Springtime in the South 2018

Since the dawn of time the Wandering Weazel has undertaken an annual pilgrimage to the underbelly of the South; there to search for serpents, sniff magnolia blossoms, drive down dirt roads, and listen to the languorous drawl of those who still cling to a much maligned yet noble way of life. Though I live in Florida, an annex of Yankee imperialism, the deep South is and will always be my beloved home.

So it was that at the beginning of May Dr. Ann and I headed to the annual Southeastern Cave Carnival held near Scottsboro, Alabama. Scottsboro is in the northeastern part of the State adjacent to the southern terminus of the Cumberland plateau, the crumbling margins of which are riddled with caves, thus the choice of venue.

Northeastern Alabama is a gentle land where the cows are almost as fat as the people. You can blame Walmart and TV for that. Actually, to get to the root of things, it is better to blame the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) which electrified what had previously been the most backward and bucolic region of America. To celebrate my arrival I purchased a Moon Pie, but I drew the line at drinking an RC Cola lest I join the ranks of the legless obese who navigate the miles of aisles in motorized shopping carts.

Here you see a typical northern Alabama valley with the almost perfectly level top of the Cumberland plateau rising in the far distance.

The lonely road to Cathedral caverns

The Cave Carnival has no fixed location. It is held in a different place every year, wherever there are caves and a campground willing to accommodate rowdy cavers.  The 2018 Carnival had a very odd venue, a Christian retreat hard by the banks of the Tennessee river. By the standards of such gatherings it was a relatively small event with only about 350 attendees. How Christian was it?

Isn’t this a bit overt?

I shudder to imagine the admonitions of perverted Boy Scout leaders who implore their innocent scouts to “unsheathe the sword of the spirit” while “buckling on the chastity belt of truth”.

But the venue was not so Christian that we were prevented from having a foam party on Friday night. This was a first for the Weazel, but given the muddy nature of caving perhaps waist deep soap suds should be a regular feature at such events.

Mind alteration required

But enough of such silliness, we came to go caving, so in the morning we headed to Bluff river cave at the head of justly famous Big Coon holler where the coons really are big and the hills really are hollow.

The bowels of Bluff river cave

Years ago when I first headed up Big Coon valley in search of Bluff river cave I stopped to inquire at a general store where old men in bib overalls sat around actual cracker barrels. The residents were not particularly pleased to offer information. One finally spoke up to say, “You best not park anywhere up that holler. My brother lives up in Matthew’s cove and he don’t cotton to no outsiders. He was OK when he was drinkin’, but now he’s done started taking them drugs so there ain’t no tellin’ what he’s gonna do!” Not to worry, I fooled them all by driving my truck up the dry river bed and parked where my vehicle could be swept away by a flash flood but no one would ever find me.

An unidentified cave babe cups a crawdaddy

I was much dismayed to see no salamanders whatsoever. On my last trip to Bluff river the stream was full of Tennessee cave salamanders (Gyrinophilus palleucus), along with many bright orange  cave salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) on the walls, and duskies and slimies near the entrance. Now all were gone, probable victims of the emergent fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (the suffix vorans means “eater of”), a plague that has recently swept the world. I couldn’t care less about starvation in Africa, but I greatly bemoan the extinction of an interesting life form which has graced the earth for the last 300 million years.

After all the bubbles had popped and the tents had been torn down we headed to nearby Cathedral caverns, an Alabama State Park. We were delighted to discover that the Park is run by a clever old caver, and that we had the campground to ourselves. Our fearless tour guide was a bantam of a fellow named Rooster who kept the tourists in stitches with his wry comments. At one point I had to translate the second person pronoun “Y’all” for the Bostonians.

I rarely visit commercial caves, but Cathedral caverns is truly superlative. It features an enormous borehole that leads to a magnificent display of formations. There is even a column named “Goliath” that is an extraordinary 243 feet in circumference!

Incandescent lighting gives a yellowish cast to the otherwise white formations

Cathedral caverns is located in Kennamer cove. While out mountain biking I discovered the grave of old Hans Kennamer who was born in 1736 when Alabama was still a wilderness full of bears, panthers, wild Indians, and virgin forest. His numerous descendants return to this peaceful place every year. How tragic that so few of us have any regard for the past and the achievements of the pioneers, but in Alabama roots grow deep.

Not far away is a beautiful karst feature locally known as “the arch”.

The Arch near Honeycomb creek

Most rural landowners fill their sinkholes with garbage, but the owner of the Arch is an enlightened fellow who carefully revealed the inherent beauty of the site and even put in a set of stairs. The feature is located right in his front yard, yet he generously allows well behaved visitors to stop by anytime. Why is it so unusual for a rural landowner to appreciate the beauty of his or her land and be willing to share that beauty with others?

More often, beautiful places are entirely off limits until purchased by either the government or a civic minded conservancy. Such was the case with the magnificent Stephen’s Gap cave which is now owned by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. I am proud to be a sustaining member of the SCCi.

Stephen’s Gap is open to the public with an easily obtainable permit. There are two entrances, one of which is an easy walk in, but those who wish to rappel the 140 foot deep pit must be vertically competent, for people have died here.

A bad photo of Ann at Stephen’s gap

Enough of Christian camps and State Parks. We headed north to central Tennessee where a fellow caver generously allowed us let us camp on his private property near the confluence of Cane creek and the Caney fork river. The drainage of the Caney fork is my favorite place in the Cumberland plateau and features some of the most spectacular caves on earth.

Our camp directly faced a curving blue pool on Cane creek that is at least 800 feet long by 200 feet wide, and comes complete with a beach and old growth forest. Talk about a swimming hole! The photos do it no justice.

The big pool on Cane creek

Best of all the place was alive! In Alabama I has been dismayed by the invasive plants and general lack of life, but in central Tennessee the river was full of fish and the sky with birds. Insects hummed by day, and the night resounded with the calls of frogs and toads. Remember toads? Those friendly little guys that you should never lick? They were everywhere!

Of all the abundant life forms the geese were the most entertaining. Every morning squabbling squadrons would fly in from who knows where to create pandemonium. You could hear them a mile away. Notice the stone island in the pool above, that was where they played “king of the hill” while covertly engaging in wife swapping. And you thought they were monogamous!

Our camp was near a large spring that was the resurgence of one of the most spectacular caves in the Americas. I have never been to Rumbling falls cave,  and never intend to go. It is way too tough a trip for any old man other than the famous “Old Goat” Marion Smith who made the breakthrough to the top of the Rumble room. From there on the only way forward is straight down Stupendous pit. A mere 200 foot drop isn’t much as deep pits go, but the room below is truly stupendous. Here it is.

The Rumble room. Courtesy Stephen Alvarez

Rumbling falls cave is now over 17 miles long and continues to grow whenever an expedition pushes new leads. For those interested in the full story I recommend an excellent article in Sports illustrated by fellow caver Michael Ray Taylor who often writes for National Geographic. You will soon see that this is not the only cave in the vicinity with enormous rooms.

Cane creek and the Caney fork are full of wonders, the most easily accessible of which is the nearby Fall creek falls State Park.

Fall creek falls

At 256 feet Fall creek falls is considered to be the tallest single drop waterfall east of the Rockies (There are taller multi drop falls).

It is also one of the best places to observe the underlying geology of the Cumberland plateau, and to come to an understanding of how waterfalls form. As you can see in the above photo the top of the plateau is defined by an erosion resistant sandstone cap below which there are various softer strata, especially the easily soluble limestone in which the caves are formed. Here is a closeup of vertical fracturing in the sandstone layer.

Ann climbing a sandstone crack halfway to the bottom of Fall creek falls

Fall creek is a tributary of Cane creek. Few streams escape the top of the plateau without plunging over a waterfall, so here are the nearby Falls of Cane creek to the right, and the taller but smaller Rockhouse falls to the left.

Rockhouse fall on the left, and Cane creek falls on the right

The gorge of Cane creek is approximately 1000 feet deep. Though the area has been inhabited for hundreds of years, and numerous explorers and scientists have carefully combed the forested slopes, we know from hydrological data that numerous huge caves await discovery.

Looking down the gorge of Cane creek

About halfway between our camp and Fall creek falls there is a beautiful canyon known as Camp’s gulf. Since Revolutionary war days the local folks knew of an enormous cave entrance about a mile up the gulf. The short but massive passage had been mined for saltpeter and was a convenient site for a moonshine still, but that was all anyone knew until 1982 when a group of cavers decided to push the breakdown pile that blocked the end of the known cave.

It is hard for a non caver to comprehend what it is like to explore a gigantic pile of breakdown consisting of a jumble of rocks ranging in size from sand grains to boulders the size of a house, all of which are precariously balanced and ready to collapse. There is no obvious way forward. Perhaps the pile is a hundred feet deep, maybe it goes on forever, who knows? It is a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle with you as one of the pieces. All you can do is to wedge yourself through every possible crack in search of a breakthrough. So it was on that fateful day when an intrepid explorer peered through a crack near the ceiling and could see only darkness beyond.

I’ve been through that crack (now enlarged) several times. It is utterly disorienting to emerge from a narrow crevice into an underground void so large that even a powerful light cannot find the walls or ceiling. All you can see is the mist from your own breath and a floor of gigantic boulders disappearing into the darkness.

You turn back to memorize the crack from which you just emerged but it is gone! Everywhere you look there are identical cracks, all of which change appearance with the angle of the light. There are thousands upon thousands of them, but only one leads back to the sunlight. Cavers are careful to leave no trace of their passage, but in Camp’s gulf only a fool fails to leave a stone cairn by that obscure crack, or better still a small illuminated beacon.

The following photo was taken some years ago by a technologically savvy friend using my first digital camera. The camera was set to maximum sensitivity and the exposure time was over two minutes long, during which we “painted” the walls with powerful lights and set off numerous “slave” flashes. The photo is misleading in that I am standing in the foreground, not in the middle of the room. To grasp the size of the room notice the shadows of other people cast upon the back wall. The people themselves are sitting on a rock and are almost too small to be seen.

The first big room in Camp’s gulf cave

There are three even bigger rooms in Camp’s gulf, but I have not visited them. It appears that the entire mountain is hollow, but that is just one mountain. What of the others nearby? Almost all of the streams in the area run dry in the summer. All that water must be going somewhere.

It is my opinion that Rumbling falls, Camp’s gulf, and the many other  gigantic nearby caves are just old “fossil” passages which lie above an as yet undiscovered cave system that may be one of the world’s largest. This hypothetical system cannot be entered because it is full of alluvium, especially sandstone cap rock disintegrated into gravel, and the entire system is filled with water due to the base level of the rivers in central Tennessee.

Perhaps a few million years from now when mankind isn’t even a memory there will be renewed tectonic activity that lifts eastern North America far above its present level. Then the gravel will wash free and the great voids will be revealed, but not to us!

But on a beautiful day in May of 2018 Ann and I had no desire whatsoever to explore the cave. We were content merely to visit the magnificent entrance.

Ann standing at the entrance to camp’s gulf cave

We continued for another mile up the gulf to search for Cueva Guapa del Norte. We found two of the three entrances, both of which were shallow pits with small waterfalls. The cave is said to be several miles long. (Sorry for the exaggerated green, it isn’t slime, just my inability to program my camera.)

Cueva Guapa del Norte

I would be loathe to reveal the location of the nearby Medley arch, my favorite karst feature in the area, but the Park has published a map, and they have even marked a trail to this previously secret place.

Ann standing atop the Medley arch

Those few people who hike to the arch usually stop there, but there is much more to see. The arch is actually part of yet another enormous cave entrance that can only be seen from the sinkhole below. Have I used the word ‘enormous’ too many times? How else to describe such a place? For scale notice Ann standing atop the arch above, and by a triangular rock at the bottom center of the photo below.

Ann standing in the cave entrance below the Medley arch

And the weary old Weazel in the twilight zone (There are some who say I dwell there!)

After two weeks in the wilds of the Cumberland plateau I dropped Ann off at the Atlanta airport then continued on to the low country of South Carolina to meet my old snake hunting buddy Pete in the wretched sprawlopolis of Myrtle Beach, a place that exactly resembles Whorelando.

I begged to be given drugs and taken on a tour of the many miniature golf courses, but he refused and instead we visited the Meher Baba Center, the grounds of which include hundreds of acres of old growth forest fronting the beach. The land is worth millions, or perhaps even billions, but the wise kind people therein would never consider such a breach of trust. For them the land is sacred and suitable only for meditation.

From Myrtle Beach we traveled southwest to the Francis Marion National Forest to hunt for snakes. I will not bore you with photographs for it is not a pretty place, but it is alive! For reasons that I do not fully understand the herpetofauna has rebounded from the biological cataclysm that has eradicated most life throughout the southeast.

The Francis Marion National Forest is well managed. If it were up to the local authorities every tree would be cut down and sent to the paper mill in Georgetown, but the Feds manage the land for biodiversity, which means annual burning of the pine flatwoods. Between snakes and mosquitoes it is an unappealing place for the average Redneck, so we saw very few people while driving countless miles down dirt roads in search of serpents.

The big news is that we found six kingsnakes along with a canebrake rattlesnake and various other creepy crawlies. (Pete deserves all the credit for his relentless driving). It had been many years since I had last seen a kingsnake anywhere other than in a cage on my back porch. Here is a fine example.

The uncommon common kingsnake

You may have heard of “science denialism”, a phrase often heard in association with anthropogenic climate change. It is a perversion of rational thought often practiced by the superstitious ignorami, but not even scientists themselves are immune to presumption.

I have often been told by putative experts, foresters, ecologists, etc., that the magnificent live oak trees that surround my home here in Weazelworld, many of which are well over 20 feet in circumference, are only about 100 years old. I have been told that prior to the great freeze of 1894–95 my entire property was an orange grove. Others contend that for thousands of years it was all a long leaf pine savanna ecosystem until fire exclusion allowed oaks to grow.

I consider all such estimations to be nonsense, for my trees are clearly ancient, but how to prove it? The problem is that conventional dendrochronological methods do not work with live oaks because the annual growth rings are indistinct. Even radiocarbon dating is problematic. Other than girth the size of a tree means little for growth rates vary and storms often take a toll. The bottom line is that there is no good way to accurately estimate the age of a live oak tree, but we can make inferences based upon context, so let’s delve into a bit of history.

Hampton plantation is located along the Santee river in the heart of the South Carolina low country. It is one of the oldest and most magnificent plantations to be found anywhere in the old South. The enormous white pillared mansion was built in 1735. It is now a National Historic Landmark and open to the public. Ghosts are often seen by the credulous, and the balmy air is redolent with the musk of magnolias.

Would you care for a julep, Suh?

Perhaps you have read “Gone with the Wind”?  A great story with a brave heroine, but only a story. I cannot help but suppose that Margaret Mitchell based her novel on the amazing career of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a truly liberated woman who was born in the West Indies, started managing a plantation in the prerevolutionary wilderness at age 16, was a polymath who corresponded with the great minds of Europe in regard to scientific matters, revolutionized agriculture in the South, outlived her husbands, and owned three plantations, one of which was Hampton. All of this happened several generations before the time depicted in Gone with the Wind.

Why do feminists not laud this great woman? Is it because she owned slaves?

(Note to humanists: Not all people are equally capable of comprehending much less utilizing the abstract concept of freedom. Economic progress of any kind, especially that based upon agriculture in the preindustrial age, requires the exploitation of mindless drones whether they be field slaves or office workers. We have all benefited, including those said to have been exploited, so we are all complicit. Civilization requires hierarchy. It is, to use a much maligned phrase, “the natural order of things”.)

In 1791 President George Washington and his entourage set out on a great Southern tour by coach. The plan was to inspect the fertile lands of our new nation and to meet the leading citizens, especially those who had fought on behalf of the revolution. Hampton had given refuge to Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox”, so a visit was mandatory.

While the great man sat on the porch overlooking the expansive lawn and gardens he was asked, “Mr. President, should I cut down that oak tree to improve the view?” Washington asked that the tree be spared. Here it is today.

The Washington oak at Hampton plantation

As you may remember, George Washington was not a fellow who scrupled the cutting of trees, most famously cherry trees, but also the great cypress forests of the Dismal swamp. He was above all else a practical man, so why did he ask that this one live oak tree be spared?

Consider that in coastal South Carolina live oak trees were useless and innumerable, the wood good only for the ribs of sailing ships, and very few had the exact curvature required for that purpose. Most importantly they were an impediment to agriculture for nothing of value will grow in their shade. They were good for lining driveways and sitting under but nothing else. So why spare that one tree that was blocking the view? I can only conclude that in 1791 the tree was already a magnificent specimen, beautiful enough to be spared the ax.

It takes at least a hundred years for a live oak tree to reach full normal size. This fact can be easily established by correlating the known age of homes with the trees that were planted in the front yards. Such trees can be seen in old communities throughout the South.

White point gardens, Charleston SC

This waterfront park in Charleston was where nationalistic testosterone crazed idiots started the UnCivil war in 1861, 157 years ago. There were no trees here at that time because it was a battlefield. They have subsequently grown back. As you can see these are beautiful trees, but nothing like the old mossy oak spared by George Washington. If the tree in question was only as large as these trees I doubt that old George would even have had an opinion. I believe the tree must have been much larger and more beautiful than these puny 157 year old saplings to have received a presidential pardon.

So let’s do the math. Washington pardoned the tree 227 years ago. I contend that the tree must have been well over 200 years old at that time, so I would guesstimate the Washington oak to be between four to five hundred years of age, perhaps even older.

I did not measure the girth of the Washington oak, but it appears to be slightly larger in circumference than the biggest oaks here in Weazelworld. My largest is 23 feet in circumference at breast height, perhaps the Washington oak is 25 feet in circumference, so I can only conclude that the largest champion oaks are much older still.

So why would so called sober scientists insist upon underestimating the age of live oak trees on the basis of no evidence whatsoever? Perhaps because they are too sober? Fearful that the slightest admission of aesthetic sensibility might taint their reputations as automata?

One could well blame the educational system, for all those exposed to the utilitarian tenets of forestry must insist upon the ephemeral natural of all living things to so wantonly dispose of them.

I fear that it is something deeper and worse. As we inexorably morph into the termites of tomorrow we feel the need to rewrite history to serve our narrative of progress. We contend that mankind, the measure of all things, has always meddled in the affairs of the earth, and should. One might as well suppose, as Christians do, that all this was created for us. The age, indifference, and nobility of an oak makes a mockery of our hubris so we denigrate it.

Most importantly, the totalitarian narrative of “fairness” requires that we believe that the age of heroes was nothing but a story, that no one person or persons could have affected the course of history through force of will, that we are all equal, and all carried along by the tide of progress. One of our most revered prophets famously plagiarized, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice”.

There is evidence to support this contention. I look forward to reading “The Better Angels of our Nature”by Steven Pinker wherein he quantifies the improvements made by mankind over the course of history. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, it is a fact that we eat better, live longer, and are subjected to less violence than any of our predecessors. But is such “progress” either just, or more importantly wise? I think not.

We are the product of evolution red in fang and claw, but history clearly shows that some of us have at certain times and places risen above others both morally and materially. Throughout history we have celebrated such persons while the mass of men have rightly disappeared into oblivion. Now all of that, the real progress we have made in regard to both our genome and our civilization, is threatened by the great leveling that will reduce future generations to motes of undifferentiated dust in a biological desert.

Call me a dinosaur lumbering off to oblivion if you will, but I would much prefer to dwell in a world where women like Eliza Lucas Pinckney, and trees like the ancient oaks in my yard, are given the respect that they deserve.

PS: This just in. Speaking of heroes who have made the world a better place through inspiration and force of will, the Weazel mourns the passing of Dr. Thomas C. Emmel, Founder and Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Thomas C. Emmel (Image swiped from the Museum website)

Like all true naturalists Tom recognized his passion for butterflies and all things living and beautiful as a child, then devoted his entire life to sharing his discoveries and insights with others. He followed his dream which culminated in the creation of the McGuire Center, and especially the Butterfly Rainforest which I was honored to have designed and constructed under his leadership.

Tom died in Brazil at the age of 77. I don’t know the details, but can only hope that he died with butterfly net in hand, reaching for the skies with beauty in his eyes.

Here is the Weazel in situ at the Butterfly Rainforest with a Caligo butterfly  sucking sweat from his brow.



Discoveries in 2017: Return to Xibalba

In my previous post Discoveries in 2017: Bad Guacamole, I made reference to the Latin American literary tradition of “Magical realism“.

You may also remember that on several previous occasions we have discussed Xibalba, The Place of Fear.

Xibalba is a bizarre Mayan underworld wherein dwell the twelve Gods of Death. It is roughly analogous the the Christian concept of Hell, but even scarier, and none are exempt from its torments, not even the good.

You would do well to click the above link, and research other references, should you wish to understand more about the worldview of those for whom life is Hell and death even worse.

For example, here you see Ixquic, better known as “Blood girl” entangled in the coils of K’awiil the Serpent God as she is judged by the Overlords of Xibalba. This sort of thing happens every day, and “days” in  the eternal darkness can be thousands of years long.

Wish you were here!

It is written in the Popol Vu that that to overthrow the Lords and bring about the end of time one must first find a portal (Which is what this post is all about), then cross three rivers, one filled with scorpions, one with blood, and another with pus, all before the trials begin.

It is all very magical, but is it real?

Allow me to segue from the mythological to the quasi-mythological by reminiscing about the loss of my virginity in a Mexican border town whorehouse, a place later immortalized in the great Tarantino cult movie “From Dusk till Dawn“. It was my first introduction to Xibalba.

The year was 1967, the “Summer of Love”, a period so long past that the youth of today sometimes confuse it with the Maya Classical Period. Like so many of the restive youth of that time I was headed to California. We were stardust, we were golden, and we had to get ourselves back to the garden.

I rolled into Tucson to meet a friend there enrolled in college. We hatched a plan to go to the nearby Mexican border town of Nogales to purchase a “Donkey Flick”, which is to say a mythological movie depicting sex with a donkey. By the end of summer we planned to be back home in suburban Maryland; then, on Labor day at the Old Timers Reunion in West Virginia, an annual gathering of cavers, we would screen the movie in the Big Room of Sinnit cave. The impossibility of doing so was not a consideration.

Crossing the border was not a problem, no passport required, just a little mordida (Bribe). This was not my first trip to Mexico. A week earlier I had swum the Rio Grande in Big Bend Texas to become a reverse wetback.

I love it when any foreign country lives up to its stereotypes; so, I was pleased when, immediately upon parking my Momma’s Mustang in Nogales, a young boy rushed up to offer his sister, or better still his virgin mother! Shoeshine? Failing that, he would at least watch the car for a pittance, a wise investment without which the car would surely disappear, either at once or in pieces.

We were told that to purchase such a peculiar “pelicula” we would have to go to Boy’s Town which was located some distance away in the desert. “There, Senior, you can get anything you want!” If you have ever seen a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti western you can picture the scene.

We arrived as a flash flood was rampaging through the tiny village that consisted entirely of houses of ill repute. Cars and cattle were being swept down the aptly named Canal street. On either side of the submerged street scantily clad women hung off the second floor balconies of adobe buildings. They cheered as a brave cowboy in a big truck drove into the flood and attempted to rope the cattle.

I stood transfixed by the scene until a hideous Harpie who I had not previously noticed approached from behind, violently grabbed me by the crotch, and attempted to drag me away. She looked like a witch!

I was terrified, broke free, and ran down the street. On my left was a large building with garish flashing lights and loud music blaring from the open doors. I leapt inside and the witch desisted, for it was not her designated feeding ground.

I looked around, dazed and confused. Even more scantily clad women were buzzing like wasps around groups of drunken soldiers from nearby Fort Huachuca. I took a seat. At 19, though still a virgin, I was already a veteran of the Georgetown bar scene along the Potomac, so nothing seemed too unusual until an attractive young woman in a miniskirt suddenly straddled my knee, which happened to be where my hand was located. By the grace of Oztotl my palm was pointing up. My mind raced as my finger wiggled and I tried to comprehend what was happening. Was it a mollusk? Or could it be???

I will spare the gentle reader the gory details of what followed, but suffice it to say that four dollars and a drink were never better invested in a young man’s education. I owe a debt to that fine establishment which I consider to be my Alma mater.

The place later became known as the Titty Twister. About that time it was visited by Quentin Tarantino. He determined that the ladies who had been so eager to please were actually vampires working with the Hero Twins, popularly known as the Gecko Brothers, who sought to overthrow the Twelve Dark Lords. Their actual names are Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

The front of the Titty Twister
The rear of the Titty Twister provides easy access to Xibalba

Allow me to to offer contemporary photographic proof of the existence of Xibalba. The following very large monster was photographed on July 7, 2017 in Chisec, a tiny town almost solely inhabited by Indians nestled deep in the jungle covered mountains of Alta Verapaz. I later ascertained that the monster was some sort of Therapod dinosaur now extinct elsewhere.

An escapee from Xibalba

I was swallowed by the dinosaur feet first. Here you see me passing through the digestive tract on my way to the anus.

On my way from “where the sun don’t shine” to where it does

As you will soon see there were many more monsters, but I’m getting ahead of myself. My visit to Chisec was later in the trip.


You already have more proof of the existence of Xibalba than there is proof of Hell in the Bible; so, now we can return to nearby Raxruha where I had recently barfed up the last of my bad guacamole and was ready to resume travel. My next goal, the ostensible purpose of the entire trip, was to explore the magnificent Candelaria cave system which I had first glimpsed in 1976.

As you may remember from a previous post, at that time my future ex wife and I had traveled up the Rio de la Pasión during the Guatemalan civil war.

We ran out of river at Raxruha which was then much larger than it is today because it was filled with Kekchi refugees who had gathered along the newly constructed Franja Transversal del Norte (Northern Transversal Strip), a road project intended to subjugate the Indians for the purposes of resource extraction. Numerous massacres by government soldiers and paramilitaries had recently taken place so everyone was terrified.

The entire area had previously been inaccessible, so for most of the Kekchi it was their first exposure to the outside world. None had ever before seen a tall blond woman so she was regarded as a godlike creature, perhaps from another planet? The bravest of the children would creep forward to tentatively touch her hair to see if it was really made of gold.

I had never before seen such extraordinary karst, and so presumed that there were numerous caves. Asking where they were did no good because no one spoke Spanish and everyone was lost. A few recognized the word “cueva”, so when news spread that we were looking for caves people would all point in different directions. Eventually I found a Hispanic construction worker who authoritatively pointed to a path and said, “That way”.

The mountain appeared to be a monolith, but the path led to a hidden narrow defile between sheer cliffs. The path soon opened into an enormous dolina (sinkhole) that contained a Kekchi village that looked like something from a fairy tale, a place cut off from the outside world and lost in time. The stupendous cliffs that surrounded the village were pocked with large cave entrances. It could truly be said that the mountain was hollow and the inhabitants troglodytes.

No one knew we were there, so we followed a side path leading up to a saddle between the mountains. At the pass we discovered another large cave leading to one of the entrances overlooking the village. It was a window into another world. We sat for hours looking down upon the Maya as they toiled away at their traditional tasks.

I broke the reverie to further explore the cave. A twisting passage led upward to the very top of the mountain. The bone white limestone had been so deeply eroded that it resembled Swiss cheese. There was no soil whatsoever so the only vegetation consisted of the bizarre shapes of Tillandsia bulbosa, a Bromeliad so tough that it can grow on bare rock.

Here you see an example of Tillandsia bulbosa that I planted at the Butterfly Rainforest in honor of that visit to the mountaintop so many years ago

I had never before seen, or even imagined, such a wondrous place. Even now, more than forty years later, I remember it as a dream. Perhaps now you understand why I felt compelled to return.

I have carefully studied Alta Verapaz on both topo maps and Google Earth  but I have yet to rediscover the hollow mountain. I am, however, quite certain that it was near to, or part of, the vast Candelaria cave system which was unknown to the outside world at the time of my first visit.

The Candelaria cave system is one of the wonders of the world. The main passage containing the Candelaria river is now known to be over 22 kilometers long. It is possible, though difficult, to paddle the entire length which makes it the longest such traversable underground river on earth (I think?). The total length of the passages contained therein is estimated to be 80 kilometers.

Many of the passages are enormous, especially the ancient “fossil” passages that lie above the river and which may or may not be directly connected. There are numerous entrances to the system, and many of the vast upper chambers are beautifully illuminated by skylights.

High noon at Candelaria, the Weazel argues with the Overlords

These vast sky lit chambers were used by the Maya for ritual purposes during the classical period (A.D. 250 to 900). The faithful would make arduous treks from as far away as Tikal to commune with the Lords of Xibalba.

I was fortunate that Doctor Bojorquez, my host at the Hotel Cancuen in Raxruha, was the owner of the lowermost entrance to the system where the Candelaria river emerges from darkness to join the headwaters of the Rio de la Pasión. He had developed the resurgence as a tourist attraction which he called Balneario de los Naciemientos (Bathing place of the Springs).

Not far away is a fancy resort owned by the Frenchman who first revealed the Candelaria caves to the outside world. Other entrances further upstream are owned by Kekchi communities who jealously guard their sacred chambers.

Doctor Bojorquez kindly allowed me to camp at the Balneario. He even gave me a lift and a free tubing tour. It was a bucolic place where sheep and horses grazed verdant pastures, and blue water gushed from jungle covered mountains.

The Bathing Place of the Springs is just downstream from where the Rio Candelaria first sees the light of day

This pacific place was just what I needed to recover from bad guacamole, though I continued to suffer from Lyme disease and the broken bones and night sweats that kept me awake as I slept on the hard ground.

The kindly peasant family who served as caretakers shared their simple food with me every evening. They had a fine young son named Aaron who despite being only about ten years old served as cave guide, shepherd, and general roustabout. He was the proud keeper of the inner tubes used to float tourists through the cave.

Lord Aaron, Keeper of the Tubes

The boy was preternaturally bright and curious so I gave him my English/Spanish dictionary in the hope that he will go on to conquer the world. Too many times I have met exceptionally intelligent Maya children held back only by their humble circumstances.

Directly above the resurgence a small trail led steeply up the mountain to the entrance of a vast fossil passage, part of which you have already seen in the previous sky light photo. Here is the downstream entrance, photographed using natural light (I carried no flash equipment, and no caving gear other than a small headlamp).

The downstream entrance to a fossil segment of the Candelaria cave system. Note the vertical red bar representing a person

The scale of these passages is difficult to comprehend so I have added a red bar indicating the approximate height of a person standing in that location. You are not hallucinating, the surreal appearance of this and certain other photos is due to the use of in-camera High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology that combines three different photographs with different exposures. It adds additional depth and color saturation to enable the camera to “see” what the eye sees.

While searching Google Earth for the aforementioned ‘Lost village inside a hollow mountain’ (which I couldn’t find) I did discover a different remote village in an even larger sinkhole southwest of Raxruha. The name of the village is San Miguel Sechochoch. In the following slightly tilted image you are looking straight south from the lowlands of the Peten to the highlands of Alta Verapaz. Raxruha is in the lower left corner.

Looking north into the highlands of Alta Verapaz

Notice that to get to San Miguel it is necessary to pass through a narrow defile between karstic hills. It was a long walk for an old cripple, but since I was already at the Balneario I just had to do it! This is what it looks like in real life.

Who is this strange gringo? Where did he come from and why is he walking to our village? A missionary?

Notice that the 45 degree slope behind the people has been cleared. The Kekchi make use of every bit of land no matter how steep. It is impossible to use machines under such circumstances, so they labor long and hard for pennies a day. They seem never to tire of tortillas which is all they have.

From Raxruha I headed west, then south into the mountains to the nearby small town of Chisec. You have already seen some of the wildlife.

Looking south into Alta Verapaz with Chisec in the center

95% of the inhabitants of Chisec are Kekchi Maya. It is a very small place. The townies all speak Spanish, whereas many of their rural brethren do not.

This remote valley is a refugium for ancient customs and wildlife alike. That explains  the Therapod dinosaurs. For their own safety they, along with other otherwise extinct beasts such as Mammoths, are kept in a zoo like enclosure complete with a tiled pond for their bathing pleasure and mine.

The name of the facility is “The Virgin’s Ranch”. There were lots of virgins, Nuns who gather there to sip the sacramental wine and get jolly.

The Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) is an otherwise extinct species of mammoth that inhabited North America as far north as the northern United States and as far south as Costa Rica during the Pleistocene epoch. Their range is now restricted to Chisec.

As an apparent alien from another planet, I was graciously offered the use of an unoccupied cage which I found to be very comfortable.

The animals were tame, so children were invited to play amongst them. They especially enjoyed the slides which had apparently been made by large semi-aquatic animals, perhaps errant Amazonian otters. The surfaces of the slides were so rough that they would rip the ass off a rhinoceros, but that was not a deterrent.

Even more interesting was the fact that some of the slides ended not in the pool, but rather at the edge of a precipice above jagged rocks. The bones of beasts and children alike collected below, probably the result of ancient hunters driving them off the cliff. At least they were warned.

The sign says, “You use the facilities under your account and risk”,  but few of the children and none of the dinosaurs could read.

My first foray was to the Lagunas de Sepalau, a series of blue karst windows about ten miles east of town. I thumbed a ride from the village plaza.

Immediately upon entering the village of Sepalau I was captured by the Indians and told that I would not be allowed to visit the lagoons unless I payed an outrageous fee and hired a guide. This sort of extortion is the inevitable result of commie do-gooders informing Indians of their victim-hood. Otherwise they would not know.

The Lagunas de Sepalau
The pellucid blue waters of the lagoon are strangely devoid of life

As I have told you too many times already, I was sick and weak. I had failed to take a walking stick on my little jaunt, so when I stumbled I instinctively grabbed a small tree that turned out to be a spine palm. I live in terror of spine palms, this is why.

Bactris major (Image swiped)

This is an old trunk,  the young trunks are fuzzier, the spines even sharper, and brittle as glass. So it was that I sharpened my pocket knife to a razor point then spent several hours digging until my hand looked like hamburger.

Just north of Chisec there are two famous caves, Jul Iq and Bombil Pec, which are controlled by local Kekchi communities. The same commies referenced above apparently thought it would be a good idea to show the locations on Google Earth, but the good news is they got it completely wrong. Cavers never publish the locations of caves, for it only encourages idiots.

There was even a sign and parking area, then a swinging bridge across the beautiful Rio San Simon.  I expected to see a village, or at least a guard shack but there was nothing so I started hiking. I understand that poor rural people need to be reimbursed for the protection of their natural resources, so I would have been happy to pay, but there was no one to be seen.

The trail to Jul Iq

After about a mile I found the well marked entrance to Jul Iq. The  thoughtful folks had even fashioned crude steps going down into the muddy maw of the cave. It had been raining off and on for weeks so the outside was almost as muddy as the inside. I was wearing a tee shirt, shorts, and sandals, not good attire for caving in deep mud. My clothes were already filthy, but things were about to get much worse.

A really bad photo from just inside the entrance to Jul Iq

A well defined path led further down into the cave. It was heavily decorated with formations, but nothing special. The most interesting discovery was the track of a big cat, either jaguar or puma. Wildlife has been almost completely extirpated from the jungles of Guatemala, so big cats are rare.

As I was slogging back I realized that I had somehow missed an enormous side passage over a hundred feet in diameter. My view had been blocked by a small mountain of mud. Footholds had been hacked into the slime, so I climbed up and peered into the darkness beyond. A small skylight enabled me to see the enormous extent of the chamber which appeared to go on forever.

I was already covered with mud from the waist down, but to go further was a new commitment. One more step would have meant an uncontrolled slide with the very real possibility that I would not be able to return. As it was I was knee deep in mud and in danger of losing my sandals, so I beat a retreat.

Thus far I had  hiked through an agricultural landscape, but beyond Jul Iq the trail ascended the mountain into undisturbed jungle, the first I had seen in this overpopulated part of Guatemala.

I soon reached the lip of an enormous jungle filled pit. It wasn’t very deep, but a fall would have meant certain death. Some mad consultant had apparently advised the Indians to build a rickety wooden platform on the edge so tourists who had never been on rope in their lives could abseil into the cloud filled abyss. I wouldn’t even come near it.

Bombil Pec. Go ahead, you first, show me a double gainer!

Further on there was another way down. A wooden ladder had somehow been affixed to the cliff. It appeared to be well built, but the rungs were slick as glass, and there was no way to know which ones were rotten. If a fat Indian had gone first I might have tried it. The unknown beckoned but I was alone in the jungle, so I chose discretion over valor. It was a bitter defeat, but I didn’t get old by being stupid.

I must have been quite a sight as I trudged back into town. It was strange enough that an old Gringo had taken up residence, but one whose filthy rags hung in tatters from his mud covered body? Was I perhaps a penitent?

I was starving, but too filthy to enter a restaurant, so I joined the poorest of the poor at a stall next to the market selling sausages. They were delicious! So I bought beer and more sausages for all of mis compañeros too poor to afford anything but tortillas. That made me the new Hobo King; thereafter, whenever I walked past the market I was hailed as a hero!

An affordable restaurant

Those sausages must have held a secret. For the first time in many months I began to feel better! It was about damned time!

I decided to celebrate by having a real drink, but the only cantina in town was such a scary place that I quickly fled. It is a well known fact that Indians can’t hold their liquor, it isn’t a moral failing, just a lack of liver enzymes.

My trip was almost over but the best was yet to come. I had been dissatisfied with my brief visit to the downstream end of the Candalaria cave system, so I decided to visit the upstream end, specifically the insurgence near the village of Camposanto.

Where the Rio Candelaria begins its 22 kilometer journey through the darkness

Once again I was required to pay a fee and hire a “guide” who in this case was a teenager suffering from a terrible hangover. I got my money’s worth, because I could never have taken the following photo without someone to press the shutter button. I was using a mini tripod and timer so his ineptitude was not a problem.

Look closely and you will see a tiny red dot. That isn’t a vertical bar representing a person, that’s me in a red shirt standing atop a debris cone beneath a skylight!

Xibalba is real!

What poor peasant mired in ignorance and superstition would fail to heed the words of the High Priest in such a sublime cathedral where the terrors of Xibalba are manifest? All religion is based upon fear of the unknown, and from this rise our pathetic human attempts to find meaning in the void.

There are those who suppose that I am especially courageous to enter the unknown alone, there to meet the monsters of our primordial dreams, but that is not so, I have a healthy respect for real danger, especially my old foe gravity. It is simply that I am insatiably curious and have no fear of ghosts.

There was much more to see of the great Candelaria caves; but my time was growing short, so I crammed myself into a minibus and headed north to Sayaxche on the Rio de la Pasion where I had begun my journey to Xibalba so many years before. Though Sayaxche had grown considerably, I was pleased to see that it was still a shitty little town, and that the only way to cross the river was still by means of an overgrown dugout canoe.

Crossing the Rio de la Pasion

It was time for some rest and a phased reentry into the harsh reality of the modern world. Where better than the mythical island city of Flores (Flowers), a veritable paradise set deep in the jungles of the Peten.

The island of Flores as seen from atop the Mirador pyramid

At the dawn of time the first aboriginals to explore what was then an unfathomable wilderness discovered a magnificent blue lake. There, on a defensible island, they founded a city that has been continuously inhabited for the last 3000 years. Nojpetén, as it was then known, is said by some to be the oldest city in all of the Americas, its founding contemporaneous with the building of the Egyptian pyramids.

When the Spanish Conquistadores first discovered the “New World” the inhabitants, weakened by disease, offered little resistance. As the Spanish soldiers progressed the Maya withdrew deeper and deeper into the jungle. They made their final stand on the island fortress now known as Flores.

In 1541 their stronghold was attacked by the terrible Hernán Cortés who had already subdued the great Aztec civilization. He failed in the attempt. They captured his horse which they revered as a God, but it subsequently died due to a steady diet of meat, the only fare suitable for a deity. Even to this day there is a statue of the mythical beast standing by the shore.

The Maya held out for another 156 years until the city finally fell in 1697. From the ashes rose the city of Flores, a piece of old Spain frozen in time and lost deep in the jungles of Guatemala.

A typical street in Flores

Since then little has changed other than the advent of electricity and an inundation of travelers from around the world who come not because of the beauty of the city, but rather because it is a relatively safe base from which to visit the ruins of Tikal which receives some 800,000 visitors per year. That is a bit much for an island with a permanent population of about 2000.

So it was that I trudged the hilly cobblestone streets in search of a room. I was in despair until I discovered Los Amigos, a Hippie heaven! I was back on the “banana pancake circuit” and it was time to wash up, chow down, and oogle some Hippie chicks!

Los Amigos Hostel in Flores, Guatemala

The only room available was a tiny cubicle that opened directly on to the public area which was full of people and loud music. I was desperately afraid that I would not be able to sleep because of the noise. I was told not to worry for there was a 10 pm lights out policy. I didn’t believe a word of it. Since when do young cigarette smoking music loving Eurotrash go to bed at ten?

I was pleased and astonished when at 10 pm the lights went out and they wouldn’t serve me another drink. We were all urged to go to the disco upstairs that was open late. Disco? Oh, No!!! The music would surely reverberate through the walls!

There was little other choice so I went upstairs. The wooden door led to a narrow passage between ancient stone walls, then into a room with a sloping back wall that was surely part of a pyramid.

Apparently Xibalba would not let go, for it was clear that I was back in the Titty Twister! The bartender gave me a wink and offered me a free drink.

Eh Gringo, how about a drink?

It was a bizarre scene as footage from Burning Man played on a big screen, lesbians wriggled in a heap, and translucent Dutch girls played beer pong. I felt right at home, and best of all not a sound escaped from the sacred chamber deep within the pyramid. No one can hear your screams!

One morning a shriveled old fisherman came to the Hostel holding a hostage. It was his practice to offer crocodiles and turtles to the tourists in the hope that they would bargain for the lives of these unfortunates. Either pay up or they go into the stewpot! I’ve always been a sucker for a turtle, especially a giant Staurotypus stinkpot!

The Weazel saves a stinkpot from the stewpot

I found the owner Jeronimo to be a fine fellow, a feral Dutchman who could not suffer the stultifying civilization of his homeland. He supported my effort to save the stinkpot, but it would do no good to just throw it back in the lake for it would surely be caught again. He offered the services of his panel van to take it to a different protected lake.

The van had an interesting history. The old heap had been purchased by Spanish Hippies in northern Mexico. They had intended to drive the length of Central America, but when they got to El Salvador a drug gang saw how dilapidated it was and thought it belonged to rival Narcos so they set off in hot pursuit with guns blazing. The van crashed into a ditch and the Hippies were kidnapped. Penniless kidnap victims are usually executed, but by some miracle they were spared and fled for their lives. When Jeronimo met them they gave him the van which they considered to be cursed.

But all things must come to an end. I returned to Belize for one last wallow in nostalgia. I have always had a love/hate relationship with Caye Caulker where I was once known as Captain Morgan for my piratical proclivities. I feared that it had changed, and so it had. Most of the Rasta gangsters had either been shot or imprisoned, the population had quadrupled, and numerous hotels had been built. There was little hope that my beautiful little campsite among the coconut palms still existed.

I inquired at the dock, but no one had heard of Tony Vega’s. I remembered that it was very near the dock, but so much had changed that I walked right by never noticing the overgrown lot still inhabited by a wizened old woman. It was like I had never left.

My campsite in Caye Caulker

Enough, I’m tearing up and must be done with this. Goodbye for now my friends, and may your trials be easy when it is your turn to stand before the Lords of Xibalba.


Discoveries in 2017: Bad Guacamole

Armchair explorers take heart, for we have come to the penultimate installment of the Weazel’s many adventures in the summer of 2017 AD (Anno Diaboli).

I offer this missive to you on my 70th birthday. I hope you will agree that this narrative serves as proof that I have accomplished my life’s primary goal, to grow up to be a tough old man!

As you may remember, I was sick as a dog and suffering from various injuries when I decided to undertake an arduous backpacking trip to Belize and Guatemala at the onset of the rainy season.

In Discoveries in 2017: Part 2, Back to Belize I chronicled my adventures in Five Blues Lake, Gales Point, the Bladen branch of the Monkey river, and the funky little town of Punta Gorda.

Thereafter, just to confuse you, I posted two chronological incongruities.

In Discoveries in 2017: Part 3, Why Guatemala? I reminisced about our extraordinary adventures in 1992 when Dr. Ann and I explored the Moho river of southern Belize. We then then continued on to Alta Verapaz, Guatemala where we visited a scalding hot waterfall, explored the lower reaches of the Rio Cahabon, then crossed the Sierra de Santa Cruz to visit the sublimely beautiful Semuc Champey.

In Discoveries in 2017: Part 4, The Origin of Mankind we returned to Belize in 1999 to explore the Swasey Branch of the Monkey river with three Maya Indians who spoke English. This journey enabled us to learn something of the weird Mayan belief systems, especially their belief in Xibalba, the “Place of Fear”.

In this post we return to late June of 2017, at which time the weary Weazel found himself back in the quaint little town of Punta Gorda, better known as PeeGee, in southern Belize. Alas, I was alone, for my sweet Ann could not join me on this adventure.

I had planned to spend only one night in PeeGee before continuing on to Guatemala; but, three days earlier I had taken a bad fall in a shower stall and had reinjured my already broken ribs and shoulder. To make bad matters worse, I was still ill from Lyme disease and what I had presumed to be Histoplasmosis. (Recent lab tests have revealed that what I actually had (have?) may be Coccidioidomycosis, a similar fungal illness also known as Valley fever.) I was not a happy camper, and so weak I needed assistance carrying my pack down the stairs of my filthy little flophouse.

PeeGee is quite literally at the end of the road. The only way to get to Livingston Guatemala is by boat. Livingston isn’t an island, just cut off from the rest of the country by mountains, rivers, and jungles.

There is regularly scheduled boat service between PeeGee and Livingston, but demand exceeds capacity so there are also unscheduled skiffs that make the twenty mile journey across the Bahía de Amatique. The skiff was leaky and dangerous but it only cost $20, not a bad deal for transportation across an international frontier.

The culture of Livingstone 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), dreadlocks are the tonsorial preference, and everyone lounges around smoking dope while panhandling and occasionally pretending to fish.

Main street Livingston, no cars and friendly female cops, my kind of place!

The real business of Livingston is partying, and the party never stops. On a previous trip 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!

It is such a fun place that when I returned in 2017 all the hotels were full even though it was the height of the rainy season. After debarking from the skiff and getting my passport stamped I wandered the streets groaning under the weight of my pack. Most wandering Hippies stay at the Casa Iguana, but like I said, the party never stops and I needed rest, so I trudged on, being pestered continuously by Rastas, until I found a place directly across from the police station where dope smoking wasn’t permitted but at least there wasn’t any music.

I was too feeble to do much so I wandered up the lonely diaper strewn coast hoping to discover the fate of my old friend William the Snakeman.

No condos in Quehueche yet!

I was disappointed to learn that William had died several years previously. He was an extraordinary man, a feral Frenchman who had been sent to Devil’s island in his youth, probably for murder. After his release he wandered the jungles of French Guiana searching for gold until his barefooted peregrinations took him all the way from South America to Quehueche just north of Livingston. There he settled down, took a Garifuna wife, and collected snakes. The locals regarded him as a powerful Brujo (Witch doctor).

William the Snakeman

Thought my feet were sore I continued trudging up the beach to Siete Altares (Seven Altars), a travertine stream where I once found a beautiful naked french woman bathing alone in one of the pools. She never missed a stroke, nor did I later when privately reminiscing about the encounter.

The seventh pool at Siete altares.

After a few days in Livingston I headed inland up the magnificent canyon of the Rio Dulce (Sweet river). When the conquistadors first found the blue waters pouring from between gigantic cliffs they were certain that it was the gate to paradise, or at the very least that it would lead them to El Dorado. Even today the waters are still blue, though not as blue as they should be.

The Rio Dulce gave the Spanish access to the heart of the Mayan empire (image swiped)

I told the Captain to drop me at Casa Perico (Home of the Little Parrot), and I was not disappointed.

The Casa Perico near Rio Dulce Guatemala

Casa Perico is located at the end of a small creek in the middle of a swamp. There is no dry land and it is only accessible by boat. It is a bit pricey at $US15/night, but the rooms are comfortable and the food superb. The owner is a grumpy Swiss German who serves the best schnitzel in the jungle! The surrounding swamp forest is adorned with magnificent orchids and bromeliads.

Pterocarpus forest along the Rio Dulce

The photo above makes the place look wild and remote, but when I reached terra firma I was dismayed to discover that the entire area had been converted to either oil palm or rubber plantations. The jungle had been completely destroyed and the inhabitants had been reduced from independent peasant farmers to plantation slaves. Not even fruit trees had been spared. Most tragically, all the cohune palms have been cut down so a poor man can no longer build a thatch roof to keep his family dry. Now everything, including food and roofing material, must be purchased from the company store.

Living the dream on a rubber plantation

I wandered back to the water’s edge and was astounded to discover ostentatious wealth. Every place where dry land met deep water some millionaire had built a second home complete with a yacht. I later learned that Guatemala has the world’s highest rate of private helicopter ownership. In Guatemala the rich are super rich compared to everyone else. This extreme disparity of wealth is no doubt what drives the many revolutions, none of which have ever accomplished anything other than to increase the suffering of the people.

This yacht is worth more than the entire combined income of all the local plantation workers.

Not even a belly full of schnitzel could cure my ills. I was still sick as a dog and in great pain from my recent injuries. Sleep was nearly impossible because of my newly rebroken ribs and shoulder; furthermore, I was getting fat at the Little Parrot so I decided to press on to the town of Rio Dulce, and from there take buses into the interior.

After a most unpleasant ride in a dangerously overstuffed mini bus my next stop was at the Oasis Chiyu, an obscure little homestay for Hippies run by a Japanese American couple. It is located in the middle of nowhere near the little village of Las Conchas along the Rio Chiyu. The owner picked me up at the turnoff on the main road or I would never have gotten there.

Felipe is a strange and interesting fellow who looks Hispanic, or perhaps east Indian, but is actually a Gringo from Philadelphia. He was desperate for anyone to talk to, and pines for a Philly cheese steak. His wife is a beautiful demure Japanese woman and they have an adorable eleven year old daughter who is fluent in four languages.

Hanna, Miho, and Felipe guard my woefully heavy backpack. They really are living the dream!

No one can find the place so the family is very poor; despite that they have created a little paradise with friendly farm animals, flowers, and a profusion of tropical fruits.  They would gladly have offered me a room in their home but I’m a cheapskate so I set up camp in the pasture dangerously close to the river.

My camp at the Oasis Chiyu, much too close to the river!

The attraction is the beautiful Rio Chiyu which features an endless series of travertine waterfalls and pools. The river is blue in the dry season, but I was there at the beginning of the rainy season so the river was brown and ripping!

Las Conchas park, a popular place for drunken Indians to throw trash and drown.

I had grown increasingly dismayed by the lack of primary rainforest in this part of Guatemala, all due to overpopulation, so Felipe told me there was a small patch of real jungle on the other side of the river but it was difficult to get to. Had I the cojones I could have crossed the river like this fisherman.

You have to know where to put your feet!

I was feeling way too feeble for all that, so I decided to explore a delightful small tributary instead. Like all the streams in this area the water was naturally blue and so saturated with calcium that it forms a series of level travertine dams. The same thing happens along the Rio Chiyu but on a much larger scale.

A typical karst stream flowing through a remnant patch of rainforest

Thus far I had found very few snakes, but just upstream along the creek I got a glimpse of an enormous serpent that was much too fast for me to catch. It was a beautiful animal more than eight feet long.

Spilotes pullatus, the Tiger ratsnake, giving a threat display (Image swiped off the web)

From the Oasis Chiyu I continued my journey west along the base of the mountains until I reached Raxruha which had grown from a village into a grubby little town. It had been more than forty years since I last visited this magical place during the Guatemalan civil war.

I was still sick and despaired of finding a place to stay until I discovered a nice hotel on the edge of town. The Hotel Cancuen was very comfortable, and I was delighted to learn that it was owned by a well respected doctor and managed by his son Cesar who spoke perfect English. Best of all, the Bojorquez family also owned one of the many entrances to the magnificent Candelaria cave system, the exploration of which was the ostensible purpose of my entire trip!

Doctor Bojorquez proved to be a fine gentleman of the old school, a broadly educated aristocrat of ancient blood who owns extensive holdings throughout the area. He is kind and generous to those who work his lands and has earned the respect of all.

No sooner had I collapsed into my much needed bed when Doctor Bojorquez announced that an archaeologist friend of his had arrived from Spain to continue the excavation of Cancuen, (Not to be confused with Cancun!) the extensive Mayan ruins after which the hotel was named. The ruins are difficult of access and not open to the public so it was a golden opportunity to see archaeology in action.

The following morning I joined a group of men in a heavy truck filled with supplies and we drove to a landing on the Rio de la Pasion, the same river I had traveled up more than forty long years ago. At that time I had no knowledge of the ruins of Cancuen.

A very strong man!

The little man seen above doesn’t look very strong, but I watched in amazement as he carried three bags of cement at a time on his shoulders from the truck down the steep riverbank to the boat. Then he carried impossibly heavy barrels of diesel fuel using nothing but his hands behind his back and tumpline around his forehead. It is by such means that his distant ancestors built gigantic pyramids.

We traveled several miles downstream until we reached primary forest on the right bank and were greeted by a chorus of howler monkeys. The landing was a steep set of stairs cut into the mud but the men had no more problem carrying the heavy loads up the bank than they had going down.

I set up camp under a thatched hut high above the river. It had been raining incessantly for days and the entire site was a muddy mess. Worst of all there were clouds of disease carrying Anopheles mosquitoes. A better place to catch malaria could not be imagined.

Most Mayan cities were built for quasi-religious purposes, or to demonstrate the wealth and power of a great ruler, so why had the ancient Maya built a city in such a wretched place?

The Maya were the most culturally advanced people in the new world. They were masters of astronomy and mathematics and built vast cities adorned with elaborate sculptures. They even had a written language. Yet for all that they were poor builders and didn’t even understand the utility of the wheel.

The locations of many Mayan ruins seem senseless. It was difficult for me to understand why the city had not been not built in the foothills where solid rock could provide a foundation. It apparently never occurred to them not to erect enormous stone buildings on a footing of mud. Many such ruins are located in places without a reliable water supply, so I can only conclude that there were superstitious rather than pragmatic reasons for their locations.

Even more inexplicable than the lack of the wheel is the fact that the Maya never discovered the principle of the compressive arch. Instead, they  built corbelled arches which never work. Here is an example.

A corbeled arch that hasn’t collapsed yet, but it will!

As a result of mud foundations and corbelled arches almost all of the buildings have collapsed.

The ruins were scattered over a large area. Some were merely mounds of rubble covered in jungle, but others had been excavated by Vanderbilt University. Some years earlier they had tried to turn the site into a tourist attraction but the jungle swallowed their best efforts and now only moldy trilingual signs remain.

I had to laugh when I came to a sign next to a gigantic Ceiba tree that explained that Ceibas were sacred to the Maya, a link between the heavens and Xibalba, and that the tree was over 200 years old. 2000 years is more like it!

The weary Weazel stands next to a tree even older than he is.

There were many buildings in addition to the ruler’s residence, a reconstruction of which is shown below along with the location of the reservoir.

The reservoir was well constructed. When excavated it revealed the secret of the fall of Cancuen.

The reservoir of Cancuen

Cancuen grew wealthy due to trade between the lowlands of the Peten and the highlands of Alta Verapaz. Jade, obsidian, gold, quetzal feathers, jaguar pelts, corn and slaves were transported by dugout canoes up and down the river, thus making the ruling family of Cancuen fabulously rich.

Around the year 800 AD the current ruler Kan Maax was behaving like a stone age Donald Trump so the people rose up and slaughtered him and his entire family.

The unhappy peasants had labored for many generations to build the city, but the city and it’s riches meant nothing to them, all they wanted was a little rest, corn enough to eat, and not to have their daughters be sacrificed as virgins. They had no use for gold and jade so when the revolution came the royal family was dressed in their finest before being chucked into the reservoir. Thus clad in feathers and pearls they no doubt entered Xibalba in high style!

Archaeologists try hard to distance themselves from “treasure hunters”, and thus downplay the value of the artifacts, but imagine the impact on contemporary Guatemalan peasants when archaeologists unearthed the corpses of thirty one members of the royal family all dressed to the gills in gold and jade! It is for this reason that any unguarded ruin is certain to be looted.

One might suppose that the Maya people would have respect for the accomplishments of their ancestors, but past glory means nothing to a man whose family is hungry today. So it will be in the post apocalyptic future when the starving peasants of tomorrow ignore the broken remnants of our technological toys to exhume an ancient bomb shelter and discover a can of beans. What treasure!

The ruins were extensive, and many were still lost in the jungle, so I planned to spend several days at the site despite the pouring rain and hordes of mosquitoes.

The staff consisted of poor but very hardworking and intelligent peasants whose living conditions were not much improved over those of their ancestors. Whenever they weren’t slaving away in the jungle they reclined in hammocks. While sleeping they were protected by mosquito nets, but spending every spare moment in a cocoon quickly grows old, so during the day they lay in a pall of toxic smoke created by oily burning palm nuts. The smell of this carcinogenic cloud was insufferable, but to them it beat being eaten alive.

Despite the rigors of their meager existence they were friendly, welcoming, and invited me to lunch. So it was that I was served the first and only bowl of guacamole that I have ever had in Guacamolia. It was delicious!

As you may remember, I was already sick as a dog with a lingering illness, so when a new gastrointestinal illness struck after having lunch I had no choice but to head back to Raxruha. That would otherwise have been impossible, but I was in luck, the Spanish site administrator had just returned with a new boatload of supplies.

Nobody wants to deal with a dead Gringo, too many forms to fill out, so he hastened to arrange an evacuation while I continued evacuating my guts. By the time I had taken down my tent the boat was ready to take me back to “civilization”.  The problem was that the boat landing was in a village nowhere near Raxruha so I had to wait for a taxista who had been summoned from town.

As I lay there on a broken concrete slab by the riverbank puking and writhing I was reminded of the immortal words of Zippy the Pinhead who, like me, often had trouble distinguishing good from bad and pleasure from pain; so, to no one in particular, I gurgled out, “Are we having fun yet”? From this the villagers correctly concluded that I was delirious.

The affliction proved to be short lived, so after a few days at the Hotel Cancuen my guts were somewhat better even if the rest of me was not. This setback afforded me an opportunity to explore the wretched little town of Raxruha.

Despite the never ending rain people had come from miles around to attend a festival at the local Catholic church. All were dressed in their finest attire. The women all wore traditional huipiles (embroidered blouses) and long skirts. Many of the men sported pointy cowboy boots and ten gallon hats; whereas, those with pretensions had gone button down Yuppie.

The Catholic church in Raxruha

I have no idea what the festival was about since all the signs were in Kekchi. Many of the Kekchi people have recently converted to Protestantism, but that does not prevent them from going to a Catholic church to practice idolatry by worshiping the Saints. A previously discussed, they also worship various pagan deities. They are careful not to offend the genius loci that inhabit the mountains, trees, rivers, and fields, and pay due homage to the tutelary spirits who protect their humble homes. Belief in Xibalba is an unspoken given. What the hell is the difference between Hell and Xibalba anyway? The sentiment is the same, so it is better just to cover all your bases.

Perhaps the real reason is that it is fun to dress up and go to town to meet your friends!

Girls giggle everywhere on earth
Such beautiful ladies!

After the fiesta people headed home to the hills. For many it was a long walk, both in distance and in time. Where the road ends they will continue walking on tiny paths back into the timeless ways of their ancestors. It is hardly surprising that Latin America has a literary tradition of “magical realism”, for such is their world.

Party over.

As you can see, the mountains of Alta Verapaz crowd close to Raxruha. Tropical karst hills of this sort are among the most complex landscapes on earth. There are azure streams, towering cliffs, vast caverns, verdant jungle, and lost villages. It is a land of myth and mystery. I had come all this way to explore these mountains, so prepare to get magically real when we Return to Xibalba in the final installment of our thrilling adventure!

A beautiful day!

(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.

The skimmers weren’t skimming

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.

Weazel contemplates the universe.

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.

An unnamed island off Cedar Key. The ripples are from my kayak.

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.

The northern end of Cedar point.

I paused to reminisce about an old girlfriend I had once taken here.

Carol Sweeney

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.

It worked for me on that beautiful day!


Discoveries in 2017: Part 4, The Origin of Mankind

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.

Athonasio at home in Red Bank, belize

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!

Julio with a heavy load
Alberto is strong as an ox and fears only the tommygoff!

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!

Breakfast rock camp on the Swasey branch of the Monkey river

It was here that we met a party of fishermen returning to Red Bank.

The Swasey is full of fish!

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.

Swasey fish. From the top Tuba, Machaca, and Bay snook

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.

Aquatic plants growing in the Swasey

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.

A Podostem from Brazil, courtesy http://birdingblogs.com/2011/richhoyer/that-cristalino-montage-%E2%80%93-row-1/rhyncholacis-sp
Podostems in bloom on the Cano Cristales in Colombia. Courtesy http://www.cano-cristales.com/portfolio_page/cano-cristales-sector-los-ochos-colombia/

We soon arrived at our base camp, the beautiful Swasey stopper falls. From there on the going got rough.

Ann at the Swasey stopper falls

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.

Athonasio smoking out the gibnut

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.

A Tommygoff, Bothrops asper

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.

Xenodon rabdocephalus, the so called “Female Tommygoff” or “False Fer de Lance”

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.

Micrurus hippocrepis, the Mayan coral snake

Progress was slow, so Ann decided to cut loose and swim up the raging river. She made better time than we did!

Ann airborne in the upper Swasey gorge

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.

Ann at Double falls creek

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.

A trifecta of delicious fish, machaca, bay snook, and tuba, plus a gibnut!

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.

A King vulture head swiped from the web. The rest of this huge bird is white with black wingtips

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!

H.M. Herget’s image of the ancient Maya virgin sacrifice at Chichén Itzá’s sacred well, published in 1936 in the National Geographic Magazine
Image stolen from Hell

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!”



Discoveries in 2017: Part 3, Why Guatemala?

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!

The Moho river of southern Belize

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!

Following the Moho on foot

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!

Ann dancing in the streets of Livingston Guatemala

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.

The crowd noticed us then pointed and laughed. No problem, it was all in fun, just a reminder that, “We know who you are and what your people have done to us“.

Things got even weirder when the circus arrived.

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.

Another one bites the dust!

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.

Ann swims through the cave with an open flame.
Soggy Ann in the blue marble cave

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.

Weazel in a tippy dugout on the Boqueron

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.

A skinny Weazel with a fat boa!

As we were coming down the mountain we could see the beautiful Rio Cahabon far below.

The Rio Cahabon

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.

Like a snake the Rio Cahabon is pretty but dangerous!

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.

Where the trail ends along the Rio Cahabon

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!

The Weazel heads down the Rio Cahabon. Notice my wretchedly huge pack!

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.

The Sierra de Santa Cruz, Guatemala

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 Guatemala, image swiped off the web from adventuretogether.com

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?”

Our porters cross the Rio Chiacte on a bridge mostly made of barbed wire

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.

Chijolom, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

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.

Jul Mas Nim cave near Yalijux Guatemala

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.

A poor family in Yalijux, Guatemala

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.

A Mayan ball court near Chijolom Guatemala

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”.

Semuc Champey,. Image swiped from Wiki

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?

Another stolen image of Semuc Champey. These pools are above the river.

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.

Where the Rio Cahabon sinks beneath Semuc Champey

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.

Wild jungle on the Rio Cahabon

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!



Discoveries in 2017: Part 2, Back to Belize

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.

My happy home at Monkey Bay

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.

Five Blues Lake when I first saw it from the air in 1996
A “Tommygoff” (Bothrops asper) one of the deadliest snakes in the world!

And where might one find such a deadly ankle nipper? Right next to your foot of course!

Our hero at the entrance to the Duende caves

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.

Five blues is a hydrological mystery. it disappears then reappears for no known reason.

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.

Brother Moses, AKA Alan Andrewin, bard of Gales Point

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.

Leroy is a smart and powerful man, don’t mess with him!

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.

A typical house in Gales Point

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!

After the modern world collapses the ability to sail will once again be a useful skill

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.

Many wild eyed romantics come to Belize to find their fortune but almost all fail. Through perseverance and hard work Jacob has managed to carve out a jungle empire called BFREE (Belize Foundation for Environment and Education).

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.

The beautiful blue Bladen branch, a rainforest wilderness

But to get to BFREE one must first cross the savanna.

Looking west across the savanna at the Maya mountains

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.

My happy home in the jungle, much better than a hospital bed!

For the first week I was too debilitated to do anything other than to walk the already established trails.

Three iconic trees: Giant Ceiba, Gumbo Limbo, and Cohune palm

I especially enjoyed the weird crocodile filled lagoon, here seen in the dry season.

When the rains come the lagoon will bloom and the crocodiles will get get frisky!

There were perfectly good bathing facilities at the research station, but the beautiful blue pool was only a kilometer away.

The first blue pool of the Bladen marks the beginning of the wilderness.

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 Rash points out a Breadnut tree, Brosmium alicastrum, the food of his ancestors

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!

The weary Weazel pauses for a sip at redwater spring crossing

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.

My camp at the double pool of the Bladen. Notice my little camp chair across the river.

Much of my time was spent swimming.

Nothing to worry about in the Bladen other than titty biting billum fish

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.

Ficus sp.

On our way back we visited the entrance of a cave that holds the secret of the Bladen.

The cave that is the source of redwater spring

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.

A typical storefront in PeeGee. You too can be beautiful!

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 with a big blue crab. He ain’t skairt but he should be!

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.

Emmeth Young of the Talla Walla band is justly famous.
Emmeth Young’s studio with Rasta Dean sitting in on the left.

We went back by way of a shortcut.

See the machete blaze marks? Town is this way Rasta Dean, just follow me!

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!



Discoveries in 2017: Part 1, Oy Vey! The Weazel is a Goy!

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%
Ireland/Scotland/Wales 26%
Scandinavia 12%
Iberian Peninsula 10%
Europe West 5%

Low Confidence Regions:

Finland/Northwest Russia 5%
Europe East 4%
Caucasus 3%
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.

Claws are OK, but please no vagina dentata!

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 J, the Weazel, and Dr. Ann

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.

Take that you damned Nazi!

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.

Steinhatchee rise

Several miles further downstream the river flows over a small waterfall, one of the few in Florida.

Steinhatchee falls

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.

A natural bridge spanning a small karst window along Sand creek

Go ahead and take a dip. No telling what you might find, probably one of these!

Agkistrodon piscivorus. better known as the bad ass arm thick ankle nipper!

Not to be confused with this bucket of harmless Brown water snakes.

Nerodia taxispilota, not a moccasin!

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.

But why is her mouth shaped that way? Does she have a harelip?
LaKeisha is shy cuz her momma was a crackhead









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!

Amanita flavoconia?

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.

There were plenty more where these came from! (Image swiped)

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.

Fishing but not catching at Hog island

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!

Look for the little snouts and tails sticking out!

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.

Tunnel springs north of Monroeville, AL

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.

Nobody home but us ghosts.

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.

Selma at high noon.

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.

Restoration? Now there’s an idea!

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.

A monument in honor of “Our Mothers, the women of the Confederacy”
Pete bikes past an obelisk honoring victims of the war of northern aggression.

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.

Whoda thunk there were green hills and blue lakes in far southwestern Alabama?

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)




Kanchanaburi: Part 4, Khao Laem National Park

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.

Thai women, presumably Muslims, sweep the lawn

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.

The leaves aren’t really blue, but with a blue sky and blue water my camera got confused.

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.

The trees were adorned with orchids

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.

Dendocalamus giganteus

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!

Salacca sp.

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.

Lasia spinosa? or perhaps Pycnospatha?

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.

People are people

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.

Golden Buddhas are a dime a dozen in Thailand, but jade green is special!

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.

So Prongdoodle, are you any closer to enlightenment yet?

That was when I discovered a most intriguing path leading into the forest. Ann and Dave had disappeared so I continued on alone.

This way to Oz

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.

Nobody home, not even the Hobbits

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.

It’s a dog’s life in Thailand where even a mangy cur gets food and affection

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!



Kanchanaburi: Part 3, Three Pagodas Pass

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.

Kanchanaburi province and surrounding areas

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.

Thai tourists on the Mon bridge release a hot air balloon for good luck!

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?

Dr. Ann and Dave go for a stroll in the streets of Sangkhlaburi

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.

The proud Mon people don’t slouch!

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.

A typical Mon shop

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.

Mendicant Monks and stray dogs are ubiquitous throughout southeast Asia

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.

Welcome! Now go back to wherever you came from.

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.

On the Thai/Myanmar frontier the old and new coexist uneasily

Why would such a magnificent temple be abandoned?

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

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.

Image swiped from the web

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.

Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan

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.

Ann in Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan

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.

And to my left you see the void of nothingness

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.

Feel free to sit until your butt hurts and your head clears

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!

The back entrance to Tham Kaeo Sawan Badan

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.)

A travertine waterfall illuminated with candles

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!