Thursday 6th October 2011

Guatemala City

I arrived back in the capital on Tuesday, after quite an interesting journey from Cobán to Antigua the previous day. I was supposed to be picked up from the charming Pensión Monja Blanca in Cobán at 10.00, but at 10.45 there was still no sign of my “shuttle” – these shuttle buses in Guatemala are specifically designed for tourist travel, offering a door-to-door service between certain towns, thereby saving the hassle of traipsing across town to the regular bus stations with heavy luggage. They are of course more expensive than regular buses, but the convenience is well worth the extra cost – especially on that day as it was raining heavily (nothing unusual in Cobán!).

The charming Pension Monja Blanca in Coban, where I thought GCC might have stayed

Finally my shuttle arrived at around 11.15, having apparently been delayed due to heavy rain on its way from Lanquín, and we were off. The driver told me that he might be picking up more passengers on the way – I was later to find out what that meant!! After a short while, he told me that we would drop by his home because he needed some medicine for stress. We duly parked outside his mother’s home in a pueblo outside Cobán, and he was gone for a while. Finally he emerged bearing some liquid medicine, which appeared to be chicken soup made by his mother, and we were on our way again.

At first we chatted amicably, me telling him about my quest and my adventures, and him telling me that he spoke his native language, Poqomchi, with his mother, but with his children only Spanish. This I think is a great pity – being bilingual is a wonderful thing, and when a language dies, its culture goes with it.

After a while he began to talk on his mobile phone (using hands-free, which I was pleased about), in Spanish, but in a very low voice, and he appeared to be negotiating about something. Later, as we were approaching a service station/restaurant called La Puerta de las Verapaces, he asked me if I needed to stop for lunch, to which I replied that I did not. He talked a bit more on the phone, and then announced that he did need to stop, and that we would stay for 15 minutes. He then spoke a bit more on the phone, and suddenly announced that he wanted to have the bus washed, which would take up to 45 minutes.

He did indeed drink his mother’s soup, the bus was washed (although it did not look any cleaner afterwards!), and we were finally on our way again, but this time the driver was in much more of a hurry. We screeched into El Rancho, where the road from Cobán and the Verapaces meets the Carretera al Atlántico, coming up from the Caribbean coast. Here we stopped, and a very unsavoury-looking man got on. There was a lot of talk, a lot of waiting, and finally my driver hopped out, took my large rucksack out of the back, and climbed up onto the roof with it. I hopped out too, and saw that he was just attaching it with one of its own clips (not sufficiently strong), and he was neither covering it nor roping it on. I asked him what would happen if it rained, to which he replied that it doesn’t rain at this time of the year. As this is the height of the rainy season and it rains heavily EVERY afternoon, I was not impressed and told him to pass it down to me, and that it would remain with me, IN the bus. I then squeezed into the front seat with the rucksack and my other luggage crammed in between myself and the driver. And it did indeed rain heavily later in the day.

Suddenly I realised what was happening. As the shuttle was empty apart from me, his negotiating had been to arrange to pick up a large number of extra passengers from El Rancho to Guatemala City in order to make some extra cash. Eventually the first batch of passengers arrived, and then we drove around the block again, and another lot appeared. Finally, with the bus jam packed full, and one man standing directly behind me clutching onto the grab handle above my head, and his elbow and smelly armpit right next to me, we were on our way.

As I had planned to go out in Antigua that evening, I was anxious not to get there too late, and the original scheduled arrival time was 16.30. When it got to 16.00 and we had not even reached the outskirts of Guatemala City (45 kms from Antigua), this was clearly not going to be achieved…and then we plunged off the ring-road and headed into the centre of the capital instead, to drop off the passengers. At this point I registered my disapproval, and sure enough, we were then caught in the truly awful Guatemala City rush-hour traffic. However, to give my driver his due, we did finally make it to Antigua at 18.00. Although I can fully see his logic in using the empty bus to take extra passengers and make a little extra money on the side, I did not appreciate his lack of clarity with me (or the elbow and armpit of the man behind me), nor did I feel like paying the full rate for a shuttle. The company involved was called Aventuras turísticas – well named as it was certainly an aventura turística!

On Tuesday morning I was kindly driven from Antigua to the capital by my super volcano-climbing and mountain-bike champion guide of two weeks previously, Luisa Zea, and we stopped on the way for a wonderful breakfast with her mother, and then I arrived back at the home of my very kind hosts, the Skaggs-Nanne family.

Yesterday, after a very pleasant lunch at the German Club with my birding friend Anabelle, who had also invited French orchid enthusiast, photographer and tour guide Fred Muller, who it turns out is a personal friend of Jose Monzon, the entomologist who has seen my target butterfly Drucina championi alive (I cannot believe how everybody knows everybody here!), we headed into the old part of town with Guisela Nanne de Skaggs, my host here in the city, to the Museo del Ferrocarril, the railway museum.

Museo del Ferrocarril, in the former main station of Guatemala City

This was a fascinating visit, especially as it was Guisela’s great great grandfather, William Nanne, who had engineered the first railway from Puerto San Jose to Escuintla, which opened in 1880. We found pictures of her great great grandfather, grandfather and other family members on the walls, and marvelled also at the wonderful steam locomotives, old carriages and other railway memorabilia in this excellent museum, which is situated in the disused main Guatemala City station.

Guisela Nanne de Skaggs by the sign explaining her great great grandfather's role in constructing the railway

William Nanne, centre, with the other Nannes in front of one of the first locomotives

But, just as I had felt when visiting the old pier in Puerto San José, where my great grandfather arrived in Guatemala in 1879 and left from in 1881, why is that in three of the Latin American countries I have visited, Ecuador, Costa Rica and now Guatemala, the entire railway networks have fallen first into disrepair, and then finally collapsed altogether? The steep terrain with extremely unstable soil in all three countries, with frequent landslides washing away large sections of track, has certainly played its part, but gross mismanagement has, I fear, played an even greater role.

Detail of one of the locomotives, constructed by the Baldwyn Engineering Works, Philadelphia

The excellent railway museum

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Sunday 2nd October 2011

Cobán

I am writing this in the rainy highland town of Cobán, staying in the Pensión Monja Blanca, which we thought might formerly have been the Hotel Alemán – the building in which my great grandfather George Charles Champion (GCC) stayed in 1880, but I have just been informed by the owner that, although the hotel was founded in that year, it never bore that name. Until a few moments ago a disco next door was blaring out the most infernal techno music, something which I am sure would have shocked GCC out of his wits, but luckily it has now quietened down and I am able to hear the almost incessant rain pattering on the roof.

The last few days have again been a real highlight, almost entirely thanks to my wonderful hosts Rob and Tara, and Peter, John and Ruth, all of whom have made me feel totally welcome in both of their two homes, so much so that I really felt part of their family. My sincerest thanks go to them. And yet another amazing coincidence came to light – it turns out that Rob was a member of the Fresno chapter of the National Audubon Society, and knows my great birding friend Jon Robbins, with whom I have birded in Japan, Thailand and California…I am almost beginning to believe in that theory that no-one is more than six acquaintances away from anyone else!

This instalment begins with my arrival at the entrance of the Cahill family’s finca, Chipoc, on the outskirts of Cobán, where they have already recorded around 190 species of bird…and John had just added another, Alder Flycatcher, near the entrance. I was treated to views of this bird and its close relative the Least Flycatcher, allowing for comparison of these similar species at close quarters.

Following a tour of this oasis of calm, so close to the town yet almost surrounded by a great meander of the river and therefore isolated from disturbance, Rob, John and I headed off on perhaps one of the most authentic retracing of my great grandfather’s footsteps that I have done so far. Between 10th and 20th March, 1880, GCC made an epic and far from easy journey on his mule down from the highland town of Cobán, over a number of ridges before descending into the tropical lowlands on the way to the Petén. George lodged at the Finca Cubilgüitz, and this was our destination too. My sincere thanks also go to Seth Hempstead, a relative of the current owners and a living result of the union between the two greatest Cobán families, the Dieseldorffs and the Hempsteads, and great grandson of the first German to settle in Cobán.

GCC’s description of his travails appears in a letter he wrote to his mother from Cubilgüitz on 19th March, 1880:

“I left Cobán on March 9th with a German – a Herr Reuter – (NB: Reuter was NO relative of Seth’s!) for this place, nine leagues on the Petén road, and am staying on his ranch, but he is the dullest and most unsociable fellow I ever met with; here at times, you learn what it is to be hungry, and have nothing to eat! I like Cubilgüitz very much, though one has to rough it in a way you can scarcely imagine; it is all mountain and forest, very hot, as in Cajabon, but one gets used to that.

Coming here from Cobán, had a bad accident with my mule in fording the river Sachichá – she cut one of her hind legs very badly on the rocks and I am afraid will be unfit for work for some time; this leaves me in a fix; I want to get back to San Gerónimo in a few days, may hire an animal in Cobán, here there are none to be obtained. My boy Leopoldo is very useful, in fact I don’t know what I should do without him; he cooks for me as well when I have any eggs or plantains to cook. It is cool towards sunrise, but in the middle of the day it is excessively hot. I sleep in my hammock here, luckily there are no mosquitoes.”

Our journey, in the Toyota Landcruiser, was somewhat easier, but we too stopped at the Rio Sachichá, which was heavily swollen with all the rain that has been falling recently, and then pressed on northwards, and ever downwards, before we turned in through the gates and found ourselves at the very finca where George had stayed, Cubilgüitz itself, where we had kindly been allowed to lodge. There was not time to look around before darkness fell, but we spent a most interesting evening talking to Seth, who is deeply conscious of his family’s heritage, and had even brought along a copy of the original title deeds to the finca, which mentioned Herr Reuter, described by GCC as “the dullest and most unsociable fellow I ever met with”!

The following morning, after a night of continuous torrential rain, we looked around the finca, the main building of which is moderately well maintained, but the outbuildings are falling rapidly into disrepair. Across the courtyard stands a long barn with rooms below; perhaps it was in that very building that George slept, foodless and worried about his mule’s cut leg; in fact, following this accident and the walk back to Cobán, the mule was given a three-month holiday. The building in which we slept was more modern; this may have been built on the site of George’s lodgings. Disrepair or no disrepair, it was a remarkably emotional feeling to be on this finca, especially in the company of Seth, with whose great grandfather my great grandfather dined in the German club in Cobán on New Year’s Eve 1879/1880.

Cubilguitz, the old and the new

Breakfast produced much amusement when we mixed a very pale kind of cerial, Cheerios, with a chocolate flavoured, and therefore very dark, almost black variety, Choco Krispis; the contrast between the two colours brought to mind the extraordinary sight that must have greeted the local inhabitants when my great grandfather, a pale-faced Englishman, and his black servant Leopoldo arrived in the remote villages they visited, causing some degree of shock among the brown-skinned natives. From then on, any contrasting foods, or even when we saw a dark, almost black-looking Little Blue Heron perched in a tree next to a pure white Cattle Egret, the comment “Ah, Champion and Leopoldo” was heard!

Breakfast cereal CHAMPION AND LEOPOLDO!!

Finca Cubilguitz, looking towards the old building, in which George may have stayed

We then headed a short distance northwards to the Rio Dolores, the most northerly point of GCC’s travels, and beyond which he was unable to venture. Crossing the bridge also felt strange, almost like entering another world, one beyond GCC’s reach all those years ago.

Shortly beyond the bridge, also on Dieseldorff land, we came to an area of illegal land invasions, where local people had occupied the land and built temporary squatter camps against the wishes of the landowners. Here we turned off the main road and bumped our way along to a vanilla farm, where Seth had arranged to meet the owner. Vanilla, a species of orchid, is grown here under black netting, and each individual plant, which is a sort of creeper, climbs up its own supporting post. We also saw the pods laid out neatly on a table to dry; the intensive work required explains the high price that vanilla pods command. The finca overlooks a bend on the fast flowing Rio Dolores, racing along in a brown torrent below us. It was hardly surprising that George was unable to cross.

Rio Dolores, which George could not cross

Here we left Seth and his eight-year-old son Nicholas, and headed off to see what birds we could find along a number of extremely muddy backroads. We eventually stopped at Chisec, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch, and from there headed out of town on another rough road, this time aiming for the beautiful lakes at Sepalau, set deep in basins surrounded by forested hills. Here we obtained sightings of among other bird species a juvenile Barred Forest Falcon chasing an adult, three Collared Aracaris and a Keel-billed Toucan in the same tree, and four Least Grebes. Numbers of butterflies here were also impressive, but sadly the rain soon returned, and we started our journey back towards Chisec, and then over the Rio Dolores, and then followed the route that had taken George two full days, leading his injured mule the entire way.

Laguna de Sepalau

We spent the night at the Cahills’ charming wooden retreat on the Finca Rubel Chaim, where Ruth already was and Tara and Peter arrived later to join us. Here we planned to be up early to check out the birds, but when the alarm sounded at 5 AM, the sound of torrential rain dampened any thoughts of venturing out. Finally, later than we had hoped and after another Champion and Leopoldo breakfast, the rain eased a bit and we began to look around this amazing place, nestled deep in a valley surrounded by primary cloudforest. The work that they are doing here involves providing education and assistance to the local communities in the isolated villages dotted along the ridges, in some cases still with no access roads, and encouraging them to preserve the tracts of native cloudforest and even to reforest areas with native species close to their settlements. They are battling against illegal logging, ignorance and even superstition, but signs are encouraging so far.

The cottage used by the Cahills near the cloudforest

Water levels were far higher than the Cahills had almost ever seen, but we gingerly edged our way over two slippery wooden bridges, and finally reached an amazing cave entrance, complete with stalactites and stalacmites forming an almost devilishly open-mouthed appearance; local Mayan people still use this cave for sacrifices and other practices. I had not taken my only remaining camera for fear of it too becoming soaked, so was unable to photograph this impressive, yet somehow also almost oppressive scene.

After an early lunch, Rob, John, Peter and I set off on the next part of our ornithological quest, this time to a hill close to a house where they used to live, near Bezaleel. Our target species here was the Slender Sheartail, a minute and rare hummingbird that is restricted to extreme southern Mexico, the highlands of Guatemala and part of Honduras, and nowhere common. We did not have to wait long before a male appeared on a low bush, flexing his two elongated tail feathers in a scissor-like performance. Peter then moved further along the track, and soon found himself close to a female who appeared to be going in and out of what may have been a nest. We were enthralled for a while by these enchanting little birds…but were horrified to hear of a recent visit by a scientist who had recently visited and collected numbers of both males and females, and even a complete nest, of these near-threatened birds. George’s employers Godman and Salvin might have been justified in doing such a thing in the nineteenth century, but surely we should be past such excessive collecting today.

We then headed off to the highland town of San Cristóbal, visited by my great grandfather in 1880:

“On February 1st, I went to San Cristóbal, about 5 miles distant but on the other side of the mountains, a very pretty place on the shores of a lake surrounded by mountains, and delightful climate like Cobán if it did not rain so much. Being Sunday, the plaza was crowded with Indians, who bring in all sorts of things to sell. Sundays and Thursdays being the market days, the women bareheaded with their enormous red pigtails and their white mantilla (?) or whatever they call them, all smeared over with yellow from cacao of which they consume a great deal, afterwards wiping their fingers on their scanty dress; they wear a blue check very short skirt and a white thin mantle, that is about all, the men with white drawers and straw hats. Many coffee plantations here, all round the lake.”

The church of San Cristobal, in front of which GCC observed many scantily clad females!

Although it was Sunday, we were slightly disappointed not to find any scantily dressed native women in the plaza, but we did spend an excellent afternoon birding by the lake, even adding some new birds to the local list: Black-necked Stilt, Limpkin and a female Ruddy Duck with at least three young being perhaps the highlights. I noticed that one of the baby Ruddy Ducks appeared to have become trapped against the bank of a channel, and Peter performed a daring rescue mission by hailing two boys in a canoe and paddling with them across to the duckling, whose feet had indeed become entangled in a huge fishing net.

Peter heading off to rescue the Ruddy Duck

Laguna de San Cristobal

So ended my excellent few days with the Cahill family, to whom again my most sincere thanks. Not only had they made me feel so welcome, assisted me greatly in my quest to find the locations frequented by George Charles Champion and Leopoldo, the colour-contrasting duo, but they also pushed my Guatemalan birdlist up to 204 species. Special congratulations go to John, whose knowledge of the local birds, and ability to recognise or even hear the quietest and/or most distant bird calls are truly incredible. Peter, without binoculars, is also a talented observer…and proved to be a great catcher of butterflies and other insects for me to observe…and photograph, although without the Coolpix this is not easy!

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