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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER XXIX.
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The train rolled into Merida and halted under the walls of an old convent that has been converted into a public hospital. As the passengers emerged from the station Frank and Fred were impressed with the listlessness of the cab-drivers, who did not seem to care whether they obtained customers or not. They stood or sat idly near their vehicles, and one was sound asleep on his box, where he evidently did not wish to be disturbed for so trivial a matter as earning a living.
The carriages in waiting were of various kinds. That which first caught the eyes of the youths was a calesa, a sort of chaise carrying two persons, the driver being seated on the horse; the shafts were of unusual length, and the weight was so placed that fully one-third of it rested on the animal, in addition to that of the driver. The wood-work was bright with paint and gilding, and over the frame was drawn a cover of white linen to ward off rain and dust together with the heat of the sun, which is by no means light in Yucatan. Fred suggested that it was a wise provision
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 of nature to seat the driver on the horse, as he could not conveniently go to sleep there.
A somewhat rickety carriage to hold four persons was secured, and in this conveyance the travellers proceeded to the only hotel of which Merida can boast. Until recently the place had no hotel whatever, and strangers were obliged to hunt lodgings for themselves or apply to their consular representative or a foreign merchant. Even as it is, a letter of introduction to a resident is a very useful document. Few travellers go to Merida, and the universal testimony of those who have been there is that the residents are hospitable. The same may be said generally of the inhabitants of the towns, villages, and haciendas throughout Yucatan.
The streets of Merida are broader than those of many other Mexican cities, but their pavement does not attract attention by its excellence. The houses are of stone, and mostly but a single story in height. The entrance is generally through an arched door-way into a court-yard, and the windows that face the street are invariably grated and nearly all without glass. The construction of the houses suggests Moorish and Spanish architecture, together with some features peculiar to the dwellings of the natives.
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Merida stands on the site of a native city, where a great and decisive battle was fought in 1540. According to the Spanish historians, there were 200 Spaniards against 40,000 Indians. Doubtless the figures are not exact, but it is quite likely that the defeated army was vastly superior in numbers to the invaders. The Spaniards had, of course, the advantage of fire-arms, as they had in the conquest of Mexico, and we have seen in previous pages what a great advantage it was. The Indians had only spears, swords, and bows and arrows, and their bodily defences were tunics of wadded cotton. These tunics were efficient against their own kind of weapons, but of little use to repel a musket-ball. The cannon of the Spaniards created terrible havoc among them, and one chronicler says that when the Indians were heavily massed the cannon-balls tore through them and mowed down hundreds at every discharge.
Where is now the Plaza Mayor was a mound of stone and earth at the time of the Conquest. On the top of the mound was an altar, on which sacrifices were made; but the natives were not as much addicted to them as were the people of Mexico. This very circumstance had much to do with the success of Cortez in his conquest. The Aztecs sought to take their enemies alive in order to sacrifice them on their altars; and it is said that Cortez himself was in their hands on two occasions. They might easily have killed him, but while they were leading him away uninjured, in order that he should be kept for sacrifice, he was rescued by his followers.
The mound referred to was torn down for the sake of the building material it contained; and the same was the case with many other mounds and pyramids in its neighborhood. Very much of the material of which Merida is constructed was obtained from these edifices.
The streets cross each other at right angles, and Frank observed something which he thought quite original in the naming of the streets. Here is his memorandum on the subject:
"For the convenience of the Indians who could not read or write Spanish, or anything else, in fact, the streets were named after birds and beasts. In addition to the Spanish name in letters there was the figure of the creature after which the street was called. The Street of the Ox had the figure of an ox in stone or plaster, or painted on the wall; the Street of the Flamingo presented a tall flamingo with a beak of fiery red, and the Street of the Elephant had a well-moulded figure of that animal with enormous trunk and tusks. The idea is a capital one, and I'm surprised it has been so little utilized."
"It is utilized more than you think," said Doctor Bronson, when Frank called his attention to the subject. "You remember that in Russia
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 and other countries where large numbers of the population cannot read, the shop-keepers ornament their signs with pictures of the things they have to sell; and the custom is by no means unknown in our own land. A watch-maker hangs out a wooden watch, a boot-maker displays a boot or shoe, and a druggist shows a mortar and pestle. You remember how convenient it was in the far East, for the servants who did not know a single Roman letter, that the canned fruits, meats, and vegetables from America and England bore on their labels a picture of the article contained in the can?"
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"Certainly, I do remember," replied the youth. "After all, there's nothing new under the sun, though the application of the idea here is something we have not before seen."
There are twelve or fifteen squares, or plazas, in the city, the most important being, of course, the central one known as the Plaza Mayor. The cathedral and the Casa Municipal, or City Hall, face upon this square, and on one side of it is the oldest house in the city, dating from 1549. The city was founded in 1542 by Don Francisco de Montejo, the son of the Governor of the Province of Yucatan, and bearing exactly the same name. Montejo, junior, was lieutenant-governor and captain-general, and the old house just mentioned, which is one of the sights of Merida, was built by him. The façade is ornamented with sculptures, which are said to have been made by Indians after designs supplied by the Spaniards. They represent the conquerors trampling on the bodies of natives, who have been made non-resistant by the removal of their heads. It was probably the idea of Montejo that the sight of these sculptures would deter the Indians from any further resistance to the white men who came from beyond the sea, and brought the Christian religion to replace the paganism which they found here.
The hotel in which our friends were lodged is also on the great square, directly opposite the old house of Montejo, which was the first building to which the youths gave special attention. Most of the buildings fronting the square are of more than one story; in fact, the best architecture of the place may be said to be in that neighborhood. The Casa Municipal is an imposing building of two stories, with broad porticos supported on arches. It has a high tower, from which watchmen are supposed to be constantly on the lookout for fires; though, owing to the material used in the construction of Merida, and the absence of stoves and furnaces, fires are of exceedingly rare occurrence.
"The first thing to attract our attention as we strolled through the streets," wrote Fred, "was the dress of the people. The men—I am speaking of the native Indians—wear cotton trousers, or drawers, which are tight at the waist, and descend to the knee or below it. Sometimes they have shirts on their backs and sometimes none; but in the latter case a man is reasonably certain to have one folded away in his hat, to be worn
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 on state occasions or when the rules of society demand. Some of them wear a long shirt and no trousers, and altogether the wardrobe of a native of the lower class is not costly. Frequently we see men with one leg of the trousers rolled up and the other hanging down, and it is a comical sight when a half a dozen thus arrayed are grouped together. A very noticeable feature about the shirt is that it is worn with the 'flaps' outside, like a carter's frock or 'jumper,' and not inside, as in northern countries.
"The dress of the women is a skirt hanging from the waist to the ground, and a white uipil, or outer garment, that hangs from the shoulders to the ground, like a loose wrapper. It is the traditional dress of 300 years ago, and the fashion has not changed at all in that time. On Sundays and feast days both sexes are arrayed in spotless white, but on other days their garments are apt to be more or less dingy. Compared to the Mexicans, the Yucateos, as the people of Yucatan are called, are wonderfully
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 cleanly in their dress and ways, and it is as rare to see a dirty Yucateco as it is to see a clean Aztec. The uipil of the women has short sleeves, and is not as high in the neck as the close-fitted dress of New England, but is a modest and neat-looking dress, and the whiteness of the material makes a fine contrast with the dark skin of the wearer.
"Many of the women are pretty, and we do not wonder that the Spanish conquerors were loud in their praises of the comeliness of the feminine part of the inhabitants of Yucatan. Their eyes are black as coals, and their sight is as sharp as that of the traditional Indian everywhere; altogether the people have a close resemblance to the Malay race, and we have but to close our eyes a moment to imagine ourselves once more in Batavia or Singapore.
"The people are of the Maya race, and here, in the name, we have a near approach to 'Malay.' By some they are supposed to be an ancient people who lived here before the advent of the Toltecs, which happened about the twelfth century; others believe them to be a combination of two races, the Toltecs from the west and another race from the islands of the Caribbean Sea. Landa, Stephens, Squier, and other writers say the Mayas were the most civilized people of America; they had an alphabet and a literature, cultivated the soil, had rude machinery for manufacturing textile and other fabrics, possessed sailing-vessels, and had a circulating medium which corresponded to the money of the Old World.
"The great temples of Palenque and other cities of this part of the world were built by this people, or by tribes and races closely allied to them; we have show............
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