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!”

Sleazel

.