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Matagalpa — Aguardiente - Fermented liquors of the Indians — The
wine-palm-Idleness of the Nicaraguans—Pine and oak forestsMountain gorge-Jinotega-Native plough-Descendants of the buccaneers—San Rafael-A mountain hut.
At noon we arrived at Matagalpa, the capital of the province of the same name. The town contains about three thousand inhabitants ; the province, or department, about thirty thousand. Matagalpa is built close to the river, on a rocky surface, with stony knolls rising up in some parts amongst the houses. It contains three churches, and the usual large square or plaza. Around, the country appeared very dry and barren, and there is scarcely any cultivation in the immediate neighbourhood. We put up at one of the best houses in the town. The family consisted of a stout lady about fifty and her husband, their daughter and her husband, and an unmarried son. The two younger men appeared to do nothing; the elder one had a contract with the government to manufacture aguardiente for three towns, and spent nearly all his time at a small hacienda, a league distant, where he grew sugar-cane and maize, and distilled the spirit.
There is a great deal of aguardiente, an inferior kind of rum, sold throughout Nicaragua, and most of the Indians make it a point to get drunk on their feastdays, but at other times are a sober race. They do not owe the introduction of intemperance to the Spaniards, though they can now obtain stronger liquor than in the old times, as the ancient Indians do not appear to have known how to distil, but they made several kinds of fermented liquors. In Mexico the chief drink was “pulque," the fermented juice of the agave or maguey plant. In Nicaragua “chicha," a kind of light beer, made from maize, is still the favourite Indian beverage. On the warmer plains, the wine-palm (Cocos butyracea) is grown. I saw many of them near San Ubaldo. The wine is very simply prepared. The tree is felled, and an oblong hole cut into it, just below the crown of leaves. This hole is eight inches deep, passing nearly through the trunk. It is about a foot long and four inches broad; and in this hollow the juice of the tree immediately begins to collect, scarcely any running out at the butt where it has been cut off. This tendency of the sap to ascend is well shown in another plant, the water liana. To get the water from this it must be cut first as high as one can reach ; then about a foot from the ground, and out of a length of about seven feet, a pint of fine cool water will run; but if cut at the bottom first, the sap will ascend so rapidly that very little will be obtained. In three days after cutting the wine-palm the hollow will be filled with a clear yellowish wine, the fermented juice of the tree, and this will continue to secrete daily for twenty days, during which the tree will have yielded some gallons of wine. I was told that a very large grove of these trees was cut down by the Government near Granada, on account of the excesses of the Indians, who used to assemble
there on their festivals, and get drunk on the palmwine. The Indians of Nicaragua, when the Spaniards first came amongst them, objected to the preaching of the padres against intemperance. They said “getting drunk did no man any harm.”
The manufacture of aguardiente is a Government monopoly, which is farmed out to contractors. The
contracts are always given to the political supporters of the party in power.
There are many private illegal stills in the mountains. They are generally amongst thick forest, near a small brook, with some dense brushwood close at hand, for the distiller to slip into if any Government officers should come up. One day, when rambling in the woods near Santo Domingo, I came across one of these “sly grog” manufactories. The apparatus was very simple. It consisted of two of the common
earthenware pots of the country, one on the top of the other, the top one having had the bottom taken out and luted to the lower one with clay. This was put on a fire with the fermented liquor. The spirit condensed against the flat bottom of a tin dish that covered the top vessel, and into which cold water was poured, and fell in drops on to a board, that conducted it into a long wooden tube, from which it dropped directly into bottles.
Matagalpa does not rise above the dulness of other Nicaraguan towns; and there is a stagnation about it, and utter absence of aim or effort in the people, that are most distressing to a foreigner used to the bustle, business, and diversions of European cities. A few women washing in the river, or making tortillas or cigars in the houses, was all I saw going on in the way of work. The men, as usual, lolled about in hammocks, smoking incessantly. A few houses were in process of building, or, rather, were standing half finished. Now and then, a little is done to them; and so they take months and years to finish; and men will show you, with the greatest complacency, a half-built house on which nothing has been done for two years, telling you they are so busy with it that they cannot undertake anything else. There are no libraries, theatres, nor concert-rooms: no public meetings nor lectures. Newspapers do not circulate amongst the people, nor books of any kind. I never saw a native reading, in the central provinces, excepting the lawyers turning over their law books, or some of the functionaries in the towns looking up the Government gazette, or children at their lessons. Night sets in at six o'clock. A single dim dip candle is then lighted, in
the better houses, set up high, so as to shed a weak, flickering light over the whole room, not sufficient to read by. The natives sit about and gossip till between eight and nine, then lie down to sleep.
A single billiard-table, in a dimly-lighted room, at which three or four play all the evening, until the closing hour, at nine, and a dozen others sit round the walls on benches; a gambling room, licensed by the Government, where only the smallest sums are staked ; cock-fighting on Sundays; a feast day; and perhaps a bull-fight once or twice a year; private gambling carried on to a considerable extent by the higher classes, and aguardiente-drinking by the lower, complete the list of Nicaraguan diversions.
On entering the Matagalpa district, we had found the roads dry and dusty; and we now learnt that whilst at Santo Domingo the season had been unusually wet, near Matagalpa it had been so dry that the maize crops were suffering greatly from the drought. We had been travelling nearly north-west, and were getting gradually further and further away from the Atlantic, into a region where the north-east trade wind, having to travel over a greater stretch of land, gets drained of its moisture.
Our mules and horse were completely tired out; and we expected to have been able, without difficulty, to hire fresh animals to take us on to Ocotal in Segovia ; but we were disappointed. We lost the afternoon by depending upon a man who undertook to get us some. He went away, saying he was going after them. Hour after hour passed, and he did not return. We went to his house; and his wife told us that he was getting the mules for us. Night set in, and still he came not. At