My thanks to Josh at Merida Insider, who is scanning and posting chapters of "In an Unknown Land" by Thomas Gann. Check the lively comments on his post:
It recounts a trip he took around Yucatan during World War I with Sylvanus Morley, the archaeologist who headed the Carnegie project to rebuilt Chichen Itza. The two men, and a few others, started in Belize and made their way by water around the Peninsula.
As usual, I have begun scanning in the text into my computer. What follows is Gann's account of their arrival into Merida.
(I'll presume to copy it into this weblog - Click MORE)
WE were boarded by the Customs and Health Authorities at 8.30 next morning, and on learning that the party consisted of two American citizens and a British subject the progress of our baggage through the usual Customs formalities was greatly expedited, for the Yucatecans, unlike most Mexicans, are extremely friendly both to Great Britain and the U.S.A., one reason being that most of their imports are derived from the latter country, while henequen—practically their only export—finds a ready market there.
There is no harbour at Progreso, consequently ships are compelled to anchor out in the open roadstead to gigantic sunken chains provided by the Government for that purpose, for which privilege they pay five dollars gold daily.
At the Custom House we were relieved of the arsenal of automatics, revolvers, and belts and bandoliers of cartridges carried by Morley and Held, as no one is permitted to carry firearms in the State of Yucatan—a most excellent and thoroughly sensible regulation, showing a comprehensive knowledge on the part of the authorities of the psychology of their countrymen. If such a law were only enforced throughout Latin America it would do more to civilise the country and abolish the perennial revolutions than all the talk of all the “patriots.”
We had heard a good deal about the high wages and high cost of living in Yucatan, but our first personal experience of it consisted in having to pay ten dollars gold for a cart to transfer our baggage from the Custom House to the railway-station, a distance of about a quarter of a mile. We simply reviled the cartman at first when he made this apparently extortionate demand, but soon discovered to our sorrow that the transfer of baggage is a sort of monopoly, for which the fortunate monopolists charge practically “all the traffic will bear “—in other words as much as they think the victim’s pocket will stand. Fortunately for us, our own appearance and that of our baggage, after a month of the Lilian Y, were equally disreputable, so we got off comparatively lightly.
The pier master—well known to me, as he had formerly been a clerk in the British Honduras Government Service— told us that on the piers and wharves unskilled labourers were being paid five dollars gold daily, while skilled stevedores, with overtime, sometimes made as much as twenty-five dollars in twenty-four hours. I wonder what proportion of professional men—lawyers, parsons, doctors—either in England or the United States make such incomes as these?
We caught the 10.30 train for Merida, arriving in little over an hour, after an extremely unpleasant journey in a crowded carriage—hot as an oven, and permeated by the fine limestone dust of the peninsula, which induces in new-comers, till they get used to it, an unpleasant state of suffocation.
Merida is one of the prettiest, cleanest, gayest little capitals it has been my good fortune to visit. In many ways it reminds one of Monte Carlo in the season. The warm climate, the scrupulous cleanliness of the streets and plazas, the flowers, music, and sunshine, the crowds of pretty, well-dressed girls, the numbers of prosperous-appearing idlers, the absence of poverty, squalor, and ugliness, and the perpetual air of festa, are all common to both.
The Plaza de Independencia is the main plaza or square, and the chief place of rendezvous of the town. Its north side is occupied by the State Executive Palace, its south by the Montejo Palace, its west by the Municipal Palace, while on its east side stands the fine old sixteenth century cathedral, where, though the devout are allowed to enter and pray in front of the altar, Mass is no longer celebrated, as all the padres, with the exception of one or two in Merida and Campeche (who, however, do not celebrate the Mass, but confine themselves to the performance of baptisms and weddings) have been expelled from Yucatan, amongst them the Archbishop, who is at present in exile in Cuba, and whose fine old palace adjoining the cathedral has now been converted into Government offices.
Carrancista soldiers, under General Alvarado, did a great deal of damage in the cathedral when they entered Merida, burning the magnificent, priceless old seventeenth century reredos and gilded carving of the altar, and practically destroying the ecclesiastical library, which contained four copies of the first edition of Cogolludo’s Historia de Yucathan, a work indispensable to the student of Maya archaeology. In the somewhat remote hope that these might have been preserved by some marauding soldier, we inserted an advertisement several times in the Voz de la Revolución, the principal paper and official organ of the Government in Yucatan, offering to purchase copies of Cogulludo, without result, however; and, indeed, no Mexican soldier would have looked upon four ancient volumes as worthy loot, and, like Bishop Landa, when dealing with MSS. of the aborigines three centuries previously, would probably have cast them into the fire, as in his opinion likely to perpetuate a pernicious and worn-out religious system.
The façade of the Montejo Palace is a very fine one, decorated with many statues of Spanish ladies in the dress of the period, knights in armour, and scantily-clothed Indians. All the carving is said to have been done by native Indian sculptors, and this is probably the case, as we realise from the remains they have left behind their remarkable cleverness in stone work of all kinds. The decoration of the hated conqueror’s palace with statues of the haughty Spaniard in full armour triumphing over their own half-clad chiefs, exhibited, moreover, on the façade of the principal house in the principal square, for all who passed to see, must have been a bitterly hateful task to the Indian artists, whose pride of birth and the length and purity of whose descent equalled the proudest Castillian of them all.
The plaza is slightly raised and asphalted; like the streets, it is kept scrupulously clean, and is covered with beds of beautiful sweet-smelling flowering shrubs and trees, amidst which are walks supplied with free seats, while at night, from eight to ten, the whole place is brilliantly ifiuminated. An excellent band plays, and it is then that all Merida comes forth to enjoy itself. Some ride slowly round and round the outer zone in automobiles, looking at the crowd, listening to the band, and exchanging smiles, nods, bows, and finger twiddlings with their friends passing on foot, or in other autos. Others promenade round the inner zone, or sit on the seats, to see and be seen, while neat, polite little boys flit silently amongst the crowd, seffing dulce and cigarettes, or carrying tiny boot-cleaning outfits ready to give one’s shoes a shine for the modest sum of 50 cents, for no Meridano seems to get his boots cleaned in the morning, or at his own house, but waits till he goes abroad and engages a bootblack, of whom there are swarms throughout the city.
It is a curious fact that amongst a people so fond of innocent pleasure private entertainments are conspicuous by their absence. Dinners at their own houses are rare, and dances of still less frequent occurrence. Even foreigners bringing letters of introduction to native families are rarely entertained at their private houses, but feasted—on an elaborate scale, it is true—at clubs, hotels, or restaurants. One reason for this, I believe, is that on more than one occasion foreign travellers who have been entertained at the private residences of the native aristocracy have, on writing their experiences later, given most unflattering—and, it must be admitted, unfair—descriptions of the home life and morals of the Meridanos.
Everywhere the country is in a transitional state. The old order is giving place to the new, and the Mestizo and peon (the latter, till freed by Alvarado, a virtual slave) are breaking down the barriers of caste which separated them from the Spanish Yucatecan, and gradually becoming free citizens of a free Republic. At one time the Indians and Mestizas, or women of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, were compelled to wear a distinguishing costume consisting of the huipil (a long, loose, sleeveless cotton garment cut square and rather low at the neck), and a pik, or cotton petticoat reaching to the ankles. These huipils were always kept scrupulously clean, and often exquisitely embroidered by the owners at the neck, armholes, and bottom of the skirt with gaily coloured cotton in all sorts of fantastic devices. Their magnificent black hair, ribbon adorned, was worn braided, hanging down the back, sometimes covered with a shawl, while the richer ones were often loaded with jewellery—chains, rosaries, earrings, rings, and brooches. This undemocratic regulation has now been abolished, and Indians and Mestizas dress as they like. The garments of their ancestors are, however, hard to cast off, and many of the elder women, even in Merida, still cling to them, with the result that one not infrequently sees an old mother promenading about the plaza in bare head, moccasined feet, and loose huipil and pik arm in arm with her daughter in high-heeled shoes, elaborate coiffure, surmounted by a still more elaborate hat, and clothed in the latest importation in the way of gowns from the U.S.A. It must, however, be admitted that the mother’s costume is by far the more becoming, as well as comfortable, for the female Yucatecan of all classes almost invariably possesses a figure short and somewhat broad, with practically no waistline marked by nature, eminently unfitted for the clothes of modern civilisation.
Many Indian workmen may still be seen wearing a short striped apron, the distinguishing badge of their class, which formerly they were compelled to wear, and now continue, apparently from sheer inability to break a centuries-long custom, though the compulsion no longer exists.
At the best hotels, if one asks for the excellent corn cake of the country he is regarded with mild contempt as an unprogressive countryman, and, indeed, the toothsome tortilla has in the city been largely superseded by atrocious white bread. Even posole, the native drink made from ground corn and drunk all over the Maya area for the last 2,000 years, is now offered for sale at the little kiosks and stalls round the plaza in the form of posole helada, or iced posole!
The whole country was practically bone dry, no alcohol except beer and light wine being on sale. The former is so very mild that it would be impossible to drink sufficient of it to induce intoxication, while the price of the latter is so prohibitive that no one but a millionaire could afford to buy sufficient of it to produce the same result. In consequence of this strict prohibition an unfortunate contretemps occurred to us. Morley had six bottles of claret on board the Lilian Y, which he insisted upon landing, and which we brought safely through the Customs, quite ignorant that any duty had to be paid on them. These wretched bottles of claret proved a white elephant to us, as we lugged them about all over the country, though no one thought of drinking any. On returning from Chichen to Merida, however, they were, as usual, bestowed in our grub box, which an over-zealous Customs official, who had had some misunderstanding with Muddy, insisted on searching. He said nothing at the time, but telegraphed the authorities in Merida, who arrested the unfortunate Muddy, who was in charge of the luggage, on his arrival, and hauled him off to the police station. We meanwhile had taken an auto for the hotel, as Muddy had always proved himself capable of clearing the baggage.
The next we heard of the matter was the arrival of a small policeman an hour or so later to tell us of Muddy’s plight, and the retention of most of our luggage in the police station, whither we hurried at once. We found Muddy sitting peacefully on a bench in the office, quite undisturbed. Nothing, however, would induce the sergeant to let him depart till the arrival of the Chief of Police, who, we were told, was closeted in his office, and would appear before long. We sent out for some food for Muddy, and, not liking to desert him, Morley and I took it in turns to sit up with him till about 2 a.m., when, as it became obvious the chief was not on the premises at all, we retired to the hotel to bed, which was just as well, for he did not arrive till 11 a.m. next morning, when he very politely expressed his sorrow for the inconvenience we had been put to, and dismissed Muddy in triumphant possession of the claret.
One is loth, however, to criticise the Yucatecans, for their kindliness, cleanliness, hospitality, and cheerful optimism far outweigh their minor faults; and whereas the latter are ephemeral, and rather the result of a rapidly developing civilisation than temperamental, the latter are permanent, and ingrained in the Yucatecan character. Nearly everyone in Merida can speak Maya in addition to Spanish, and an astonishingly large proportion of the people have at least a working knowledge of English; so much so that it behoves one to be remarkably careful not to make adverse criticisms aloud in that language of the native manners and customs.
Morley overheard an Indian urchin shouting to one of his companions: “Conex, conex, jugar baseball, ten catcher, tech pitcher “—“ Come along, come along to play baseball, I catcher, you pitcher “—Maya, Spanish, and good Americanese, all mixed in one sentence.
On the 27th we were received in the State Executive Palace by His Excellency Carlos Castro Morales, Governor of Yucatan. What struck us most forcibly at first sight of him was his immense and colossal size, for, though not very tall, he was tremendously broad and thick, yet extraordinarily active for a man of such vast bulk. He smoked brown orozus—Mexican cigarettes—from morning to night, the stub of one serving as a light for its successor. These were covered with paper impregnated with liquorice, and the tobacco they contained was so saturated in saltpetre that it burnt like a time-fuse, which it strongly resembled in flavour and smell. The Governor was at one time an operative on the Yucatecan railroad, and, being a man of considerable ability, was put in by the Socialists, as Governor. He proved a success from the first, and never has the country enjoyed such prosperity, and never were the labouring classes so free, and never have they received such wages as during his régime. He was very pleasant and agreeable to us, asking many questions as to the object of our visit, and showing no mean knowledge of the archaeology and former history of the country. Indeed, he put me right in the spelling of the Maya word “ Chachac” in the title of a little pamphlet of mine he had read, and which should have been written” Chachac,” to denote the Maya explosive “Ch.” We found that he spoke with equal facility Spanish and Maya. On my expressing regret at seeing all the churches closed and padres banished, and asking if he were a Catholic, he struck his great chest with his fist, like a drum, and shouted: “No, Señor, yo no estoy Catolico, yo no estoy Protestante, yo soy Pensador libre “—“ No, sir, I am not a Catholic, I am not a Protestant, I am a Free Thinker “—and as this matter of religion bid fair to lead to friction, we quickly changed the subject. He gave us each an open letter addressed to all Government officials and others throughout Yucatan, advising them to give us every aid and assistance in their power in the prosecution of our archaeological work, and, furthermore, put the railroad automobiles at our disposal, to convey us to any ruins or places of interest which we might wish to visit; and so with mutual expressions of goodwill we took leave of the most genial, human, and successful Socialist it has ever been my good fortune to meet.
On numerous occasions we met Señor Don Juan Martinez, recently representative in the U.S.A. of the “Commission Reguladora de Henequen” of Yucatan, which practically controls the entire trade of the State. He had previously been Government Inspector of Ruins, and introduced us to his son who now occupied that office. Mr. Juan Martinez is an extremely intelligent man, with a thorough knowledge of English, very strong American sympathies, and an acquaintance with the ancient written Maya language probably unsurpassed in the Peninsula. He has translated MS. records in old Maya dating from just after the conquest, as well as portions of the books of Chilam Balaam, the ancient Indian historical records kept by each town at first in the glyphic system employed by the Mayas before the conquest, but later translated into Spanish by some educated Indian very soon after the conquest. It is greatly to be hoped that, having at least temporarily abandoned his labours as an ambassador of commerce, Mr. Martinez may be willing to turn his unique knowledge of ancient Maya to account, and publish some of the MSS., translations which he has made, of old Indian records and documents, which may otherwise be lost to the student of Maya archaeology for ever. Mr. Martinez, junior, the present Government Inspector of Ruins, was extremely kind to us; giving us letters of introduction to the local Guardjanes of the ruins, who are all under his supervision: for the Government realising at length the immense value and interest of these wonderful memorials of the past, has placed one or more guardians or caretakers in each of the principal ruins, who are paid by the state, and whose business it is to keep the buildings clean and free from bush, and to see that none of the statues, inscriptions, stucco paintings, etc., are removed by visitors, as they have been practically indiscriminately in the past. It may be also that the Government were not unwilling to demonstrate to outsiders that a Socialist Administration can not only lead the State to a material prosperity hitherto unknown, but alone of all the Governments which have ruled Yucatan since the time of the conquest, is sufficiently enlightened to actually spend a considerable amount of money in the preservation of her artistic and archaeological memorials. He also took us round to the owners of ranches on which the ruins were situated, or to their representatives in Merida, and from them we obtained letters to their maj or-domos instructing them to provide us with food, lodging, transport, or in fact anything within their power whicb we might require. Probably in no country in the world would hospitality have been carried so far as the provision of free bed and board for an indefinite period, for a number of practically unknown strangers. But the land barons of Yucatan occupy in many ways a unique position. Their vast estates, often grants from the Spanish crown, dating back to the days of the conquest, run to hundreds of thousands of acres, their Indian and Mestizo peons are numbered by hundreds, sometimes even by the thousand, while the country houses where they spend the hot season are often so vast as to resemble rather royal palaces than private dwellings. Their revenues, which in former days were indeed meagre, being derived from the few head of stock carried by their vast stretches of stony arid land, have, since the introduction of henequen, for the cultivation of which this land is peculiarly well adapted, swollen in the most Aladdin-like manner, till Merida is reported to contain more millionaires in proportion to its population than any city in the world—not excluding Pittsburg.
We had several very interesting interviews with Don Francisco Juan Molina Solis, the historian of Yucatan, whose works, the Historia de la Conquista de Yucatan and Yucatan durante la dominacion Espanola, have a wide circulation amongst archaeologists outside the Peninsula. Notwithstanding his great age he is now engaged in writing a history of Yucatan from the end of the Spanish rule to the present day. His knowledge of the conquest of the various tribes of Maya with whom the Spaniards came in contact, the cities and territories occupied by them, and of the early ecclesiastical history of Yucatan, is absolutely unsurpassed and unique. Indeed, he and Don Juan Martinez are almost the only survivals of a generation who regarded a knowledge of the wonderful history and literature of their own country as more important than a foremost place in the mad rush for wealth, which now alone seems to occupy the people of Yucatan ...Posted by Dave at January 20, 2006 09:08 PM