Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Tuesday 27th March 2012 (Letter 21st October 1879)

GCC sleeps in very primitive quarters, and eats snails

This latest letter sent by my great grandfather George Charles Champion covers his journeys from San Gerónimo to Purulá and Panimá, and describes his food and living quarters in these very isolated, primitive areas.

The Panima River

October 21, 1879

My dear Mother,

While here in San Gerónimo, I can manage to write once a fortnight; you will be glad, no doubt, to get a letter as often as possible. I received your letter of August 30th on October 15th while at Panimá. I left on October 2nd, as I told you in my last letter I intended doing, returning again October 17th, was away 16 days in all, I intended going on to San Miguel, Turucú, but what with bad weather, my clothes giving out, and my man unwell, was obliged to abandon this part of the trip. I first went to Purulá, 8 leagues distant; stopped here a few days, hoping to get less rain, but was obliged to give it up, then on to Sabo, two days here, then finally to Panimá, where I remained nine days. In Purulá, it is very cold early in the morning; it is a place high up in the mountains and at this time of the year, you live as it were in the clouds. Sabo is warmer, lower down and is a clearing in the forest on the mountain-slopes, splendid views from this place, range after range of mountains, and the atmosphere is so clear in the tropics that you can see places clearly at very great distances; there is not the haze we have in the north in England. As I could get nothing to eat but tortillas and snails (something like periwinkles) and a wretched place to sleep in, I soon had enough of it and went on to Panimá.

This latter place is but 1600 ft above the sea, and is by far the hottest place I have yet stayed at, the port of San José excepted. For the place, I got fairly good quarters and lived pretty well on tortillas, fowls, eggs, frijoles and coffee; of course the sleeping accommodation was rather primitive; the house consisted of but one room, partially open all round the sides, a hole for a door, no windows of course; you lived as though in the open air. It was very hot in this place, I believe the heat was over 80 the whole time day and night; the humidity of these places is very great, you can keep nothing dry long together. I was however very well all the time, stood the climate far better than my man, Dubón. I hope to make other similar trips to Tocoy, Rabinal, Cachil etc making the place my headquarters; later on I go to Cobán and other parts of Alta Vera Paz, the Polochic Valley from Tactic downwards. Mr. Morgans arrived here during my absence. He has been exceedingly kind to me and says I am to make this place my home for as long as I like; he will not accept the least remuneration from me, am afraid I shall not work so well for Salvin while he is here, one gets talking instead of working; a good bed, good food and dry house are not easy things to find in Guatemala. Mr. Salvin has at last received two consignments from me; they arrived safely, only very many of the insects were mouldy. He seems very pleased with them, so far that is satisfactory. He has placed another £100 to my credit at the Bank.

Money goes fast enough in the Capital, but here my expenses are very little, in Panimá for 9 days for two of us with two animals also to feed, my entire expenses (I had consumed five fowls in the time) were 20 reales, 10/-. It is a great nuisance not having all my luggage with me, am constantly wanting various things now in Guatemala, but the roads are so bad you are obliged leave heavy things behind, boots go in no time, have not a decent pair to my feet at present. I think I can however get some in Salamá – you can get nothing in the village here. You have evidently had it very wet in England this summer, but not wetter than in Guatemala; we have had rain nearly every day since the latter part of May.

I would have liked father to have seen the tree ferns at Sabo, the forest was full of them, many fifteen feet high; in Panima there were 3 species of flowering begonias, Lycopodiums, many ferns, several palms etc; also coffee, sugar cane, rice, maize, cacao, bananas, oranges, lemons, limes etc – but no vegetables.
Monkeys and other animals also occur in this valley but I have not seen any so far.

No green books, they have gone astray evidently. I received 3 papers with last letter. Mr Morgans receives lots of Bristol and London papers, so get plenty to read.

I do not get on so well in learning Spanish now I have English companions to talk to. I manage at present somehow or other to make people understand me, of course on my last trip it was all Spanish.
Must close this now, cannot think of anything more to tell you.

With best love to all
Believe me,

An extraordinary ant photographed at Chilasco, not far from Purula


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