Sunday 23rd October 2011

Hot on the trail of GCC in San Miguel Dueñas

Although I am basically recovering from the allergic reaction I had to my numerous insect bites, I have not been held back in my quest to find the places associated with my great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”), and today I feel I was right on his trail!

The day started with me taking a tuk-tuk out of Antigua, down towards the small town of San Miguel Dueñas, where I had kindly been given permission to visit the beautiful country home of one of my newfound friends in Guatemala City. She kindly contacted her step-son, who is currently resident in the house, and he welcomed me in and took me up onto the terrace, which commands a panoramic view of three volcanoes: Agua, Acatenango and Fuego, all of which were showing their peaks in the dramatically changed weather conditions we are now enjoying, after the previous two weeks of almost continuous rain.

Volcan Acatenango

After a delicious cup of coffee (what else could one expect in Guatemala, the land of coffee?!) and a chat, we walked together down the road to the Finca Valhalla, which Natalia and I had visited a couple of days earlier. Here I was welcomed warmly by owners Lorenzo (Larry) and Emilia, and Larry very kindly offered to drive me (in his 1975 Peugeot) across to one of the two fincas that Natalia and I had tried to enter previously, as he knew the owners and guardians.

We drove in through the gates, and almost immediately found one of the family members (I am omitting names here, in the interests of privacy), who was officiating at a football match just inside the gates. Amid much amusement at Larry’s incredible repertoire of jokes, we made acquaintance of several family members and other local dignitaries, before heading further along the track towards the old house and buildings of this long-established finca.

Hacienda Urias

Here, I feel I came right upon GCC’s footsteps – Osbert and Caroline Salvin (Osbert Salvin was one of my great grandfather’s two employers) stayed in the Hacienda Urías in 1873/4, and Caroline painted a view of the two volcanoes Acatenango and Fuego from this very spot, and she even painted a picture of what I assume to be the house itself (she simply refers to it as “The house at Dueñas”). Although GCC, in a letter to his mother dated July 7th, 1879, does not give a precise address, in his itinerary he gives his location as “June 26 – July 21, 1879. Dueñas (about 4500 feet). Coffee and Opuntia (for rearing the cochineal insect) plantations adjacent to the Lake of Dueñas…..”

Fuego and Acatenango from Hacienda de Urias, by Caroline Salvin, 1873

The house at Dueñas by Caroline Salvin, 1873

GCC was of course put in touch with the same people with whom Osbert and Caroline Salvin had lodged, and mostly stayed with them as well, so we can be almost totally certain that this wonderful, historic hacienda was indeed the very spot in which GCC spent those three weeks in 1879 – especially as this hacienda does indeed house the remains of the now almost dried out Laguna de Dueñas. GCC’s letter of that date begins:

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.

Hacienda Urias - GCC must have slept in this house in 1879

Although I was not able to walk to the site of the former lake (there is no security presence on Sundays, and this is an area notorious for assaults and robberies), I have been invited to return on Tuesday, when an armed guard will be detailed to accompany me to the former lake.

Hacienda Urias

One final interesting point is that the people of San Miguel Dueñas are still fond of letting off fireworks: I was told this morning by my friend’s step-son that the bangs go on all the time at night, and I even heard two myself this afternoon!

My sincere thanks to all concerned today for their kindness in helping me to locate this spot, one of the key locations in this quest to find the places associated with my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion.

Map of Antigua area drawn by Osbert Salvin in 1858

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