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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Friday 24th August 2012 (Letter 1st May 1882)

GCC finds a huge moth, and loses a horse

CHIRIQUI, STATE OF PANAMA

1st May 1882

My dear Mother,

Back again in Bugabita once more. At the beginning of April, I was in David for a few days packing up a 4th collection from Chiriquí to send off; soon after I went up again to Potrero Volcano, previously in December last and spent about a fortnight there, returning a few days ago. Coming down from these cold places (4000’) you seem as if entering a furnace; hunger drove us down, the provisions all being exhausted, and we were unsuccessful this time with the wild boar; a monkey (the meat is awfully tough) but hunger is a good sauce, a few turkeys and partridges the only things shot.

Lakes near Volcan

Everything is burned up by the sun, no rain beyond a few showers for 4 months. The horses and cattle suffer very much; one of my sick horses died; the other recently bought cannot yet be mounted, so I had to hire for this journey; have to feed them chiefly upon sugar cane, there is nothing else to be got. But it is already threatening rain now in the afternoons, thundering a good deal, so I suppose the rains will soon begin.

I made rather a good, though small, collection this trip, there is an enormous moth 9.5 -10.5 inches in expanse of wings up in these high places, more like a bat when flying.

A huge Noctuid moth, Letis sp., similar to the one GCC mentions. This one was photographed in Guatemala

Went to David last month, chiefly in hopes of finding letters from you and Mr. Godman but without result, though there were English and Guatemalan letters awaiting me. In David they have been rather gay owing to the President of the State having recently paid a visit to the place. I left, however, two days before he arrived. Tobacco nearly all gathered in now, they are sowing rice, maize etc. There has been a change in the Consulate in Panama, I however send my letters as before; I suppose the new Consul will forward them.

There are enormous uninhabited forests between the Potrero Volcan and the first town in Costa Rica, Terrava; from the foot of the precipitous ascent of the Volcano you see a great deal of this forestland, the line of the view to the west is bounded by a range of mountains, a spur of the Cordilleras, terminating seawards in Point Burico – would have liked to have ascended the Cordillera but it is too steep. From the top the two oceans are to be seen; in going up from Bugabita to the Potrero you travel for 7 or 8 hours through dense forest.

We had a fresh arrival in Chiriquí recently, a Frenchman, who came by land from Panama; he has a great pile of letters of introduction to all sorts of people in Central America, including myself! He says he has come to study the languages, customs, antiquities etc, of the Indians, but to me he is rather a mystery.

One of the Germans settled here sends large collections of insects every year to Germany; indeed he almost makes his living by it. He lives about 2 miles from me, and we see a good deal of one another, he does not speak English so we have to talk Spanish.

In Bugabita, we are quite shut in by second growth, the roads are only narrow paths through the forest, about half a mile of us to the west the forest proper commences and continues for a great distance and far beyond the River Chiriquí Viejo, a clearing in these woods, the natives plant their rice, fencing in a piece here and a piece there, fence usually of a horribly spiny plant like a large pineapple, the cattle are turned loose to feed in these woods, the people catching them generally with the bribe of a little salt, these cattle are so hungry now they even eat the thatch of the houses and break in wherever they can to get at the sugar cane and bananas.

With regards to all old friends, and best love to all,

A rainbow near Volcan

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Monday 20th August 2012 (Letter 23rd March 1882)

GCC nearly burns up in the heat and the fires, and ascends to high on the slopes of the volcano

BUGABITA CHIRIQUI ESTADO DE PANAMÁ U.S COLOMBIA

March 23rd, 1882

My dear Mother,

I am still in Bugabita, though I have been away a short time at Los Potrerillos and other places on the slope of the Volcano, returning here yesterday. During this trip made an expedition with some Swiss plant collectors to a place high up on the slopes of the Volcano; we worked up through the forest to 6500 feet elevation, slept one night up there and returned the next day. I intended to remain longer but we were obliged to return owing to want of water, all the little streams are quite dry; shall have to go up again next month when the rains begin.

This place, Bugabita, is about 30 miles from Potrerillos, but we make the journey down in about 8 hours on horseback.

The whole country now is like an oven, people burning the brush and forest everywhere, so dry that the very earth itself seems to burn, misty everywhere from smoke, one night last week at the Potrerillos we all slept outside on the ground for fear of the fire spreading from the burning brush to the house itself in the night, the north wind too in March blows so strongly as to do a great deal of mischief. I think March is the most disagreeable month in this country, what with the heat, dust and smoke and terrific wind on the mountain, but we shall soon have a change – the rains begin in April. Am again very unfortunate with my horses, have one in such a bad state that it will probably die, another I bought to take its place has turned out to be worse than useless, then again in the dry season it is very difficult to find food for them; horses are turned loose to find food in this country, no-one keeps a stable.

Am long without letters from Mr. Godman, so at present do not know much about what he wishes me to do, except that he wants me to work higher and higher up the Volcano. The steamer in this month cannot make the journey from Panamá, the north wind is too much for it. People are now planting maize, rice etc, and gathering in the tobacco crops; sugar cane they cut all the year round, bananas the same, the dry season or summer lasts from December to April till at last the rains come with a great deal of thunder and lightning. I cannot say things are dear in Bugabita, the hire of a decent rancho (a house made of sticks and thatches with leaves of palm or sugar cane) costs about 4 reales (1/8d) a month, meat is 4/ the 25 lbs, large bananas about 10 or 12 for a penny, lard, of which a great deal is used with everything, 10d a bottle, rice about 1d a pound, coffee 8d a pound, sugar of course cheap, such as it is, a chicken 6d, eggs about 4 a penny, but beyond these things, there is nothing else to be got. We drink a great deal of the crude sugar, mixed with water (sometimes flavoured with pineapple or orange). This drink is called ‘Guarapo’ and is not at all bad. Am almost forgetting my own name in these countries, people call me Don Jorge as a rule, though they have various names they use to call a foreigner by, as – patron, patroncito, nopo, extranjero, paysano, el inglés, el naturalista etc etc; anyone coming here to enquire for me would find me much quicker by asking for me by any of these names than by my own. Footwear is the greatest trouble, have spent a great deal more on boots than on clothes so far in Chiriquí.

I have sent 3 collections so far from Chiriquí to Mr. Godman; next month, I hope to send another.

I have your letter of December 31st, which I received in David about a month ago. I think I answered it the following day before I returned to Bugabita. Also got a letter from Walker, he is very well and back again at Callao, he was 7 weeks at Panamá; they expect to go shortly to Acapulco, Mexico, and then to Vancouver. While I remain at Bugabita or Potrerillos, do not find it so very dull, always someone to go and talk with in English or Spanish. In David, have fewer acquaintances – one or two Italians, French or Germans, and a few natives, that is all.

The other day up on the slopes of the Volcano, we saw the tracks of tapirs, but they are very shy, and seldom seen, we only meet with wild pig and monkey. No one I believe, has yet been to the top of this mountain (11,000 feet); should like very much to ascend it, but water is too scarce for me, can stand hunger but not thirst. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are both seen from the high parts of the Cordillera. In either India or Australia, I believe I would get letters much easier and quicker than I do in Chiriquí, but it is no use grumbling.

With best love to all, and hoping to hear from you very soon,
Believe me, dear Mother,
Yours affectionately,

A forested mountain close to the Volcan Baru