Have you ever noticed that the best travel writers never really considered themselves as such? Look at anybody’s list of favorites and you’ll see names like Kerouac, Bowles, Matthiessen, etc. quite often, along with names like Theroux and Iyer, writers who certainly consider themselves travel writers, but not exclusively. You’ll only rarely if ever see a guidebook writer. But there is a historical tradition which goes back directly to Marco Polo and Ibn Battutah , and even Tacitus and Herodotus, before them.
They did something very important that few writers today even consider in today’s age of blog posts and status updates: they were writing for posterity—even though it wasn’t cast as such. It was presented as reports from one part of the world to the other, the two (or more) largely ignorant of each other, a situation that is no longer the case.
What they accomplished over and above that was to inform future readers what it was like way back when. It’ll blow your mind, and surprisingly not so much more so whether it was Marco Polo in 1275 or Paul Theroux in 1975. The two travel regimens were similar, despite being separated by 700 years—the letters of introduction, the prying gazes, the hardships, and the ever-present threat of politics erupting in your face. Much of that has changed in the last fifty years, more than had changed in the previous seven hundred, by my offhand reckoning.
Two books I’ve just finished reading are Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John L. Stephens—a classic with illustrations by Catherwood—and Siamese Harem Life by Anna Leonowens, she of The King and I fame. Both of these books are of extreme interest to me, not only for their general knowledge of life at the time, but for the fact that I have expatriated myself to both places, firstly to Guatemala more than thirty years ago, and most recently to Thailand, a period that ended only five years ago. The most interesting part of the read, then, is comparing and contrasting what they write of the places then, and what I know of them now. In this regard, neither book disappoints, nor could the two be more different from each other.
The Stephens book was based on incidents in and around 1840, while the Leonowens book is based during the period of 1861-67, so almost contemporaneous, if not precisely so. Stephens described a world of great primitiveness, traveling overland by horse and mule, and begging accommodation at every stop. The Siam of the time, on the other hand, was opulent, if not decadent, with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. Comparing apples and oranges, you say? True, though much of the Guatemala trip occurred in cities, too, but nothing like Krung Thep (Bangkok). Guatemala had no royalty, of course. Neither had hotels or inns, as such, though in Thailand you could always sleep at the temple; same as now. I’m serious. You heard it here first.
But Guatemala had Indians, mostly Mayan; still do. Back then in the 1840’s they were the norm. But even then the modern divisions were evident. The Indians that couldn’t speak Spanish then are the same ones that can only barely speak Spanish now, almost two hundred years later. Stephens’ contempt for them is obvious, he unbelieving that they could’ve been author of those splendid ruined temples, they now living in squalor. I use a sliding-scale of judgment for racism; remember that at one time it was not known definitively that tribal peoples were indeed human…and that great apes were not.
The Siamese had magnificent temples then, just like now, though Hinduism was more evident then than now. They called themselves “Thai,” too, a point which I’ve often doubted, but here verified, though I still doubt it means “free” in any real sense but to pimp yo’ history. The word is not used in that way in normal everyday discourse, and nearby tribal cousins refer to themselves—to this day—as Tai (with non-aspired ‘T’) and Dai, so more likely a variation on the family name. Thais don’t much like to think about their tribal roots, except when trying to keep the Chinese at (Halong) bay.
And to this day Thais discount the Leonowens accounts, though much of it is well-documented—slavery. Less well-publicized is the fact that much of that was voluntary, due to another problem, widespread debt and usurious interest rates, same then as now—thirty percent. I’m betting the creditors wore turbans. Perhaps even more interesting was that only 150 years ago, northern Thais from Chiang Mai resident in the capital were referred to as Laos—Laotians—though today that term refers to—and only to—the neighboring country with capital at Vientiane, not even their nuclear families across the Mekong in Thailand’s Isaan province.
Stephens even talked prices, something I’ve long sought the details of, paying as little as a dollar for a room in Guatemala, and as much as a hundred, until recently the lower range of which would have been easier to find than the upper. I stayed in rooms—decent rooms—for as little as a dollar in Guatemala in the 1980’s, at a time when I doubt that a $100 room existed anywhere there. Today that situation would be reversed.
But no one doubts the existence of the Siamese harem, mini-versions of which exist to this day and which are enshrined in the language and culture as “mia noys,” i.e. minor wives, often as many as a guy can afford, no stigma attached, the only scars internal, one change from the past being the increase in the value of a human life, despite the fact that supply has vastly increased, worth about $2K for a Thai last time I checked, maybe $3K for a farang, a Western foreigner. I’m serious. Scuttlebutt is that accident victims frequently get run over a second time to forego compensation. Me, I made a profit, since hospitals are (or at least WERE) cheap. The X-rays look like Hell, though.
In the Central America of 1840, society was defined by revolution, the egalitarian kind, more or less, something not even dreamed of in the Siam of 1860, as the peasant usurper Carrera ran one of the world’s first revolutionary states, for a time at least, something not even Marx could’ve fully envisioned. Apples don’t fall far from their trees, and news traveled slowly across oceans, I suppose. Ironically it was revolutionary and reactionary at the same time, then as now, peasants and church against capitalist developers. It delayed the final decimation of Indian culture that reached its darkest depths in 1983, while I was there, and today the ignorant peasant Carrera, largely reviled in his day, is now considered a founding father of the Guatemalan state.
As always the devil is in the details, and they both were full of it—mostly in a good way. The Thai/Siamese predilection for doctoring the details of history is as well-known as the Latin American predilection for scrambling them in a stew of half-baked schemes and unfulfilled promises. But such is the stuff of history, if not travel. Still the best travel is time-travel, time and space, multi-dimensional. I write for future archeologists. They’ll want details, not vague generalities and the platitudes of pontification. Breakfast is optional. Where’s my waiter?