Monday 20th August 2012 (Letter 23rd March 1882)

GCC nearly burns up in the heat and the fires, and ascends to high on the slopes of the volcano


March 23rd, 1882

My dear Mother,

I am still in Bugabita, though I have been away a short time at Los Potrerillos and other places on the slope of the Volcano, returning here yesterday. During this trip made an expedition with some Swiss plant collectors to a place high up on the slopes of the Volcano; we worked up through the forest to 6500 feet elevation, slept one night up there and returned the next day. I intended to remain longer but we were obliged to return owing to want of water, all the little streams are quite dry; shall have to go up again next month when the rains begin.

This place, Bugabita, is about 30 miles from Potrerillos, but we make the journey down in about 8 hours on horseback.

The whole country now is like an oven, people burning the brush and forest everywhere, so dry that the very earth itself seems to burn, misty everywhere from smoke, one night last week at the Potrerillos we all slept outside on the ground for fear of the fire spreading from the burning brush to the house itself in the night, the north wind too in March blows so strongly as to do a great deal of mischief. I think March is the most disagreeable month in this country, what with the heat, dust and smoke and terrific wind on the mountain, but we shall soon have a change – the rains begin in April. Am again very unfortunate with my horses, have one in such a bad state that it will probably die, another I bought to take its place has turned out to be worse than useless, then again in the dry season it is very difficult to find food for them; horses are turned loose to find food in this country, no-one keeps a stable.

Am long without letters from Mr. Godman, so at present do not know much about what he wishes me to do, except that he wants me to work higher and higher up the Volcano. The steamer in this month cannot make the journey from Panamá, the north wind is too much for it. People are now planting maize, rice etc, and gathering in the tobacco crops; sugar cane they cut all the year round, bananas the same, the dry season or summer lasts from December to April till at last the rains come with a great deal of thunder and lightning. I cannot say things are dear in Bugabita, the hire of a decent rancho (a house made of sticks and thatches with leaves of palm or sugar cane) costs about 4 reales (1/8d) a month, meat is 4/ the 25 lbs, large bananas about 10 or 12 for a penny, lard, of which a great deal is used with everything, 10d a bottle, rice about 1d a pound, coffee 8d a pound, sugar of course cheap, such as it is, a chicken 6d, eggs about 4 a penny, but beyond these things, there is nothing else to be got. We drink a great deal of the crude sugar, mixed with water (sometimes flavoured with pineapple or orange). This drink is called ‘Guarapo’ and is not at all bad. Am almost forgetting my own name in these countries, people call me Don Jorge as a rule, though they have various names they use to call a foreigner by, as – patron, patroncito, nopo, extranjero, paysano, el inglés, el naturalista etc etc; anyone coming here to enquire for me would find me much quicker by asking for me by any of these names than by my own. Footwear is the greatest trouble, have spent a great deal more on boots than on clothes so far in Chiriquí.

I have sent 3 collections so far from Chiriquí to Mr. Godman; next month, I hope to send another.

I have your letter of December 31st, which I received in David about a month ago. I think I answered it the following day before I returned to Bugabita. Also got a letter from Walker, he is very well and back again at Callao, he was 7 weeks at Panamá; they expect to go shortly to Acapulco, Mexico, and then to Vancouver. While I remain at Bugabita or Potrerillos, do not find it so very dull, always someone to go and talk with in English or Spanish. In David, have fewer acquaintances – one or two Italians, French or Germans, and a few natives, that is all.

The other day up on the slopes of the Volcano, we saw the tracks of tapirs, but they are very shy, and seldom seen, we only meet with wild pig and monkey. No one I believe, has yet been to the top of this mountain (11,000 feet); should like very much to ascend it, but water is too scarce for me, can stand hunger but not thirst. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are both seen from the high parts of the Cordillera. In either India or Australia, I believe I would get letters much easier and quicker than I do in Chiriquí, but it is no use grumbling.

With best love to all, and hoping to hear from you very soon,
Believe me, dear Mother,
Yours affectionately,

A forested mountain close to the Volcan Baru


Wednesday 15th August 2012 (Letter 31st January 1882)

GCC loses his coffee AND a close friend

This brief letter from my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion, to his mother in London is his first for the year 1882. He is clearly becoming a little jaded, and finds the dry season less interesting as there are fewer insects for him to collect.

The Volcan Baru


31 enero (January) 1882

My dear Mother,

There is just a chance of this letter catching the steamer now at David, so I write a few hasty lines in hopes of being in time; have an opportunity of sending this tomorrow.

I have but little to tell you this time except that I am well and going on as usual. I received your letter of Dec 1st a few days ago, a friend bringing it on to me here to Bugaba.

Shall make Bugabita my headquarters for the remainder of the dry season, it is more convenient in many ways. Though I am no longer staying with Mr. Preedy, still I am very close and we see one another nearly every day; he lends me books and assists me in all sorts of ways. Since before Christmas we have not had a drop of rain, and now it is very dusty and dry everywhere, such a contrast to the rainy season; splendid weather all the time, almost cloudless sky but so hot! The pleasantest time is the very early morning. Then again the moonlight nights, sit out in the open air till quite late, no one cares to go to bed soon. At midday one is obliged to rest a little on account of the sun. My costume here in the low country is of the lightest description. The natives wear very little indeed and even the Europeans wear but little, and nearly everybody goes barefoot.

Live now principally on rice, eggs, bananas, salt beef, fresh on Sundays only, chicken and coffee, seldom anything else.

During the next few months, shall probably be travelling about a good deal, but always returning to Bugaba, shall not go so often probably to the Capital (David) as before but you address me to David as usual. I wrote to Guatemala about the coffee and have a letter in reply saying that it was stolen and that they will make it good this new crop, better late than never.

There is very little for me to do in the dry season, everything is too dry, so I often take my gun and shoot a few pigeons or a parrot, something to eat for a change. I wonder how you spent your Christmas. I think I wrote and told you how I spent mine. In the papers you sent I read of the death of one of my best Burton friends, Dr. Garneys, aged 40. I was very much upset when I read of his death; I little thought to hear of his dying so suddenly; he teased me a great deal about quinine etc. when I last saw him.

Hoping you are all well and with very best love to all,

Believe me etc.

A sunset in Western Panama


Friday 10th August 2012 (Letter 16th December 1881)

GCC ascends to high up the volcano, experiences the wettest wet season for many years, and prepares for his third Christmas away from home

A forest trail high on the volcano

DAVID, CHIRIQUI, Estado de Panama
December 16th, 1881

My dear Mother,

I wrote a few hurried lines by the land post only three days ago; yesterday the steamer unexpectedly arrived, so write again, very likely you will receive this first, may not have an opportunity of writing again for some time. The steamer brought me a great number of letters, papers (3 more from you), letters from people in Panama (the British Consul and others) asking me to send them Orchids, a letter from Mr. Godman saying he wishes me to return in May or June next, letter from Walker who is still at Panama etc. I hear that it is all confusion now in the Post Office at Panama, the English having given up the management owing to the Postal Union Colombia having joined the Union a few months ago, the great wonder is to get a letter at all, you ought to see the Post Office in David, it is a fair specimen of the way things are managed in this country. The long expected summer has at last set in, it is splendid weather now, very hot, of course, but cool in the very early morning, rains appear to be over, we have had eight months rainy season, now we shall probably have 4 or 5 months dry.

Now know most if not all the foreigners in the place. On the whole I think I like Chiriquí better than Guatemala, you meet the coffee planters and other settlers every day in David and I already know all of them – Germans, French, Swiss etc. Shall return to Bugaba again next week perhaps before Christmas. Mr. Godman seems very satisfied with what I have done, in fact I think I have sent them already from Chiriquí more than they know what to do with; he leaves it now almost entirely to me. I took a guide with me, as well as Leopoldo the other day up the slope of the Volcano, took one of my horses loaded with provisions (dried meat, lard, coffee, sugar, bananas and rice), a pot, etc to cook with and went myself on horseback, the guide and my boy going on foot – the journey was about 28 miles through dense forest. It took a day and a half to go. Set my Bugaba man, the guide, to work hunting while I and the boy collected, my guide one day shot two large boar (about 100 lbs weight each) so we very soon had plenty of good meat, lard etc. He also shot several other animals and birds, so we had plenty to eat during my stay of a fortnight, should have remained longer up there but the weather was very unpropitious, either wet, foggy, or such a wind that you could scarcely stand against it. Sometimes at night I almost thought we should be blown away, ranch and all; shall probably go up again before I leave the country.

I know all the places you mention in Guatemala. Volcanoes Agua, Fuego, San Pedro, Atitlán etc but I expect Mr. Oswald exaggerated a great deal like most writers, though I must say I have never seen anything to equal the view of the Lake and Volcano of Atitlán at sunrise and at sunset, seen either from the road between Godines and Sololá, 7000 feet above the sea, or upon the waters of the lake itself.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, in the dawn

This has been the wettest season known in Chiriquí for very many years, the rivers rose to such a degree that for 10 days people could not pass from David to Bugaba, such a current as to carry everything before it, enormous trees, cattle, animals of the forest, monkeys, tapirs etc, and enormous stone, all these rivers are full of great stones and the current very strong, the mountains coming from the mountain range and running into the sea. Now write a second time to Guatemala about the coffee; it is too good to lose – I paid £4 for it.

The principal theme of conversation here is about the steamer (or ‘el Vapor’ they call it) and about the coffee crop, this is very small indeed this year, the rains of October and November having done a great deal of mischief. Now the summer has set in we begin to see more flowers and fruit, the orange trees are now full of ripe fruit, very nice they are too when fresh picked. Up on the Volcano there were plenty of blackberries! The Natives here think more of them than they do of pineapples or oranges, wretched sour things, not to compare with our own.

Walker seems delighted with his first view of the tropics. Everything being new to him he finds it plenty warm enough apparently.

I hope to hear that you will all have spent a good Christmas. Christmas Eve is thought more of in these Catholic countries than the day itself, the people are not nearly so fanatical in Chiriquí as in Guatemala; the Indians are all civilised here; the letting off of fireworks at the doors and on the tops of the churches, the procession with images through the streets by the Indians, singing in their own language etc in Guatemala, you do not see here; shall never forget Xmas Eve – or rather New Year’s Eve – in Cobán 1879, the procession of the Indians with their images, candles, etc through the town, it made a great impression on me.

You will now have received 2 letters written within a few days of one another, so you must not worry if you do not receive another for two months. With very best love to all and hoping to hear that you are at least a little better,

I remain etc.

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