Cuba - Havana
( Originally Published 1904 )
WE are in Havana, a city of over three hundred thousand, situated on a plain about a beautiful harbor. It is the capital of Cuba, and the largest city of the West Indies. How gay everything is ! The tropical sun beats down upon the bright-colored houses. Its rays are dancing on the roofs of red tiles, and on walls of red, sky-blue, rose-pink, and cream-yellow, dazzling our eyes and making us think of a kaleidoscope rather than a great business city.
We land and make ou'way through one narrow street after another. We go through the Prado, in the center of which is a wide promenade with two rows of trees on each side, where the people walk in the cool of the evening. Here and there are squares or plazas filled with trees, with seats under them, on which people are sitting. We pass many fine buildings, including the government palace, the cathedral, the theater, and the large hotels.
The most of the buildings are low, one-storied structures, although in the best business and residence sections we find some of two and three stories. The houses are made of great blocks of stone covered with stucco. They have enormous doors and windows, some so barred with iron that the people behind them appear to be looking out of a prison. They are of the Spanish order : each house built around a court or patio, which contains plants and flowers, and sometimes a fountain. It is in the patios that the people sit and chat in the cool of the evening. The rooms are large and the ceilings high ; the floors are of marble, bricks, or porcelain tiles. It is so warm in Havana that great care is taken to keep cool.
We spend some time in the stores. They open out on the street, the whole front in some cases being taken away during the daytime, so that they remind us of the bazaars we saw in the far eastern islands. There are but few large establishments such as we have at home, although many stores which look small have warehouses behind, packed with fine goods.
Only a few of us speak Spanish, and although there are many Americans in Havana, it is necessary to have an interpreter to make ourselves,understood. The Cubans are polite, and the moment they learn we are Americans, they are more polite than ever, for they look upon us as their brothers and sisters. The United States buys far more of their products than any other country, and in return the Cubans purchase from us much of their food, clothing, machinery, farm tools, and other things.
Most of our explorations are in the morning and evening, for we adopt Cuban customs during our stay. For instance, it would be foolish to try to do business at noon, for at that time the stores and business places are shut. The Cubans take only a cup of coffee, a roll, and perhaps some fruit upon rising ; they do not have a substantial breakfast until about eleven o'clock, after which they enjoy a nap or a chat with their friends, not returning to work until one o'clock, or possibly later. Their dinners are much like ours, and are served in the evening when the day's work is over. After dinner they walk or drive out, or stay at home with their families, sitting on the balconies or in the patios, enjoying the air.
We have friends in Havana, and through them meet some of the better class people. Their homes are beautifully furnished, and quite as comfortable as our own. Our friends speak Spanish, English, and French, and through them we learn that many Cubans are sent to the United States or Europe to be educated. This is so, notwithstanding there are now good schools in Havana, and common schools almost everywhere throughout Cuba, a large number having been established since the Spanish-American War. Havana has colleges and a university, and it has girls' schools of all kinds. Many of the lower classes are still very ignorant, and comparatively few can read and write. They are improving however; and now that they are free, their condition will grow better and better.
We enjoy our strolls about the city by moonlight. There are thousands in the plazas, on the streets, and in the cafes. There are gay carriages, and men upon horseback. The Cubans are fond of music, and we hear pianos, guitars, and singing almost everywhere.
On Sunday we go to the cathedral. The women present are dressed in black, with black lace shawls called mantillas wrapped around their heads and falling down over the shoulders. Black is the color used by the women of the better classes on the streets, although they wear all sorts of gay colors at home.
We spend one morning in the market, and find it crowded with all sorts of people, buying and selling. There are a thousand different stalls, and many thousand customers. We count eighty different kinds of game, twenty varieties of potatoes, and sweet potatoes, and then go on to the tropical fruits, which are sold in large quantities. We buy a ripe pineapple for five cents, eat bananas which almost melt in our mouths, and orange after orange until we can not eat more. We have tasted Cuban oranges before and have learned to eat them as the Cubans do. We find them for sale on every street corner, and the peddler fixes the fruit for us. He pares off the skin with a sharp knife much as we pare an apple, taking off every white particle and just breaking the little globules within. He then sticks a fork into the orange and hands it to us. We suck out the juice, rolling the oranges around as we do so. This is the way our oranges are served with every breakfast. We like it so well we shall advise our friends to try it at home.
Before leaving Havana we visit the President and Vice President, and also the Senate and House of Representatives. Cuba is now a republic. The country is divided into six provinces or states, and its people elect their own officers. We learn that it is far better off than it was under the Spaniards. The cities are cleaner and more healthful. New railroads are being built. The wild lands are being reclaimed, and the people are improving in civilization and wealth.