Tuesday 20th March 2012 (Letter 7th September 1879)

GCC is shaken by an earthquake, and is shocked by the extra-filthy habits of pigs in Guatemala!

Here is the next of my great grandfather’s letters to his mother, dated 7th September, 1879. As well as the earthquake he felt, he seemed to suffer particularly severely from neuralgia, not a disease with which I am familiar, but according to Wikipedia: The disorder generally causes short episodes of excruciating pain, usually for less than two minutes and usually on only one side of the face. The pain can be described in a variety of ways such as “stabbing,” “sharp,” “like lightning”, “burning,” and even “itchy”. It certainly does not sound pleasant.

Sept. 7th, 1879

My dear Mother,

I am still here in San Gerónimo; have been very comfortable in this house, a good bed and good food all the time; have already been a month in this place. Am still troubled a great deal with neuralgia, and suppose I shall be until the rainy season is over in October, otherwise have been very well all the time.

I find my servant (Guillermo) Dubón very useful in many ways. I always take him out with me, have been out nearly every day except Sundays, though often driven in early in the afternoon by the rain. We have had a little less rain in the daytime since I last wrote so have managed to get about more. One thing, the soil is sandy so it soon dries up with the heat of the sun; still the climate is very humid and will be for another month.

Shall probably leave early tomorrow for an expedition to some places (Santa Barbara, San José, San Antonio etc) in the mountains, but only for two or three days, returning again to San Gerónimo. I hope to make this place my headquarters for some months, making journeys all round.

I had a letter from Mr. Salvin by last mail, telling me to go to Godines and Patzitzia on the road to Quetzaltenango, but the letter came too late, I was already far away in another direction.

We have had two shocks of earthquake lately, the last during the night of September 1st was rather severe, lasting several minutes. Mr. Morgans is still in Guatemala, but Mr. Hutchison is here, the manager a Spaniard also speaks English, so am never very ‘dull’. Sunday mornings, the work people are drilled in the village by the military authorities; if they fail to attend, they are put in prison. Military service is compulsory; in case of war these people would have to go as soldiers.

Barefooted soldiers, Guatemala, photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1875

The village is larger than it appears at first, the houses are a good way apart, the roads are very bad indeed. In going along the street, you meet any number of dogs, pigs, fowls, naked children, also women bringing water in queer shaped earthern vessels balanced on their heads, from the river; they have to fetch every drop they want for their houses. Down by the river, all day long you see the Negro and Indian women washing clothes etc., they stand in the water and scrub away on a piece of rock. Everything is washed in this way but in Guatemala and other places where they have not a river to go to, there are public washing places adjoining the numerous street fountains.

Pulling cloth and doing the laundry, by Muybridge, 1875

Public Laundry, Guatemala, by Muybridge, 1875

Such public laundries still exist - here my guide Luisa Zea poses by one

In the village, the people make no attempt at keeping a garden. A few grow a little maize, or a few bananas, they seldom keep up a fence round their ground, all is dirt and squalor. The workpeople on the estate earn 1/- a day (some only 6d); on this they keep a wife and family. I pay my man 9/- a week and 1/- extra for Sundays, this is considered good wages, and he is very well satisfied. He is quite smart compared with many here, wears boots and so on. The estate is very large; one of the coffee plantations is six miles away. Santa Barbara up in the mountains also belongs to them; they, however, only cultivate a small portion of it. They make their own butter, cheese, etc., also their own bread. They live a great deal in this house upon fowl, we have meat also, but is seldom good (meat is only about 4d a pound). Few people care to eat pork, the pigs being extra filthy in their habits in Guatemala. Looking down onto the village from the hills, the houses appear surrounded by trees, here and there a large palm and a solitary coconut tree just by this house, the large white church stands conspicuous above all, and is a prominent landmark for miles around.

We rarely see a stranger, only two in a month, one a German on his way to Cobán (whose horse had come to grief on the road), the other a Frenchman who has a small estate about ten miles away; of course the German spoke English, it is wonderful how they pick up languages as they do.

This house immediately adjoins the church, so close that we hear the singing, they are always ringing the bells for some thing or other, though they only have services very early on Sunday morning and Saints’ Days, just now they are going round the village with a life size figure of some saint or other, which they will presently bring to the church, and after its arrival, I suppose will let off the usual fireworks, according to custom; it seems strange, fireworks in the daytime.

Such saints are still paraded through towns today - this one was in the capital

In the house, they have two tame animals, a porcupine, and a kinkajou, the latter is very tame, is not unlike a large squirrel, only with a long tail like a monkey. He sleeps all day, but in the evening, is fond of a game. You see a few cats about, but not many. Mr. Morgans brought the kinkajou from Izabal, where they are said to be common. Mr. Morgans, I believe, intends returning to England in December, and if he comes out again, will probably bring his wife and family with him. We get very little fruit in San Gerónimo beyond oranges, lemons, and bananas. Grapes are grown in Salamá, but I have not seen any yet.

In the mountains, there are a few nice plants in flower, a beautiful orchis on the oak trees (flowers pale yellow with dark markings) and many others. There are two species of begonias, a few tree ferns and palms etc. I am obliged to post letters sooner here to catch the mail, post only goes twice a week from Salamá to the capital, still no newspapers or books. The mail arriving in Guatemala on the 4th may have brought something, if so may get them tomorrow when we send to Salamá.

Hoping you are keeping well and with best love to all,
Believe me, etc.

A view near San Geronimo, with the hills in which GCC collected insects, in the background

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