John Harrison

To Begin at the End: An Extract from John Harrison’s New Book

This week sees the publication of the new book from award-winning travel writer, John Harrison. 1519: A Journey to the End of Time sees John follow in the footsteps of Hernan Cortes, the man who, in the 16th century, found in Mexico ‘the largest and best run city on earth and reduced it to rubble’. Here we publish an exclusive extract from what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the publishing highlights of 2015.

Time is about to end.  Again.

I woke in my room above the lagoon of Río Lagartos, on top of the Yucatán peninsula, with a sharp wind whistling at the windows.  Sixty-five million years ago, a large meteorite struck the sea beyond the lagoon and exploded, throwing our planet into twilight, killing the dinosaurs, and creating opportunities for puny creatures called mammals to prosper.  The disaster opened the door for the evolution of humans.

Magnificent frigate birds posted unmistakeable silhouettes: a long, deeply forked tail, and angular wings, longer than those of all but the greatest albatrosses, which jut forward at the central joint on the leading edge of the each wing.  They streaked past at eye-level, pterosaur shapes slipping through time cracks to cast Jurassic shadows on the earth.  Below me boats were bumping each other and the stocky wooden piers, but when I went onto the terrace the wind was warm, and chinks of sun were wedging open the low clouds and prising them apart, lighting up stripes of ripples on the lagoon.

This is Mexico, where time runs in cycles.  Because time is cyclic, beginnings are also endings, and endings are beginnings.  Aztec and Maya historians looked at unfolding events, which had all happened before, and studiously corrected errors in ancient accounts, to better understand them the next time they came round.

I was planning my last excursion after four months’ travelling through Mexico in the footsteps not just of the Conquistadors, but of the first Americans, who ruled sophisticated cities and empires dating back to the time of Homer.  I tried to rein in my excitement because today was chancy.  I had tried to reach Cabo Catoche four months ago.  On my maps, every road coming from the east petered out.  The sea was no easier.  Currents, coral and limestone reefs maze the shallows: tinglingly beautiful but able to tear a hull apart.  I wanted to get there because the first real contact between people of the continental New World and the Old took place along this coast, at the north-east corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, the anvil on which the Caribbean beats.  Cabo Catoche is the name that Spanish ears heard when they came ashore here, and listened to the Maya saying Cones catoche: that is ‘Come to our houses.’  The hand that wrote down those words for us belonged to twenty-four year old Bernal Díaz, and without this literate soldier, our picture of the human contact between these two worlds would usually remain monochrome.  He can make it blaze into colour; he can touch your heart not just for the grandeur that was destroyed, but also for the working soldiers, racked by wounds and fevers, who tore the riches to the ground, and trampled on them in patched-up sandals.

In 1517, three ships under Díaz‘s commander, Francisco de Córdoba, were probing westwards along the Yucatán Peninsula.  By 4 March they were twenty-five days into the voyage.  One of the ships had been bought on credit from the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, accompanied by his illegal demand that they take slaves from other islands to pay him.  They refused.  A contemporary of Velázquez with no grudge against him defined him as ‘covetous of honour, but even more so of wealth.’  Velázquez became the sponsor, then the persecutor of Hernàn Cortés, who would force his way across Mexico with Velázquez’s hirelings snarling at his heels.

Cabo Catoche seemed impossible to get to.  I looked again at satellite images on my iPad.  There was a road from the west heading twenty miles to Cabo Catoche, but it was a sand track, crossed by rivers and cut by the necks of lagoons.  Zooming in on the satellite imaging, I saw that if I could get to Holbox Island, I might reach Cabo Catoche from the sea.

In a packed colectivo, a stop-on-demand minibus, patient locals made room for my backpack among sacks and a second-hand microwave. Someone hailed the man in the front seat as Pachoyo!, Maya for driver.  In fifty minutes I was behind Willy’s supermarket in the little town of Tizimin, looking for the bus to Chaquilá, the ferry port for Holbox Island.

Holbox is a chill-out and dive centre whose selling point is the chance to swim with whale sharks, but it was not the season for the world’s largest fish, and things were quiet.  It had been raining hard, and water filled the sandy streets which, four or five town blocks to the north, meet the opposite shore.  Two months before, a high tide, fuelled by a storm surge driven before a cold front, had poured through the streets of the island’s only village, from shore to shore.

Local fisherman Pablo captained a fibreglass boat with new twin sixty horse-power Yamaha engines.  He knew Cabo Catoche and could take me there.  I mentioned another place, Bahía Iglesia, or Church Bay.

There was a change in his eye.  He said, ‘No one ever goes there.’

‘Have you been there?’ I asked.

‘Yes, but it was,’ he paused and frowned, as if surprised by his own recollection, ‘over twenty years ago.’

‘Is the church still there?’

‘Who knows?’

A Spanish Colonial church from the early 1500s was buried in the mangrove swamps.  ’I want to go to Catoche and the church.’

He said, ‘Yes, but not today.’

Hope shrivelled.

‘East wind.  In Holbox we have some lee, but the channels leading to the church are on the other side of Cabo Catoche.’

I drive small craft myself.  Conditions did not look tough for a twenty-foot boat.  Was he trying to avoid going?

I had two further days left.  He didn’t like the next day either, but late in the afternoon, the wind fell, and squadrons of brown pelicans, flying in lines offshore, passed by lower and slower.  Tomorrow would be my last chance.

At dawn I swam.  A great egret on an offshore rock let me glide closely by, the yellow eye-ring circling the dark pupil.  It was calm.

Pablo was fifty-five, wiry, with neat hair, a striped polo shirt, and cut-off denim shorts.  We planed east along the seaward side of Isla Holbox.  The sky was ultramarine, and the sea pale jade.  Neo-tropic cormorants squibbed underwater, and burst back into the light, cowls of water sheering from their olive plumage.

I pictured how the shore would look if, like the Spanish, I had been nearly a month at sea, out of Cuba: mute.  The land seen from the sea gives away nothing about the interior.  The edge of the limestone plateau which forms the body of the Yucatán is low, but Holbox is two-dimensionally flat.  It forms a slender island a mile wide, extended west like a cricket’s leg from the peninsula’s north-east corner, enclosing a shallow lagoon five miles north to south.   The beach is white sand the width of a dirt road.  No land rises over thirty feet, so the hinterland was invisible.  Outside the village, the skyline is not the tropical signature of palm fronds lazing on slender grey trunks.  All that presents itself to any stranger, seeking explanations, or at least clues, is a a soft fuzz of feathery cypress branches whisking the air.  But from their ships’ masts, perhaps fifty feet up, the Spanish spied a town bigger than any encountered in twenty-five years’ exploration of the Caribbean.  ‘This land was as yet undiscovered,’ said Díaz, but they would hear cries they did not heed, telling them they were not the first.

The Spanish model for alien culture was the Moors, so they called this town ‘the Great Cairo.’  On the morning of 4 March, ten large dugout canoes, left the shore with up to forty men in them, and approached under sail and oar, displaying no fear.  More than thirty men boarded the Spanish flagship, where they showed great interest in its construction.  The Spanish offered each a string of green beads: a fortunate choice, since green stones enjoyed high status among the Maya.

Whatever was communicated was done by sign language.  The Maya chief would return next day with enough canoes to ferry them ashore, which he did ‘with a smiling face and every appearance of friendliness’.  The Spanish would not have known they had landed on an island, or that they were not walking to the Great Cairo, which was on the other side of the lagoon.

They took all the arms they could carry, including steel swords, crossbows and muskets: all unknown in the New World.  They followed a road until it reached some low hillocks, where the chief yelled an order.  The first flight of arrows wounded thirteen Spanish.  The Maya followed up with lances, and slings, which at close quarters were as effective as muskets.  The Spanish unleashed a counter-attack and drove off their attackers, leaving fifteen of them dead.  They also seized two Natives both cross-eyed which the Maya considered a sign of beauty.  The Spaniards’ treatment of them set the tone for the next three hundred years.  They were not treated as citizens of sovereign states, or prisoners of war.  They were baptised and re-named, like pets or livestock: Julian and Melchior.  We do not now know their real names.

There is no doubting Spanish courage.  They marched on, into enemy territory, reaching a small square with masonry temples, containing gold and copper items which they stole, along with ceramic figures ‘which seemed to represent Indians committing sodomy.’  Detecting sodomy would become an obsession, because it was a hallmark stamping the practitioners with heresy, and heretics had no rights.

Cabo Catoche was marked by a lighthouse until the storm of November 2013 smashed the tower into the sea, where it measures its length in broken masonry.  As we moored at the short pier, made from bags of sand and cement laid in the water, brown pelicans shuffled from one paddle-sized foot to another.

Behind the pier stood the ground-floor offices of the lighthouse and alongside it the twisted pylon of its radio tower.  A homemade ladder gave access to the roof.  When I straightened it to climb, it hinged into a line of lozenges.  Pablo reminded me where the nearest hospital was, and I settled for visiting the offices.  The seaward doors had held firm and the interior was orderly.  I was leafing through keeper’s maintenance record for 1912, when the door opened and a muscular man entered, bare-chested because his shirt was tied across his face.  He was holding a long knife and a piece of steel.  He growled, then dropped his shirt to reveal grinning teeth in a black beard.



Pablo embraced him.  ‘Luis is a fisherman; they make camp here to cook and sleep.’  We shook hands.  I saw that the length of steel was a long pair of barbecue tongs.  I picked round their camp, the floor strewn with coconuts, delivered by gravity, and piles of empty bottles of vodka, gin and Sol beer.

After this skirmish, the Spanish sailed on.  It was a reconnaissance mission, and their chief pilot was convinced the Yucatán Peninsula was an island, plausible given its very low relief and swift coastal currents.

Pablo and I continued east to the more remote inlet of Bahía Iglesia.  The cypresses thinned, and the mangrove trees crowded closer to the sea, compressing the beach.  Here and there a Maya-style hut appeared with an oval plan and thatched roof.  Pablo edged up to a homemade buoy topped by a ballroom mirror ball, and marking the entrance to two broad channels.  The mangroves stepped out on their angular roots into the brackish water, slowing the current, causing more mud to be deposited.  It was colonising the sea, abetting the land to creep out and smother it.

Pablo nosed slowly in; forked choices opened up.  I crouched in the bow watching for sandbanks, observing the current comb the head-sized clumps of weed; small fish wove through gorgon hair.  The channel narrowed, but he kept on; branches on either side began to touch, then interlace.  A dislodged lizard fell in my lap.  The channel entered a pool with no outlet.  We tracked every channel.  They all closed on us.  Pablo slid from quiet confidence to head-shaking.   ‘The church is over there,’ he waved an arm towards the heart of the labyrinth.  ‘But, twenty years, it’s grown so much.  Everything is narrower.’

He went up the coast a mile before heading into an even remoter channel. We were soon pushing mangrove branches off our heads again.  Each probe ended with us wedged tight, and the boat was a pig to reverse.  Pablo was one of those rare people who can be taciturn without seeming unfriendly, but I could see what he was thinking, and wasn’t surprised when he said, ‘The tide has started to fall.  There is one more place, but it is very shallow.’  We backtracked two miles into the main lagoon through a channel so shallow that an egret fifty yards out from the mangrove was standing only ankle deep.  There was a faint stippling on the surface of lagoon, because every few yards a single shoot stood like a thin whip with a bud at the tip.  The mangrove had seeded across the entire lagoon; it would soon be land, and the church a folk-tale.   In the middle of the lagoon, he slowed to a crawl and I heard the stems of the engines rasping through the sediments, before we returned to deeper water.  With four o‘clock approaching, our deadline if we were to return in daylight, I saw something rising above the vegetation.  There was a slight ridge running along the mainland shore, and at its high point a small block of masonry: my binoculars showed me a church tower.

We anchored in a shallow bay, took off our shoes, and I tried not to think about the soft things my toes felt in the glue-like sediments.  The shore was a two-yard wide band of stinking black mud, then some stinking brown mud, then a narrow trail.  In ten yards it was dry and we were gently climbing through woodland when, through the underbrush, I glimpsed ruins.

I was walking back five hundred years into free-floating time, to the brief years in which the  only the fringes of the Americas were known to Europeans.  A pile of stones and a huddle of men were left here with the task of completing the conversion of the heathens of two continents.

The friars, with their subject Natives, laboured in the hardest of conditions to build something that mattered to them, that would stop their own souls from disappearing into the maw of malevolent time.