Serendipity: Daguerrotypes

A Daguerrotype Portrait

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were not known as photographers, yet I was greatly interested by Stephens’s description of offering to create daguerrotype portraits of some of the female inhabitants of the City of Mérida in Yucatán on their second trip to Mexico around 1840. The following excerpt is from Volume I of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

The ceremonies of the reception over, we made immediate preparations to begin. Much form and circumstance were necessary in settling preliminaries; and as we were in no hurry to get rid of our subjects, we had more formalities than usual to go through with.

Our first subject was the lady of the poetical name. It was necessary to hold a consultation upon her costume, whether the colours were pretty and such as would be brought out well or not; whether a scarf around the neck was advisable; whether the hair was well arranged, the rose becoming, and in the best position; then to change it, and consider the effect of the change, and to say and do many other things which may suggest themselves to the reader’s imagination, and all which gave rise to many profound remarks in regard to artistical effect, and occupied much time.

The lady being arrayed to the best advantage, it was necessary to seat her with reference to a right adjustment of light and shade; to examine carefully the falling of the light upon her face; then to consult whether it was better to take a front or a side view; to look at the face carefully in both positions; and, finally, it was necessary to secure the head in the right position; that it should be neither too high nor too low; too much on one side nor on the other; and as this required great nicety, it was sometimes actually indispensable to turn the beautiful little head with our own hands, which, however, was a very innocent way of turning a young lady’s head.

Next it was necessary to get the young lady into focus—that is, to get her into the box, which, in short; means, to get a reflection of her face on the glass in the camera obscura at that one particular point of view which presented it better than any other; and when this was obtained, the miniatured likeness of the object was so faithfully reflected, that, as artists carried away by enthusiasm, we were obliged to call in the papas and mammas, who pronounced it beautiful—to which dictum we were in courtesy obliged to respond.

The plate was now cleaned, put into the box, and the light shut off. Now came a trying time for the young lady. She must neither open her lips nor roll her eyes for one minute and thirty seconds by the watch. This eternity at length ended, and the plate was taken out.

So far our course had been before the wind. Every new formality had but increased our importance in the eyes of our fair visiters [sic] and their respectable companions. Mr. Catherwood retired to the adjoining room to put the plate in the mercury bath, while we, not knowing what the result might be, a little fearful, and neither wishing to rob another of the honour he might be justly entitled to, not to be dragged down by another’s failure, thought best to have it distinctly understood that Mr. Catherwood was the maestro, and that we were merely amateurs. At the same time, on Mr. Catherwood’s account, I took occasion to suggest that the process was so complicated, and its success depended upon such a variety of minute circumstances, it seemed really wonderful that it ever turned out well. The plate might not be good, or not well cleaned; or the chemicals might not be of the best; or the plate might be left too long in the iodine box, or taken out too soon; or left too long in the bromine box, or taken out too soon; or a ray of light might strike it on putting it into the camera or in taking it out; or it might be left too long in the camera or taken out too soon; or too long in the mercury bath or taken out too soon; and even though all these processes were right and regular, there might be some other fault of omission or commission which we were not aware of; besides which, climate and atmosphere had great influence, and might render all of no avail. These little suggestions we considered necessary to prevent too great a disappointment in case of failure; and perhaps our fair visiters were somewhat surprised at our audacity in undertaking at all such a doubtful experiment, and using them as instruments. The result, however, was enough to induce us never again to adopt prudential measures, for the young lady’s image was stamped upon the plate, and made a picture which enchanted her and satisfied the critical judgment of her friends and admirers.

Our experiments upon the other ladies were equally successful, and the morning glided away in this pleasant occupation.

Unfinished Business with the Maya

The Three States on the Yucatán Peninsula

I have not been to the Maya parts of Mexico since 1992, when I traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula with Martine and several co-workers at Urban Decision Systems. Now I am thinking of going again. My January trip to Guatemala only whet my appetite for more.

On past trips, I have seen the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, Acanceh, Mayapan, Palenque, Tulum, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak. I would not mind seeing Chichén, Uxmal, and Palenque again, and perhaps even spending a little time at Valladolid and Izamal, which I have not seen. New destinations would include several Maya ruins in the State of Campeche, most notably Calakmul and Edzná, and Bonampak and Yaxchilán in the State Of Chiapas. The latter two can be seen on a tour from Palenque.

The most problematical destination is Calakmul, which may possibly have been the largest Maya city at one time—perhaps even bigger than Tikal in Guatemala. The problem is that the southeastern edge of the State of Campeche has not yet been sufficiently developed for tourism by the Mexican government. I can possibly get a tour from either the city of Campeche or of Chetumal in Quintana Roo.

Maya Structures at Calakmul

There is also the possibility of Cobá in Quintana Roo. I might visit it if I have to go to Chetumal to set up a tour for Calakmul. Otherwise, I would be reluctant to run into the passenger ship mobs that dock at Cancun and the Maya Riviera.

Two cities I would love to re-visit are Mérida in Yucatán and Campeche in the state of the same name. Both are delightful places that positively reek of contemporary Maya culture, with hints of the Mexican mestizo culture and—oddly—an admixture of Lebanese and Syrian, due to the merchant classes that set up there in the 19th Century.


O Brave New World!

Maya Nose on Pre-Columbian Figure

The world opened up for me when I was thirty years old. It was the first time I even thought of breaking loose from my mother and father and exploring the world. For my first trip, I chose Yucatán in November 1975. And it was magical. First there was that cab ride to the Hotel Mérida past snack bars that were open to the street. It was my first experience of the tropics (other than Florida), and in the dark I saw men and women drinking beer and sodas. I was able to peer into houses and saw families watching television.

Once I checked in to my hotel, I stood at my sixth-floor window looking down onto Calle 60 and looking at passers-by walking on the sidewalk below. Suddenly one stopped and looked straight up at me. How did he know to do that? I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, staring at an optician’s office across the way called Optica Rejón.

I was entranced by the zócalo and the 16th-century structures surrounding it. I had my boots polished every day. There was endless people-watching, all those Maya with their distinctive noses.

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!


Around mid-afternoon, I hung out at the main entrance of the University (also on Calle 60, just a couple blocks from my hotel). So many beautiful young women that looked so different from the ones back home! Young Maya women are astonishingly good looking.

Can you wonder that, feeling the way I did about travel, that it would become a major feature of my life. Even though, in the next two years, I would travel to Europe, there was something about Latin American that lured me—and still does.

The Great God Chac

Chac Masks at Uxmal

From my trips to Yucatán, I became impressed with the one dominant image of Yucatec Mayan art: The face of Chac (pronounced CHOCK), the rain god. You see, Yucatán is a land without surface rivers. Oh, there is plenty of flowing water underground, but none of it breaks the pitted limestone surface of the peninsula. In areas several hundred feet above sea level, such as in the Puuc Hills, the water that sustained the ancient Mayans came from chultunes, underground cisterns. In some years, the cisterns were full; in others, there was pitifully little to sustain the cornstalks that fed the people.

When one visits Yucatán, particularly in Puuc Hill sites such as Uxmal, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak, the dominant image is that of hundreds of Chac masks acting as façades of the Chenes-style buildings.

After the rainy winter Southern California had last year, I was hoping for a repeat, but so far this rainy season, we haven’t received anywhere near an inch, or even a centimeter, of the wet stuff. We have rain forecast for next week, but my fingers are crossed. So often the winds just blow the clouds inland where they go to water the desert.

I am thinking, perhaps, of going to Yucatán again this year. There are a number of Mayan sites I have yet to visit, such as Coba in the State of Quintana Roo and Edzna and Xpujil in the State of Campeche. Despite the heat and humidity of the great limestone block that is the peninsula, it is a fascinating tourist destination, well developed with reasonable accommodations and good food. In addition to Yucatec cuisine, which is quite distinctive with its reliance on achiote, bitter oranges, and Habanero chiles, there are Syrian restaurants (the merchant class of 150 years ago was heavily Middle Eastern), plus the standard Mexican antojitos.

If I go, it will be toward the end of the year, after the rainy season which is also super hot and sticky.


Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Yucatán

Temple of the Dwarf at Uxmal

Temple of the Dwarf at Uxmal

All the blog posts in this series are based on Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland, Patagonia, Quebec, Scotland), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, Borges, and Shakespeare); locales associated with my past life (Cleveland, Dartmouth College, and UCLA), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), foods I love (Olives and Tea), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, in the next couple of weeks, you will see one remaining posting under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs.” To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. We are approaching the end of the alphabet today with “Y” for “Yucatán.”

It was the start of my travels: November 1975. Before then, all my traveling was at the behest of my parents or schools. That year, I suddenly decided I wanted to see Mayan ruins—on my own. My parents were appalled. They were sure I would be captured by bandidos, roasted and eaten. It didn’t turn out that way: I had the time of my life. Over a period of two and a half weeks, I saw the ruins at Dzibilchaltún, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Kabah, Acanceh, and Mayapan. I went to a Mexican tourist agency called Turistica Yucateca and arranged, in Spanish, for tour guides. (When did I ever learn Spanish? I just winged it and have been winging it ever since.)

From the moment I landed at Manuel Crescencio Rejón Airport in Merida, I was in a world of wonders. It was a warm evening, and I saw shops open to the street and people sitting outside drinking beer and sodas and chatting with their friends and neighbors. I had great food at places like the Restaurant Express on Calle 60 and Alberto’s Continental Patio and Los Tulipanes. I stayed at fascinating hotels, including the crumbling old Gran Hotel, which dated back to the late 1800s when Yucatán was the hemp (rope fiber, not marijuana) capital of the world.

I was hooked. So hooked that, ever since, I insisted on people saying just Yucatán, not “the” Yucatán. I knew. I was there. And not once, but many times.I would no more say “the” Yucatán than I would say “the” California or “the” Poughkeepsie.

I loved the tropical ambiance of Merida and the surrounding country. And people were friendly, probably more friendly then than they are now.

So that’s when I caught in travel bug. The next year, I went to England, Scotland, and Wales. Then on to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But during the 1980s, at several points I returned to Mexico and Yucatán, sometimes for a month at a time. I rode the rickety old buses, held babies for overwrought young mothers, snacked on strange foods, and felt myself growing as a person, and perhaps as a citizen of the world.


“The Enigma of Arrival”

One of My Favorite Paintings by Giorgio de Chirico

One of My Favorite Paintings by Giorgio de Chirico

I remember the first time I landed at the Manuel Crescencio Rejón Aeropuerto in Mérida, Yucatán, in November 1975. It was my first real trip out of the country (I don’t include Niagara Falls and Tijuana as being quite outside the U.S.), and it was a real eye-opener. It was night, and the vibe was tropical. In the cab to the Hotel Mérida, I passed a huge Coca Cola bottling plant before we took the turn to the right toward Calle 60. So many businesses were open to the street, and families were seated at card tables with beers and sodas. The local men were all dressed in white; and the women wore colorfully embroidered huipiles.

What was different between this and all my previous travels was that I was alone in a strange land and feeling an unusual sense of the remoteness of all my previous experience to what I was experiencing in the moment. I felt like the two huddled figures in Giorgio de Chirico’s painting, “The Enigma of Arrival” (shown above)—except that the streets of Mérida were crowded. I didn’t get much sleep that night, much of which was spent leaning out of my sixth floor window onto Calle 60. All night long, figures walked up and down the street, occasionally stopping in mid-stride to stare right at me. (How did they do that?)

The next morning, I had breakfast at the Restaurant Express, which was right across the street from a 17th century Franciscan church and the old Gran Hotel, which used to be the only one in town around the turn of the century. Eventually, I grew used to the crowds, the food, the warm, humid, floral air. I loved Yucatán and went back there four or five times.

In 1987, V. S. Naipaul wrote a novel entitled The Enigma of Arrival, which discussed the strangeness of his life (he was born in Trinidad) in the English countryside.

I have grown to love the actual enigma of arrival in a different country. I am more alive to everything around me. It is a good feeling.