My story starts at home, off Red Hills Road. It is an
adventure story, full of stupidity and redemption, a
story of hiking in Cockpit Country and negotiating the
channels of Jamaican bureaucracy. It is a real story,
and not as over-the-top as its introduction. If you
have a map of Jamaica, you can follow along. Don’t
even bother to read this if you are not going to get
into it, it is a monster of a story (I’m sorry about
that) and I swear it is all true. It is Jamaican
flavored, and almost unbelievable.
I took a bus from my home in Havendale to Half-Way-Tree, from there I caught a bus to Spanish Town. I left Spanish Town traveling north into Ewarton, from there to Lluidas Vale where I picked up RICHARD SITLER. Richard teaches at a little all-age school, back in the USA he is a photojournalist. Incidentally, he has also hiked large parts of the Appalachian Trail, this will be significant later in our story. With Richard, we left for Kellits, and Kellits to Mason River to pick up CHRIS CAREW. Chris is often referred to as the “Bald Head Dread” a reference to his naturalistic tendencies. An accomplished yogi, he gives tours of a nature preserve as a part of his assignment. He, Richard, and I returned to Kellits where we picked up a taxi to Frankfield, from there to Cave Valley, and there to a town so small that I don't even remember its name. From that town we left to get to Falmouth, south to Sherwood, and finally, finally, finally, into Windsor.
Windsor is where our adventures begin for real. Our
taxi dropped us off at the shack of a rasta named
Dango. Dango was a lean, laid back guy, who said that
the house where we were going to stay for the night
was just down the path, indicating to his right. We
followed it, and we walked and walked. After too much
time in the sun, we came to a road, we unanimously
agreed that we should go right. More walking. Soon a
man on a donkey pulled up along side us, and we asked
where the house was. He said, in deep patois, that
the house was back the way we came, both on the road
and off, and that we were going in the right
direction. As he road off, we decided that most of
what he said suggested that we back track, so we did.
We kept to the road and were embarrassed to discover
Dango at his shack, looking curiously at us as we
approached. Quickly, we said that we were just
looking around. We again turned to his right and
noticed the second path that lead up to a house, only
30 feet away from us. We decided that if we ever
unanimously agreed on something, we must be wrong in
the future. Up we went.
Mike and Susanne's was a nice, rustic, biologists haven. It turns out that our house was a three hundred year old military house. Our room had boarded up musket windows (I suspect that these have a proper name, but it escapes me, David? ("loophole" ed) and was about a thousand degrees. I couldn't get to sleep that night. But I am getting ahead of myself. Earlier that evening, we returned to Dango and visited Windsor Cave. It had bats, it was dark, it was covered in guano, a grade A cave; but I wasn't very moved. I liked the cave in Polyground better. It was about that time that I realized that I had brought no food for my adventure into the Cockpit Country. So we set out to find some food. When we came to the shop (which was indistinguishable from any other house) there were old guys all over. We walked up, bought all the snacks they had (they only had a few loaves of bulla, bulla is like bread with extra lard and poor taste), and started talking. I must have talked a little too much smack about my mad skills as a domino player, because suddenly a dominoes set appeared. We were stunned to discover that they were Peace Corps dominoes from years and years ago. We played for hours, swapping stories. Richard and I could never run up more than two games against them, but they could do no better either. Richard helped himself to some of the local John Crow Batty, which is basically ethyl alcohol. Amazingly enough, Richard and I started to lose shortly thereafter. Eventually we took six (lost), but it was amidst a great deal of laughing and fun. All of them were good people.
We returned to our room, swapped (innocent) stories about women, and drifted into silence. Lord it was hot.
In the morning, we arose and took breakfast with our hosts. They told us that speedy people have made the trek in 4.5 hours. They disagreed about everything else. "Follow the blue flags," "No, follow the orange," "Look out for the turn to the left," "Only an idiot would turn left there, the path clearly goes straight," and so on and so forth. I filled my Nalgene.
Before I get into trail tails, a word about geology. Cockpit Country is composed of Karst Topography. This means that rain falls onto limestone, and erodes it over thousands of years. Under the terrain is a network of huge caves and rivers, but there are no surface bodies of water, running or otherwise, in Cockpit Country. The effect is almost that of egg carton turned upside down. The steep grade of the topology prevents wind from blowing, so the air is very, very still. It almost must be seen to be believed. Our path tried to wind a course along the rims of the hills and depressions without too much up or down. It often failed.
So we set off. We followed the path for a quarter of an hour until the sharp-eyed Chris noticed a blue flag on a faint path to our right. I said we should continue along the obvious path, but he and Richard noticed more flags near the blue flag and when we voted, it was 3-0 against me. So we followed the second fainter path, which soon widened again. We made good time. Forty-five minutes later, we merged with a larger path. After a moment of reconnaissance, we confirmed that we had completed a large circle, and had returned exactly to where we began.
We began again, this time, I pointed out that the sun rises in the East, and so Chris turned the compass around 180 degrees and we set off again. A quarter of an hour later, we returned to the fork in the road, and this time I prevailed on my companions to follow the main path. Flush with my victory over the man-made compass and my two companions, I set out to conquer nature in the same way. I carried a machete, and I cleared the path of impediments as we walked. I set a wicked pace and we continued to make relatively good time. Richard maintained an interesting monologue, which both Chris and I enjoyed. (Which I am sure neither Chris nor Andy can remember much details of my ramblings. -Rich) We talked about Steve Martin and the movie The Three Amigos. (A movie which I know I saw, yet did not remember in the clarity that Chris and Andy described it. - Rich) After about two hours, we began to run into new difficulties. Our path would emerge into clearings and many paths (or none at all) would leave it. Somehow we managed to find our way every time. Often we simply relied on Chris's compass and pressed South and East. My sense of direction, which was infallible earlier, was nearly useless as the canopy closed overhead. Other problems arose too, we came to a place with a fork in the road where the path to the left had an orange flag, and the path to the right also had an orange flag. We had to scout and guess far too often.
Stupid humor became funny as the heat of the day set in. "What’s that sound?" Richard asked after hearing a bird's call, "That’s what it sounds like, when doves cry," Chris replied. (The artist once-again known as Prince was an ongoing topic for some reason. - Rich) Richard continued to tell stories of friends, family, and politics.
Incidentally, if you should ever find yourself on an ancient, wide road, lined with huge fig trees, and the going is easy, you are going in the wrong direction, like we did, for a half an hour.
Four and a half hours had now gone by. I finished the last of my water in anticipation of our impending triumphant return to civilization. At this time I was quite fatigued. When we decided to take rest breaks, Richard and Chris would stand, electing NOT to sit. So while I sat and tried to catch my breath, they stood indefatigable. (Actually, I was afraid to sit in case I would not be able to get back up. - Rich) I felt rushed. They astutely feared the mosquitoes that began to swarm like clouds after only moments of immobility (worse than Lake Itasca, which is worse than I can describe).
Chris, who quickly began to offer me water, said, "fatigue is a sign of dehydration." As his knowledge of bush living is considerably better than mine, I guiltily drank from his 1.5 liter bottle. We continued to push through. The pace was slower, I was still leading, but I was no longer chopping at bushes. We were still not sure about directions. At the sixth hour (two hours longer than I had ever hiked before) I had to call a pause. Richard finished his water. I couldn't continue without a real break. Chris reiterated his warning about fatigue and dehydration. I replied that in my case, fatigue was a symptom of fatigue, and that I needed to rest. Though I was thirsty, I was not badly thirsty, and I told him that the symptom of dehydration I looked for was thirst, which I didn't feel. He was mollified, but he continued to offer me the last few sips of his water. I couldn't figure out how he didn't seem to need water.
Shortly thereafter, I fell out of the lead. Richard, who was now silent, took the lead. If our situation wasn't so difficult, the funniest part of our trip would have been the "Cow itch" which accosted the legs of Chris and myself. Chris, a very centered and controlled person, began to cuss like a sailor. "Rass Clott" this, and "Fuckery" that; if you knew him it would be the funniest thing you ever heard. It got me too, it burned like fire; it was actually a lot like rubbing a particularly vicious wall of fiberglass. I was too tired to complain much, I simply affirmed Chris's exclamations with an occasional, "Yeah," or "Uh huh." (I was glad that I learned a lesson from a recent foray into the bush with my rasta friend Foody when I wore shorts against his advice. He told me the mosquito would eat me up. Actually I got a terribly itchy thing called grass lice that is a little like chiggers and poison ivy combined. This time I wore lightweight nylon pants and was able to avoid the evil plant that attacked Chris and Andy. -Rich)
At the seventh hour, I began to get worried. We experimented with a couple of jungle water options. Bromeliads are a class of plants that grow on bark, entirely forgoing soil. They collect water in troughs-like leaves that funnel water into the center of the plant. We speared a couple of these plants and Richard and I drank some of the mottled water that spilled out. (I at first tried to filter the water through a t-shirt into my water bottle with the fantasy that I would fill the bottle and be able to treat the water with the iodine tablets that Chris brought along. I was only able to get maybe an ounce even after wringing out the shirt. That ounce of water was quite nasty tasting. -Rich) We found an orange tree that still needed a few weeks to ripen. The juice tasted like lime, maybe a little more bitter. Chris still needed no water. It turned out that Chris brought 2.5 liters of water, and drank it regularly the whole trip while I was leading. I thought of a desiccated Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in the desert watching Martin Short gargling from a full canteen. Neither bromeliads nor unripe oranges make very good substitutes for water.
I rested at the bottom of a hill while Richard climbed to the top of it and shouted. His voice echoed off the surrounding Karsts. Chris's cell phone had turned on about a half an hour earlier with a tantalizing note of music. It shut off shortly thereafter, and never returned. I staggered along after them as best I could. Even Chris at this point was running a little dry. As we walked, thunder rolled overhead. We plotted how we would trap the falling rain in scandal bags. The rain never fell.
Our salvation came at hour eight. Chris noticed an ohtahiti apple tree. (Andy lay prostrate across the path while Chris and I went foraging. Up until finding the apple tree we only found lots of Yam plants. - Rich) The apples have the texture (and water!) of pears, and a big pit in the middle. We ate our fill (I never liked them before), and set off again marginally reenergized. A little more walking took us to a road with two used ruts, a park ranger's access road. More struggling found paved road. Chris took a picture of Richard and I kissing the pavement.
We followed that road and it led us past a farmhouse with a man standing outside. Richard yelled "Beg ya some wata na," and the man replied "tek it." We came up to his house filled our bellies and bottles with catchment water. He also shared a six-foot piece of sugar cane. Chris ate a foot, so did Richard. I ate nearly four feet worth.
Shortly thereafter I felt a second wind coming on. I was back among people. I felt at home, defiantly back in my element. I chatted with pickney, mothers, and rude boys and left them all smiling if not laughing out loud. By the time I was done with them, they thought they had just had a conversation with true-to-the-earth farmer. I was in fine form. The town’s name was Tyre (Tire), and I will always remember it fondly. From Tyre, we walked into Troy and caught a bus to Christiana. An attractive young woman sat next to me and I felt obligated to chat her up. You see, at one point earlier in our trip, both Richard and Chris -bachelors both incidentally- sat next to two very attractive women and said nothing. I thought that I would demonstrate, Chris and Richard subtly took notes. Amanda turned out to be very friendly, I had to reject her phone number, but she helped us find our taxi to Mandeville and helped Richard negotiate the price on his sandals. She will be at a welcome/going away party later this week.
Dark was falling as we rode into Mandeville. We all decided to grab a bite to eat before heading back to Kingston. Richard and I went to Burger King; Chris "Granola Boy" Carew bought hamster-gnaw or something. We all returned to the table. We all stunk like you wouldn't believe. Richard went to the bathroom and simply left his shirt.
I took a bite of my burger, and a pull of my Coke and my throat closed. It simply exploded into pain like I had just jammed a trowel back into my throat and turned it around. The waxy film that covered my mouth had apparently been preventing the toxins of those plants from irritating my tonsils. No more. I sat in pain and looked at my food. Ten hours of hiking on one Wheatabix nugget, and my throat wouldn't let me eat. I felt like crying. All I could do was look at that beautiful food. Eventually I quelled the swelling with chocolate shake and sucked the rest down, drenched in water.
Before we left for the taxi park, I paused to take a neon orange pee.
Part one of this two-part story concludes here. Stay tuned for the other half of the day's adventure -it was an unbelievably long day- sometime before I leave (on Tuesday of next week!). In the next part of the story, I get to be the hero, and not the guy who is contemplating death while his far-more-fit companions look on. It will be GREAT!