I've been here 5 days already and haven't been to the beach yet. This is the Caribbean. It exists for the beach... and the girls. I haven't been to the girls yet either.
I complain about the former condition to Steve, my host.
“We're right near the beach,” he tells me. “ Less than 10 miles away. You can walk it.”
“Really,” I say. “Where is it?”
“Right back there.” He points toward the magnificent view from his back yard, “over that mountain.”
“Yeah right,” I laugh. “Like I'm gonna climb a mountain to go to the beach. Fuhgeddabouddit!”
“Don't worry,” he says. “There's a path. Not steep at all. It's a gentle slope. You can do it in two hours. I'll drive you to the start of the path. You'll have it to yourself this time of year. It's not raining very hard now, and it probably won't get worse.”
Like I'm gonna take him up on his offer to climb a mountain for 2 hours in the rain, through a mini-jungle, by myself.
“Okay,” I tell him. “Do we leave now?”
He nods. I pack my towel, sunscreen, mosquito spray, guidebook. I won't need anything else, will I? We get into his SUV and head to the outskirts of Gasparillo Village (Don't look on a map. You won't find it.) to the start of the journey. Steve is wrong about one thing. I'm not alone. Just starting the trek up the trail is a big local guy with a full salt and pepper beard-- and a machete. If you can think of anyone you'd LESS like to see starting a mountain hike, let me know. Until I hear from you, he's it.
Steve waves good bye and takes off in the SUV. The guy with the machete has already started the journey upward. I hang back a little. Give him time to get ahead and cut his coconuts or whatever else he plans to do. Then, I follow the little dirt path into the darkness of the rainforest.
The covering of the trees blocks most of the rain. Slowly I walk uphill. It's mud. Dirt mud. Clay mud. Rock mud.
Sweating, swallowing, I feel suddenly aware that there's one thing I forgot to pack. WATER. I'm losing it at a pound a minute, sweating it out on an increasingly steep and rocky path. I don't have water. What an idiot! I deserve to die.
Up, up, up I climb. The path twisting out of sight then reappearing ten, twenty, thirty yards away from where it should be. Up. Up. Up. Each turn looking like it should be the last. The downhill should start. NOW.
Suddenly, my head begins to throb. I knew it would happen. Caffeine withdrawal. So close to Columbia. Such strong ties with Jamaica. Yet people here don't drink coffee. You ask for it at a restaurant and you get a cup of hot water and a jar of NesCafe. I drink that, but it doesn't do the trick. I can't go long without coffee. Now I'm paying for it. It's my crown of thorns.
It's not only my head. My leg muscles are screaming. My feet muscles hurt. Nobody's feet muscles hurt. Maybe birds. They're gripping branches all day. But humans? Their FEET hurt, but feet muscles? How can they hurt? Who even knew feet had muscles?.
Plus, my throat is dry, parched in the sweaty mugginess. I can't work up enough saliva to spit. What an idiot! A days journey. Over a mountain. No water.
Then, I run into THE MAN WITH THE MACHETE.
“You got any water?” I ask him.
“Man, I show you wawtah,” he says. “There wawtah here so clean, mahn. It right from de top of de mountain. Spring wawtah, mahn, I show you. You got cup?”
“Sorry,” I don't tell him. “Not only am I so mornic that I don't bring water on a hike over a mountain, but I'm too much of an idiot even to bring a cup.”
I shake my head.
“I show you,” he says, raising his machete.
OK. This is it. Chopped to pieces. The headlines in tomorrow's tabloids. Which part are they gonna send home to Dad? [Ouch! I just got bitten by another mosquito. I thought they weren't supposed to come out in the daytime.]
The man slashes with the machete and cuts a large leaf off a local plant. Then he sets down the knife and folds the leaf into a cup. He shows me how to hold it so it makes a kind of ladle. Then he takes me to a clear stream and motions for me to dip the leaf-cup and enjoy. I do. It's delicious, cold with a taste free of chemicals, or rot of any kind. I feel like drinking up the whole stream. Filling myself. Gorging. Sticking my head in and just sucking it up. But I remember reading someplace about all the bacteria you can't taste. How you should take a mouthful only. Then wait an hour to see if anything happens. Then, you can drink more. When you know it's safe.
I don't have an hour to wait. And I'm real thirsty. I'll drink 2 mouthfuls, no 3... or 4. Then, I'll just worry.
The machete man points up to something invisible off the path.
“I live up there, man,” he says. “I'll be leaving you now.”
He smiles. “Man, you're just at the beginning.”
I don't smile.
The path gets narrower and harder to follow from here. Sometimes, it's just a patch of green flatter than the green around it. Sometimes, it's an orange-red clay, looking more like a river bottom than a path.
Hairpin turn after hairpin turn the “trail” winds up the side of the mountain. Sometimes very up the side of the mountain. Like vertical up.
Gentle slope. That's what Steven said. Yeah right. Gentle for Sir Edmond Hillary maybe.
Except for the sounds of birds, and lots of insects, there's no fauna here. There's strange Ivy. And the weirdest most beautiful flowers
But this is a rain forest. There should be hanging Boa Constrictors. Jackals, I donno. There's... whoa... what's that? It's a crab. Here on way up the peak, where the air is thinner than my hair. A crab! Somebody's escaped lunch?
I imagine a camper or a local, living like the machete man, catching-- or buying a crab by the beach. Suddenly he trips, it falls out of the plastic back. Scampers away. And here it is.
I approach it. It backs up. Snaps it's pincers at me. Clicks its jaws. I take a picture and go on my way.
Upwards, ever upwards. Is this a joke? One of those mystery places where things seem to roll up inclines. An optical illusion. A mountain with no top. Just up up up. One direction... always.
What's that sound. Do they have rattle snakes in Trinidad? No. No. No. They have exotic birds. It must be an exotic bird that SOUNDS like a rattle snake. Sure that's it. There are no rattle snakes in Trinidad, are there? Well, are there?
The path has disappeared. My head is pounding. My legs are begging for relief. My thighs, my calfs (calves?), those muscles in my feet hurt.
My shirt is drenched. Not from the rain. The trees connect overhead. I have not idea if it's raining or not. The weather inside is pure wetness. Some state between rain and not rain. Rain without the drops.
My shirt is drenched from the inside. Dripping. I'm sweated out. Nothing left to sweat. Still the trail goes up. I look up and try to find the top of the mountain. There's green. Lots of green. Here and there is a spot of color. Beautiful color, but not a lot of it. Mostly green. I'm tired. Headached. Thirsty. Drenched in my own sweat. I'll find a log. Just sit down and die. End it all. Do the world a favor... up Ahead, there's a little clearing. A spot of light through the tree cover. A clearing before the continued trudge upward? Should I die here, or die in a spot of light through the green canopy?
I decide that the canopy would be more poetic. My spread-eagled body. Lying in shafts of sunlight, through the palm tree roof. Someone will discover my body. I have no ID. It might get stolen, right?
By the time they find me, Steve will have reported me missing. They'll figure out what happened. The papers will write about the middle-aged American punk rocker who died mysteriously in a shaft of light. He just lost his will to live.
I struggle to the clearing. At the edge, I see two parallel stakes and what looks like a
sign nailed between them. As I approach, I realize it IS a sign. Brown, with multi-colored lettering. There's an official-looking crest on top. After the crest, it says:
Look, listen and enjoy
the birds and wildlife you experience
on the trail
Then on the bottom, along with a logo:
Trinidad and Tobago prefers VISA.
Translation? It's all downhill from here!
Ho ho! I made it to the top! It's easy sailing from now on. Just a hop, skip and a jump, and I'm there. Easy as a beer piss. Yeah right.
The way down is treacherous. Slippery mud over slippery rock. Mini waterfalls down the path. Not a path, but ever increasingly a river.
Yep, that's me. Downhill, through the muddy bottom of a river. The only person on this entire mountain. If I break a leg, I'm dead. No one will find me for days. I'll be eaten by insects and escaped crabs. If I break an arm, I can make it. It would be one of those heroic-walks-through-the-jungle-with-a-broken-arm epics. I'll make the local papers. But a leg? Poof. I'm gone. Not poof either, but a long painful death. With no water except what continually drizzles on my slowly rotting corpse. Drizzle. Always drizzling. Leaking slowly off the canopy of trees.
I imagine that wiseguy from Port Of Spain, “Why do you think they call it Rainforest?” he'd say.
One kneehigh waterfall after the other. Me in the middle, trudging throuh the rapids, trying not to lose my balance. The water's getting deeper. There is no way in hell I'm going to live through this. Slipping downhill. In a rapidly rising creek, stream, river.
Out of my eye corner, I see a dog. No, 2 dogs. No, 4? 5? 6? A pack of dogs. Are they going to attack me? Finish me off. They're barking up a storm, running along the river that I'm trudging through. On the side. On the bank. Yeah! That's it! Shown by the dogs. There's space enough to walk up there. Out of the water. Just follow the dogs. Mud, not water. Downhill. Trying to keep the dog butts in view. Following that last tail. Down. Down. Better. Not good, but better. Down I go on a tiny ridge on the side of the river. Down. Down. Down. The ridge along the river BECOMES the river. I'm in it, again. Testing each stone to make sure I won't slip.
I stumble. Catch myself, jarring my spine but NOT BREAKING A LEG. Down. Down. I stumble again, falling forward into the water. I fall on my hands. It's okay. A little scrape, that's all. I DO NOT BREAK A LEG.
Suddenly, a bright light. A view through the trees. Water. The Caribbean. Right there, a glimpse through the branches. Then another. Sure enough. It's water. I'll be there any minute. Yeah right.
It dawns on me that when I look to the side I'm looking at THE TOPS of trees. Very tall trees. And, if I follow their trunks downward, I can see other trees beneath them. I'm going to die.
Down. Down. Down. I go. Pure Zen. Be here now. No thought to anything else except where each foot goes to prepare the way for the next foot. No future except the next step. My mind a zen blank except for the koan: IF I BREAK A LEG, I'M DEAD.
After a millennium of soaking terror, I come to another little clearing, and another little sign:
MINISTRY OF PUBLIC UTILITIES AND THE ENVIRONMENT
National Reforestation and Watershed
Our Environment. Our Forest. Our Life. Let's Conserve.
Translation: I made it!
The trail becomes a gravel path becomes the beach. I'm in a little town, with one of those beautiful colonial houses right at the corner. A kid plays by himself in the street. He's hitting at something with a stick.
“You going to the beach?” he asks.
“Yep,” I say.
“Just go to the end and turn right,” he says.
I do. On the way, I buy and drink a coke. The caffeine takes care of my headache as I head toward the beach.