Across Puerto Rico
( Originally Published 1904 )
WE leave San Juan this morning for a trip across Puerto Rico. We have automobiles, and we spin along, up hill and down, going as fast or as slow as we please. Now we stop to chat with the people, now to lunch at a village, and now to visit a coffee, tobacco, or sugar plantation.
How delightful it is! The road is as hard as stone and as smooth as a floor. It is the military road built long ago by the Spaniards, and it famous as one of the best roads of the world. Since we took the island, roads like it have been built everywhere, and we can go to almost any part of Puerto Rico in our motor cars. This road begins at San Juan, the capital, and covers eighty-one miles in crossing the mountains to Ponce, the chief port on the south side of the island ; although as the crow flies the two towns, are only about half that distance apart.
How the road winds as it goes up the mountains ! Now. it seems to cling to the sides of a precipice, and we have great walls of green above and below us; now we are climbing the hills, and now coasting down to the valleys. At times we can see the road both above and below us, and it seems impossible that we could ever climb to the top.
The scenery is wonderfully beautiful. We pass through the sugar plantations of the coast, going by cocoanut groves and other strange palms. Now we stop at a field of bananas. The plants are twenty feet high, and their soft green leaves are each as tall as a man. Their blossoms are as large as an ear of pop corn, and those in full bloom are blood red.
As we wait, a man goes by with a mule load of oranges. The animal has two baskets, each holding three bushels, slung over its back. We ask the price of the fruit. The man tells us that the oranges are especially fine, and that he can not possibly sell more than three for a cent. We buy a couple of hundred, each of us storing a dozen or so in his automobile to eat on the way. The oranges are full of juice and deliciously sweet. We eat them after the Puerto Rican style, cutting off the yellow outside skin, leaving only the white. We then slice off the top and suck out the juice. It is fit for a king.
Higher still we come into the coffee plantations for which Puerto Rico is noted. The trees are in blossom, and the air is loaded with the sweet perfume. Puerto Rico raises some of the best coffee of the world, and coffee grows well on all the higher parts of the island. We cut coffee sticks for canes and then fly along through fields of tobacco, stopping to look at the sheds where the leaves are dried and cured for the market. The tobacco fields run up and down the hills. The plants are of a dark green color, with enormous leaves which grow on all sides of the stalk.
As we go on with our ride, the beauties of Puerto Rico grow upon us. We have seen most of the islands of the globe, but there is none more beautiful than this. It is like Switzerland without the ice and snow, and it has many beauties which Switzerland has not. The mountains are green, and clouds rest on their tops. Many peaks are hid-den in fleecy white masses, and little white clouds nestle here and there on the slopes. The air is moist, the breeze tempers the rays of the sun, and the heat seems just right.
Now and then we pass through the woods. The trees are those of the tropics, with long green vines or silver-gray moss hanging down from the branches. Some trees have orchids clinging to them, others have masses of red, yellow, or purple blossoms, making. them look like enormous bouquets, while others are covered with balls of white wool; the latter are cotton trees, the cotton bursting forth from the bolls just as it does in the plants of our southern states.
And then the ferns ! They are of every description, from the exquisite maidenhair close to the ground to the great tree, as high as a two-storied house, with enormous branches as fine as the most delicate lace.
All along the way we meet people traveling or bringing goods down to the ports. Some are on Puerto Rican ponies, others in carriages, and others on foot. We go by great carts loaded with tobacco and coffee, and hauled by oxen, from two to twelve being yoked to each cart. The yokes are not fastened about the necks as with us; they rest back of the horns, and are tied there by ropes so that the oxen pull with their horns and heads, and not with their necks and shoulders as at home.
Much freight is carried upon the little ponies, for which the island is noted. We pass several caravans of this kind, each pony having a pack on its back, and sometimes a man on top of the pack. The man sits with his feet on each side of the pony's neck, and rides almost as comfortably as in a chair.
Many of the hills are covered with grass, and upon some of them fat cattle are feeding. Some fields are fenced with barbed wire, others have hedges of wild pineapples. The leaves of these are so sharp that one can not crawl over them, and the animals will not break through.
There are no farmhouses and barns, such as we have. Now and then we see the home of a planter, a building made of boards with holes in the walls for windows, and stairs reaching from the ground to the first floor. The houses are built high up on posts, and, as in San Juan, the well-to-do people live upstairs. The climate is such that cattle and horses feed out of doors all the year round; it. is never cold, and there is always good pasture.
The homes of the poor are to be seen everywhere along the road, and off in the fields. They are little shacks made of boards or palm bark, so mean that they would hardly do for a cow stable at home. Some have a framework of poles to which are tied palm leaves, making the walls and roof. The floors are of poles, and the roof is so thin that the rain often drops through.
We stop at a hut and look in. It has but one room. There are no windows, and the only light comes through the door, which is made of palm leaves, and so hung that it can be lifted aside during the day. The people sleep on the floor. The cooking is done in a little lean-to at the back, upon a fire bed of earth, the pot being raised upon stones above the coals.
The poor people live upon little. Their chief food is bananas, of which it takes many to satisfy hunger. The small children have their stomachs so stretched from such eating that they seem deformed. Such stomachs are sometimes called "banana stomachs."
Our little Puerto Rican cousins of the interior are scantily clothed, but they are nice little children, and they laugh and wave their hands at us as we pass. They seem to be happy, and we notice that their parents are kind to them, and apparently love them as much as our parents do us.
We go through villages of thatched huts, seeing now and then one which has a few buildings similar to the smaller houses of San Juan. The ordinary village consists of a public square, with a big church facing it, several houses of stucco and wood, and many thatched huts. The houses are built close together. Each has a door, and some holes for windows, but no glass. We can see in as we go by. There is almost no furniture ; in some houses hammocks take the place of beds.
The people stand in the doorways and look at us as we fly by. They are dressed in white or colored cotton. Many of the women are bareheaded, and all are bare-footed. Some have naked babies in their arms, and naked children fly out of the streets to escape our automobiles.
Now we are over the mountains and going down the opposite slope. The south side of the island is drier because the trade winds from the north, which bring the rain, first strike the other side of the mountains, and the cold air squeezes out most of the moisture. This is so in all the West Indies, the northern sides being the rainier.
The latter part of our journey is downhill, but the slope is so gentle in places that we raise the brakes and let our machines fly over the road, without using steam to carry them onward.
Farther on we come to the lowlands, and are again in the great belt of sugar cane which almost encircles Puerto Rico. The black earth is covered with a rich growth of pale green. We pass many sugar factories, their smoke-stacks leaning, as it were, against the blue sky, and we see gangs of men at work cutting the cane. At last we reach Ponce (pon'sa), the commercial center of this side of the island. It is a flat, Spanish built town of one and two storied houses, covered with stucco and painted in the brightest of colors. It lies about five miles from the harbor, where we can get ships that will take us to Haiti.
Before leaving, however, we spend some time making excursions by sea to the islets about Puerto Rico, and on pony back to different parts of the mainland. The chief islets are Vieques and Culebra, which we passed on our way from St. Thomas to San Juan ; and the Caja de Muertos, or Chest of the Dead, off the south coast, and Mona Island near the west coast, both noted for their phosphate deposits. The only habitable island is Vieques.
It is a mountain ridge twenty-one miles long and six miles wide. It has several sugar plantations along the coast, and its hills form excellent pastures.
Our trip over Puerto Rico shows us that it is wonderfully rich. It produces all kinds of vegetables, and some parts of it are especially good for sugar, tobacco, and coffee. There are farms not far from Ponce which raise enormous pineapples. The orange tree grows every-where, and it is never disturbed by Jack Frost. Along the coast are mil-lions of cocoanut trees, and farther back are pastures, upon which feed the finest of cattle.
There are now fast steamers from San Juan to New York, and many hundreds of thousands of oranges, grapefruits, and pineapples are annually shipped by the Puerto Ricans to us. We import also vast quantities of their tobacco and sugar, and we sell them almost all the foreign goods that they buy. This trade now amounts to many millions of dollars a year.