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- Equinoctial Regions of America V2 - 20/97 -


Cayman,* (* The Farm of the Alligator.) called also La Guadaloupe. It was a solitary house in the steppes, surrounded by a few small huts, covered with reeds and skins. The cattle, oxen, horses, and mules are not penned, but wander freely over an extent of several square leagues. There is nowhere any enclosure; men, naked to the waist and armed with a lance, ride over the savannahs to inspect the animals; bringing back those that wander too far from the pastures of the farm, and branding all that do not already bear the mark of their proprietor. These mulattos, who are known by the name of peones llaneros, are partly freed-men and partly slaves. They are constantly exposed to the burning heat of the tropical sun. Their food is meat, dried in the air, and a little salted; and of this even their horses sometimes partake. Being always in the saddle, they fancy they cannot make the slightest excursion on foot. We found an old negro slave, who managed the farm in the absence of his master. He told us of herds composed of several thousand cows, that were grazing in the steppes; yet we asked in vain for a bowl of milk. We were offered, in a calabash, some yellow, muddy, and fetid water, drawn from a neighbouring pool. The indolence of the inhabitants of the Llanos is such that they do not dig wells, though they know that almost everywhere, at ten feet deep, fine springs are found in a stratum of conglomerate, or red sandstone. After suffering during one half of the year from the effect of inundations, they quietly resign themselves, during the other half; to the most distressing deprivation of water. The old negro advised us to cover the cup with a linen cloth, and drink as through a filter, that we might not be incommoded by the smell, and might swallow less of the yellowish mud suspended in the water. We did not then think that we should afterwards be forced, during whole months, to have recourse to this expedient. The waters of the Orinoco are always loaded with earthy particles; they are even putrid, where dead bodies of alligators are found in the creeks, lying on banks of sand, or half-buried in the mud.

No sooner were our instruments unloaded and safely placed, than our mules were set at liberty to go, as they say here, para buscar agua, that is, "to search for water." There are little pools round the farm, which the animals find, guided by their instinct, by the view of some scattered tufts of mauritia, and by the sensation of humid coolness, caused by little currents of air amid an atmosphere which to us appears calm and tranquil. When the pools of water are far distant, and the people of the farm are too lazy to lead the cattle to these natural watering-places, they confine them during five or six hours in a very hot stable before they let them loose. Excess of thirst then augments their sagacity, sharpening as it were their senses and their instinct. No sooner is the stable opened, than the horses and mules, especially the latter (for the penetration of these animals exceeds the intelligence of the horses), rush into the savannahs. With upraised tails and heads thrown back they run against the wind, stopping from time to time as if exploring space; they follow less the impressions of sight than of smell; and at length announce, by prolonged neighings, that there is water in the direction of their course. All these movements are executed more promptly, and with readier success, by horses born in the Llanos, and which have long enjoyed their liberty, than by those that come from the coast, and descend from domestic horses. In animals, for the most part, as in man, the quickness of the senses is diminished by long subjection, and by the habits that arise from a fixed abode and the progress of cultivation.

We followed our mules in search of one of those pools, whence the muddy water had been drawn, that so ill quenched our thirst. We were covered with dust, and tanned by the sandy wind, which burns the skin even more than the rays of the sun. We longed impatiently to take a bath, but we found only a great pool of feculent water, surrounded with palm-trees. The water was turbid, though, to our great astonishment, a little cooler than the air. Accustomed during our long journey to bathe whenever we had an opportunity, often several times in one day, we hastened to plunge into the pool. We had scarcely begun to enjoy the coolness of the bath, when a noise which we heard on the opposite bank, made us leave the water precipitately. It was an alligator plunging into the mud.

We were only at the distance of a quarter of a league from the farm, yet we continued walking more than an hour without reaching it. We perceived too late that we had taken a wrong direction. Having left it at the decline of day, before the stars were visible, we had gone forward into the plain at hazard. We were, as usual, provided with a compass, and it might have been easy for us to steer our course from the position of Canopus and the Southern Cross; but unfortunately we were uncertain whether, on leaving the farm, we had gone towards the east or the south. We attempted to return to the spot where we had bathed, and we again walked three quarters of an hour without finding the pool. We sometimes thought we saw fire on the horizon; but it was the light of the rising stars enlarged by the vapours. After having wandered a long time in the savannah, we resolved to seat ourselves beneath the trunk of a palm-tree, in a spot perfectly dry, surrounded by short grass; for the fear of water-snakes is always greater than that of jaguars among Europeans recently disembarked. We could not flatter ourselves that our guides, of whom we knew the insuperable indolence, would come in search of us in the savannah before they had prepared their food and finished their repast. Whilst somewhat perplexed by the uncertainty of our situation, we were agreeably affected by hearing from afar the sound of a horse advancing towards us. The rider was an Indian, armed with a lance, who had just made the rodeo, or round, in order to collect the cattle within a determinate space of ground. The sight of two white men, who said they had lost their way, led him at first to suspect some trick. We found it difficult to inspire him with confidence; he at last consented to guide us to the farm of the Cayman, but without slackening the gentle trot of his horse. Our guides assured us that "they had already begun to be uneasy about us;" and, to justify this inquietude, they gave a long enumeration of persons who, having lost themselves in the Llanos, had been found nearly exhausted. It may be supposed that the danger is imminent only to those who lose themselves far from any habitation, or who, having been stripped by robbers, as has happened of late years, have been fastened by the body and hands to the trunk of a palm-tree.

In order to escape as much as possible from the heat of the day, we set off at two in the morning, with the hope of reaching Calabozo before noon, a small but busy trading-town, situated in the midst of the Llanos. The aspect of the country was still the same. There was no moonlight; but the great masses of nebulae that spot the southern sky enlighten, as they set, a part of the terrestrial horizon. The solemn spectacle of the starry vault, seen in its immense expanse--the cool breeze which blows over the plain during the night--the waving motion of the grass, wherever it has attained any height; everything recalled to our minds the surface of the ocean. The illusion was augmented when the disk of the sun appearing on the horizon, repeated its image by the effects of refraction, and, soon losing its flattened form, ascended rapidly and straight towards the zenith.

Sunrise in the plains is the coolest moment of the day; but this change of temperature does not make a very lively impression on the organs. We did not find the thermometer in general sink below 27.5; while near Acapulco, at Mexico, and in places equally low, the temperature at noon is often 32, and at sunrise only 17 or 18 degrees. The level surface of the ground in the Llanos, which, during the day, is never in the shade, absorbs so much heat that, notwithstanding the nocturnal radiation toward a sky without clouds, the earth and air have not time to cool very sensibly from midnight to sunrise.

In proportion as the sun rose towards the zenith, and the earth and the strata of superincumbent air took different temperatures, the phenomenon of the mirage displayed itself in its numerous modifications. This phenomenon is so common in every zone, that I mention it only because we stopped to measure with some precision the breadth of the aerial distance between the horizon and the suspended object. There was a constant suspension, without inversion. The little currents of air that swept the surface of the soil had so variable a temperature that, in a drove of wild oxen, one part appeared with the legs raised above the surface of the ground, while the other rested on it. The aerial distance was, according to the distance of the animal, from 3 to 4 minutes. Where tufts of the moriche palm were found growing in long ranges, the extremities of these green rows were suspended like the capes which were, for so long a time, the subject of my observations at Cumana. A well-informed person assured us, that he had seen, between Calabozo and Uritucu, the image of an animal inverted, without there being any direct image. Niebuhr made a similar observation in Arabia. We several times thought we saw on the horizon the figures of tumuli and towers, which disappeared at intervals, without our being able to discern the real shape of the objects. They were perhaps hillocks, or small eminences, situated beyond the ordinary visual horizon. I need not mention those tracts destitute of vegetation, which appear like large lakes with an undulating surface. This phenomenon, observed in very remote times, has occasioned the mirage to receive in Sanscrit the expressive name of desire of the antelope. We admire the frequent allusions in the Indian, Persian, and Arabic poets, to the magical effects of terrestrial refraction. It was scarcely known to the Greeks and Romans. Proud of the riches of their soil, and the mild temperature of the air, they would have felt no envy of this poetry of the desert. It had its birth in Asia; and the oriental poets found its source in the nature of the country they inhabited. They were inspired with the aspect of those vast solitudes, interposed like arms of the sea or gulfs, between lands which nature had adorned with her most luxuriant fertility.

The plain assumes at sunrise a more animated aspect. The cattle, which had reposed during the night along the pools, or beneath clumps of mauritias and rhopalas, were now collected in herds; and these solitudes became peopled with horses, mules, and oxen, that live here free, rather than wild, without settled habitations, and disdaining the care and protection of man. In these hot climates, the oxen, though of Spanish breed, like those of the cold table-lands of Quito, are of a gentle disposition. A traveller runs no risk of being attacked or pursued, as we often were in our excursions on the back of the Cordilleras, where the climate is rude, the aspect of the country more wild, and food less abundant. As we approached Calabozo, we saw herds of roebucks browsing peacefully in the midst of horses and oxen. They are called matacani; their flesh is good; they are a little larger than our roes, and resemble deer with a very sleek skin, of a fawn-colour, spotted with white. Their horns appear to me to have single points. They had little fear of the presence of man: and in herds of thirty or forty we observed several that were entirely white. This variety, common enough among the large stags of the cold climates of the Andes, surprised us in these low and burning plains. I have since learned, that even the jaguar, in the hot regions of Paraguay, sometimes affords albino varieties, the skin of which is of such uniform whiteness that the spots or rings can be distinguished only in the sunshine. The number of matacani, or little deer,* (* They are called in the country Venados de tierras calientes (deer of the warm lands.)) is so considerable in the Llanos, that a trade might be carried on with their skins.* (* This trade is carried on, but on a very limited scale, at Carora and at Barquesimeto.) A skilful hunter could easily kill more than twenty in a day; but such is the indolence of the inhabitants, that often they will not give themselves the trouble of taking the skin. The same indifference is evinced in the chase of the jaguar, a skin of which fetches only one piastre in the steppes of Varinas, while at Cadiz it costs four or five.

The steppes that we traversed are principally covered with grasses of


Equinoctial Regions of America V2 - 20/97

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