Wednesday 25th January 2012 (Letter 4th March 1879)

This is the first letter that my great grandfather George Charles Champion sent back to his mother in London, having recently set out on what was to become a four-year odyssey in search of insects in Central America:

From RMS “Nile”, 4th March, 1879

My dear Mother,
We arrived yesterday morning at Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, at 8 a.m. I landed at 10 a.m. and at once posted a letter, but the European mail had left the previous day, so you will not have received a letter from me.
I wandered about yesterday like one in a dream, was not quite prepared for the first sight of a tropical country. The people (99 out of 100) are negroes, the strange buildings, the gardens where you see enormous cabbage and other palms and Cacti growing right above the housetops, bananas etc; you can fancy yourself in the Palm House at Kew, only everything growing in the open air, and outside the town the fields of Agave, Cactus, Opuntia, Yucca and other queer spiny plants, the flowers in the gardens being magnificent.
In the afternoon, I and two other passengers lunched with Mr. Hutchinson*, and then went for a long drive to see the sugar growing, we then went to his country house, and after stopping there for a short time, returned along the sea coast by way of Hastings. I found the glare on the white roads very trying, though I used a straw hat and umbrella, far more than the actual heat; it was 85 deg. in the shade yesterday on board; it is 82 deg. today, could not remain very long with Mr. Hutchinson as we had to be on board before 5 p.m.
I found the coloured boys an awful nuisance; they follow you wherever you go, and if you go into a house, they wait until you come out. I could not shake them off, it seems queer at first to hear them all speaking English very well, most of them wear but a small amount of clothing though you now and again come across one with a chimney pot hat, boots etc; most of the native houses are wood, very few indeed with glass windows, all doors etc. are of course wide open.
Every inch of ground in Barbados is under cultivation, there are no woods, and it is rather flat and not unlike the Isle of Wight and is about the same size.
We are now passing Guadeloupe, Dominica, Montserrat etc. but do not call till we reach St. Thomas’s, where we are due tomorrow morning; these islands are more or less all mountainous and very different from Barbados.
I miss the company of Mr. Hutchinson today, he was the best on board, his liberality on shore was unbounded.
Every visitor to Barbados appears to go to the Ice Establishment where you sit in rocking chairs in the verandahs and partake of cooling drinks, quite different from anything we have in England; here you can watch the throngs of coloured boys passing without being pestered by them.
You can get all sorts of queer fruit here, but I have been very chary about eating too much of these, tempting though they are, have tried one or two shaddocks (like enormous oranges which are larger and different from those we get in England), bananas, figs, (which are absolutely nasty) nearly all of course are grown in the Island.
I am now wearing my thinnest suit without a waistcoat, and then I am quite hot enough. You might file these letters, they might come in useful for me to refer to hereafter.

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Friday 13th January 2012

Volcán de Agua = Volcán de Asaltos….dramatic assault and robbery on the slopes

Today’s plan was to recreate my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s ascent of the Volcán de Agua, on the same day as he had done it 131 years previously, on 13th January, 1881. An extract of a letter he sent to his mother, dated 11th February 1881, reads as follows:

I will now tell you a little of what I have been doing since I last wrote. Well, on January 11th, I left the capital for Antigua, next day on to Santa Maria high up on the slope of the Volcano de Agua; from this place I made the ascent of the volcano, starting with my servant and an Indian to carry water, blankets etc, at 9 p.m., a beautiful moonlight night, and arrived at 1 a.m. at the crater; passed the remainder of the night there, but so cold at this elevation (12,500 feet) I could not sleep; saw white frost for the first time since I left England, but as soon as the sun rose it cleared off, shall long remember the view from the Volcano at sunrise, grand in the extreme, the enormous mountains from Mexico to Salvador, the ocean for an enormous distance, the smoking Volcano del Fuego close by, though separated by a broad deep valley, down in the bottom of which my old quarters – Capetillo, the city of Guatemala, and Antigua, the Lake of Amatitlán and so on; it was well worth the journey to see, but at the same time, I hardly want to go up again, the descent is so steep that it takes the skin off one’s toes coming down. The Volcano is extinct, no smoke or anything issuing, started down at noon and in evening arrived at Antigua. On January 14th left Antigua for Pantaleon, a large sugar estate in the coast region (14 leagues distant) passing by Zapote on the road, arrived in evening very tired. Remained at Pantaleon till the 2nd of February, about three weeks in all, but so very hot, could not work well, the sun hot enough to roast one almost. This is a very pretty place low down on the slope of the Volcano Fuego (the estate suffered a good deal from the last eruption). Below we can see the sea for many miles; with its coconut trees about the house for shade, but so hot, dry and dusty now in the height of summer or dry season; now and again we are treated to clouds of very fine dust, brought down by the wind from the Volcano, only too glad to bathe every day for the heat.

One Sunday, I rode over to the small town of Santa Lucia (about 5 miles away) but there was nothing to see here beyond cock-fighting, this is a favourite amusement on Sundays in many places, and I think is even more cruel than bull fighting, and rum shops.

Crater of Agua, by Muybridge, 1875

We set off, Luisa, my long-standing and highly experienced volcano guide, Rocio, a very keen birdwatching friend whom we had fairly recently met, and myself, leaving Antigua in a pick-up that took us up to start of the volcano ascent, close to the village of Santa Maria. In order to lessen the possibility of being assaulted and robbed (common occurrences here), we skirted the village on a dirt track – and my goodness it was dirty; piles of plastic trash lined the “road”. Finally, still in the dark, we reached a point beyond which the vehicle could not proceed, and we began our ascent on foot.

At first all went well, and I was quite pleased to be keeping up with my two hyper-fit female companions, without even a drop of sweat appearing, even though I was wearing my by now famous bright yellow fleece! The volcano looked spectacular as the first rays of sunlight bathed it in an ethereal orange glow. It was a little frustrating to be without binoculars or a decent camera, but in view of the high likelihood of robbery, I had decided against bringing anything of value with me. I did have the notorious Sony Bloggie, with which I took a number of pictures of the sunrise.

After we had been going for perhaps 45 minutes, while we were ascending a relatively steep section, with high banks on either side of the trail, and small side-tracks going off into fields, suddenly we heard a sound behind us, and turned to find to our horror that a man with a balaclava hat, showing only his eyes, and with a pistol pointing at us, was just behind. He swore at us with a lot of “Hijo de putas” and other choice phrases, and then ordered us off the trail and into a deserted field with some rocks, and then told us to hand over everything and lie with our faces in the dirt, all the while swearing at us and telling us that if we moved he would kill us….and I would not be surprised if he was serious. He then rifled through all three of our rucksacks, pulling everything out and putting into his own bag whatever was of interest to him, while we lay on the ground, face down and powerless.

Volcán de Agua from Pacaya

He then came to us and ran his hands all over our bodies (in the girls’ case his examinations were particularly thorough, and lingering). He found Rocio’s cellphone, my Sony Bloggie camera (to be honest, good riddance to that rotten piece of equipment!), removed Rocio’s Bushnell binoculars, and then said that he knew there must be more phones, and that if we did not hand them over, he would shoot us…and he cocked the pistol, a most alarming sound. However, no more phones were forthcoming, so he then told us that we should continue climbing, and that he would be waiting down below, and that if we returned, he would kill us. I asked him how far he expected us to go, to which he replied “A la cumbre”…to the top! I told him we had no further desire to climb up, after such an experience, to which he swore further and told us to go on upwards anyway. I asked him how long we should stay up there before we could return, to which he said we should not come down until after midday – this was happening at about 07.00.

Volcán de Agua from lower slopes of Acatenango

Finally came a strange detail: he asked us where we were from, to which Luisa replied “Antigua”. He then told us he was leaving 15 Quetzales to allow us to catch a local bus to town! In retrospect, I should have said I was from the U.K. – I wonder how much money he would have left us for that journey!? My sarcastic reply of “¡Muy amable!”, or how kind, was perhaps pushing my luck a little. He then told Luisa to get up and put everything he had left in one rucksack, and that we should go.

Then he was gone. It was some time before we dared to move, but finally we returned, considerably shaken, to the trail, and continued upwards, in stunned silence. Finally, we found a large rock by the side of the track, on which we could sit…but then we realized that we were very visible, and could be vulnerable to another attack by a different robber, who might then react much more violently if he found that we had nothing to offer. With this in mind, we dodged up a side track into a maize field, where we hid ourselves and sat down to lick our wounds and consider what we should do. There really did not seem any point in continuing, and all desire to proceed to the summit had disappeared, but on the other hand, sitting in a maize field for four and a half hours did not seem a very happy prospect.

The near perfect cone of Agua, viewed from Acatenango

Just then, we discovered that while running his hands over Luisa to steal whatever he could from her person, he had missed her mobile phone and her car keys, which were in a small pocket lower down her leg. She immediately texted a friend, Ricardo, who then alerted the chief of police, and a rescue mission was launched. However, this had its negative aspects too, as we soon heard police sirens coming from lower down…these could have provoked the robber into returning to finish us off in fury.

From our concealed position, we could frequently hear and see a number of local people moving up the trail, some clearly innocent workers with horses or mules, but others walking with hoods up and looking potentially dangerous. Every sound seemed threatening, and we spent a long time hardly daring to move a muscle. Finally, however, we ventured back to the trail, and headed downwards, passing the scene of the crime, afraid that at any moment a shot could ring out or the robber could spring out from a side path and vent his anger upon us.

Agua panorama from Acatenango

But far from this happening, we were suddenly relieved to find Ricardo and two policemen coming up the path towards us – they had made it up to this point in a Toyota Hilux pick-up, on one of the rockiest tracks I have ever seen. And so ended our ordeal. We returned to Antigua, where we filed a crime report. In retrospect, we should have organized a police escort all the way to the summit of the volcano (this can be done, giving at least 72 hours prior warning), but at least we had not lost much of great value, barring Rocio’s Blackberry containing a lot of telephone numbers and contact details, and her binoculars, my near-useless Sony Bloggie, and a North Face jacket that Luisa was sorry to lose. It could have far far worse.

Interestingly, the police said that they were fairly sure who the assailant was – a repeat offender who had been in and out of prison many times, each time with only token sentences, as the law is not strong enough in this sense – something familiar to someone from the U.K., where often it seems that criminals have more rights than victims.

This (mis-)adventure, experienced on Friday 13th, probably concludes my diary entries from Guatemala. It serves also as a reminder that Guatemala, as well as being a land of extraordinary beauty, is a violent, troubled nation, and such acts are far from uncommon, and sometimes have much more tragic consequences than we experienced.

I am due to fly back to London on Sunday 15th, from where I shall post my final comments, findings and conclusions. It has been a truly momentous journey, and despite today’s event, my overall experience has been absolutely wonderful. My sincerest thanks go to all those who have made my stays in Guatemala, Ecuador and Panama so memorable.

The last picture to be added to my diary appears below: a view of the erupting Volcán de Fuego, taken by Stephanie Boehle during our freezing night camping on Acatenango on 18th November, 2011. Congratulations to her for taking such a fabulous shot.

An incredible view of the Volcan de Fuego, by Stefanie Boehle

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Thursday 12th January 2012

Back in Antigua, Guatemala…Volcán de Agua awaits!

My Panama adventures now being over, I have returned to that near paradise on Earth, Antigua, in time for a planned ascent of the Volcán de Agua tomorrow, on Friday 13th….a little worrying, but as my great grandfather climbed it on 13th January, 131 years ago, it seems appropriate for me to climb it on the same day!

Whilst in Guatemala City, before I came here to Antigua, I went with another friend I had met at the Paredon Surfhouse, Julia Tomei, to the Cerrito del Carmen, a small hill close to the center of the capital, from where renowned photographer Eadweard Muybridge had taken some panoramic views of the city in 1875.

Cerro del Carmen, by Muybridge, 1875

Naturally, I was interested to see how the skyline had changed since then, and if possible, to take the same views. This was indeed possible, and the view of the cathedral and central area had not changed all that much – apart from a truly appalling building housing the Ministerio de Finanzas, which from its style I assume was built in the 1960s. Talk about a carbuncle on the face of a dearly loved friend (to quote HRH Prince Charles!)!

City of Guatemala from Cerro del Carmen, Muybridge, 1875

The same view in 2012, from Cerrito del Carmen

The Cathedral from Cerrito del Carmen, with horrific Ministerio de Finanzas building behind

Environs of Guatemala City, Muybridge, 1875

Same view today

The Cerrito (small hill) is now a very well maintained park, with tourism police there to ensure security – apparently up until about three years ago a visit would not have been wise due to the frequent assaults and robberies that were occurring. One charming detail we noticed was a family who had come to the park for a picnic, bringing three live chickens with them, apparently not to eat, but simply to give them an afternoon out!!

Family outing with chickens!


Yesterday afternoon, I took the shuttle bus to Antigua, and while in the bus, ANOTHER technical hitch befell me: my NEW glasses broke!! These were the ones that I had bought in November to replace the pair that was destroyed at Tikal! This afternoon I have an appointment with the opticians to try to resolve this disaster, but I do not think they will be able to obtain a new arm before I fly out on Sunday morning. Truly this journey has been a catalogue of camera-, computer- and glasses-related disasters!!

Yet another optical disaster!

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