Category Archives: GCC’s letters

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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Thursday 2nd August 2012 (Letter 7th October 1881)

GCC sends off a new consignment of insect specimens, and struggles with ants

DAVID, CHIRIQUI, STATE OF PANAMA, U.S. COLOMBIA.
October 7th 1881

My dear Mother,

Returned again to this place a few days ago to pack up another collection to send off. I found letters of Mr. Salvin and Godman of dates July 17th and August 16th awaiting me, but nothing from you. My first Chiriquí collection arrived all right and appears to have pleased them very much.

Your last letter bears date of July 1st; shall wait a week or two on the chance of a steamer coming before I go to Bugaba etc – sometimes there is no arrival for seven weeks! Occasional small boats come from Panama, also people by land, but one knows nothing beforehand about these.

There is a change coming to David: in spite of the great heat, one can get a little more variety in the shape of things to eat and drink, though appetite is often lacking. Staying as before with the French family. These people are very clean and do their best to make strangers comfortable. They have a garden with a few coffee and coconut trees and try to plant a few vegetables, but the ants destroy the latter as soon as planted almost. Ants are a great pest in all these hot places – in the gardens, in the house, everywhere. I think I must have eaten some hundreds in my food during the last 2 years, they swarm into everything – into the sugar, bread, meat, etc.; people have to suspend nearly everything in the shape of food by strings from the roof, or keep in dishes in water.

I think you would be astonished if you could see some of the people in these places, though you would not wonder at people going about nearly naked (children entirely so) if you felt the heat. Few wear shoes, these only the strangers or upper ten, men and women alike barefoot, the women with their hair plaited in two long tails, straw hats, and white dresses, men mostly in very thin white things, looks as if they had got up in their nightclothes and forgotten to change them; even in the cooler places up in the mountains, people dress the same way. I received very kind hospitality from Mr. Taylor at El Banco, was there five or six weeks in all.

It will soon be the summer season now, the worst of the rains are over. In the evenings, nearly everybody sits outside in the corridors or balconies, most of the houses are built with one or the other; scarcely a glass window in the place, shutters and doors, nothing more, no frost to trouble about. The town is spread over a great deal of ground, bananas, coconuts and other trees scattered about among the houses, cattle and dogs wander all over the place at will, many of the streets are covered with grass. This being the chief town of the Department, a few soldiers, mostly negroes, are kept on guard, in case of revolutions, which formerly were frequent in Colombia. There are at least 30 shops in the town, where you can obtain anything but strong boots, those they sell are like paper and only last a week or two. Still have a lot of clothes I brought with me. I cannot wear them in this country; they are too thick. I think this town is the dullest place I ever saw, there is not the slightest thing moving; if it rains, as it usually does in the afternoons, the whole place is flooded and one can hardly stir out, though with the hot sun in the morning it soon dries up again. The streets are either unpaved or so badly paved that you can hardly travel in the dark. There is not much for me to do about David, though I make trips about on horseback to places a few miles off across the plains. People here rise very early in the morning, many taking a sleep of two or three hours in the middle of the day. As in Guatemala, coffee and bread about 6 a.m., breakfast 10-11 a.m., dinner 4-6 p.m. Since I left England, have not once taken dinner at our old hour at home, breakfast much the same as dinner, it is like taking 2 dinners a day, shall find the change as great when I return as I did when I left, perhaps greater.

People in the country districts are now busy gathering in the rice crops; a field of rice looks something like oats, the rice after being cut is well dried in the sun, then pounded with a sort pole in a hollow log to take off the husk. I think during the last five or six months I have eaten more rice than during the whole of my life previous, did not much care for it at first, but one has to get used to it. It is boiled with a little lard and salt. Very few vegetables in these countries, a lot of soft pumpkin of many kinds, bananas, a few potatoes, but little else. I expect you sometimes wonder I do not write oftener, but when you know the reason of the difficulty of sending letters, you cannot be surprised. No news they say is good news.

With best love, must now conclude etc.

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Monday 27th July 2012 (Letter September 2nd 1881)

GCC apologises for having the blues, and laments the lack of good boots!

EL BANCO, LAS POTRERILLAS, CHIRIQUI, STATE OF PANAMA, U.S.COLOMBIA
September 2nd, 1881

My dear Mother,

Have just received your letter of July 1st; must not write such dismal letters again as that of May 12th, had a fit of the blues, I suppose at the time, am almost sorry father took the letter to Mr.Godman; however, perhaps it was for the best.

Have received also a few lines from Mr. Godman, and a letter from Walker, who is still on the Peruvian coast, but he expects they will go very soon to Panama. Harry has been appointed to the “Briton” and has left England for West Coast of Africa. It is still raining very much, but only in the afternoons; the mornings are fine, however there is a good time coming, the dry season (or summer) begins in December; the worst part of the rains are now over.

Left David again on July 13th and have since been stopping at various places on the slope of the Volcano, and elsewhere – at Elvira, Caldera, Boquete, Potrerillas, and at the present am staying with a countryman who has been here many years planting coffee, sugarcane &c. Return again to David in a few weeks to send off another box, after I go to Bugaba and other places to west and nearer to Costa Rica frontier.

Owing to the great rainfall, the rivers are now very much swollen and it is very difficult to travel on account, there are no bridges, scarcely roads in this country; if I don’t take a guide I lose myself in no time. Am not nearly so “dull” here, someone to talk to and books to read if I require them, rough quarters it is true but preferable to me, still close to my Swiss friends but no town nearer than Dolega, 6 leagues away.

With the letters also received six newspapers (dates May and June), and a friend in David sent me some Panamá papers so have something to read. Early to bed and early to rise in Chiriquí, the sun is often very hot by 7.a.m. so have to be out – by 9 or 10 begins to cloud over, and often by noon the rain begins, clearing off again by night; we only see the mountains early in the morning. At Elvira I stopped on a coffee plantation belonging to a native of Ecuador, in Caldera with a Scotchman.

I find it very difficult to get good boots in this place, no demand for strong boots I suppose for nearly everybody who has to go into the forest goes barefoot. Here as in Guatemala the planters scarcely ever walk; if they only have a few yards to go they go on horseback. I don’t blame them, in places where there are so many streams and so much mud; my boy of course is barefoot; he is getting rather homesick, but I think will remain another six months, he will return quite rich for I don’t suppose his clothes cost him a lot a year. The Chiricanos drink very much (rum is so cheap, about 9d a large bottle!) and when drunk they take to fighting with their large knives – you meet people with bad scars from this cause.

All these people as in Guatemala carry an enormous knife, without which they never stir; in the forest it is very necessary, often you find a tree blown down across the road, and you cannot pass till you clear away some of the branches.

Am glad to hear that you and Allie are going to have a change at the seaside and I trust your feet will be better before long. I wonder what has become of the sack of coffee, must write to Guatemala about it soon, it is too good to lose, you ought to have received it long ago. There are several Germans here who ship orchids occasionally to London, they can only be sent in dry season, I wish I knew something about them, don’t know a good one from a bad one. There are plenty in the forests but you very rarely see them in flower, to get them you have often to employ men to cut down or climb the trees, perhaps in dry season if I meet with any nice ones, will try and send some.

Sometimes the steamer comes twice in a month and sometimes it does not come for six weeks, there is not the least certainty, when they require cattle in Panamá, they send: my last letters came by land from Panamá.

With best love to all,

I remain, dear mother
Your affectionate son
George C. Champion

A fast-flowing river near Boquete