Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Monday 7th May 2012 (Letter 20th May 1880)

GCC reaches the tropical lowlands, suffers in the tropical heat, and observes insects in natives’ hair!

Today’s letter details my great grandfather entomologist G C Champion’s intrepid journey down the Polochic valley towards the Lago de Izabal (which he later reached). As usual, he appears to complain a good deal, but considering how he had to rough it, travelling by mule and sleeping in very unhygienic quarters, this is perhaps justifiable. I did not reach this valley on my recent visit – it will be high on my list if I reach Guatemala again.

A Howler Monkey near the Lago de Izabal


PANZOS VERA PAZ GUATEMALA.
May 20th, 1880

My dear Mother,

I take the advantage of a friend leaving for the United States and give him a letter to post on his way in Belize; from here you can only send letters by the very roundabout way of Cobán & Guatemala. Am only two or three days by water here from the Atlantic Ocean; it is one day to Yzabal and another two days to Lívingston. I left La Hamaca on the 12th for Telemán where I remained till the 18th, then came on here.

For the last 3 weeks I have been in places excessively hot, in fact so hot at midday that one is obliged to rest for a few hours, and unless rain in night, which in this place at end of the dry season is usually the case, it gets hotter and hotter till you are almost stifled, then comes a heavy thunder storm with a great deal of sheet lightning, and this cools the air till morning – you cannot sleep.

In Telemán, a little Indian village, I could not sleep from mosquitoes, here also the mosquitoes are a plague, though as yet not many indoors. You cannot stir without getting wringing wet with perspiration, my clothes fall to pieces and wear out in no time from this cause; knives, keys, etc. all get very rusty.

This place is very little above the level of the sea, not very far from the Lake of Yzabal and at the mouth, so to speak, of the long Polochic Valley; higher up the mountain ranges come in closer, here they are rather distant. This is by far the most tropical country I have yet seen, would like to transport Father here for a short time (though I expect he would soon want to leave for the heat and mosquitoes) to see the palms; the forest is full of them, the long leaves arch over the road, making a pleasant shade, they are like enormous shuttlecocks and are worth a journey to see; here in Panzós, there are a few coconut also. In the forest, there are trees of enormous height, they grow right above all the palms etc. without sending out a single branch, from 60-80 feet, they begin to send out branches; in forest also many acacia trees, on the ground Lycopodiums and sensitive plants. Here you hear howling monkeys (but they always keep out of sight). This, with the chattering of the small parro toucans and other birds lets you know you are in the Tropics.

Panzós is but a small village, but one fares a little better, though it is usually eggs, tortillas, and frijoles for every meal, sometimes a little meat, but meat we should not care for at home, and bread. However, a decent bed here, the first for the last five weeks.

In these places, ants swarm in the houses, and indeed, everywhere, so that unless people are careful, they get in everything, have no end of trouble to keep them away from my collection, scorpions also, and many other objectionable creatures. The Tropics are all very well, but unless you can live as the better class live in the West Indies, a little more comfortably, one is far better off in England. The natives here are very fond, especially on Sundays, of doing a little insect collecting in one another’s heads, feet etc. and often when you are eating. If this does not spoil your appetite, I don’t know what will.

Having now been so long in Vera Paz, I seem to know a great many people; wherever I go, am almost sure to meet somebody except in very out-of-the-way places. The coast road passing through the entire length of the Polochic Valley, there are constantly people passing up and down.

All being well, I leave in a few days for Senahú, San Juan etc, working back slowly to San Gerónimo; would like to make a trip down to the lake, but don’t think I shall be able to do so. Have made an attempt to get my letters from San Gerónimo, but until I return some time in June, it is doubtful whether I shall get them. Till then must wait, I am afraid.

I hope all is going well at home and that you are all well.
You are now looking forward to summer, here we are expecting the rainy or winter season; last June I spent very miserably in Dueñas, hope to spend this better.

Must now bring this to a close, my friend is waiting for the letter. With very best love to all,

I remain etc.

The Bocas del Polochic reserve

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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