The Perils of Exploration

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, by John Lloyd StephensOur ‘Travel and Exploration’ series contains many salutary reminders to would-be adventurers of the 21st century of how (relatively) cushioned in comfort their treks and expeditions to remote parts of the world are. The gap-year student taking in the Mayan sites of central America might want to consider these accounts of the local fauna by John Lloyd Stephens, the American who first brought to the attention of the western world the extraordinary ruins he discovered in 1839–40.

He encountered the niguas, which had plagued earlier Spanish explorers by  eating their way into the flesh under the toenails,  ‘then laid their Nits there within, and multiplied in such manner that there was no ridding them but by Cauteries, so that some lost their Toes and some their Feet . . .’. Stephens confirms the accuracy of the account: ‘This description is true even unto the last clause . . .  being unacquainted with the evil,  [I] did not know how to apply the remedy. Pawling undertook to pick them out with a penknife, which left a large hole in the flesh; and, unluckily, from the bites of various insects my foot became so inflamed that I could not get on shoe or stocking.’ Then followed swarms of small black flies which attacked the wound, ‘which left marks like the punctures of a hundred pins’. . .

At the other end of the scale were the alligators, regarded by the local people as ‘enemigos de los Christianos’, which grew to 30 feet long, and when killed and opened, had (for example) ‘an Indian woman, whole, with her Cloaths, whom he had swallowed the Day before’ inside. Stephens’ party was well armed, and earned the gratitude of their hosts when they killed 20 alligators, and ‘could have killed at least a hundred’.

Stephens’ sardonic and self-deprecating writing style, and the wonderful illustrations by his travelling companion, the artist Frederick Catherwood, make these books not only an important milestone in the development of pre-Columbian archaeology but a hugely entertaining read.

Caroline

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