Friday, July 20, 2012

Snakes Alive! Stories, tools for kids and learning, cooking techniques, traps and snares with snakes, treatment and a good dog

Snakes and the Southern Appalachian Highlands

Snakes! Snakes.  Snakes.  Why do we take really cool and useful things and turn them into expletives, illegal words for common use, and then let others slip by as perfectly ok.  Like snakes.  I think from now on when I am tempted to shout some profanity I will resort to my grandpa’s exclamation, “Snakes alive!” 
                I understand how people can really be fascinated with snakes.  They have a certain beauty, they emit a powerful, transfixing gaze, and display predatory prowess that all martial artists can and should learn from.  From ancient biblical texts to modern studies suggesting that snake-like images actually cause the brain to emit certain chemicals triggering immediate “fight or flight” sensations in people, snakes have a revered and respected status among creatures that roam the Earth.  In North Carolina folks are keenly aware of their presence. 
                My walk with this legless brother began many years ago on my grandpa’s tobacco farm.  We were pulling rocks up in a field.  One rock loosed an intertwined cluster of baby copperheads that shot in all directions.  I was saved by a quick thinking father who grabbed me up by the shoulders just as the critters reached my feet.  How many snake stories can you think of?  I have many.  Some are passed down, more than a couple are first-hand accounts.  The scariest one by far, however, was my Dad’s lake skiing trip in high school.  A girl let go at the outside of a turn and slid into the water a safe distance from the shore.  When the boat got back around to her riddled body it was clear that she had invaded a populous nest of excited moccasins which were not visible to the fast moving boat on the surface.  Oh my.  Then there is the family whose embellished story got me a trip to the school counselor in 7th grade after my horrified English teacher turned in the paper to school administrators.  A winter fire in their new cabin awoke a large nest of pit vipers, all of which crawled onto the floor, killing the heroic husband who carried his wife out safely only to die on the front step.  And just as shivering more than one frontiersmen of the old day shacked up with rattlesnakes, cold and slow, dormant in their winter hideouts, to ride out a rough storm in Appalachian backcountry.  North Carolina has the ominous distinction of holding the national top spot for venomous snake bites.  And with our variety of terrain it’s no surprise.  We have water moccassins, coral snakes along the coast, a few rattlesnake specimens, and of course copperheads.  Combine that with a large rural population, continued development, a number of clueless tourists and huge outdoor recreation industry and you get – snake bites.  This year is what I call a snake year, meaning the numbers are high and the critters are on the move.   I am particularly motivated to give this topic literary attention since my best little buddy, Gee Lee (“Dog” in Cherokee), is suffering a terrible post-bite period at this very moment and seems to be on the verge of death.  Personally I think Cold Mountain, NC, should be renamed Rattlesnake Lair.  They grow larger than a man’s leg in girth and even meaner in attitude.
                Now before my stories convince you to remain in your locked car for the rest of summer vacation (snakes get in cars too), I will say that there is another creature more dangerous as far as deaths go – that’s the yellow jacket.  Allergic reactions from stings kill more people than snake bites by far and the reaction can happen to anyone at any stage of life even if you have never been allergic before.  Rattlesnakes are kind enough to emit a loud “buzzzzzzzzzzzzz” from rattles, when they have them and are given enough time and space to react.  Copperheads, while deadly silent and camouflaged better than most modern ninjas could dream about (and heat seeking, fast, and at times aggressive AWESOME!) will often strike first as a threat and not waste valuable venom on something it doesn’t plan to eat.  You.  The brown little babies don’t know the difference which is why some folks talk about them.  So generally, unless you are bitten in the neck and your airway swells shut, snake bites are not life threatening.  Of course the pain and potentially rotting tissue falling off of your leg might make you prefer the quick exit.  I’ve heard of timber rattlers hitting so hard they break bones. 
                The number one thing we can do to avoid the problem of dealing with snake bites is practice awareness.  Moving through the forest with keen senses, recognizing likely habitats and learning what those are, not being careless in places we can’t see and learning mild self-hypnosis for pattern recognition are all tools used by natives of this area.  By native I don’t mean skin color, I mean folks who hunt and hike these woods and have for generations.  Self-hypnosis can be as simple as saying to one’s self, “When I see a single angled pattern similar to ones found on snake skin, my brain will alert me”, and then visualize the pattern, the eye of a snake, and a little tail tip.  It’s likely that only a partial visual will be available and most people self-program to see whole animals and therefore miss much in the forest.  With kids there are a series of things that are fun and effective in teaching them to spot and recognize dangerous snakes (snake bites are much more serious for small people who are lower to the ground and a lower body weight). 
                I like to print out unlabeled sheets with various local and regional animals on them, in color.  Kids work in teams to identify the critters with corrections available, and the test is repeated on another day until everyone scores perfect.  In addition, little rubber snakes like they sell at Dollar General or the grocery make great spotting aides.  Placed around camp or the home (outside) at random with only partial shapes visible, kids earn a reward by spotting them and bringing it to the attention of parents or counselors.  Above all, young ones are taught to not taunt or otherwise molest snakes.  Most snake bites are not sniper-viper attacks but occur when some fool tries to pick up a snake, chases it into its safe zone, or thinks it’s a harmless variety.  Even non-poisonous snakes can bite, leaving painful, embedded teeth in your hand.  Eustace’s advice?  “When a black snake strikes at you don’t move.” LOL! Ok, whatever you say E man.  I have no doubt he would have such control but the young man he was counseling jerked away taking the snakes teeth with him.  Speaking of Eustace, one time he opened the door to the hay loft at the Crow’s Nest and a large copperhead reared up waist high and he beheaded it with a single stroke from his Old Hickory sheath knife, on the draw.  I crap you not. 
                I had a group of young boys once, 7-11 years old, out along the base of Dugger Mountain back in about 2000 or 2001.  A kid ran up screaming, “I stepped on a copperhead!”  I was used to hearing about werewolves and various other invisible ghosts of the woods from this group so I kind of rolled my eyes.  The kid was barefoot and not 15 feet from me getting water from a spring we had just dug out.  Sure enough he was right.  The snake was quite forgiving of the boy.  We were not.  We ate it.  I’ve told the story many times but you must hear it; when I began to cut the belly of the hanging snake, pinned to a dead tree with a knife, the HEADLESS neck curled up and struck my hand.  Dude.  The snake’s heart continued to beat for over an hour, alone, on a rock next to the creek.  The skin, placed in water acted as a powerful crayfish attractant pulling in a dozen mountain lobsters which we added to the feast.  Our nettle, crayfish, copperhead meal was fine topped off with a few chips ahoy cookies.   Rattlesnakes are great too but beware, pit vipers store poison in their heads.  Coral snakes, however, circulate in through the body and are NOT edible.  No really I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Like I’m going to eat snake”, but it is very empowering to eat the thing you so feared.  And for survival skills it’s a rich source of protein and energy.  I am a simple woods cook, preferring a light searing and slow coal cook on a flat rock or in a pan with some olive oil.  A stick will work.  Pull the meat off sideways, curling along the ribcage with your teeth.  Skins make beautiful additions to bows, tools, sheaths, belts, headbands, and should be saved if only for a teaching tool to show others.  A quick mount can be made by wrapping the skin around a stick and throwing some fibers around it.  The head of a snake can still be a hazard, especially if a dog pulls it out of a shallow grave or if someone steps on it.  If you plan on using the head to scare someone make sure the mouth is closed.
                Just last week at sail camp I was giving a student a hard time for losing his light and reluctantly passed him mine, or Nina’s.  He took about two steps toward his pee target and said, “There’s a snake”.  Right where John Paul and I had been doing escrima drills in the dark.  “What color?” I asked.  “The camouflaged kind”, said the 8 year old.  Uh oh.  Sure enough it was the biggest copperhead I’ve seen, and it took up residence under the rock and tree where my hammock was anchored.  The dark and rain and general lay of the land convinced me to stay put but throughout the night I’d wake up and look over the edge of my ENO, shining the light around, just sure the thing would want to climb out the line and get warm with ol Two Dogs.  I wondered if he might mistake my warm butt for a rabbit and bite me right through the hammock.  He was mellow and chill, and cold.  Many copperheads are patient and prefer to avoid any human contact whatsoever.  I’ve had snakes crawl over my chest in Dark Valley, and once had one wrap around my leg while swimming naked in the Rocky Broad down near Lake Lure.  The reason I now mostly camp in hammocks is a.) I can sleep on a rocky hill if it has trees and b.) SNAKES.
                There are a few guerilla tactics using snake parts that are entertaining if not useful in some harrowing, last resort situation.  In asia people have used snakes to deter trespass and in times of war.  Many drug storage building have employed a hanging viper, strung by the tail with head at human neck and face height, to harass anyone trying to move through the building at night.  A common trail trap includes pinning a snakes tail so that it cannot exit the travel zone.  The angry and in pain snake waits along the path ready to ambush anyone walking by.  Ragnar Benson writes about shining lights into warehouses and seeing a dozen beady, glowing eyes, reflecting back in the darkness.  The venom is easily extracted to add a little punch to darts and various booby traps, effective as long as the poison remains potent.  Snakes harnessed in tunnels did much to dissuade American troops in Vietnam, or at least slow down progress in chasing a VC escapee.  Another infamous trick used around the world is placing deadly snakes in an automobile or airplane which can have serious consequences and look more like a ‘crash’ than an assassination. 
                I just took a break from writing and went to check on my dog.  The flies crowding around his mouth were a bad sign.  He’s dead.  Damned snakes.
                Mothballs placed around a home perimeter or tipi can help deter unwanted visitors and there is a variety of products for purchase that repel snakes.  These are often made from concentrated pellets of clove and cinnamon than don’t dissolve too quick in rain.
                First Aid for snake bites is a subject of debate.  Things to not do include tight tourniquets and ice.  Recommended action includes light constriction of the affected limb, rest if possible, lowering bite area below the heart.  Suction cups are often included in modern field first aid kits but can be negligible in effect unless used quickly and correctly.  Eustace used to carry a little retractable razor knife that can hold a set length, very small, to make a controlled quick incision for immediate treatment (within seconds).  I watched his dog Prarie heal from a bite to the face over a period of days.  People wonder why I don’t put a seat on my outhouse – just one time walking in, starting to squat, and seeing the golden eyes on a triangle head poking out from between wooden slats was enough to sell me on the whole hole idea.  No hiding room for snakes or spiders.  An interesting experimental treatment that’s gaining ground in the modern era is mild electric shock.  Preferably from a DC source at low and controlled power, the current breaks down and destroys chemical compounds in the venom reducing its hemotoxic effect.  Infection and secondary medical complications from swelling are often a problem associated with snake bites.
                Well I’m about done with this writing.  I expected Niko, my other dog, to go any day now.  At seventeen years old she has given it a good run.  Gee Lee, also spelled Ghillie for the famous camo outfit of Scottish origin, is a vital part of home and farm security.  Losing a dog up here means aggressive encroachment of canine predators and less warning time for humans as well.  We have them both, especially when the ginseng berries turn red.  Just yesterday a coyote tore out the throat of a goat in broad daylight down the hill, likely hoping to return after dark for retrieval.  Gee Lee had special barks for different critters; deer, coyote, human, and vehemently protected my young kids (the human kind).  He will be missed.  It’s a rough week on the mountain.  I think I’ll go drink some beer.  I’m just glad I still have the freedom to buy good weapons.  And nightvision.

For a great video on Copperheads with Eustace, check this out;

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Day 4, “Roots”: Jamaica 2012, SCIIIx

Day 4, “Roots”: Jamaica 2012, SCIIIx (LOTSWild)

                Before I completely leave Day three let me just say the German Bar was cool.  I walked past it and saw the flag.  It drew me in because there were only 2 people sitting there, on the cliff, and cheeseburgers were $350J.  I was also curious as to what defined a German Bar.  I hoped they might be playing techno or something, but the flag was the only thing I could discern as being distinctly German.  Maybe some German people were hanging out somewhere else, LOL, also part of the question.  I overheard a fellow at the bar lamenting about his sailboat which he used to keep tied right there off the cliff.  A hurricane smashed it along with his hopes of renting it out.  He ended up being the owner of the bar.  His son, back in South Carolina, worked at or ran the Charleston Sailing School, one of the places I have considered for more advanced sail training – with an eye toward captaining my own ocean worthy vessel one day.  As I found myself more and more at home with this fellow, the cheeseburger, and Red Stripes the title of the bar vexed me more.  I left not having any idea why it was the German bar.  Well, I don’t know, isn’t Burger a German word?
                So officially on to the next day;
                One of the things I really enjoy about staying with the Jamaican people is the sharing of what I call roots culture.  That’s sort of a catch all phrase that has different meanings depending on all sorts of backgrounds and assumptions.  I’ll define it as things that do the following; define a geographical cultural area, encourage both self-sufficiency and awareness of total dependency on natural cycles and the Earth, and expose the strengths and vulnerabilities of a certain group.  Farming, for example, bonds people of a geographical region, it promotes both dependence on greater things and a fierce self-reliance.  It showcases an intimate knowledge of the land and plants and can also mean distance from trends, the in-thing, or an absence of certain education.  Let’s put this in really plain language; hillbillies.  While some may choose to return to the holler after lengthy travels and educational pursuits, some never left.  But they can build a car, shoot anything that moves, grow great corn, and be wonderfully genuine.  Now add a little bit of history, the passing of knowledge from generation to generation, and the strange disconnection that most of us in the modern world have experienced from such things, and you get;  Roots.  Grounding, anchoring, solid.  They are what hold us steady when storms want to rip us up, be they political, financial, whatever.  They are carriers of civilization, these roots.  Existing closer to a more primitive lifestyle, for the most part, they are available and useful as the towers of Babylon shake and move with the wind.  They are your family history, your language, your people, and even more fascinating the things that YOUR people had in common with MY people.  Real oneness, and real diversity, without a political mandate.  Sorry – HA! I’ve done well so far, just be glad you don’t have to read my college papers.
                So Mary’s neighbor Ronnie is a fellow I knew from back in the day.  In fact, one of his daughters saw us training out in the yard one morning and remembered me.  It’s hard to believe - the memory of Jamaican people for faces.  For her it was perhaps more; on our first trip we were learning roots knowledge from a Rasta - things like natural medicines from plants.  Ronnie was panicked about a worsening infection in his daughter’s foot from a nasty glass cut or something.  We treated her to the best of our ability using this old knowledge since he couldn’t afford a doctor and she got better.  Now she is 24 years old, she was 14 when I had known her then.  Her dad Ronnie is a tough dude fallen on hard times.  He is one of the squatters – folks who moved into the Negril backwoods long ago, before any interest in deeds and titles, and built a house.  Some houses were, still are, little wooden sheds with a dirt yard.  Others, like Ronnie’s, are fairly complex concrete structures built to survive the next hurricane and resist nature’s onslaught on Sun and rain.  Some of these locals have managed to sell their parcel to foreigners who then discover the seller has no deed or title.  Even more interesting is how some locals have sold the same piece of land to different foreign buyers over and over and over.  But when they are given the chance to purchase the land from the government they have to pay up or be removed.  That removal is in process now, has been, and will continue to be for a while.  Ronnie is on the edge.  He is trying to sell his place for $100,000US but doesn’t own it.  The government is going to evict him shortly unless he can pay the actual price of $20,000 each for two lots.  When he’s gone they will bulldoze his buildings so he has no claim to the property and someone will finally have a piece of paper that looks as official as you can get in Jamaica. 
                Someone hit Ronnie in the face with a pipe not too long ago so most of his vision is shot in one eye.  The other eye isn’t great.  He walks with a cane and a severe limp, remnants of some accident that left his leg shattered and scarred.  His constant pain is what brought us together for our meeting this morning, my fourth day.  He asked if I had any pain reliever, and I did – BC powder or Goodies (looks great at an airport security check let me tell you).  It’s a critical part of my first aid plan since I get migraines on occasion that wipe me out.  I gave him two powders.  I later learned he made a salve with them and rubbed them on his leg, easing the pain for the first time in weeks.  I said, “Try eating them”, he made a face.  Well Ronnie offered to take Zach and I up into the bush, to learn some history, some plant knowledge, good old fashioned Rasta wisdom – Roots.
                We found ourselves weaving through a maze of trails that followed parallel to White Hall Road up through some very African looking plains.  A young man who called himself Junior also joined us with his two kids.  He was taking his little girl for a walk to teach her “history and plants”.  My kind of guy.  There’s a lot to be written about Junior later on, this was a momentous day! 
                There was some minor exchange between Ronnie and Junior over us, the visitors.  I think Ronnie was worried about losing us to a charming new guide who would then also benefit from some potential tip, but Junior responded that no such thing would occur.  All but 20-30% of the conversation, remember? Heh heh.  I was a little more sensitive to not run off and leave hobbling Ronnie and his one eye when we saw the Cotton Tree.  Ronnie explained that National Geographic had studied the tree and taken samples of it.  Rumors surrounded it as regards wishes, healing, and special properties, as they would any living thing that had survived over nine centuries, perhaps ten.  The branch I sat on was as large as virgin forest trees back home – many times what I could reach my arms around.  Junior displayed a wide base of knowledge doing very much what I love to do back home; picking leaves to eat or smell, showing properties, odors, tastes, and how to use different parts.   We gathered almonds planted at the base of a small castle long ago and perused crumbling remnants of the Whitehall Great House.  Rubber sap turned to, well, rubber, in our hands and the mythical Leaf of Life found its way into our increasing bundle of tea and medicine herbs. 
                On our way home we visited some secret hangouts; rock overhangs with old car seats for comfort, a cock isolation unit, and hand built tarp frames.  Yes, a cock isolation unit is where you put diseased male fowl so they don’t infect the flock.  As it turned out Junior operated, in addition to his massive charcoal production system, the local cockfighting ring – in his yard.  The thing was complete with a huge cage, concrete walls, elevated seating and a tin roof; amenities he described as “creative, different, something unusual to set I apart from the all the others.”  Little did I know what a big deal it was! 
                His charcoal was produced the same way we do it in the mountains, by burying hardwoods and burning them sans oxygen then digging out the charred wood.  It sold to restaurants and handcart boys, roadside meat cookers and the like.  Here is a man who knows how to wield a machete.  Junior was a first rate farmer, too.  He understood pollination, hydration, soil, sun, and fertilization.  So much so that his little abode surrounding the UFC (ultimate fighting cock) Cage was dotted with peppers, corn, yams, and beans.  I told him about cock fighting back home, that it was illegal but folks still do it.  Especially where I live.  We talked about farming, and children. 
                After we returned to the hill I asked Kevin, a primary caretaker and assistant on the hill, what a good tip for these fellows would be.  His response; “Five US would be ok but ten would make him really happy.”  I felt like Junior was a good guy to know and wanted to establish him as a contact for future potential camps and visitors, a guide of sorts and trusted fellow.  “Fifteen”, came Kevin’s response. Jamaicans take care of one another, and references and tips find their way back home soon enough.  Zach and I pitched $10 US a piece in as a thank you, a move that somewhat shocked Junior I later found out.  Sometimes, though, a good connection is like the credit card commercial:  priceless.  Anything I needed that Junior could provide was in reach, now or later.  More importantly I met someone I could consider a friend and invest in that both now and in the future.  I had a good feeling about him.  Ronnie…well, we didn’t forget him, all he asked for was a few smokes and a shot of rum.  I learned he had a growing credit balance at the little roadside store so I did what I could there before leaving. 
                Learning to get a taxi seems like an easy thing, right?  It is.  In fact it’s hard not to get a taxi since every other car beeps at you to see if you want a ride somewhere.  Beginners, however, may benefit from a short tutorial.  I’ll use our jaunt on Day 4’s evening as the learning context.
                Downtown Negril is marked by a noticeable road feature called the Square, or the Roundabout.  The Roundabout is just like it sounds; roads converge from 3 directions, drivers yield to those already in the circle and you continue around it until you exit in your desired direction.  Don’t think that means driving it yourself is a piece of cake, but that’s the theory anyway.  The place is a central hub of Negril activities.  It’s usually bustling with all sorts of things; money changers, fruit vendors, a supermarket, bank, sugar cane carts, and lots of people catching rides.  If you think of Negril as a wheel, and the roundabout a hub, it’s a certain small fee from anywhere to the hub, or from the hub to anywhere.  To go from one place through the hub to another place is like traveling from one spoke of the wheel to another.  It’s twice the price of just getting to the center.  For that reason I often walk to the roundabout, or get a ride to the roundabout and walk from there to my destination.  If time or body function limits walking then I check my budget to double the fare.  The going rate as of February 2012 was around $100J for any given one way local distance to or from the roundabout, that’s about $1.25US at the current rate of exchange.  When I hear an approaching car or van beep behind me I shake my head without looking so they know to pass on by, but if I want a ride I just point a finger out.  Most of the time I’ll shout my price at the driver and where I want to go to make sure we’re on the same page before I get in, especially if it’s something unusual or for more than one person (listed price above is per person). 
Brian, Chris, and I walked down the long dusty Whitehall Road, turned left onto the highway that heads toward the roundabout, and flagged a taxi.  Our goal, or my goal anyway, was some place on the cliffs toward the West End that had a good stereo, cheap drinks, and most important a place to swim.  I couldn’t remember any specific places other than Rick’s Café which is internationally famous, and Xtabi.  “600J to Rick’s Café”, I called to a driver who stopped for us.  He nodded.  We climbed in, ever alert to the stream of motorcycles and cars whizzing by and beeping.  Zoom! Off we went.  If there’s room expect the driver to cram another passenger or two in, drop someone off, get another, and so on.  If you live in a big city this is old news but for a country boy like me it’s quite the novelty.  Walking the road out to the west end is fun on one hand but has some dangerous curves with tight concrete walls – it takes some thinking and alertness to keep from getting run over.  A buck might be worth your leg. 
Before we get into Rick’s I want to hit another point on Taxis.  One afternoon coming home from the beach a driver called out “Taxi?” as I walked past.  I shook my head assuming his price would be too much – he was hanging out in the park right past the resort area – a shaded grove of trees and grass where Jamaicans often visit for holiday.  I was headed to the roundabout to save money.  He insisted I talk to him – here’s the fine line that’s a hard study.  You cannot get hung up by every person that wants to sell something or talk, but it’s universally rude to just walk away.  On my first few days I walked away from more than a few folks.  This guy reminded me to slow down and show more respect for others; a lesson that turned out favorable later in the trip many times over.  He said $500J to my destination, I shook my head and turned around.  He yelled, a bit forcefully, “Hey, come talk to me.” I decided to, I mean, he’s either going to change his price or not, I don’t have anything to lose.  He asked what I wanted to pay, “$200J”, I told him. “Get in”, he said.  Well, that was easy.  I looked at him closely - I could kill him if I had to.  You probably think I’m kidding.  On the ride he said, “Don’t walk away from someone when they are talking to you.” And it seemed like sincere advice, not a reprimand. It was.  He was appreciative for the work and doing what he could to make as much as possible, that was all.  I apologized and explained how hard it is, as a tourist or visitor, to NOT offend someone given the demands of the environment, the hassles, the lack of understanding culture and language, and the constant need to push folks aside.   He also understood these things and we seemed to connect from one true person to another, all details aside.  And that’s where the deeper secret is. 
                Can you reach communication, intuitively, without words, without getting hung up by station or skin color, language or even superficial actions, dress or worth?  The Jamaicans are there, ready to receive, ready to relate, but we have been taught to send shallow signals, not the deep transmissions of a partly telepathic people.  Roots; what MY people and YOUR people have in common.
                NOT what was at Rick’s Café! LOL.  Zach said, “This must be where all the white people hang out.” Ha! Sure, and that’s not all bad.  Sometimes a stranger in a strange land can benefit from a company of peers.  The place was slam packed with all aged visitors, drinks were expensive, and the smiles were not warm.  But, for what it was, it was cool.  I just wanted a place to swim.  I pushed through the crowd and found a view of the divers.  These hard bodies really put on a show.  I haven’t heard Brian talk about anything on the whole trip as much as these guys jumping into the water from high places.  And sure, it’s impressive, but I wanted to do the jumping and wasn’t excited about the massive crowd or the pushy tip seekers that demanded money for jumps and to simply watch the jumpers.  Give me a break.
                I followed the stairs down to the water – that blue, clear, hypnotic liquid that called to all the sore spots and stiff joints in my body.  I had been sticking to my hammock and tent floor.  Not from sweat but from that “scratch” I took the first night, on my back.  Somewhere in the scratch was something more like a hole, and it wasn’t fully healed.  The trip to the ocean was more than idle pleasure, it was medicine – I needed to get that thing healed up quick.  Much to my horror there were guys at the bottom asking for tips there too, just to swim.  You have got to be freaking kidding – and of course they were asking stupid prices.  Well, I did my thing and got them down to $100J, the Universal ‘at least you’re giving me something’ barter, and started shedding layers.  I had a sinking feeling though, this wasn’t at all what I was going for.  “Is this what Negril had become?” I thought to myself.  Sick.
The water took my worries.  It took my stress, my questions, even the sting in my back.  For a moment I was free floating – mindful of the dropping bodies from cliffs on high, just above, but quite blissed.  About that time a man yelled, “Hey! Go round da corner mon.”  Confused, as I often seemed to be, I acted like I knew exactly what he was talking about and pointed around the rock cliff.  “Ya mon, stay close.” He jumped in beside me and motioned to stay next to the rocks.  I hardly had time to wonder why when BOOM! A heavy body hit the water a few feet to the right.  Oh yeah, the cliffs.  Turning the corner I swam to a small cove with rocks jetting up out of the water.  This was nice.  The fellow gave me a hand up onto a rock adjacent to his own.  He smiled, legit.  No crowds, no eyes, no nothin’ but blue water and serenity.  Here came his buddy, “Ok, it’s on”, I thought.  Naa.  I can’t carry money in the water, they should know that.  But then the man who invited me around the corner whipped out a wad of Jamaican bills, the water didn’t slow him down a bit.  The two argued for a second over who had actually seen me first, unaware that I followed every word.  Smiley said, “I’ll take you through the cave.” Go with the flow Spence, just feel it out and roll.  I was so past spending any money at this point and made that clear and said that deep sea caverns with mermaids wouldn’t get more than $100J out of me.  He was disappointed at first but didn’t give me any crap, and then perked up and said, “I’ll take you anyway, come on mon!”  I guess he was tired of hustling drunk would-be swimmers up the stairs – I can’t imagine.  So in we went.
                Each 15 second period of time was marked by a rapidly increasing awareness that this whole cave thing was pretty sick.  As in ill.  You know, a good thing.  There was some needed instruction happening as he described where to put each foot and what to hold on to.  We left the open sea through a small fissure that went from surface level to far overhead, scarcely wide enough to squeeze through sideways.  The gentle waves gushed and gurgled below my feet, glowing an iridescent blue, being the only source of light in the darkening interior.  Before long I couldn’t see my feet and we had to step across a water hole about 3 feet across.  “Jump in here”, he said.  I looked closer, downward.  Why would I jump into water of an unknown depth in a black cave lined with sharp rocks in every direction?  He knew what I was thinking.  “It’s sand, there’s a beach back here.”  I chuckled as I saw myself in this character, the guide.  My summer camps are filled with these types of things, pushing comfort zones, habitats I call home and places I love, and know, so alien to outsiders and rich with awe and a touch of fear.  I hopped into the water and hit invisible sand about two feet down.  Now it was fun.  We walked on into the blackness and sat down on a beach so dark all I could see was the faint blue glow of the ocean sneaking in under the rock wall.  I was thinking to myself, “Man, this would be a great place to – “, when he said, “OK!”  Ok what?  He waded to the black wall, underlined by a gurgling liquid sky, and said (not exactly what I was hoping for), “Come right after me, don’t wait, go right when I go, ok?” . . . “And stay low, down by the sand.” Uh.  Swoosh, he was gone.  Under the rock wall, back out through the cave, except, under the cave.  I got down on my knees and looked through.  I could almost imagine getting a breath in the little pockets of air below the rock and water, slowly, carefully.  Then a wave filled the entire cavity forcing me back a few feet and positively dashing any hopes of having some breathing room in the narrow passage below and between the stone surfaces.  No problem, this guy ends up in here with people more inebriated than me, I got this.  So I did, and it was raw.  As in really good.
                After it was over I told my guide about Chris and offered him $5 US to take the young lad through just as he did me, but to keep a closer eye on him.  Chris was up for the challenge.  I saw that the experience really was worth a tip and was impressed that the fellow took me for a dollar.  I think Chris’ experience was equal to or greater than my own.  The flock of Jamaicans huddling around the water’s edge asked me again for a tip to swim, I was done with it.  I dismissed them with an air of boredom, tired of their questions.  That unlocked something, “Where you stay?” asked one of them.  This loaded question says everything about who you are and what resources you have, who you know, and what you are looking for.  I never give exact details for security reasons but usually answer, “Up Whitehall Road, Good Hope.”  Puzzled looks are the most common response.  “Who you know up dere, where you stay?”  “You know where dey have dem cockfight?” I said, “There’s one tonight.”  Suddenly the guy erupted in a flurry of motion and words calling out to all the other men around the water, climbing the cliffs, signaling in a hard to follow announcement that a cock fight was happening up Whitehall Road this evening, and they should all go.  More than a few faces turned my way, “Who dis white guy dat knows about da cockfight?”  Heh heh.  Let them wonder.  I turned and climbed the long, stone, staircase up to the Café in search of my party.
                After watching a few more superb athletes fall into the water to the roar of the crowd we turned our attention to the sunset.  That glorious feature of west Jamaica – low clouds, a rainbow of color, reflection on the water – our company at the café grew more silent as cameras snapped and fires grew along the water’s edge.  We left Rick’s, not to return.  I took the guys by Blue Cave Castle and also showed them Winton’s sister’s place.  A funny thing happened, like a level-up in this strange reality video game.  I asked a woman to make a phone call and apologized for only having $20J, which is around a quarter in US currency.  She looked at me, almost offended but not, probing to see whattagowan wi dis.  I said in thick accent, “Sorry sistren, it all I have, local call.”  Chris and Brian waited in the wings.  As she came around and began to fish her phone out of a bag a street Rasta sitting down near her, in front of a little wooden shop, said, “Him ruff, him a ruff mon.” The woman looked at me again, with different eyes.  I stared at the Rasta, “Respect bredren.” He nodded and ripped off some fast patois about how I was a Jamaican to the woman who kindly gave me the phone.  I found a hundred J in my pocket and gave her after the call, just as a thank you.  The Rasta called out as I was leaving, “You know tings mon, good tings.”  I nodded.  Once again I felt that deep connection, the language beyond words that happens so quick on the jungle island.  I have pondered since that night what he was talking about.  I think if I make something up and it feels right in the heart, it is right.   Maybe dems da tings I know.
                Before we draw day 4 to a restful close; sword forms and all, I’ll share Chris’ yoga lesson.   Winston had a surprising background of experience and education that I would never have expected.  I perceived through his excitement about martial arts that his story was true; he had trained at various martial arts academies throughout the west Indies and was a full on Yoga Instructor.  Winston, meet Brian, top shelf martial artist and former school owner in the Iyengar Yoga system.  Your people, my people.  There in the quickly fading light of a golden sunset, along the cliffs, Winston and Chris assumed the Lotus position and discussed body mechanics, breathing, and other stuff.  I stared out at the black water and was moved by the mystery of it all.  That, and getting back home with these guys.
“600J, Whitehall Road!”  “Where?” “Up by the cockfight.” “Oh ya mon, you a go up dere by da cockfight?” “True.”  “Ya mon get in.”