South America Today - The Outward Voyage
( Originally Published 1911 )
THE Regina Elena is in harbour. A great white boat vomits volumes of black smoke from its two funnels, whilst the siren sounds the familiar farewell. Two gangways, on which luggage and passengers are jostling desperately, present the peculiar spectacle of departing crowds. On a dais of multi-coloured sunshades, the wide hats of beautiful Genoese women offer heir good wishes to the little veiled toques of the travellers. People stop in the narrowest part of the gangway to laugh and cry together. Vainly the human flood tries to break through the obstacle. The current, according to its strength, carries the living mass of feathers and ribbons back to the landing-place or pushes it on to the deck, where, in a perfect maze of movement and exclamations, it continues to stop the traffic.
Not far away, heavily laden with nondescript burdens, the silent emigrant forces his way to the lower deck, dragging old parents and young children after him. Do not imagine the emigrant leaving Italy for the Argentine to be the miserable human specimen one generally sees. He is neither more nor less than a workman moving from one hemisphere to another. We shall meet him again on board. Strongly attached to family life, his peculiarity is to move about with his wife and progeny. The difference in seasons allows him, after cutting corn on the Pampas, to return to Italy for the harvest. Often he settles down in the Argentine under the conditions which I shall explain later, and takes strong root there. Often, again, the love of his native land speaks louder than his love of adventure, and the steamship companies are glad to profit by the circumstance.
The siren has blown its last authoritative blast; the last visitors have returned to land; the huge monster glides gently out to sea. One sees nothing but waving handkerchiefs and hears nothing but parting words. We are off. " Good-bye." The grand amphitheatre of white marble and sunburnt stones glides slowly past us, dazzling in the warm light. Already our eyes were looking with curiosity and hopefulness towards the liquid plain. Are we flying from Europe, or is Europe flying from us? From this moment we shall look to see America surge up from the horizon on the day ordained.
The first impressions of the boat are excellent : it is admirably fitted up; clean as a new pin, with good attendance. We are welcomed in a most charming manner by the Captain, de Benedetti, a galant 'uomo, who advertises his French sympathies by flying a French flag. A fortnight in a handsome moving prison, with floods of salt air to fill one's lungs, and the marvellous panorama of sky and sea, shot with luminous arrows. Our daily promenades are those of prisoners condemned to walk in an eternal circle. As long as land is in sight, our eyes linger on the blue line of mountains, which speaks to us of the country which, in spite of the revolving screw, our hearts refuse to leave.
The Ligurian coast, crowned by Alpine heights; Provence, rich in memories, blue mountains darkened by the dying day; grey spots, which represent Toulon and Marseilles. A choppy, rather rough sea, complicated by a ground swell, as we cross the Bay of Lyons, tries the ladies, who had hitherto been very lively. They retire to their cabins, whence issue sinister sounds.
But let us pass on. Tomorrow's sun will illumine the joyous hospitality of Barcelona.
Never did land look so fascinating to me. I have crossed the Atlantic eight times without ever feeling that kind of anticipated regret for the old Continent. Youth longs for the Unknown, but age learns to fear it.
The passengers lunched on shore. Then came a visit to the Rambla, sad and deserted under the grey sky. We linger over our first letters home, which can neither be called letters from abroad nor letters of farewell. A cab carries us about in a haphazard way, past modern houses which are a disgrace to Spain and our epoch, and past façades of convents burnt down in the last revolution. Finally, we are driven back to the quay, where, since morning, a crowd of fruit-sellers, picturesquely attired in red and yellow, have been selling their wares to the emigrants, forbidden by the regulations to land at the ports of call. Nets attached to long poles, filled with provisions of all sorts, are offered to the passengers on the lower decks and held at a safe distance until the sum, which has been volubly disputed, falls into the outstretched apron below.
But the signal is given. The teeming market disappears, and, without more ado, we put out to sea. In the dusk of the evening we discern the white summits of the Sierra Nevada, in whose shadow lie Granada and the Alhambra. We shall pass Gibraltar in the night, and at dawn tomorrow we shall have only the blue monotony of the infinite sea.
It is five days steam to St. Vincent, in the Cape Verde Islands. The passengers shake down, grouping themselves according to national or professional affinities. Stretched on arm-chairs of excessive size—which turn the daily walk into a steeplechase—fair ladies, wrapped in shawls and gauzes, and profoundly indifferent to the comfort of others, try to read, but only succeed in yawning. They chatter aimlessly without real conversation. The cries of the children create a diversion, and a badly-trained dog is a fruitful topic for discussion. The men sit down to bridge, or smoke innumerable pipes in the Winter Garden. I catch scraps of business talk around me.
The boldest foot it on the deck, but their enterprise does not please the gentler passengers, who are in quiet possession of the only space available for exercise. Soon, under the guise of sops to the ravenous ocean appetite, piles of plates, glasses, and decanters, complicated with stools and travelling rugs, encumber the passageway. As the soft roll of the ship causes a certain disturbance of the crockery, the pedestrian, young or old, has always a chance of breaking his leg —a contingency to which the ladies appear to be perfectly indifferent. The piano suffers cruelly from sharp raps administered by knotty juvenile fingers. An Italian lady sings, and one of my own country-women sketches a group of emigrants.
In the primitive setting of the steerage everybody is already at home and appears happy. Attentive fathers walk and play with their off-spring and occasionally smack them by way of showing them the right path. Mothers are nursing their babies or washing clothes. I am told that there are no fewer than twenty-six nursing mothers out of a total of six hundred third-class passengers on board. Amid the Italian swarm, brightly coloured groups of Syrians stand out. The women, tattooed, painted, and clad in light-coloured draperies, sometimes covered with silver ornaments, fall naturally into the dignified and statuesque pose of the Oriental. A few are really handsome, with a sort of passive sensuality of bearing. It is said that the Syrians are the licensed pedlars of the Pampas.
A visit between decks shows that the ventilation is good and that cleanliness is insured by incessant application of brush and hose. The sick bay is well kept. One or two patients are in the maternity ward awaiting an interesting event before the Equator can be reached. The food is wholesome and abundant. The Italian Government keeps a permanent official on board who is independent of the officers of the ship, and sees that the regulations concerning hygiene and safety for this class of passengers are rigorously carried out. Frightful abuses in former days necessitated these measures, which are now entirely efficacious.
We are looking forward to calling at St. Vincent as a welcome break in the monotony of our days. However, thanks to wireless telegraphy, we are no longer cut off from the world on this highly perfected raft which balances our fortunes between heaven and sea. One cannot help feeling surprised when presented with an envelope bearing the word " Telegram." Some one has sent me his good wishes for the voyage from France by way of Dakar. Then by the same mysterious medium the passengers of a ship we shall meet to-morrow wave their hats to us in advance. On several occasions I have had the pleasure of receiving messages of this sort; they are incidents in a day. From time to time we can read the despatches of the news agencies posted in the saloon. I leave you to imagine how, with our abundant leisure, we discuss the news. From St. Vincent to the island of Fernando de Noronha, the advanced post of Brazil, I do not think we were ever more than two days out of range of wireless telegraphy. When it is compulsory to have a wireless installation on board all ships, collisions at sea can never occur. I visit the telegraph office situated forward on the upper deck. It is a small cabin where an employee sits all day striking sparks from his machine as messages arrive from all parts of the horizon; the sound reminds me of the crackling of a distant mitrailleuse. Here one must not allow the mind to wander even with the smoke of one's cigarette. Through a technical blunder our unfortunate telegraphist, without knowing it, sent the in-formation to Montevideo that we were in danger. In consequence, we learnt from the newspapers on our arrival that the Government was sending a State ship to our help. We thus experienced the sweet sensation of peril without danger, whilst the employee guilty of the error found himself discharged.
We shall not profit by the call at St. Vincent, since we arrive in the night. It is in vain that they tell us that the Cape Verde Islands are nothing but a series of arid, yellow rocks; that St. Vincent can only show commonplace houses and cabins with the inevitable cocoanut-trees; that the " town " is only inhabited by negroes who pick up a living from the ships that put in here to coal; whilst the English coal importers and real masters of this Portuguese possession live up in the hills. Nevertheless, we are disappointed of an opportunity to stroll on shore towards a clump of trees, apparently planted there with the object of justifying the name of the place, which is in reality the most barren spot.
On our way we had passed the denuded rocks which somebody tells us are called the Canaries. St. Vincent, it seems, is a second edition of the Canaries—only more sterile. We have no difficulty in believing it when at nightfall the Regina Elena stops at the bottom of a deep black hole dotted with distant lights, of which some are fixed to the bows of small craft or tugboats drawing coal lighters, which dance up to us on the waves.
Suddenly, as in the third act of L'Africaine, under the orders of an invisible Nelusko, we are invaded on the starboard and port side by a dual horde of savages. They are fearful-looking blacks, with grinning masks, clothed in coal-dust, who swarm like monkeys up the shrouds and fall on deck with the laugh of cannibals. We are assured that our lives are not in danger, and, in fact, they are no sooner amongst us than, attacked with sudden shyness, they offer in a low voice and in a language in which French and English are strangely mixed, an assortment of cocoanuts, bananas, and bags made of melon seeds, to which they seem to attach great importance.
Once more we fall back on the small events of our daily life on board, of which the principal is to find the point in the southern horizon by which the speed of the ship can be calculated, under given conditions of wind and tide. On the New York crossing, the Americans make of this detail an excuse for a daily bet. I notice that the South Americans are less addicted to this form of sport. The first impression made upon me by these South American families with whom I am thrown in daily contact is eminently favourable. Simplicity, dignity, and graciousness are what I see : I find none of the extravagance ascribed to them by rumour. Only on one point am I led to make a criticism: their children seem to enjoy the utmost license of speech and action.
Henceforth our only subject of conversation is the probable date on which we shall cross the Equator. The Regina Elena, with a displacement of 10,000 tons, did 17 knots on her trials. If she makes 14 or 15 now, we are satisfied. The sea is calm : not a stomach protests. In these latitudes the storms of the North Atlantic are unknown. We shall make the crossing from Barcelona to Buenos Aires in fifteen or sixteen days. A long rest for any one leaving or seeking a life of excitement.
We amuse ourselves by watching troops of dolphins, divine creatures, passing from the joys of the air to those of the sea with a facile grace. What legends have been created about these mammals! From the most ancient times they have been the friends of the seafarer ! They save the shipwrecked, and surrender to the charms of music. According to Homeric song it was from the dolphin that Apollo borrowed the disguise in which he led the Cretan fisher-men to the shores of Delphi, where later his temple was built. How true to life is the undulating line of the bas-reliefs on the monument of Lysicrates, in which the Tyrrhenian pirates, transformed into dolphins, fling themselves into the ocean, as though in feverish haste to try a new life ! Souvenirs of this old tale surge in my brain until I hear a voice saying harshly : " All these filthy beasts ought to be killed with dynamite, for they destroy the nets of the fisher-men. Good-bye to poetic legend ! Friendship between man and the dolphin ends in utilitarian holocausts !
Civilisation has not yet stamped out the flying-fish. It is still left to us to enjoy the spectacle of the great sea-locusts in flight, rising in flocks into the air to escape from their greedy comrades in the water, and dappling the wide blue plain with their winged whiteness. They remind me of the story of the traveller who was readily believed when he declared he had found at the bottom of the Red Sea a horseshoe belonging to the cavalry of Pharaoh swallowed up in their pursuit of the Hebrews. But when he talked of flying-fish, he found no credence anywhere ! It is true men have told so many tales that it is not easy to know when it is safe to show surprise.
A daily increasing and heavy heat meets us as we draw near the Line. Light flannel suits are brought into requisition, and breathing becomes difficult to redundant flesh. We are in the Black Pot—skies low, heavy with iron-grey clouds; an intermittent, fine rain which cools nothing; a glassy sea; no breeze stirring. It feels like the interior of a baker's oven. We take refuge in the dangerous electric fan which is unequalled for adding a bad cold to the disagreeable sensation of suffocation.
Nothing remains of the famous ceremony of christening the passenger who crosses the Line for the first time. The innocent performance is now converted into a ball, with a subscription for the crew. Passengers on the lower deck waltz every evening with far less ceremony, to the strains of an accordion, varying the entertainment by playing at Morra, the national game. They stand up in couples and aim terrific blows at each other's faces, accompanying the movement with savage cries. If you watch carefully you will find that in this game of fisticuffs the closed hand is stopped just in time and, at the same moment, a certain number of fingers are shot out. Simultaneously a voice cries a number, always less than ten; and the game consists in trying to announce beforehand how many fingers have been pointed by the two partners. This sport, which has the advantage of requiring none but Nature's implements, is a great favourite with the Italians. Often, in the early morning, from my berth, I used to hear an alarming barking in the direction of the bows, which seemed to be the beginning of a deadly quarrel, but was in reality merely the fun of the Morra.
Brazilian territory is now in sight—Fernando de Noronha. It is a volcanic island three days off Rio de Janeiro. Successive streams of lava have given strangely jagged outlines to the peaks. A wide opening in the mountain lets in a view of the shining sea on the other side of the island. Three lofty poles of wireless telegraphy stand out among the foliage. They say that these posts were set there by Frenchmen. Goodluck to them !
Captain de Benedetti pays me the compliment of celebrating the Fourteenth of July. The Queen's portrait is framed in the flags of the two nations. In the evening we have champagne and drink healths. An Italian senator, Admiral de Brochetti, expresses, in well-chosen language, his appreciation of the friendship of France and I echo his good wishes for the sister nation.
Is there any better relief from the exhaustion of a sleepless night in the tropics than a solitary walk beneath the starry firmament of the Southern Hemisphere? Naturally, I sought the Southern Cross as soon as it had risen above the horizon. It was another disillusionment caused by an inflated reputation. Where are ye, 0 Great Bear and Pleiades, and where the Belt of Orion? On the other hand, words fail to describe the Alpha of Argo. Every morning, between three and four o'clock, I see on the port side a sort of huge blue diamond which appears to lean out of the celestial vault towards the black gulf of the restless sea as if to illumine its abysses. I receive the most powerful sensation of living light that the firmament has ever given to me. If there is in any part of infinite space a prodigious altar of celestial fire, that focus must be Canopus. It was assuredly there that Prometheus stole the heavenly spark with which he kindled in us the light of life. There, too, Vesta watches over the eternal hearth of sacred fire in which is concentrated a more divine splendour than even that of a tropical sun.
But now the earth calls us back to herself, or, rather, it is the stormy ocean that rouses us, for as we approach the immense estuary of La Plata a tempest of icy wind blows suddenly upon us from the south. This is the pampero, the south wind, the wind from the Pampas, which blows straight from the frozen tops of the Andes. A heavy swell makes the Regina Elena roll in the great yellow waves, for already the clay of the Rio de la Plata is perceptible in the sea and gives it the aspect of a vast ocean of mud. Tomorrow morning we shall be in Montevideo.