From The Isthmus To The Golden Gate
( Originally Published 1913 )
The sun was setting behind the palm-fringed hills. The fairway of the canal, reflecting the rosy tints of the sky, stretched placid and opalescent off into the Gulf of Panama. The noisy cranes had ceased their creaking; the passengers were all aboard. Slowly we backed from Balboa's dock, swung about, and took our course down the bay. As we passed Taboga Island the short twilight of the tropics deepened, and before we knew it the shades of night had shut us in.
So here we were well started upon our twenty-three days' voyage to San Francisco. Now twenty-three days at sea at best is not a pleasant prospect, twenty-three days of "wet-ploughing," with nothing to vary the tedium of the long, inactive hours; twenty-three days perhaps of wind and rain and heavy weather. But upon this occasion no thoughts like these dismayed us, for were we not to put into about a dozen different ports, to enjoy long shore excursions, and perhaps, best of all, to be sure of a calm sea with a bright sky, for the beginning of the rainy season was still a month away?
We started upon a Saturday night. All day Sunday we were in the gulf coasting by low, wooded shores to Cape Mala, and that evening the sun set apparently upon the wrong side of the ship, owing to our continued southerly course.
On Monday we passed the Island of Monterosa lifting high its wooded peak; then the Ladrones, but not those so important in the old navigation of the Pacific, the half-way house so to speak between Mexico and the Orient; then at Burica Point we had our first glimpse of the Golfo Dulce.
In the Pacific south of Panama we had thought the sea was calm, for its surface was only now and then slightly ruffled by the cool breeze that blows up the coast. But here in these Central American latitudes it lay motionless, oily, lazy, its only show of life being the long heaves that slowly passed over it as if to mark its breathing. I watched a sailor take the temperature of the water, and his thermometer registered eighty degrees.
Between Matapalo Head and Sal si Puedes Point the coast rose to ranges perhaps two thousand feet in height. Deep fringes of cocoanut-palms skirted the shore, backed by lovely hills covered with dense wood, among whose trees, the captain assured us, fine mahogany, rosewood, and cedars are still to be found in large quantities. Toward sundown we sighted Cano Island, a veritable Robinson Crusoe's isle, quite alone upon the deep, yet wooded and apparently provided with all the necessities of human existence.
All day Tuesday we were off the coast of Nicaragua, in a fine clipping breeze, and at night crossed the mouth of the Bay of Fonseca, important commercially, as Honduras, Nicaragua, and Salvador all have frontages upon it.
On Wednesday morning the land was again very near, so close indeed that we could plainly see the long sandy beaches, the rich foliage of the hills, and the lazy breakers of the Pacific swell rolling in the logs and driftwood. These were the coves that Gil Gonzales explored, as virgin today as when he, the first white man to behold these saw them from the deck of his high-pooped galleon.
Suddenly, as we watched, among the inland mists that rose in the warm, moist air, a blue silhouette appeared, so faint that we could scarcely distinguish its outline, so high that we could hardly believe our eyes —the conical peak of Vicente rising more than seven thousand feet above the sea, one of the long successions of volcanoes that bristle along this Central American sea. Soon we passed the mouth of the Rio Jiboa, that empties into Lake Ilo Pango; then the long sierra that separates San Salvador from the coast came into view.
Scarcely a sign of human life had enlivened these three days' travel, but now ahead a mole protruded into the sea with a white warehouse upon its end. This was all that at first sight marked La Libertad, at one time Salvador's main port, but now, since the opening of the railroad at Acajutla, somewhat abandoned. We went ashore, however, in the agent's boat, were hoisted in a chair from it to the dock, and spent the afternoon wandering about the village, drinking cocoanut milk and nibbling tamarinds in a shop; seeing the old church, a wofully poor affair; and enjoying the tropical trees and plants. We returned to the ship in a big lighter laden with coffee, were duly hoisted aboard again in a sort of car like those used in roller-coasters, and soon were off to sea again.
Not for very long, however, for upon the following morning we cast anchor off Acajutla. As upon the west coast of South America, these Pacific ports are, with one or two exceptions, merely open roadsteads where the steamers lie within a mile or so of shore. Passengers, baggage, and freight alike are transferred in lighters, the experiences attending embarkation and debarkation being sometimes quite thrilling.
A number of passengers were leaving our steamer at Acajutla, among them the family of a president of Ecuador who had just been ruthlessly murdered in a revolution, and whose relatives were seeking asylum in Salvador. These people, as well as the secretary of the American legation at San Salvador, who was also in their party, proposed that we should accompany them inland as far as Sonsonate, where they were to spend the night, proceeding to San Salvador upon the morrow. Our captain assured us that we could do this, provided we returned by the early train next morning.
So after lunch, four at a time, the whole party—stout Spanish ladies all in deepest black, Indian servants, attentive and watchful, carrying band-boxes, handbags, parrots, and lap-dogs, as well as ourselves—all were lowered into a lighter and hoisted ashore again at the bodega perched on the end of the mole. We found we had time before the train's departure to look about the village and its great coffee warehouses. Then we all enjoyed refreshing beverages upon the balcony of the port-agent's house overlooking the palm-sheltered village, with its bamboo huts and its women peddling fruits, frijoles, and starchy-looking puddings.
A little train finally came crawling in, and soon we were off upon our trip inland. At first we passed through a rich grazing country. The name of the second station, Moisant, recalled the intrepid aviator who was the first to fly the English Channel. And rightly, for here is situated the great beneficio, or plantation, operated by his brother, and from which he too went forth to lead his adventurous career. Adventurous, indeed, is the word, for all the country remembers him as a dare-devil, ever in hot water, manning a Gatling gun in the square at Sonsonate, holding it alone against the revolutionists, or swimming to sea to plant the Stars and Stripes upon a French ship that had gone ashore near Acajutla, thus bringing our government into international complications.
He was finally exiled from Salvador, but returned in disguise, going directly to see the President. When he was admitted, he tore off his false beard and said : "Well, here I am back again; what are you going to do with me?" To which the President, quite taken aback and lost in admiration at his daring, replied : " Why, nothing at all, Tom. Come and have a drink."
The world knows of his career as an aviator—his spectacular apparition from nowhere, his heroic crossing of the Channel to the amazement and discomfiture of England, and of his sad, untimely death. This, his old home, an American-looking house, peaceful, comfortable, always open to the breeze, is set under waving cocoanut-palms in the midst of fields of sugar-cane.
The foliage hereabout was particularly handsome. Palms and conicaste, with their soaring trunks and umbrella-like burst of leafage at the top, mingled with superb madre de cacao giants of the forest both in height and spread, so called because the cocoa plant is sheltered from the ardent sun beneath their spreading branches, as broad as those of the greatest oaks. Cattle grazed in the lowlands and the corn was ripening to perfection, irrigated by little ditches.
In less than an hour we reached Sonsonate. The quaint hotel, primitive but decent, called the Blanco y Negro, is but a step from the station. They showed us a large room opening directly upon the street by means of a shuttered door, and upon the patio by a similar entrance. There were no windows, but we slept in the draught between the doors. The spacious dining-room in the court was also open on every hand to the winds of heaven by reason of large unglazed air-spaces that in rainy weather could be closed by movable shutters. Upon each table, among the usual articles, stood an olive-oil bottle, filled with a thick, black mixture, which, on closer acquaintance, proved to be the richest extract of coffee, a few drops of which at breakfast in a cup of milk made strong cafe au lait.
Sonsonate has but one street of importance. Only a few paces from the hotel it crosses a high bridge that commands a fine view up and down a deep gorge, luxuriantly tropical, where the women stand knee-deep in the pools washing their vari-coloured garments,. and of the handsome blue distant mountains that shut off the town to the eastward.
Upon this bridge there is always a strange concourse of people and animals: women, straight and erect, balancing baskets of fruit, ollas of water, and brown earthen bowls of frijoles upon their heads; ox-carts rumbling along upon their solid wooden wheels and covered with great dried cowhides, and once in a while a little tram-car, mule-drawn, that seems to meander off to nowhere at all. The pavement of the street rises and falls in a thousand ruts and gullies, heaving itself as if a long series of earth-quakes had utterly shattered its cobbled surfaces.
The little shops are kept for the most part by Chinamen or Armenians, and one of the latter, when I asked for souvenir postal cards to send to friends, could only produce views of Jerusalem ! In the Chinese shops you can find the pretty silken scarfs that the women wear, made in China especially for this Central American trade, and most becoming they are, framing the dark oval faces in their soft silky folds.
It was at vespers that, toward twilight that afternoon, we saw them to their best advantage. The church interior, spacious and airy, is painted pink and pale water-green, and against this background, like bouquets of soft flowers, nodded these scarf-covered heads, coral and violet, lavender and pale-blue, heliotrope and white. As night came on, the women trooped away out under the golden bamboo arch that shades the transept door and through the plaza, stopping perhaps to buy some bits of food from the venders who squatted on the curbstones before the great columns of the portico, their earthen bowls cooking with a spluttering of oil over open fires kindled in the gutter.
There was a concert in the plaza that evening. A military band discoursed excellent music from the bandstand, while under the lovely flowering trees that stained the pavement with their falling blooms, the townspeople sat upon blue benches or walked around the leafy avenues. Girls, four abreast, arm in arm, pale as moonflowers, with their hair, silky and well cared for, hanging loosely down their backs, swished their starched skirts as they passed; negro women, black as night, in scarlet dresses with long golden ear-rings dangling about their necks, walked quietly behind their mistresses; the blue Prefectura gleamed ghostly in the moonlight, and even the cold, white, classic church, whose great columns swell like those of Egypt into lotus-flower capitals, took on the warmth and glamour of this southern night, making a picture like the scenic setting of some grand opera.