Friday 24th February 2012 (Letter 30th May 1879)

John’s Big Year!

With reference to my post of yesterday, in which I wrote about my bird totals for Mexico and Central America, and also thanked the Cahill family for helping me to boost up my Guatemala score, it turns out that John Cahill is going for an all-out mega-birdlist for Guatemala in 2012. You can find it by going to, or by clicking on it in my Links. So far he has reached 373 species in Guatemala this year – and it’s still only February!!! Good luck to him!

The Zapote area from the air, with Fuego in the background

My own post for today contains the next letter of my great grandfather’s to his mother, dated May 30th, 1879, and sent from the Finca El Zapote. This place, rather like El Capetillo, does not have particularly good memories for me, as when I phoned one of the brothers who now own it, to ask if I could visit as my great grandfather had stayed there, the response was: “I am not interested in history, I am not interested in insects, and I am not interested in you. This finca is not open to the public. This is not for us!”. However, as with El Capetillo, Mitch Denburg came to my rescue and FLEW me over the finca in his helicopter!

El Zapote from the air

This letter shows a few of the difficulties my great grandfather faced: diarrhoea, unsuitable clothes, ants and ticks, humidity, his “old enemy” (an unknown disease he suffered from), language problems, etc. He often seemed somewhat gloomy in his writings; perhaps if I had had to endure some of the hardships he endured, I might also have seemed less than cheerful!

Central America
May 30th, 1879
My dear Mother,

No letter from you yet, I hope in about another fortnight (4 months later from date of starting) to hear how you all are. I received a note from Walker (his future brother-in-law, fellow entomologist J J Walker, RN) addressed care of British Consul the other day (this is the second from him); he is still at Portsmouth. I have been very unwell for a fortnight with incessant diarrhoea; none of my medicines seemed to do me any good, but am now better again and have regained my appetite, so I hope to rub on again for a little longer. At El Zapote the heat and damp are very trying to a newcomer, hence I suppose my indisposition; we have had but little rain during the past week and the place began to smell a little more wholesome, but it is raining heavily again. I have been lucky so far to escape getting wet; you can always depend upon the morning being fine; if you were to see how the people live near here, you would not wonder at fever or anything else. No fruit of any kind at Zapote (though there is abundance in Escuintla, the nearest town 15 miles off) but rarely bread, they have plenty of oxen at this place and killings once a week, then we get some beef, but it will not keep any time so they have to salt the greater part; we occasionally have fresh venison, and wild boar, both of which are very good eating, never mutton in this part of Guatemala; they have plenty of vegetables in the garden, but in cooking they mess them up so with sauce, grease, etc that you hardly know what you are eating.

I got a lot of things washed the other day, but collars they evidently do not understand, they utterly spoilt the whole of mine; one thing people don’t trouble to wear collars here, it is a great nuisance as I shall want them again hereafter. My clothes are all too thick for this climate. I ought to have brought a thin holland coat with me; it should have been very useful, I cannot of course get anything whatever near here.

The lightning is very vivid at Zapote in the evening, quite lights up the sky, often continues for a long time. No return of the old enemy by now; I ought to be seasoned to heat by now one thing there is no dust here but rather too much mud, the roads are very bad indeed.

I hear through M. Blancaneaux (the French botanist) that there is in Guatemala a French schoolmaster of the name of Champion and that letters of mine have been delivered to him. Mr. Blancaneaux, who was sending me a parcel from Guatemala, applied on my behalf for these, but he said he would only give them to me. As I may not be back until July in the city, have written to Mr. MacNider, the British Consul about it, perhaps one of yours is with this man, anyway I want to know what they are.

I went the other day with a party of men and dogs who were going to shoot wild boar high up in the forest on the slope of the Volcano; here the vegetation was very fine indeed, and very different from that lower down, under the enormous lofty trees a dense growth of great broad-leaved plants, small palms, tree ferns (upon the trunks of which innumerable other ferns were growing), the growth so dense the sun did not penetrate. They got one boar but not while I was with them.

Am doing a little better with collecting at this place. There are enormous butterflies in the forest (5-6 inches in expanse of wings). I go about a good deal on horseback (must soon buy an animal for myself) and rather begin to like this method of travelling. For short distances my usual companion is a dog who is only too glad to accompany me, sometimes Don Ramón, or Don Joaquim goes with me; it is not often I can get a man or boy to go; when I do they are more trouble than they are worth. Am up every morning before 6 a.m., and often go to bed before 9 p.m; insect pests in the house are a great nuisance, ants swarm all over the place, great cockroaches everywhere; ticks are so bad in the forest I usually strip and have a bath when I return to get rid of these gentry. Don Joaquim is away now in Guatemala with his family, he only spends about half his time in El Zapote, but his brother Don Ramón is constantly here. I manage to talk to them somehow in broken Spanish.

Shall not go to stop at La Trinidad. I went last Sunday evening to see the place, but it will not do, the accommodation is even worse than Zapote and goodness knows that is bad enough. I greatly fear if I stay over June as is not improbable in this neighbourhood, shall have to make a journey to Guatemala and back, am constantly wanting things I left in the city; it takes 2 days to go to Guatemala from here yet it is only 60 miles!

Believe me etc.

El Zapote - GCC must have passed under this great Ceiba tree

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