One of the delights of DuPont Circle in Washington DC is Kramerbooks, the local bookstore. Recently, while visiting DC I had dinner with a friend in DuPont and afterwards we spent a bit of time in the bookstore. I had vowed not to buy a book. I was on the first leg of my travels in June and already had a book in tow.
We wandered through most of the bookstore, and towards the end of our visit I found a stand with non-fiction about various regions of the world. After perusing Africa and Europe, I walked around the other side of the display and found Latin America. There I saw a book called Jungle of Stone. Most likely, I was drawn in by the painting of a Mayan-style pyramid on the front cover. Upon further inspection, the book is about the journey that inspired John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood to pen Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatan, the namesake for this blog.
I bought the book and I am currently reading it. I am enjoying it very much. Forgive me for saying it, but I see many similarities between Stephens and myself. Stephens is a New Yorker (born in New Jersey, but grew up in early 1800’s Manhattan). He was one of the youngest graduates of Columbia, and then studied and briefly practiced law. A bit prodigious, (admittedly unlike myself), he finished law schools three years before he could be admitted to the Bar at 21 years old.
In his 20’s, Stephens contracted a persistent throat infection and was prescribed a long trip to the Mediterranean by his doctor to alleviate the malady. Here he began to show a penchant for travel, adventure, and writing. Upon his return from Europe and the Near East he wrote two travel books: Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, & the Holy Land and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, & Poland. Despite an economic downturn, they were bestsellers and propelled Stephens to fame and riches.
A few years later Stephens was appointed the United States’ emissary to the Federal Republic of Central America. When Central America won its independence from Spain, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica united under one flag in 1823. He accepted the appointment with all intentions to discover and document pre-Columbian cities and publish another book upon his return to New York.
He arrived in Guatemala as the Republic was devolving into its constituent states (a process that concluded in 1840). Stephens, and his illustrator, Catherwood, were constantly rerouting themselves to avoid brigands and armies and to actually locate the elected officials of the Republic. This afforded them opportunities to detour to additional pre-Columbian sites.
During their journey they visited Copán, Quiriguá, Palenque, and Uxmal. I’ve personally had the fortune to visit all of those except Quiriguá. They also traveled along the Usumacinta River and toiled through many rain forests, over many mountains, and were attacked my many mosquitoes, which I can also attest to first hand. Stephens also traveled to Nicaragua to survey a route for a trans-isthmus canal. His surveyed route is quite similar to the first leg of the route currently proposed in Nicaragua, from the Pacific into Lake Nicaragua.
On his way back up to Guatemala from Nicaragua he stopped in León, then the capital of Nicaragua. He arrived just after much of the city had been burned and decimated by one of the breakaway armies, and he found it in a shocked and ramshackle state. While I wish he could have enjoyed and appreciated the city more and sojourned there for longer, I too arrived in León the morning of the large fire that burned a portion of a street block. A few bars, including everyone’s favorite, Bárbaro, were destroyed in the fire.
As a political ambassador, Stephens also closely observed the political embroilment of the region. The departure of the strong-handed Spanish left two political factions to dominate the region, the Liberals and the Conservatives. They were the two sides in the civil war and they continue to squabble in the national assembly houses and out on the streets of Central American countries to this day. Leaders who one day won the favor of the native peoples and threw out the federal authorities soon found themselves quelling rebellions from disgruntled natives, a lá Ortega today. Stephens also made numerous observations about the socio-economics of the region. The Spaniards were gone, but their encomienda system still prevailed and White landowners continued to exploit the labors of natives and mixed-raced people. Central America remains a region of wealth inequality, and the same powers at play in the early and mid-1800’s continue to determine the fate of millions of impoverished people across the isthmus today. I really should read The Open Veins of Latin America next, especially as I start my new job.
I found this new book only by coincidence, but it makes the graduation gift that my parents got for me for graduating from UNC all the more meaningful. They found an early printing of the original Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatan and had it rebound for me. Despite it being the namesake of this blog, I’ve actually never read the book, but I think it is all but imperative for me to do so now. I will not be bringing the hefty volume with me when I depart for Singapore and my new job, but I have a Kindle version and will certainly find time to read the multi-volume work.
Here is the link to Stephens’ Incidents of Travel on Project Gutenberg:
Here is the link to the one “Incidents” book not on Project Gutenberg:
And here is the GoodReads link for Jungle of Stone, the book about the expedition that inspired Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatan: