first fifty or sixty miles there was not much to contemplate, as the country consists of a plain covered with chaparral, and one mile of it is very much like any other. "A little of it goes a great ways," said Frank to Fred; and after a brief study of the cactus and mesquite landscape, the youths turned to their books or to observations upon the train and the passengers accompanying them.
As stated elsewhere, the National Railway is of three feet gauge, and therefore it was to be expected that the cars would be narrow and possibly inconvenient. But our friends found them roomy and comfortable; there was a parlor-car with reclining-chairs, for which an extra price was charged, and sleeping-cars all the way from Laredo to the City of Mexico, just as sleeping-cars are run on other lines.
The passengers included several tourists like themselves, a few railway agents, some mysterious characters who could not be "placed," and six or eight men of business who cared nothing for scenery, politics, or anything else pertaining to Mexico, except the facilities for commerce and the duties upon imported goods. One of these individuals loudly denounced the protective duties in the Mexican tariff system, and declared that the country would never amount to anything until it abolished its restrictions
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 upon importations and opened its markets to the world. In the discussion that followed, the fact was revealed that he was a citizen of the United States, and interested in manufactures; concerning the tariff system of his own country, he favored protection, as it encouraged American industries and was the only system under which the people who worked with their hands could make a living. Frank wanted to ask him why he favored one system for Mexico and another for the United States, but he modestly refrained from so doing; another passenger asked the question, but it remained unanswered; and to this day the youth has not been enlightened on the subject.
Among the passengers were several Mexicans, whose nationality was readily shown by their swarthy complexions and the peculiarities of their dress. They wore the sombrero, or wide-brimmed hat of the country, but it may here be remarked that of late years the American hat has come somewhat into fashion and is less unpopular than of yore. Some of them proved to be naturalized Mexicans rather than native born; one in particular was a jolly Irishman who had been thirty years in Mexico, spoke its language fluently, and had been so browned by the sun that his complexion was fully up to the national standard. He joined Doctor Bronson and the youths in conversation, and cordially invited them to make a break in their journey and visit his hacienda.
He had a Mexican wife, and was the owner of a large area of land, on which he had so many cattle that he was unable to give their number within two or three hundred. He said he came from Ireland to
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 the United States, drifted down to the frontier of Mexico just before the American Civil War, and in order to avoid being mixed up in the troubles, he crossed the boundary and sought shelter under a neutral flag. There he had remained and prospered to such an extent that he had no wish to return either to the United States or his native land.
Fred made note of the dress of a haciendado, or ranch-owner, who was seated near him and might fairly be taken as the type of the dandy horseman of Mexico. The man wore a suit of dark blue or blue-black cloth, the suit consisting of two garments, a jacket and trousers. The jacket was short and well fitted, and it was ornamented with large buttons of silver; the trousers were close-fitting, and on the outer seams were rows of silver buttons smaller than those that decorated the jacket. The feet were incased in top-boots with high heels, and each boot carried a large spur of solid silver; the spur is a cruel weapon, with long rowels upon wheels as large as a half-dollar. The man's jacket was open in front, displaying a frilled or ruffled shirt, white as snow, and connected to the trousers at the waist by a faja, or sash, whose predominating color was red. The Mexicans are fond of gaudy colors, and the taste for them runs through all classes of the population. Though it was not worn in the railway-train, we must not forget the serape, or Mexican blanket, which is carried over the shoulders or on the arm, or in the case of a mounted horseman, is thrown across the front of the saddle.
The sombrero of this haciendado was of a light gray color; the head-covering may be of almost any color under the sun, but the preference is
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 nearly always for something bright. The crown may be rounded off like the large end of an egg, or form a truncated cone, like the crown of the hat worn by the Puritans, and it is encircled by three or four turns of silver or gold cord. Gold or silver trimming around the brim completes the ornamentation; altogether there is considerable weight to the Mexican sombrero, but nobody seems to mind it.
At the stations where the train halted from time to time, the travellers obtained glimpses of men and things peculiar to the country. Horsemen were in goodly proportion, as no Mexican who can afford a horse will be without one; and sometimes when he cannot afford it, he manages to possess the steed of his desires by the simple process of stealing it. Wagons and pack-trains were not infrequent; and one of the picturesque spectacles in connection with them was the muleteers, or mule-drivers, who were almost invariably barefooted, wore but little clothing, and carried the ropes and other apparatus needed for their professions in bags slung over their shoulders or hung at their sides. Some of the stations were frail buildings of wood, while others were of the adobe, or sun-dried brick, the favorite construction material of Mexico and the countries that once belonged to her.
Fred was interested in the adobe, and learned on inquiry that its use is a matter of great antiquity. The Mexican Indians made sun-dried bricks long before Columbus discovered America, and it should be borne in mind that some of the pyramids of Egypt, which have stood for thousands of years, were of the same material. The bricks that the Egyptians compelled the Israelites to make without straw were dried in the sun, and therefore identical with the Mexican adobe.
Fred asked his Irish-Mexican acquaintance how an adobe house was made, and the gentleman kindly explained.
"An adobe house," said he, "costs very little, and it is warmer in winter and cooler in summer than either wood or brick. It will last as long as anybody can want it to. I know some adobe houses that are said to be a hundred years old, and many that have stood twenty or thirty years without any sign of decaying.
"Adobe bricks are made of one-third clay-dust and two-thirds fine sand, and it takes four men to form a brick-making team. One mixes the mass with a little water so as to form it into a heavy mortar, two men carry it in a hand-barrow to the place where the bricks are to be spread out and dried, and the fourth man shapes the bricks in the mould. After drying somewhat while flat on the ground, which has been previously levelled and made smooth as a floor, the adobes are set up edgewise,
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 and stay so until the sun finishes them completely. They are laid in mortar made from mud; and when a wall is two feet high, the work stops for a week, to allow the mortar to be firmly set before putting more pressure on it. When a week has passed, another height of two feet may be laid, and so the work goes on until the building is finished. Then it must wait a week before the roof is put on. You see, it takes time for building an adobe house; but time is of no consequence in the land of mañana."
"What is the meaning of mañana?" one of the youths asked.
"It means 'to-morrow,'" was the reply; "and as you go through Mexico you will hear the word in constant use. Ask a Mexican when he will do anything—pay a bill, return the horse he borrowed, build a sheep-pen or a corral for his cattle, get married, buy a new saddle, in fact do anything that can be done—his answer is, 'Mañana.' Mexico is the land of mañana, and the habit of procrastination is exasperating to a man of any other nationality. You'll get used to it in time, but it takes a long while to do so. It wouldn't be so bad if the man literally meant what he said, and when to-morrow comes would do as he promised. The word is used like the 'coming, sir' of the English waiter, or the 'tout de suite' of the French one, and means 'next week,' or 'next year,' or more properly an indefinite time in the future."
"There's another word, or rather two words, where the meaning is identical with mañana, and the use the same. You'll hear them often in Mexico, but more frequently in Central America and farther south."
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"What are they?"
"Poco tiempo," was the reply; "the literal meaning is 'in a little while,' but the practical usage is the same as that of mañana. Then there's another lesson in language you may have gratis; ask a man any question for which he does not know the answer, and his response will be, 'Quien sabe?' (who knows?). It is less exasperating than the other words I've told you of, as it is simply a form of saying 'I don't know.'"
The youths made proper acknowledgment for the instruction they had received, and took good care to remember it.
The dreary plain ceased at length, and the mountains began to be visible. About seventy-five miles from Laredo Frank's attention was called to a mesa, or high table-land, a little beyond the station of Lampasas. It is a mountain which spreads out flat like a table, and the area on the top is said to be not far from 80,000 acres; its sides are 1400 feet high, and so nearly perpendicular that it is impossible to ascend them, except in a few places. There is a path three miles long leading to the summit; it is impassable for wheeled vehicles, and can only be traversed by sure-footed
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 quadrupeds or men. It is called the Meza de los Cartujanos (Carthusians), a tribe of Indians who probably derived their name from a Benedictine monastery which was once established there. The mesa is well watered, and its surface is divided between forest and grass-land in such proportion as to make it an excellent pasture. No fences are needed beyond a single gate at the top of the path to keep the cattle from straying into the country below, unless we include the division fences for the separation of herds.
From Lampasas to Monterey the country improved greatly, and for a hundred miles or so the train wound through a valley where the scenery was almost constantly picturesque, and the land showed signs of agriculture and stock-raising. Near one of the stations the boys caught sight of a threshing-floor, where horses were driven around in a circle to tread out the grain with their hoofs. This is the primitive mode of threshing, to which reference is made in the Bible; it is still in use in various parts of southern Europe and also in Asia and northern Africa. The American invasion of Mexico will doubtless introduce the threshing-machine; in
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 fact the machine has already been introduced, and many of the raisers of wheat on a large scale have adopted it.
In the cultivated districts many fruit-trees were seen, and Fred made note of the fact that the orchards produced figs, pomegranates, lemons, oranges, aguacates, and chirimoyas, in addition to most of the fruits of the temperate zones. He learned that the State of Nuevo Leon, which they were then traversing, produced tobacco, sugar, Indian-corn, wheat, Mexican hemp, and similar things, and contained a million dollars' worth of cattle and horses. It elevation is from 1000 to 2300 feet above the level of the sea, and its climate ranks as temperate or semi-tropical.
Lampasas is said to be a great resort for smugglers, who carry on a regular business, with comparatively little disturbance by the authorities. Probably the railway has interfered with them, and they can hardly be expected to look upon it with a kindly eye. About thirty miles beyond Lampasas is Bustamente, a town founded two hundred years ago by the Spaniards as a frontier post against the Indians of the north, and now the seat of a manufacturing interest that promises to increase. The cloth of Bustamente has a high reputation throughout Mexico, and the town contains a tribe of Indians descended from the Tlascalans, who helped Cortez to conquer the Aztecs and make Guatemozin a prisoner.
As the train approached Monterey, about four o'clock in the afternoon, a mountain shaped like a saddle was pointed out on the left of the line. "What do you suppose is the name of that mountain?" said the gentleman who called attention to it, while the eyes of Frank and Fred were turned in its direction.
"I don't know, I'm sure," said Fred; "perhaps they named it for its shape, and call it Saddle Mountain."
"That's exactly what it is," was the reply; "it is called La Silla, or The Saddle, and is a prominent landmark around Monterey."
Then the gentleman pointed to a mountain on the right which he said was called Cerro de la Mitra (Mountain of the Mitre), from its resemblance to the mitre worn by a bishop. Then between them, and farther away, he pointed out the chain of the Sierras, and the youths realized that they were in a region of mountains.
The train wound through a cleft in the hills, and came to a halt at the station of Monterey, a mile and a half from the city. It is proper to remark that most of the towns and cities of Mexico require the railways to stop outside the walls or limits, but for what especial reason, unless to give occupation to the inhabitants in transporting passengers, baggage, and freight, our young friends were unable to ascertain. The custom is
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 Spanish as well as Mexican, as the traveller in Spain will vividly remember.
There is a good supply of cabs and omnibuses at the station, and there is a horse-railway connecting the city and the railway-station, so that travellers have a choice of conveyances. The horse-railway was built by an American, who obtained a concession from the Government and thought he was making a wonderfully profitable investment. But the local authorities hampered him with many restrictions; they compelled him to carry a policeman on every car, and the policeman generally took the side of those who did not pay their fare. It was fashionable to ride in the cars, but not fashionable to pay, or, at any rate, it was optional to pay or not.
A good many foreigners who have settled in Mexico complain that their enterprises are seriously interfered with by the authorities, national, State, and local. Every town and village, according to the old Spanish law and custom, has the right to levy tolls or taxes on everything that passes through it, and on all business conducted within its limits. Then the State or district can levy a tax, and the national government comes in for a levy of its own in addition. The result is that every enterprise is liable to be "taxed to death," and many a man who has carried money to Mexico to engage in what promised to be a profitable business has left it behind him in the hands of the various authorities. Taxes, forced loans, and various expenses that can never be foreseen swallow up all the profits and altogether too often the original investment. Very few silver-mines in Mexico pay dividends to their stockholders, and the few that are worth owning have no stock for sale. The American saying that "it
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 takes a gold-mine to work a silver-mine" is as true of Mexico as of any other country.
Our friends went to the Hotel Hidalgo, and found it endurable; it had been recommended by one of their fellow-passengers on the train, who showed his good faith in his recommendation by accompanying them thither. Immediately after securing rooms and completing arrangements for their stay, the party started for a drive around the city, which boasts an age of more than three hundred years, having been founded in 1560, though it did not receive its present name until 1596.
Monterey means "king mountain," or "mountain of the king," and the name of the city was given in honor of Don Gaspar de Zuñiga, Conde de Monterey, who was Viceroy of Mexico in 1596. The name given to the settlement in 1560 was Santa Lucia; a little stream which crosses the city from west to east preserves the original appellation, but comparatively few of the inhabitants are aware of its origin.

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