Project Canterbury

A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter VII. "Floods, Landslides and Wash-outs"

IN Central America, on the Atlantic side, there are only two railways into the interior. One, in Guatemala, runs up a distance of about 180 miles from Port Barrios to Guatemala City, the capital, and the other runs up from Port Limon to San José, the capital of Costa Rica, a distance of a little less than 100 miles. It would be difficult to do justice to the scenery through which these railways pass, to anyone who does not know the Tropics. At first they run through miles and miles of banana plantations, and then, leaving these behind and below, they rise gradually up to some thousands of feet, passing along the banks of rivers, where alligators lie basking in the sun, along the sides of mountains, through great cuttings, and over, in Guatemala, great sandy plains where the cactus grows to an extraordinary height, and strange trees, all flowers and no leaves, present dazzling masses of colour. I wish space permitted me to describe at length the interest and beauty, the colour and charm, of the country through which the railway to Guatemala City passes, and the romance which seems to invest the picturesque Indians who come to sell fruit, eggs, and cooked fowl at the different stopping places, taking one's thoughts back to the Spanish Conquista and the days of Alvarado.

When we were going up to the City last February the full moon was rising just as the sun had set, and as we were then above the lower mountains, looking down upon their summits, we could also look upwards, still having some distance to rise, and see the glittering lights of the city, far up above us, like a great magnificent cluster of diamonds in the moonlight. It was glorious!

But this is to be a description of floods, slides, and wash-outs! These two railways, as I have said, run along the banks of rivers and amongst mountains, climbing along their sides, indeed, in places, and it is not difficult to imagine how precarious their situation must be in times of flood. We have heard all our lives of "tropical rain," but it must be experienced to be realized. The rainy season in Central America is at the close of the year, and as I spent last November and December there I got my experience of a tropical downpour again and again. I had a round of Confirmations, in which I had to depend upon the kindness of the different "Mandadores," or managers, of the various banana plantations, to send me about on trolleys and give me hospitality for the night. It was invariably raining, and it may be truly said in the Tropics "It never rains but it pours." I have lain awake, all through the night, utterly unable to sleep, listening to the roar with which the rain was falling upon the corrugated iron roof of the house in which we were staying. I have never seen such rain or imagined it before! Yet all through those Confirmations, to their credit be it said, my Jamaican candidates always turned up in due course if we gave them time, and, though it was often pitiable enough to see them struggling through the mud, they always came in their Confirmation dresses. We were often without much in the way of a congregation, but were never without our candidates, and the service was often all the more impressive from the discomforts that had to be borne to get to it. We had missionary meetings, the consecration of one church and laying the foundation-stone of another, as well as the Confirmations, during that wet November, and just got them over in time to start off back for San Jose towards the end of the month and experience what heavy rains bring with them.

It was November the 24th when we set off on our return journey, and that night we were invited to dine with the British Consul in San Jose. It was the American Thanksgiving day, when a turkey always graces the board, and that is a great event to those who as a rule are living on bad food; but there was no turkey for us that day.

We had to go dinnerless and supperless to rest! We noticed when we entered the car at Rio Hondo that there was hardly a passenger in it, but attached no importance to this until we began to notice the water along the line and the swollen rivers. Then we began to hear remarks about slides and wash-outs, and then came our experiences!

First we were brought up at a place where a bridge over a small stream had been swept away, and we were told they were going to make a temporary one; but this proved impossible, and as the down train had come and stopped some little distance away on the other side, we had to "tranship," or change trains. It is not pleasant to turn out, carrying all you can, in pouring rain, slipping about in the mud, as you spring from stone to stone, fording a creek, and doing your best to help a woman who may be just behind you, and get your luggage across also. There is no one to help on these occasions. Everyone must look after himself and give a helping hand where he can. In time, however, we got the exchange made and our train moved on, but alas! not for long!

Between Lomas and Peralto we came across a large "slide," as a fall of rock and earth is called when it comes down upon and over the track. Our minds misgave us and our spirits sank as we looked at it and saw its extent, though the Jamaicans were working away at it in pouring rain, soaked through, of course, to the skin. It was growing late and we were only about half-way, so we were not surprised to be told that the men had knocked off work and that we should have to stop where we were all night. The river was foaming along just below us! We were perilously near the edge, and couldn't help remembering that the last train which stopped there after a similar "slide" was found in the river next morning. We had seen the stack of the locomotive rising just above the water when we had gone up once before, and a very forlorn object it was! It was not a cheerful prospect, but we were soon relieved to hear that the train had to be backed down to a safer place further away from the river, but we had to spend the night, lying as best as we could upon the seats, having been fortunate enough to get a tiny box of sardines and a few cream crackers to be shared among four. We had nothing to drink.

It was a glorious night. The moon came out after the rain had ceased, the fire-flies were everywhere, and all the sounds of tropical night were about us.

With the dawn the men came back on trolleys and began working again with a will. Dynamite was used largely, and all was done which was possible, but it was getting near noon before space could be cleared, enough to let us pass.

The engine was at the end of the train, and I held my breath as it shaved past a place where another slide was just ready to come; and I believe it did come just after we had passed, as we found later in the day that the line was again blocked in the same place. f

We were able to get some food about one, and went on again immediately, only to be brought up before long by a "wash-out" which had swept away the earth from under the rails. That was put right, however, in a few hours, and late at night we reached San Jose, glad to have had the experience; but a bridge swept away, a landslide, and a wash-out are quite excitement enough for one journey!

It was, however, when we left Costa Rica at the end of 1910 that we had our chief experience of what landslides can do.

On December 27th we left San Jose by the early train, a troop of friends coming to see us off and load us with fruit and food for the journey, for which we had cause to be thankful before we reached the coast. It had been raining for days down below, we had heard, and we had forebodings; but still we hoped for the best.

At Cartago, less than an hour away, and just before the line begins to descend, we heard rumours of "eighteen slides on ahead," and nearly everyone left the train; but we kept our places, for the train dispatcher at San Jose, a great friend of ours, had said as we left, "Bishop, I'll get you through if it is possible," and all that trying day he was as good as his word. Wires were received at station after station as we drew near, with "Get the Bishop through if it is possible."

At length we came down to perfectly terrific rain, and more definite information about the slides, and then the conductor came to me and said, "I've had a wire to tell me to take the train back. You'd better return with me." "Conductor," I said, "I can't! Everybody has said ' Good-bye,' I can't go back." He pulled his cap about in a puzzled way, and went into the station-room again, only to receive one of the telegrams, "Get the Bishop through if possible! Tell him there is a big hill to climb where the first slide is." So, good man as he was, he unhitched a baggage car and took us down to the edge of the slide. It lay across and above the track in the most hopeless way, and looked as if it would take weeks to remove, and "the big hill" rose up above. That was a climb to remember! I had my dispatch boxes, and my son his natural history specimens in a huge tin. The rain descended in torrents, the perspiration poured from us, we slipped about in the mud, and fell from time to time, but ever kept struggling on amid tropical beauties in foliage, flower and tree which not even the storm of falling rain and our own discomforts and exhaustion could prevent our admiring. A most glorious tree, towering upwards like some great monarch of the woods, with lace-like tendrils descending to the ground from every branch, crowned the top, and one could only regret that so few could ever see its beauty in that lonely place, as one stopped to gaze at it, and draw breath before descending on the other side. Going down is usually worse than going up, and so we found it; but, slipping, stumbling, sliding, struggling on, we at last reached the level, where a trolley was waiting for us on the other side of the slide.

Then our luggage had to be brought across, and distressing enough it was to see the willing Jamaicans struggling across that slide, sinking up to their thighs in mud, the rain ever pouring down, and manfully keeping the bags safe above their heads.

Half an hour's run or less brought us to another station, and to the information that another great slide was on ahead, but this time with no succouring hill to befriend us, and that we must stay the night. It is best to draw a veil over what followed when we had tried to eat a little food and turned in.

To sleep six in a room of small dimensions, and on extemporized couches, with companions whose ideas of cleanliness are not one's own, with one of them in delirium at times from fever brought on by injuries sustained in a recent railway accident, does not give much inclination for sleep, especially when one is uncertain as to how long one will have to stop there. (My excellent clergyman for that neighbourhood was hung up in that very place eleven days a short time later.) But the longest night comes to an end, and we were up with daylight and glad again to have recourse to our supplies of food from San Jose.

Once more we had a trolley and were off by 10 a.m. The slide was over the track, as we had been told, but we were able to cross it and get another trolley, and by trolleys and other means we got from place to place by patience and perseverance and down to the coast again.

An hour from Limon our spirits began to sink once more, as we found we were entering water, and on going to the platform outside we found a steady stream breaking menacingly over the track, which was "herringboned" at that particular place to provide for such a contingency. The country, deep in the flood, had a most dreary look, and forlorn little groups of live creatures, such as fowls and goats, appeared in boxes and little lumber erections above the water, depressing one's spirits tremendously as one thought of the steamer which was to leave Limon that night and take us, we hoped, down the coast to Bocas del Toro. We feared we should never reach it in time. But the water that day was merciful--next day it was impassable--and did not rise to the level of our engine fires, and we got safely to Limon, to find that our friend the train-dispatcher's wires had come there also, "The Bishop is to be got through if possible; hold the boat till he comes." It was with very thankful hearts that we went on board, just having got out in time. We heard later that a bridge went just after we had crossed it, and the water was over the track for days, and that the line did not take anyone through for some weeks.

Bocas del Toro is our one station in the Republic of Panama, and a little over a hundred miles from the Isthmus itself. It is a place of growing importance, and is being very prettily laid out in gardens and avenues. The United Fruit Company have made it, as they have also made Port Limon. It was a pleasure to be welcomed there by the Rector, a Barbadian, and to see sunshine once more, and be driven round the place by one of the members of his committee in a smart buggy which he had just had out from Jamaica in order that he might thus supplement his wages as a carpenter.

We had a good hearty service during the morning, at which I baptized the Rector's little son and heir, the Communicants of the place being his godfathers and godmothers, and the earliest part of the day quickly passed in the bright and sunny weather.

But, alas! by two o'clock it began to cloud over, and soon the rain was falling in torrents, in a particularly hopeless sort of way which made us feel sure, as it proved, that it would never cease that day. It poured on drearily and dismally all the afternoon, and by 5 o'clock the whole place was under water, steadily rising.

"You won't have the Confirmation, will you, Bishop? I fear no one will come," said the little Rector. "Let us wait and see," was my reply.

At about six o'clock he went across to the church, and came back in great excitement to tell me that three men were already there, one of whom had come eight miles across the lagoon in a canoe, battling every foot of the way against the storm, and the other two had walked twelve miles in the rain! "Then," I said, "I shall confirm them and have the service if not another person comes." Soon we heard that others were dribbling in one by one.

We then had to get to church, and there was no buggy available, so we had to take off shoes and stockings and roll up our trousers well above the knees and wade to the church, taking dry towels and things to put on.

The church was quite a sight! The candidates had had to come through the water as we had done, and had to change their wet things for dry. Still, all were cheerful! No one grumbled! "It was GOD'S weather, and GOD'S weather can't spoil GOD'S work." Twenty-two out of the forty candidates were there, and though the congregation was a small one, yet the Confirmation, with the baptism of one of the candidates preceding it, was one of the most impressive and helpful I have ever taken, and sent one back to the Rectory in a very thankful and appreciative frame of mind, as one thought of those earnest and simple folks braving the elements.

Next day I crossed the lagoon to Changui-nola for another Confirmation, but there, alas! the greater number of the candidates were kept back by the swollen river carrying down trunks of trees, etc. Their canoes could not be risked. It was again a very impressive service, some of those present being moved to tears. As we returned in our little toy train we recrossed a wooden bridge, which we learnt afterwards was swept away shortly after we had passed over it.

Next day their Rector thought it was going to be fine, and that he might get together the rest of his candidates; but it poured worse than ever, and only one came; but though we were but "two or three gathered together," it was a service to remember.

Next day our vessel had to leave. It was the last day of the year, and one was thankful, though looking forward to many things, to say good-bye to others, and amongst them to "floods, slides, and wash-outs."

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