Far West

excerptsJust like the other colonial cities, Kingstown has three parts: one is commercial, another contains filthy dwellings of the indigenous population, and, finally, another has gorgeous villas, with tropical gardens of an uncontrolled vegetative burst, full of huge flowers and secular trees. The humidity and the warmness exasperate the plant's outbreak of life. I am told that here, in certain parts which are behind times, man doesn't have to fight only with the jungle animals, but also with the stubbornness of the vegetation. If he doesn't use the hoe or the axe daily in order to cut off the desire to grow of the plant, a cabin can disappear under the greedy branches of the creepers and weeds in a few weeks. The growth speed of vegetation is of several centimeters a day. Without daily care, man can wake up with a tree under his bed or a creeper on the door. Jamaica, December 23The vegetation in Jamaica is not tropical, with all its geographic position on the map, but equatorial. The sap orgy, the power and the variety of the essences is imperious, implacable. From the creepers woven in intricate patterns, to the climbers that go up to forty meters, to the huge flowers, of infinite colours, to the magnificent bread trees, coconut palms with immense fruit, copra, convolvulus, everything forms a miraculous vegetative chaos, a disorder so rich that the vision seems astronomical, being extra planetary in its overwhelming dissipation. The vigour of the verdure and sap outbreak equals that of Congo or Brazil. The orchids, gracious parasites of the trees, grow on the tree's bark or among the branches, like the mistletoe here. The forest smells of flower, of vanilla juice, of spices. Through this vegetation paroxysm, turquoise- blue rivers flow vertiginously among cliffs red as clogged-blood. It is hard to imagine something more grandiose, more sublime in the uncontrolled delight of the natural forces. When the forest is out of sight, the fields appear, symmetrically designed by man's endeavour: cocoa, tea, coffee, sugar cane, cola, vanilla.From now and then, some farms with small distilleries of sugar cane rum. Most of them have a shop near the highway, selling to the passers by fresh rum, a little thick, but very flavoured, which is drunk in big glasses, softened with soda water. Behind the counters, men with chocolate face, with big hats on the head, with a coloured scarf around the neck, with rough, callous looks, or at least jaded and indifferent like in American movies. Magic plays an important role in the life of the West Indies. The secret cult societies count tens of thousands of members. Symbols, emblems, amulets, can be seen engraved on the houses and through the gardens. During the geological calamities, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions which are quite frequent, the entire population resorts to public services of incantations, sorcery, bizarre processions, in which the crowd is animated by collective hysteria. Numerous people, some with important public positions, with scientific training: physicians, engineers practice sorcery secretly, performing, at night in secret gatherings, dreadful rites with exorcisms, with mummies and masks, with faces of dead people and often, they say, with real bodies. The basis of these beliefs, which science has not been able to dismiss, is fetishist: worshiping some idols, usually malevolent and terrifying, and their interference with certain actions beseeched by believers. Hence the magical basis consists in the idea of a hidden determinism, revealed only to the initiated, bizarre magical formulae and practices, having an effect over the natural forces or over man's behaviour. Then, as with all magical rituals, they believe in the miraculous influence of prepared liquors, in filters, poisons, cataleptic narcotics, fakir asceticism, complicated costumes with terrifying mimics and grimaces. The common basis of all these beliefs consists in a pseudo-survival of beings after death, a sort of malign and uncontrolled ghosts (zombies), corpses which, in certain conditions, continue to live with a part of their lives and to carry out certain curses that they and their families are doomed to. In nocturnal rites, a conjurer, dressed in costumes, imitates the behaviour of the corpse: the face painted with ashes, the eyes starting from their sockets, mechanical moves, and so on. These wandering pseudo-beings get out of the cemeteries at night, and perform all sorts of actions, haunting certain places, cursed houses, cemeteries, grottos, moaning terribly and evincing an epileptic-like gesticulation, while the chorus of adepts utters magical formulae, deafeningly clinking various metals. Everything happens in the moonlight, this satellite having, as it is probably known, in different popular beliefs, certain somnambulistic influences. On the ship everybody talks about nothing else than the mysteries of black magic. The main black magic sect from here is the one called Voodoo (Vaudou), based in Haiti. In Jamaica there is a sort of branch that practices a slightly different version. The belief is, they say, very ancient, brought from Africa, Dahomey, together with the black slaves. It is secretly embraced by many who have been overtly converted to Christianity. The main cult is that of the serpent, dreadful animal, which must be tamed by a series of ceremonies and artifices. The sacrificed animal is usually the goat. The ceremony is grandiose. It is performed with large masses of initiated people, generally in a forest, at midnight, conducted by superior priests. The priest is called papaloi or hugan, and the priestess is a mamaloi. After the victim is killed, the blood is drunk by those who are officiating. The music of trumpets and drums sets in motion bizarre rhythms, young women dance naked, after which the crowd, in a paroxysmal state of mind engages in sexual orgies all through the night, shouting verse incantations in the Creole dialect. This primitive form of religion enriched the folklore and even the cultivated literature with verses, music and dramatic scenes. However, it tends to diminish or to change. Article 249 from the Haitian Penal Code sanctions the magic attacks on human life, either by administering cataleptic liquors, or by other magic practices, assimilating them with murder. QuebecMounted on a cliff that abruptly goes down to the Saint-Laurent River, an old castle now turned into a hotel, Chateau Frontenac, gathers around it, in narrow and winding streets, Quebec city, the spiritual capital of the French population in Canada. The hotel-castle has preserved mediaeval gates and walls. From its high terraces the eye runs across the hills, across the river coiled up, like a lazy snake, over the town spread downhill. Here there is an older historic site. FromMexico to this place, on a three-thousand kilometre distance, we will not meet architectonic traces of past life. This old-age aspect adds to the European, non-American, character of the region. The pirate nest had, most certainly, served once as a citadel, a support for the westward conquests and of defense for the conquests already existent. Today, central heating was installed on corridors with ogives, and comfortable beds with telephones at the head were placed in rooms with recesses hidden in the walls. Everywhere, radio devices resound stridently and inappropriately. The restaurant hall with old chapel-vaults is swarming with women sumptuously dressed in night gowns and adorned with necklaces. The town has narrow streets, with small houses and modest shops. The important, monumental buildings of the state authorities are scarce. Everything has a provincial character. Compared to the vertiginous development of the American urban centres and even to the Canadian ones like Montreal or Toronto, Quebec reminds one of Orléans, of Troyes, or of any other provincial town in France. In the street, one can see old women, with antiquated shawls on their shoulders, with old Breton bonnets on the head, wearing clogs. Boys wear breeches or caps long forgotten in their native land. The shops, as it is in small towns, sell all sorts of things: laces for boots, salami, ropes, knives, cloth. Only the gas lamp wick is missing. The peddlers are shouting and praising their merchandise in a pitched voice. The advertisement is acoustical, as in the Middle Ages, not visual, without window-shops and luminous, electric characters, as in our century. The population is 80% French. If you talk to someone in English, on the street, and ask for a piece of information, you will invariably get the answer: "Je suis canadien français, monsieur," which means that the citizen, although knowing the English language, would not answer but in his native language. It is an old French world, which remained unaltered by what happened in the 18th century, when Canada was colonised. It is a slice of life preserved, like the food for provisions, by a chemical reaction that keeps it away from the corruptive action of the air. Whoever wants to retrospectively understand the history of France should come here. They will find a corner of a live-museum, like an aquarium, in which a fragment of life, preserved from the Enlightenment period, was kept unaltered. ESPLA, 1955

by Mihail Ralea (1896-1964)