(A prefatory note: It has long been my habit to chronicle various minor adventures by means of emails sent to those on the “List of the Living”. Thus far this blog has been reserved for longer works, but just yesterday I was roundly berated by friends for continuing my bad old email habit. It was brought to my attention that anything worth saying is worth saying well, and that such words of wisdom should be in a format that allows for the proper display of graphics. So it is that I offer this snippet of frippery to those too busy texting while driving to have time to read a longer article.)
Spring finally came on February 6th after a brutal Florida winter during which the temperature actually dipped slightly below freezing on several occasions. Oh, the horror!
We welcome such nips because an occasional freeze is the only thing that keeps hordes of pythons from slithering north from the Everglades to devour our beloved poodles and house cats. There are already enough coyotes to provide that important service.
Here in Hogtown we have no groundhogs to prognosticate upon the weather, so I consulted with my porch snakes to discover cold noses tentatively protruding from their hidey holes. It was a good sign, so I stepped outside to analyze the azaleas. The buds were as swollen and pink as the posterior of a baboon in estrus so I concluded that winter was over and it was time to go fishing.
No one was able to join me on such short notice. How I pity those whose self imposed shackles prevent the prioritization of the more important things in life, for it is a well known fact that no God, imaginary or otherwise, will deduct from a man’s allotted days those days spent fishing.
So it was that I loaded the Yak atop my trusty Subaru, then set about packing the requisite gear. While rooting through the fridge in search of bait shrimp I discovered an ancient baggie filled with what appeared to be dust, but which was actually desiccated mushroom debris.
These were “special” mushrooms, not just because they were Psilocybe cubensis, but because they had been grown in elephant poop. One might wonder how that could be possible, for elephants have been generally scarce in Florida since the passing of the last mammoth.
Perhaps you may have heard of the legendary “Elephants’ graveyard“? I will never divulge the location, but suffice it to say that many long lived species come to Florida to decline and die. So it is that Republicans go to The Villages, circus freaks to Gibsonton, and aged elephants to Sarasota.
It had been many years since I last took that “special voyage” to the Land of Oz, and I had forgotten all about the lost baggie. There was little reason to think that the dusty debris therein was still potent, but its discovery seemed a portent from the aforementioned imaginary Gods, so I brewed up some tea with honey and lemons then downed it with lunch.
The freight train left the station earlier than expected, so caution had to be exercised on the long drive west to the Gulf coast. No problem, for the Weazel is a man of experience and kept a steady hand on the wheel.
I arrived at the #4 bridge boat ramp in the mid afternoon halfway through a rising tide cycle. It is a beautiful place surrounded by marshes, tidal creeks, and islands for as far as the eye can see. It is also a very difficult place to launch from and to explore because of extensive mudflats that are fully exposed at low tide. My last several trips had been disasters during which I was stuck in the mud for hours waiting for the tide to return.
But this day was different. The previous low tide had been exceptionally high, and the high tide at sunset was predicted to be exceptionally low. This minimal tidal differential meant that the water was barely moving, a most unusual phenomenon in a place where the tides otherwise rush ceaselessly to and fro. The mud flats and oyster bars were completely covered so there was no problem paddling anywhere I might wish to go.
The wind along the coast is almost as ceaseless as the tide, but on this special day the wind stopped dead still and the water became as glassy as a pond. I have been to the coast hundreds of times over the years and this was only the second time I have ever observed the ocean to be perfectly flat.
On warm cloudy winter days Ceratopogonid sand flies can be a terrible problem so I shampooed with DEET then covered up. They troubled me at the ramp, but as soon as I was on the water the sun came out and they disappeared as if by magic.
I paddled effortlessly, drifting as though in a dream, transfixed by the beauty and silence. There were no airboats, no motor boats, no people whatsoever. The only sound was that of an occasional car on the highway far away.
Even the birds were silent. Groups of skimmers, sandpipers, and pelicans huddled on sandbars while ducks and cormorants made desultory dives but never returned to the surface with dinner. The only movement in the sky was that of a solitary eagle that swooped low to look me in the eye.
Nature seemed suspended, nothing moving, not a single disturbance on the water. The water was so flat that if a fish had moved half a mile away I could have seen the ripples. It would have been easy to see the snouts of diamondback terrapins, so I was dismayed that there were none.
No fish were feeding so I didn’t even try to catch one. Under such circumstances of stillness nothing was willing to move, neither predators nor prey, for to do so would disclose its location. Fish feed at times of turmoil when water movements distract their prey, much in the manner of a panther that waits for a rustle of wind before beginning to stalk a deer. I was content to simply drift and dream.
What little effort I expended was devoted to the internalization of the islands and channels. On a map it looks easy enough to find one’s way around, but at water level sitting in a kayak the whole place is a maze of unimaginable complexity. I chose a centrally located group of three small mangroves that I dubbed, “Los tres”, then circumnavigated them at a distance so they would serve as a future landmark in my otherwise befuddled mind.
I continued on to beautiful Cedar point where storms have thrown up a ridge of oyster shells. It looks like a white sandy beach from a distance, but there is little or no sand in this submerging low energy part of the coast. The entire armpit of Florida is made of mud and rock with a sprinkling of oysters.
I paused to reminisce about an old girlfriend I had once taken here.
She was much impressed that I had hooked and lost an enormous fish, then canoed into the eye of a storm. We arrived at the point with moments to spare, otherwise we would have continued on to Galveston. The wind was so strong that I had to partially fill the canoe with water to prevent it from being blown away.
Carol was a brave woman who fed wild bears cookies from between her lips, then later took her own life when the time had come. If it had not been for the damnable oysters and lack of a blanket I would surely have gotten lucky!
I was certainly lucky on February the 6th. On that beautiful day when the water was flat and my head was spinning from shrooms everything went right (other than the fishing!)
As the sun got low I headed out to the Corrigan reefs, then back around to the southern end of Cedar point where I paused to enjoy the golden light.
I arrived back at the ramp at dark, fearing that I would be devoured by bugs but there wasn’t a single one, a fact that was even more miraculous than the cessation of both tide and wind.
There were a few other fishermen returning in their skiffs. No one had gotten a single bite, but all marveled at the beauty of the day. One old man said he was recovering from a stroke. It had been torture for him to live for the last several years, but he considered this glorious day to be a gift from God for all his travails. His story brought tears to my eyes.
Perhaps some of you have never taken psychedelic drugs and have only heard about the “bad trips” that sometimes make the news. These constitute a tiny fraction of such experiences.
It is hard to think clearly, especially in regard to novel concepts or circumstances, so to avoid the effort we often fall back on habitual responses that dull the senses and prevent us from seeing and appreciating the beauty that surrounds us.
When brain gunk gets stuck in your head like a greasy hairball it is time to break out the Draino, or in this case to use mushrooms, or some other psychedelic (they are all quite similar), as a cathartic. If all goes well,”away goes trouble down the drain!”
So it was with the Weazel at the end of that glorious day. The trip was effectively over but I retained a warm glow of peace and happiness that was somehow transferable to others. I have no explanation for this phenomenon but I have experienced it many times. Over dinner at Cedar Key, and later at the Four Corners bar in Bronson, I was treated with extraordinary kindness by others with whom I had nothing in common, or who might even have been hostile. Was it something in my eyes?
I was reminded of a night almost fifty years ago when three young long haired Hippies high on mescaline walked into Green’s Place bar in Pascagoula Mississippi. The bar was full of vicious redneck chemical plant workers who had never before seen a Hippie and were not inclined toward such nonsense. I had recently fallen in love with my future ex wife and was all aglow plus high as a kite. The rednecks all wanted to fight but all we could do was giggle. The Beatles had recently released “Hey Jude” and I was amazed to discover that it was on the jukebox. Our love and laughter was so infectious that by the time we left everyone in the bar was singing, “Naw ne naw naw Hey Jude! Judee, Judee, Judee, Judee, Judee!” As we were walking out the door a new groups of Necks came in and they wanted to fight too, but the newly enlightened patrons said, “Don’t you trouble them folks, they’s Hippies and good people too, just like Christians only better cuz they love everybody!”
Whatever it is it works. We haven’t achieved world peace yet and probably never will, but it is always good to occasionally open your own mind to the personal possibility of peace, love, and happiness.
Faithful readers who have perused my recent post “Why Guatemala?” now know something about the Province, actually the “Department”, of Alta Verapaz.
To put it another way, you may have dipped a few chips into the guacamole, but the whole enchilada has yet to be served.
Who are the strange little Maya people who live there, and what do they really think? It is hard to say because centuries of oppression in Guatemala have taught the Maya to keep their mouths shut; but, the Maya don’t just live in Guatemala.
(Note: The indigenous people in question are properly referred to as “Maya” not “Mayan” people. There is some controversy concerning the use of the word ‘Mayan” as an adjective. Some believe it is only properly used in reference to language. I disagree, so I have not been rigorous in regard to precise usage.)
There are two groups of Maya people in southern Belize, the Kekchi from Alta Verapaz, many of whom have recently immigrated, and the Mopan who can rightfully claim Belize as their homeland.
The Maya who inhabit Belize are rather more accessible than those in Guatemala because almost all speak English. As previously mentioned, these are very smart people, so in Belize many speak four or five languages including Kekchi, Mopan, Spanish, English, and Creole. Even in remote villages most Maya speak better English than most black English speaking Belizeans.
Now that we have established communication, please allow me to share a another great adventure; and in the process, to explain how I first learned something of their belief systems.
I well remember my trip with Ann up the Swasey branch of the Monkey river of southern Belize in 1999. We had made arrangements with Geronimo, the chief of Red bank village, to provide us with three porters so that we could explore the magnificent 1000 foot deep gorge of the Swasey.
I was initially displeased with our crew. The leader Athonasio was a tubby looking little fellow, Julio was frail but friendly, and Alberto was a jovial giant, a black Belizean who had been raised as an Indian.
Note the woman’s downcast eyes. Maya men may be little but they are still traditional men, so their culture is extremely sexist. Ann is about twice as big as Athonasio but he still tried to boss her around. Needless to say that didn’t work!
Our first camp was at a beautiful place we called Breakfast rock where granitic boulders emerge from a deep pool. It was a great place to swim and absolutely full of playful otters!
It was here that we met a party of fishermen returning to Red Bank.
The Monkey river has three branches, the Bladen, the Trio, and the Swasey. All have completely different aquatic ecosystems. The Bladen is beautiful and blue but supports relatively little life because the waters are alkaline due to the surrounding limestone. The Trio branch is acidic, dark, and nasty. The Swasey water is mildly acidic to neutral and thus is “just right”, so the river is filled with life.
Neutral pH is good for a wide diversity of aquatic life, but the extraordinary abundance of fish and other organisms in the Swasey requires an additional explanation.
The aquatic vegetation seen above is an unidentified member of the Podostemaceae, prosaically known as Riverweeds, a worldwide group of rare submerged plants whose presence is an indicator of excellent water quality. Wherever there are Podostems the fishing is certain to be good!
These extraordinary plants grow only on the brink of waterfalls, in rapids, and other places where the water is fast moving, clear, and clean. They look delicate and fernlike but are incredibly tough. It is almost impossible to pry one off a rock. They remain submerged for most of the year, then when water levels drop they bloom to spectacular effect.
We soon arrived at our base camp, the beautiful Swasey stopper falls. From there on the going got rough.
Athonasio and I were walking through the jungle when I gestured at a nearby tree with yellow blossoms and asked if it was a Prickly yellow (Zanthoxylum sp.), but he replied, “No. That is Quamwood, Schizolobium parahyba.”
I almost fell over. He was exactly right! How was it possible that an Indian from a remote village in Belize would know the correct Latin name of a tree? He casually explained that he had heard it once while taking a class to become a certified ecotourism guide. Years had gone by yet I was his first customer. Lots of people in Belize take such short courses but rarely learn anything. Apparently Athonasio was paying attention so I started paying attention to him.
As we made our way up the gorge Athonasio soon demonstrated that his knowledge didn’t just come from classes. He noticed a few little green fruits on the jungle floor that had been nibbled by something. Tracks soon proved that it was a gibnut.
The gibnut (Cuniculus paca) resembles an overgrown guinea pig and is the most delicious animal on earth. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Belize she was served a gibnut, henceforth known as the “Royal rat”. Our expedition came to a halt as the men searched for further signs.
The gibnut is a solitary animal that makes a complex burrow with a lower main entrance on a hillside, then several hidden upper entrances to facilitate escape. After a bit of searching Athonasio discovered the lower entrance and built a fire, the smoke of which was directed into the hole. He then located the upper hidden entrances and positioned a man with a machete at each one. The burrow served as a chimney and soon smoke was emerging from the secondary holes.
We waited for almost an hour but nothing happened. Perhaps the gibnut wasn’t home, or perhaps the tiger (jaguar) had dined well last night? So we gave up and continued hacking our way up the gorge.
At the worst possible place we encountered a Tommygoff. (Sorry for the bad photo.) It was a big female with a full belly. We had no choice but to pass within striking range of the snake.
I have a live and let live attitude. The snake was just resting so I was willing to quickly sneak by, but Alberto would have none of it. Either the snake had to die or he was going to turn back.
Alberto’s attitude was understandable. Unlike the rest of us he knew from personal experience what happens when a Tommygoff bites. Years earlier he had been working in his plantation when a Tommygoff struck his leg just above his rubber boot. (Rubber boots are good protection from snake bite.) He immediately began to run for Red Bank. Within moments paralyzing pain began to shoot through his body as though acid was running through his veins. Within fifteen minutes blood began to pour from his eyes, from beneath his finger nails, and from the end of his penis. He doesn’t remember the rest of his desperate journey back to the village.
But what good does it do to go to a village? Traditional healers recommend herbs, incantations, and the tying of a dead chicken to the affected body part, none of which works and is almost as ridiculous as traditional Chinese medicine. Belize City was many hours away, and besides, he had no money. There was nothing to do but wait it out.
Most people bitten in the jungle either die or lose their leg, but Alberto is tough, so he survived and ultimately regained his strength. He wasn’t about to go through that again so the innocent snake was chopped in half and thrown off the cliff.
Speaking of my favorite subject, here are two more species commonly encountered in the Belizean jungle.
Belizeans believe that this to be a “Female Tommygoff”, said to be the deadliest of all! It does look and act like one, but in reality it is a harmless mimic. Perhaps harmless is the wrong word. They are fierce, mildly venomous, and have huge fangs with which to puncture toads, much like the familiar Hognosed snakes of North America.
Coral snakes are common throughout Latin America. There are many different species. This is the beautiful Micrurus hippocrepis. The venom is even more deadly than that of the Tommygoff, but they are small and innocuous so the danger of being bitten is slight.
Progress was slow, so Ann decided to cut loose and swim up the raging river. She made better time than we did!
After a spectacular day of exploration we headed back to our third camp at the confluence with Double falls creek, a beautiful place. To the best of my knowledge the upper reaches of Double falls creek remain unexplored to this very day.
As per usual I was walking ahead and went right on past the gibnut hole. Nobody was home so why bother?
Back at camp I wondered what was taking the others so long? That was when Athonasio appeared triumphant with the gibnut. He had seen a tiny fly enter the hole and had concluded that the gibnut was lying dead inside from smoke inhalation. It is always a scary and dangerous thing to reach into a hole in Belize, there could be a tommygoff, but he did it anyway and came home with the prize!
It was time for a feast, so Julio and Alberto decided to add some fish.
Several days later we reached our goal, the well named Sale si Puede (Leave if you can!) an old Chiclero camp in the Coxcomb basin Jaguar preserve. By this time Athonasio and I had become friends so we sat atop a huge granite boulder in the moonlight smoking joints while he told me the stories of his ancestors.
Despite his intelligence Athonasio believed the world was flat. He knew it was round but thought it was round like a plate so he asked if I could look over the edge when I flew home.
He wondered if the United States was a big country like England and was astounded to discover that England was a tiny little place, big in influence only. The actual size of the USA was beyond his comprehension.
He also had a theory that no one else would believe, that rivers actually came from rain falling on the mountains. Whodathunkit? Everyone else believed that all rivers emerged perpetually from the underworld, which is to say from Xibalba. This was the first time I had heard a Mayan person mention the magic word which I thought was known only to archaeologists from inscriptions on pyramids.
I asked Athonasio about his people’s myths so he told me how the sun and moon came into being. (I apologize in advance for the fact that this story doesn’t make any sense but I have transcribed it more or less directly from my field notes. I later learned that there are many versions, and besides, we were smoking joints!) The story went something like this:
Old man Thunder had a beautiful daughter. One day a handsome young man saw her and fell in love. (This was in the time of the Gods long before there were ordinary human beings.) The young man transformed himself into a humming bird so that he could visit the flowers in front of her house unobserved.
Old man Thunder suspected something so he shot the humming bird with his blowgun. His daughter was horrified that he would shoot such a beautiful little bird so she took it to her room to nurse it back to health. She woke up in the middle of the night to discover a handsome young man making love to her.
They decided to run away, so when dawn came he hid beneath a turtle shell while she hid beneath a crab shell. Old man Thunder was furious when he discovered her deceit so he blasted his daughter to bits with lightening.
The heartbroken young man later emerged from hiding and collected the blood and bits into twelve bowls which he sealed with beeswax. The following day he opened the bowls to discover the first filled with mosquitoes, the second full of butterflies, the third scorpions, the forth flies, fifth frogs, etc. until he opened the last to discover his beautiful princess, but to his dismay she had no vagina.
He called to his friend the deer to step between her legs and slash a vagina with his antlers so they could make love once again. Years went happily by until he became jealous for no reason, and learning this the girl became unhappy too.
One day she looked high up into the sky and there beheld a great white vulture flying free. She called to him to say that she wanted to fly free herself. The great vulture landed so she jumped on his back and at the count of three they flew away. To her dismay she realized that she had been kidnapped. The vulture took her to his father’s house.
The vulture’s father was a mean old bird who kept her as a slave in his big house. His mansion was white from vulture shit, just like the King vulture is today. (The King vulture is a magnificent white bird second in size only to the condor.)
Her heartbroken husband had seen her fly away but there was nothing he could do so he killed his friend the deer and flayed the carcass so he could hide beneath the skin. From the rotting carcass came thousands of bot flies, one of which he sent to fly up the nose of a vulture and thus learn the location of the house where his beloved was being kept. The smell drew all the vultures and he caught them all. The last one confessed to the crime and agreed to fly him to his father’s house where the girl was being kept.
The stricken lover hid in the woods outside the house and there met a firewood collector who agreed to hide him in a bundle of sticks to be carried onto the porch. Once inside he uttered a curse that caused the old man to get a terrible toothache. (Apparently in those days vultures had teeth!) To accomplish that he sprinkled twelve grains of red corn on the roof.
The toothache was driving the old vulture crazy; so, the hidden husband began to play a violin that eased the pain. (Athonasio explained that the violin was made from a hollow log and had strings made from bromeliad fibers, the whole was glued together with copal incense.)
The mean old vulture realized that a magician was causing his pain so he invited the husband to continue playing his magic music until he fell asleep. While the old Vulture slept the husband summoned an armadillo to make a tunnel all the way to the edge of the village so he and his wife could escape. They fled and made love, then decided that the earth was no longer safe.
The two lovers could both fly so they rose up into the sky to become the sun and moon and there lived happily forever after. Even to this day, whenever they make love the moon either hides the sun, or the sun hides the moon, and this is known to mortal beings as an eclipse.
I later asked Athonasio where people come from. He explained that his people have been here forever, but that is not true of other people.
“The sun and moon eventually got tired of their fixed orbits in the sky so on special occasions they would transform themselves into vultures so they could return to earth to fly around and eat some rotting carcasses. After filling their bellies and flying away they needed to relieve themselves. Vulture shit is both white and brown; so, wherever white shit landed white people sprang out of the ground. Black people, however, come from plain old brown shit.”
So there you have it, the origin of mankind!
Needless to say I considered this to be the best story I had ever heard, so when I got back to Belize in 2017 I asked my various Mayan friends if they had ever heard any such tale? To my amazement they all knew the story though each one had a different version. They all believed in Xibalba too. This did not conflict with Christian belief, it was just another way to tell the same old story!
I subsequently did some research and was astonished to discover that the myth of the Great vulture acting as an intermediary between the gods and man (The sun and moon if you wish) was widely believed by unrelated tribes throughout the Americas in pre columbian times.
Xibalba “The place of fear” has made a comeback too, not just in devilish discos, but in popular culture. Tourists who visit Chichen Itza make jokes about throwing perfectly good virgins into pits, but it is not a joke to the Maya. When time begins anew the joke will be on you!
Xibalba looks like a great place to party; plus, it is located inside of a cave! But where exactly is it and how do you get there?
To find out stay tuned for the next installment of our thrilling adventure, “Return to Xibalba!”
In late June of 2017 the crushed and sickly Weazel decided to move on from friendly little “PeeGee” in far southern Belize to his next destination Livingston, Guatemala, and from there to the wondrous province of Alta Verapaz, home of the Kekchi Maya.
But why go to Guatemala? In particular why go to to Alta Verapaz, an unintentionally ironic name which means “Higher True Peace” in Spanish?
I have long been fascinated by the land, its people, and by their strange beliefs; so, please me allow me to offer some background information and to reminisce about a few of my previous visits.
In Part 4 of this series we will attempt to understand some of the bizarre worldviews of the Maya who live in Belize and thus speak English; then, in Part 5 we will return to my Guatemalan adventures in 2017.
Guatemala is by far the most interesting and diverse country in Central America; unfortunately, it is also the most populous with some 17 million fractious people. It is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes, caves, lakes, and jungles inhabited by 23 different tribes of indigenous people, mostly Maya, many of whose languages are mutually incomprehensible.
Injustice is endemic, so periodic revolutions are a way of life. Despite upheavals the Maya people are extraordinarily resistant to change and many live in remote villages where life today is little different from that of their distant ancestors who built pyramids now lost in the jungle.
The Maya people were catholicized by the conquistadors five hundred years ago, and more recently became influenced by evangelicals, but I am delighted to report that the old prechristian beliefs are fulminating just beneath the surface. All I had to do was ask. Everyone still believes in the ancient gods, they just don’t talk about it to outsiders. For them Xibalba “The place of fear” is a very real place, and in the great cycle of time they will come to rule the world again.
The Maya are often uncommunicative with outsiders; they seem to be tiny silent gnomes, but that silence is actually smugness. They are extremely intelligent and hardworking, much more so than other tribes or their white cowboy overlords, and they know their day will come. Until then it is best just to grow corn, have lots of children, do what the bossman says, and pretend to worship Jesus.
I first visited Guatemala with my future ex wife in 1976 while the civil war was raging. It was a senseless decades long conflict spawned by the CIA during which approximately a quarter of a million people, almost all Indians, were brutally murdered. (The actual number is unknown.) To add to the chaos, a devastating earthquake killed over 23,000 people. The destruction had to be seen to be believed. I am sorry to say that I have no photographs from that epic journey.
Among other adventures we went to the wretched little town of Sayaxche on the Rio de la Pasion deep in the jungles of the Peten. From there we hitchhiked up the river in dugout canoes right through the middle of the war. It was a miracle that we survived.
We ran out of river near the tiny village of Raxruha which is located where the mountains of Alta Verapaz meet the lowlands of the Peten. The area had previously been inaccessible, but the government was busy building a new road with which to subjugate the Indians. As a result the area was flooded with refugees, all of whom wore native garb, and none of whom spoke Spanish.
It was like visiting another planet, or perhaps like stepping back a thousand years in time, but what most impressed me was the wild beauty of the landscape. Everywhere we looked there were jungle covered karst mountains of every conceivable shape. There were cliffs, caves, and springs everywhere. Most notably, the smaller streams were shockingly blue (The word Raxruha means blue green water in Kekchi Mayan.) Tiny paths led to remote villages that had never before been visited by outsiders. We took a path at random and discovered a lost village inside a hollow mountain!
Needless to say I fell in love with the place and swore to myself that I would someday return. I did return to Guatemala several more times over the years with my beloved consort Ann. Wonderful adventures were had, but I never made it back to Raxruha until the summer of 2017. You will learn more about that in an upcoming post.
In 1992, sixteen years after my first visit, my then new girlfriend Ann Harman flew from Costa Rica to meet me in Belize. Ann had been serving as an expedition doctor in CR and was ready for more fun. We had first met two years earlier while partying naked in a hot tub in West Virginia and things were going well so it was about time for a honeymoon trip!
Together with friends we ascended the Manatee river in dugout canoes to the gigantic cave that I have described elsewhere;. thereafter, we headed to far southern Belize to explore the Moho river.
To get to the Moho we hired a friendly Indian, his shotgun toting little brother, and a mule to carry our packs.
Like many of the Maya in southern Belize he was Mopan rather than Kekchi and had recently emigrated from Guatemala so he spoke relatively little English.
I had previously seen many blue water streams flowing through karst landscapes, but the Moho was the first place I had ever experienced a true travertine stream, which is to say a stream so heavily charged with calcium that the rocks actually grow rather than erode. I was amazed to observe that a leaf freshly fallen from a tree would begin to fossilize in only three days!
Once we reached the gorge we sent the mule and the gun boy home, then continued on foot. For the most part Ann swam whereas I walked. She made much better time!
We were on such a roll that we decided to spend an additional month in nearby Guatemala exploring the Sierra de Santa Cruz in Alta Verapaz. That meant taking a boat from Punta Gorda Belize to the weird little town of Livingston Guatemala.
Livingston proved to be a wonderful place. The culture is radically different from the rest of Guatemala. It is a black Garifuna community just like those in Belize only better. Many people speak English (of a sort) and relatively few are Indians. Dreadlocks are the tonsorial preference, and everyone lounges around smoking dope while occasionally pretending to fish.
The real business of Livingston is partying, and the party never stops. Ann and I danced ourselves into a frenzy in the middle of the main street (No traffic!) while Rastas pounded on conga drums. Boogie central!
From Livingston we traveled up the beautiful Rio Dulce to Lago Izabal, an enormous blue freshwater lake in the heart of Guatemala.
On the north shore of the lake is the company town of El Estor (The Store), an oddly civilized looking place which resembles what it is, a Canadian mining town with neat looking little houses, stores, schools, etc.
It was peaceful enough when we were there, but the place has a dark history of exploitation and murder. The entire area is rich in natural resources so for hundreds of years foreign economic interests sought to enslave the Indians to work in the mines and on the plantations. This culminated in 1978 when the military massacred protesting peasants in nearby Panzos. Fighting broke out again last year when police killed fishermen protesting the pollution of the lake by mining interests. So it seems that forcing people to live in cute little houses on neat little streets doesn’t solve anything.
Nobody wanted any problems, but that didn’t mean they had forgotten who was really behind all their troubles. That would be us, as in the good old U S of A. So it was that we were astonished to see a parade coming down the street led by an eight foot tall stiltwalking figure representing Miss USA! Surrounding her were boogeymen dressed in rags, spanish moss, and other such accouterments.
It was the real deal, a traveling circus under the Big Top with aging trapeze artists, trained monkeys, mangy lions, and thieving Carney shysters. The results were inevitable.
Not far from El Estor is the well named Finca Paraiso (Paradise ranch). We had a vague idea that there was supposed to be a waterfall.
A local boat dropped us at an ancient hacienda overlooking the lake. It was a scene out of the wild west with gun slinging cowboys rounding up cattle. There were no facilities at that time so the family offered to let us camp and to have dinner at the big house with the “civilizados”. (Finca Paraiso has since been turned into a tourist attraction.)
The ranch manager pointed us down a dusty road leading to “his” Indian village about a kilometer away and told us to have fun. (In rural Guatemala landowning Spanish families effectively own the nearby Indians much as feudal lords in Europe once owned their serfs.)
The Indians weren’t very friendly, they just waved us further down a path toward the base of the mountain where we found the paradise for which the place is named. (I regret to inform my readers that most of my photos of this part of our trip have been lost so I had to swipe the following image off the web.)
At first we thought it was just another pretty waterfall so we waded in for a swim. The water was cold at first, but as we approached the falls we discovered that the waterfall itself was scalding hot!
At first the water seemed too hot to touch so we just played in the spray. As we acclimated to the temperature we crept closer but were never able to tolerate complete immersion. When it got too hot we retreated to the pool where divine jets of hot water commingled with the cold. The best place of all was inside a travertine grotto at the base of the falls where we could sit in the icy stream and be surrounded by sheets of hot water that caused the grotto to fill with steam. It was truly a paradise!
I was especially intrigued by the interesting ecological changes I had observed on the walk from the lake to the falls. The vegetation around the lake was dry tropical forest, good cattle country, but the hot waterfall was located in a pocket of beautiful rainforest dripping with orchids. The falls were not the origin of the cold stream. I presumed that the stream emerged from a nearby cave that I had seen on a topo map.
The following day we were joined by a wandering sailboat hippie on a trek up the little stream beyond the hot waterfall. It was an incredibly beautiful place. The blue limestone had been partially metamorphosed into marble with streaks of calcite, and the whole was cloaked with lush jungle. The hidden valley was difficult to traverse due to the complexity of the landscape, but in short order we arrived at the cave resurgence to discover that it was completely filed with water.
Ann, who was born to swim, had no more trouble than an otter. I tried to swim while wearing my jungle boots and almost drowned so I had no choice but to remove them and continue on barefooted. Our sailboat Hippie friend had big problems because he was carrying a Coleman lantern that had to be held high above the water making it almost impossible for him to swim. Ann and I swam with hand held carbide lamps, the flames of which could be extinguished by a single drop, so we weren’t much better equipped.
Once inside and safely atop a rock we marveled at the beauty of our surroundings. Most caves are muddy hellholes filled with jagged rocks, but eons of raging floodwater had swept the cave clean and polished the blue marble into perfectly smooth sculptural forms shot through with brilliant white calcite veins.
(A note on what I am calling marble. Some would argue that it was just high quality blue limestone, but the calcite veins demonstrated that the deposit had undergone at least partial metamorphosis due to the nearby intrusion of serpentine rocks. This interface also accounts for the presence of hot springs.)
We continued on until we were blocked by a waterfall inside the cave, then swam back out.
On a crude topo map I had noticed the same stream disappearing into a large sink near an Indian village high on the mountain above us, so the following day we resolved to go there. Back at the ranch we learned that the village was named Caxlampon (Baked chicken!) and were told how to find the trail.
Up and up we went, more than 1000 vertical feet over several miles, until we reached Caxlampon. Unlike the squalid villages of the servile Indians this village was obviously prosperous and well organized with no sign of white overlords.
We stopped at a tienda in the middle of the village to rest and buy soft drinks. While we did a large crowd gathered around us. Apparently white people were a novelty and not particularly welcome.
I had a good idea of where the big sink was located, but thought it would be polite to ask and thereby explain our presence. When I did an angry suspicious murmur passed through the crowd. I thought perhaps they did not understand me, so Ann, who spoke much better Spanish, explicitly asked, “The cave is over there behind the soccer field, right?”
This elicited a storm of denials. “There is no cave! There is a cave but it is far away. The cave is in the other direction! What cave?” So we sat there for a long time until an old man wandered up to ask what was going on. I asked him the same question and he replied, “Sure, everybody knows it is right over there.” I thought they were going to lynch the poor fellow!
We were tired of waiting so we started walking across the soccer field. We were halfway there when the crowd surrounded us brandishing machetes and farm implements and ordered us to stop.
The whole time while we had been waiting a little man had been sitting near us saying nothing as Ann and I talked among ourselves. Now he stepped forward and said in perfect English, “We will not allow you to steal the bones of our ancestors!” I am a Doctor from New York City and I know you are not archaeologists. You are much too dirty and you walked up here unannounced. Even if you were archaeologists we would not allow you to touch our sacred relics!”
We protested that we were just cavers and promised not to touch anything but it did no good. I inquired if we could formally ask permission but he said, “Absolutely not! In all self administered Maya villages we make communal decisions based upon consensus. Every single person in the village would have to agree and that isn’t going to happen, especially since some of our elders are out of town. You have no choice but to leave!”
We were defeated, but before leaving I asked if there was a better way back. We had taken a very long route and were a thousand vertical feet above Finca Paraiso. I had noticed a side trail, so perhaps there was a shortcut?
The Doctor gave us a bitter grin and said, “Sure, you Gringos seem to know your way around so go ahead and take that trail. We don’t care where you go as long as you leave here!”
So we walked and walked on a little trail that circled the mountain but didn’t go down. I concluded that we were headed to another little village named Bongo, so I asked a terrified young woman I found hiding in a corn crib. She didn’t speak any Spanish but indicated that Bongo was nearby so we bailed off the trail and headed straight down the mountain. It was a big mistake!
If you read the literature pertaining to slash and burn “milpa” agriculture you will learn that the fields are abandoned after several years because of fertility declines. That is nonsense. The fields are abandoned because it becomes physically impossible to fight back the weeds.
The worst weed of all is called Mala mujer (Cnidoscolus sp.) which means “Evil woman”. The slightest touch is excruciating which is why the fields get abandoned. Our way down the mountain was so steep and overgrown that all we could do was to fight our way through. There was no trail. It is said that you’ve got to go through Hell to get to Heaven, and so it seemed as we threw our torn and battered bodies into the beautiful blue pool.
Just east of Paradise ranch is a spectacular rocky gorge known as the Boqueron so we took a side trip by dugout canoe.
Let’s just say that to go to school you had to cross the Boqueron every day. The only way is by means of a basket suspended high above the river on a steel cable, like a zip line only much scarier. Kids do it all the time, so a French girl decided to give it a try. Everyone warned her not to touch the cable but she was terrified so she grabbed it just in front of the pulley. That was how she lost her fingers.
I hypothesized that the contact between the limestone and serpentine would produce other hot springs so we headed west to Panzos, site of the massacre, then up the mountain and into the jungle. It was an arduous trek but I finally located several unknown hot springs, in one of which a boa constrictor was bathing.
As we were coming down the mountain we could see the beautiful Rio Cahabon far below.
The river beckoned us, so instead of taking the road we decided to head downstream alone and on foot. It proved to be a daunting task, for the terrain was extremely rugged.
At first there were paths made by Indians to access their milpas. Wherever there was an impediment they constructed swinging bridges which were often made of barbed wire.
(At this point I feel compelled to apologize for the fuzzy photos. These are scans of old photos taken with an early point and shoot camera.)
Eventually all the trails ended. The mountains were nearly vertical so we had no choice but to follow the riverbank. With heavy packs it was an almost impossible task.
We were exhausted and almost out of food so we set up camp on a relatively flat rock. Shortly thereafter we noticed an Indian poling his way up through the rapids in a tiny dugout canoe.
The Indian was amazed to see us so he pulled over to learn what Gringos were doing in the jungle. We explained that we weren’t lost, just stranded and in need of a path. He explained that there was no path and that further downstream it was impossible to continue on foot which was why he had come by canoe to scout for timber. He and a friend planned to return in the morning with a bigger canoe to cut and haul the wood then transport it down the river.
His canoe was too small for three people and packs, so we asked if he could help us escape the gorge in the morning by transporting us instead of the timber? We offered a small amount of money then sealed the deal with a package of fish hooks. He was very happy because fish hooks, and especially money, were in short supply!
We spent a hungry night on our flat rock, then in the morning our new friend arrived with two canoes and a crew. We were ready to leave, but he insisted that first we had to cut and load the timber. So it was that I spent the first half of the day dragging poles down the mountain. After that we set off down the rapids!
After returning to “civilization” at Cahaboncito we were feeling strong and ready for a new adventure.
We had heard rumors of a magical place called Semuc Champey that was said to be somewhere near the headwaters of the Rio Cahabon in the highlands of Alta Verapaz. A road was under construction that went from Panzos to the ancient town of Lanquin which is not too far from Semuc Champey, but as per usual we decided to get there the hard way by crossing the entire Sierra de Santa Cruz on foot.
We took the bus from Panzos three thousand feet straight up the mountain to the small town of Senahu, a big improvement over gaining all that altitude on foot!
Senahu is a civilized little place with European influences where bee keeping has become an art. Here are two example of bee hives at the old hotel where we spent the night.
These hives were not constructed for honeybees but rather for the indigenous Meliponine stingless bees held sacred by the Maya. Note the small wax tubes in the mouths of the masks that were built by the bees to provide access to the nest chamber within. In nature these bees live inside of arboreal termite nests. If you hack the nest open with your machete they won’t sting but they will bite. The honey is delicious!
Visitors were rare, so the Alcalde (Mayor) of Senahu was eager to impress us. He bragged about a cave “full of pots and bones” that we could visit. As a Hispanic person he had no respect whatsoever for the remains of mere Indians so he organized an expedition which included the hated tax collector.
Instead of little Indians on foot our expedition was composed of big men with big hats and pointy boots driving a dump truck. We arrived at the cave to discover a large entrance high on a cliff. The pots and bones were said to be inside but no one was willing to risk the climb.
Ann noticed an alternative route that involved climbing above the cave then back down. I wanted no part of it, but up she went. She called down that it was easy so I reluctantly followed. There were plenty of handholds, but it was ridiculously dangerous with over seventy feet of exposure. One slip meant certain death so I chickened out.
A small crowd had gathered. I was regarded with contempt because I had been afraid to follow my girlfriend, a mere woman! Then everyone looked at the Mayor but no one said a word. First he began to tremble and then he began to pray. He knew what he had to do, either that or resign his position and flee the town in ignominy. Somehow he did it, pointy boots and all.
The Mayor was now eager to get rid of us so he conscripted two teenaged Indian boys to serve as our guides and porters on our trip across the Sierra de Santa Cruz.
The following morning we set out. The boys could barely lift our packs and had no idea of which way to go, but at least they could speak both Spanish and Kekchi so we could inquire along the way. It had been suggested that we head to a place called Chijolom.
By this time the civil war had calmed down a bit (A peace treaty was finally signed four years later in 1996.) but people had not forgotten the recent atrocities. I had been warned not to wear anything resembling military attire. Soldiers never wear shorts so I thought it would be OK to trek wearing my usual shorts, jungle boots, camo tee, and Rambo style headband, but I was very much mistaken.
It is my habit to walk ahead of others, especially the porters. So it was that I was following a narrow path on a steep mountainside when I came around a bend to discover an Indian woman and her two kids.
The poor woman looked at me in terror from a few feet away. I wanted to reassure her by attempting to say, “Don’t be afraid!” (No tengas miedo!), but my Spanish was worse than bad so instead I said, “No tengo mierda” Which means, “I have no shit!”
The woman turned around and fled with her children as I pursued her yelling, “I have no shit! I have no shit!”. Shortly thereafter she and her kids leapt off the path into a steep ravine and that was the last we saw of her.
Half an hour later we arrived at an abandoned village. The home fires were burning but nobody was home. We continued on the the next village and ditto, nobody home. The fearsome visage of the Weazel had caused the entire populace to flee!
That was not the only ludicrous incident caused by mistranslation. As we were walking along one of our porters, who was a townie and thus knew all about the world asked, “Is it true that in the United States homosexuals can get married and have children?” Ann and I thought he was talking about the many closeted gays who do in fact have wives and children, so we said, “Sure, it happens all the time”. About an hour later the fellow hesitatingly asked, “So, when a Maricon has a baby does it come out his ass?” Ann and I fell about the place laughing but he was dead serious. “If not out of his ass then where does the baby come from?”
This was once lush rainforest; but, as you can see in the photo above the hills have been completely denuded by agriculture
We continued on until we got to the pleasant little village of Chijolom where there was a church and even a school.
We were well received by the resident school teacher, an amiable overweight man who explained that he planned to die in Chilojom because he was too fat to walk out. In the course of conversation he mentioned that, “The largest cave in Central America is located not far from here in a place called Yalijux”.
Needless to say we were excited by this news and asked, “How far is not far?” He had no idea but had been told by the Indians that it was just over the hill. I must digress to explain that the concept of distance is as relative to an Indian as time is to Einstein. The school teacher asked several knowledgeable old men and they all gave different answers but agreed that Yalijux was somewhere to the west.
We thought it would only be a day trip, so in the morning we set out without our packs for what we thought would only be a short walk. Hours went by as we climbed higher and higher on a series of very rough trails. At every juncture we sought someone to tell us the way to Yalijux but no two people agreed so we simply continued west.
By the late afternoon we had crossed the mountain and could see Yalijux below. We were starving, so we were delighted to discover an ancient avocado tree whose ripe fruit was covering the ground. We gorged ourselves. It seemed odd that no local Indian had taken advantage of the bounty. Could it be that the tree was taboo or owned by an evil Patron? It was our first indication that Yalijux was not a welcoming place.
Once in the village we found another teacher, not a dedicated do-gooder like in Chijolom, but rather a dullard who could not be bothered to teach, for what was the point of teaching the Indians anything other than obedience?
He confirmed the rumor that the nearby cave known as Jul Mas Nim was said to be the largest in Central America, but what made him think that? That was when he produced a photo of fellow cave explorer Steve Knutson who had been there in 1988 with an expedition. Unlike me, Steve is a real caver who goes deep and makes maps so I believed it. (Jul Mas Nim has since been surpassed in length by the Candelaria cave system that I visited in 2017 and the vast Chiquibul system which starts in Belize and ends in Guatemala.)
The teacher found some truant school boys to lead us to the cave which had an extremely impressive entrance.
For scale notice the three people in the foreground and the tiny dot of light beyond. I didn’t go deep inside because I’m not a real caver like Steve!
By the time we got back to Yalijux it was much too late in the day to even consider trekking back across the mountains to Chijolom. The problem was that we had no food, no tent, and no warm clothes. I was wearing nothing but shorts and a tee shirt so I was beginning to freeze due to the high altitude.
As the sun set we huddled in the wind and rain by the dilapidated padlocked school while the worthless teacher went in search of succor. He returned with the Alcalde and a gunman.
Our first problem was hunger so the gunman led us to the home of a poor Indian family and ordered them to feed us. The problem was that they were starving themselves so our visit was a terrible imposition.
The family was honored but greatly distressed because any food that we ate came from the mouths of their children. In the end there was only enough for three little tortillas per person and a dab of beans, so they broke out their secret food stash, a single packet of Ramen noodles that had been left over from the expedition four years earlier. They had kept it because they had no idea what to do with it. What are noodles, little dried worms?
Their living conditions were absolutely intolerable. Fire ants had invaded their hut, so any time a foot touched the ground the ants would swarm up and sting. The only respite was to be above ground in a hammock, but there weren’t even enough hammocks so the kids all had to sleep together. Cooking was torture for the woman because she had to squat by the fire to prepare the tortillas. The worst part was that we had no money to give them. All of our valuables were locked up back in Chijolom.
After our meager meal the gunman returned and demanded their blankets. I angrily refused to allow that to happen; so he shrugged, went to a nearby house, waved his gun, then stole blankets from that unfortunate family.
Back in the middle of the village the Alcalde offered to let us stay in the so called “health center” which served as the jail. It was a wretched little concrete room with the twisted remnants of a box spring bed with no mattress. The floor was covered with dried human shit. Ann and I wrapped ourselves in our single filthy stolen blanket and attempted to sleep on the box springs, whereas our porters simply lay down on the concrete. So it was that we passed a cold and horribly uncomfortable night. In the morning we returned to Chijolom and considered it a veritable paradise by comparison to Yalijux.
After a good night and a proper dinner in Chijolom (Plenty of tortillas!) we were ready to resume our journey.
Shortly after leaving Chijolom we encountered an extraordinary ruin, a very large and impressive ball court where a famer now planted corn.
This was no rinky dink ball court. Judging from the scale and complexity it must have been the center of a large urban complex where over 1000 years ago matters of State were resolved through blood sport, for the losing team was sacrificed to the Gods and their lands and women awarded to the victor. I could not help but be reminded of the immortal words (Ha!) of Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away
At the end of a long hard day we arrived at a little town, bought more food, then hitched a ride on an overloaded truck to the legendary Semuc Champey which means “Where the river hides beneath the stones”.
A more beautiful place could hardly be imagined so we were especially dismayed to discover that because of the recently constructed road it had become a defacto tourist attraction. As a result the place was covered with trash and human shit. It was so bad that we couldn’t even find a suitable place to camp.
Since I am stealing photos off the web I might as well steal another that is much better than my own. If my memory serves this is the downstream entrance to the cave beneath the blue pools.
The above photo is not what it seems. Notice that the flow over the falls is much less that that of the Cahabon river which emerges from a cave beneath the blue pools. Pools above an underground river? How could that possibly be?
Semuc Champey is one of the few places on earth where mineral laden waters from hot springs have actually caused travertine formations to grow above and across another body of water. It is hard to imagine how that could initially occur given the force of the Rio Cahabon when in flood. The only other place that I have ever seen such a phenomenon was in a remote part of China.
The pools may be placid and picture perfect but just upstream where the river goes underground a death trap awaits the unwary.
Several tourists have died here. In 1993, a year after my visit, Steve Knutson and a team of hard core cavers attempted a through trip from entrance to entrance but failed. No one has tried since.
I was especially enamored of the wild jungle just upstream of Semuc Champey.
Much more remains to be discovered along the Rio Cahabon and elsewhere in the highlands of Alta Verapaz.
From Semuc Champey we headed north to the provincial capitol of Coban where I enjoyed my first hot shower in over two months. It was about time. Thereafter we returned to Belize for yet more adventures.
Enough is enough, you must be tired just from reading all this. Now you know why I am so fascinated with Guatemala, so I will bid you “Vaya al Diablo”.
In the next segment of our thrilling adventure we will probe the Mayan mind and learn the origin of mankind!
Faithful reader, as you may remember from Part 1 of this series, the woeful Weazel was sick as a dog and as thoroughly broken as a suspected Jew on the Grand Inquisitor’s rack; nevertheless, at the beginning of June 2017 after less than a month of recuperation I set out for Belize. My ostensible purpose was to experience the onset of the rainy season. Ann was busy working so she was unable to join me. That meant no kisses and no one to share the load so I had to carry my full jungle kit all by myself.
It is hard enough to carry a sixty pound pack under the best of conditions, but just try it when 69 years old and suffering from two virulent diseases and four broken bones.
My shoulder was the worst. I could carry the pack but I couldn’t put it on. Hefting it was an agonizing ordeal involving sitting on the ground to put my arms through the straps, then rolling over onto my hands and knees, then standing up. Once up I could walk for a mile or so before it became unbearable. I was better prepared for the old folks home than the jungle.
This was not my first rodeo. (A bad metaphor since there are neither horses nor cows in Belize because the jungle eats them for breakfast.)
I first visited Belize in the winter of 83 after fleeing a disastrous attempt to build a sex grotto for Alvin Malnik who was at that time the world’s richest gangster due to “disappearing” Jimmy Hoffa , then ripping off the Saudis for billions. The problem was that “Big Al”, who is little and cute even to this day, couldn’t take a joke. I made a wisecrack about him helicoptering in loads of top shelf prostitutes and soon thereafter was running for the jungle where no one could find me. Look him up and prepare to be amazed, but pay no attention to his Wiki entry because he wrote it himself. Instead, concentrate on things like the time he bought Michael Jackson and kept him like a pet monkey That was until he discovered that he couldn’t be housebroken. No one could make this stuff up, not even me.
On that fateful trip in late 1983 and early 84 I explored the Manatee river to discover the gigantic cave at the headwaters, then later set off across the Vaca plateau to join a band Chicleros in an effort to locate the legendary Chiquibul cave system. It was my first real wilderness experience, and in a sense I haven’t come back yet.
I was hooked, so I made eight more trips, most of which involved the continued exploration of both the Manatee and Monkey river watersheds. in every case I penetrated deep into the wilderness, made extraordinary discoveries, and had wonderful yet arduous and bizarre experiences.
My last visit was in 2002 so it had been fifteen years since I last had the dubious pleasure of being eaten alive by insects and punctured by thorns in the Belizean jungle.
I arrived back in Belize city at the beginning of June to discover that it hadn’t changed a bit, still a shithole just bigger and busier. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been improvements, in some places there is now even some plumbing!
I was pleased when my taxi driver informed me that crime was down because so many of the local hoodlums had killed each other. This good news means that Belize is now only the third most deadly country in the world.
(Note: This statistic pertains to the country as a whole. Many parts are relatively safe, but the stats from Belize City are off the charts. Visiting Belize City is rather like taking a stroll through a battle zone in Syria. The difference is that in Syria they scream, “Die infidel scum” before they shoot you; whereas, in Belize City they say , “Welcome to Belize my brother!”)
I did not wish to inflate the statistics so I caught the next bus out of town and headed west for Monkey bay.
Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is a grass roots ecotourism and education facility located in the central savanna which is run by my old friends Matt and Marga Miller. Unlike other would be expats, almost all of whom fail by either dying, fleeing, or going insane, Matt and Marga have toughed it out for over 27 years.
Marga received me like a long lost son. She was astonished that I had just staggered in off the highway with no advance notice. Everyone else arrives by tour bus.
Staggered is the right word because I was delirious from the heat, for April through early June is the height of the hot dry season in Belize. My cocktail of diseases had rendered me feverish and my body incapable of temperature regulation. The Doxycycline I was taking for Lyme disease made me extremely photosensitive so the sun burned right through my hat and thin clothes. A continuous river of sweat poured off my brow as she led me to my new home, a wooden platform under a thatched hut.
The mind operates faster than conscious thought to form word associations. So it is that whenever I think of Belize I think of biting bugs. I was not disappointed. As soon as I got there I began to be devoured by invisible Ceratopogonid no-see-ums. On the savanna they come in hordes at dusk, dawn, and all hours in between. I was also tormented by numerous botlas flies (a corruption of the word bottle ass), a species of Simuliid black flies that are the curse of Belize.
Swinging in a hammock was out of the question so I headed out on foot for a drink. Monkey Bay has the good fortune to be sandwiched between the two best bars in Belize, Cheers to the east and Amigos to the west. Both are within close walking distance! To my amazement Anita and Chrissie, the owners of Cheers bar and restaurant actually remembered me!
A nicer place could not be imagined. The restaurant is open to the savanna and the grounds have been transformed into a botanical garden full of tropical flowers specially designed to attract birds. I will never forget the day many years ago when my beautiful friend Kelly flew out of her seat, rolled across the sill into the garden, then grabbed a big blacktail snake which promptly bit her between the eyes. Now that’s a good woman!
Not even good fellowship and stiff drinks could cure the fact that I was broken and sick. Before leaving I couldn’t even sleep in a soft bed because of my ribs and shoulder, so trying to sleep on hard planks was agony. All night long sweat poured from my body such that I lay in a sopping puddle.
After a few days of “rest” I headed to Five Blues Lake to camp alone in the jungle. I have already written the story of that adventure, so I will just offer a few highlights.
And where might one find such a deadly ankle nipper? Right next to your foot of course!
I had a wonderful but truly horrible time while camped at Five Blues Lake. I suffered greatly and think I actually would have died had it not been for the cool blue waters of the lake.
From Five Blues I traveled onward to the tiny village of Gales Point, a spit of sand in the Southern lagoon, to visit my old friends Moses and Janito. In years past they joined me on many expeditions up the Manatee river by dugout canoe. We made many extraordinary discoveries such as one of the world’s most spectacular caves, but the best part of our journeys was sitting around the fire listening to Moses sing the stories of his African ancestors. Moses is a living link to the ancient past, and the funniest man alive.
I was especially pleased to meet Moses’ younger brother Leroy, a much more worldly man than Moses. He had recently returned after years of living in Chicago, but in his youth he was a famous jaguar hunter.
It was heartbreaking to see how much the once idyllic village of Gales Point has fallen into poverty and despair. I might add that while there I was terribly sick from the aforementioned injuries and disease.
Gales Point was once a self sufficient fishing village populated by Maroons (escaped slaves), but the disappearance of seagrass in the surrounding lagoon caused the collapse of the marine ecosystem. Thus, their little world went from overwhelming abundance to no fish for dinner, and it is hard to live on nothing but mangos and coconuts.
Ecological collapse was soon followed by societal collapse. The worst elements of the worldwide drug culture swept Belize, and soon brothers were killing each other over crack cocaine. As a result the population of Gales point plummeted to only 250 people, almost all of whom are old.
I thought oblivion was inevitable until I discovered that there were still a few kids being raised by their grandparents. They were even teaching them to sail!
Twenty seven years ago my young herpetologist friend Jacob Marlin asked me where he might find a god forsaken jungle wilderness full of snakes where he could build his dream, a tropical research station and lodge. I unrolled a map of Belize and placed my finger at the spot where the Bladen branch of the Monkey river emerges from the Maya mountains. I told him that if he owned that spot he would control the largest and most important wilderness area in all of Central America.
In the beginning we waded across the river and hacked our way into the jungle until we found a looted Mayan ruin. Atop the debris was a rare and beautiful coral snake. Jake decided that it was a perfectly good omen so that is where his house stands today.
But it isn’t just a home. He has built an entire research station capable of accommodating large student groups with beautifully designed individual huts, dorms, a laboratory, and the world’s best kitchen, a big circular thatched building complete with hammocks, a library, picnic tables, and even cold beer. His Mayan staff serve fabulous Creole food to scientists and Sleazeweazels alike.
The grounds feature extensive tropical gardens of fruit bearing trees, and Jacob has established a large eco friendly cacao plantation based upon Theobroma trees found growing wild on the property. These trees are the direct descendants of those that provided chocolate to Mayan kings.
Just a few minutes from the kitchen there is a spooky freshwater lagoon filled with crocodiles, enormous tapirs, and a large colony of boat billed herons.
The surrounding jungle is filled with life. There are five different species of wild cats, but the jaguar is king! Monkeys have made a major comeback and the cries of howlers fill the skies. There is no better place for a tropical researcher or ecotourist to experience the wild jungle!
Beside it all runs the beautiful blue Bladen branch of the Monkey river.
But to get to BFREE one must first cross the savanna.
It looks easy but it isn’t. The savanna mud is a bottomless mire, and then you have to cross the river. When I got to BFREE the river was knee deep, but when I left it was a raging torrent that we had to cross by canoe at the risk of our lives.
In the old days whenever I explored the Bladen there was no choice but to camp in the jungle, but now the accommodations are deluxe! I was still extremely ill and worn down from my travels, so Jacob kindly offered me a cabin at BFREE. It was a lifesaver.
For the first week I was too debilitated to do anything other than to walk the already established trails.
I especially enjoyed the weird crocodile filled lagoon, here seen in the dry season.
There were perfectly good bathing facilities at the research station, but the beautiful blue pool was only a kilometer away.
As soon as I gathered a bit of strength I headed up the Bladen with Hilberto Rash, a Mayan ranger working for Yaaxche, a conservation organization that manages the Bladen Nature Reserve.
Hilberto is the real deal, not some bunny hugging eco-weenie. As a full blooded Mayan Indian the jungle is in his blood. He is a front line soldier in the fight for conservation, for the preservation of his Mayan heritage, and for the sovereignty of his nation.
For years Hilberto served as a jungle ranger with the Belize Defense Force. His duty was to patrol the wild frontier of the Vaca plateau to prevent incursions from adjacent Guatemala. In doing so he showed both courage and kindness. If a poor man crossed the poorly marked border he would politely ask him to leave, but if the man carried a gun it was time for a showdown.
Now Hilberto works for Yaaxche to protect the Bladen. Because of his efforts and those of others the bad old days of looting, logging, and hunting have come to an end, and this critically important wilderness is safe from depredation. I could not have asked for a better guide and companion, plus he carried my pack!
Hilberto left me at a beautiful curve in the river where I camped alone for several days. It wasn’t a hard core wilderness adventure like my previous trips, it was more like coming home.
Much of my time was spent swimming.
My favorite pastime was admiring the magnificent jungle trees along the river. Everywhere I went monkeys scolded me from high above.
I actually remembered the gigantic fig shown below from my first expedition in 1990. It hasn’t changed a bit. This tree began life centuries ago as a a tiny epiphyte on the branch of a jungle giant. It enveloped the tree, strangled it to death, and now nothing remains of the host.
On our way back we visited the entrance of a cave that holds the secret of the Bladen.
I have visited this cave several times on previous trips but it has never been fully explored. For reasons too complex to explain here I believe that an enormous undiscovered cave system lies southeast of the Bladen, and that the water discharged at Redwater spring is actually the water of Snake Creek at the very head of the Bladen.
I have tried to access this hypothetical cave system from many different potential entrances but have never managed to make it past the breakdown plugs. In doing so I have discovered numerous different Mayan graves and other archaeological sites. All have been left untouched by me with the exception of one in which I slipped my business card between the cracks so that if some modern day looter or Indiana Jones ever disturbs the grave he will find my card with a note telling him to leave the dead in peace!
After a delightful two week sojourn along the Bladen that did more for my spirits than my health I headed south to the funky little town of Punta Gorda better known as PeeGee.
I took a squalid little room across from the now defunct Hotel Isabel where many years ago I witnessed an entire contingent of Gurkhas screwing two Guatemalan girls. You will get to read that bizarre story later when I write up the entire experience.
PeeGee is a friendly little place and I was enjoying my stay until I stepped out of my filthy shower stall to discover the floor wasn’t there. When my foot finally found it I slipped on the slimy biofilm and crashed to the concrete floor. In doing so I landed on my already broken ribs and ruined shoulder. If I had fallen one inch to the left I would have hit a sharp ceramic corner and my brains would have been splashed across the floor. Even without that I was nearly dead.
It was a major setback. There was no way I could lift my pack so I had no choice but to remain in my wretched little room, but then the bed broke sending me to the floor again.
I was not a happy camper, but I made the best of it by wandering around town for several days having minor adventures. The most ludicrous involved a fellow named Rasta Dean who accosted me while I was searching for a famous drummer named Emmeth who lived in the bush outside of town.
Rasta Dean explained that he had a scheme to make millions. He was going to capture the ubiquitous giant blue land crabs that live in the mangroves then paint quaint scenes on their back and sell them to the Japanese. He was crushed when I informed him that crabs periodically molt their shells, which is why they disappear into their holes for weeks at a time.
Rasta Dean was afraid to enter the jungle to look for Emmeth; but I wasn’t, so I just listened for the sound of drums until I found him.
We went back by way of a shortcut.
After returning to town, which really was just a short distance away, Rasta Dean ran ahead like a Gypsy herald stealing fruit and proclaiming to everyone he met that I was a famous jungle explorer from National Geographic who was going to make a movie in which he would be the star! After that we went back to drinking Badman Jimmy rum.
Three days after my latest injury I struggled to pick up my pack then headed to the docks to catch a skiff for Livingston, Guatemala. My original idea had been to recuperate in Belize before heading into the real adventure, but instead I was heading into the unknown as a sick badly injured old man who should have been in a nursing home.
You ain’t seen nuthin yet, so stay tuned for Part 3!
In this three part series you will be treated to (or abused by) a summary of the Weazel’s many adventures in the year 2017. Despite advancing years (69+), injuries, illnesses, and an operation, the Weazel is still in the game!
Some of my adventures have been touched upon in previous missives whereas others have not. Those that have not, such as travels in Belize and Guatemala will be featured in Parts 2 and 3. They may also be elaborated upon in future blog posts. For now all you get is a taste.
Adventure means discovery, or at least it should, so allow me to begin with a personal discovery.
Looks can be deceiving. For most of my life I thought I was at least half Ashkenazi Jew. That is because I look Jewish, think Jewish, and act Jewish; plus, everyone around me thinks I am Jewish, not culturally Jewish just genetically Jewish, and they all tell me so.
I never knew my biological father or anything about him other than a family rumor that he was “An itinerant Jewish lingerie salesman”. Morgan was not his name. I bought into the rumor because it made sense.
My Mom was a brilliant woman. She was the daughter of an itinerant Methodist circuit preacher of English extraction (Surname Johnson) from rural North Carolina who had married a beautiful but deranged Scotch Irish woman from Texas. Granddad died of “brain fever” shortly before I was born. He and his kin were all impoverished rural intellectuals with a strong liberal tradition.
Being a liberal intellectual preacher in the deep south is a good way to starve so my family was always desperately poor but highly educated. Granddad would ride into some little town to spread the word of God and to inform the faithful that they were all lying, cheating, racist hypocrites. Thereafter he would have to find a new town. Most of this occurred in central North Carolina.
When it became evident that the family would starve he switched to selling woman’s hosiery. That was when the “brain fever” got him.
At that time my Mom was a recent honors graduate of Duke University. She was one of the first women of modest means to achieve such an honor, and she accomplished it in only three years rather than the usual four. After graduation she landed a great job with Pan Am Airlines, was partying in Miami and Havana, and was on her way to the top when she got the news that her dad was dead and her sister and mother were destitute. She returned to the boondocks of North Carolina to salvage what she could of the family. That included disposing of a large unsold stock of women’s hosiery.
Mom never said a word about my biological father, or anything about the guy named Morgan who she subsequently married, and who I barely remember.
There is nothing whatsoever about my appearance that would indicate that I have any English or Scotch Irish blood, so when I heard the story about the Jewish lingerie salesman it all made sense. All I had to do was to look into the mirror to confirm that it was true.
So I dreamed up a crackpot theory that perhaps I had been adopted in the aftermath of World War II, that I was completely Jewish, and had an abnormally high percentage of Neanderthal traits. In other words I was a prime example of what I preferred to call the “Neanderjuden”!
It is often the case that hybridization occurs when two closely related but previously isolated life forms first interact. For example, early European explorers of North America were more likely to mate with indigenous peoples than were subsequent generations. In the mid 17th century taking an Indian wife was the only game in town, but by the mid 19th century any settler who did so was disparaged as a “Squaw man”. In either case their offspring were shunned as mongrels. Subsequent social and geographical isolation tends to magnify the frequency of rare alleles so presto! you get a brand new race of hybrid bastards!
Something similar presumably happened when so called “modern” people most recently emerged from Africa. According to the prevailing “Out of Africa” model in the recent past, perhaps only 60,000 years ago, a group of African suddenly started marching north. According to the story they cast off their dark skin along the way and acquired a measure of conventional human intelligence. I don’t buy the theory because I am a stuck in the mud multiregionalist, but apparently I am mistaken.
Unless you had a good boat the only way to leave Africa in those days was to pass through the Levant, which is present day Israel, Jordan, Syria, etc. There they met and mated with the resident Neanderthalers thus begetting the Semites. There has been trouble ever since.
I have all the right traits for my imaginary hybrid race. The kinky hair of the recently emerged sub-Saharan, the hirsuitness of a caveman, a Hebroid schnoz, sloping forehead, short stature, abnormal strength, a huge cranium (98th percentile!), and abnormally high intelligence but of a primitive sort not well adapted to modern life.
Perhaps you may have noticed that I lack social skills and cannot do simple math but I am very good at finding my way around and possess a large store of knowledge pertaining to the natural world. These are handy traits when it comes time to trudge across the frozen steppe in search of mammoths, but are maladaptive in an office environment.
There was only one way to find out, so I sent a vial of spit to AncestryDNA to get a genetic profile. The results are here expressed as a percentage of my genome. (The presumed Neanderthal component was not included in this test):
Great Britain 32%
Iberian Peninsula 10%
Europe West 5%
Low Confidence Regions:
Finland/Northwest Russia 5%
Europe East 4%
Europe South 2%
European Jewish < 1%
Imagine my surprise to discover that I am about 99% Goy and have less than a drop of Jewish blood!
Just to be sure I raced back to the mirror but the schnoz was still there. What to do? Perhaps in order to fit in with “my” people I should iron my hair, go in for rhinoplasty, and sleep in a Procrustean bed in an effort to get taller? What about some bleach? Should I get an office job and live in the suburbs? Become a Methodist preacher? I fear that it is all for nought and I must remain a pseudo Jew till the end of my days.
But that’s OK because I know what I like. I like adventure, beauty, and all that is wild. It is who I am and what I do! I might be old but I’m not over yet, so let’s get on with the real adventures!
The year 2017 began under a dark cloud of Trumpooian buffoonery but the proud citizens of Hogtown were not cowed, they rose as one to ridicule the ridiculous by holding a counter inauguration.
Meanwhile my warrior friend CRo donned a pink pussy hat and journeyed to my hometown of Washington DC to join throngs of outraged women from around the world.
Speaking of world travelers, many of the Weazel’s friends are fellow lunatic adventurers. Holly J is a good example. She had heard of my previous travels to Belize so she came for a visit.
Holly was living a comfortable middle class life when she decided to cut loose and go to Mongolia to investigate the nomadic tribes who hunt with eagles. While there she chanced upon a crew filming The Eagle Huntress, a magnificent documentary about a 13 year old girl who rides the wild steppe with an eagle on her shoulder just like her great great granddaddy Genghis Khan. It is hard to believe that such a young woman could exist in modern times but Holly assured me that it was all quite real, she saw it with her own two eyes! Wild women and world travelers are always welcome at Weazelworld!
Soon thereafter there was a well attended March for Science, then later on in the year a massive demonstration against Neo Nazis.
Such actions make me proud to live in Alachua county where Hillary beat the buffoon by 58% to 36%. That was for the County as a whole. In hick towns such as Newberry and Waldo Trump won, but in the city almost no one voted for him. There are some who refer to Hogtown as the “People’s Republic”. It is true that there are a few doctrinaire leftists in academia, but on the whole our community is composed of highly intelligent well educated rationalists who reject bullshit wherever it falls on the political spectrum.
No one visits my blog to read political polemics, so let’s head for the boonies!
For many years I thought I knew all about the Steinhatchee river which is only a hundred miles from my home and thus in my backyard, but I was very much mistaken. Steinhatchee is located in the middle of nowhere along the Gulf coast in the armpit of Florida. A friend was wintering in the little fishing village at the mouth of the river; so, I visited the area several times and was astounded to discover numerous interesting karst features.
The little town itself (pronounced “steen” not “stein”) became famous in the mid 70s when almost the entire adult population was busted for drug dealing. That included the Mayor, the cops, the County commissioners, and all the fishermen.
Dixie, along with neighboring Taylor county, is the most undeveloped place in all of Florida. There is nothing to do but cut down pine trees, catch fish, and smuggle drugs. The first two didn’t pay so the taxpayers built a large airport and the famous “Road to Nowhere” to accommodate the smugglers.
The airport came complete with a fancy lounge and a restaurant inhabited by a gigantic wild boar name Charlie. The only thing missing was a sign to the airport. The road served to facilitate the transshipment of some of the largest boatloads of dope to ever reach our shores. To learn more about this fascinating history read “High Times and Low Tides at Reefer Beach” in the Bitter Southerner.
Such shenanigans distracted me. I knew that the Steinhatchee river featured a small waterfall and disappeared underground for a stretch. In my muddled mind (see drugs above) I thought I had been to these places but I hadn’t.
The Steinhatchee river begins in wretched pine flatwoods sitting atop a clay pan that prevents drainage. As a result it is either flooded or on fire. The only good thing that can be said of such an ecosystem is that no one lives there. As the river approaches the coast the clay layer thins out to expose the underlying soluble limestone. Wherever that happens in Florida the river disappears underground into a cave.
The first indication that the river is about to disappear is that it gets very rocky. Note the tannic water from the swamps upstream. Tannic water is highly acidic so it melts limestone. The rocks you see are actually remnant chert boulders that have weathered out of the limestone.
Further downstream the river narrows into a gorge then disappears into an ominous trash filled sink. I am always surprised not to find a murder victim in such a place.
The underground river passes beneath Route 19/98, a major highway, then emerges at a blackwater spring about 12 miles from the Gulf.
Several miles further downstream the river flows over a small waterfall, one of the few in Florida.
The sinks, resurgence, and falls are well known to the local inhabitants, but there are tributaries near the coast that have never been properly explored by anyone. These include Sand creek which appears on the topo map to be a swamp, but those few people brave and foolish enough to attempt to follow the creek soon learn that it is a wilderness of jagged rocks and jungle that most closely resembles parts of the Yucatan in Mexico complete with impenetrable vegetation and numerous cenote like karst windows filled with scary looking black water. There are also natural bridges and blackwater springs. To the best of my knowledge these features have never even been recorded much less explored.
Go ahead and take a dip. No telling what you might find, probably one of these!
Not to be confused with this bucket of harmless Brown water snakes.
The Steinhatchee remains one of the wildest and least known places in the state of Florida!
One needn’t go so far to find the wild and unknown, a visit to the Weazelworld will do the trick. As you must surely know, I am a humanitarian do-gooder who runs a shelter for mutilated baby dolls heartlessly cast off by their previous owners. They are allowed free range of my property.
Meanwhile back in Hogtown things were getting weird(er) at the Kinetic derby.
What could be the cause of such chimeras? Perhaps a fungus? But not this kind!
I came across this enormous mushroom while trying to break INTO jail, that is to say along the Jailbreak trail which is a secret route through the newly proclaimed Newnan’s Lake State Forest just east of Hogtown. I am not certain what species it is but am quite sure it is an Amanita. It might be Amanita jacksonii, but only a fool would eat such a thing for several other closely related species are absolutely deadly, one bite and you are done!
A word to the wise. I have often heard it said that any mushroom found growing in a cow pie is either the beloved psychedelic Psilocybe cubensis or is otherwise harmless. I am very surprised that more people have not died due to that assumption, for I have often seen the well named Death angel, Amanita bisporigera, growing through the pies. Know your business or die!
Speaking of dying, there is no better way than to be consumed by crocodilians. I am loathe to travel to southwestern Florida but Ann had fond memories of the Myakka river east of Sarasota, so we biked into the backcountry and set up camp.
On the following day we launched the canoe and headed downstream toward the Deep hole. Access to the lower river is restricted but we had a permit. I had heard stories about great numbers of Alligators in the Myakka river but supposed it was nothing compared to the wall to wall gators on display at Alachua sink. I was very much mistaken.
At first there were lots of alligators but they were scattered and small. As we went downstream there were many more and they were much larger. Soon, waves of alligators were pouring off the bank just ahead of us. Like this.
But these were just babies, none more than eight or nine feet long. It was on this trip that I learned that alligators segregate themselves into size cohorts, that way nobody gets eaten!
The river narrowed as we approached Lower lake Myakka and the Deep hole. Water levels were low due to the drought. As a result the banks towered above us as we cruised down the river which was only about 18″ deep , perhaps twenty feet wide, and very curvy. It was impossible to see around the next bend.
There were no small to medium sized alligators in the lower curvy section of the river. Instead, every hundred feet or so we would round a bend and look up to discover a sixteen foot plus behemoth weighing 800 to 1000 pounds coming straight down the bank at us. In every case they slid into the water inches in front of our canoe then we would slide over their backs. It was a nightmarish scene like something out of the African Queen, and disconcerting to say the least!
Altogether we saw over a thousand alligators in a short stretch of river, many of which were in the 15 to 17 foot range, bigger than alligators are supposed to get. They are protected here so they can grow to sizes comparable to those witnessed by William Bartram two hundred fifty years ago. Kayakers routinely go down the river so it is only a matter of time until the dinner bell rings.
Speaking of dinner bells, it is a good thing that I don’t fish for a living. I ride my bike and paddle my canoe every chance I get, and that is often since I am retired from a life of never having held a job. So it was that I was pleased to take my old friend Carl on a fishing (but not catching) trip to the Gulf.
Some of you may know that I am a biological determinist. That is to say when it come to the great nature/nurture debate I come down squarely on the side of nature and consider our civilized veneer to be just that, skin deep behavioral cosmetics. Nevertheless, Carl and I offer a cautionary tale.
We were the best of friends in high school, both smart loser nerds bonded together by our mutual sense of exclusion by everybody else. Then as now, the late 60s were a time of political division. You were either a budding Hippie or you weren’t. I was such an early adapter that in 1967 thanks to my Mom’s car and credit card I even went to California for the “Summer of Love”, but Carl came from a different background. We were of equal intelligence, but in Carl’s home there were no books and no love, just quasi military discipline. I considered his father to be the only actual Nazi I had ever met. There weren’t even any bushes in the front yard!
So it was that in those heady days we parted ways, I to become a vagabond, and he to become a postal inspector. He could not overcome his background, and I suppose you could say the same about me. He would only come for a visit if I promised not to talk politics, and I tried my best. It was Weazelworld itself that won the argument. He looked up at the trees then back at me and said ,”you took the right path”. Even though he is still a damned Repugnican we remain the best of friends!
April arrived, and with it the Weazel’s 69th birthday! I celebrated by roasting an armadillo with three fetuses “en utero”. Yum!
My fabulous friend Pete complained that the graphics in my posts were of low quality so he gifted me with a landscape worthy Pentax, the first real camera I have owned in years. Such a generous gift required an adventure to photodocument so we set off on our annual spring snake hunting trip to the underbelly of the south.
We were having a blast exploring the remote and interesting Red hills of southwestern Alabama when we discovered a long abandoned railroad tunnel. I later learned that it is the southernmost railroad tunnel in the United States. Pete took one look, smelled the stench of guano, and said, “No way!” But I just had to go in.
I should have known better. The stench of guano could only mean one thing, a huge colony of bats! Despite conservation propaganda intended to show bats as cuddly little munchkins that protect us from mosquitoes, the fact is that they are filthy little furballs due to their colonial habits and the accumulation of guano in enclosed spaces. Bats carry a disproportionate number of zoonotic diseases such as rabies, but the most common disease carried by bats is Histoplasmosis, a fungal disease of the lungs.
You could get Histo from licking the pigeon droppings off the statue in the city park (Provided that historical revisionists haven’t torn it down yet), but the best way is to crawl into a cave or tunnel full of bats then take a deep breath. So it was that I waded into semi liquid bat shit until the air became so bad that I was forced to retreat.
I am quite familiar with Histoplasmosis since it almost killed me during the late 70s and early 80s. I was sick as a dog for years, during which time I would periodically cough up mushroom flavored snot wads. It culminated in several pulmonary hemorrhages that almost killed me. The most dramatic episode enabled me to cover an entire living room wall with my partially congealed blood. (Note to kiddies: Blood makes great finger paint!) To this day I have a calcified granuloma in my left lung that is clearly visible on an Xray.
So it was that ten days after entering the tunnel I fell ill with a brand new case of Histo. There was nothing to do since the cure is worse than the disease, and oftentimes doesn’t work at all, so I stayed sick for the next several months.
Meanwhile Pete and I continued to explore the deep south. We were having terrible luck finding snakes so we decided to just explore funky old towns.
Many southern cities have fallen on hard times, but I have never seen anything to equal Selma, Alabama. Selma must once have been an incredibly wealthy place. Magnificent crumbling mansions attest to a time when cotton was king, but now it is a ghost town.
Pillared mansions that elsewhere would be lovingly restored and worth millions can be had in Selma for as little as $10,000.
The downtown commercial district is utterly empty.
As some of you may recall, Selma played an important role in the civil rights struggles of the 60s when Martin Luther King crossed the bridge to march to Montgomery on behalf of black voter registration. It was a noble effort by a brave man but it doomed the once beautiful city to oblivion. White residents fled and now the downtown is over 90% black and almost all the businesses have closed including the one shown below. Even outrage porn hasn’t worked, so be careful what you wish for.
From Selma we traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, a much larger town, but equally mired in the past. Selma has subsided into peaceful coexistence, but in Jackson the divisions were evident. If anyone wants to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee in Jackson they had better be ready for a fight.
Jackson is a real city, not just a town like Selma, so there was some interesting urban architecture.
Most extraordinary were two dueling insurance company buildings that now stand empty.
The dominant paradigm holds that the south was built on the backs of slaves, yet these early skyscrapers and most of the beautiful crumbling mansions seen throughout the south today were built after the uncivil war and before the great depression. We are taught that the so called reconstruction was a time of somnolence for the south, yet these magnificent buildings stand as proof that the period of 1890 through the 1920s was a time of great prosperity and slavery had nothing to do with it.
Little trace remains of the antebellum south, not because of Sherman, but because in those days much of the south was still a howling wilderness full of bears, panthers, and even a few wild Injuns. Montgomery wasn’t always the capitol of Alabama so we set out in search of its antecedents.
Old Cahawba (Or Cahaba if you wish) was the capital of Alabama from 1820 to 1825. It was a prosperous place, but was unfortunately situated at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers so it washed away almost as soon as it was built.
Very little remains of Old Cahawba other than a few columns standing as mute testimony to lost grandeur and the slave quarters seen above. The mansion is long gone, but the slaves were housed in this well built two story brick apartment that featured porches, big glass windows, and all the conveniences then available. Their great great grandchildren live in squalor today, probably somewhere like Chicago.
But what happened before 1820? In those days there were no roads whatsoever. Water was the only way to travel so frontier towns were built at the uppermost limits of navigation. In the case of Alabama that meant the first shoals on the Tombigbee river at a place called St. Stephens.
St. Stephens is located on a bluff 67 river miles upstream from Mobile. It is so obscure that it is even difficult to find on a map. The town itself is completely gone but the site is commemorated by a private park run by a beautiful strong willed southern belle. The park features blue lakes resulting from abandoned limestone quarries and there are miles of trails. It is a great place to camp.
St. Stephens is quiet now but that was not always the case.
“In 1804 Ephraim Kirby was appointed superior court judge of the Mississippi Territory by President Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to the president, Kirby described the inhabitants of St. Stephens as “illiterate, wild and savage, of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteems, litigious, disunited, and knowing each other, universally distrustful of each other.”
Apparently the main business of St, Stephens was trading deer skins with the Choctaw Indians, but in 1817 the town experienced a boom when it was named the territorial capitol. Prosperity was short lived. Only two years later in 1819 Alabama became the 22nd state and the capital was moved to Old Cahawba. After that the town dwindled and eventually disappeared.
There is nothing I like better than a ghost town with lakes and snakes run by a bumptious blond southern belle. The entire area is rich in history and crawling with snakes so I was a happy camper! When the rains came we moved to a little cabin then went in search of dinner and drinks.
The closest place with anything to eat was the little town of Jackson (Not to be confused with Jackson, Mississippi) where we found a Cajun bar and restaurant.
By this time you must have gathered that the name Jackson is celebrated throughout the south. I am an admitted southern partisan who appreciates the agrarian romanticism of President Jefferson. I even harbor a fondness for heroes such as Robert E. Lee, but I despise Andrew Jackson because he was a thoroughly evil man. It is worthy of note that Donald Trump, who knows nothing of history, considers Andrew Jackson our greatest president (After himself of course!).
The Cajun bar proved to be a jolly place run by yet more bumptious southern belles. Alabama is full of good looking women!
Unlike in the north where racial prejudice runs silent and deep, in places like the Cajun bar integration is a fact of life. Blacks and whites freely co-mingle as friends because in a town as little as Jackson everybody knows everybody, and even old so and so is OK once you get to know him.
We were treated like visiting dignitaries from another planet. The ladies were especially enamored of Pete. Their establishment had never before been graced by a blue blooded aristocrat who lives in both West Virginia and Washington DC yet spends most of his time in India. I was equally exotic, a penniless bum who travels the world. Their jaws fell agape when they learned that our ostensible purpose in visiting this obscure part of southwestern Alabama was just to look for snakes.
The rain poured down and the company was good so one drink led to another. The storm was howling when we returned to our little cabin, so as I dashed out of the car I failed to notice the railroad tie.
I fought the railroad tie but it was not a tie, the tie won and I lost. We were both on the ground when the battle was over but I sustained four broken ribs and a destroyed right shoulder; whereas, the tie suffered no injuries whatsoever. It was time to go home.
The broken ribs were horribly painful so I went to the doctor. That was when I discovered that in addition to being broken I was suffering from both Histoplasmosis and Lyme disease. Sleeping was impossible because of my broken ribs and shoulder, plus I was weak and debilitated from two diseases. No wonder I felt so bad!
This triple whammy brought me low, but life is short, especially at my age, so despite the misery I started planning my next trip. At the beginning of June only three weeks after my injury I found myself back in Belize for the first time in fifteen years.
So stay tuned for Part 2!
(Note to readers: Some of you may have already read my photo essays pertaining to Five Blues Lake and Gales Point in Belize. They were written and sent as emails prior to the initiation of this blog, and will be summarized in the new format in Parts 2 & 3)
Cultural tourism is, and has long been, the vogue among the backpacking set. The idea is to go to an exotic foreign locale to meet colorful natives and to immerse oneself in their quaint folkways. Unless you are in the military and are thus required to kill your new friends it is always good to pet the grubby children and mangy dogs, this despite the fact that in Thailand it is a grave offense to touch anyone’s head. Western tourists are forgiven for such behavior; after all, they are just barbarians, big, hairy, smelly, and stupid, but with good hearts.
So it was that during a two month journey to Thailand and Myanmar in 2016 the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and David D visited Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass to witness a co-mingling of the Thai and Mon cultures. It was delightful, and the scenery beautiful, but people are people. The Weazel is fond of certain individual persons, but not of the human race; so, after our sojourn in civilization we set out to explore the wilder parts of Kanchanaburi province.
It is my habit to plan trips by means of Google Earth and other such mapping tools. While cruising in my imaginary airplane to peruse the world’s topography I take note of any place that is dark green, swampy, mountainous, or which exhibits anomalous geographic features. To put it another way, I look for places with interesting terrain, lots of vegetation, and few if any people.
Close scrutiny of Kanchanaburi province revealed numerous karst features such as deeply dissected plateaus, abrupt cliffs, sinkholes, and disappearing streams.
Many of those interesting features were located in protected areas such as Khao Laem National Park which we had previously passed on our way to Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass.
Here is a vertically exaggerated Google Earth view of the Park looking southwest from a prominent peak toward the reservoir which impounds the Kwai Noi river. The frontier with Myanmar can be seen on the horizon.
When viewed from this angle it is easy to see the gigantic upper entrance to Tham Nam Mut (Mut River cave) in the lower middle of the image. Despite its proximity to civilization the cave is effective unknown.
The downstream resurgence is just on the other side of the ridge and is the source of a series of travertine waterfalls known as Nam Tok Kroeng Krawia that are a major tourist attraction situated next to a highway. (Note: “Nam tok” means waterfall, and Kroeng Krawia is actually pronounced something like Kleung Klavia.)
It appeared to be an easy place to visit, just jump on a bus in Sangkhlaburi then get off at the Kroeng Krawia waterfall. From there it is less than two miles to the huge entrance seen above, so I was puzzled that no information could be found on the web. That is because in Thailand everything is easy except for that which is impossible. That plus the fact that the mountains are so steep and jagged that not even a Goral (Thai mountain goat) could easily traverse them.
When we got off the bus at the waterfall I was dismayed to see numerous tour buses, countless people picnicking, piles of trash, and vendors selling food and knickknacks. With all this development surely there must be a place to camp? Wrong!
I inquired at what I presumed to be the Park headquarters. (Kroeng Krawia is part of Khao Laem National Park), but was told that the official Pom Pee campsite was far away along the lake shore. Our only other alternative was to camp at the actual Park headquarters several miles to the south. There weren’t even any hotels other than a so called “resort” more than a mile away.
The options were few so I set out on foot for the resort. It proved to be ugly and expensive so I walked back. Every day of our trip I had walked many miles on my injured feet, often with a pack, so by this time my aching arthritic feet were so covered with blisters that I could barely walk, a major impediment to exploration and a good reason to camp nearby if I had any hope of visiting the cave.
The Park headquarters down the road seemed the best bet, but back at the waterfall there were no taxi drivers because everyone had come by tour bus. Thai bus drivers may be friendly but they are not stupid. They saw our heavy packs and recognized our predicament, chumps ripe for the picking! So it was that we paid a small fortune for a three mile ride.
The site proved to be idyllic, a meadow next to a blue travertine stream, but the Park staff were flabbergasted, what were Farang (White Honkeys) doing here?
No one spoke a word of English but they understood that we wanted to camp despite the fact that they had rooms available, so they escorted us to a spot right next to the road. That was when we got a taste of cross cultural confusion.
Thai people never go camping alone, only in groups. Think overnight picnic. They prefer to camp cheek by jowl as close to the road as possible. Like moths, they also prefer to congregate around lights so most parks have overhead lights turned on 24/7. In a worst case scenario there is music. All of which is exactly what I most hate.
We refused their kind offer and instead insisted on crossing a quaint bridge to set up our camp on a grassy island occupied by an enormous water buffalo which had to be driven off.
The buffalo was not amused, and neither were the Park staff who were perplexed as to why we would want to camp next to a stinking garbage dump. Perhaps the crazy Farang like the smell of rotting garbage?
Then there was the problem with the lights. I could find no way to turn them off so I mimicked shooting them. What?
A comedy of errors followed. I had already managed to turn off several of the lights but could not find the main breaker. The staff thought I was trying to fix the lights so they scurried around turning them back on, after which I would turn them back off again.
Thais are obsessional about keeping floors clean; unfortunately, that included the lawn which, in their view, was marred by the presence of a few leaves from the towering jungle trees. It was a disgrace! What will the Farang think of us? So the Superintendent ordered an army of women with brooms to sweep the lawn until every single leaf had been removed.
Sweeping the lawn served a dual purpose. It also enabled the women to spy on us and to examine our weird possessions. There was no mal intent, just curiosity as to why the hairy barbarians would chose to hide in a garbage dump and place their tents in the dark as far apart from each other as possible. Do they hate each other? Or us? Perhaps they can’t smell the dump because they stink so much themselves? Do they want to be in the dark so they can do terrible things unseen? Who knows?
Once the lawn was meticulously swept the Superintendent wrinkled his nose. The lawn wasn’t perfect, some of the grass along the road was turning brown from the ever increasing drought, so he hooked up a gasoline pump with which to flood the area. The sound was deafening but the buffalo approved, more green grass was sure to come!
Despite all that I loved the site, especially the travertine stream behind my tent.
Notice the dingy blue color of the water and how level the travertine dams are. For those who don’t know, travertine forms in circumstances where water becomes super saturated with calcium derived from the surrounding limestone, or sometimes from hot mineral springs. As the water passes over obstructions aeration increases the out gassing of carbon dioxide which precipitates calcium carbonate which is what travertine is made of. The same process creates cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites.
The faster the water flows the quicker the process; thus, the dams continually repair and level themselves. Normal waterfalls erode downward and migrate upstream over time. Travertine waterfalls do just the opposite, instead of eroding they grow upward and forward.
The blue color of the water is caused by the scattering of light due to the presence of calcium ions.
The vegetation was quite interesting, a mini rainforest! The whole place looked very snaky, but I could find nothing but small frogs and fish.
I’m not much of a fan of the various weedy bamboo species that dominate so much of southeast Asia, but on the hill behind the outhouse was some of the largest bamboo I have ever seen. The old rotten culms provided refuge for numerous geckos that screamed obscenities all night long.
We Farang tend to think of palms as being utterly harmless icons of the tropics that sway in the breeze along the shore, but palms that live in the jungle are often heavily armed to discourage predation by big herbivores such as elephants. Such is the case with genus Salacca and their close relatives the bizarre climbing rattans (genus Calamus). Think about it the next time you relax on the patio in your comfortable rattan lounge, someone had to remove the spines or your butt would resemble a pincushion!
It was along the limpid stream that I became reacquainted with my old nemesis the Crying elephant plant, an evil Aroid that looks completely harmless but causes elephants to cry. It certainly caused me to cry when I first encountered it on a previous trip to Thailand. The slightest touch of the stem or underside of the leaf drives invisible spines filled with oxalic acid into the skin. The pain is unbelievably intense and lasts for weeks.
When morning came I was too lazy to build a fire to make coffee so I set off on foot to find a coffee shop said to be less than a mile away. As soon as I started walking a wild looking fellow on a motor scooter stopped to offer me a lift. In Thailand you don’t even have to hitchhike to get a ride!
The coffee shop was closed, but when my benefactor learned that I was looking for coffee he suggested going to a nearby police station. Huh?
The police station was closed too, but that didn’t deter my new friend, he broke into the cop shop with his pocket knife, rooted around, and found all the fixings for coffee and even a nice breakfast. I could hardly believe this was happening. Who breaks into a police station? He told me not to worry, if the cops come we will just offer them a few Baht for breakfast and all will be forgiven. Try that in Detroit.
The fellow said that he was unemployed and looking for work, but I could not help but suspect that he was an undercover cop of some sort, either that or a complete idiot. Regardless, he was my new friend and even took me back to camp!
The day was young, so Ann, Dave, and I decided to return to the Kroeng Krawia waterfall several miles away. We hitchhiked separately and got there in short order. The falls were already crowded with tourists doing what tourists usually do, littering, smooching, eroding the banks, pooping in the woods, and taking selfies.
The Kroeng Krawia falls are similar to the ones at camp, but much larger and more beautiful. There are many levels that cascade for hundreds of feet down the mountain. None of my photos do the place justice, so I suggest that you click this link to see what they look like. Please understand that I have few photos of this extraordinary place because my injured feet hurt so badly that I could barely see straight much less focus.
The Kroeng Krawia waterfalls were obviously a resurgence of the stream that carved Nam Mut cave, so I set out to find the source.
A set of stairs adjacent to the falls led to a large temple, monastery, and meditation complex. The architecture was oddly modernistic yet traditional in that there were the usual golden Buddhas.
Don’t let the tin roof fool you, it was a work in progress, first you build the Buddha, then you build the temple around it. The whole place had an odd air of abandonment, as though a grand enterprise had failed to materialize; nevertheless, there were still plenty of Monks. I snuck past the temple to find them at their leisure.
That was when I discovered a most intriguing path leading into the forest. Ann and Dave had disappeared so I continued on alone.
Everywhere I looked there were tiny little Hobbit houses lost in the jungle. Why didn’t someone suggest that we stay here? I later learned that it was a failed meditation retreat center.
All across Thailand there are abandoned temples and monasteries that failed because a charismatic guru either died or was disgraced because of screwing his acolytes.
I had the highest hopes of finding a cobra. The habitat was perfect, abandoned buildings deep in the jungle, but not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
I continued on for some distance until I arrived at a small settlement at the head of the valley. There I met a Nun tending her garden who sternly but kindly asked me not to invade their privacy. She was an intelligent person with whom I could communicate despite the language barrier. I explained as best I could that I wanted to visit Tham Nam Mut. She found this very alarming and basically said, “No way! There is no path, it is far away and you have to cross two mountains; besides, you are old and alone!” The part about the path wasn’t really true, I had methodically checked out every possible path and had noticed a very faint path that had been blocked off which had to be the way. She was just trying to keep me from getting lost or hurt.
When the Nun saw that I was about to disappear into the jungle she offered a consolation prize, to show me her own personal meditation cave and an alternative jungle path back to the park. So it was that I acquired a Buddhist Nun as a cave guide!
From the cave a tiny footpath led along the base of a cliff. It was very rugged and rocky. At the worst place, which actually required climbing skills, we discovered a feral dog denned up with a litter of pups. I expected the bitch to attack us, but the Nun spoke kindly to the dog and fearlessly picked up a pup to cuddle.
By sunset I was back in camp nursing my aching feet. It was deeply frustrating to find myself crippled and unable to explore such an interesting place. There was so much more to see and do! Not far away was a hidden lake and swamp surrounded by deep jungle, and worst of all I had completely failed to locate a huge cave a short distance from the road. Beyond the cave was a pristine valley that I longed to visit. When will that opportunity come? In my next lifetime? I’m not a Buddhist so I’m not counting on it.
The good news was that police station where I had eaten my purloined breakfast was located at the turnoff to our next destination, Lam Klong Ngu National Park. Some of the largest caves in Thailand are located inside the park; furthermore, “Khlong ngu” means Snake creek so I had to go! My hoodlum/undercover cop buddy had already explained that trucks would pass the intersection the following day around 10am so we had a plan!
In January of 2016 the Weazel returned to Kanchanaburi province in central western Thailand with Dr. Ann and friend David D.
We had just come from the magnificent wilderness of Kaeng Krachan and were in need of a soft bed and a bath before continuing our adventures.
We arrived in Kanchanaburi town in the southeastern corner of the province to discover that little had changed over the years other than the advancing age of the previously mentioned perverts (See: Kanchanaburi part 1, Land of Dirty Old Men) and ever increasing sprawl; so, after a few days we hit the road for the hinterlands.
Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass
In the far northwestern corner of Kanchanaburi province lies the remote outpost of Sangkhlaburi, and beyond that the legendary Three Pagodas Pass.
Three Pagodas Pass is the lowest pass anywhere along the Tenasserim mountain range that defines the frontier between Thailand and Myanmar. There are very few passes and even fewer border crossings.
In the beginning Three Pagodas Pass was just an elephant trail. It is said that the Buddha himself passed this way some 2500 years ago. Ever since various people have battled for possession and the fighting isn’t over yet.
Any two nations separated by a jungle covered mountain range tend to be perpetually at war; so, for many centuries the Pass was a flashpoint between Burmese and Thai forces. During WWII it was the route of the railroad of death, but the train doesn’t stop here anymore. More recently the Mon and Karen rebels have battled over the right to “tax” the smuggling route to finance their never ending fight against the Myanmar government. Truckloads of smuggled teak, jade, drugs, and people pour constantly across the border so security is high.
Nearby Sangkhlaburi is mostly inhabited by refugees from Burma. Mon people are in the majority. They warily coexist with their rivals the Karen along with a few Bamar (the so called “true” Burmese), a few misplaced Lao, some angry looking Muslims, and lots of spiffy Thai tourists from Bangkok.
Sangkhlaburi isn’t particularly impressive, but as is often the case in small Thai towns beauty is bursting at the seams. Where else would a shack be embowered with flowers and a street light be carried by a golden Griffin?
We found a room near the famous Mon bridge, said to be one of the longest and tallest wooden bridges in the world.
This long bridge connects Sangkhlaburi with the 95.5% Mon refugee village on the other side of the reservoir/river.
I had expected a floating bamboo bridge, and the remnants of the original, seen here, still serve as a pier.
At sunset the scene is picturesque to an extreme degree. My photos do no justice to the serenity. Fisherman’s shacks and floating raft houses dot the lake while craggy mountains rise in the distance. I have rarely seen a more beautiful and culturally interesting place.
Just across the bridge in the Mon village elegant women in sarongs carry baskets of flowers on their heads.
Mon refugees conduct themselves with dignity and restraint and have thus earned the respect of the Thai people.
Despite being a refugee camp the Mon village is extremely prosperous. I was surprised to discover that many of the residents are multilingual and speak excellent English. The old and new coexist easily. Were it not for the omnipresent cell phones one might imagine it to be a scene from the distant past.
The following day we hopped into a Muslim owned sawngtaeo (a pickup truck with bench seats in the back) and headed for the pass. There were several army and police checkpoints along the way. The authorities gave our driver the evil eye, but the last thing they cared about was a grizzled gringo and his girlfriend.
It was interesting to observe the grumpiness of the Muslims relative to the ever smiling Thais and the dignified tribal refugees. Is it cause or effect? Regardless, anti Muslim sentiment is building throughout the region so they keep their heads low.
There was certainly no shortage of Buddhists.
Notice that the Monk is carrying a bowl. The faithful are expected to put rice in the bowl and a morsel in the dog’s mouth. Foreigners are exempt, because everyone knows they come from corrupt cultures where greed is God. A good Buddhist can only pity those who know nothing of kindness and generosity.
Three Pagodas Pass isn’t really a town, just a market and checkpoint. Foreign tourists aren’t welcome to cross here, just to peer across into Myanmar.
For a place so steeped in history Three Pagodas Pass seemed curiously small and calm, almost forgotten. The few soldiers we encountered were smiling and friendly, they did no more than to shoo us away from the actual border.
It seemed that no one was paying any attention until I looked up to discover enormous telecommunications towers rising above an ancient Wat. When World War III erupts news of the event will fly around the world over Three Pagodas Pass, but the people below will know nothing about it.
Why would such a magnificent temple be abandoned?
Shabby looking Monks scurried around the adjacent buildings but none came near the temple. Perhaps they fear some horrific curse?
It is hard to imagine how we missed anything in such a tiny place; nevertheless, we searched in vain for the eponymous pagodas. Here they are courtesy of Wiki.
There wasn’t much else to do so we wandered out of town. After a lengthy trek through the countryside we noticed an isolated karst mountain and there discovered the Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan meditation center.
Which came complete with the usual golden Buddhas.
No one noticed our arrival so we simply wandered around until we found a wooden staircase that led steeply up the mountain, then down into the cave.
We were puttering around in the dim light when suddenly an enthusiastic young man raced up to give us the grand tour. We tried to run the boy off but he would not be deterred so we graciously accepted his services.
Should nothingness not come easily you are invited to meditate. There is even a mosquito net should you wish to spend a few weeks in the dark while awaiting enlightenment.
The kid loved his job. As soon as he got his hands on my headlamp he rushed ahead to make new discoveries, thus leaving me in the dark. His enthusiasm was infectious. Even though I couldn’t see a thing he would say (In Thai), “Hurry Mister, Hurry! There’s lots more to see!”, so I would hurry on as best I could while trying not to fall into a pit.
He was the coolest kaver kid I have ever met. I would gladly have given him my headlamp but I needed it. If I was rich I would have given him a scholarship. He never asked for money, so when he disappeared I searched for him to give him a tip. I learned that he had run off to guide a group of Thai tourists to a separate cave on the other side of the mountain. That was how I discovered that the entire mountain was hollow!
I walked around the mountain and climbed up to a different entrance. There was no one to be found, but once inside the cave I was astonished to see that a travertine waterfall had been illuminated by candles to mark the way. (Note: The formations are actually snow white, it is the light source that makes them look orange.)
I finally caught up to the kid and offered him a big tip even though what he really wanted was my headlamp so he could become a real explorer. I hope he kept the money instead of giving it to the monks!
We hitchhiked back to Sangklaburi. I needed to check my emails so I found an internet cafe. I was dismayed to discover that it was full of tech savvy Mon kids, all of whom were playing violent video games while imagining that they were blasting either ISIS or Burmese government troops.
Unlike Super Cave Boy who lives in a golden temple, those townie twerps will undoubtedly grow up to be violent, indolent, and rude to their parents. They will learn everything bad that we, the Western world, can teach them.
During my travels I have again and again observed the pernicious effects of the media upon innocent children. Even the slightest contact with television, recorded music, or video games is pure poison that stunts both moral and intellectual development.
In the West we grow up with cynical attitudes toward everything. That gives us some protection, but children who grow up with one foot in a refugee camp and one in the twenty first century are certain to be conflicted. They will always choose distraction and instant gratification over the wisdom offered by their parents and the Buddha. Why are we, the supposed adults, so foolish as to allow it to happen? Mostly because we are lazy and weak minded.
All is well that ends with a good meal. We found a table at the market, bought some beer then decided to stay for dinner. Talk about taste treats! Thai spice, Burmese and Muslim curries, salads, and best of all barbecued chicken hearts and livers. I gorged myself!
It was the weekend and Thai tourists were pouring in by the busload to walk the Mon bridge at sunset. Who could blame them? We learned that every hotel room in town had been booked in advance so we had no choice but to pack up and leave in the morning. Enough of hotel living, it was time to head back into the boonies!
This post is a bit of an anachronism. All of the other adventures chronicled in this series about Kanchanaburi province in western Thailand took place in 2016; however, that was not my first trip to the magical realm.
During the winter of 2008-2009 the Wandering Weazel undertook an ambitious two month long southeast Asian adventure, first to southern Laos, and then to various National Parks throughout Thailand. Brief side trips were also taken to Cambodia and Myanmar.
Toward the end of that journey I visited Tak province in western Thailand, then continued south to Umphang district which is arguably the most remote place in Thailand. There I visited the magnificent Thi Lor Su waterfall which is one of the wonders of the world. I will chronicle those adventures in a future post.
From a cultural perspective Umphang is really a piece of Burma (Myanmar) that just happens to be in Thailand. It is cut off from Tak province and the rest of the world by wild jungles and the complex folding of the Tenasserim range. There is only one road in or out, and it is known as the “Highway of Death”. (I should mention here that what I am calling jungle is actually seasonally dry monsoonal forest rather than rain forest.)
None of this has stopped many thousands of Karen refugees from pouring across the frontier to escape governmental persecution in Myanmar. Huge refugee camps spread across the denuded mountainsides. The Karen people have nothing, only dirt to eat and teak leaves for their roofs, yet their dignity in the face of travail has to be seen to be believed. They acknowledge that they are guests in Thailand so they conform to social norms and speak only of their desire to return to their homeland. If and when they get a cup of rice they are eternally thankful. For these and other reasons the Karen people quickly earned my respect.
I was equally impressed by the Karen homeland, the wild and beautiful mountains that separate Myanmar from Thailand, so I resolved to continue my explorations.
There was still time for one more side trip so I decided to visit Chaloem Rattanakosin National Park in Kanchanaburi province. It is located a relatively short distance south of Umphang as the crow flies but is very difficult to get to. I chose Chaloem Rattanakosin because the guidebook said it was rarely visited due to its remote location, and there was nothing to do other than to explore a cave known as Tham Than Lot. All of which sounded perfect to me!
There was no direct way to get there because the border between the two provinces is protected by the Thungyai Naresuan and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries. These are two of the world’s most important protected areas. Both sanctuaries are generally closed to tourism, and are home to some of the last viable populations of wild elephants and tigers.
As you can see most of southern Tak province, Umphang, and northwestern Kanchanaburi province is protected in one way or another. Logging, hunting, and the building of new farms is strictly prohibited, though a certain amount of latitude is given to the inhabitants of remote rural villages.
Thai conservationists are practical people. A ranger might turn a blind eye to a hungry man who cuts firewood or snares the King’s rabbit, but shoot a tiger and he will shoot you. Don’t bother going to court, the judge will ask, “Did he or didn’t he have a gun?” We need to take the same approach whenever right wing fanatics take over our public lands here in the United States.
Most importantly, the Thais protect land through the simple expedient of not building roads. That means there is no way to get from Tak province to Kanchanaburi province other than by walking. Anyone who does risks being flattened by an elephant or being turned into a tiger turd, so I decided to take a bus.
Sleeper buses go directly from the city of Tak overnight to Bangkok. These are deluxe rigs with fully reclinable seats, picture windows, and bar service. “Would you like a hot washcloth with your cold beer Sir?”
From Bangkok it would have been easy to catch another bus to Kanchanaburi then somehow on to Chaloem Rattanakosin National Park. The problem was that I didn’t want to go to Bangkok so I decided to get there the hard way by taking local transportation.
Lost in the countryside:
My first stop was Uthai Thani, a nondescript town with little of interest to a tourist. No tourists meant no English was spoken which complicated things considerably. I had no idea how to pronounce Chaloem Rattanakosin. Even if I could pronounce the words no one would have known it by its official name. I pointed to it on the map but that didn’t help either because most Thais cannot read maps and know nothing about anywhere except where they live.
After much gesticulation a fellow offered the suggestion that I should travel first to the tiny town of Nong Prue; unfortunately, he had no idea how to get there so I had to inquire elsewhere. The problem was that I couldn’t pronounce that place name either. These look like simple words when transliterated into English but the Thai pronunciation of Nong Prue sounded something like the noises a cat might make whose fur was being rubbed the wrong way.
Thus began a multi day Odyssey by chicken bus, songthaew (a pickup truck with bench seats in the back), and tuk tuk (a motorized tricycle) that eventually deposited me on the outskirts of Nong Prue. There was nothing there but an abandoned bus stop by the side of an empty road, so there I sat wondering what to do.
Eventually some Buddhist monks in saffron robes showed up. They were already halfway to Nirvana so they nodded and smiled regardless of what I said or did. Later, some rather more worldly old ladies arrived at the bus stop. They were intensely curious as to why a Farang would be in such a place. Where, pray tell, was I going? And why?
I tried and tried to pronounce Chaloem Rattanakosin but to no avail. No one had ever heard of such a place. Eventually I heard one of the old ladies mumble something about Tham Than Lot. That rang a bell so I looked in my guidebook to discover that was the name of the cave! (Tham means cave in Thai). I should also mention that transliteration between Thai and English is an imperfect art so spellings may vary. For example, the name of the cave is also spelled Tam Tan Lod.
By this time a small crowd had gathered and they all smiled and nodded in approbation. “Yes, you go Tham Than Lot, very good!” I gathered that any Farang who went to such a place couldn’t be all bad.
The riddle was solved, but I still had to get there. An old man explained things to the bus driver but he shook his head, it wasn’t on his route. That was when the old ladies sprang into action and besieged the poor driver until he agreed to take me where I was going. No one ever dares to argue with a gaggle of hags in rural Thailand!
Almost every rural village in Thailand is accessible by some form of public transportation. If the bus doesn’t go there then a songthaew will, even if it only goes once a week. The problem was that the Park was not a village, few people live in the area, and individual travelers rarely visit so transportation was non existent.
Please understand that this was a full sized bus full of paying passengers that followed a designated route on a paved road just like here in the good old U S of A. Now imagine an American bus driver deviating from his route to take a single passenger more than fifteen miles out of the way on a very bad single lane dirt road through the mountains. If he wasn’t beaten to death by the outraged passengers then he would certainly be fired when he got back.
But this was Thailand where kindness and generosity are the norm, so the other passengers, who presumably had better things to do, actually cheered the driver on as he bravely bounced his way up the tiny road. When we arrived at the Park gate it was impossible for him to turn around so he had to back down the mountain while the passengers all waved goodbye.
Received like a long lost son:
At the gate I was greeted with beaming smiles by a cute young woman holding a new born baby. She observed that my pack was much too heavy so she urged me to put it down. Just to be sure she tried to move it a few inches but couldn’t. That generated more smiles and a quick squeeze of my biceps. “You velly strong man, good! But campground too far. I get ride for you!”
With that she thrust the infant into my arms and ran off to make a call. (Excellent phone and internet service is available everywhere in Thailand.)
What sane mother would entrust her child to a stinky foreign stranger who obviously hadn’t bathed or shaved in a very long time? I was terror stricken by the wriggling maggot, but a nearby farm girl noticed my plight, giggled, then relieved me of my burden.
In short order a fine young man, presumably a ranger, arrived on a motorcycle to take me to the Park headquarters more than a mile away. I was very reluctant to ride on a motorcycle while carrying my gigantic pack, but to him it was nothing because he was accustomed to carrying the whole family along with a pig or two.
The ranger took me to the Park headquarters and introduced me to the Superintendent, a spiffy fellow in a crisp uniform who spoke excellent English. He was effusively friendly as he welcomed me, obviously impressed that I had come alone by means of local transport. (Thais, like many oriental people, prefer to travel in organized groups. It is very unusual to meet a solitary Thai traveler.) He was even more impressed that I had all the necessary camping gear and needed nothing but his permission to be there.
The superintendent said I was free to explore the cave(s) by myself, but that I must enter and exit between 10am and 4pm. I later learned that this was because the so called Little cave, Tham Than Lot Noi (Noi means little in Thai), had lighting that was only turned on during those hours. It never occurred to him that I had lights of my own.
It was February, the burning season, and smoke filled the sky. While traveling through rural Thailand I had become increasingly dismayed by the ruined agricultural landscapes. What had once been monsoonal forest had been degraded into sere brown scrub due to fires set every year by farmers.
It was understandable that the fertile flatlands had long ago been converted to rice paddies, but the hillsides were barely arable, useful only for the collection of firewood. Now even firewood was scarce because the tropical deciduous trees characteristic of a monsoonal forest had been replaced by bamboo and other fire tolerant species which form impenetrable thickets just waiting to burst into flame. It was very depressing to see that this slow motion ecological disaster had reached deeply into the Park.
All was not lost, for some low elevation areas still featured mature forest.
So it was that I was delighted when the ranger took me to the campground where I discovered a shady grove of Dipterocarps beneath which to place my tent. I was equally delighted to discover that I was the only visitor!
Dipterocarps are enormous hardwood trees that emerge from the canopy to dominate forests throughout southeast Asia. These magnificent giants are Thailand’s treasure but they have been eliminated almost everywhere due to logging and agriculture. Their presence was proof that at least a few keystone species are being protected by the Park even if the overall ecosystem is otherwise unraveling. Despite the presence of other nearby protected areas the Park is simply too small to host resident populations of charismatic megafauna like elephants and tigers.
I was happy with my campsite, but what to do about dinner? On my way into the Park I had passed a cluster of shacks where I was told that food could be purchased. It was quite some distance away; so, after a long trek I was disappointed to discover that no one was home. Coolers full of cold beer tempted me but there was no one to pay.
A small noise alerted me to an old woman in the back hunched over a bucket full of burning charcoal. (In Thailand people often cook small amounts of food over specially designed buckets that are similar to a hibachi.) She was surprised and somewhat alarmed to see me. What on earth was a Farang doing here by himself?
I grabbed a beer then asked for food in broken Thai, but she shook her head. No food! Then I pointed to the bucket, rubbed my belly, and mimicked eating. She had food and I wanted some! Again she shook her head and said, “Phet mak!” (Too spicy!), for rural Thai people presume that Farang cannot possibly eat spicy Thai food. My vocabulary wasn’t up to an explanation so I walked into the kitchen then grabbed a plutonium grade chili pepper and swallowed it.
She was astonished when I smiled through my tears, so she gave me the thumbs up sign. Apparently I was tough enough so she brought me a plate of food.
Needless to say it was absolutely delicious! As you can see I was reading “The Reivers” by Faulkner. There is nothing like a taste of Mississippi to make Thailand seem even more exotic.
The food is bad in rural backwaters almost everywhere on earth. In Mississippi people eat grits and hog jowls. In Mexico they eat tortillas and pray to the Virgin Mary for beans. In the swamplands of Washington DC Donald Trump eats overcooked steak with ketchup. In Belize they consume a vile concoction known as “bile up” which does in fact bring up one’s bile. But in rural Thailand even the poorest of the poor eat like kings and queens!
It was so good that I ordered another bowl, only this time I asked for it to be extra spicy! My hostess was so pleased she did a little jig then whipped out her cell phone and called her various relatives to come watch the Farang eat. A small crowd arrived in moments, and all applauded me when I finished dinner.
From that moment on I was part of the family. More children were dumped in my lap, special tidbits were proffered, minor wounds were tended with loving care, and for the next several days the ranger wouldn’t let me walk anywhere. The moment I left camp he would immediately arrive on his motorcycle and offer me a ride, so I never had to walk to the restaurant again. There is no other place on earth where people are so genuinely friendly.
The little cave:
In the morning I set out to explore the so called “Little” cave which was quite near camp. No sooner had I begun to walk up the path when a young woman approached to remind me that the hours were from 10am to 4pm. Reminding visitors of the hours was her only job, but I was the only visitor, so for the rest of the day she had nothing to do.
Overstaffed you might say? Hardly! In America we close our parks rather than pay minimum wage to rural workers who would otherwise be jobless; but in Thailand where nepotism rules everyone who is related to the Boss or is his friend gets a job no matter how humble the station. Not only does everyone get a job, but everyone shares the work. That means the Superintendent helps Granny rake the yard while the ranger helps in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the kids pick up trash whenever not busy chasing lizards. Nobody gets rich but everybody gets by.
In this regard Thailand is the antithesis of America. Our society is based upon fear and greed, a war of all against all, so it is hardly surprising that our penchant for rules and regulations has led to the establishment of a totalitarian state. Thailand has rules and regulations too, but the enforcement of any rule is secondary to kindness, civility, and acceptance of personal responsibility.
Ding Dong the dimwit may only be capable of following a cow but that is his job and he is proud of it. He receives little or no wage, but he has a home and food because he works on his uncle’s farm. In America he would be homeless or in jail and taxpayers would foot the bill.
After assuring the young lady that I would be out by 4pm, I put on my headlamp and entered the cave. The headlamp was completely unnecessary due to the crude but effective lighting.
“Little” Tham Than Lot Noi was little only by Thai standards. It was a large borehole stream passage about a quarter of a mile long that in Tennessee would have been considered a big cave by anyone’s standards. There was little to see for periodic floods had limited the development of speleothems and there were no evident side passages so I hurried on through.
I emerged from the upstream entrance into a beautiful secluded valley. The hills above were scorched, brown, and covered with thorny bamboo, but the valley floor was lush and green with gallery forest along the stream.
Attack of the giggling lady boys:
I paused to sit upon a rock and burn the sacred bud when suddenly the silence was shattered by howls and giggles as a troupe of androgynous young men pranced up the trail.
All were very effeminate and some wore lipstick so I wasn’t sure whether or not they were Kathoey boys. Whatever they were they were having tons of fun and were the loudest Thai people I have ever met. They greeted me with shouts and wild gesticulations then raced on ahead, thus destroying any hope of wildlife observation.
This was not the only time I have chanced upon groups of Thai teenagers out for a lark whose appearance and behavior had homoerotic overtones. The Thais are much more accepting of sexual ambiguity than most Westerners, so I think it is “just a phase” that many young men go through in the process of growing up.
About half a mile ahead I met them again at a small waterfall whereupon they broke into various “manly” poses.
Then we all went for a dip. It was great fun. I ain’t skeered of no Kathoey boys!
Above Nam Tok Trutreng (Nam Tok means waterfall in Thai) the path appeared to end. I was at the end of a box canyon with nowhere to go, yet I had thus far seen no indication of the so called Big cave, Tham Than Lot Yai (Yai means big). Even more curious was the fact that the waterfall was composed of metamorphic rock. Limestone was nowhere to be seen, so how could there possibly be a cave?
Through the great arch:
I noticed a very scary looking wooden ladder going straight up the cliff. No way! But I wiggled a few of the wooden rungs and they were solid as a rock; so, with great trepidation I gave it a try.
Up and up I went, carefully testing every rung. The ladder led to a series of bridges spanning the stream, then ascended a vast pile of fallen rocks surmounted by strangler figs. It was a wild and scenic landscape that would have been difficult or impossible to traverse without the well constructed ladders and bridges.
The path turned and I beheld a magnificent scene that I will never forget. Directly in front of me was a gigantic stone arch. The stream I had been following flowed through the arch and was surrounded by lush jungle. I could see right through the mountain!
Tham Than Lot Yai was indeed big. The passage was nearly 200 feet tall, but so short in length that light from the entrances enabled tall trees to grow inside the cave. There is nothing I like better than a cave that requires no lights!
The path led right through the cave. Once inside I beheld a magnificent skylight in the very center of the arch.
The skylight was at least 300 feet tall!
The great chamber was a worthy abode for the Gods, but which ones? The Buddha of course!
Thai people are almost all devout Buddhists, so why was there also a shrine to Ganesha, a Hindu deity?
At some point in the distant past this cave must have served as the frontier between two faiths. It was clear that I was entering another realm, not just of belief, but also space and time. For thousands of years the fortunes of such deities and the religions they represent have waxed and waned just as armies have come and gone. Because both Buddhism and Hinduism are relatively tolerant belief systems the people who live here today have come to accept the presence of ancient and alien Gods as part of everyday life, much as they accept the pre-Buddhist animistic entities that inhabit the spirit houses by their doorsteps.
How different this is from the current clash between Islam and all other ideologies. If this were the Khyber pass I would have found a wall of razor wire backed up by opposing armies with nuclear weapons. Instead I found a gong with which to bring good luck.
Perhaps it was rude of me, but I simply could not resist. The gong was very heavy and made of bronze, so when I whacked it with the clapper the clang inside the cave was deafening. The enormous passage no doubt served as a megaphone so I am sure that people many miles away looked up from their rice paddies to think, “How nice. There goes a Monk on a pilgrimage. May he receive a thousand blessings!”
Having thus disturbed the peace I continued on through the cave to the upstream entrance.
The hidden Burmese village:
I continued through the cave and out the other side. It was puzzling to see that the path was more heavily used here than elsewhere, for I had presumed that there would be no people living in such a remote location on the back side of a cave atop a mountain. That was when I noticed a barely discernible side path leading steeply upwards toward the top of the arch. There was a tiny sign, but I can’t read “No Trespassing” signs regardless of the language.
The climb was treacherous because the way was strewn with the dried leaves of the ever present thorny bamboo. The fallen leaves were as slick as glass, mostly because they are actually made of glass, Silica to be exact.
There are a few bamboo specialists such as the Panda, but most herbivores won’t touch either the leaves or stems because to do so would be like eating fiberglass. Even worse is the blackish fuzz that grows on the leaf sheathes of newly emergent bamboo shoots. This evil fuzz is composed of microscopic glass needles that embed in the flesh of whatever touches the culm; then, when growth is complete the tiny needles fall off to join the smoke and other airborne pollutants that make it difficult to breathe or even see during the Thai dry season. One might as well be in Los Angeles.
The trail led right to the top of the skylight, but the rock was too unstable to get a good view looking down into the cave. I did, however, get a panoramic view of the surrounding wild landscape.
At the very top I was astounded to discover that I was in some sort of weird fairyland with tiny houses designed for dwarves.
I am quite familiar with Spirit houses, but these were entirely different. Some were simple meditation platforms as seen above, but most were actual tiny houses precariously affixed to the edge of the cliff. These were much too small for a normal human, and should the vines that held them together break the meditator, dwarf, or whoever, would fall hundreds of feet to their death. I have no good photos because I was afraid to approach them. In front of these odd structures were carefully swept perfectly straight paths that looked for all the world like bowling alleys. I have no explanation for any of this.
After descending the bamboo slippery slide I continued west along the main trail across the mountain and soon came to a strange village whose inhabitants were clearly Buddhist but not necessarily Thai.
The trail led directly to a large building. It wasn’t really a temple, more like a community center complete with a library (Books are generally scarce in Thailand).
There was no one to ask, but the architecture was reminiscent of the teak post and beam buildings I had seen in Umphang, so I concluded that the inhabitants were either Mon or Karen tribespeople. In other words I had found a tiny bit of Burma hiding deep in the mountains of Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
I was eager to explore this hidden world, but I had promised my gracious hosts back at the Park that I would be out of the “Little” cave by 4pm so I had no choice but to rush back through the cave and down the mountain.
Where else in all the green and wonderful world can someone make such extraordinary discoveries in one short day, all the while enjoying the hospitality of the kindest and most generous people on earth? Only in Thailand!
Only one problem remained, how to return to “civilization”? It would be a week until the next supply run, and there were no other options, so the Park Superintendent offered to take me himself. I protested that such service was above and beyond the call of duty, but he insisted. Not only did he drive me many miles on bumpy roads to the small town of Dan Chang, but he also took me to an ice cream shop and refused any payment whatsoever.
There was some question as to whether the bus would stop at the ice cream shop, so the Superintendent summoned a street urchin and explained things. As a result, when the bus finally came to town it was commandeered by an army of kids who would not let it leave until I was safely aboard. Only in Thailand!
In the next installment of this series we will return to Kanchanaburi province in the year 2016 to explore the legendary Three Pagodas Pass, so stay tuned!
Hogtown was just treated to a grand parade! The occasion was a guest appearance by the hotsy totsy little Nazi de jour, a pasty faced white supremacist of little consequence named Richard Spencer.
The event was much heralded so the Weazel went to town to get both his prescription filled and his fair share of abuse.
The event took place at the 1750 seat Phillips Center for the Performing Arts located in the Cultural Commons of the University of Florida, a venue that often hosts influential thinkers and performers. Not far away is the O’Connell Center and Ben Hill Griffith Stadium which together can host over 100,000 rowdy Gators and other such sports fans. As such, the University routinely handles large crowds of drunken ill behaved idiots. If you don’t believe me just visit Hogtown during Homecoming weekend.
Richard Spencer has few followers, but like other prominent “Alt Right” buffoons he has found his voice on the world stage by calling for a “White homeland”, “Peaceful ethnic cleansing”, and other such impossibilities. We are a bit short on Nazis here in Hogtown, so Spencer had no choice but to bring in supporters from outside our community.
They must have missed the bus because I searched in vain for anyone who was identifiably Alt Right. Eventually I noticed an innocuous looking fellow in khakis and a button down white shirt darting furtively about.
Many of the protesters were bourgeois in appearance so I thought nothing of it until a burly bearded man standing behind me, apparently an undercover cop, turned to another to say, “There’s one, and that guy is a major prick.” So I took a closer look. I could see that Mr. Normal was practiced at the art of deception, I could tell by his blood-stained hands.
Meanwhile some 2500 protesters marched up and down Hull road waving signs. Despite the vehemence of their chants the crowd was completely peaceful.
For the usual reasons Jews and Negros were much in evidence.
I saw no sign whatsoever of “Antifa”, the Alt Left idiots who are the mirror image of their opponents.
There were a few minor confrontations with Skinheads, but the total mayhem amounted to one bloody lip. Compare that with the aftermath of a football game.
I later learned that after the event a carload of Nazis from Texas took a potshot at a protester. Here are the perps.
They all look alike! Are they Mormons? Clones cooked up by Dr. Mengle? Now that I look more closely, isn’t the guy on the right, the well named William Fears, the same guy I photographed earlier? They all look pretty scared to me.
One thing is certain, no number of cops can ever prevent a crackpot from taking a shot, or from driving his car on a crowded sidewalk.
It wasn’t a riot, just another day on a college campus, so I gazed in horror and amazement at the fortifications and troop movements all around me. Who was responsible for this grotesque overreaction?
Governor Voldemort had declared a State of Emergency, so the entire area, close to a square mile, had been cordoned off with a barrier of dump trucks, construction equipment, and military vehicles. A Sherman tank would have had trouble penetrating the perimeter.
Cops of every variety were everywhere to be seen, and the Florida National Guard was just around the corner hoping to turn the affair into another Kent State.
Most ominous of all were hundreds of heavily armed Nazi Brownshirts.
Don’t get the wrong impression, there weren’t just a few of these guys, but rather hundreds. They were doing large scale maneuvers, blocking the streets, standing atop buildings, and lurking in the bushes, but who were they???
They looked like the National Guard to me, but apparently they weren’t.
I had never seen brown uniforms of this sort before, or at least recently.
So I asked them who they were. They proudly replied that they were QRF, an acronym which I presumed meant Queer Repression Force. They hastened to assure me that it actually meant Quick Response Force.
That didn’t enlighten me much so I asked again. They sheepishly replied that they were all State Troopers, incognito Highway Patrolmen, who had been forced into service by the Governor’s State of Emergency proclamation. No donuts on their day off. It would have been a great day to speed or wreck your car anywhere else in the State of Florida.
Never heard of the Quick Response Force before? Neither has anyone else. I searched the web, there is nothing there. What this means is that the Governor can summon a secret army at a moment’s notice to do his bidding.
Meanwhile, helicopters circled incessantly as snipers took up positions atop the Harn Museum of Bad Art.
But what is that up in the sky? It seems even the Higher Powers had to weigh in.
This was not my first rodeo, nor was it the first time the National Guard has come to town to terrorize the citizenry under the guise of keeping the peace. How well I remember the riots of May 1972. Allow me to take you back to those bygone daze.
A friend and I had spent the previous several days snake hunting in the wilds of Dixie county. Our vehicle was a big old sedan with no radio so we had no idea what was happening in the larger world.
On the morning of May 10, 1972 we were driving down a lonely road when we saw a pickup truck ahead of us screech to a halt; whereupon, the good old boys jumped out and began bashing the ground with their shovels . We had no doubt that they were killing a snake.
It was a big diamondback. The Rednecks only wanted the rattle, so I chopped off the head, gutted it, then threw the carcass into the trunk to cook slowly in the summer sun.
Late that afternoon we rolled into Gainesville from the west. We noticed that our lane was backing up, but no traffic whatsoever was coming from the city. We stopped at 34th Street which was then the edge of town to ask a group of frat boys what was happening. They replied, “The National Guard has been called out and they are going to kick your asses if we don’t do it first!” Huh?
Unbeknownst to us, two days previously Nixon had announced the mining of Haiphong harbor and protests were exploding around the nation, especially here in Hogtown which was already a hotbed of Hippies. We soon learned that on the previous day there had been a major battle in the streets with batons and fire hoses, and that there had been many serious injuries. (To the protesters of course!)
Against the protests of my friend who wanted nothing to do with a riot, I insisted that we park the car and march for the front which was University avenue in front of the school. I wasn’t too concerned because I was already a veteran of many such protests. Growing up in Washington DC gave me that opportunity.
The avenue was full of people singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration. If we don’t we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse!”
The cheering jeering crowd was confronted by a phalanx of riot police in full battle gear including helmets, full body armor, and shields, plus numerous weapons. Darth Vader hadn’t been born yet, but I assure you it looked like a scene from Star Wars. The National Guard waited in the wings to mop up any survivors.
The cops charged and the crowd broke and ran onto campus. The commander told the cops to stay in the Roman “Tortoise” formation which made them slow but untouchable. A few of the more enthusiastic thugs decided to pause to beat up anyone who had fallen. That was mostly women.
That gave me the break I was looking for, so I whipped out my handy dandy wrist rocket (Never go to a riot without one!) and began shooting straggler cops with steel ball bearings. Did I bag one? Hard to say, because soon I too had to break and run.
The cops charged through campus beating up anyone they could catch. The problem was that in those days everyone had long hair so they couldn’t tell the combatants from the non combatants. When they got to the dorms they heard rock and roll music so they lobbed tear gas into the open windows which set the building on fire. Thus were the frat boys smoked out to join the fray.
I have no idea how many people were hurt, or how many cops and National Guardsmen were deployed, but I do know that it was a war, and a systematic effort was made to suppress the news. Newspapers around the State reported minor disturbances but that was all. I have searched the web and found almost nothing. The best first hand account of the battle that I have found is in the archives of the Iguana.
The skirmishes continued until dark whereupon my friend and I retrieved the car and drove home where we witnessed a miracle.
We popped the trunk to unload the car. There was the long dead rattlesnake. It had been cooking in the trunk of the car in Florida heat for almost twelve hours. It had no head and no guts, just skin, meat, and a backbone. Nevertheless, when I touched it the presumably long dead snake coiled and struck repeatedly. I could hardly believe my eyes. That rattler was tough in more ways than one, eating it was like making a meal out of dental floss with no sauce.
In 1972 as in 2017 the only real problem was an extreme overreaction by the authorities who justify their actions by saying they need to “keep the peace”. The problem is that they don’t want to keep the peace, they want to create fear which serves their larger interest.
The world is full of fear mongers in high places, but I ain’t skeered! It is fear itself that must be resisted. The particular manifestation is merely a symptom, and hotsy totsy little Nazis like Richard Spencer are the least of it.
Perhaps the worst thing about politically based riots is that you have to take a side. This places me in a difficult position because I am a fundamentally conservative person who supports progressive policies. I do so not because it is morally or politically correct, but simply because I want to live in a well ordered world. Desperate people do desperate things, and I don’t want throngs of starving Zombies to disrupt my daily affairs.
As a biologist it is obvious to me that the concept of “equality” is a social construct with no basis in reality. After countless centuries of oppression by overlords equality seemed like a good idea until it foundered on the reefs of human nature and divisions inevitably derived from our personal capabilities.
Jesus once said that the poor will always be with us. Then he said something even worse, that the meek will inherit the earth. What a nice warm fuzzy idea! Let’s examine that.
As we know from the fossil record, humans achieved their large brains and other inherent human characteristics long before we became “civilized”. Being smart was a new trick; but it worked, so we evolved rapidly. Once we organized into agrarian societies with divisions of labor the evolution of our “social intelligence” went into overdrive to produce hierarchical societies. For better or worse this extreme degree of natural selection fostered human advancement and created who and what we are today. To abandon a preference for the brightest and best among us regardless of race is to abandon the most noble experiment ever undertaken by life itself.
There is a possible long term evolutionary alternative, we could become eusocial like certain insects, but I don’t want to be a termite, nor do I want the weak to inherit the earth. I would prefer that the wise do so, much as is happening in China today.
Since we are stuck with the poor and stupid the least we can do is to demonstrate our supposed superiority by giving them both opportunity and a safety net; but, if it were up to me I would give them neither unlimited reproductive freedom, nor the vote. That is how we got Trump.
It is obvious to me that stupid people with inflamed passions always make bad decisions regardless of where they fall along the political spectrum, and more information doesn’t help. The color of one’s skin is irrelevant. I suppose that makes me an elitist, but better to be an elitist realist than to be delusional about any hope that the democratic process will resolve mankind’s problems.
Perhaps we should just try being nice, but Nazis are neither nice nor superior, and that is the real reason why I don’t want them here.
The recent march was a total repudiation of everything the Alt Right stands for. It makes me proud that forty five years after the riots of 1972 the citizens of Hogtown still have the spirit of resistance. Then as now we are willing to fight for what is right!
Gentle reader: This is the first of a series of posts concerning the wonders to be found in Kanchanaburi province in western central Thailand. In Part 1 you will be reminded why you might have heard of Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai, and why so many dirty old men call the place home. Thereafter we will travel to the far corners of the province to explore it’s wild jungles, mountains, rivers, and caves, and to meet the strange and interesting people who live there.
Just so you know where we are, let’s see Kanchanaburi province in it’s regional context (here shown in black).
Seventy five years ago during the height of WWII the Yellow Peril was on the march!
Their plan then, like ours today, was world domination. Only one power stood in their way, the British empire; so, after trouncing China the Japs attacked the Brits in Burma.
They assured the Western world that their only goal was to secure material resources such as oil and rubber, but we were quite certain that their real purpose was to carry off our women.
At the time the Brits were busy with Hitler; furthermore, they never expected the Japs to be so ambitious, so resistance proved futile.
The Japanese had a variety of strategic objectives, but one of the most important was for their troops and supplies to avoid the perilous 2000 plus mile sea journey from China south to Singapore then north to Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). The Straights of Malacca were full of British warships dispatched from India so there had to be a better way.
At the time there was no direct way to get from Rangoon to Bangkok overland, a potential route that would solve many of their problems including giving them a backdoor to fight the remaining Chinese nationalists.
The distance was less than 400 miles so they decided to build a railroad connecting the two cities. The only problem was that impenetrable jungles, rivers, and mountains stood in their way.
Needless to say the Japs did none of the work; instead, they built the railroad on the dead bodies of some 13,000 Allied troops and over 100,000 non combatants such as Thai and Burmese peasants. Some died from being shot or hung, but most died due to starvation, disease, and snakebite.
This epic of endurance was immortalized in the book and subsequent movie, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.
It was all very romantic, plucky Brits cheerfully building the bridge then sabotaging it. The reality was quite different.
Are we having fun yet? Probably not!
The story might be nonsense, but the railroad and bridge are quite real despite the fact that the name of the river and the location of the bridge had to be changed some years later to conform to the movie, a case of art imitating life (or in this case death), then life imitating art on behalf of tourism. More on that here.
Where you might ask is this famous bridge located? In the bucolic burg of Kanchanaburi about 70 miles northwest of Bangkok, Thailand.
As you can see there really is a bridge, but it is a replacement, and it spans the Mae Khlong not the Kwai Noi. There really was a train.
I have a vague memory of having visited Kanchanaburi sometime in the 1980s, but as with the Sixties, it you can remember them you weren’t really there.
In 2009 I visited a magnificent cave in the remote and wonderful Chaloem Rattanakosin National Park. (That adventure will be recounted in Part 2 of this series), after which I continued on to Kanchanaburi.
At that time the town was overrun with Hippie backpackers who stayed at the numerous hostels and raft houses that line the river. My favorite was the Jolly Frog where a weary wanderer could find refuge for a grand total of six dollars, there to while away the day swilling beer, smoking joints, eating great food, and meeting mysterious fellow travelers from the far corners of the earth.
Here is a view across the river. Rather bucolic isn’t it? The red tint comes not from the setting sun but rather the incessant fires that are slowly but surely consuming southeast Asia.
The main street was lined with bars, brothels, and bookstores that catered to all comers.
But apparently not everyone was welcome. I was personally affronted!
Thailand has the world’s best regional cuisine, but one must accommodate the tastes of foreign travelers.
The more things change the more they remain the same. By 2016 the Hippies had thinned out, but foreign hordes were still coming to pollute the gene pool. There had been a demographic shift from young travelers to mostly middle aged Western men who come to Kanchanaburi to carry off Thai women, eat all the food, and drink all the beer.
Yupscale perverts may go to places like Pattaya in search of Ladyboys, but nasty grizzled old men on a low budget prefer to shop the brothels of K’burg in search of affordable over the hill diagonal poon.
Not over the hill but still reasonably priced! Klaus the Kraut is having plenty of fun, but he had to get up early to arrange a “date” with #59. By mid afternoon he invariably looks like this.
Most of the degenerates are Brits, Aussies, and Krauts, along with a smattering of Gringos and assorted Eurotrash. The Thais make no such distinctions between Westerners, all of whom are known as “Farang” (Often pronounced “Falang”).
The word Farang is etymologically interesting. It is derived from ‘Franc’ as in France. The arrogance of the French, and by extension all white men, has caused them to be hated by non white people throughout the world.
It all started with the Arabs who had good reason to hate the French. From there the word spread to Africa and the Middle East, then to Asia. So it is that variants of the word Farang may be now found in the languages of India, Pakistan, Persia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China, and in numerous indigenous tribal languages. All agree that the word applies to pasty faced perverts who come to abduct their women. I resemble that remark!
Most Farang get no further than the seedy strip of whorehouses and hotels along the river, but the western part of the province is still wild and beautiful. In the following parts of this series we will visit some of these wonderful places and meet the people who live there.