Macduff Everton's latest book, The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán was 40 years in the making. It is no mere coffee table showcase. It is, as has been reported by a number of reviewers, nothing less than a magnum opus and a serious tribute to the people he has met and befriended during his decades traveling in the Maya region.
Everton is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, and his editorial clients include Condé Nast Traveler, Outside and The New York Times Magazine.
There aren't many documentary photography projects that, like The Modern Maya, span more than forty years, especially working with the same families. This book, says the author, consists of their stories, told through these images.
"While most history chronicles the famous," he says, "this book is about the lives of ordinary people who are the soul of their culture. History only exists if someone documents it."
Macduff Everton, holding his goddaughter, Cecilia, with his comadre Alba, Valladolid, 1974
Joshua Berman: When did you first travel to a country in the Mundo Maya? Where did you go and how did it impact you?
Macduff Everton: I first traveled to Mexico in 1967 when I was 19. I was offered a job to go to South America for an educational film company to create college level anthropological and archaeological filmstrips primarily as a photographer, but I also did my first ethnographic survey. I never got to South America for them -- I couldn't believe how incredible Mexico was, and by the time I got to Guatemala, I got a telegram explaining they'd ran out of money, but felt confident that if anyone could get back by themselves, I could do it. It was on this first trip that I visited Yucatán, including walking out to the Maya archaeological site of Cobá from Chemax. That first trip changed my life -- I keep returning to visit my Maya friends.
JB: What advice do you have for someone traveling to a Maya village or archeological site for the first time?
ME: I like to know as much about an area as I can before I arrive. I find that people appreciate it if you aren't completely ignorant of their culture. I often travel with more books than clothes. Some of my books I have to tie up with twine - their bindings are ancient history. For anyone traveling to the highlands of Chiapas, a great book to read is Carter Wilson's Crazy February. Along with Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga, I think it is the best example of anthro-fiction. It has been in print since first published in 1966, and now available in paperback. Ronald Wright's Time Among the Maya is wonderful, and also now available in paperback, and Mary Jo McConahay's Maya Roads is a thoughtful and personal account of some of the horrors of Guatemala's vicious war.
Trying to find a hammock maker, or a guide, or a huipile maker is a great way to visit a village and get invited into homes. Sometimes I'd ask where I could buy a meal, or where I could hang my hammock, and that would open up all sorts of adventures. And when I first went down to Mexico, I didn't speak any Spanish. For many Maya, Spanish is a second language, so they are more forgiving of impertinent verb tenses. I find that just talking to someone, showing interest in whatever they are doing, is a great way to start a conversation.
When visiting an archaeological site, read up on the site and the ancient Maya. Travel guides are an excellent source of practical information and there are a lot of books on the ancient Maya, reading that you can start weeks or months or years before you actually see your first Maya site. And then there are the books about by/about earlier archaeologists and travelers -- starting with the classic Incidents of Travel in Yucatán by John L. Stephens and illustrated by Frederick Catherwood. And then Paul Sullivan's books -- Unfinished Conversations and Xuxub Must Die are excellent.
JB: What advice do you have for photographers who are traveling in the Maya region?
ME:Patience. The title of Ronald Wright's Time Among the Maya also refers to the flexibility of time among the people of time. Relax, because events unfold on their own schedule. If you promise someone a print/photo, be sure that you honor it. It used to take me more than a year to process and develop film, make a print, and return. Now, with digital cameras, you can photograph someone, and after downloading your file at a COSTCO or graphic center, return the same day and give them prints. This will often lead to more photographic possibilities.
JB: What do you think "responsible tourism" means when traveling in the Mundo Maya? How do you make sure that inviting tourists to the heart of the Maya world does not somehow dilute, demean, or damage that culture? How do we make sure everyone benefits?
ME: People are making billions of dollars every year off the Maya. There is the Mundo Maya, Riviera Maya, Playa Maya, Ruta Maya, but the Maya aren't profiting from this. They are the employees rather than the owners. Any time that you can support local Maya -- a village restaurant, guide service -- it helps. And any support that shows that preserving Maya culture and customs has a value and can lead to sustainable tourism is a plus. Today there are few local jobs - the Maya must look for work in Cancún and along the Riviera Maya. Anything that allows the young Maya to stay and work in their towns and villages is a plus. Why aren't the Maya the owners rather than the employees? I talk about this a lot in my book.
JB: What about on December 21, 2012? Do you think people will or should try to visit a main temple site on this date? Do you have any special travel plans?
ME: I don't have special plans yet, although Anabel Ford, the archaeologist working at El Pilar (Belize), has invited me to her site that is an excellent example of archaeology under the canopy. I'd love to spend the holidays in Yucatán, or Belize, or Guatemala, but I don't think the coming 21 December 2012 is a special date. I think that any chance, any time, any date, that I can return is special.
Joshua Berman is the author of MOON BELIZE, MOON NICARAGUA, and MAYA 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras. This story originally appeared on his blog, The Tranquilo Traveler.