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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cave Tubing in Belize

I’ve seen unadulterated, absolute fear three times, all on the face of my husband, all when he was in or near water. The first time our relationship was new, and our canoe flipped in neck-high water.

The second time was on our honeymoon, rafting class III glacier water rapids in Valdez, Alaska. I thought he’d be OK since he wouldn’t be actually in the water, and class III is comparatively tame. I longed for rougher rapids but realized this is a compromise I must make if I wanted my new husband to be included in my adventurous experiences.

Laughing with each easy roll, I looked back to see Mark fearful again, hopeless of an escape. It was terrible to see him so uncomfortable, and at that moment I vowed to myself never to try to convince him to participate in a water-involving excursion again.

Fast forward 11 and a half years, and we’re in Belize, where I’ve lined up seven days of adventure, some involving water. But, remembering my vow, I’ve not pressured Mark to participate. Our second day-tour in Belize is cave tubing. Mark’s said he’s OK floating on a tube.

We and our guide, Jovaughn, carry our tubes and hike to the put-in for river rafting. The easy hike crosses the river three times—at about 40 feet across each time. The first crossing is shallow with a strong flow. A line is strung across, and we hold on to steady ourselves. Mark’s behind me. I’m not sure what he’s feeling now.
The second and third crossings are thigh-deep with a slower flow, easing Mark into the adventure.

Thirty minutes after starting the hike, we fasten our life jackets, walk into the clear slow-moving, knee-high river and plop into our tubes, rear-end first. Jovaughn distributes headlamps and lines us up: Mark’s in the middle with his ankles over my tube in front, straddling my back and tucked under my arms. Jovaughn is the caboose of our three-tube train and holds on to a rope connected to the back of Mark’s tube.

In the cave, moving at a relaxing pace, I feel fortunate that it’s just the two of us on the tour. During the hike out we passed groups of 10 and 15, and in the cave we encounter longer tube trains with raucous teenagers. Jovaughn, who’s more the engine than the caboose, keeps us from advancing with the noisy juveniles, and Mark and I truly enjoy the tranquility of drifting through, turning our heads up and all around searching out hidden finds in the cave.

The river makes several gentle turns in the cave and continues them once we exit. Being first, I see a sharper turn to the left approaching, where the river narrows in width and with faster water. I trust Jovaughn to navigate us through with ease.

However, the fast water pulls me to the outside where my tube gets hung on plant-covered rocks just below the surface and whips Mark and Jovaughn out in front. Now we’re all facing upstream. Before those two pull me across the rocks, before seriously scraping my bum, I release Mark’s ankles and unstick my tube. I turn to see how Mark and Jovaughn are getting on just as Mark’s face emerges from the river, sputtering water and wearing that fearful expression I’ve seen three times now. Somehow, he and Jovaughn separated and his tube flipped. I am scared for him. I don’t know how deep it is. Luckily, thankfully, he grabs his tube, which is now vertical against the bank.

Jovaughn paddles back and grabs the rope trailing Mark’s tube. Mark’s left arm hangs on to his tube and Jovaughn guides them downstream. For a full 20 seconds I watch Mark float with that fearful, helpless expression. To see him so scared is heart-wrenching. At a shallower spot where the flow ebbs, Mark remounts his tube, and I catch up. I hated that 20 seconds.

He needs to learn how to swim, for his sake as well as mine.