The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 15.

A Nicaraguan criminal. Geology between Ocotal and Totagalpa. Preparations at Totagalpa for their annual festival. Chicha-drinking. Piety of the Indians. Ancient civilisation of tropical America. Palacaguina. Hospitality of the Mestizos. Curious custom at the festival at Condego. Cross range between Segovia and Matagalpa. Sontuli. Birds’ nests.

WE got back to Ocotal, from Depilto, before dark, and made arrangements for setting out on our return to the mines the next morning. Whilst sitting under the corridor, looking across the pretty flower-garden at the glowing western sky, illumined by the last rays of the setting sun, a poor fettered criminal, holding up by means of a string the thick chain that bound together his ankles, came limping along, with a soldier behind him armed with gun and bayonet. He had been brought out of prison to beg. In most of the towns of Nicaragua no food is given to the prisoners, whether convicted or merely charged with crime. Those that have no money to buy food are sent out every day with an armed escort to beg. The prisoner that hobbled up to me was under twenty years of age, and had been convicted of murder and condemned to death. He had appealed against the sentence to a higher court, but I was told that there was scarcely any chance of a decision in his favour, and that he would probably be shot in a day or two. Notwithstanding his critical position, he was lively and cheerful, and when I gave him a small piece of silver was as overjoyed as if he had got news of his reprieve. Jumping away, his clanking fetters making ghastly music, he gleefully showed to his guard the coin that would probably procure him food the few days he had to live. His wretched appearance, impending fate, and shocking levity had chased away the peaceful feelings with which I had watched the quiet sunset; but as he hobbled off, night, like a pall, fell over the scene; the trembling stars peeped out from the vault of heaven, and soon a million distant orbs proclaimed that the world was but a grain of dust in the vast universe, that the things of earth were but for a moment, and, as a shadow, would pass away.

Next morning, when we wished to settle up with our kind entertainers, they absolutely refused to accept any payment. We had been recommended to the house, and told that we could pay for what we got; but we now learnt that no one was ever refused entertainment, and that no charge was made. We were total strangers, nor should I have any opportunity of returning their hospitality, as I had determined shortly to return to Europe; but all I could prevail upon them to accept was a present to a little girl that lived with the ladies, and of whom they were very fond, calling her “the daughter of the house.” Leaving the hospitable Senoras Rimirez with many thanks, we started on our return journey about seven o’clock.

After crossing the river, I noticed boulders of conglomerate in the drift, none of which had occurred in the valley of Depilto. The bed rock was still contorted schists, with many quartz veins. At the top of a steep rise, beyond the river, is a small plateau, or level terrace, fringing the range, formed of a gravelly boulder deposit; then another steep ascent led us to a second higher plateau, like the first, covered with boulders, lying on the level surface. The first beds of the quartz-conglomerate occurred about half-way between Ocotal and Totagalpa. Between it and the contorted schists we passed over some soft, decomposing trap-rocks, which, both here and elsewhere, appeared to intervene between these two formations. Over the whole country between Ocotal and Totagalpa were spread many large boulders, great blocks of conglomerate, and of a hard blue trap-rock that I did not see in situ, lying on the upturned edges of the schistose rocks. I should have liked to have worked out the exact relative positions of the quartz-conglomerate and the contorted schists, for I have no doubt that a day or two’s search amongst the ravines would have shown many natural sections that would have thrown great light upon the subject; but I had no time to devote to it. We were hurrying on every day as far as our mules could carry us, as it was important that I should get back to the mines before the end of the month, and I was only able to note down the exposures that occurred within sight of the road. These, however, were sufficient to show me that the gneiss of Depilto was overlain conformably by the contorted schists; that the latter were followed by soft trappean beds, and these by thick beds of quartz-conglomerate, apparently derived from the degradation of the schistose rocks, with their numerous quartz veins.

We reached Totagalpa about eleven o’clock, and remained there some time engaging labourers. We stayed at the house of a man who made the common palm-leaf hats, worn throughout the central provinces by both men and women. The palm-leaves are first boiled, then bleached in the sun, split into small strips, and platted together like straw. It was Sunday, and most of the people were in town, sitting at the doors of their huts, or under their verandahs. Nearly all the inhabitants of Totagalpa are pure Indians, and are simple and inoffensive people. They sat listening to three men, one with a whistle, the others with drums, each striving to make as much noise as possible, without any attempt at harmony or tune, whilst an enthusiast in discord kept clanging away at the bells of the church.

They had no padre of their own, but one occasionally came over from Somoti, four leagues distant, to celebrate services or visit the sick. The next day was the great feast of Totagalpa, and they were preparing for it. As we sat under a verandah opposite the church, a procession of the town authorities issued from it, bearing a table and all the silver and brass ornaments. The principal officials each carried his stick of office, but none, excepting the Alcalde, could boast a pair of shoes. Their looks of importance and gravity showed, however, that they considered themselves the chief actors in an important ceremony. The procession slowly traversed half the round of the plaza, whilst the bells clanged, the whistle squeaked, and the drummers thumped their loudest. Stopping at a house at the corner of the plaza, the officials seated themselves on a bench outside. Then was brought out to them in bowls, nearly as large as wash-hand basins, the old Indian drink, “chicha,” made from fermented corn and sugar. Each man had one of the great bowls and a napkin; the latter they spread over their knees, and rested the bowl on it, taking long sips every now and then with evident signs of satisfaction. Little have these people changed from the times of the Conquest. Pascual de Andagoya, writing of the people of Nicaragua when they were first subjugated by Hernandez de Cordova, in 1520, says, “The whole happiness of the people consists in drinking the wine they make from maize, which is like beer, and on this they get as drunk as if it was the wine of Spain; and all the festivals they hold are for the purpose of drinking.”1

1 Hakluyt Society. “Narrative of Pascual de Andagoya” Translated by C.R. Markham page 34.)

The cross, candlesticks, and other ornaments were arranged on a table, and were each carefully and solemnly washed with hot water. This they do every year the day before their feast, and it makes the occasion for the procession and chicha-drinking. Most of the men of the township were gathered around, and in all the straight coarse black hair and Indian features were unmistakable. The chicha-drinking was too long a business for our patience, and we went over to the church, where we found a number of the Indian women with great baskets full of most beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers, making garlands and bouquets to decorate the holy images and church. The beautiful flowers were twined in wreaths, or stuck on prepared stands and shapes, and their fragrance filled the church. The love of flowers is another beautiful trait of the old Indians that their descendants have not lost. The ancient Mexicans decorated their altars and temples with flowers, and in their festivals crowned themselves with garlands.

I mentioned the glistening white tower of the church in the account of our journey out. I now learnt that it was only finished the year before our visit, and had cost these poor people over 700 dollars in money, besides gifts of stone, wood, and labour amounting to more than as much again. At other Mestizo towns, where the churches were like dilapidated barns, we heard much of the religious fervour of the Indians of Totagalpa. At one time, when building the tower, both their funds and the lime were exhausted. In this strait the Alcalde called the people of the town together, and told them that the tower, on the building of which they had already spent so much, could not be finished without lime. Then and there they determined themselves to carry the limestone from the quarries, near Ocotal, ten miles distant. Next morning, before daylight, the whole village set out, and at night a long line of men, women, and children came staggering back into Totagalpa, every one with a block of limestone; and so zealous were they to bring as large stones as they could carry, that some of them had great sores worn between their shoulders where they carried their loads, slung, Indian fashion, from their foreheads. Here survives the same old Indian spirit, only turned in another direction, that impelled their forefathers, with great labour and patience, to bring from a distance and pile up great cairns of stones over the graves of their chieftains.

This care of their church is quite spontaneous on their part, as they have no padre; indeed, from my experience of the priests in other towns, I think it likely that if they had one, he would intercept most of the offerings expended on the church and images. There are exceptions, but generally the padres of Central America are rapacious and immoral. They are much now as they were in Thomas Gage’s time, more than two hundred years ago, and the poor Indians are just as humble and respectful to them. In his quaint book, “A New Survey of the West Indies”, he says: “Above all, to their priest they are very respectful; and when they come to speak to him put on their best clothes and study their words and compliments to please him. They yielded to the popish religion, especially to the worshipping of saints’ images, because they look upon them as much like their forefathers’ idols. Out of the smallest of their means they will be sure to buy some of these saints, and bring them to the church that they may stand and be worshipped by them and others. The churches are full of them, and they are placed upon stands, gilded and painted, to be carried in procession on their proper day. And hence comes no small profit to the priests; for on such saints’ days the owner of the saint makes a great feast in the town, and presents the priest sometimes two or three, sometimes four or five crowns for his mass and sermon, besides a turkey and three or four fowls, with as much cacao as will make him chocolate for all the octave or eight days following. The priest, therefore, is very watchful over these saints’ days, and sends warning beforehand to the Indians of the day of their saint. If they contribute not bountifully, then the priest will chide and threaten that he will not preach.”1

1 Loc cit pages 332–334.)

When we left Totagalpa, they were still drinking “chicha;” and I shall not forget the solemn satisfied look of the shoeless corporation, as they sipped their drink in sight of their townspeople, now and then singling out some friend, to whom they signed to come and quaff at the big bowl. The warm drink had loosened the tongue of the solemn alcalde. He came, and with many compliments, wished us a good journey. He, good man, had reached the summit of his ambition — he was the chief of his native town; he wore shoes; and what more could he hope for or desire?

The central government interferes but little with the local officials; and the small towns in the interior are almost self-governed. Neither do they pay any direct taxes, the only contributions to the national exchequer being fees for killing cattle, selling land or houses, and making agreements, and a government monopoly in the sale of tobacco and spirits. So the country folks lead an easy life, excepting in times of revolution, when they are pressed into the army. The Indian townships are better managed than those of the Spaniards and Mestizos; the plazas are kept freer from weeds, and the roads in good order. Probably nowhere but in tropical America can it be said that the introduction of European civilisation has caused a retrogression; and that those communities are the happiest and the best-governed who retain most of their old customs and habits. Yet there it is so. The civilisation that Cortez overthrew was more suitable for the Indians than that which has supplanted it. Who can read the accounts of the populous towns of Mexico and Central America in the time of Montezuma, with their magnificent buildings and squares; their gardens both zoological and botanical; their markets, attended by merchants from the surrounding countries; their beautiful cloth and feather work, the latter now a lost art; their picture writing; their cunning artificers in gold and silver; their astronomical knowledge; their schools; their love of order, of cleanliness, of decency; their morality and wonderful patriotism, without feeling that the conquest of Mexico was a deplorable calamity; that if that ancient civilisation had been saved it might have been Christianised and purified without being destroyed, and to-day have stood one of the wonders and delights of the world. Its civilisation was self-grown, it was indigenous, it was unique: a few poor remnants of its piety, love of order, and self-government still remain in remote Indian townships; but its learning, magnificence, and glory have gone for ever.

On leaving Totagalpa, we took the road for Yalaguina. About a mile from the first-named town, the contorted schists cropped up again, and were followed, as before, by beds of soft decomposing trap, and these again by thick beds of quartz-conglomerate. This succession was repeated two or three times during the day’s journey. The trap beds formed, by decomposition, a dark fertile soil. Wherever maize was planted on it, it was thriving greatly. We reached Yalaguina about two o’clock, and pushed on for Palacaguina, four leagues further on, passing for a considerable part of the road along the banks of a small stream, by the side of which were some large and fine fields of maize and beans.

We reached Palacaguina an hour before dark, and on asking for lodging for the night, were directed to a small poor-looking house. The front door of this was closed when we rode up, but was opened with haste, and about a dozen young men rushed out, who, it turned out afterwards, had been gambling, and hence the closed doors. We were asked to alight; one man took the gun; others offered to take our hats, to unload the pack-mule, etc. Two or three of them were Zambeses, and not very good-looking; they made themselves so officious, that Velasquez confessed to me afterwards that he was rather afraid of them, and thought they were too pressing in their attentions, and meant to rob us. Our fears were groundless; they had been suddenly startled in the midst of an illegal game, and were glad to find that we were not government officers pouncing upon them. The house itself was dirty and small, with one hammock and one chair for its furniture; we should have fared badly if one of the men, Don Trinidad Soso, had not recollected having once seen Velasquez before, and on the strength of that considered himself bound to take our entertainment into his own hands. He was the nephew of the padre, who was absent, and he invited us to his uncle’s house, where we were soon installed, and found much more comfortable quarters. The padre had a good-looking housekeeper, who was also an excellent cook; and she got us ready a supper of venison, tortillas, eggs, and chocolate, to which we did not fail to do justice. Then the padre’s bedstead was placed at my disposal, so that altogether we had been most fortunate in meeting with our good friend Don Trinidad.

Most of the people living at Palacaguina were half-breeds with a large infusion of Negro blood; and the weed-covered streets and plaza and dilapidated church compared unfavourably with the not far distant Indian town of Totagalpa. The Mestizos are a thriftless, careless people, but I care not here to dilate on their shortcomings. Let only the hospitality and kindness I experienced in Palacaguina live in my mind, and let regret draw a veil over their failings, and censure forget to chide.

Next morning Don Trinidad went himself to get us milk for our chocolate, three or four others assisted us as kindly on our departure as they had welcomed us on our arrival, and we rode away with more pleasant recollections of the weedy-looking town than if we had been entertained by grandees; for these people were poor, and had assisted us out of pure good-nature. The country at first was level, and the roads smooth and dry. The morning was delightfully cool; and as we trotted along our spirits were high and gay, and snatches of song sprang unbidden to our lips. How delightful these rides in the early morning were! how all nature seemed to be in accord with our feelings! Every bush and tree was noted, every bird-call heard. We would shout to one another, “Do you see this or that?” or set Rito off into convulsions with some thin joke. Every sense was gratified; it was like the youth of life. But as the day wore on, the sun would shine hotter and hotter, what had been a pleasure became a toil, and we would push on determinedly but silently. The day would age, and our shadows come again and begin to lengthen; the heat of the day was past, but our spirits would not mount to their morning’s height. The beautiful flowers, the curious thorny bushes, the gorgeous butterflies, and many-coloured birds were all there; but our attention could only be called unwillingly to them. Our jaded animals trudged on with mechanical steps, and, tired ourselves, we thought of nothing but getting to the end of our day’s journey, and resting our weary frames.

We did not return from Palacaguina by the road we had come, but took one much more to the westward. This we did, not only to see a fresh line of country, but to gratify Rito with a visit to his relations, whom he had not seen for two years. Two miles beyond Palacaguina, we crossed a river, beyond which I saw no more of the quartz-conglomerate that I have so often mentioned whilst passing through Segovia. From this place to the mines the rocks were soft decomposing dolerites, with many harder bands of felsite, and, occasionally, plains composed of more recent trachytic lavas.

We passed through another weedy, dilapidated town, called Condego, where they have a singular custom at their annual festival held on the 15th of May. For some weeks before this date, they catch all the wild beasts and birds they can, and keep them alive. During the night preceding the feast-day they plant the plaza in front of the church with full-grown plants of maize, rice, beans, and all the other vegetables that they cultivate; and amongst them they fasten the wild beasts and birds that have been collected; so that the sun that set on a bare, weedy plaza rises on one full of vegetable and animal life. The year before, a young jaguar that had been caught was the great attraction. It has now grown so large, that they are afraid of it, and do not know what to do with it. It is kept in an empty house at Pueblo Nuevo, along with a dog, to which it is greatly attached, although it is the one that caught it when young. The custom of planting the square with vegetables, and bringing together all the wild animals that can be collected, is doubtless an Indian one. The ancient Nicaraguans are said to have worshipped maize and beans, but the service may not have had more significance than our own harvest feasts.

We reached the edge of the savannahs of the plain of Segovia and began to ascend the high ranges that divide it from the province of Matagalpa, and soon entered a mountainous country. Our course at first lay up the banks of a torrent that had cut deeply into beds of boulder clay filled with great stones. The lower part of the range was covered with trees of various kinds, but none of them growing to a great height; higher up we reached the sighing pine trees, and higher still, the hills were covered with grass, and supported herds of cattle. About noon, we arrived at a poor-looking hacienda near the top of the range. The proprietor owned about two hundred cattle, and lived in a house, mud-walled and grass-thatched, consisting of one room and a kitchen. Round the sides of the room were crowded eight rude bedsteads, and hammocks were slung across the centre. A mob of twenty-one men, women, and children lived at the house, and must have herded together like cattle at night. There were a great number of half-clothed and naked children running about. The women, of whom there were six, made us some chocolate and tortillas ready, and we rested awhile. Before we left, the men came in with the milking cows and calves. There were two men on horseback, but as the country was too rough for riding fast, they were accompanied by three boys on foot, who were sweating profusely with running after the cattle. The calves were separated from the cows and fastened up. The cows would keep near the corral until the next morning, when they would be milked, and the calves turned out with them again.

We continued to ascend for a mile further, and then reached the top of the range, which was bare of trees and covered with sedgy grass. Heavy rain came on, with tremendous gusts of wind, and as the path lay along the very crest of the mountain range, we were exposed to all the fury of the storm. In some places the cargo mule was nearly blown down the steep slope, and the one I was riding had to stop sometimes to keep its feet. The wind was bleak, and we were drenched with rain, and very cold. Fortunately the storm of rain did not last for more than half-an-hour, but the high cold wind continued all the time we were on the ridge, which was several miles long, with steep slopes on either side. We were glad when we got to a more sheltered spot, where some mountain oak trees protected us from the wind, and at four o’clock, reaching a small scattered settlement called Sontuli, we determined, although early in the day, to stay there, as it was Rito’s birthplace, and his only sister, whom he had not seen for two years, lived there. All the hamlet were Rito’s friends, and he had soon a crowd about him talking and laughing.

None of the lands around were enclosed — all seemed to be common property; and every family had a few cows and two or three brood mares. A little maize was grown, but the climate was rather too bleak and wet for it. We were now close to the boundary of the province of Matagalpa, and began again to hear of the drought that had destroyed most of the maize crop in that province, although in Chontales, on one side of it, we had had rather more rain than usual, and in Segovia, on the other, we had seen that the crops were excellent. Probably the high ranges that bound Matagalpa on every side had intercepted the rains and drained the winds of their moisture.

Having made such an early halt, we intended to have made up for it by an equally early start the next morning, but were detained by our mules having strayed during the night, and it was seven o’clock before they could be found. We had a long day’s journey before us, during which we should not be able to buy any provisions, so, over night, Rito’s sister had cooked a fowl for us to take with us. She had married one of the settlers of Sontuli, and, although still young and fresh-looking, had already three lusty children. The great number of children at all the houses had surprised me greatly, as I had been told that the country was decreasing in population. This, I have no doubt, is a mistake, and the inhabitants, if the country should remain at peace, would multiply rapidly.

On leaving Sontuli, the road led over mountain pastures and through woods of the evergreen oak draped from top to bottom with the grey moss-like Tillandsia, which hung in long festoons from every branch, and was wound around the trunks, like garlands, by the wind: the larger masses, waving in the breeze, hung down for four or five feet below the branches. The small birds build in them, and they form excellent hiding-places for their nests, where they are tolerably secure from the attacks of their numerous enemies. I had often, when in the tropics, to notice the great sagacity or instinct of the small birds in choosing places for their nests. So many animals — monkeys, wild-cats, raccoons, opossums, and tree-rats — are constantly prowling about, looking out for eggs and young birds, that, unless placed with great care, their progeny would almost certainly be destroyed. The different species of Oropendula or Orioles (Icteridae) of tropical America choose high, smooth-barked trees, standing apart from others, from which to hang their pendulous nests. Monkeys cannot get at them from the tops of other trees, and any predatory mammal attempting to ascend the smooth trunks would be greatly exposed to the attacks of the birds, armed, as they are, with strong sharp-pointed beaks. Several other birds in the forest suspend their nests from the small but tough air roots that hang down from the epiphytes growing on the branches, where they often look like a natural bunch of moss growing on them. The various prickly bushes are much chosen, especially the bull’s-horn thorn, which I have already described. Many birds hang their nests from the extremities of the branches, and a safer place could hardly be chosen, as with the sharp thorns and the stinging ants that inhabit them no mammal would, I think, dare to attempt the ascent of the tree. Stinging ants are not the only insects whose assistance birds secure by building near their nests. A small parrot builds constantly on the plains in a hole made in the nests of the termites, and a species of fly-catcher makes its nest alongside of that of one of the wasps. On the savannahs, between Acoyapo and Nancital, there is a shrub with sharp curved prickles, called Viena paraca (come here) by the Spaniards, because it is difficult to extricate oneself from its hold when the dress is caught, for as one part is cleared another will be entangled. A yellow and brown flycatcher builds its nest in these bushes, and generally places it alongside that of a banded wasp, so that with the prickles and the wasps it is well guarded. I witnessed, however, the death of one of the birds from the very means it had chosen for the protection of its young. Darting hurriedly out of its domed nest as we were passing, it was caught just under its bill by one of the curved hook-like thorns, and in trying to extricate itself got further entangled. Its fluttering disturbed the wasps, who flew down upon it, and in less than a minute stung it to death. We tried in vain to rescue it, for the wasps attacked us also, and one of our party was severely stung by them. We had to leave it hanging up dead in front of its nest, whilst its mate flew round and round screaming out its terror and distress. I find that other travellers have noted the fact of birds building their nests near colonies of wasps for protection. Thus, according to Gosse, the grassquit of Jamaica (Spermophila olivacea) often selects a shrub on which wasps have built, and fixes the entrance to its domed nest close to their cells. Prince Maximilian Neuwied states in his “Travels in Brazil”, that he found the curious purse-shaped nest of one of the Todies constantly placed near the nests of wasps, and that the natives informed him that it did so to secure itself from the attacks of its enemies. I should have thought that when building their nests they would be very liable to be attacked by the wasps. The nests placed in these positions appear always to be domed, probably for security against their unstable friends.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32