Sunday, September 30, 2007

Roughing it

Passing overland through Guatemala in 1839, the American explorer John L. Stephens and his travelling companion, the British artist Frederick Catherwood, spend a night in a rustic homestead, where they bravely bear up in the face of unfamiliar customs.

"Our host was a don; and when we presented our letter he received us with great dignity in a single garment, loose, white, and very laconic, not quite reaching his knees. The dress of his wife was no less easy; somewhat in the style of the oldfashioned shortgown and petticoat, only the shortgown and whatever else is usually worn under it were wanting, and their place supplied by a string of beads, with a large cross at the end. A dozen men and half-grown boys, naked except the small covering formed by rolling the trousers up and down in the manner I have mentioned, were lounging about the house; and women and girls in such extremes of undress, that a string of beads seemed quite a covering for modesty.

"Mr. C. and I were in a rather awkward predicament for the night. The general reception-room contained three beds, made of strips of cowhide interlaced. The don occupied one; he had not much undressing to do, but what little he had, he did by pulling off his shirt. Another bed was at the foot of my hammock. I was dozing, when I opened my eyes, and saw a girl about seventeen sitting sideway upon it, smoking a cigar. She had a piece of striped cotton cloth tied around her waist, and falling below her knees; the rest of her dress was the same which Nature bestows alike upon the belle of fashionable life and the poorest girl; in other words, it was the same as that of the don's wife, with the exception of the string of beads. At first I thought it was something I had conjured up in a dream; and as I waked up perhaps I raised my head, for she gave a few puffs of her cigar, drew a cotton sheet over her head and shoulders, and lay down to sleep. I endeavored to do the same. I called to mind the proverb, that 'travelling makes strange bedfellows.' I had slept pellmell with Greeks, Turks, and Arabs. I was beginning a journey in a new country; it was my duty to conform to the customs of the people; to be prepared for the worst, and submit with resignation to whatever might befall me."

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan

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