Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Manola Elegante Matches

from the December 12, 2010 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

One agreeable feature of living simply is that the world forever astonishes with small, commonplace miracles. In my current life, usually this process begins even before the sun rises, as I set about lighting a hut campfire for tea water. That's when I'm always struck by the wonder of how fire can arise from a match, and how the light from a single little match illuminates the whole hut.

First, there's match chemistry to think about. I use safety matches, which means that the heads mainly contain sulfur, plus usually there's potassium chlorate, powdered glass, colorants, fillers, and a binder of glue and starch. The potassium chlorate serves as the "oxidizing agent," which here means that when it's heated it'll release oxygen, which will feed the growing fire. The matchbox's striking surface consists of powdered glass or silica, red phosphorus, binder and filler.

When a match strikes the box, glass-on-glass friction creates enough heat to convert a tiny amount of red phosphorus into white phosphorus vapor. White phosphorus vapor ignites spontaneously in air, and on the match head its heat induces the potassium chlorate to liberate oxygen, feeding the combustion until the sulfur itself starts burning, and that ignites the match's wood.

What an elegant, neatly thought-out system, and often I wonder how the person felt who first visualized the whole sequence of events, made a test match, then struck it and watched it burst into flame.

Often the first thing illuminated by the flash of my day's first struck match is the matchbox in my hand. In Mexico, in any ma and pa store from coast to coast, if you ask for matches, you're always sold the same thing. You get a prim little yellow box inside which a dainty cardboard tray slides in and out holding fifty matches. Someone in Mexico must have the monopoly on matches, but those fifty matches cost just one peso, or about nine US cents, so you wonder who'd want a monopoly like that. You can see two boxes above.

The matches are "Manola Elegante" brand and I think I can remember them from back in the 60s. Every box's front portrays the head of a young, European-type woman wearing a flowery traditional headdress, with a look on her face unsettlingly dreamy or maybe even ecstatic. On the box's reverse side there's a doll dressed in a pretty, traditional costume typical of one Mexican state or another. If you buy several boxes probably they'll all show Manola in different headdresses, and dolls wearing costumes from different states. There's not a word of advertising on the boxes. The matches themselves are excellent, lighting more dependably than their US counterparts.

So, after a jog beneath the stars, start the day with a Manola Elegante flash in the darkness, the campfire's flame slowly ordering itself, then the mug of steamy lemongrass or spearmint tea. Outside the hut, gradually dawn comes on. Then there's dew in spider webs, motmots croaking through the fog, the day's first butterfly.