A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XIII - The Paseo - The Plaza - Dining Out.

"As this Sunday is Carnival, you cannot do better than drive about the city, and then go to the Plaza to see the masks. My partner's wife, with whom you have now so comfortably breakfasted, will call for you in her volante this afternoon, between five and six o'clock. She will show you the Paseo, and we will go and see the masks afterwards."

So spoke a banker, who, though not our banker, is our friend, and whose kind attentions we shall ever recall, when we remember Cuba. So he spoke, and so it befell. The pretty American lady, Cubanized into paleness, but not into sallowness, called at the appointed hour, and in her company we visited the principal streets, and the favorite drive of the Matanzasts. The Paseo is shorter than that of Havana, but much prettier. We found it gay with volantes, whose fair occupants kept up an incessant bowing and smiling to their friends in carriages and on horseback. The Cubans are generally good riders, and their saddle-horses have the easiest and pleasantest gait imaginable. The heat of the climate does not allow the severe exercise of trot and gallop, and so these creatures go along as smoothly and easily as the waves of the sea, and are much better broken to obedience. The ladies of Matanzas seem to possess a great deal of beauty, but they abuse the privilege of powder, and whiten themselves with cascarilla to a degree that is positively ghastly. This cascarilla is formed by the trituration of egg-shells; and the oval faces whitened with it resemble a larger egg, with features drawn on it in black and red. In spite of this, they are handsome; but one feels a natural desire to rush in amongst them with a feather duster, and lay about one a little, before giving an available opinion of their good looks.

If the Paseo was gay, the streets of the city were gay also; the windows filled with faces and figures in full dress, with little groups of children at the feet of the grown people, like the two world-famous cherubs at the feet of the Madonna di San Sisto. There were crowds of promenaders too, everywhere, interspersed with parties of maskers, who went about screaming at the public with high, shrill voices. Leaving the volante, we descend to the Plaza, where is now the height and centre of movement, we find it flanked on all sides with little movable kitchens, where good things are cooked, and with tables, where they are sold and eaten. Fried cakes, fish, and meats seem the predominant bill of fare, with wine, coffee, and fruits. The masks are circulating with great animation; men in women's clothes, white people disguised as negroes, and negroes disguised as whites, prodigious noses, impossible chins and foreheads; the stream of popular fancy ran chiefly in these channels. We met processions consisting of a man carrying a rat in a cage, and shouting out, "Catch this rat!" followed by a perfect stampede of wild creatures, all yelling, "Catch that rat!" at the top of their voices. The twanging of the guitar is heard everywhere, accompanied by the high nasal voices of the natives, in various strains of monotony. In some spots the music is more lively, accompanied by the shaking of a gourd filled with dry seeds, which is called ghirra, and whose "chick-a-chick, chick-chick" takes the place of the more poetical castanets;—here you find one or more couples exhibiting their skill in Cuban dances, with a great deal of applause and chattering from the crowd around. Beside those of the populace, many aristocratic groups parade the Plaza, in full dress, crowned with flowers and jewels;—a more motley scene can hardly be imagined. Looking up, one sees in curious contrast the tall palms with which the Plaza is planted, and the quiet, wondering stars set in the deep tropical heavens.

But in our evening's programme, tea has been omitted; now, what availeth a Bostonian without his tea? By eight o'clock, we are pensive, "most like a tired child at a show,"—by half-past eight, stupid,—by nine, furious. Two hours of folly, taken on an empty stomach, alarm us for our constitution. A visit to the café is suggested and adopted. It proves to be crowded with people in fancy attire, who have laid aside their masks to indulge in beer, orgeat, and sherbet. While our Cuban friends regale themselves with sour-sop and zapote ice sweetened with brown sugar, we call for a cup of delicious Spanish chocolate, which is served with a buttered toasted roll, worthy of all imitation. Oh, how much comfort is in a little cup of chocolate! what an underpinning does it afford our spiritual house, a material basis for our mental operations! In its support, we go it a little longer on the Plaza, see more masks, hear more guitars and "catch this rat!" and finally return, in a hired volante, to the Ensor House, where rest and the bedless cots await us.

But we have friends in Matanzas, real born Cubans, who will not suffer us to remain forever in the Ensor House. They send their volante for us, one day, and we visit them. Their house, of the inevitable Cuban pattern, is richly furnished; the marbles of the floor are pure and smooth, the rug ample and velvety; the wainscoting of the walls, so to speak, is in handsome tiling,—not in mean, washy painting; the cane chairs and sofas are fresh and elegant, and there is a fine Erard piano. The Master of the house is confined to his room by illness, but will be happy to see us. His son and daughters speak English with fluency. They inform us, that the epidemic colds which prevail in Cuban winters are always called by the name of some recent untoward occurrence, and that their father, who suffers from severe influenza, has got the President's Message. We find Don José in a bedroom darkened by the necessary closing of the shutters, there being no other way of excluding the air. The bedsteads are of gilded iron, with luxurious bedding and spotless mosquito-nettings. His head is tied up with a silk handkerchief. He rises from his rocking-chair, receives us with great urbanity, and expresses his appreciation of the American nation and their country, which he himself has visited. After a short interview we leave him, but not until he has placed his house and all it contains "á la disposition de Usted." We are then shown the pretty bedroom of the young ladies, whose toilettes are furnished in silver, the bath lined with tiling, the study, and the dining-room, where luncheon awaits us. We take leave, with a kind invitation to return and dine the next day, which, upon mature deliberation, we accept.

The volante comes for us next day, with Roqué, brightest of all living caleseros, fixed in his boots and saddle. After a pleasant drive we attain the house, and are received by its hospitable inmates as before. The interval before dinner, a tolerably long one, is filled up by pleasant chitchat, chiefly in English. The lady of the house does not, however, profess our vernacular, and to her understanding we lay siege in French, Italian, and laughter-provoking Spanish. Before dining we pay a second visit to the host, who is still busy digesting the President's Message. Obviously, the longer he has it under consideration, the worse he finds it. He has nausea from its bragging, his head aches with its loudness, and its emptiness fills him with wind. We are at our wits' end to prescribe for him, and take our leave with grave commiseration, telling him that we too have had it, but that the symptoms it produces in the North are a reddening in the cheek and a spasmodic contraction of the right arm. Now comes great dinner on. A slave announces it, and with as little ceremony as may be we take our places. And here we must confess that our friend the banker had rendered us an important service. For he had said,—"Look not upon the soup when it is hot, neither let any victuals entice thee to more than a slight and temporary participation; for the dishes at a Cuban dinner be many, and the guest must taste of all that is presented; wherefore, if he indulge in one dish to his special delectation, he shall surely die before the end." And it came to pass that we remembered this, and walked through the dinner as on egg-shells, gratifying curiosity on the one hand, and avoiding satiety on the other; with the fear of fulness, as it were, before our eyes. For oh, my friends! what pang is comparable to too much dinner, save the distress of being refused by a young woman, or the comfortless sensation, in times of economy, of having paid away a five-dollar gold piece in place of a silver quarter of a dollar?

But you, Reader, would like more circumstantiality in the account of this dinner, which united many perfections. It was handsome, but not splendid,—orderly, but not stately,—succulent, but not unctuous. It kept the word of promise to the smell and did not break it to the taste. It was a dinner such as we shall wish only to our best friends, not to those acquaintances who ask how we do when they meet us, and wish we were dead before we part. As for particulars, we should be glad to impart much useful information and many choice receipts; but the transitory nature of such an entertainment does not allow one to improve it as one could wish. One feature we remember, which is that the whole dinner was placed on the table at once, and so you had the advantage of seeing your work cut out before you. None of that hope deferred, when, after being worried through a dozen stews and entrées, you are rewarded at last with an infinitesimal fragment of the rôti. Nor, on the other hand, the unwelcome surprise of three supplementary courses and a dessert, when you have already dined to repletion, and feel yourself at peace with all the world. Here all was fair play; you knew what to expect and what was expected of you. Soup, of course, came first,—then fish,—then meat stewed with potatoes and onions,—then other meat with ochra and tomatoes,—then boiled chicken, which is eaten with a pilaff of rice colored with saffron,—then delicious sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, and vegetables of every sort,—then a kind of pepper brought, we think, from the East Indies, and intensely tropical in its taste,—then a splendid roast turkey, and ham strewed with small colored sugar-plums,—then —— well, is not that enough for one person to have eaten at a stretch, and that person accustomed to a Boston diet? Then came such a display of sweetmeats as would exercise the mind of a New England housekeeper beyond all power of repose,—a pudding,—a huge tart with very thick crust,—cakes of yuca,—a dish of cocoa-nut, made into a sort of impalpable preserve, with eggs and sugar,—then a course of fruits,—then coffee, of the finest quality, from the host's own plantation,—and then we arose and went into the drawing-room, with a thankful recollection of what we had had, and also a thankful assurance that we should have no more.

A drive by moonlight was now proposed, to see the streets and the masks, it being still Carnival. So the volante was summoned, with its smiling, silent Roqué, and the pretty daughter of the house took seat beside us. The streets around the Plaza proved quite impassable from the crowd, whose wild movements and wilder voices went nigh to scaring the well-trained horses. The little lady was accustomed, apparently, to direct every movement of her charioteer, and her orders were uttered in a voice high and sweet as a bird-call. "Dobla al derecho, Roqué! Roqué, dobla al derecho!" Why did not Roqué go mad, and exclaim,—"Yes, Señorita, and to heaven itself, if you bid me so prettily!" But Roqué only doubled as he was bid, and took us hither and thither, and back to the nest of his lady-bird, where we left her and the others with grateful regrets, and finally back to the Ensor House, which on this occasion seemed to us the end of all things.

Return to the A Trip to Cuba Summary Return to the Julia Ward Howe Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson