Friday 23rd March 2012 (Letter 19th September 1879)

GCC finds that Guatemalans are not fond of soap, and that the apples and pears “are not as good as the English”!

Today’s long letter comes from my great grandfather George Charles Champion, dated September 19th 1879. I too visited some of the places he mentions, most notably on my exciting day-trip with the Cahill boys John and Peter (please see my diary entry for Thursday 29th September 2011).

The cover of GCC's diary from 1879

Hacienda de San Gerónimo
Baja Vera Paz
September 19th 1879
My dear Mother,

Am still at San Gerónimo, though I have been away for a few days in the mountains, think of taking another trip shortly to Panimá and Tucurú. I found it very cold at night, sleeping at Santa Cruz (5500 feet above the sea) but early in the morning the air was delightfully cool and a great change from the hot Salamá valley. I slept three nights in miserable mud huts in the Indian villages of Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. My man made a fire with logs on the ground and made some coffee, cooked eggs etc… While at Santa Cruz, I walked over to San José (another little village) to see an Englishman who lives at this place, he is 80 years of age and hearty, though very deaf; he lives with Indians, and has quite acquired their way of dressing etc. The climate up in these mountains is very humid, far more so than in San Gerónimo, often when fine in the valley, it is raining on the hills. The roads were execrable, in two places going right over the tops of the mountains and descending again, on the highest parts the Indians have set crosses, which they keep constantly supplied with fresh flowers. There were splendid views of tropical mountain scenery, in the forests we passed through on the branches of the trees any number of pineapple-like plants (the aerial roots of some of these hang down like long beards almost to the ground), orchids (one lovely species with a spike of yellow flowers more than a foot long on a stalk perhaps three or four feet in length) and many others; the road for a long distance passed along the top of a ridge of mountains, the ground descending very steeply on both sides. Here we saw a few tree ferns. While at Santa Barbara, I went to see a friend of my servant’s who made us very welcome, he had some orange trees in his garden, these were full of fruit and very nice to eat they were too, he had apple trees as well, but the apples of this country are very poor and very small, pears also, but they won’t compare with the English.

Last Monday (September 15th) was a general holiday here, it being the anniversary of the independence of the Republic. They got up bullfights and other amusements in the village, and were very noisy all day, continually letting off rockets, ringing church bells etc. I however saw very little of it, being unwell at the time. I went yesterday with Mr. Hutchison and others to Salamá, to the annual fair which is held here. People come from very long distances from Peten, Quetzaltenango, Zacapa, etc, and sell necessities for the year. A most extraordinary scene it was too, to see the different Indians, and other people here, some drinking, some playing music (the Indians play a sort of piano, wooden keys with different sized gourds beneath), rockets firing, church bells ringing etc. The open plaza was so crowded that you could scarcely move; as for the heat, it was fearful. Salamá is much hotter than San Gerónimo, low houses with tiled roofs, mostly whitewashed, and much the same as other towns in the Republic; it was pleasant enough however when we returned, later in the day. Out of the town on to the plain there is a little more air; round the town you see great cacti, palm trees, bananas etc, all of which look very tropical.

Am still troubled a great deal with neuralgia (a very common complaint in this excessively humid climate) and have been a prisoner in the house for two or three days from this. I am afraid shall have but little rest until I go to Guatemala to have my defective wisdom teeth extracted. I eat like an old man of 80.

Can now answer your last letter a little more fully and will tell you first of all what we have to eat and drink in this place. At 6 a.m. a cup of coffee and a piece of sweet bread; at 9.30 a.m. breakfast (am often however away from this meal), eggs, tortillas, frijoles, cheese, butter, bananas, avocates (like large pears), sometimes meat, and of course, finishing with coffee; in the middle of the day, very little; people in these countries take very little during the heat of the day, in fact, you don’t get hungry, sometimes a little cold chicken or tortillas and cheese; 6-6.30 p.m. dinner – soup (which I got to like very much in this climate) with rice, boiled meat with a great variety of tropical vegetables, and also sometimes beans, green peas (but very poor), cabbages and potatoes, roast meat or fowl, never pastry, but often custards, rice with milk or soft puddings, more frequently however we have “dulce” or fruit (pineapple etc.) boiled with sugar, something like jam, the Spaniards are very fond of this dulce as they call it. I like peaches very much done in this way, of course, finishing with coffee. I do not get tired of this coffee, in fact where one has nothing to drink but poor water, coffee is very refreshing, it is of course very different and very much better than we get in England, no chicory here. We take all our meals in the open verandah, and as this place commands a fine view of the distant mountains, we often see splendid sunsets and later on sometimes a sort of pyrotechnic display in the shape of sheet lightning, hot sultry evenings we have a good deal of this latter. Tea is consumed but little in Guatemala (it costs 8/ to 16/s a pound); people like coffee or chocolate, which also grows in this country better. I tried tea once or twice at the Gran Hotel, can only compare it to dirty water. We are still having a vast deal of rain, especially on the mountains.

While at Salamá yesterday, I went to the Post Office to see if the European mail just in had brought anything for me but no such luck, Mr. Hutchison got a lot of newspapers and letters, he was more fortunate. I don’t know whether it is worth writing to the Post Office about these missing things, am afraid it will be of little use. I get precious sore after a long ride on horseback not being used to it; my mule, though slow, is very good for these bad roads, wants a little coaxing now and then and that is all. I have to buy a horse for my servant, so can travel anywhere. I would have liked you to have seen us at Santa Cruz, cooking by means of a fire in the middle of the room (there are no chimneys or fireplaces in these native houses); smoke gets out the best way it can. Got precious little to eat for first day or two, till I went to see the Englishman at San José, begged for a few potatoes etc. of him; he has wheat growing, this was the first I had seen, slept on some boards, and made my toilet a stream close by. People are not fond of washing themselves here, in fact they tell me sometimes that it will give me a fever. I think many only comb their hair once a week on Sundays. To see the way the Indian women carry their babies is really alarming; they make a sort of large pocket with their dress on their backs and into this they drop the youngsters, you see them working at all sorts of things with the baby’s head sticking out of this bag.

Mr. Godman has only sent a few things by post as yet, when he makes up a parcel, may get you to send one or two things. I find I want many odds and ends not obtainable here. Father might ask some of his gardener friends how some of the plants are sent over. I really don’t know. I can only send things dry (such as seeds etc), orchids I am afraid would only grow in a greenhouse. By the time you get this letter, I expect you will be having wintry weather, here they tell me November, December and January are all hot months – their summer, this will seem stange to me at first, I expect, shall then perhaps appreciate the climate of this country better than I do now. I hope I have seen the worst of the rainy season. Time goes quickly with me, a week is gone before I know where I am, have been six weeks already at San Gerónimo, one day is but a repetition of another and I seldom remember the days of the week. My watch keeps all right, I am glad to say, though this climate makes it lose a great deal, but really one needs a watch very little, no trains to catch; I wish there were!

People get up when it is light and go to bed when it is dark.

Must now conclude with best love to all,

The Rio Panima, which GCC crossed in September 1879


Tuesday 20th March 2012 (Letter 7th September 1879)

GCC is shaken by an earthquake, and is shocked by the extra-filthy habits of pigs in Guatemala!

Here is the next of my great grandfather’s letters to his mother, dated 7th September, 1879. As well as the earthquake he felt, he seemed to suffer particularly severely from neuralgia, not a disease with which I am familiar, but according to Wikipedia: The disorder generally causes short episodes of excruciating pain, usually for less than two minutes and usually on only one side of the face. The pain can be described in a variety of ways such as “stabbing,” “sharp,” “like lightning”, “burning,” and even “itchy”. It certainly does not sound pleasant.

Sept. 7th, 1879

My dear Mother,

I am still here in San Gerónimo; have been very comfortable in this house, a good bed and good food all the time; have already been a month in this place. Am still troubled a great deal with neuralgia, and suppose I shall be until the rainy season is over in October, otherwise have been very well all the time.

I find my servant (Guillermo) Dubón very useful in many ways. I always take him out with me, have been out nearly every day except Sundays, though often driven in early in the afternoon by the rain. We have had a little less rain in the daytime since I last wrote so have managed to get about more. One thing, the soil is sandy so it soon dries up with the heat of the sun; still the climate is very humid and will be for another month.

Shall probably leave early tomorrow for an expedition to some places (Santa Barbara, San José, San Antonio etc) in the mountains, but only for two or three days, returning again to San Gerónimo. I hope to make this place my headquarters for some months, making journeys all round.

I had a letter from Mr. Salvin by last mail, telling me to go to Godines and Patzitzia on the road to Quetzaltenango, but the letter came too late, I was already far away in another direction.

We have had two shocks of earthquake lately, the last during the night of September 1st was rather severe, lasting several minutes. Mr. Morgans is still in Guatemala, but Mr. Hutchison is here, the manager a Spaniard also speaks English, so am never very ‘dull’. Sunday mornings, the work people are drilled in the village by the military authorities; if they fail to attend, they are put in prison. Military service is compulsory; in case of war these people would have to go as soldiers.

Barefooted soldiers, Guatemala, photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1875

The village is larger than it appears at first, the houses are a good way apart, the roads are very bad indeed. In going along the street, you meet any number of dogs, pigs, fowls, naked children, also women bringing water in queer shaped earthern vessels balanced on their heads, from the river; they have to fetch every drop they want for their houses. Down by the river, all day long you see the Negro and Indian women washing clothes etc., they stand in the water and scrub away on a piece of rock. Everything is washed in this way but in Guatemala and other places where they have not a river to go to, there are public washing places adjoining the numerous street fountains.

Pulling cloth and doing the laundry, by Muybridge, 1875

Public Laundry, Guatemala, by Muybridge, 1875

Such public laundries still exist - here my guide Luisa Zea poses by one

In the village, the people make no attempt at keeping a garden. A few grow a little maize, or a few bananas, they seldom keep up a fence round their ground, all is dirt and squalor. The workpeople on the estate earn 1/- a day (some only 6d); on this they keep a wife and family. I pay my man 9/- a week and 1/- extra for Sundays, this is considered good wages, and he is very well satisfied. He is quite smart compared with many here, wears boots and so on. The estate is very large; one of the coffee plantations is six miles away. Santa Barbara up in the mountains also belongs to them; they, however, only cultivate a small portion of it. They make their own butter, cheese, etc., also their own bread. They live a great deal in this house upon fowl, we have meat also, but is seldom good (meat is only about 4d a pound). Few people care to eat pork, the pigs being extra filthy in their habits in Guatemala. Looking down onto the village from the hills, the houses appear surrounded by trees, here and there a large palm and a solitary coconut tree just by this house, the large white church stands conspicuous above all, and is a prominent landmark for miles around.

We rarely see a stranger, only two in a month, one a German on his way to Cobán (whose horse had come to grief on the road), the other a Frenchman who has a small estate about ten miles away; of course the German spoke English, it is wonderful how they pick up languages as they do.

This house immediately adjoins the church, so close that we hear the singing, they are always ringing the bells for some thing or other, though they only have services very early on Sunday morning and Saints’ Days, just now they are going round the village with a life size figure of some saint or other, which they will presently bring to the church, and after its arrival, I suppose will let off the usual fireworks, according to custom; it seems strange, fireworks in the daytime.

Such saints are still paraded through towns today - this one was in the capital

In the house, they have two tame animals, a porcupine, and a kinkajou, the latter is very tame, is not unlike a large squirrel, only with a long tail like a monkey. He sleeps all day, but in the evening, is fond of a game. You see a few cats about, but not many. Mr. Morgans brought the kinkajou from Izabal, where they are said to be common. Mr. Morgans, I believe, intends returning to England in December, and if he comes out again, will probably bring his wife and family with him. We get very little fruit in San Gerónimo beyond oranges, lemons, and bananas. Grapes are grown in Salamá, but I have not seen any yet.

In the mountains, there are a few nice plants in flower, a beautiful orchis on the oak trees (flowers pale yellow with dark markings) and many others. There are two species of begonias, a few tree ferns and palms etc. I am obliged to post letters sooner here to catch the mail, post only goes twice a week from Salamá to the capital, still no newspapers or books. The mail arriving in Guatemala on the 4th may have brought something, if so may get them tomorrow when we send to Salamá.

Hoping you are keeping well and with best love to all,
Believe me, etc.

A view near San Geronimo, with the hills in which GCC collected insects, in the background


Sunday 18th March 2012 (Letter 19th August 1879)

GCC travels to San Gerónimo, and settles into his new quarters

Today’s letter, covering much the same ground as the previous one I posted, is this time to his mother rather than to his employer, and describes my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s mule-ride from Guatemala City to San Gerónimo, where he was to base himself for almost a year. I visited this place myself on 30th August, 2011, and although the actual former monastery adjoining the church of San Gerónimo, in which GCC slept, no longer stands, the church is still there, as are the sugar-cane processing buildings and some of the original equipment. The complex is now a museum. When I visited, the staff were on strike, but by jumping over a fence with the aid of my enthusiastic guide Eduar, I managed to explore the area and get a feel for this place, which hosted my great grandfather for so long (please see my diary entry for 31st August 2011).

The church next to which GCC lodged for nearly a year

Hacienda de San Gerónimo
Baja Vera Paz

August 19th 1879

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of July 15th yesterday, it having been forwarded to me from Guatemala.

I left Guatemala on the 8th instant, in company with a young Canadian – Mr. Hutchison, of Montreal, who is at present living here. Mr. Morgans could not get through his business in time and is still detained in Guatemala. I was very glad to get away from the hotel, the lazy life there did not suit me and one’s expenses are very heavy there. We started about midday on the 8th and spent the first night at Carrizal, where I tried sleeping in a hammock, but though a hammock is very comfortable indeed for an occasional rest in the daytime, I cannot say I liked it very much for the night; next morning at daylight, we were again on the road, rested a short time at Trapiche Grande, spent the second night there, then on again for a long spell till nearly dusk when we arrived at Llano Grande, starting again at 2 a.m. the next day for San Gerónimo, the mules and ourselves being nearly worn out with this long journey of 70 miles. The road and mule track all the way kept ascending or descending ranges of mountains, crossing rivers (some difficult to ford), some places very bad indeed to pass, the road occasionally up to our animals’ knees. I shall long remember the last stage of the journey: we started by the aid of a little moonlight, but this soon failed and we almost had to feel our way over the most fearful roads I have ever seen; between Llano Grande and San Gerónimo we had to cross the high mountain range of Choacus. We were over three hours passing this place, getting to the top soon after daylight, and to make matters worse, it commenced to pour with rain; as we descended the other side, we had the broad green valley of Salamá at our feet, and on the opposite side more ranges of mountains; at the extreme end of this valley San Gerónimo is situated.

Some of the original sugar-cane processing buildings

Mr. Morgans kindly forwarded my luggage, and one of his servants accompanied us on the road. I am very comfortable here once more with civilised people, the food is also very good and everything is more comfortable. This place is about midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, much hotter than Guatemala but not so hot as Zapote, the thermometer in the house is usually between 70 and 80; we have all our meals in the verandah, which is much more pleasant in a tropical country, all round the view is backed up by mountain ranges on three sides quite close in; only the upper part of house is used for living in, so everything is very dry. This house was formerly a monastery, consequently is very large with many rooms.

There are many negroes in San Gerónimo (the house servants are negroes also) formerly brought from Belize to work in the cane fields, also Indians and half-breeds. The village is far superior to Dueñas, here houses with plaster or mud bricks walls and tiled roofs, in Dueñas only ranchos of sticks and thatch; still it does not bear close inspection, and looks far better at a distance, pigs swarm all over the place. The sun is very powerful in the morning, in the afternoons we almost invariably have heavy storms, with much thunder and lightning. One can only depend on the morning being fine.

Have at last met with a servant, who will, I think, quite suit me, he is recommended to me by Mr. Morgans and is now with me on trial, he has been about with me a good deal near the “finca”.

Living in the house, there is Mr. Hutchison, then the manager of the estate, which belongs to English people, continual lawsuits are however swallowing up all the profits. Mr. Morgans was appointed by the Court of Chancery to come out to superintend the management – a Spaniard, who speaks English, an Italian connected with the estate and myself. We form a party of four in all. Mr. Morgans will probably be here soon, then we shall muster five. The estate is very large, they have a great quantity of sugar cane, coffee plantations etc. and plenty of maize also. I hope to make this place my headquarters for some time, making journeys all round in the neighbourhood, and returning again to San Gerónimo till the rainy season is over; shall endeavour to remain as I have an open invitation to stop as long as I like. San Gerónimo is but a small village (about 3000 feet above the sea) at the foot of the Choacus mountains; our nearest town is Salamá, two leagues distant. They cook everything better here and put less of the everlasting fluids with the food, which agrees with me very well and does not upset one’s stomach; am very well in health here except that I am still troubled a good deal at night with neuralgia. I have received but four letters from you, but from reading your last, I seem to have missed one; have, however, I am sorry to say, received but one newspaper, have not received the books. I cannot understand it, newspapers must be posted for abroad within I think a week of publication, but for books there is no limit of time, perhaps it would be as well to send the newspapers via San Francisco, I believe they are detained for some reason or other at Panama, a perusal of the postal guide as to foreign postage regulations may set things right; there being no postal treaty between England and Guatemala often causes delay or loss of letters etc. I have read good deal about the Prince Imperial’s death in the Illustrated London News, while at Dueñas, also in the Graphic here at San Gerónimo.

A road along which GCC undoubtedly rode on his mule, looking down towards San Geronimo

You seem to be having a queer sort of summer in England. I cannot say I have find it very cold here, quite the reverse but have never seen such a quantity of rain before as in the last 3 months, sometimes after the rain here the rivers are impassable for a time till the water goes down again. Our new tramway cars with awning on top and drawn by three mules must appear very strange to Londoners; out here and in the West Indies you see mules used far more than horses. I should like you to see how some of the negroes dress here, they are fond of wearing a white shirt but they never tuck in the tail, always leave it hanging out so as to show it all, this and a pair of shorts constitute their costume. I find my clothes too heavy for this country. Mr. Hutchison kindly lent me some white things (I could not get any ready made in Guatemala). When the sun is out, it is very hot indeed, but morning and evening there is always a cool breeze and it is very pleasant in the verandahs; at night, too, here in the mountains can always beg a blanket on the bed. I found it much hotter in the night in Jamaica and also on the steamer on the way out than here. I should like to send some ferns at home for father but at present don’t see how I can send them alive, am obliged to keep the collections I send to Mr. Godman (have sent 2 lots) as dry as I possibly can, and living plants could hardly be sent with them. Ferns are much rarer here, the soil is more sandy, and perhaps not so suitable; instead we have many Cacti, Agaves, a sort of wild pineapple and other spiny plants of this nature. Zapote was far more prolific in vegetation.

I must now bring this rambling epistle to a close with very best love to all and hoping you are all enjoying good health.

An amazing spider we found near San Geronimo

A mating pair of grasshoppers near San Geronimo

An "airplane grasshopper", photographed near San Geronimo

A brightly-coloured froghopper, found near San Geronimo

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