Saturday 3rd March 2012 (Letter 7th July 1879)

A gloomy letter from GCC in Dueñas

Today I add the next letter of my great grandfather’s to his mother – a rather gloomy one this time, as he was suffering badly from the cold and the damp. I can well sympathise with him – I too experienced this type of incessant humidity, when everything, even one’s clothes and documents, is wringing wet, and shoes are liable to go mouldy. Keeping his insect specimens dry was a constant worry as well.

My strong suspicion is that Mr Wyld’s house was the Hacienda Urias, where his employer Osbert Salvin and his wife Caroline had lodged a few years previously. I too visited this historic place, nestled at the foot of the towering Volcan Acatenango, with the smoking Fuego a little beyond, and Agua rising on the other side of the valley.

Interestingly, the inhabitants of Dueñas are still known for their fondness of letting off fireworks – I heard them myself, throughout the day!

Hacienda Urias, where GCC almost certainly stayed

Acatenango and Fuego from the finca where GCC probably stayed

Dueñas,
Guatemala
July 7th, 1879
My dear Mother,

I am still at Dueñas stopping in Mr Wyld’s house; instead of getting the best weather at this time of the year, here we are having the worst, the rainy season is very bad indeed; in this country they have no rain for months, then rain every day for a long time, it has rained here every day since my arrival; some days we get a few hours fine in the morning, but between noon and night there is sure to be more or less rain, sometimes it rains the whole day: we rarely see the tops of the mountains at all for the mists, it is positively cold indoors, there are no fireplaces or any means of warming the place or keeping out the damp; it is lucky for me I am in Dueñas just now. Mr Wyld is here a good deal and if I had not his company, it would be very dull indeed not being able to go out much. I ought to have returned to Guatemala ere this to start on a fresh tour; have been long enough in the vicinity of the Volcanoes Fuego, Agua, and Pacaya but till we get a little fine weather, I do not care to leave the vicinity of Antigua.

November, December and January are the summer months of Guatemala, then I shall appreciate the change of climate, cannot say I do at the present time. Dueñas agrees with me better than Zapote, there I was glad enough for a swing in the hammock to get cool, here I am rather too cool. We get very good bread, also potatoes in Dueñas but the water is bad. The Indians living in this large straggling village are all wretchedly poor, yet on Sundays, Mondays, and fast days, of which there are about 25 in the year, they drink spirits from morning to night, finishing generally by letting off fireworks, of which they appear to be very fond. Very many of the older people especially the women are afflicted with goitre, some very badly; there is very little intermittent fever in this place; at Zapote it was only too prevalent.

I saw the way in which people are punished for petty thefts, an Indian woman was rather fond of stealing such things as a knife or a fowl or portions of clothing; every time she did this, the alcalde, a shoeless brickmaker, ordered her to be chained by the leg to a post in the verandah of Don Joaquim’s house for so many hours every morning and the article stolen put close by for everybody to see; sometimes the woman she stole from would come to the house while she was chained there, then they would abuse one another fearfully for an hour at a time, she invariably had a baby in her arms, sometimes more of the family would come also to keep her company.

I am still managing without a servant or horse of my own, as while I do so, my expenses are very much lighter, but am now in treaty about horse: cannot do without one of my own for the next journey. Here whilst with friends, can always borrow one, but afterwards when with strangers, things will be very different. I dont know how I am pleasing Mr. Godman, I know I myself am very dissatisfied indeed with the result of my work so far in this country. Zapote was perhaps the best place, but far below my expectations, as yet I do not believe I have earned my expenses but I did not choose Guatemala, can only do my best, I have now been nearly one third of a year in this country and there is very little indeed to show for it; perhaps later in the year when I get to Cobán and nearer the Atlantic, things will be more abundant.

Dueñas is noted for the frequency of its earthquakes as the state of many houses testifies rather plainly but there have not been any since I have been in the place. I went yesterday with Mr. Wyld’s headman to a place high up in the mountains called Las Calderas, it took us 2 and a half hours to go about 8 miles on horseback, the road being very bad; this is the only long outing I have yet made from Dueñas. Fortunately it turned out finer than usual and I greatly enjoyed the trip after having been cooped up indoors so much; though so near, the vegetation was very different and amply repaid a visit. A beautiful humming-bird (green with white markings) comes very often to the fuchsias but the slightest noise sends him off. Paroquets are very rare at Dueñas, in Zapote I would sometimes see hundreds in a flock. People are very fond of taming birds here, they have a tame heron. In gardens in Antigua, you see much the same flowers as in London, they grow roses, verbenas, geraniums, chrysanthemums etc., only a few Father would be interested in. I was too hot in Zapote, here it is the other way; it is the damp that makes you cold, when the sun is out, it is hot enough. I drink a great deal of coffee here, perhaps too much, but there is nothing else. If I get damp I change my things as soon as possible and take a little brandy, it is only I believe by doing this and generally taking care of myself that I keep my health in these damp places. I greatly miss the long summer evenings, here it is dark by 7 p.m., often go to bed at 8.30, there is but little inducement to sit up, then get up very early in the morning. Mr Wyld is often here at 7 and seldom leaves till 5.30.

Weather has improved a little, the rain coming more in the night and rather less by day, so have been able to get out, things are also much drier indoors. Was rather in hopes of receiving a letter from you or from Mr. Godman, but nothing came. Mr Wyld however brought me The Illustrated London News of May 31,
so I am pretty well posted in news. M. Blancaneaux wrote me the other day from Cobán; he is also having very bad weather and a bad time of it generally so bad that he will not remain any time but he goes on to Belize directly. The Indians and other people are very friendly and seem pleased if you say Good Day or some thing of that kind in Spanish when you meet them, the only time it is best to avoid them is when they are drunk. The men wear a sort of dark blue flannel jacket with merely two holes for the arms to go through, tied tight round the waist and barely reaching to the knees and a straw hat, the women in blue and white striped skirt and a white sort of open jacket, rarely anything on their heads; all these Indians are very swarthy in complexion but not black like a negro and have coarse black hair, very rarely you see a man with a beard, sometimes a slight moustache. There are not a few halfbreeds, here also some are as pale in face as I am. I was surprised at first to see so many fair people in a tropical country. The heat seems to make people thin instead of dark, people told me I was a little thinner when I returned from Zapote. I don’t wonder at it, but here I am in a place but little hotter than England at this time of the year, I had the hottest and driest weather to start with.

Now, dear Mother I must bring this long letter to a close.
Sometimes when alone here at night and when out on distant rambles, my thoughts go back to you all and I wonder what you are all doing, and I hope I shall hear from you by next mail.

With best love,
Yours affectionately,

Acatenango and Fuego from the Finca Urias

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