Several weeks ago, Randy and I cashed in a bunch of frequent flier points for round-trip tickets and a week's worth of hotel in Ambergris Caye, Belize. Ambergris Caye is a paradise, the kind of place I forget exists in real life. Where you can kick your feet through soft white sand, arm-in-arm with someone special, maybe you find yourselves deep into a light conversation, maybe strolling to the end of a pier to get even closer to the impossibly blue water, maybe there's a palapa hidden at the end of that pier so you stop and have a cocktail with an entire pineapple in it and you drink your pineapple and a fish jumps and you laugh, and maybe your tongue starts to swell up because you just drank a whole pineapple like twenty minutes ago at that other palapa and it's possible that five pineapples today was not the best decision you've ever made for your teeth, but maybe you're in paradise and hey, you have dental insurance and it's not like you're doing methamphetamine, you're just eating entire bushel barrels of fruit, how bad can that be, and then maybe in the middle of mentally calculating the rate of your enamel erosion a wiggly puppy squirms up next to you, fresh off the beach, this gangly lab-mix looking thing, goofy feet too big for his happy body, and maybe he licks you on the leg, just a little drive-by lick, so maybe you, five pineapples deep, make the spontaneous decision to reach down and give the little stray guy a rub, caught up as you are in the sand and the sea and the vibe and all the goddamned fruit, right, and maybe that dog takes your rub and raises you a giant bite in the ass-- which bleeds, as your someone special points out like fifty times just in case you don't know what blood looks like-- so maybe you get to contact the health department when you get home and admit yourself to the hospital so you can undergo the entire rabies inoculation protocol.
So it's a paradise, that's established.
This most recent trip, Randy was on the lookout for an adventure. I personally felt like I'd maxed out my adventure threshold on the last trip, what with the enamel loss and the rabies and all, and I'd sort of planned to spend this trip facedown in a hammock somewhere, preferably next to a crate of pineapples and a Coke can full of pennies.
"The ATM cave sounds amazing," he told me. The Actun Tunichil Muknal is a cave on the Belize mainland. A thousand years ago (literally) the Maya society used the cave as a sacred space to pray and offer human sacrifices. Some of the artifacts have been removed and placed in museums, but the vast majority is still exactly where they found it-- including intact human skeletons; because of this it's number one on National Geographic's "Ten Sacred Caves" list. Apparently you have to hike, climb, and swim through almost a mile of pitch-black cave to reach the main chamber. We had never heard of it on our previous visits and this made me nervous.
"It's because everybody dies," I speculated.
"It's because they just opened it up to visitors," Randy corrected.
"It's because you have to swim through these huge underground tunnels and you almost run out of air and you get lost and drop your flashlight. Like Touristas."
"Oh, Erin," Randy scoffed, "They're not going to give you your own flashlight."
And then he booked the trip.
Tourista jokes aside, I was legitimately nervous about this. The last cave Randy talked me into was the Lava River Tube up in Flagstaff. He got the whole family jazzed about this awesome cave we'd never heard of; he didn't know anything about it, really, he just made up a bunch of shit about lava flows and icicles and diamonds and got us to follow him into this black crack in the Earth.
That's the mouth of the cave. It's as close to an entrance to Hades' underworld as I've ever seen. Who climbs IN that?
We did, as a matter of fact. Scrambling over giant, razor-sharp boulders that were covered in ice because the year-round temperature down there is 34 degrees.
We stumbled through I don't know how many hundreds of miles of freezing cold blackness, twisting our ankles and praying our flashlight batteries didn't die. Here's a shot of the interior near the entrance:
That's ice on the ceiling, there. And it gets lower and lower and blacker and blacker the farther back you go... I'm not kidding, I expected to find Persephone lounging on a rock somewhere, rolling her eyes and painting her nails.
My point is that I've seen Randy's idea of a "cave adventure" and I have been left with valid concerns.
The ATM cave is on the mainland in the Tapir Mountain Nature Preserve. In order to reach it, we flew from San Pedro to Belmopan. Belmopan is the capitol of Belize. This is the airport in Belmopan.
The size of the airport was directly proportional to the size of our airplane, a craft that seated four people and was exactly like flying through the sky in a Volkswagen Beetle.
The tour guide picked us up here and drove us about forty-five minutes deeper into the jungle. From there we hiked roughly a mile through said jungle to the mouth of the cave, including three river crossings.
There are a lot of shots like this, these "Erin, turn around," shots. Randy smartly had the camera the majority of the time because he's pretty good at taking pictures and I'm pretty good at banging the camera on rocks and forgetting to take any pictures and letting the camera float away and stuff.
Beautiful, right? That's the mouth of the cave. And we're all oohing and ahhing as the guide passes out the headlamps, marveling from the rocks how clear the water is and making Indiana Jones jokes, when our guide hops off the rock ledge and into a body of water so deep he's treading.
"Okay, jump," he orders. "Your headlamps are not waterproof.
We all just stood there, nervously patting our precious headlamps while our guide paddled deeper into the cave. Watching him swim away, I started to have a vaguely Touristas premonition wherein the guide gets too far away and we all just flail around in the dark, crying and thrashing and shorting out our headlamps.
I was nearest to the water so I jumped first and started maneuvering my body toward the dim light swimming in front of me. I assume I looked like a weird turtle.
When we weren't outright swimming, we were walking in some quantity of water. Some areas were chest-deep, some areas were knee-deep, but there was very little walking on dry land. And what walking there was wasn't so much walking as it was climbing. We had been explicitly told beforehand to wear sneakers and socks for this expedition, and I of course had packed neither sneakers nor socks. Sneakers and socks are two things I decidedly don't need to lie prone upside-down in a hammock all day so they, along with my ski parka and my wedding gown, stayed home.
Meaning the day before the tour I was forced to purchase the only thing resembling sneakers I could find on the island: neon blue Converse All Stars.
Which is how this happened:
The good news is that if my headlamp went out, I could just follow the glow emitted from my footwear. The bad news is everything else.
Oftentimes when Randy yelled, "Erin, turn around," I yelled things back and did not turn around.
Almost a mile into the cave we came into the ceremonial chamber. All of the artifacts are strewn about the floor so watching where you step is an integral part of not crushing a thousand-year-old skull with your foot.
Dr. Jaime Awe, the archaeologist who began and directed the ATM excavation, was actually IN THE CHAMBER when we were there, which was an unbelievable opportunity to learn about the history of the cave and its artifacts from the absolute leading authority. I told him I liked his helmet. He said thanks.
Our own guide was quite informative in his own right. He pointed to a nearly perfect urn that had survived close to twelve hundred years.
"That creature," he said, indicating a carving on the side of the urn, "they say it is a howler monkey. But howler monkeys have five fingers and four toes. This creature," he pointed again, "has four fingers and four toes. I think this creature is not a monkey. I think this creature is a duella."
Duella is my best approximation of what he said; it's a Kriol word and I couldn't get it exactly.
"The duella is a terrible monster," he went on, crouching down. "He hides in closets, he steals shiny things, he can make the mind of a man dark and mad, he woos women, he plays the guitar.****"
He stood up again. "I should ask Dr. Jaime about this."
Oh my god, YES PLEASE, PLEASE go ask the leading archaeologist in Central America if maybe he fucked this up and said "monkey" when he really meant "mythical thieving woman stealer". While you're over there, see if he'll trade me helmets.
There are several intact and viewable human skeletons in this room, but the most poignant is one of a teenaged girl who was sacrificed more than a thousand years ago.
She's called "The Crystal Princess"; generations of crystal calcification cause her body to sparkle in the light. She has not been moved or physically examined, but at least two of her vertebrae are crushed and that's thought to have contributed to her death.
All in all it was overwhelmingly breathtaking, and we were a solemn and reflective group as we backtracked to the mouth of the cave.
Until I got my head stuck in a rock. Then shit got loud.
I was just happy I didn't slice myself open; I mean I've had a tetanus shot and everything, but I'm guessing it's hard to give a blood transfusion to someone whose blood type is half AB-positive and half Del Monte.