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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter VI

Innocents Abroad

Chapter VI


I think the Azores must be very little known in America. Out of our
whole ship's company there was not a solitary individual who knew
anything whatever about them. Some of the party, well read concerning
most other lands, had no other information about the Azores than that
they were a group of nine or ten small islands far out in the Atlantic,
something more than halfway between New York and Gibraltar. That was
all. These considerations move me to put in a paragraph of dry facts
just here.

The community is eminently Portuguese--that is to say, it is slow, poor,
shiftless, sleepy, and lazy. There is a civil governor, appointed by the
King of Portugal, and also a military governor, who can assume supreme
control and suspend the civil government at his pleasure. The islands
contain a population of about 200,000, almost entirely Portuguese.
Everything is staid and settled, for the country was one hundred years
old when Columbus discovered America. The principal crop is corn, and
they raise it and grind it just as their great-great-great-grandfathers
did. They plow with a board slightly shod with iron; their trifling
little harrows are drawn by men and women; small windmills grind the
corn, ten bushels a day, and there is one assistant superintendent to
feed the mill and a general superintendent to stand by and keep him from
going to sleep. When the wind changes they hitch on some donkeys and
actually turn the whole upper half of the mill around until the sails are
in proper position, instead of fixing the concern so that the sails could
be moved instead of the mill. Oxen tread the wheat from the ear, after
the fashion prevalent in the time of Methuselah. There is not a
wheelbarrow in the land--they carry everything on their heads, or on
donkeys, or in a wicker-bodied cart, whose wheels are solid blocks of
wood and whose axles turn with the wheel. There is not a modern plow in
the islands or a threshing machine. All attempts to introduce them have
failed. The good Catholic Portuguese crossed himself and prayed God to
shield him from all blasphemous desire to know more than his father did
before him. The climate is mild; they never have snow or ice, and I saw
no chimneys in the town. The donkeys and the men, women, and children of
a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged
by vermin, and are truly happy. The people lie, and cheat the stranger,
and are desperately ignorant, and have hardly any reverence for their
dead. The latter trait shows how little better they are than the donkeys
they eat and sleep with. The only well-dressed Portuguese in the camp
are the half a dozen well-to-do families, the Jesuit priests, and the
soldiers of the little garrison. The wages of a laborer are twenty to
twenty-four cents a day, and those of a good mechanic about twice as
much. They count it in reis at a thousand to the dollar, and this makes
them rich and contented. Fine grapes used to grow in the islands, and an
excellent wine was made and exported. But a disease killed all the vines
fifteen years ago, and since that time no wine has been made. The
islands being wholly of volcanic origin, the soil is necessarily very
rich. Nearly every foot of ground is under cultivation, and two or three
crops a year of each article are produced, but nothing is exported save a
few oranges--chiefly to England. Nobody comes here, and nobody goes
away. News is a thing unknown in Fayal. A thirst for it is a passion
equally unknown. A Portuguese of average intelligence inquired if our
civil war was over. Because, he said, somebody had told him it was--or
at least it ran in his mind that somebody had told him something like
that! And when a passenger gave an officer of the garrison copies of the
Tribune, the Herald, and Times, he was surprised to find later news in
them from Lisbon than he had just received by the little monthly steamer.
He was told that it came by cable. He said he knew they had tried to lay
a cable ten years ago, but it had been in his mind somehow that they
hadn't succeeded!

It is in communities like this that Jesuit humbuggery flourishes. We
visited a Jesuit cathedral nearly two hundred years old and found in it a
piece of the veritable cross upon which our Saviour was crucified. It
was polished and hard, and in as excellent a state of preservation as if
the dread tragedy on Calvary had occurred yesterday instead of eighteen
centuries ago. But these confiding people believe in that piece of wood
unhesitatingly.

In a chapel of the cathedral is an altar with facings of solid silver--at
least they call it so, and I think myself it would go a couple of hundred
to the ton (to speak after the fashion of the silver miners)--and before
it is kept forever burning a small lamp. A devout lady who died, left
money and contracted for unlimited masses for the repose of her soul, and
also stipulated that this lamp should be kept lighted always, day and
night. She did all this before she died, you understand. It is a very
small lamp and a very dim one, and it could not work her much damage, I
think, if it went out altogether.

The great altar of the cathedral and also three or four minor ones are a
perfect mass of gilt gimcracks and gingerbread. And they have a swarm of
rusty, dusty, battered apostles standing around the filagree work, some
on one leg and some with one eye out but a gamey look in the other, and
some with two or three fingers gone, and some with not enough nose left
to blow--all of them crippled and discouraged, and fitter subjects for
the hospital than the cathedral.

The walls of the chancel are of porcelain, all pictured over with figures
of almost life size, very elegantly wrought and dressed in the fanciful
costumes of two centuries ago. The design was a history of something or
somebody, but none of us were learned enough to read the story. The old
father, reposing under a stone close by, dated 1686, might have told us
if he could have risen. But he didn't.

As we came down through the town we encountered a squad of little donkeys
ready saddled for use. The saddles were peculiar, to say the least.
They consisted of a sort of saw-buck with a small mattress on it, and
this furniture covered about half the donkey. There were no stirrups,
but really such supports were not needed--to use such a saddle was the
next thing to riding a dinner table--there was ample support clear out to
one's knee joints. A pack of ragged Portuguese muleteers crowded around
us, offering their beasts at half a dollar an hour--more rascality to the
stranger, for the market price is sixteen cents. Half a dozen of us
mounted the ungainly affairs and submitted to the indignity of making a
ridiculous spectacle of ourselves through the principal streets of a town
of 10,000 inhabitants.

We started. It was not a trot, a gallop, or a canter, but a stampede,
and made up of all possible or conceivable gaits. No spurs were
necessary. There was a muleteer to every donkey and a dozen volunteers
beside, and they banged the donkeys with their goad sticks, and pricked
them with their spikes, and shouted something that sounded like "Sekki-
yah!" and kept up a din and a racket that was worse than Bedlam itself.
These rascals were all on foot, but no matter, they were always up to
time--they can outrun and outlast a donkey. Altogether, ours was a
lively and a picturesque procession, and drew crowded audiences to the
balconies wherever we went.

Blucher could do nothing at all with his donkey. The beast scampered
zigzag across the road and the others ran into him; he scraped Blucher
against carts and the corners of houses; the road was fenced in with high
stone walls, and the donkey gave him a polishing first on one side and
then on the other, but never once took the middle; he finally came to the
house he was born in and darted into the parlor, scraping Blucher off at
the doorway. After remounting, Blucher said to the muleteer, "Now,
that's enough, you know; you go slow hereafter."

But the fellow knew no English and did not understand, so he simply said,
"Sekki-yah!" and the donkey was off again like a shot. He turned a comer
suddenly, and Blucher went over his head. And, to speak truly, every
mule stumbled over the two, and the whole cavalcade was piled up in a
heap. No harm done. A fall from one of those donkeys is of little more
consequence than rolling off a sofa. The donkeys all stood still after
the catastrophe and waited for their dismembered saddles to be patched up
and put on by the noisy muleteers. Blucher was pretty angry and wanted
to swear, but every time he opened his mouth his animal did so also and
let off a series of brays that drowned all other sounds.

It was fun, scurrying around the breezy hills and through the beautiful
canyons. There was that rare thing, novelty, about it; it was a fresh,
new, exhilarating sensation, this donkey riding, and worth a hundred worn
and threadbare home pleasures.

The roads were a wonder, and well they might be. Here was an island with
only a handful of people in it--25,000--and yet such fine roads do not
exist in the United States outside of Central Park. Everywhere you go,
in any direction, you find either a hard, smooth, level thoroughfare,
just sprinkled with black lava sand, and bordered with little gutters
neatly paved with small smooth pebbles, or compactly paved ones like
Broadway. They talk much of the Russ pavement in New York, and call it a
new invention--yet here they have been using it in this remote little
isle of the sea for two hundred years! Every street in Horta is
handsomely paved with the heavy Russ blocks, and the surface is neat and
true as a floor--not marred by holes like Broadway. And every road is
fenced in by tall, solid lava walls, which will last a thousand years in
this land where frost is unknown. They are very thick, and are often
plastered and whitewashed and capped with projecting slabs of cut stone.
Trees from gardens above hang their swaying tendrils down, and contrast
their bright green with the whitewash or the black lava of the walls and
make them beautiful. The trees and vines stretch across these narrow
roadways sometimes and so shut out the sun that you seem to be riding
through a tunnel. The pavements, the roads, and the bridges are all
government work.

The bridges are of a single span--a single arch--of cut stone, without a
support, and paved on top with flags of lava and ornamental pebblework.
Everywhere are walls, walls, walls, and all of them tasteful and
handsome--and eternally substantial; and everywhere are those marvelous
pavements, so neat, so smooth, and so indestructible. And if ever roads
and streets and the outsides of houses were perfectly free from any sign
or semblance of dirt, or dust, or mud, or uncleanliness of any kind, it
is Horta, it is Fayal. The lower classes of the people, in their persons
and their domiciles, are not clean--but there it stops--the town and the
island are miracles of cleanliness.

We arrived home again finally, after a ten-mile excursion, and the
irrepressible muleteers scampered at our heels through the main street,
goading the donkeys, shouting the everlasting "Sekki-yah," and singing
"John Brown's Body" in ruinous English.

When we were dismounted and it came to settling, the shouting and jawing
and swearing and quarreling among the muleteers and with us was nearly
deafening. One fellow would demand a dollar an hour for the use of his
donkey; another claimed half a dollar for pricking him up, another a
quarter for helping in that service, and about fourteen guides presented
bills for showing us the way through the town and its environs; and every
vagrant of them was more vociferous, and more vehement and more frantic
in gesture than his neighbor. We paid one guide and paid for one
muleteer to each donkey.

The mountains on some of the islands are very high. We sailed along the
shore of the island of Pico, under a stately green pyramid that rose up
with one unbroken sweep from our very feet to an altitude of 7,613 feet,
and thrust its summit above the white clouds like an island adrift in a
fog!

We got plenty of fresh oranges, lemons, figs, apricots, etc., in these
Azores, of course. But I will desist. I am not here to write Patent
Office reports.

We are on our way to Gibraltar, and shall reach there five or six days
out from the Azores.

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