Category Archives: travel

Pancho Villa’s Boxcars

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 47-48:

Villa used long trains to transport his soldiers from city to city. On top of the boxcars rode pigs, chickens, children, and soldaderas—wives, daughters, and even grandmothers who served as helpmates and nurses and fellow fighters. His pride and joy was his hospital train, which consisted of forty enameled boxcars staffed with Mexican and U.S. physicians and supplied with the latest surgical appliances. With its bright blue crosses and the words Servicio Sanitario stenciled on the sides, the hospital train followed Villa’s troops into battle and transported the most severely wounded back to hospitals in the cities. He had a boxcar for correspondents, a boxcar for moving-picture men, a boxcar for his cannons and extra railroad ties, and a caboose, which he used for his headquarters. Painted gray and decorated with chintz window curtains, the caboose was big enough for a couple of bunks and a partitioned area for his cook. In the early days, Villa would sit in his caboose in his blue underwear while as many as fifteen generals lounged at his feet to argue and plot strategy for their next campaign. Hanging on the walls above them were pictures of Villa on one of his frothing horses; the querulous Don Venustiano; and Rodolfo Fierro, Villa’s handsome and ruthless friend, who was christened el carnicero—the butcher—after he had made a sport of shooting three hundred prisoners as they tried to escape over a corral wall.

If Fierro represented the dark side of Pancho Villa’s nature, then the aristocratic and exquisitely mannered Felipe Ángeles represented the good. Ángeles, the army general who had been detained along with Madero and his vice president, had been educated at the Colegio Militar and excelled at mathematics and artillery science. He was in the federal army when the revolution broke out and offered to fight against the revolutionaries. But he soon became personal friends with Madero during the latter’s brief presidency. After Madero was killed, Ángeles joined Don Venustiano’s counterrevolution. Disgusted by Carranza’s opulent lifestyle and the preening sycophants who surrounded him, Ángeles eventually aligned himself with Pancho Villa’s División del Norte. Villa revered Ángeles’s intellectual and military capabilities and his rigorous honesty. While he considered himself far too ignorant and uneducated to govern a turbulent country like Mexico, Villa often thought Ángeles could be the next president.

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Culinary Delights of Canada’s Northwest

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle p. 195:

Hearne’s posthumously published A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean is a charming and lively account of his years of adventure with Matonabbee, a classic of northern exploration literature and an unvarnished window into eighteenth-century life in the northern interior, a region on the cusp of great change. Hearne was a keen observer of the natural world, such as the seasonal behaviour of animals, the types of vegetation and the climate. He had a particular interest in Chipewyan customs and lifestyle. Food was another favourite topic, perhaps because the cuisine on the Barren Lands was so different from the food at the fort, and perhaps because on his adventures he often didn’t have enough of it. He detailed the many different methods of hunting and of preparing food, which animal parts were the tastiest or most coveted when herbed, boiled or roasted. He described with relish a common hearty caribou stew, and a venison dish called beeatee that was “a most delicious morsel.” Similar to the Scottish haggis, it was made using the animal’s stomach as a vessel, stuffed with blood, chopped fat, tenderized meat, kidneys and heart mixed with seasonal herbs. The beeatee was steamed and smoked over a fire into an aromatic pâté. Hearne found buffalo tripe to be “exceedingly good,” while warm caribou blood sucked directly from the bullet hole was “very nourishing.” Moose stomach, on the other hand, was “rather bitter.” Hearne also savoured raw fish of various types and cuts, which was a common meal of the Chipewyan and remained a mainstay of Hearne’s palate for the rest of his life, a fondly remembered delicacy that he would specially request when dining out in London, perhaps to unobtrusively raised eyebrows acknowledging the culinary peccadilloes of the eccentric traveller.

Hearne wrote in detail about the annual life cycle of the Dene-speaking peoples of the Barren Lands, and the difference between the sexes and their respective roles in society. Narrative examples give poignancy to his anthropological generalizations, and his fascinating insights are written in clear, descriptive and vibrant language.

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A Navajo Shepherd’s Day, 1920s

From Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez (Dutton Caliber, 2011), Kindle Loc. ~437:

After breakfast, we all helped Auntie pack bedrolls, the remaining food, and the heavy water bag onto the big brown “sheep horse.” This horse lived on the range with the sheep and carried the items necessary for us Diné to survive.

Snow, a white eighty-pound dog, stood alert at one side of the herd. Five other dogs took up their posts around the fringes. Then my two aunties, my uncle, my two brothers, and I moved out with the animals. We walked through deep grass, never worrying about our flocks having enough to eat. Other Navajo families shared the range, with no fences to keep anyone out.

After grazing in one place for two or three days, Grandma’s herd moved on to new grass. I knew that the constant movement was good for the safety of the livestock. Predators did not gather in any one area, knowing where to find the animals.

We followed the sheep. The day grew warm and quiet. A straggler headed toward a clump of juniper. I glanced at Old Auntie. She nodded, then watched me throw a small rock out beyond the lamb, turning her back in toward the rest of the herd.

A gray shadow flashed off to my right. Coyote? The hated animals often lurked among the thick piñon and sagebrush. I stood absolutely still and waited, then carefully bent down and picked a stone, fitting it into the rubber of my inner-tube slingshot. Young Auntie held a coffee can filled with rocks at the ready. The noise of the rocks, when the can was shaken, would scare a coyote. But I heard and saw nothing.

Just as I turned back to the herd, the sharp cry of a kid rang out. A coyote had grabbed the baby goat by the leg, pulling it into a clump of sagebrush. My heart beat fast as I aimed the slingshot, heard it thud, then charged toward the fracas. Young Auntie shook the coffee can, creating a racket. Old Auntie yelled and plunged from across the herd. Three dogs raced over, barking and growling. The coyote dropped its prey, running with its tail between its legs.

The mother goat and I reached the kid before Auntie did. It cried piteously. Four punctures marked its leg. Blood flowed freely.

“Good,” said Auntie, when she arrived. “The blood will clean the wound.” She examined the leg. “It’s not bad. He can walk.”

I stayed close to the kid and his mother as we continued our trek. Coyotes posed a serious threat to the lambs and kids, and sometimes even to the older animals. And any animal lost to a coyote was a double loss. Not only was the wool (or in the case of a goat, the milk) gone, but the meat as well. Even if our dogs recovered the carcass, no self-respecting Navajo ate meat killed by the devil coyote. Everyone knew evil people came back as coyotes after they died.

The scared little goat kept up with the herd. As the few scattered remnants of rain clouds evaporated, a turquoise-blue sky arched over us. The temperature in the early part of the “moon of large plants”—the white man’s month of May—rose to the midseventies. Life was good.

Some days we covered between fifteen and twenty miles on foot. That day we walked eleven miles or so, stopping to build camp on a slight rise in the shade of a piñon grove. Snow, the big sheepdog, selected the rise that day. He, like his six humans, preferred to watch the sheep from above, keeping an eye out for danger and stragglers.

I scratched behind the big dog’s ears. “Good boy.”

Snow, like all of the dogs, herded by instinct. Every morning he approached the sheep, eager to be moving. On the days when we stayed put, Snow climbed a rise and watched, ever alert.

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Yemeni Men’s Attire, 1960s

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 145, 160-161:

After a very refreshing bathe in a stream I changed into Yemeni dress. I put a white ma-arraga on my head and swapped my trousers for a khaki iz-zar, which I found much more comfortable, although I missed the pockets; only the Egyptians wore trousers in the Yemen, and I was taking no chances. For a similar reason I had to accustom myself to another Yemeni habit — to squat while passing water; according to the tribesmen, ‘only dogs and Egyptians pee standing up,’ and I had no wish to be shot in mistake for either.

On their heads, which were often shaven, perched skull-caps, or white embroidered pill-box caps called kofias, or the hand-woven basketwork ‘flower pots’ I have already described; they wound cashmere shawls or lengths of khaki cotton round their caps or hats, in the form of turbans. Tattered jackets of European design hung from their shoulders over shirts and vests, and over the jackets ran crossed bandoliers, each carrying about fifty bullets. Every man wore a long cummerbund, which served the double purpose of belt and pockets. Thrust into this belt, behind the jembia, which is a defensive weapon, was a long, straight knife used in the attack, and behind it reposed an assortment of articles, allegedly nine in number and all beginning with the Arabic letter for M: there was a pair of scissors, a needle, tweezers for extracting thorns, a bunch of keys, a pen — usually with ball point — writing paper, a purse, and sometimes a watch strapped round a knife. Everyone wore an iz-zar, with underpants of cotton, and some men wore the baggy Moslem trousers under the iz-zar. Most of the tribesmen went barefoot, but some favoured Japanese ‘flipflops’, and others a type of plastic sandal with studs, such as I used to see displayed in West End London stores at extravagant prices for wear on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

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British ‘Fuddling’ in Oman

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 63-64:

The proceedings followed the ritual prescribed by Arab tradition, beginning with the conventional exchange of civilities with our host: ‘Ahlan Wa Sahlan’ [Welcome], ‘Salaam Elykum’ [Peace be with you]. We arranged ourselves in a circle on the cushions, contorting our limbs into attitudes that for me at least meant almost unendurable discomfort, and taking care to ensure that the soles of our feet were never facing our host — or any of the guests either. Even when there was business to transact, it was very impolite to mention it for at least the first five minutes, when talk was restricted to irrelevant pleasantries and platitudes. It was also considered very bad manners to speak to anyone during the course of a meal — an excellent convention, in my view — and so all conversation took place beforehand, while the party ate mezze — hors d’oeuvres of bread and goat’s cheese — and drank black coffee poured into small cups by black slaves out of a huge coffee pot from a great height and with unerring accuracy; when we had had enough — it was usual to accept two or three helpings — a guest would shake his coffee cup to show he wanted no more.

Then servants would bring in the meal, a single enormous dish, usually a whole sheep or goat on a vast pile of rice. There were no plates or cutlery, and everyone helped himself with his fingers from the dish, using only the right hand, which he would wash carefully after he had eaten. At the end of the meal slaves would carry round an incense burner, from which the guests would waft the smoke over their beards with their hands; beardless Europeans would make the gestures of wafting it over their chins. As a final ritual the slaves would sprinkle rose water over the guests’ heads. The guests would then rise, shake hands all round, and depart. I must have attended hundreds of these ceremonies, which we called ‘fuddling’, from the Arabic fadal meaning ‘please’; the British troops called them ‘mutton grabs’.

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Albanian Hospitality: Table Tactics

From Albanian Assignment: The Memoir of an SOE Agent in World War Two, by David Smiley (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 1; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 49-51:

Before the meal could be served bread had to be baked, and a sheep or a chicken killed and cooked. This naturally took a long time, and it was not unusual to sit for anything up to four hours waiting for the meal to arrive. During this wait raki and meze were kept in constant circulation, the meza consisting of lumps of cheese, raw onions, cloves of garlic, cucumber in yoghurt, hard boiled eggs, and the liver and other intestines of the animal that had just been killed. The host clearly enjoyed this interval, gossiping and exchanging news, and his natural curiosity was particularly aroused by the presence of a foreigner in his house. Many times I arrived at a house dead tired after a long day’s march, and it was as much as I could do to stay awake; but to go to sleep would have been considered bad manners and I had to force myself to sit up and appear to take a polite interest in the conversation, even though I did not understand it. It was only the raki that kept me going. A very strong spirit distilled from plums or grapes, it had a remarkable effect in overcoming tiredness.

When the meal was ready, a large round table, about five feet in diameter and about nine inches high, would be brought in and placed in the centre of the room. The host would then seat the senior guest in the place of honour, whereupon everyone would move over to the table, each man facing the back of his neighbour and turning his back on the other; in this way, as many as fifteen people could sit at one table.

The food would already be on the table, usually loaves of bread made from maize (huke), dishes of yoghurt (kos) usually made from sheep’s milk, and beans (fasule) of a similar type to Heinz baked beans; the main dish was meat boiled in its own juice, sometimes with a few grains of rice. We ate most dishes with the fingers of our right hands, but a spoon was provided for the more liquid ones, and this was the only piece of cutlery. There were no individual plates and we conveyed the food direct from the communal dish to our mouths. There was an art in eating quickly without spilling too much, for the dishes emptied fast and the slower feeder often went short. McLean used to say that I was good at table tactics. Once the dishes were empty the meal was over, the guests returned to their original positions, and a member of the family removed the table and swept the crumbs and any leftovers through a hole in the centre of the floor to fall among the animals who dwelt below. Once this was done, conversation flagged, mattresses were brought in, the blankets laid out, and in a short time the only noise would be the crackling of the fire and loud snores.

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Albanian Hospitality: Peasant House

From Albanian Assignment: The Memoir of an SOE Agent in World War Two, by David Smiley (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 1; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle p. 49:

The peasants whose houses we stayed in had a much lower standard of living than those who lived in the bigger towns. Built of grey, locally quarried stone and red roof tiles, very few of them had windows on the ground floor. On entry, two reasons for this became apparent: the ground floor was usually occupied by livestock — sheep, goats, chickens and very occasionally a mule or a cow; and it had defensive advantages, for entry to the house was limited to the door, and with no ground floor windows an enemy was unable to creep up and shoot into the house. Wooden stairs led to the upper floor, which was normally divided into two large rooms — one for the guests, and the other for the family. The entire family slept in the latter, and the women, whom we seldom saw in Moslem houses, did their cooking there. In the richer houses the windows were of glass; others only had wooden shutters, but all had thick iron grills. Wells or streams in the villages provided water; paraffin lamps or candles were the only source of light at night, apart from the fire.

As one entered the house the host led the way upstairs to the guest room, usually the larger of the two. Normally it was sparsely furnished except for some rugs on the floor and a large wooden chest containing blankets. Coffee was served immediately, and in cold weather glowing embers were brought in from the fire in the other room, and a blazing fire would soon be burning. While drinking coffee, the guests had to indicate whether they wanted to stay the night by removing their boots, whereupon the host would shout to the womenfolk to prepare a meal. If it was an Orthodox or a Catholic house, a girl or woman would come in at this stage to wash, and sometimes massage, the feet of the more honoured guests — I found this a great relief after a long march. In a Moslem house this duty was usually performed by the son of the house, or some rugged old warrior servant.

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Albanian Hospitality: Host Code

From Albanian Assignment: The Memoir of an SOE Agent in World War Two, by David Smiley (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 1; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 48, 51:

Skender Dine, Gjin Marku and I stayed in four different villages, and I was able to observe, as well as learn from my escort, a number of Albanian customs. The most important concerned the laws of hospitality. On arrival at a house the guests would be met at the front door by the host, who immediately relieved them of their weapons, which he would usually hang on a wall of the guest room. This gesture meant that from then on, the host took upon himself the responsibility for his guests’ lives. I slightly cheated over this custom, for in addition to the big Colt .45 automatic in my belt, I always had a small .25 that fitted into a hip pocket without showing.

Besa was the Albanian expression for these laws. If, to his unending shame, a guest was killed while under his protection, the host would then have a blood feud with the murderer and his family. Until this was avenged, the host could not clear himself of this dishonour, and his neighbours at meals would even show their disapproval or contempt for him by passing the coffee to him under their knees (a symbolic action implying ‘I piss in it’).

On leaving the house the following morning, the host would usually accompany his guests for the first mile or so of their journey, and it was not until he had said his farewell and turned for home that the beza was no longer binding.

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Capetown & St. Helena, 1842

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 159-160:

Cape of Good Hope is always hailed by the home-bound sailor with as much delight as Cape Horn is with fear. Here we found much shipping lying quietly at anchor. The view of Cape Town from the ship’s deck is indeed novel. On either side of Table Mountain are seen the crags of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. The broad, flat top of Table Mountain is always overhung by a great cloud, and when the cloud spreads out and covers the whole town with its broad shadows, it is then termed by Jack before the mast “the devil’s tablecloth.”

To the south, on the hill, stands the world-renowned observatory, where Sir John Herschell discovered the planet which once bore his name, but is now called Uranus.

Cape Town is an old Dutch settlement, and everything wore a Dutch look. Almost all the people we met were Dutch. Both men and women were short and stout, with full, rosy cheeks. They all dressed in the old Dutch fashion.

On the 17th we got under way, and took our departure from the Cape of Storms, shaping our course for the island of St. Helena.

On the morning of the 19th Joseph Sylva, a Portuguese boy, who had shipped at Oahu, died. In the afternoon his body, with two roundshot, was sewed up in his hammock, and committed to the deep. Brave little Joe is now sleeping beneath the blue waters with others of the ocean’s heroes.

After a run of thirteen days, we came to anchor in the roadstead of the Valley of Jamestown, island of St. Helena. Here we found six American and two English ships, one from Sweden, and a Dutch sloop-of-war, at anchor. The island of St. Helena is nothing but a large, barren rock, uprisen from the sea, and so steep that only a short distance from the shores soundings cannot be obtained with a deep-sea line. The only landing place was Jamestown. The population, at this time, including the garrison, … numbered about four thousand, and all lived in the Valley of Jamestown. Meats, vegetables, and fruits we found very scarce and extremely dear. Rum, however, was plenty, and quite cheap. It was not made here, but was sent out from New England, America!

St. Helena is celebrated only because of its being the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s confinement and death.

 

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Antarctic Dangers, 1840

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 69-70:

January 20. At two o’clock this morning the sun and moon appeared above the horizon at the same time, but in opposite directions. The moon was full. The effect of the sun shedding his deep golden rays on the distant icy mountains and the surrounding icebergs was beautiful beyond description. We witnessed a sea-fight between a whale and one of his many enemies, a killer. The sea was quite smooth. A short distance from the ship was seen a large whale, lashing the smooth sea into a perfect foam, and trying to disengage himself from his enemy. As they drew near the ship the struggle became more violent. The killer, which was about twenty feet long, held the whale by the lower jaw. The huge monster seemed to be in great agony, and spouted blood. Suddenly the whale threw himself out of the water, at full length, the killer hanging to his jaw; but all his flounderings and turning flukes were useless, as the killer still maintained his hold and was getting the advantage. He soon worried the whale to death. After the battle, the ship appeared to be floating in a sea of blood. During the last few days we saw many beautiful snow-white petrels either up in the freezing air or on the ice-floes.

January 22. Weather foggy. This morning we found bottom with eight hundred fathoms of line. The arming was covered with slate-colored mud. In the afternoon we took a second cast of the lead and found bottom at three hundred and twenty fathoms. The bottom same as before — slate-colored mud. The Peacock, while boxing off the ship from some ice under her bows, made a stern board which brought her in contact with an iceberg with such force as to crush her stern and larboard quarter boats, and carry away her bulwarks to the gangways. While getting out the ice anchor to heave the ship off, she gave a rebound which carried away her rudder and all the stanchions to the gangway. This second shock caused the ship to cant to starboard, when both jibs were given to her just in time to carry her clear of the iceberg. She had not moved more than a dozen lengths before a huge mass of ice fell from the iceberg in her wake. If this had happened twenty minutes before, it would have crushed the ship to atoms. As soon as we gained the open sea, Captain Hudson very wisely put the ship’s head for Sydney, where she arrived in a shattered and sinking condition. For several days the weather had been foggy.

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