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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER XXXI.
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"Would you like to see a cenoté?" said Mr. Honradez, just before our friends retired for the night.
"Certainly," replied Doctor Bronson for himself and the youths, while the latter wondered what a cenoté was.
"Well, I'll show you one in the morning," was the reply. Then there was an exchange of wishes all around for a pleasant slumber, and in a little while everybody was in bed, or rather in hammock. Our friends had brought their hammocks as part of their baggage, and when they were ready to retire they found those useful articles stretched in the corridor of
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 the principal dwelling of the hacienda, in a place that afforded ample ventilation.
Whether it was owing to the expected cenoté or the unrestful character of a night's novitiate in a hammock we are unable to say, but the youths were up somewhat earlier than usual and eager to begin the day. Doctor Bronson was not far behind them, and they did not have to wait long for their host. When he appeared he was followed by a mozo carrying an armful of towels, and after a hearty greeting led the way to a small house at a little distance from the stables of the hacienda.
Fred suggested to his cousin, while their host was in conversation with Doctor Bronson, that the cenoté was probably some kind of game, and they would quite likely have it for breakfast. "Perhaps," said he, "they keep it alive and kill it when wanted, and this house may be the place where it is shut up."
"I think it's something to wear," replied Frank, "and the house is the store-room. Possibly, though, it's some kind of vegetable like celery or onions. Anyway, we'll find out soon."
They were speedily enlightened on the subject. On reaching the house in question, Mr. Honradez explained that it was the entrance to a private cenoté of his own.
"You are already aware," said he, "that there are no rivers in Yucatan, and have learned from experience that we have plenty of water, notwithstanding the absence of streams. Beneath the calcareous formation on which the whole of the peninsula stands there are streams and lakes
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 of water, which are reached through natural or artificial openings in the surface rock. These openings, whether natural or artificial, are called cenotés, and some of them are of great depth. Sometimes they are mere pits or wells, and, on the other hand, there are cenotés which form large grottos with lakes of considerable area. The water is clear and cool and entirely wholesome. We use the cenotés for obtaining our supply of water and also for bathing.
"This is our bathing-house," he continued, "and I've brought you here for your morning bath. You will find bathing-trousers in the rooms, and can undress and come down as soon as you like."
He showed them the way into their dressing-rooms, and then disappeared into a room of his own. When the youths reappeared, in appropriate
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 costume, their host called to them from somewhere down in the interior of the earth, and they proceeded in the direction of the voice.
By a sloping and slippery stair-way cut in the rock they descended some thirty-five or forty feet till they reached a pool of clear water over which the rock rounded in a high dome nearly to the surface. A hole two or three feet in diameter and covered with an iron grating opened in the centre of the dome, and gave light enough to show the interior of the place very fairly. Many stalactites hung from the roof, and stalagmites stood up wherever they could find standing room. From the grotto where our friends found themselves little nooks and small grottos opened, so that the spot was by no means unattractive. Numerous lizards clung to the rock or swam in the water; and these crawling and slimy things took away many of the merits the bathing-place might have possessed.
"The lizards do no harm," said Mr. Honradez, "but they are not pleasant to look at, and we would gladly drive them out if we could. There is a curious bird called the 'toh' which lives in the cenotés; it has a soft plumage, and sports a long tail of only two feathers, which have nothing on their stems until the very tip is reached. If you look sharp you may possibly see an eyeless fish similar to the fishes which are found in the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky."
The youths looked in every direction, and though Frank thought he saw one of these strange members of the finny tribe he was unable to capture it. Frank asked if the cenotés communicated with each other or were separately supplied from the rains sinking into the ground.
"We cannot say that all of them are connected," was the reply; "but it is certain that some of them are. Many contain streams with perceptible currents, and it has been observed that at times the cenotés are full of alligators, while at others none can be found there. As the alligator cannot pierce its way through solid rock, there must be channels which connect with large bodies of water where the alligators live."
At the suggestion of alligators Frank and Fred intimated that they did not care to stay long in the water, and their search for eyeless fish was abandoned in favor of the larger game. Mr. Honradez laughed, and said there was not the slightest danger, as no alligator larger than a rat could possibly make its way into the place where they were, as all the entrance channels were very small.
Thus reassured, they remained tranquil, and enjoyed the plunge and swim in the cool water. Meanwhile their host explained that these sources of water supply had been known from very ancient times; long before the Conquest the inhabitants built their towns near the water-holes, and at
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 the present time any one desiring to establish a hacienda seeks first a good cenoté, and locates his buildings near it.
On returning from the bath the host showed them the well which supplied the hacienda with water. Peons drew the water in buckets at the end of a long rope passing over a windlass, and poured it into a large trough, whence it was taken by the servants from the kitchen, or allowed to flow in pipes to the engine-house, stables, or wherever else it was needed.
"In nearly every village throughout Yucatan," said Mr. Honradez, "you will find a well of this sort in the public square; it is called a noria, and the usual mode of drawing water is by an endless rope passing over a wheel and carrying small buckets. These bring up the water from below, and as they turn over the wheel they pour their contents into a trough. The system is almost an exact copy of that in use in Egypt centuries before Yucatan was heard of. The rude machine is propelled by a mule walking in a circle and driven by a boy. The mule is invariably an old one, fit for no other work, and sometimes a horse or ox, likewise old and poor, is found in its place."
"I suppose the village pays for the mule and the driver," one of the youths remarked.
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"Yes," was the reply; "and the payment is by direct taxation. Every person who takes a jar of water is expected to leave a handful of corn in payment. This corn goes for the support of the boy and the animal, and to judge by the condition of the beast, the lion's share of the tax is taken by the boy."
The conversation about the curious wells of Yucatan came to an end with several stories concerning them. One was that in the town of Tabi there is a large cenoté which shows down in the depths of the water when the sun is at the meridian the perfect figure of a palm-tree, trunk, leaves, and all being fully delineated. In another town there is a cenoté where, according to the early chroniclers, any one dies instantly who enters the water without holding his breath. It is needless to say that bathing there is not at all popular. Other subterranean pools contain poisonous lizards which cause violent and even fatal headaches by merely biting the shadow of any person who passes them. Another lizard, when wounded, is said to throw its tail at its assailant; it detaches and throws it a distance of several yards, and if it strikes the flesh will cause death. Many of the cenotés are reputed to be the haunts of demons and fairies, the bad spirits being much more numerous than the good ones.
In the cool hours of the afternoon our friends started on their return to Merida, and late in the evening drew up in front of the hotel. Their host urged them to remain a week or two at the hacienda; with the politeness customary to the country, he told them that the place and everything about it were theirs—a declaration which was certainly in earnest, so far as a prolonged visit was concerned. But they were anxious to continue their investigations of Yucatan, and having already arranged to go to Uxmal with an American gentleman residing at Merida, were unable to remain longer with Mr. Honradez.
The second morning after their return they started for the ruins of Uxmal, which are about sixty miles from Merida. Doctor Bronson and Mr. Burbank, his American friend, rode in one volan coché, and Frank and Fred in another. A cart with the needed supply of provisions and cooking utensils had left on the previous day, and was to meet them at Uxmal, which contains no hotel or other accommodation for travellers. Lodgings are taken in some of the deserted and ruined buildings; and with a suitable equipment and a supply of food, one can get along very comfortably.
The road presented the same scenes as the one they had taken a few days before, and therefore does not need special description. At the first village on the road the vehicles halted to allow the panting mules to take
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 breath and water, and our friends descended from their cramped positions to stretch their limbs. Mr. Burbank spoke a few words to some of the natives that gathered around them, and then asked the strangers to go with them to see a heetzmek.
Wondering what a heetzmek was, they followed to a house a few yards away, where a woman was walking around the dwelling carrying a very young child astride her hip. Having completed the circuit, she repeated it again and again, till she had walked five times around the dwelling, carrying the child as before.
"This is a ceremony which corresponds to the christening of infants in other countries," said the gentleman. "The woman that you see is the baby's godmother; the position in which the Yucateos carry their
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 children astride the hip is like that of India and some other Asiatic countries. The heetzmek is performed when the infant is about four months old.
"The natives believe in the magic of the number five. You have seen the woman walk five times around the house as she carries the ch............
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