Wednesday 26th October 2011

Antigua – new glasses and a smoking volcano – and perhaps the spirit of GCC flying by!!??

I noticed, while re-reading my previous diary entry, that there is a black triangle high in the sky above the farmhouse at Urias in one of the photographs. When I zoomed in on this object, it turned out to be a long-tailed skipper butterfly in mid-flight. A friend has just suggested to me that perhaps this is the spirit of my insect-enthusiast great grandfather appearing mysteriously and unexpectedly in my photographs!!! Thor Janson, one of my companions on today’s excursion, is a great believer in UFOs – and this is indeed an unidentified flying object – these long-tailed skippers are hard enough to specifically identify when they are stationary, let alone in flight!!!

The skipper butterfly passing above the Hacienda Urias

Today is another beautifully bright, clear day in Antigua – it is astonishing how quickly the rainy season can disappear, leaving this sparkling blue weather in its wake. However, perhaps I should not speak too soon, as a hurricane is headed this way, and torrential rain (at the very least) is forecast for the coming weekend, so this may be a short-lived interlude.

Smoke emerging from the active Volcan de Fuego

Anyhow, the Volcan de Fuego is blowing plumes of grey smoke into the clear blue sky as I write this….and I can actually see it clearly, as I have just picked up my new glasses. Special thanks to Optyma Vision here in Antigua for fixing them up so quickly, and again to Peter Foulds in Newton Stewart for reacting so quickly to my urgent appeals for my prescription!

Luisa Zea pointing to the peak of Volcan Acatenango, to which she is due to guide me in three weeks' time

Yesterday was another day spent literally in the footsteps of my great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”). Shortly after breakfast I set off together with Luisa Zea, my super guide, and Thor Janson, photographer and conservationist par excellence, down again to the Finca Urías, just outside the small town of San Miguel Dueñas, where I had been two days before with Larry. We arrived at the gates where Natalia and I had been denied entry (understandably) only a few days before. This time the gates swung open and our two vehicles, including Thor’s amazing 1992 camper van, in which he lives, were welcomed in. We drove along the tree-lined driveway, finally arriving at the parking area of this finca, in which both my great grandfather GCC had stayed in 1879, and Osbert Salvin, one of his two employers, had lodged with his wife Caroline in 1873.

Fuego (left) and Acatenango - both appear to be active, thanks to the clouds near their peaks

My special thanks go to the Valdés family, who had authorised us to enter, and we were soon being given directions by Rubén Valdés to the mysterious almost disappeared Laguna de Dueñas, which GCC mentions as being a prominent local landmark during his stay. After a quick attempt to find the exact position from which Caroline Salvin had painted her picture of the house with the Volcan de Fuego erupting in the background (please see previous diary entry) – unsuccessful, probably due to the fact that the buildings were remodelled in 1928 – we headed off through the coffee plantations, until we finally reached a heavily padlocked red metal gate, which we decided against attempting to climb.

Self at the padlocked gate

Luckily, from this vantage point, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the remains of the Laguna itself. Now almost completely clogged up with water hyacinths and only showing small expanses of open, very shallow water, with Moorhens and Great Egrets pecking through the marshy vegetation, it was nonetheless clear to see that this had indeed been a major lake, and its situation, nestled as it is in a basin surrounded by partly forested and partly agricultural hills, with the twin peaks of Acatenango and the smoking Fuego behind, gave this peaceful place a tranquil, untouched feel. We gazed quietly at it for a while over the barricaded gate.

The ex-Laguna de Dueñas

We then retraced our steps through the coffee plantations, enjoying the feeling that we were privileged guests here, and me thinking of my great grandfather butterfly- and beetle-hunting in these very spots 140 years before, until we came to a bridge over the grossly polluted Rio Guacalate, its filthy brown waters sweeping past a flock of scavenging Black Vultures, which were pecking at a garbage-filled plastic bag on a sandbank. Perhaps it might not help the vultures, but we could not help wishing that the authorities would do something about cleaning up this watercourse.

The filthy Rio Guacalate, with the Volcan de Agua in the background

Beyond the bridge, we turned left along the river, eventually reaching a weir, over which tumbled the soapy, foaming waters of this sick river, and we found ourselves below some beautifully contorted rocky cliffs, where we had been told to look out for ancient rock paintings. Although we were at first only able to spot a modern piece of graffiti, saying in large letters “¡Victor te amo!”, we did eventually find some faded shapes that could possibly have been construed as being ancient rock art.

The strange rock formations by the river

Whilst scanning the cliffs with the binoculars in search of further cave art, we were astonished to see a stream of Great Swallow-tailed Swifts emerging from an extraordinary, wasp-nest like mud structure fixed to the cliff wall. These spectacular black and white, long-tailed birds spun around in the sky above the gorge before disappearing over the lip of the hill, perhaps avoiding a Cooper’s Hawk that was circling with intent higher in the bright blue sky.

Plastic garbage swirling in the river

After another lament that this potentially beautiful spot was so disfigured by the swirling plastic styrofoam litter in the foul-smelling brown waters of the Rio Guacalate, we retraced our footsteps to the finca, where Luisa and I took leave of Thor, before heading off for a most delicious lunch of fruit salad drizzled with macadamia cream and fresh licuado de piña (pineapple smoothie) in the Finca Valhalla just across the road – I reflected on how lucky I was…I am sure that my great grandfather did not have such easy access to such filling and delicious delicacies back in 1879!

A salad drizzled with macadamia butter - GCC would have been astonished!

This is perhaps one of the aspects of this journey of mine that has struck me most strongly – in the 140 years since GCC was here, the accessibility of comfort has increased vastly (at least to those who can afford it). George had to travel everywhere, even in the extreme heat and blazing sunshine of the tropical lowlands, at a very slow pace on the back of his mule, he did not have access to running water, electricity, clean accommodation, varied food, or air-conditioned buildings or vehicles. How I could have thought that he was often complaining when I used to read his letters I do not know; now I think he was a man of great courage and resourcefulness in the most difficult of circumstances.

This may be my last diary entry for some time: if the hurricane does not affect flights out of Guatemala City airport, on Sunday I am heading out to begin two weeks of retracing my own footsteps of 28 years ago, in my favourite city and favourite country in all the World, Quito, Ecuador, and I may be so moved at revisiting this politically chaotic but marvellously varied Andean land, where I spent 1983/84 on a year out from my Spanish course at Stirling University, and which I could happily settle in, that diary updates may have to wait. We shall see!

Thor Janson, sporting an interesting hat, and self in the entrance of the finca

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