Wednesday 24th April 2012 (Letter 5th May 1880)

The disreputable-looking GCC’s horse is strangled in the Polochic Valley!

Today’s letter concerns a dramatic accident involving a horse that GCC had borrowed (sadly it seems that Leopoldo, his servant-to-be for the coming three years, was at least partly to blame). He states that the cost of his recent accidents would be 220…but I am not sure what currency he is referring to here. Clearly it would have been a substantial sum though.

Sadly I was unable to visit the Polochic Valley during my recent travels in Guatemala, due both to the security situation and to floods that had washed out many of the bridges – I wonder whether the iron bridge built by the Germans he was staying with in La Hamaca still stands today.

LA HAMACA,
POLOCHIC VALLEY,
GUATEMALA

5th May, 1880

My dear Mother,

I had no opportunity of writing by last mail; this letter I give to a friend to post in Cobán. I left San Gerónimo with my boy Leopoldo on April 13th, and very likely may not return till later part of June, till then shall probably not get any home letters. Have had rather a rough time of it lately, stopping in most wretched places – spent my birthday in Sabo, but rather miserably, was a little sick, had not much to eat beyond bananas and tortillas, and the day before had a very heavy pecuniary loss. The horse I borrowed (my mule still being unfit for the road) managed to strangle itself in the night with a lasso, and was found dead in the morning, this was partly through the carelessness of my boy; of course, I shall have to pay for it. I spent several days in Purulá, Panimá, and Sabo, then came on here, where I shall probably remain for a week or two, then go on to Senahú and Panzós. In Senahú and Sabo it is comparatively fresh, and cool, both places being high in the mountains, but in Panimá and here, the heat is fearful. I am staying with two Germans, who are engaged in putting up a new iron bridge over the Polochic River; more to eat here, but the accommodation is of the roughest, but they make me welcome. Being so long in Vera Cruz, I now know nearly everybody, so am not a stranger. It is now the height of the dry season (or summer). Very soon the rains will commence, in a few weeks, I expect, already we have had heavy showers in the nights; it will then get a little cooler, but at the same time here in the low country, more unhealthy. In some of these hot places (like Panimá), the noise of the insects is almost deafening, day and night, noise enough to give me a headache. Fireflies are common now in these hot places and are very beautiful objects, with their two green lights.

I keep my health well enough, so far, but lose a great deal of sleep; in Purulá, could not sleep for the cold, here it is the reverse. Am writing now on a bench outside the rancho, tables, windows, chairs etc. have yet to be introduced in these places. In Panimá, the people go about as it were in their shirts (just as if they had forgotten to dress themselves). I find shirttails outside instead of in is a comfortable arrangement for the Tropics. Altogether just now, I look so disreputable, that I think if I were to meet any English friends, they would not care to recognise me, but in these out of the way places, what does it matter? It is only 30 miles from here to Panzós, whence all the coffee of Vera Paz is shipped in small boats to Lívingston, the Atlantic Port for Europe and the United States. Daily, mules, carts and Indians pass carrying coffee for Panzós; I suppose when I return, shall come by Panzós, it is so much nearer, and without the long detour of San José, and Panama, in a week at the outside you can go from here to Belize.

Had to send to San Gerónimo to hire yet another horse – this morning, both are missing, they have got away in the night, constant worry and trouble with the animals. My recent accidents will cost about 220 and by my agreement, all this will have to come out of my pocket. Leopoldo is a good boy, but he is rather thoughtless, perhaps because I let him have his own way a little too much, but if I discharge him (as most people would) shall probably not get another as good. Most servants have a rough time of it in Guatemala. People as a rule treat them almost as slaves; for a man-servant, you have bother with the authorities in getting permission for every trip, all the men have to attend drill etc. on Sundays (military service being compulsory in this country) and if absent without leave, when the list is called over, are severely punished afterwards; a foreigner has far more freedom than a native in Guatemala.

Must close now with very best love,
I remain etc.

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Tuesday 24th April 2012 (Letter 19th March 1880)

GCC’s mule has an accident and he nearly starves

Today’s letter, sent from the Finca Cubilguitz, details my great grandfather’s northernmost venture during his two years of insect-collecting in Guatemala, and he recounts (as usual in understated words) how his mule cut its legs badly when trying to ford the Rio Satchichá, a mishap that was to cause him considerable hardship and difficulty in the months to come. I think it is a tribute to the man that instead of killing the mule and eating it (and he was after all very short of food), he gave it a holiday and nursed it back to fitness.

I too had the opportunity to visit the Finca Cubilguitz, thanks to my friends the Cahill family and to a direct descendent of the family who bought it from the then owner, Herr Reuter, Seth Hempstead, who most kindly arranged for us to stay overnight in the accommodation block of this now sadly crumbling but once prosperous farm. Please see my diary entry of Sunday 2nd October 2011 for a description of my visit and my findings in the Cubilguitz area.

Looking towards the dilapidated barn at Cubilguitz

Cubilguitz
near Dolores
Alta Vera Paz
Guatemala
March 19th 1880

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of January 31st yesterday after it had been re-directed three times. I scarcely hoped to get letters here so was agreeably surprised. I heard from Mr. Salvin also and am sorry to say that the consignment sent in October last has not yet arrived and then there is reason to fear the box has been lost on the road. I hope not as it contains the result of very much labour. I left Cobán on March 9th with a German – a Herr Reuter – 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 Cubilquitz 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 Cajabón, but one gets used to that.

Some buildings in disrepair at Cubilguitz

Coming here from Cobán, had a bad accident with my mule in fording the river Satchichá – 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.

The Rio Satchicha, in which GCC's mule cut its legs

You must have had a wretched winter in England – what a difference to Guatemala, here now we have very fine weather indeed, so hot that I am always glad of a bath when near a stream.

March 20th. I am starting today to return to Cobán, but owing to the mule being unfit to mount, cannot go in one day, only go to Satchichá today, the road being very bad indeed, the rocks are so numerous that they are difficult to walk over on foot, let alone mounted. I would have liked to have gone on to Las Salinas or Petén even on foot, but there are at present too many difficulties in the way, so turn to San Gerónimo where I am afraid from what I heard that I shall not find things as comfortable as before; Mr. Morgans is leaving on the 22nd for England and Mr. Hutchison is also going to Belize. There are several strangers now in the hacienda, still I know the principals very well. The Frenchman M. Blancaneaux, whom I met in Guatemala etc left some time ago for Belize, but before he went he forgot to pay many debts, he came here once to Cubilguitz and as usual borrowed money.

The Rio Dolores, the barrier preventing the now mule-less GCC from travelling further north

A jaguar was seen more than once near this house a few weeks before I came but he has not again put in an appearance, they come after the young calves. I have found about a dozen species of swallowtail butterflies here, some very beautiful, but beyond these have not been very successful in Cubilguitz. We are almost by ourselves here – there is not a town or village nearer than Cobán, here and there a few scattered ranchos of the Indians, that is all. This is but a forest clearing, wherever we look, we see forest, the mountains also are covered with this perpetual green, shall not like San Gerónimo where now everything is dried up by the sun and but little green is to be seen, but I want to send more to Mr. Godman for my first ten months work they have, up to June 30th only received two boxes, though I have sent four.

My friends and guides Rob and John Cahill by the Rio Dolores

My boy now is busy frying plantains (cut in slices and fried in pig grease); this and tortillas make my breakfast today. The plantains I like very much in this country, they are very cheap and very good.

March 21st. Arrived once more in Cobán, left Cubilguitz yesterday morning, walking to Satchichá (12 miles) where I passed the night. This morning we left early and arrived about 1.30 p.m., the whole journey of 27 miles is through woods and forests. I should not like to hazard a guess at the number of hills and mountains that have to be crossed on the road, the whole time you are going up and down. Here in Cobán it is 3000 feet higher and quite cool, after Cubilguitz. I hope to get back to San Gerónimo, about 30 miles distant, in a few days, that is if I can find an animal, have indoor occupation for several weeks, the result of two months wandering. The natives are busy now getting ready for the “Semana Santa”, or Holy Week; it commences in a few days, very few people will work during this time.

When I return to San Gerónimo I shall send Mr. Godman my account of expenditure etc, for the first year completed on March 15th. I hope when everything is reckoned up that there will be £200- £250 to my good, it will be well earned, I can tell you, though I must say they will have very little to look at for their money, especially if the 3rd consignment is lost; but they chose Guatemala not I, there are many countries where with the same or less labour you would get ten times as much.

With best love to all, Believe me etc.

Vanilla pods drying near the Rio Dolores

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Tuesday 17th April 2012 (Letter 7th March 1880)

GCC feasts with a portly priest, enters the cave at Lanquín, and wishes he could take photographs (how I wish he had too)

Today’s letter sees my great grandfather George Charles Champion travelling in the company of a well-fed priest, and he expresses with a note of disapproval the quantities of food this man consumes. He also penetrates the cave at Lanquín, which I also entered with Natalia and Marvin in October 2011 (please see my Diary entry of 15th October 2011).

HOTEL ALEMAN, COBAN, ALTA VERA PAZ, GUATEMALA,
March 7th, 1880

My dear Mother,

Returned yesterday to Cobán after an absence of about a month. I wrote to you from Cajabón on the 20th or the 23rd. I left this place from Lanquín, in company with the priest, Don Luis Mejicanos, and remained with him as a guest in the convent in Lanquín till the 28th. He made me very welcome and seemed very glad of a visitor, so few Europeans going to these places; sometimes there is but little to be got to eat in these places, but what little there is I think finds its way to the priest. The Indians bring him all sorts of things as presents; he is a jolly fat priest just like what you read about and is never tired of eating even if it is only frijoles and tortillas. It seemed queer taking one’s meals with five or six nearly naked Indians standing round; on the journey of six leagues to Lanquín he took a number of Indians with him to get breakfast on the road. Lanquín is still very hot, but a little cooler than Cajabón; shall long remember the magnificent moonlight nights in these places; after the hot days it is very pleasant to rest in a hammock in the evening before going to bed, the distant mountains, the village in a hollow below, the convent, the coconut palms, and all looking so strange by moonlight. Here in Lanquín I met a young Austrian plant collector, a Mr. Klabrock, who has been eight years in these countries; together we visited the enormous cave at Lanquín, and spent some time inside, by the aid of candles, and we penetrated a long distance; it was well worth seeing; we found but little inside beyond some land crabs.

The Rio Cajabon as it emerges from the caves of Lanquin

On the 28th I took leave of the priest, and went to Chiacam, where I remained a week on a coffee estate and on March 6th returned here. My negro boy Leopoldo is very useful now, and very willing to do anything; sometimes he gets a little discontented when there is very little to be got to eat (which sometimes happens) but one can excuse this as he is growing something like Chiddles taller and taller every day. My other man, Victoriano, is not so satisfactory, but more than double the expenses, but I only keep him for a short time. I leave Cobán again in a day or two for the north, for Choctun, Cubilguitz, and shall be away several weeks, after this I return once more to San Gerónimo, till then shall probably not get any letters. The road to Cajabón, so frightfully bad when I passed a month ago, is now much better, the mud having dried up, only the rocks to pass over. It is now splendid weather in Cobán, like summer in England, almost a cloudless sky, but pleasantly cool in the evening. Some of the places recently visited were very hot and dry and once or twice I had a slight return of hay fever, but next day I was alright again, one previous slight return of it in San Gerónimo. I had it in Oct or Nov last.

Natalia near the mouth of the Lanquín cave

In Chiacam I had a bad attack of colic, owing I believe to having eaten a small slice or two of pineapple the previous day; it is a very tempting fruit but sometimes bad for the stomach in this climate, you can buy two sometimes for 3d and pick them yourself, you may guess it is hot where they grow. The cacao (cacao or chocolate) tree looks very queer, with the fruit growing out from the trunk or from the branches, there are many in Cajabón and Lanquín. The fruit eaten fresh is not bad, the pulp surrounding the nuts is very juicy. Can generally manage to get two or three sugar canes when out on my excursions. I know nothing better to quench the thirst in hot places, you can chew the inner part of the cane, it requires good teeth, that is all. For a month I have not spoken English, from trips like these it is a treat to get back to a place like Cobán; luckily I had the three last newspapers you sent with me while away, at last I took to reading the advertisements, as a rule except in wet weather, have but little time for reading. Some places in the mountains when you go to bed I was going to say, but to rest is better (for you have not always a bed to go to), you can scarcely bear a blanket (sheets I have long abandoned for travelling) but before morning you wake up shivering and want more clothing and this in places like Chiacam where it is very hot in the day. Have now been as near as possible a year in Guatemala, have been in all sorts of places hot and cold, but never for a single day out of sight of mountains, wherever you go it is mountains and excepting in a place like the plain of Salamá, have scarcely seen a place yet where you could travel more than a league on level ground, but in this part there are none higher than 6000ft, it is on the Pacific side where you find all the Volcanoes. The German hotel is very comfortable though small and very expensive. I enjoy the meals far better here than in the capital, and the people are far more sociable. I would like to get photographs of many of the places I have visited, but of course that is impossible in a country where there are no photographers except in the capital. About Cajabón, Chiacam, etc one of the commonest wild flowers is the Ageratum like we cultivate at home, in the evening the air is quite scented with the perfume, it is one of the few wild flowers with any smell. The wild Dahlia is so different from the cultivated that you would never recognize it.

A sweaty self in the Lanquín cave entrance

I enclose a few pieces of a leaf of a maiden-hair fern, not rare in some places, have tried several times to get seed from this and other ferns but have not yet succeeded in getting leaves in right condition for seed, probably from ignorance.

I now close this long rambling epistle. I expect you often think I might find something more interesting to write about; Walker would, I know, and send such a letter as this to me, but it is not in me; I wish it was.

It is getting dark and as I cannot think of anything more to tell you, must now close this.

With best love to all,
I remain dear Mother
Yours affectionately
Geo .C. Champion

Marvin emerging from the Lanquín cave

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