OX-CART IN THE COUNTRY NEAR CAMAGÜEY, CUBA
A PAINTED CITY OF THE
Author of “The Man Who Saw It,” “We Find the Island of Servants,” etc.
WITH PICTURES BY W. M. BERGER
[Originally published in the June 1914 issue of The Century Magazine.]
HOEVER drinks its tinajone water, surely shall return to Camagüey. So they say in Camagüey, once the always faithful, very noble, and very loyal city of Santa Maria de Puerto Principe.
It must be true. I have drunk its tinajone water, and I cannot be content. I must see again the broad church towers of gamboge [a golden yellow color] and pink and blue above the red roofs of pottery, and lose myself in the tight, gaudy streets. It is not the taste of the tinajone water that draws one. Tinajone water is rain-water, extremely pure, without doubt, but not extremely delicious.
I want to sit again under the Moorish eaves of the house-galleries about a patio garden where the water-jars sit, red and globular, as Arabic as the fluted roof tiles from which the water will roar to fill them when the black West Indian rains come. Into such jars the faithful Morgiana poured the oil that boiled the Forty Thieves so efficiently.
Soon the water-jars will be dry. Camagüey owns a most modern water-supply system, which arrives through iron pipes, and the noble earthenware cisterns will survive only as ornaments or as receptacles for palms. Then there will be no more work for the agreeable old gentleman whose official duty it is to inspect every water-jar in Camagüey once a week, and put live little fishes into the water to destroy breeding mosquitoes. There will be no more processions of donkeys, pitching and rolling under giant tins of river water, to replenish the jars when the dry season prolongs itself unduly. The blue and green lizards will have no place in which to drown themselves. The red and yellow frogs will miss the cool, arched interiors to which they love to paste themselves. The scorpions will miss the happy race-tracks of the deep rims. Other charms beside the water-jars are going from Camagüey. Camagüey merchants are beginning to put glass windows into shops, and glass windows mark the end of painted cities. When shops become fended from the rest of the street by more than a pillar or two, that street ceases to be a Moor’s street of bazaars.
Still, the Moor’s houses remain. They remain through hurricane and earthquake and revolution. They have survived the conscientious efforts of pirates and buccaneers, as may be seen set truly forth in Mr. Thomas Cates’s doleful remark about Santo Domingo. Mr. Cates was with Sir Francis Drake at the taking of that city. They held the town for a month, and tried with honest patience to destroy it. “But,” said Mr. Cates, bitterly, “tho’ we ordeined eche morning by day breake that two hundred Mariners did naught else but labour to fire and burne, yet did we not in this time consume so much as one third of the towne.”
Stone-floored, stone-walled, the only wood in the ancient houses is the iron-like wood of the rafters supporting the peaked roofs of tile, and the equally iron-like wood of doors and shutters.
So the old American cities remain more truly old in aspect than some of the old cities of Europe. They are our cities of Harun-al-Rashid; for when the Spaniard built them, he was fresh from the domination of the Moor. His architecture, his engineering, his art were of the Arabic universities of Toledo, Cordova, Seville, and Granada.
Of all the painted cities, Camagüey is the last to surrender its seclusion. The others were long ago found by the tourist steamship, for they sit by the sea; but Camagüey sits in the middle of the very big and very untraveled land of Cuba.
The railroad discovered it only twelve years ago. For more than three centuries it had sat, strong and rich, so utterly hidden that its very name was scarcely known to the outer world. To reach any other city, its denizens had to journey on horseback, depending for night shelter on the hospitality of planters or, lacking that, slinging their hammocks under a cocoa-thatch shed in a village.
Stubbornly, intelligently, Camagüey is both resisting and accepting modernity. The great gilt and jeweled images from the churches are still carried through its streets on religious feast-days, followed by multitudes with tall, lighted candles, and led by naked, golden-brown little children, with gauze wings tied to their shoulders. But the narrow streets through which the medieval procession crawls are kept so clean that one may wander through any part of Camagüey, from plaza to slum, in white linen clothes and white canvas shoes, and gather never a speck of dirt.
The gong of the trolley-car clangs in Camagüey, but it is still a city of riders. In all the streets stand horses, swamped under Spanish saddles, hung with braided and silvered ornament of stirrup and bridle. The trolley-car waits to let trains of pack-horses pass, each horse tied to another’s tail. Everywhere are wild, armed riders, with machetes clattering. Thin, swarthy countrymen, in cotton shirt and trousers, with sandaled feet, gallop into town, their mighty spurs tied to their naked ankles with thongs of leather.
The American carriage, and even an automobile or two, have found their way to Camagüey, but the volante still comes in from country districts, with its ladies looking timidly out upon the wonders of the city. The volante used to be the only wheeled vehicle besides the all-wooden oxcarts that could be used in interior Cuba. Even to-day there are thousands of miles of road and trail passable only for it. It is a two-wheeled carriage, the body being set not over the wheels, but on the two immense shafts. The horses are harnessed tandem, and there are no reins. The volante is governed by a rider who sits on the leading horse.
People are beginning to walk in Camagüey, but they have not yet become obsessed by the habit. However, it has become entirely unfashionable to ride into one’s house and through the drawing-room into the patio, as was a custom when Camagüey was the lonely queen of all the great cattle country about it.
There is nothing except fashion to prevent one from riding into any house today. The doorways are amply high enough for mounted visitors to enter. The stone floors would not suffer from the dainty step of the gaited Cuban horse. The drawing-rooms are large enough for any modest equestrian evolution. The rider’s head is in no danger from the ceiling, for the ceiling of a Camagüey house is the roof, and the roof is twenty-five feet high, and more in the peak.
Our neighbor in Camagüey not only held to the old fashion of riding into his house, but he drove his gua-gua into it. A Camagüey gua-gua is not a duck; it is a public stage. Our neighbor was the town driver, and he had the simple habit of driving the entire outfit into the house and unhitching in the drawing-room. There the gua-gua remained till next morning, while the horses wandered unrestrained about the patio, gazing amiably into the rooms when they were not seeking passionately for vegetation that they had devoured years before.
Although the gua-gua-man was our next-door neighbor, we lived in an unquestionably aristocratic part of town. Promiscuous neighbors are a feature of life in a painted city of the Caribbean world. Our washerwoman lived next door to a former governor of the province. Outwardly their houses were quite alike, except that his was painted a most becoming rose-color, while hers was motley with the paints of many generations. The great double doors were alike, each formidable, rivet-studded, ponderous of hinges and bolts, and painted a Cuban blue. By peering through the two blue doorways, one obtained instantly the local atmosphere that is needed to understand the Arabian Nights intimately.
As the characters in the Arabian Nights forever enter doorways to find themselves quite unexpectedly in a scene of limitless grandeur or limitless lack of it, so, through one blue door could be seen rooms radiantly decked, with the patio beyond blazing like a floral conflagration. And through the other blue door the view was of a stone room empty of everything except two hand-hewn, rush-bottomed chairs, with a naked patio where stood the washtub of Marcellina Blanco de Betancourt. The aristocratic name was without warrant. She was a most ragged black washerwoman, without even a bar sinister.
Proximity means nothing in Camagüey. Unlike the Englishman’s house, which is his castle only because he thinks so, the Spaniard’s house is his castle in reality. His house exists within itself. Its front looks on the street only like a harem. Within, all the dark, cool rooms face upon the patio, or courtyard garden; or, if there is a wall around part of it, it is a wall as high as the house next door. Nothing except the birds can look in on its privacy.
So, though Camagüey’s streets are solid with house-fronts, revelry and sorcery could take place in any house as easily as in crowded Bagdad without a neighbor being the wiser.
The house-fronts, almost uniform in height, are all of the same type. To the street they present, row on row, the same fortress-like doors and the same cloister-like, barred window-openings; but in fanciful ornamentation of grills and bars, and more than all in coloring, each house has an individuality. Dyed with a soft, thin color that lies on the smooth concrete or lime walls like a water-color wash, each house flames with the particular tint preferred by its dwellers. No color, no combination, is too daring for the joyful Camagüeyan painter, and no combination is out of place in the painted city.
Our own house was blue and yellow. The blue was the astonishing blue known as Cuban blue. In truth, it is Spanish American blue. It shouts at the traveler throughout the American tropics. Cuba, however, is impregnated with it. A single house painted Cuban blue in a Northern city would make the whole city scream. It does not make Camagüey scream.
On one side of our house was a salmon-pink one. The gua-gua-man’s house was crimson. Just opposite, beyond the glaring plaza, was a purple house. There was a beryl-green house, a violet house, an ultramarine house; there was an orange house, a rose-red house. Always between them were blue ones. Each had overhanging, gallantly sloped roofs of big, fluted, warmly red Arabic tiles. In the middle of the plaza stood the old cathedral, gamboge and blue, with its high-swung Moorish arches picked out in green. Its square steeple was of peeled colors, toned, like a bright cliff, with weathered pinks and greens and browns and yellows.
Over the painted city is a painted sky. It radiates blue. It throbs. The streets glare white in the sun and white in the moon. There are no twilight spots in Camagüey.
Night serves only to brighten its color. Camagüey stands eminent even in the tropics, where moonlight is like a vivid Northern day. There is something in the ether of the flat table-land of the province that makes its moon an incredible thing. It rises like a burning dragon. It swims up from the edge of endless savannas as level as sea. Immediately the land flashes with enormous plumes. First, they are glittering indigo; a moment later they are frozen silver. They are the plume-heads of the royal palms, which stand in all the horizon-bound land like temple-shafts.
The sky is bare; the stars are drowned by light. Heaven is brightly blue. Camagüey is a city of the moon. It stands bewitched, ready to vanish. In the dead walls of the river-like little streets, any defiant doorway should open at any moment for Bobadilla himself to emerge with curved scimitar. From any gaudy wasps nest of balcony a veiled princess should beckon.
Though he meet no Moorish princesses, the stranger who prowls through Camagüey of night will find himself bewitched the moment he leaves the lively, lighted plazas. Camagüey’s streets, according to authentic legend, were planned with the intention of bewildering the buccaneers. Certainly he was a reckless, desperate buccaneer who dared to separate himself from his companions in them. I am a specialist on getting lost, but in Camagüey my art was wasted. Persons who do not know the first elements of the science can get lost there. Strangers have been known to wander around and around, always in sight of the high tower of the cathedral, or even within hearing of trolley-gongs, and never get nearer to them until rescued by one of Camagüey's prodigiously armed little policemen.
Even the horses get lost there. I know, for I tried to ride a horse and lead two others to their stable. Freely acknowledging to the horses my worthlessness as a pathfinder, I gave them their heads. They disagreed at the first corner. The stable was fifteen minutes’ canter from where we entered the town. We reached it after two hours, and then only by going in a direction precisely opposite to the one where the stable should have been.
However, the horses and I found a cloister of violet nuns that night. Not that the nuns were violet; but their costume was, and if one wishes to see something beautiful, he must see black Spanish eyes under white and violet, with a Cuban moon shining. It was a violet nun, peering through a barred loophole in thick masonry, who pointed out the right way to the señor caballero. I never found that cloister of violet nuns again, but I found many other things.
I came on lovers clinging to window-bars, the señoritas just visible behind a slit of shutter or jalousie. I came upon half-ruined houses, and behind rusty gratings saw faces as Indian as Montezuma. One magic night I found a plaza empty and white, like a snow-swept field, and in the middle a cathedral all sky-blue. I came upon cantinas in the outskirts under the shed-like portals of which hung long rows of poor travelers, not dead, but sleeping in their hammocks. I met wood-cutters perched on wooden saddles, their horses’ tails jerking in pain whenever the wood-laden donkeys that were tied to them failed to keep pace.
Always I met families coming in from the country in their two-wheeled carts of wood, without a nail in them, the shafts being whole trees. They were drawn majestically by two and three and sometimes four pairs of great oxen; and between the horns of the leading oxen were lighted candles. This was not a custom handed down from the Middle Ages. It was highly modern, being in compliance with a municipal regulation that demands lights on vehicles.
Nearly every one of these incoming people had the face mysteriously, menacingly muffled in a shawl or towel. It was not done for disguise, but in fear of the night air.
The townspeople are too modern for that fear. Only a few of the older generation go abroad with their mouths and noses wrapped up. Still, there is none too much confidence about this thing, and after nine o’clock at night Camagüey’s streets are empty streets of tightly shuttered house-fronts, as if it were a city left untenanted, and surviving by sorcery.
In the plazas, however, there is life enough till about ten. Then all the city goes to bed except those riotous spirits who stay in the cafés till midnight, or remain in the moving-picture theaters to see the last tanda. There are no ladies in the theater for that last tanda. All the ladies of Camagüey understand clearly that they must not stay to see it.
The cafés in the plazas are exceedingly modern in the way of drinks, being proudly ready to produce anything from an American cocktail, very well made, to the very latest insidious appetizer from France. But though one may sit at a marble-topped little table with a dandy dressed too correctly for one’s own vanity, one may also sit next to a dangerous caballero in high-peaked sombrero, whose smoldering black eyes promise sudden death. But the smoldering one will pray the señor stranger to pardon him as he removes his mighty, razor-keen machete from between the señor stranger’s feet, or he may unbuckle a great, saw-handled revolver and lay it aside as a mark of courtesy.
Presently he will make the señor the favor to drink with him. The chances are that he will order not a fiery alcoholic drink beseeming his features and arsenal, but a tiny cup of intensely black coffee, half solidified with brown sugar. And his voice and delivery will be strangely, charmingly soft and low; and he will tell the señor of his children, and invite the señor to visit his finca in the country and stay for a few months. And after meeting many smoldering ones in roadside cantinas and in their little fincas in the bush, one discovers that the brigand features are as deceptive as the weapons, that the wild riders will go miles out of their way to put a stranger on his, that the cruel machetes are worn only to cut trail or because the country Cuban carries a machete as the honest Northern citizen carries an umbrella, and that the revolvers—what are the revolvers for? Perhaps because there is a most stringent law against carrying them. Certainly it is not for killing anybody, for in Camagüey murders are so rare that when one is committed, the whole province tells the story over and over.
A kindly and soft-spoken and dignified race are the Camagüeyans, dignified in their homes, in their clubs, in theater, and in business. The ragged peon who rides to the door with the live chickens for the day’s supply tied to his saddle, is so dignified that it occurs to one to doff the hat to him. He will accept the courtesy as a matter of course.
Only in one place is the Camagüeyan undignified, and that is in the cockpit. In Camagüey the cockpit is not a place that one visits surreptitiously. It is a municipal affair, supervised so well that there even are shower-baths for the crowing gladiators, and the birds are watched and tended by municipal experts.
We lived near the cockpit, and never were permitted to forget it. Roosters in the tropics crow all night.
On Sundays the easiest way to find the cockpit is to wait at the doors of the cathedral till the worshipers come out. The cathedral is near the cockpit, and the male part of the congregation moves in a mass, without unworthy detours, from the cathedral to the pit.
There the soft-voiced, dignified Camagüeyan becomes a mad creature. As a better he would shame the most wonderful Western gambler who ever drew the breath of life in an American novel. A cattle king will bet his herds, a peon will bet his horse, his saddle, his spurs, even his sacred machete. Everybody goes to the fights. Officials, doctors, lawyers, cowboys, policemen, and servants shake their forefingers at one another and shriek bets in perfect equality. It is no strange sight, after one is used to it, to see a grave gentleman enter a trolley-car with a gamecock, which he holds by a string tied to one leg as if he were leading a pet dog.
The cockpit is the one sport of Camagüey, since the bullfight has been abolished by an enlightened, but not altogether pleased, public sentiment. The Cuban still views the doctrine of kindness to animals with an innocent, puzzled curiosity. The dignified peon who brings the chickens will have half a hundred tied to his saddle by their legs, their heads hanging down and their beaks open as if in apoplexy. The rider breaks his horse to the obligatory and marvelous pasafina gait by spurring it deep with tremendous spurs and simultaneously jerking it back with tremendous Spanish bits, till the animal learns its steps, and drips with blood from mouth and flanks. The ox-driver calls his oxen by beautiful, poetic diminutive names, but he will jerk Amorosa, the Love, around by the nose-ring ’till the Love’s eyes redden under the strain; he will harpoon La Preciosa with his goad till La Preciosa is riddled; with a report like a rifle-shot he will lay the lash across the flanks of Angelita, the little Angel; he will whack Hermosita, the little Beautiful, over the horns with a logwood stick still the little Beautiful falls to her knees; and he will twist the tail of Dulcita, the little Sweetness. It is all incomprehensible.
In the municipal slaughter-house, the operators, each wearing a belt in which are stuck a dozen and more keen knives and sharpening steels, snatch a steer out of the herd by his tail, throw him, and drag him to the killing pen on his side or his back, according to the struggles of the animal. In the pen his head is lashed to a post, and a crimson-armed matador drives a ridiculous, minute, three-cornered knife into his neck. He is a skilful matador, and generally he kills his steer with one blow. But when there are many steers to be killed, and not enough skilful killers to go around, enthusiastic amateurs essay to help out, with results that are not good for the nerves of an ordinary spectator. He who witnesses it, and looks at the huge hecatomb of horned skulls surmounted by vultures, and, seeing the little river running red with blood, goes home to say that the Cubans are a brutal people. Yet these same Cubans are not at all brutal in their relations to one another. They are wonderfully kind to children, and more than a little kind to one another.
The stranger is likely to make other mistakes. If, for instance, he remembers the amazing amount of liquor that he has seen stacked up in the cantinas and cafés of Camagüey, he is likely to mention at home that the always faithful port of Camagüey in drunkenness is rather ahead of our own joyous, bar-room-blessed North. And again he will be wrong. In all my residence there I can recollect seeing only three drunken men in Camagüey; that is, three drunken Cubans. Patriotism and hands-across-the-sea sentiment forbid my saying how many drunken Americans and Britons I can remember.
The stranger in Camagüey, if he is ignorant of Spanish, is more than likely to go away with another fixed and permanent mistaken idea in his mind. It will be that for some mysterious reason there is an enormous demand in Camagüey for hay-tickets, possibly connected with some free-hay fund for the poor. He will get this idea because every day there may be seen temporary placards affixed to scores of shops and private houses, “No hay billetes.” These placards, however, really and truly have nothing to do with hay. They signify simply that the person displaying the placard has sold all his lottery-tickets. The Cuban lottery is Camagüey’s chief sport next to cock-fighting, and the demand is so good that the venders do not need to advertise that they have tickets, but announce merely when they have none, in order to head off the rush.
Everybody in Camagüey sells lottery tickets. The banks sell them, the chemists sell them, the shoemaker sells them, the doctors sell them. The men who bring guinea-grass fodder and milk and live chickens and live piglets to one’s house sell them. A vivid, though impressionistic, memory tells me that the only person who does not sell them is the undertaker.
The undertaker brightens Camagüey in another way peculiarly his own. He conducts funerals so radiant that I know of tourists who, having failed to see the hearse and noting only what followed, have gone away certain that they had witnessed a gorgeous military parade.
They are scarlet-and-gold funerals. The hearse is scarlet and gold, the horses are hung from nostrils to tail in scarlet and gold, drivers and outriders and attendants are garbed in braided and frogged and laced coats of scarlet and gold, and surmounted with cocked hats of scarlet and gold.
The gorgeous funeral goes to a red, white, and blue cemetery, the beautiful, gaudy wall of which is crowned with minarets and towers and little steeples, which are the tops of tombs.
A sun-bright, flower-bright place is this place of painted tombs, with no gloom of cypresses or willows. The very tombs themselves are sociable, for rows of them are apartment-tombs, whereon are painted the names of many divers occupants who had nothing to do with one another in life. The apartment idea is carried out still further, for apartments in these tall tombs are leased for strictly limited occupancy only. Few of the tombs are permanent. After a respectable interval of years has elapsed, the occupants are moved out to make room for new arrivals.
And there, too, in the red, white, and blue cemetery one meets the Arabian Nights again. There are ancient Spanish tombs let deep into the earth. Of these nothing is visible above-ground except gigantic slabs of stone with enormous rings in them, the very slabs that are lifted so often in the Arabian Nights for doomed princes and princesses.