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Alone in Mexico
The Astonishing Travels of Karl Heller, 1845-1848
By Karl Bartolomeus Heller
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
It was on August 9, 1845, from the deck of a handsome steamship that roared downstream on the Donau River, that I waved my last farewell to the beloved fields of my fatherland. I was enrapt by the youthful fantasies that necessarily occupy a twenty- year- old lad setting off on such a protracted and dangerous journey. But for the longest time my soul sank into those reveries that the traveler always experiences when leaving his home. Separation ... and farewell! What an affecting moment it will be in the life of men, when after many years filled to the brim with troubles, sorrows, and struggle, we will have reunited!
It is a bitter feeling when for the first time a man must separate himself from everything he has known, loved, and held sacred since the moment when the child's initial glimmer of awareness awakened. That familiar scene, a mountain, a valley, a spire, become the very points on which one desperately ties the weak threads of hope of seeing home once again. They sink from view ... some tears perhaps, and the struggle is over.
I watched the bank of the Donau in silence as it quickly passed. My gaze darted from one point to another, as though something inside me were calling, "Here! here! Tarry a second longer!" The steamship pushed on, until we crossed the borders of my fatherland, and my soul once more found calm and strength. From this moment my life belonged to my journey's path. One region now took the place of another, city followed city; in ten days I had put Germany and Belgium behind me, and in Ostend welcomed the high seas for the first time.
Just as a man stares thoughtlessly or rather unconscious of his thoughts at the devastating flames of a bonfire, recoiling in terror from the frightful element and yet mesmerized by the captivating spectacle of the flames, so too the wanderer stands as though bound on the ocean shore. He stares out into the angry, raging waters that thrust upon the coast, crashing with foam on the rocks. Waves rapidly roll in one upon the other and push onto the sand, then retreat for an instant, only to pound the adjoining shore with renewed power. In this way, I might say, the wanderer stands like a dreamer, lost in contemplating the unimagined and captivating splendor of the waters. Then a passing sail or a roaring steamship startles him from his mute wonder and reminds him of reality.
A day later and the first sea journey, including a six- hour crossing to England, was complete. England, or rather London, stunned me for four weeks with its turmoil, curiosities, and sights of interest, when I stood once more on the seacoast at Southampton to embark upon the great sea to the West Indies and Mexico.
On October 2, 1845, we boarded the steamship Tay, anchored an English mile from the coast. The reader will permit me to describe this unforgettable moment. I was extremely fortunate to have the famous and experienced Herr Theodor Hartweg as travel companion; his work had brought him to England, and in him I found a friend to whom I am eternally indebted. He was headed to California, and we thus enjoyed the prospect of a companion in our journey to Mexico. At two hours before midnight we stepped on the deck of our ship. Everything was fully alive here. The steamship Tay was one of those travel ships that sail every month from England to Middle America, and I will endeavor to describe its outfitting, since readers in our countries can only have an imperfect notion of such vessels.
The ship had eighteen hundred tons carrying capacity; it measured one hundred paces in length and fifteen to twenty paces in breadth. The engine was of five hundred horsepower. On its spar deck rose two mighty seventy-foot-high masts, from which innumerable large and small cables ran and for the novice form an inextricable web. Benches stood here and there on the extraordinarily clean deck, not only for the convenience of passengers but also to keep those passengers from impeding the incessant work of the sailors. At the hind part of the ship stands the mighty helm; before it are two well-maintained compasses, which, with an extra in the middle, formed a pointed triangle.
Two boats hung backward on iron bars bent outward on both sides of the deck. They could be easily lowered from these into the sea and hoisted up again. On each wheel casing lay an iron sheet-metal lifeboat, each holding fifty men and always kept ready with provisions. In the middle of the deck between the two mastheads rises the colossal smokestack, and next to it the stables for sheep, pigs, and poultry. Here too we found assorted barrels of water. Some glass roofs (skylights, they are called), which are well sealed with iron clasps and which give light to the rooms beneath, and different stairs behind make up the otherwise remarkable features of the spardeck.
Such a steamer comfortably holds eighty- four passengers and a ninety-six-man crew, and at certain hours its deck is everyone's meeting place, or as we would say on land, the promenade. During good weather the lone traveler enjoys fresh sea breezes, feasting his eyes on the azure tide of the ocean. On a clear night he refreshes himself in the further shimmering lights of the moon, or perhaps admires the myriad sparks in the foam of the waves, sparks produced by a small organism with phosphorus light. Moreover, passengers seldom lack the news of the day, which is circulated and discussed within the bounds of the ship's world. The landsmen gather to shorten the time by smoking, singing, and sometimes by dancing as well; the good- natured German is seldom missing; the Frenchman casually joins in, while the Englishman, half mute and gloomy as the mists of his fatherland, wanders up and down, or comfortably sips a glass of whiskey punch.
We descended the stairs and found ourselves on the main deck. Behind those stairs were the first-class cabins, which were neatly arranged in rows opposite one another. These led to a small outermost elegant room abutting a very proper salon under the ship's wheel. This room is of course for the ladies. The middle of this deck was occupied by the galley, a cowshed, and the carpenter's workshop, including the storeroom. Toward the front were the cabins of the officers and engineers and the small rooms for the crew. One flight of stairs below lay the salon deck, which takes its name from the great dining hall. Four long tables, which are set four times a day, fill it up; at the back stands a small chimney, and over it a modest library, in which Bibles of all great and printed varieties play a major role. At the entries of both sides are the bars (tavern tables) for all sorts of spirited drinks, beer, and wine, which are not included in the passage cost, and there must be paid for weekly. During bad weather and in the evening, this comfortably lit hall is the principal sort of pleasure. Whist and other games are arranged, and unfortunately games of chance also find generally universal approval.
Cabins for second-class passengers occupy all other space of this deck. At last, on the fourth or engine deck stands the steam engine with its four huge boilers and coal chambers. The engine's levers rise into the third deck, like an untiring monster that threatens destruction and wants to wrench itself with a groan from its chain.
That was the ship on which we found ourselves, a colossus which-or so I believed at the moment-could defy all the seas of the world. Soon, however, I was to receive a more accurate idea of the matter.
When everyone had boarded, the sign was given to lift the anchor and to remove all persons who were not passengers. This moment was deeply moving; since while here the departing daughter fastened herself once more on the breast of the loving parent, over there a father blesses his departing son; while here, the sobbing wife tears herself from her enterprising husband, friends embrace themselves for the last time, sunk in tearless, silent sorrow. At that instant for the first time I felt how alone I was.
When the anchor was lifted, the last song of the sailors rang out monotonously, and the small steamboat that had brought us aboard encircled us until at last we were at sea. The sailors climbed up the rope ladders in a mob, cried out a three- times hip- hip- hurrah into the air as a farewell, and the answer from the small steamer faded away. We pushed on in a mass of foam, and the ship became our world.
A strong northwest wind had arisen and prevented us from reaching the open sea. For that reason we had to spend the night in a channel of Southampton, in order to be able to pass the dangerous Needles reef at the Isle of Wight the next morning. An intrepid pilot brought us out with the break of day, and presently we swam on the roaring waves of the ocean, which became higher and higher the further we went from the land toward an ever darker horizon.
I have earlier spoken of the impression that the first glimpse of the sea produces; but he who has only considered it from the land can form but an inadequate notion. Only that man who travels the ocean itself will truly know it. Waters in the vicinity of the coast are consistently gentler than those on the wide ocean. There the waves are small, short, and choppy, while here they often roll upon one another like mountains; their oscillations never entirely cease, perhaps because of the rotation of the earth on its axis. No pen will ever be capable of describing the spectacle of how this bottomless mass of water churns.
When we were on the open sea the situation filled everyone with horror and alarm. The northwest wind ranged over the agitated high water, while gigantic waves rolled by continuously with their spray- capped peaks like frenzied hydra. Seasickness claimed its victims, the deck was forsaken and the salon empty, and only a few lone individuals dared to glimpse out, too terrified to withdraw, for a storm was upon us. We soon found ourselves in the waters of Vizcaya. The elements' fury grew even stronger, and the sea seemed to want to devour us. It came raging over the deck, unleashing barrels, planks, and other objects, angrily slinging overboard whatever it found unsecured there; while in the ship's interior, tables and chairs, glasses, bottles, and dishes flew hither and thither and shattered against one another. Women wept, men stood despairing, clinging to anything firm. The disconsolate sailors shouted, while among them resounded the commands of the officers among them, the storm in all its fury howling through the ropes of the barren tackling. Only the two sailors bound to the helm stood mute like marble pillars, with that stoical calm which made them seemingly indifferent to everything that was happening all around. The engines churned in unison with the rattle of the ship in a dull moan as they struggled vainly against the elements. We progressed scarcely half an English sea mile in the space of an hour. This frightful situation persisted for three days and three nights.
The storm reached its worst during the evening of the sixth to the eighth of October. It dashed to pieces our forward jibmast and tore down a wheel casing. We did not know whether we would live to the coming morning, but the sun rose up with daybreak on the clear horizon, cheerful and with its blessing, proclaiming deliverance, filling everything with joy. To be sure, the sea continued to swell, yet always becoming softer and softer, until at last the immense surface had smoothed out. It resembled a mirror in which we could not tire of seeing our reflection. Meanwhile, we repaired what we could of the ship's damage, leaving it as it had been when we left the harbor with everything perfectly in order. On the eleventh at noon we neared the island of Madeira, opposite the coast of Morocco. Only ten days had passed since we left England-ten days, however, that seemed an eternity to a novice-and we rejoiced over our approach to that island.
The weather was splendid. A spotless and dark blue expanse stretched over the tranquil sea, another breeze warm and mild blew upon us, and the cold, unfriendly European sky disappeared. Finally, the rocky coasts of Porto Santo shot up over the waters: it was the barren and thinly populated island of Madeira, little more than a stopping point for a few fishermen. The sea foam stretched like a white band along the coast, and the rays of the setting sun brilliantly illuminated the rock masses on which the naked eye can discern neither trees nor bushes. A voyager's gaze rested immovably upon them, since one values the land ever so greatly after becoming acquainted with the fury of the ocean.
Gliding along Porto Santo and the Desiertos, we came to Madeira proper, an island that rose up on the western horizon like a cloud. Meanwhile, night had fallen, but not a night such as we had ever seen. Out of the dark blue sky twinkled thousands upon thousands of stars. Among them, and reflected in the waves of the sea, lay the silvery gleam of the moon. Balmy winds blew to us from the land, breezes that can only be found in the climate of the Madeiras, perhaps the loveliest in the world. As soon as the contours of the land became clearer, we all strained our eyes to discover a house or a light at the first opportunity. As soon as we had rounded the eastern point we found the scenery delightful, since only the southern slope is much populated, while the remaining mountainous parts of the island scarcely seemed to offer a table-sized expanse for cultivation.
At midnight we noisily dropped anchor at Funchal, the main city of Madeira. The thunder of two cannons announced our arrival, and at once came the splashing of oars, bringing the port authority's boat as swift as an arrow to the side of our ship. The customary forms of greetings passed quickly, and the usual quiet in the cabins of our ship soon prevailed. We hastened to enjoy the few remaining hours of sleep, in order to be able to go ashore the next morning. At 5 a.m., when the sun rose on the horizon, the foredeck was already cheerfully animated. Countless canoes competed with Portuguese ardor, shouting and struggling, dragging themselves on board our ship, to bring the passengers ashore, and many times we had the entertainment of seeing the straining canoemen unintentionally refresh themselves in the cool water.
While all this hubbub erupted around me, I lay engrossed in the spectacle of Funchal. To the left an isolated and bare rock jutted out of the sea; a mighty fortress stands at its tip and presides over the landing place. Behind this same the city's neat houses emerge, rising up the steep slopes distinctly and gracefully among the fresh greenery of the trees. The traveler is almost tempted to take it as a picture from some vivid fantasy rather than as a scene from nature.
A canoe swiftly brought us to the land, and an array of new scenes presented themselves. Funchal is a small city with narrow streets mostly going uphill; for that reason they use either a horse or the sedan in order to get from one place to another. The inhabitants themselves are Portuguese, since for a long time the island itself has been the property of Portugal. Although suitable, Madeiran clothing differs little from European, with the exception of a small cap made of cloth and furnished with a long point, something that lends a comic appearance to the men and women.
The stone-built houses are small and seldom seem particularly inviting. The flat-roof construction calls to mind southern Spain or Italy. Here and there, however, one finds very attractive buildings. Winsome gardens lend them a special flavor, all the more so since those gardens are decorated with a greenery that is foreign to the European. For example, the coffee tree, the banana, and the orange, the fig, and other trees of the tropical climate flourish in abundance.
After inspecting this fascinating vegetation, we hurried to one of those famous nuns' cloisters that normally cater to the visiting foreigners. Upon reaching the same, the nuns received us in the conversation parlor, offering us flowers assembled from bird feathers in the most artful form and entirely faithful to nature, and which procure respectable if small amounts of money for the saintly sisters when great ships touch port. More than the flowers, I enjoyed the magnificent view that the elevated position of the cloister furnished of the city and the wonderful ocean bay.
From there we descended the mountain along a small river. The steep banks of this stream abounded in dense rushes (wild cane, caladia, and ferns, with an avenue of plane trees and chestnuts) that shaded the charming path; over the walls of the garden protruded hibiscuses, oranges, and roses covered with flowers. All this in the month of October, when in Europe frosty winds already storm over the mountains and heaths, and force Nature into a months-long sleep!
Excerpted from Alone in Mexico by Karl Bartolomeus Heller Copyright © 2007 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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