A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter V - Havana - The Hotels.

"SHALL I not take mine ease in mine inn?" Yes, truly, if you can get it, Jack Falstaff; but it is one thing to pay for comfort, and another thing to have it. You certainly pay for it, in Havana; for the $3 or $3.50 per diem, which is your simplest hotel-charge there, should, in any civilized part of the world, give you a creditable apartment, clean linen, and all reasonable diet. What it does give, the travelling public may like to learn.

Can Grande has left Woolcut's. The first dinner did not please him,—the cup of tea, with only bread, exasperated,—and the second breakfast, greasy, peppery, and incongruous, finished his disgust; so he asked for his bill, packed his trunk, called the hotel detestable, and went.

Now he was right enough in this; the house is detestable;—but as all houses of entertainment throughout the country are about equally so, it is scarcely fair to complain of one. I shall not fear to be more inclusive in my statement, and to affirm that in no part of the world does one get so little comfort for so much money as on the Island of Cuba. To wit: an early cup of black coffee, oftenest very bad; bread not to be had without an extra sputtering of Spanish, and darkening of the countenance;—to wit, a breakfast between nine and ten, invariably consisting of fish, rice, beefsteak, fried plantains, salt cod with tomatoes, stewed tripe and onions, indifferent claret, and an after-cup of coffee or green tea;—to wit, a dinner at three or four, of which the inventory varieth not,—to wit, a plate of soup, roast beef, tough turkeys and chickens, tolerable ham, nameless stews, cayota, plantains, salad, sweet potatoes; and for dessert, a spoonful each of West India preserve,—invariably the kind you do not like,—oranges, bananas, and another cup of coffee;—to wit, tea of the sort already described;—to wit, attendance and non-attendance of negro and half-breed waiters, who mostly speak no English, and neither know nor care what you want;—to wit, a room whose windows, reaching from floor to ceiling, inclose no glass, and are defended from the public by iron rails, and from the outer air, at desire, by clumsy wooden shutters, which are closed only when it rains;—to wit, a bed with a mosquito-netting;—to wit, a towel and a pint of water, for all ablutions. This is the sum of your comforts as to quantity; but as to their quality, experience alone can enlighten you.

Taking pity on my exile at the Cerro, Can Grande and his party invite me to come and spend a day at their hotel, of higher reputation, and situated in the centre of things. I go;—the breakfast, to my surprise, is just like Woolcut's; the dinner idem, but rather harder to get; preserves for tea, and two towels daily, instead of one, seem to constitute the chief advantages of this establishment. Domestic linens, too, are fairer than elsewhere; but when you have got your ideas of cleanliness down to the Cuban standard, a shade or two either way makes no material difference.

Can Grande comes and goes; for stay in the hotel, behind those prison-gratings, he cannot. He goes to the market and comes back, goes to the Jesuit College and comes back, goes to the Banker's and gets money. In his encounters with the sun he is like a prize-fighter coming up to time. Every round finds him weaker and weaker, still his pluck is first-rate, and he goes at it again. It is not until three, P. M., that he wrings out his dripping pocket-handkerchief, slouches his hat over his brows, and gives in as dead-beat.

They of the lovely sex meanwhile undergo, with what patience they may, an Oriental imprisonment. In the public street they must on no account set foot. The Creole and Spanish women are born and bred to this, and the hardiest American or English woman will scarcely venture out a second time without the severe escort of husband or brother. These relatives are, accordingly, in great demand. In the thrifty North, Man is considered an incumbrance from breakfast to dinner,—and the sooner he is fed and got out of the way in the morning, the better the work of the household goes on. If the master of the house return at an unseasonable hour, he is held to an excuse, and must prove a headache, or other suitable indisposition. In Havana, on the contrary, the American woman suddenly becomes very fond of her husband:—"he must not leave her at home alone; where does he go? she will go with him; when will he come back? Remember, now, she will expect him." The secret of all this is that she cannot go out without him. The other Angel of deliverance is the volante, with its tireless horses and calesero, who seems fitted and screwed to the saddle, which he never leaves. He does not even turn his head for orders. His senses are in the back of his head, or wherever his Mistress pleases. "José, Calle de la Muralla, esquina á los oficios,"—and the black machine moves on, without look, word, or sign of intelligence. In New York, your Irish coachman grins approval of your order; and even an English flunkey may touch his hat and say, "Yes, Mum." But in the Cuban negro of service, dumbness is the complement of darkness. You speak, and the patient right hand pulls the strap that leads the off horse, while the other gathers up the reins of the nigh, and the horses, their tails tightly braided and deprived of all movement, seem as mechanical as the driver. Happy are the ladies at the hotel who have a perpetual volante at their service! for they dress in their best clothes three times a day, and do not soil them by contact with the dusty street. They drive before breakfast, and shop before dinner, and after dinner go to flirt their fans and refresh their robes on the Paseo, where the fashions drive. At twilight, they stop at friendly doors and pay visits, or at the entrance of the café, where ices are brought out to them. At eight o'clock they go to the Plaza, and hear the band play, sitting in the volante; and at ten they come home without fatigue, having all day taken excellent care of Number One, beyond which their arithmetic does not extend. "I and my volante" is like Cardinal Wolsey's "Ego et Rex meus."

As for those who have no volantes, modesty becomes them, and quietness of dress and demeanor. They get a little walk before breakfast, and stay at home all day, or ride in an omnibus, which is perhaps worse;—they pay a visit now and then in a hired carriage, the bargain being made with difficulty;—they look a good deal through the bars of the windows, and remember the free North, and would, perhaps, envy the volante-commanding women, did not dreadful Moses forbid.

One alleviation of the tedium of hotel-life in the city is the almost daily visit of the young man from the dry-goods' shop, who brings samples of lawns, linen dresses, piña handkerchiefs, and fans of all prices, from two to seventy-five dollars. The ladies cluster like bees around these flowery goods, and, after some hours of bargaining, disputing, and purchasing, the vendor pockets the golden honey, and marches off. As dressmakers in Havana are scarce, dear, and bad, our fair friends at the hotel make up these dresses mostly themselves, and astonish their little world every day by appearing in new attire. "How extravagant!" you say. They reply, "Oh! it cost nothing for the making; I made it myself." But we remember to have heard somewhere that "Time is Money." At four in the afternoon, a negress visits in turn every bedroom, sweeps out the mosquitoes from the curtains with a feather-brush, and lets down the mosquito-net, which she tucks in around the bed. After this, do not meddle with your bed until it is time to get into it; then put the light away, open the net cautiously, enter with a dexterous swing, and close up immediately, leaving no smallest opening to help them after. In this mosquito-net you live, move, and have your being until morning; and should you venture to pull it aside, even for an hour, you will appall your friends, next day, with a face which suggests the early stages of small-pox, or the spotted fever.

The valuable information I have now communicated is the sum of what I learned in that one day at Mrs. Almy's; and though our party speedily removed thither, I doubt whether I shall be able to add to it anything of importance.

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