Thursday, May 5, 2011

a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people

John Stephens, on encountering the Maya:

“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished… Architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory had lived and passed away… We went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidence of their taste, their skill in arts… We called back into life the strange people who gazed in sadness from the wall; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feather…”.  John Lloyd Stephens,  Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, (1841).

Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, the English explorer, took his 9-year-old daughter with him in the 1920s on an expedition into the jungles of Central America, sending her home only when hostilities broke out.  Did Mitchell-Hedges ever find himself crawling into a Mayan tomb when his daughter started whining about being hungry, or asking if they were there yet?  Being a good storyteller (Wikipedia says “The veracity of much of his autobiographical writings is in question.”), I am sure he would have edited that out and substituted a snarling jaguar.  I, having no talent as a parent, would have brought a jaguar with me in the first place.

The jaguar reminded me of Na-Bolom, the Jaguar House in Chiapas, the home and library of an old scholar from the age of Indiana Jones, with banks of shelves full of dusty old books and fragments of pre-Columbian sculpture.  The stone face of an Eagle Warrior peered ominously out of the open beak of his mask from a dark corner of a bookcase.  A place out of my dreams.  A few years ago I looked for it on line and found practically nothing. 

Last year I found the website for Na-Bolom.  It is bright and efficient, as the Jaguar House itself now appears.  I must have been there shortly after his widow died and turned their home over to a foundation that had not yet then set about its work.  Now all is painted and polished, pictures are hung and furniture straightened, lights have been installed and windows cleaned, the bookcases have been dusted and I am sure the Eagle Warrior no longer peers ominously out of his dark corner but has been cleaned off and given a prominent, well-lit perch befitting his dignity.  Beauty and order are nice, but they ought not be at the expense of romance. When I was there it was full of unkempt young foreigners prattling about social justice and saving the rainforest, which I suppose I should have taken as a sign of things to come.

The old scholar whose home I had visited was Frans Blom (Bolom   --  “jaguar” in Mayan  --  was a play on his name).  A few months ago, in the twenty-five cent bin in a used book store in Vermont, I found a 1936 history of the conquest of the Yucatán.  I bought it for the illustrations and only noticed after I got home that the author was Frans Blom.

My Mexico is a place in time, perhaps seventy years ago.  The Mexico of B. Traven and D.H. Lawrence, of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.  No gringos on the list, I notice.  And all from the '30s & '40s I also notice, when the going was good, even if it was harder.  In the Land of the Feathered Serpent the blood has scarce dried on the altars and the Conquistadores only just left, and Juarez is in the hills and Zapata is coming, but now is extravagant fiesta with bright colors and wonderful food and cold beer with lime and salt and happy, tinny music.
    I am, alas, a time traveler, trying always to visit someplace that hasn't been there for a long time, in love with the world of the old travelers and trying to go there myself.  Not just to go Elsewhere, but to Elsewhen as well.

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