Saturday 25th August 2012 (Letter 21st July 1882)

4,000 cattle are required for the Panama Canal construction workers to eat (although in the end, 22,000 were to die of disease and malnutrition), and GCC berates the German settlers for their meanness.

Oxeoschistus euriphyle, photographed in the cloudforest above Boquete

CHIRIQUI, PANAMÁ.

July 21st, 1882

My dear Mother,

I think I wrote last from the Potrerillos, from which place I went to Nance Bonito, remaining a few days and then returning to Bugabita. I have now but just returned from the mountains, from the Potrero del Volcán, about 25 miles distant. Have been up at this place some time, and only came down now for want of provisions and from the bad weather; staying as before with a party of native hunters, and living principally on wild boar, deer, monkey and turkey meat.

Of course, I had no opportunity of writing while away on this trip. I have sent twice to David for letters but did not get any, though I believe there must be some there by this time. I shall have to go myself I expect to hunt them up. We are now well into the winter or rainy season though as a rule in the hot low country, the mornings are very fine, and sunny, the rain not coming till the afternoon. But up in the mountains we saw very little indeed of the sun, it was very dull nearly all the time.

The natives go up to the mountains occasionally to hunt, they are all very good shots and collect sarsparilla, india rubber, honey etc; they prefer doing this to working; they will only work from necessity.

I went to David about a month ago and there found some newspapers of mine of January, six months on the way, and an old letter of Walker’s. The date of my return to England is very uncertain, as there is some talk of a visit to the Pearl Islands.

I have very little to write about this time, as have visited no new places and have no news. Owing to the Panamá Canal, everything is getting much dearer; 4000 cattle are required from Chiriquí; these will be sent off from time to time to Panamá, a great deal of rice (this is a greater necessity of life than bread in England) is also sent now to Panamá, crude sugar also; bananas are difficult to obtain. In David you get all these things easily enough even if dearer, but not here; in the country it is a different thing. The first maize crop is now coming in and of this they make cakes etc, though they don’t know how to make tortillas, as in Guatemala. Also they make a sort of pudding, from it; the rice crop will also soon begin, that is, if it is not destroyed by insects. The natives are in great trouble just now on this account.

They have prayer meetings nearly every night often continued through the whole night. These people are all very religious, though very superstitious, believing in all sorts of nonsense. Am now accustomed to eat almost anything the natives eat in Chiriquí, except the ‘chichas’; these are messes like porridge, made from rice, maize, palm fruits etc, but I do not take to them. The principal dish is what they call “arroz seco”; this is rice boiled and steamed and flavoured with salt and lard, it really is not bad. Meat will only keep fresh one day, it has to be salted and dried in the sun, otherwise it goes bad directly. A joint you rarely see, it is always cut into long strips a yard or more in length. Of fruit we get very little, beyond pineapple, oranges and mangos, up in the mountains last week we had plenty of blackberries, of these the natives are very fond.

Sometimes they have a native ball or ‘pindin’ in Bugabita. I think I told you about these balls when I was in David last Christmas. Here in the campo, it is a little different. Only one or two couples dance at a time. They dance face to face not touching one another, on a plank; when tired another couple takes their place and so it goes on all night to the music of two or three fiddles, and a hollow tube with peas inside which is constantly shaken and makes an awful noise, sometimes the people singing a sort of chant also. They don’t stop for a moment the whole night. The worst of it is that towards morning most of them get drunk and take to fighting one another with large machetes (knives) they all carry, often cutting one another very badly. At all these balls, there are at least twice as many women as men. On a cool moonlight night, I sometimes go to watch for an hour or so. Nearly all the people, men and women, dress in white and straw hats, and of course are barefoot.

These balls, and the prayer meetings or valorios, to sing and pray for rain for good crops, are the only changes the natives have and at the valorios they also keep it up all night singing Spanish hymns to the music of a violin or two, but at these, they do not get drunk or fight. The natives seldom if ever molest the foreigners, they will steal little things sometimes but not often. Some of the houses have no doors and the people go in and out constantly, leaving no one to mind the place. The people are however bad in many ways, they call all the foreigners ‘rich’ and will cheat in every way they can. You make all sorts of arrangements with them and they never think of keeping their word; of gratitude they have none, you help them sometimes in various ways when they are pushed, but if you want the least thing from them afterwards, they will not give it. In all these countries, the people are mean to a degree, even I must say many of the foreigners, especially the Germans. I have never seen such meanness at home. I know not when I shall have a chance of sending off this letter but write now while I have the opportunity.

I am yours etc.

Catasticta teutila, photographed along the Sendero de los Quetzales, above Boquete

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