Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan - the opportunity to have another attack of fever

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52) was a professional travel writer, an early example of the breed, who wrote books about his trips to the Holy Land, Russia, and Central America. His fourth book is a classic of archaeology - Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843).

In 1841, Stephens and two companions, a doctor and an artist, followed various hints to the Yucatan peninsula to bring back the first serious descriptions of the ruins of Mayan civilization. Unlike later archaeologists of the century, whose main goal was to bring it home, no matter what it was (a colossal bull head, an entire Greek temple, whatever was lying around). Good thing, too since the few artifacts Stephens did manage to crowbar away were destroyed in a fire in the U.S. before Stephens had even finished his book. They were really in Mexico to see, and describe, and (see left) draw.

If Incidents were just about archeology, I wouldn’t have read it. But it’s also a fine travel book, with lots of incident and personality. The first night the party disembarks is a festival day. Stephens ends up in hall where a boy shouts mysterious combinations of numbers and letters, while people shove pebbles around on pieces of paper. It turns out he’s stumbled upon the lotería – Bingo night. A model piece of “make it strange” writing. Yucatan bullfighting involves a surprising amount of fireworks, generally tied to the bull – regular bullfighting not being cruel enough, I guess. There's lots of detail like this, life among the ruins.

Stephens describes occasional marvels – on the right we see an enormous ladder set against a cavern wall, the only path to underground wells serving a town of six thousand people. Unbelievable. Then the are the hazards of travel – the stinging ants, the mosquitoes, the malaria,* indigenous people failing to understand why anyone would want to hack through the forest to draw a pile of old rocks.

Stephens is funny, too - “The rain continued all the next day, and as no work could be done, Mr. Catherwood took advantage of the opportunity to have another attack of fever.” (Vol. 2, p. 91) Always understated, easy for skimmers to miss.

The main attractions, then as today, are the ruins – Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Labna. The Dover edition has dozens of engravings as good as one to the left, the House of the Dwarf at Uxmal, including a big foldout plate. The Smithsonian Press has published an abridgement, which has less of everything, good and bad, but includes a useful introduction and photographs of the ruins. But I didn’t want an abridgement – Stephens was a good enough writer, and Yucatan in 1840 was an interesting enough place.

Let me plug a useful site, while I'm on the subject. The key feature of is the ingenious linking of maps and photographs.

* The method for dealing with malaria was: 1. become infected, 2. occasionally lie down for a few days and try not to expire.

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