Tuesday, 10 January 2012
The Story of Chocolate
By A. Hyatt Verrill
WHEN the Spaniards first landed in Mexico and Central America they found the native Indians using a drink which the Spaniards had never before tasted. The Aztecs called it chocolati, and today we call it chocolate but very few who eat chocolate or drink cocoa ever stop to think how it is made.
If you have once seen a cacao tree,—for cocoa and chocolate both come from this same tree,—you will never fail to recognize the tree again, for there is no other tree like it. It is a very pretty tree, with rich green leaves, which are bronze red or purple when young, but the queerest thing about it is the way in which the flowers and fruit grow. Instead of budding from the ends of twigs, the cacao flowers sprout directly from the rough bark of the limbs and trunk, and the fruits look very funny hanging everywhere upon the bark as if tacked on. The cacao fruits are rough and brightly colored with purple, red, or yellow, and a tree, covered with the yellow fruits or pods, looks as if it were bearing squashes.
Within the pods is a mass of white slimy pulp, and in this are many brown seeds or beans. The ripe pods are very carefully cut from the trees,—for if broken or torn off, the trees are injured—and, as fast as cut, they are gathered in baskets and carried to some spot where they are dumped in piles to be opened. This is done by men with big sharp knives called machetes (mah-chay'-tayz), and as each pod is split open the pulp and seeds within are dumped into trays or baskets. As soon as a basket is full of the pulp it is carried to the "sweating-house," where the pulp is dumped into boxes with holes in the bottoms and which are covered over with leaves or matting. After a few days they are changed to another box, where they are left for two or three days more, by which time the soft, white pulp has entirely disappeared and the beans have changed to a rich purple color. This process is called "fermenting," and a great deal of care is necessary in fermenting the beans, for, if badly or carelessly done, the cocoa or chocolate will be poor and the beans will not bring a high price.
When the seeds are properly fermented, they are spread upon huge trays to dry, and as the least rain or dampness injures the beans, the drying trays are usually made with wheels running on tracks, so that the trays with their loads of beans may be quickly run under a shed in case of a shower. As the beans are drying in the bright sunshine they are raked about by men who walk among the beans barefooted and shuffle and tread them about to smooth and polish them. On many of the smaller estates the beans are dried on cowhides, placed on the ground, or in trays placed beside the road, and one may often see chickens, dogs, sheep, cattle, and children scratching and playing about in the beans. This seems like a very dirty method of drying anything which is to be used for food, and many people who see the beans with animals or barefooted black men walking about in the trays, think that cocoa or chocolate must be very filthy. But this is not the case, for, when the beans reach the factory or mill to be made into cocoa or chocolate, the outer skins with all the dirt are removed. The cocoa and chocolate we buy in the stores are made in big factories and go through numerous machines and many processes, but in the countries where the cocoa trees grow the people make the chocolate by pounding the beans in a mortar. Then they add sugar and a little cinnamon or vanilla, and mix the ground beans into paste with water and roll them into little sticks or cakes. When these are dissolved in water and milk, they make a very rich but nourishing drink, exactly the same as the Spaniards first tasted in Mexico nearly half a thousand years ago. Nowadays cocoa is grown in so many places and in such large quantities that it is not as valuable as it was once. In former days in the West Indies the theft of cocoa was punishable by death, and in some countries the cocoa beans were used as money.
Everyland is an interesting magazine, written as a missionary publication for boys and girls, it actually contains some interesting stories from all over the world.
This story is very similar to Cobs and Cobwebs published in June 1899 Popular Science magazine. Some of the graphics may be the same, also.
Some Funny Cobwebs
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Everyland magazine and the column ‘Everyland Nature Club’, Dec. 1916. Digitized by Doug Frizzle Jan. 2012.
OF course you have all seen cobwebs and every reader of Everyland knows they are built by spiders, but did you ever wonder how the spiders made their webs or have you ever noticed how many different kinds of webs there are?
If you should examine a spider under a magnifying glass or a microscope, you would find a number of little projections on the under side of its body. These are the "spinnerets" with which the spider spins its web, and a very remarkable process it is. Within the spider's body the silk is in the form of a liquid and each of the tiny spinnerets is a tube through which the liquid silk flows, and just as soon as it reaches the air it hardens and the several streams from the spinnerets run together to form a single thread of finest silk. If the spider wishes a very fine thread he places his spinnerets close together, while, if he wishes a thick thread, or a broad band of silk, he spreads his spinnerets wide apart.
Still more wonderful is the fact that the spider can spin hard, dry silk or soft, sticky silk at will and each size of thread and each kind of silk is used for some special purpose. The dry, hard threads are always used when a spider wishes to drop from one place to another, for making silk bridges and for making the first part or framework of the webs. The elastic, sticky threads are used for catching the spider's prey and for wrapping around and around the fly or other insect after it is captured.
You may often find spiders' webs with both kinds of silk used in them, for spiders plan and build their webs very carefully and use the sort of silk best suited to every purpose, and each kind of spider always builds the same sort of a web. Thus, the big wheellike, nets which you find among bushes and trees, are built by certain kinds of spiders, and the flat carpet-like webs which glisten like silver in the grass, are made by very different kinds of spiders, and as there are many thousands of species of spiders and every one builds a different sort of web, you can understand what a great variety of webs there are, and naturalists who study spiders can tell just what kind of a spider built a certain web by looking at it.
Some of these webs are really very wonderful, but the most wonderful of the common webs is one built by a little spider that lives among evergreen trees, and if you look carefully you can usually find these webs stretched between the twigs. At first sight you will think them very simple and not at all interesting, as they are just four or five straight threads in the form of a triangle crossed by some coarser threads and fastened by a single thread at one end. But if you watch carefully you will soon learn what a very clever and ingenious sort of a spider built the web and how remarkable it is.
When the little spider is hungry,— and spiders are always hungry,—he stations himself upon the single thread and gathers up the slack between his feet and draws the whole web very tight. Presently along comes a buzzing fly and bumps into the net, and instantly, the spider releases the loose silk and the net springs forward and snares the fly.
Again and again, the spider draws up the web and snaps it back until his prey is hopelessly entangled and the little lasso-thrower can devour the fly at leisure.
Strange as it seems that a spider should capture his prey with a lasso, it is even funnier to think of spiders building balloons and flying, but nevertheless, spiders do build balloons and travel for hundreds of miles through the air.
When a spider aeronaut wishes to fly he climbs to the highest spot he can find, such as a fence post, a bush, or even a tall blade of grass, and holding securely with his front feet, he raises his body in the air and spins out yard after yard of loose thread. When enough silk has been spun to lift the spider's weight, he releases his hold on the post or bush and goes sailing off.
Perhaps you may not think this simple breeze-borne silk should be called a balloon, but the spider aeronaut can regulate his speed, or the distance he travels far better than can human balloonists. If the wind increases, he merely gathers in some loose thread, while, if the wind falls, he spins out more, and if he wishes to ascend or to land he gathers in or spins out thread to suit his needs.
These flying spiders are not one special kind, but are the young of many common spiders, and if you look on fences and bushes on sunny autumn days you will often find dozens of the threads streaming up into the air from little spiders who are getting ready for a flight.
Sometimes these spider balloonists travel long distances, and they have been seen floating safely through the air hundreds of miles out at sea.
Most of our spiders are very small, which is very fortunate for us, for spiders are among the most ferocious and bloodthirsty of creatures.
In the tropics they grow to quite large size, and the big hairy tarantulas and mygales are so strong and powerful that they feed upon birds, pouncing on them and piercing them with their great pointed jaws. If such spiders were as large as wolves, we can imagine what enemies they would be to human beings!
Of all interesting spiders' nests, perhaps the most interesting is the one built by a cousin of the big tarantulas and which is known as the trap-door spider. These fellows live in sandy places in the Western United States and make a burrow in the ground which they line with silk. Then at the top they build a close-fitting door which is covered with earth, so that when it is shut you would never guess it was there. One kind of trap-door spider is not satisfied with a single door to his home, but in addition, burrows one or more side tunnels, each of which is fitted with a trapdoor where it opens into the main hole. When an enemy pursues this spider he darts into his hole and closes the door after him, holding it tightly closed with his feet, which grasp little silken handles made for the purpose. Then, if his enemy succeeds in forcing the door, the spider hurries into a side room and closes that door behind him and holds it shut. If his enemy still tries to force a way into this new retreat, the spider hurries to the end of the chamber, digs rapidly through the thin layer of earth above, and is some distance away while his pursuer is still hunting about in the dark hole from which the spider has fled.
Sunday, 8 January 2012
How I Became an Indian Chief
From the book “Thirty Years in the Jungle”
By A. Hyatt Verrill, published 1929. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Jan. 2012
EVER since I had arrived in Panama I had heard wild and lurid tales of the Indians in the remote districts. Obviously many of these were purely the result of the vivid imaginations of the Panamaneans; others were as evidently vastly exaggerated, while some, I felt sure, had a certain groundwork of facts and truth. But one and all agreed in certain respects, and there seemed to be no question that some of the Indians of the Isthmus were far from friendly with the natives, that they held their territories inviolate and kept out intruders, and that they were practically untouched by civilization, Christianity, or the influence of other races.
Among the tribes of which many of these stories were told, were the Indians of the high mountains and lofty interior plateaus of the wildest portions of northern Panama, where, according to all reports, dwell the mountain Guaymís.
Never had the Guaymís been conquered. For years they carried on a relentless warfare with the Spaniards, until the Dons, deciding that the game was not worth the candle, left the aborigines in undisputed possession of their ancestral mountains. To be sure, some of the Guaymís were enslaved, some were conquered, and some became civilized subjects of Spain, for the Guaymí race was a large one made up of many tribes and sub-tribes who were constantly fighting among themselves. But the true Guaymís of the still-unexplored mountains never gave in, their independence is still recognized by the Panama Government as the "Zona de los Indigenos," and while they are quiet and peaceable and give no trouble—as long as they are left alone—they owe allegiance to no one.
I had been warned that it would be impossible for me to penetrate into the Guaymí country, that every white man who had attempted it had been driven out, and I knew that only a few months previously two American naturalists and their party had been chased from Guaymí territory and had barely escaped with their lives. Like many other tribes, the Guaymís had profited by experience; they knew that if one stranger were permitted to enter their territory others would follow, and that very soon they would have neither territory nor freedom left. They had no ill feeling towards civilized man, for, through the centuries, many had become semi-civilized themselves, many had made visits to the outlying settlements and towns, and many had learned to speak a little Spanish. Also, in order to obtain cloth, tools and firearms they had for years carried on a more or less regular trade with the Panamaneans. But they came and went like shadows, appearing in the border settlements singly or in small parties. Silent, shy and uncommunicative, they remained only long enough to dispose of their beautiful and highly-valued woven pita-hemp bags, their rubber, coffee and cacao, and then vanished again into the unknown fastnesses of their mountains. From time to time, too, various men had attempted to enter the Indian zone, attracted by stories of rich gold deposits, of oil or of rubber. But none had ever gone far. They might penetrate the mountains for a certain distance, might visit the semi-civilized Indians on the fringes of the country, might trade with the outlying tribesmen—but that was all. If they attempted to go farther they were ordered away, although I could find no evidence that any stranger had been killed or injured by the Guaymís for many years.
Personally I had little fear of being ordered out. I had had much experience with various reputedly hostile tribes; I had learned their ways, their psychologies, and several of their dialects; and never had I been harmed or threatened. And I felt I would be just as successful with the Guaymís. Most important of all, I had already made a firm friend of one of the Guaymí chiefs. To his house I went first of all, and, as I had expected and hoped, with him to vouch for me the rest was easy.
For days I dwelt in chief Neonandí's house. I picked up a working knowledge of the dialect, I met many of the tribe, and I secured much valuable information and many specimens. The house, like all Guaymí houses, was a huge affair built of split logs and roofed with thatch. Around the inside of the walls were a number of small platforms partitioned off by mats of fibre or palm-leaves and each of these was occupied by a family. Thus the building was a sort of apartment or communal house. Each family had its own fire, but the benches, the open centre floor and everything else was used in common. These Indians were remarkably clean and had a wonderful idea of sanitation. All drinking water was kept in stopped jars out of reach of dirt or dogs, all food was hung up or placed on palmwood frames or shelves, and no poultry or other live stock was allowed in the house. The house-site was carefully selected so that there was no chance of drainage into the stream used for drinking water, and even latrines were provided in the near-by jungle. Altogether the Guaymís were a fine lot of Indians, tall, stalwart, well-proportioned, with small hands and feet, straight or slightly aquiline high-bridged noses, brown or even hazel eyes, brown or black hair, and with pale-ochre or russet-coloured skins, many of the women being light olive and no darker than a brunette European. They have no villages, the tribesmen being scattered over an immense area—a house here, a house there, often many hours' or even days' marches apart—while the whole country is divided roughly into three districts, each ruled by a separate chief—one of whom was my friend, Neonandí, another his cousin, while the third, to whom the others are subject, was known as Montezuma. How he came by that name, none of the Indians knew. They could only tell me their head chief had always been a Montezuma, and this, together with other facts, convinced me that the Guaymís were the direct descendants of some long-forgotten Aztec province. Many of their customs and habits were distinctly Aztecan, many of their religious beliefs and deities were identical with those of the Aztecs, over forty per cent of the words in their language were Nahua or Aztec, and they—alone of all known existing Indians—still used the ancient Aztec spear-throwing-stick or atlatl which the Guaymís called "n'adli."
Having made these discoveries I was all the more anxious to get into the heart of the Guaymi country, to visit the other chiefs—and most especially Montezuma—to meet as many of the tribe as possible, and to witness some of their dances and ceremonials.
Neonandí had no objections to guiding me to any portion of the Indian country I wished to visit, but he pointed out that it would be a hard, difficult and long trip, that it would be impossible for me to visit all or even a fraction of the houses, and he offered to try and arrange matters so my work would be made much easier and simpler.
The next day Indians by the dozen arrived at the house. All wore their feather head-dresses of eagle, heron, owl, wild-turkey or other feathers; all were dressed in their gorgeously coloured shirts and ornately decorated trousers; all were bedecked with beautifully woven bead-collars and breastplates, necklaces of jaguar and peccary teeth, human scalp-locks, and personal charms or fetishes; and all had their faces painted in red and black in elaborate patterns.
Silently and gravely they would enter the great house, mutter their greetings and, as Neonandí introduced them, would place the right hand on my head and the left on their own breast. Then, seating themselves, they would remain silent, staring fixedly ahead and waiting, as motionless and as patiently as so many stone images. At last all had arrived and Neonandí began talking. I could not catch all he said, but from the words I understood and his eloquent gestures I knew he was urging my cause. In his gorgeous clothes, and with his chief's crown of long iridescent green quetzal feathers—the Aztecs' emblem of a chief—he looked every inch a king. Whatever he said evidently met with approval, for every now and then some Indian would grunt "K'wank!" (good) and nod his head. When the chief at last ceased speaking another Indian rose and talked, and again the others grunted assent. When several had spoken and approval appeared to be unanimous, Neonandí explained that he had proposed sending word to the other chiefs, who in turn would send word to their subjects, calling upon the tribesmen to gather at a certain rendezvous on a certain date so that I might thus visit them all together, and that the others present—all of whom were sub-chiefs and councillors, had agreed.
This seemed an excellent plan, but one of the younger sub-chiefs had an even better idea. Perhaps, he suggested, many Indians would not come merely to oblige a stranger and a white man; for white men were not liked and the wilder and shyer Guaymís might prefer to keep away. But if they were summoned to a ceremonial dance, they would be sure to come. All agreed with this, and preparations were at once made to send word to the chiefs and the tribesmen.
Neonandí brought out a number of plaited cords of palm-leaf, some black, some white, some chequered black and white, and some striped. In these the Indians commenced tying knots, arranging them singly and in groups of various combinations. They were astonishingly like the quipos of the ancient Incas, and, to my surprise and delight, I discovered they were used in precisely the same manner. Each cord had its own meaning or key, the white ones signifying one kind of a message, the blacks another, and so on, while knots indicated the details. It was amazing to find what long and intricate messages could be conveyed in this simple manner.
When all were ready, several young Indians appeared from outside the house, their faces painted with designs indicating they were couriers from Chief Neonandí, and on official business. The face painting of the Guaymís is not purely ornamental, but every design, mark and pattern has its definite meaning, and, in order that these may be always the same, the Indians use carved or engraved wooden stamps for imprinting the pigments on the skin.
Each courier carried a chakara or pouch containing parched maize, a bit of dried meat and some tobacco. Each was given a number of the letter-strings and, silently as ghosts, they slipped from the house into the night and started on their long journey over the mountains. I was surprised that they did not use horses, for the Guaymís all own tough and wiry ponies and are splendid horsemen. But Neonandí assured me that they could travel faster and farther afoot; and later, when I journeyed over the mountains and saw the awful trails and fearfully rough and broken country, I was not surprised that the couriers preferred Shank's mare.
The meeting had been arranged for eight days later, and in due time we left Neonandí’s house, the chief having placed a carved wooden figure or "proxy" in the doorway to guard his home during his absence—and headed into the mountains. The going was hard but the scenery was superb. There were cloud-piercing peaks, roaring rivers, tumbling cataracts, rich mountain valleys and vast upland plains or savannas. Most of the time we were well above the jungle, often above the timber-line, and stunted live-oaks and coarse grass were the only forms of vegetation. Three days of fearful trails—traversing razor-edged ridges with yawning abysses on cither side, skirting terrific precipices where a misstep meant certain death, fording torrents, scrambling up one precipitous mountain-side and sliding down another—brought us at last, tired, aching and sun-baked, to the meeting-place. A marvellously beautiful spot it was! In the midst of a maze of cloud-draped ranges a great flat-topped, isolated mountain rose like a stupendous pyramid. Upon this, in the centre of the level space at the summit, stood the ceremonial house or temple, an immense structure of fresh thatch and timber especially erected for the occasion. It was fully one hundred feet in length by sixty feet wide and fifty feet high, with its eaves reaching to within two feet of the ground. A few yards to one side was a smaller building—put up, I found, for my own use. But it was already occupied. Just inside the door was a small raised platform, and, squatting upon this and thoroughly at home, was a shrewd-faced, wrinkled little Indian whose owl-feather head-band and insignia showed him to be a medicine-man. Bobbing and grinning he declared—to Neonandí and myself—that he had installed himself within the entrance to my hut for the purpose of guarding me from evil spirits. But I soon found the wily fellow had more selfish motives for being there. No Indian could come to my hut to trade without passing this Cerberus at my gates, who permitted no one to enter without paying toll—or perhaps better, duties—in the shape of articles of native handiwork, which, later on, he disposed of to me at a good profit. He was a leech, a grafter and a parasite no doubt, but he was a medicine-man and as such was regarded with a certain amount of respect and fear, and, as through him I secured many specimens which I might not have obtained otherwise, and as he was rich in folk-lore, and was a veritable mine of information for me, I permitted him to remain.
Already scores of Guaymís had gathered on the mountain-top, dozens of spirals of blue smoke rose from the camp-fires, and the gorgeously coloured costumes of the assembled Indians gave a most striking effect as they moved about, the women cooking the evening meal, the men busy with preparations for the dance, and the children running, jumping and rolling about here, there and everywhere.
I had scarcely settled myself in my hut when Neonandí, who had slipped away, returned and informed me that the "dance-chief" was very ill, and that unless he recovered no ceremonial could be held. Would I try to cure him? I agreed to try, and Neonandí led the way to the great temple and, stooping low, we squirmed under the eaves and entered the building.
Within, the beams and rafters were hung with flowers, birds' skins, and streamers of dyed cotton. In the centre stood an altar-like table piled high with every variety of food known to the Guaymís, and decorated with maize-stalks, flower-covered coffee-tree branches, sugar-cane flowers, and brilliant orchids. Round two sides of the building were rows of roughly-hewn log benches and carved wooden stools, and in a farther corner was a small raised platform enclosed by a yard-high partition of woven palm leaf.
Here, wrapped in innumerable skins and bark-cloth blankets, lay a wizened, grey-headed old Indian, his face drawn and pinched with pain. I diagnosed his case as nothing worse than colic, gave him some pills, and assured him and Neonandí that he would be quite well by the following day.
As we emerged from the great house the Indians gathered about and gazed at me almost reverently, for word had spread that I was doctoring the dance-chief, who, to their minds, was a most sacred personage and a great witchdoctor. If he sought my help, they reasoned, I must be an even greater medicine-man!
I had thought that all the participants in the forthcoming ceremonial were now present, but throughout the night and the day following the Indians continued to arrive, until on the morning of the great day over one thousand Guaymís were gathered on the mountain-top. Most assuredly Neonandí s letter-strings had done their work well!
Montezuma, however, had not appeared. Neonandí was sure that he would attend, but as hour after hour passed without a sign of him even the assembled Indians began to think that their head-chief had failed them. Then from far off came the faint sound of a cow-horn trumpet, and instantly the Indians were on the alert. Shouting "Montezuma! Montezuma!" they commenced beating drums and blowing horns and whistles.
Soon, from beyond a projecting spur of the mountainside, a little group of mounted Guaymís appeared and, to a welcoming roar of salutation, the ruler of all the Guaymís came riding into our midst.
I had pictured the Guaymí king as an old, grim-visaged Indian, but to my amazement he was a young man, a finely-built, well set-up and very light-skinned Indian, with regular features, a dignified expression, broad forehead, and intelligent face. His costume was in no way different from that of his subjects, though his crown of sacred quetzal plumes, set off by a band of golden and scarlet macaw feathers, was a most regal affair.
Also, much to my surprise, Montezuma addressed me in fairly good Spanish, although it developed later that a few set phrases comprised his entire knowledge of that language. He seemed very friendly, told Neonandí that he would order his subjects to permit me to photograph them, and added that he would instruct them to bring all the handiwork they possessed and trade with me. Then, accompanied by Neonandí and two medicine-men, he disappeared into the temple.
As the sun set the Indians lit flaring torches; and when night fell they gathered in a great throng about the ceremonial house. Drums boomed, flutes and whistles shrilled, and rattles shook, until the barbaric music rose to a deafening roar. Then, slowly at first, but with ever-increasing speed, the Indians commenced dancing round and around the temple, chanting in unison, keeping time to the throbbing drums and piping flutes, and alternately stooping low or leaping up in regular order, until the moving stream of figures appeared like a great serpent gliding in sinuous curves about the building.
Suddenly the music stopped, and silently the dancers faded away, ducking under the eaves of the temple. From within came a weird chant, a wailing cadence, and the slow measured beat of drums. I was anxious to enter and watch what was going on, but Neonandí warned me against it. The evil spirits were being driven out, he explained, and if I went near they might take possession of me. A few moments later, however, when the music had ceased, the chief touched my arm and beckoned for me to follow him. I was to enter the temple to witness the sacred ceremonies of the Guaymís, to see what no other white man had ever looked upon!
Inside, a few guttering torches cast a fitful glare over the scene and filled the great building with resinous smoke. Round one side the men were seated—row after row of closely packed, savage-looking figures, staring fixedly ahead, smoking their ceremonial pipes of carved stone, and giving not the least sign that they had noticed my entrance or were aware of my presence. Between them and the central altar-like structure was a fire of huge logs, and over this girls were cooking thick, unsweetened chocolate, while near by others stirred an immense pot of rice chicha.
Moving silently about, other girls were passing the chicha and bitter chocolate to the men; and on the opposite side of the altar sat scores of women, their long hair falling over their faces and their eyes fixed upon the floor. All about the altar were placed small earthenware effigies of birds, beasts and reptiles, with a few human figures, some monsters that resembled ogres or devils, and many miniature clay pots, dishes and plates.
All this I took in at a glance, and then seated myself on a low stool that had been reserved for me. Also, I accepted the chicha and chocolate handed to me and endeavoured to sit as silently and immovably as the Indians, while expectantly awaiting the next item on the programme.
Presently Neonandí rose, approached the altar, and began to harangue the assembled Guaymís. What he said I could not catch, for he spoke rapidly and used many words I had not before heard, but now and then a phrase was intelligible. As he ceased speaking a chorus of "K'wanks!" came from some of the Indians. Next Montezuma stepped forward, arrayed in all his gorgeous regalia and with the long quetzal feathers of his crown gleaming like emeralds in the torchlight. Very eloquently he spoke, and as he concluded a roar of "K'wank! K'wank!" came from the audience. Many, however, remained silent, showing no signs of either approval or disapproval.
Montezuma resumed his seat, and a strange and impressive figure came hopping to the centre of the floor. Wonderfully clad, decorated with strings of scalp-locks, feathers and animal skins, his chest covered with beadwork and teeth, a crown of immense white aigrettes upon his head, and his wrinkled features almost concealed by intricate painting, I scarcely recognized the old dance-chief whom I had doctored the preceding afternoon.
In a high, cracked voice he addressed the Indians, leaping in air, waving his arms to emphasize his words. When he ceased at last every man present shouted "K'wank! K'wank!" The vote, whatever it was, was unanimous.
The next moment Neonandí and Montezuma came forward, and grasping my arms, led me, astonished and unresisting, to a spot beside the altar. Was I, I wondered, to be sacrificed? Had all this ceremony been planned to lead up to this end? I couldn't believe it, but I must admit I did feel nervous. Neonandí’s grin and Montezuma's smile reassured me, however.
Then, in broken Spanish Neonandí proceeded to explain, and his words were even more amazing than anything that had gone before. I had, he said, been duly elected a member of the tribe! He had proposed it, Montezuma had seconded it, and the old high-priest had carried the motion without a dissenting voice. It was evidently up to me to say something; so, as well as I was able, I made an impromptu speech in a weird mixture of Guaymí and Spanish, which was duly—though I fear far from literally—interpreted by Neonandí, and was greeted with uproarious applause.
The next instant the dance-chief came hopping from his corner carrying a basket and a bag. Thrusting his claw-like hand into the latter, he drew out a bead collar and gorget, which he quickly placed about my neck. Next came a string of jaguar teeth and a fillet of scalp-locks. A painted drum was hung over my shoulder, and then, as Montezuma deftly drew the tribal mark of the Guaymís across my cheeks, and added two round spots below them and a line down my nose, the dance-chief placed a crown of hair from the giant ant-bear upon my head.
I was absolutely dumbfounded, for 1 knew enough of Guaymí customs to realize that I was not only being made a Guaymí, but a medicine-chief as well, for the crown of ant-bear hair is the emblem of that rank, as are also the painted dots on the cheeks.
I was, I knew, being most highly honoured by my Indian friends, but I confess I felt rather silly and horribly conspicuous with all those Guaymís staring at me, for even the women had brushed back their hair and had turned to gaze at the unique ceremony of transforming a white man into an Indian. And I was nervous as to the further steps in the initiation. Should I be forced to endure some torture to prove my fitness to become a member of the tribe, or to undergo some other and perhaps equally unpleasant and impossible test?
But I need not have worried. The initiation—at least in my case—was very simple, once I had been elected by vote and decked in the full regalia of a Guaymí medicine-chief. Neonandí, Montezuma and the dance-chief saluted me in Guaymí fashion, addressed me as "brother," and made short speeches.
These were greeted with howls of approval and a bedlam of drums, whistles, rattles and trumpets. Then, when I had swallowed a calabash of chocolate, the ceremony was at an end, and I resumed my seat amid my fellow-tribesmen. I was a full-fledged Guaymí chief, honoured as no other white man had ever been—and all because I had cured an old Indian of indigestion!
Scarcely was I seated when the assembled Indians rose and commenced a slow, wailing chant. The barbaric music was resumed, while the old dance-chief took his place beside the altar, carrying a "devil-stick" in one hand.
Then, in perfect rhythm, the Indians began dancing round and round the altar. Every now and again one would shout the name of some bird, beast, person or spirit. Then, leaping aside from the line of dancers, he would seize a handful of food from the altar, thrust some in his mouth, stoop quickly and drop some into one of the tiny clay dishes, and throw the remainder into the fire. At the same time the dance-chief would pick up the image of the creature or being whose name had been called, together with the dish of food, and breaking them into bits, toss them into the flames.
This continued until the last of the food and the last of the images had been destroyed. It was a strange and interesting rite, and Neonandí gladly explained its purpose to me. The images, it seemed, represented persons, beasts, birds and supernatural beings who could not attend the ceremony in person, but whose spirits were believed to have entered the figures for the occasion. The food on the altar was for them, for being unable to eat while in their clay forms, the Indians acted as proxies, while the dance-chief broke the images in order to release the spirits so that they might return to their own bodies. And he burned the fragments in order to prevent evil spirits from taking possession of them.
When the last image had been disposed of the ceremony came to an abrupt end. The Indians gathered in groups, laughing and chatting, and presently all had slipped from the building. Outside all was in readiness for the grand finale—the strange "stick-dance," dear to the hearts of the Guaymís. About a cleared level, flaring torches had been placed, although the bright moonlight rendered them unnecessary; and round this spot the women and most of the men were squatted, waiting for the fun to begin. At one side stood the band—gaily bedecked with feather crowns and immense sloth-skin head-dresses—carrying drums, flutes, whistles, trumpets and rattles. Near them, and arguing loudly, were several Indians, some carrying seven-foot poles about three inches in diameter, pointed at one end and brilliantly painted, and all wearing strapped to their backs stuffed skins of jaguar, otter, deer and peccary bedecked with feathers, bead-collars and scalps. These were the dancers, and there appeared to be great difficulty in deciding who should start the dance. And when I saw it in full swing I was not surprised that each man hesitated to be the first victim, for compared to the Guaymí stick-dance Rugby football is a gentle game.
Presently, however, all was satisfactorily arranged. The band struck up, marched several times around the arena, and took up its position at one side. Two Indians sprang into the open space, one carrying his heavy stick poised like a harpoon in both hands. Instantly they began to dance, the one without a stick hopping in the air, spreading his feet wide apart, dodging back and forth, and constantly looking over his shoulder at the other, who, with poised stick, shuffled and skipped about in time to the music.
Presently he lurched forward, the pole hurtled through the air, and with a dull thud struck the other's leg. He went down as if shot, and a roar of merriment and applause arose from the onlookers. Limping, but with a broad grin, the fellow picked himself up and once more began to dance. Once again his opponent threw the stick, but this time the other dodged, the staff sped harmlessly between his legs, and the crowd fairly screamed with delight.
Now it was his turn, and as the other danced he threw the stick and brought the fellow down at the first throw. By this time the arena was crowded with dancers and stick-throwers, and the heavy staves flew thick and fast. According to rules, the dancer must serve as a target until he evades the stick, whereupon the thrower takes his place. Amid the fusillade of sticks and the tangle of dancers, I could not understand how anyone was sure who hit another, or whose partner dodged. That some Indian was not crippled or killed seemed miraculous, but the stuffed skins on the dancers' backs protected their spines, and Neonandí assured me that serious injuries were rare. Still, it was emphatically no child's game, and when the Indians urged me to try my hand—or rather feet—I felt that being a Guaymí had its drawbacks. However, I was a member of the tribe, I could not well refuse, and it would have ill-befitted a medicine-chief to show signs of cowardice. So, with a stuffed ocelot skin on my back, I hesitatingly entered the dancing space.
Being a new hand at the game, the Indians considerately arranged that I should have the part of stick-thrower instead of dancer. I am quite sure, too, that the fellow who danced allowed me to bowl him over repeatedly, and I am equally certain that when at last he dodged and I took his place he purposely avoided hitting me. The assembled Guaymís, however, like the good sportsmen they were, applauded my success as loudly as though I had been an expert. Throughout the night the fun continued, until all were too weary or too bruised to dance longer. By dawn, too, many of the Indians had vanished, slipping like ghosts into the fastnesses of the mountains.
I had accomplished far more than I had hoped for, but I greatly regretted that I had been unable to take a photograph of the stick-dance. But when I spoke of this to Montezuma and Neonandí, the two chiefs at once solved the difficulty. A special stick-dance would be held by daylight for my benefit!
Never in all the history of the Guaymís had such a thing been done before, but Montezuma's word was law, and though some of the Indians demurred at first, they went through the dance. But despite all the chiefs could do, the participants would insist on watching me and my camera, and they took far more interest in my actions than in the dance.
All through that day the Indians continued to leave—often with no word of farewell to anyone, sometimes coming to my hut to bid good-bye to Neonandí and myself—but still hundreds remained.
That night, as we sat in my hut, the Indians began dropping in until the walls were lined with the Guaymís. Presently a fellow slipped in whom I recognized as an Indian who had worn a remarkable head-dress of sloth-skin during the day, and who had objected most strenuously to being photographed.
Suddenly he emitted an agonized groan and slumped to the floor. I hurried to him to find him gasping, his face contorted, and apparently dying. Here was a pretty how-do-you-do. If the fellow expired every Indian—with the possible exception of Neonandí and Montezuma—would be convinced he had been destroyed by having been photographed, and, as practically all present had also been snapped, they would begin to fear for their own lives. In that case, my life would not be worth a brass farthing. Even though I was an honorary member of the tribe, even though Neonandí and Montezuma stood by me, nothing could save me if that miserable Indian died on my hands. Nervous, frightened, my mind trying to formulate some plan, I dragged the fellow into the light and warmth of the fire. I could find no heart-beat, no breath. I forced open his eyelids and found the eyes rolled up, and never a quiver resulted when I touched them. I forced open his lips, poured whisky down his throat, rubbed him, slapped him, tried artificial respiration, and finally, at the end of my resources, wrapped him in blankets and placed him close to the fire. All the time the Indians were gazing, fixedly, silently at me. Their eyes gleamed, their stern lips were set, and I felt it would be but a matter of minutes before they sprang upon me. Neonandí was as nervous, as worried, as myself. But he was powerless to prevent an attack under such conditions, and, I fear, he was not entirely free from superstitions regarding the cause of the Indian's apparent demise. There was nothing I could do. Any effort to resist those sullen, glaring savages would have been worse than useless, and so, striving to remain calm and to show no signs of fear, with the idea of bluffing the watching crowd, I calmly filled and lit my pipe and nonchalantly seated myself in my hammock. Slowly, the minutes passed; each second I thought would be my last, and then—so unexpectedly that it was downright uncanny—the miracle happened! The "dead" Indian sighed, he opened his eyes, he rose to his feet, and without a word he stalked from the hut and vanished into the night! He had had a fit, nothing more.
It had been a close call for me, but it brought most unexpected results. The Indians, quite convinced that their fellow-tribesman had actually died, saw in his resurrection some great and awesome magic on my part. Had they not seen him dead? Had I not brought him back to life? Their new white medicine-chief was a mighty witchdoctor indeed. They gazed at me in awe, regarded me as a superior being, and vied with one another in bringing me their choicest possessions. But, thank Heaven, they did not bring a really defunct Indian and ask me to restore him to life!
By the next morning only Neonandí and his people and Montezuma and his retinue were left of the hundreds who had gathered on the mountain-top. Montezuma had already urged me to visit his section of the kingdom, and when he prepared to depart he repeated his invitation, addressing me as "brother" and assuring me of protection and perfect freedom wherever and whenever I might travel through the Guaymís' lands.
"You are one of us," he said. "Though your skin is white, you are my kinsman and brother and a medicine chief. You are Cuviboranandi" (the white stranger who came over sea to become a medicine-chief). "Every Guaymí in the land knows of you, and whenever you return, even though all of my blood and all those who have been here are dead, still will you be known as a Guaymí and welcomed everywhere—even among the most barbarous and savage of my people."
I feel sure he spoke the truth. An Indian's memory is long, and, no doubt, should I ever return to the Guaymí country, I should be regarded not as a stranger and a white man, but as an Indian. The chances are, however, that I shall never go back, and only my picturesque regalia and the memory of the weird night ceremony on the mountain-top will remain to remind me that I am a Guaymí Indian chief.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.