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
Salamá,
Baja Vera Paz
Guatemala,
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

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