A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter VIII - San Antonio de Los Banos.

"Far from my thoughts, vain world, begone!"

However enchanting Havana may prove when seen through the moonlight of memory, it seems as good a place to go away from as any other, after a stifling night in a net, the wooden shutters left open in the remote hope of air, and admitting the music of a whole opera-troupe of dogs, including Bass, Tenor, Soprano, and Chorus. Instead of bouquets, you throw stones, if you are so fortunate as to have them,—if not, boot-jacks, oranges, your only umbrella. You are last seen thrusting frantic hands and feet through the iron bars, your wife holding you back by the flannel night-gown which you will persist in wearing in this doubtful climate. At last it is over,—the fifth act ends with a howl which makes you hope that some one of the performers has come to grief. But, alas! it is only a stage dénouement, whose hero will die again every night while the season lasts. You fall asleep, but the welcome cordial has scarcely been tasted when you are aroused by a knock at the door. It is the night-porter, who wakes you at five by appointment, that you may enjoy your early coffee, tumble into a hired volante, and reach, half dead with sleep, the station in time for the train that goes to San Antonio.

Now, whether you are a partisan of early rising or not, you must allow that sunrise and the hour after is the golden time of the day in Cuba. So this hour of starting,—six o'clock,—so distasteful in our latitudes, is a matter of course in tropical climates. Arriving at the station, you encounter new tribulations in the registering and payment of luggage, the transportation of which is not included in the charge for your ticket. Your trunks are recorded in a book, and, having paid a real apiece for them, you receive a paper which entitles you to demand them again at your journey's end. The Cuban railways are good, but dear,—the charge being ten cents a mile; whereas in our more favored land one goes for three cents, and has the chance of a collision and surgeon's services without any extra payment. The cars have windows which are always open, and blinds which are always closed, or nearly so. The seats and backs of seats are of cane, for coolness,—hardness being secured at the same time. One reaches San Antonio in an hour and a half, and finds a pleasant village, with a river running through it, several streets of good houses, several more of bad ones, a cathedral, a cockpit, a volante, four soldiers on horseback, two on foot, a market, dogs, a bad smell, and lastly, the American Hotel,—a house built in a hollow square, as usual,—kept by a strong-minded woman from the States, whose Yankee thrift is unmistakable, though she has been long absent from the great centres of domestic economy.

Mrs. L——, always on the watch for arrivals, comes out to receive us. We are very welcome, she hints, as far as we go; but why are there not more of us? The smallest favors should be thankfully received, but she hears that Havana is full of strangers, and she wonders, for her part, why people will stay in that hot place, and roast, and stew, and have the yellow fever, when she could make them so comfortable in San Antonio. This want of custom she continues, during our whole visit, to complain of. Would it be uncharitable for us to aver that we found other wants in her establishment which caused us more astonishment, and which went some way towards accounting for the deficiency complained of? wants of breakfast, wants of dinner, wants of something good for tea, wants of towels, wants of candles, wants of ice, or at least of the cooling jars used in the country. Charges exorbitant,—the same as in Havana, where rents are an ounce a week, and upwards; volantes difficult,—Mrs. L. having made an agreement with the one livery-stable that they shall always be furnished at most unreasonable prices, of which she, supposably, pockets half. On the other hand, the village is really cool, healthy, and pretty; there are pleasant drives over dreadful roads, if one makes up one's mind to the volante, and delightful river-baths, shaded by roofs of palm-tree thatch. One of the best of these is at the foot of Mrs. L.'s inclosure, and its use is included in the privileges of the house. The water is nearly tepid, clear, and green, and the little fish float hither and thither in it,—though men of active minds are sometimes reduced to angle for them, with crooked pins, for amusement. At the hour of one, daily, the ladies of the house betake themselves to this refreshment; and there is laughing, and splashing, and holding of hands, and simulation of all the Venuses that ever were, from the crouching one of the bath, to the triumphant Cytherea, springing for the first time from the wave.

Such are the resources of the house. Those of the neighborhood are various. Foremost among them is the cafetal, or coffee-plantation, of Don Juan Torres, distant a league from the village, over which league of stone, sand, and rut you rumble in a volante dragged by three horses. You know that the volante cannot upset; nevertheless you experience some anxious moments when it leans at an obtuse angle, one wheel in air, one sticking in a hole, the horses balking and kicking, and the postilion swearing his best. But it is written, the volante shall not upset,—and so it does not. Long before you see the entrance to the plantation, you watch the tall palms, planted in a line, that shield its borders. An avenue of like growth leads you to the house, where barking dogs announce you, and Don Juan, an elderly gentleman in slippers and a Panama hat, his hair, face, and eyes all faded to one hue of grayness, comes out to accost us. Here, again, Hulia Protestante becomes the subject of a series of attacks, in a new kind. Don Juan first exhausts his flower-garden upon her, and explains all that is new to her. Then she must see his blind Chino, a sightless Samson of a Cooly, who is working resolutely in a mill. "Canta!" says the master, and the poor slave gives tongue like a hound on the scent. "Baila!" and, a stick being handed him, he performs the gymnastics of his country, a sort of war-dance without accompaniment. "El can!" and, giving him a broom, they loose the dog upon him. A curious tussle then ensues,—the dog attacking furiously, and the blind man, guided by his barking, defending himself lustily. The Chino laughs, the master laughs, but the visitor feels more inclined to cry, having been bred in those Northern habits which respect infirmity. A real dismisses the poor soul with a smile, and then begins the journey round the cafetal. The coffee-blossom is just in its perfection, and whole acres in sight are white with its flower, which nearly resembles that of the small white jasmine. Its fragrance is said to be delicious after a rain; but, the season being dry, it is scarcely discernible. As shade is a great object in growing coffee, the grounds are laid out in lines of fruit-trees, and these are the ministers of Hulia's tribulation; for Don Juan, whether in kindness or in mischief, insists that she shall taste every unknown fruit,—and as he cuts them and hands them to her, she is forced to obey. First, a little negro shins up a cocoa-nut tree, and flings down the nut, whose water she must drink. One cocoa-nut she endures,—two,—but three? no, she must rebel, and cry out, "No mi gusta!" Then she must try a bitter orange, then a sour bitter one, then a sweet lemon, then a huge fruit of triple verjuice flavor. "What is it good for?" she asks, after a shuddering plunge into its acrid depths. "Oh," says the Don, "they eat it in the castors instead of vinegar." Then come sapotas, mamey, Otaheite gooseberries. "Does she like bananas?" he cuts a tree down with his own hand, and sends the bunch of fruit to her volante;—"Sugar-cane?" he bestows a huge bundle of sticks for her leisurely rodentation;—he fills her pocket with coral beans for her children. Having, at last, exhausted every polite attention, and vainly offered gin, rum, and coffee, as a parting demonstration, Hulia and her partner escape, bearing with them many strange flavors, and an agonizing headache, the combined result of sun and acids. Really, if there exist anywhere on earth a Society for the promotion and encouragement of good manners, it should send a diploma to Don Juan, admonishing him only to omit the vinegar-fruit in his further walks of hospitality.

We take the Sunday to visit the nearest Sugar-plantation, belonging to Don Jacinto Gonzales. Sun, not shade, being the desideratum in sugar-planting, there are few trees or shrubs bordering the sugar-fields, which resemble at a distance our own fields of Indian corn, the green of the leaves being lighter, and a pale blue blossom appearing here and there. The points of interest here are the machinery, the negroes, and the work. Entering the sugar-house, we find the Maquinista (engineer) superintending some repairs in the machinery, aided by another white man, a Cooly, and an imp of a black boy, who begged of all the party, and revenged himself with clever impertinence on those who refused him. The Maquinista was a fine-looking man, from the Pyrenees, very kind and obliging. He told us that Don Jacinto was very old, and came rarely to the plantation. We asked him how the extreme heat of his occupation suited him, and for an answer he opened the bosom of his shirt, and showed us the marks of innumerable leeches. The machinery is not very complicated. It consists of a wheel and band, to throw the canes under the powerful rollers which crush them, and these rollers, three in number, all moved by the steam-engine. The juice flows into large copper caldrons, where it is boiled and skimmed. As they were not at work, we did not see the actual process. Leaving the sugar-house, we went in pursuit of the Mayoral, or Overseer, who seemed to inhabit comfortable quarters, in a long, low house, shielded from the sun by a thick screen of matting. We found him a powerful, thick-set man, of surly and uncivil manners, girded with a sword, and further armed with a pistol, a dagger, and a stout whip. He was much too important a person to waste his words upon us, but signified that the major-domo would wait on us, which he presently did. We now entered the Negro quarter, a solid range of low buildings, formed around a hollow square, whose strong entrance is closed at nightfall, and its inmates kept in strict confinement till the morning hour of work comes round. Just within the doorway we encountered the trader, who visits the plantations every Sunday, to tempt the stray cash of the negroes by various commodities, of which the chief seemed to be white bread, calicoes, muslins, and bright cotton handkerchiefs. He told us that their usual weekly expenditure amounted to about twenty-five dollars. Bargaining with him stood the Negro-Driver, a tattooed African, armed with a whip. All within the court swarmed the black bees of the hive,—the men with little clothing, the small children naked, the women decent. All had their little charcoal fires, with pots boiling over them; the rooms within looked dismally dark, close, and dirty; there are no windows, no air and light save through the ever-open door. The beds are sometimes partitioned off by a screen of dried palm-leaf, but I saw no better sleeping-privilege than a board with a blanket or coverlet. From this we turned to the Nursery, where all the children incapable of work are kept. The babies are quite naked, and sometimes very handsome in their way, black and shining, with bright eyes and well-formed limbs. No great provision is made for their amusement, but the little girls nurse them tenderly enough, and now and then the elders fling them a bit of orange or chaimito, for which they scramble like so many monkeys. Appeals are constantly made to the pockets of visitors, by open hands stretched out in all directions. To these "Nada"—"Nothing"—is the safe reply; for, if you give to one, the others close about you with frantic gesticulation, and you have to break your way through them with some violence, which hurts your own feelings more than it does theirs. On strict plantations this is not allowed; but Don Jacinto, like Lord Ashburton at the time of the Maine treaty, is an old man,—a very old man; and where discipline cannot be maintained, peace must be secured on any terms. We visit next the Sugar-house, where we find the desired condiment in various stages of color and refinement. It is whitened with clay in large funnel-shaped vessels, open at the bottom, to allow the molasses to run off. Above are hogsheads of coarse, dark sugar; below is a huge pit of fermenting molasses, in which rats and small negroes occasionally commit involuntary suicide, and from which rum is made.—N. B. Rum is not a wicked word in Cuba; in Boston everybody is shocked when it is named, and in Cuba nobody is shocked when it is drunk.

And here endeth the description of our visit to the sugar-plantation of Don Jacinto, and in good time, too,—for by this it had grown so hot, that we made a feeble rush for the volante, and lay back in it, panting for breath. Encountering a negress with a load of oranges on her head, we bought and ate the fruit with eagerness, though the oranges were bitter. The jolting over three miles of stone and rut did not improve the condition of our aching heads. Arriving at San Antonio, we thankfully went to bed for the rest of the morning, and dreamed, only dreamed, that the saucy black boy in the boiling-house had run after us, had lifted the curtain of the volante, screeched a last impertinence after us, and kissed his hand for a good-bye, which, luckily for him, is likely to prove eternal.

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