Wednesday 11th July 2012 (Letter 5th June 1881)

GCC compares monkeys to milkmen, and meets a cigar-smoking negress

In this letter, my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion details his move from Nance Bonito to Potrerillas, also on the southern slopes of the Volcan Baru. I too visited Potrerillas in December 2011 (see my diary entry for then), but it was impossible to locate precisely where he stayed, partly as there are now two villages, Potrerillas Arriba (Upper) and Potrerillas Abajo (Lower), and partly because, as GCC himself describes in this letter, “This is a small wooden house with galvanised iron roof”. Such houses, unlike many of the well-established fincas in which he lodged in Guatemala, would not have stood the test of time and therefore are probably no longer standing today.

The two Potrerillas villages are still relatively small today, but are now surrounded by farms being sold off to housing developers for the construction of residential complexes, mainly for sale to Canadian settlers wishing to escape the northern winters.

Mixed forest and clearings above Potrerillas

June 5th 1881

My dear Mother,

Again we hear a rumour of a steamer coming this week, so write on the chance of being able to send this. I left Nance Bonito on May 27th for this place about 10 miles distant, still on slope of the mountain, but more to the east, and commanding a splendid view of the sea, coast and the mountains, plains and valleys to the north and east. This is also a coffee plantation, belonging to a Swiss family settled here; these people made me very welcome and appear glad to see a visitor. Still raining very much, just a few hours fine early, afternoons invariably wet with a great deal of mist and fog (though not cold as at home), enough to give one the blues at times, especially as we are only at the beginning of the rainy season, five or six months more of it yet. Can only work early in the morning. We are just on the margin of the forest, above us to the top of the mountains, all is dense forest, below great plains with thousands of cattle, above the mountains are quite uninhabited, the coffee plantations the highest settlements; the dozen or so planters are natives of either Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador or French, Swiss, German or English, a great mixture. Plenty of monkeys in the forest, one a pretty fellow with a white face, these animals when you go near them make a great chattering, and throw sticks etc down at you.

The natives when at work on the plantations make a great noise all the time, calling and shrieking out at the top of their voices, whether imitating the monkeys or not, I don’t know, they would make good milkmen; very different from the Indians of Guatemala, they live a lot together in a rancho, and the planters give them their meals, and rum also in the afternoons when working in the rain. There are not so many nice ferns in this country, though plenty of the large tree ferns, a good many small palms, orchids etc. Nearly all the people are barefoot, almost envy them at times when walking through the mud and water; except for the thorns, snakes etc, it is preferable.

I expected to be able to cross the range and work on the Atlantic side, but I find the country is unhabited except on the coast – Bocas del Toro, Fish Creek etc. and no road, except on foot. In a few weeks, shall go down to David and pack up a collection, then go perhaps to Bugaba, San Miguel etc.

No letters yet – though nearer home, seem much farther away than in Guatemala, knew what days the mail left, here mails don’t trouble the people much, they do without them, sending their letters by the first boat that comes – steamer or sailing vessel – for Panama.

The Swiss family here consists of two brothers (with their wives and families) who know England better than I do. This is Sunday evening, while I am writing one of these gentlemen is amusing himself catching moths for me and the others are reading etc. We get up very early, long before 6 a.m., have coffee first thing, breakfast about 11, dinner about 5.30, at 6 p.m. it is dark, to bed at 9. Thermometer at this elevation (3000 feet) generally 75, falling a little during the night, can sleep with two blankets; in David, a sheet is too much. This is a small wooden house with galvanised iron roof but there are few houses like this, nearly all the native habitations are miserable huts of sticks, mud and thatch. Bought two horses, but they have not turned out very good, wish I had my old mule again.

After heavy rain, the rivers smell very much and are often difficult to ford, scarcely any bridges in this country. My watch has kept gaining all the time, the spare one I brought with me I have not liked to sell in case I should injure the other. Travelling in these countries I have to make a selection of the most necessary things, as much as I can carry on the two horses – a change of clothes and boots I brought with me, bought a few cotton shirts, socks, collars, etc also lighter things for the heat, most of those I brought with me, much too heavy for the Tropics. How would you like a black or Indian servant in the house, barefooted, and with a cigar stuck in her mouth from morning till night, even when nursing a child? Such is the custom in these countries, men, women and children smoke from morning till night, tobacco is so cheap, often to be bought for 6d a pound, but they have no machinery to cut it up fine, so people smoke cigars or cigarettes. Fortunately, Mr. Salvin sent me a new waterproof coat, cannot stir out without one, generally carry a gingham also. I am getting very anxious about my letters, it is so long since I heard from you all, from Mr. Salvin the same, nothing of later date than the beginning of February, want to know very much what you are all dong; one thing, you hear from me, even if I do not from you. Expenses are lighter in Chiriquí than in Guatemala, drew money on Mr. Godman just before I left Guatemala, and again in Panama, but as yet have not had to spend much of it, in a country where people live on rice and salt beef, money will not help one much.

Hoping to hear good news when I do receive a letter, also that you have received the coffee (am afraid that you will have to pay more than I thought to get it) all right,

With best love to all,

Believe me,

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