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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

An Indiana Jones experience in an underwater cave: Part II

Mark and I are in Belize in a group of eight being led through Actun Tunichil Muknal, known better as the ATM. It’s an underwater cave. On the dry second floor we saw Mayan pottery and a skeleton and skulls of sacrifice victims. Now we’re back in the water. Our guide, Oscar, leads us out a different way from which we came. It’s more challenging, more fun. At one point, to ratchet up the adrenaline, he has us switch off our headlamps. It’s not totally dark; we can sense faint natural light ahead. We all advanced the 30–40 feet with anticipation but without incident.

The next challenge, a jumbled rock, reminds me of a 3-D block puzzle, the kind with bunches of long pieces with chunks missing that somehow all fit together in a particular way to make a cube. The rock formation is the incomplete cube and our bodies are the next piece to fit.

We all watch Oscar fit himself through to see the best way to approach this. Mark, who’s next, and has a bit more girth and a foot more length to push through, looks at me uncertainly. Standing in waist-high water, he’s out of his comfort zone. He climbs to lay himself in front of the formation in bath-deep water, so that his left side goes through first, legs straight to pass through the shallow opening under the rock. He’s lifted from mid back to head and juts his left shoulder forward, bends his neck back and rotates his head left. Using his hands, he shuffles his body through—but not his head. With his body advanced, he twists left, pulls his knees up, sits on his haunches, and carefully rotates his head through the opening that’s just big enough for it, completely aware of the piece of 8-inch long, thin rock that sticks out and grazes his neck. He names this formation The Guillotine.

The Slide is next. The entrance to this cave slide is like that to any water slide: the top has an edged area maybe two feet square holding ankle-deep water. But, like the Guillotine, it’s higher than we are so we hoist ourselves over the edge from thigh-deep water. The entrance to the slide is through an arch—like a donut—with an inside diameter of roughly two feet. Oscar barely fits through. At Mark’s turn, he lifts his rear onto the edge, swivels, loses his balance and falls backward where the rest of us stand. He goes all the way under. I expect to see the panicked look when he comes up, but it’s not there. (Later he tells me he panicked momentarily but realized it was silly because he nearly hit his head on the bottom, meaning it wasn’t deep.) Mark steps up again and squats his unlimber body down for the approach. His legs tangle beneath him and he falls ungracefully on his rear before arranging himself properly. I zip right down. The top of the slide has an immediate twist to the right and then straightens out. It’s about five feet long. We all wish it were 10 times that.

We silently follow Oscar as he advances along a wall. It’s straight up and down, and the water is chest-high. The bottom of the wall slopes gradually to the cave floor, and most of us advance by a combination of bouncing along the low curve and swimming. Mark is tall so can simply walk along the curve. However, in an effort to get more of his body out of the water, he climbs higher on the curve until he’s nearly walking on vertical wall. But, of course, he can’t walk a vertical wall, nor can he grip it. He loses all physical contact and looks back at me with an expression I recognize from Looney Tunes cartoons. It’s not a look of panic or fear but is the exact expression Wile E. Coyote wears when he runs off a cliff chasing Roadrunner, when he is suspended in air, turns to the camera with his big eyes and crinkled brow and shrugs before falling. He’s resigned to his fate and realizes there’s nothing he can do to save himself. This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen from my husband, but I can’t laugh at him—until he’s on dry ground.

Within a couple seconds, he sinks to rock before his chin goes under even. His expression changes from “I’m a goner,” to “Of course. What did I think was going to happen?” Now this (sudden change in perspectives) is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen from my husband. Mark hurries to catch up with Oscar.
It’s sad to see the light shining in from the entrance, meaning our three-hour trek is almost over. All of us but Mark can swim out, so Oscar leads Mark on a climb. The third step is too slippery for Mark and he crashes into the water. But soon enough we’re all out on the trail again, with an aim for the van and our packed lunches. What an adventure we’ve had. I’d do it all again. I’m not sure Mark would.

An Indiana Jones experience in an underwater cave: Part I

Through the hourglass-shaped entrance, lushly dripping with vines and moss, we clearly see the cave’s second story. We also note how clear the water is that most of our group of eight must swim through to start our trek into the cave’s depths. Oscar, our guide, escorts Mark through the shallow river, over boulders and across a three-foot gap to a side entrance. They join the rest of us in chest-high water at the sloping left wall.
Climbing over and squeezing between underwater rocks, we advance into the darkness. The temperature of the air and water is mild, not uncomfortably cool. Near San Ignacio, Belize, Actun Tunichil Muknal, known better as the ATM cave, has interesting features besides water running through it: stalagmites, stalactites, draperies, and flowing limestone. Oscar points out some stone-dry draperies that have stopped growing. The difference is wetness. Limestone that is wet continues to grow.

Spiders scamper as we pass, and minnows swim the surface even as we’re deep in the cave. In our headlamps’ beams we see, floating in the air, sizable two-dimensional particles, like carpet fibers, and I wonder if we should be wearing respirators. Before we came to Belize, I read a review of this tour. The author wrote, “total Indiana-Jones experience that would never be allowed in the U.S.” That convinced me to take this tour. Mark’s mind wasn’t made up until a couple days ago. He’s uncomfortable in water.

After an hour traversing through depths to our shoulders, we climb to the second floor, which holds ancient Mayan pottery and burial chambers. We remove our shoes—but not our socks, to avoid leaving oils from bare feet. We’re not sure why shoes are prohibited. Oscar leads us past stone pottery, usually in sets of threes, and each piece itself sacrificed—or broken—in some way. The Maya broke some completely. Others simply have holes in their sides. We see several human skulls and even a full skeleton, that of a female teenager.

On this upper level we still climb over and squeeze between rocks, only without the benefit of shoes. Toes are stubbed, and as we cross what Oscar calls the Oochie-Ouchie section, my tender soles suffer.

The order of our single-file line changes somewhat in the upper portion of the cave because there’s no chance Mark will drown. But, after we stuff our sore feet, socked in orange cave dust, into our shoes, Mark’s behind Oscar again, and I’m right behind Mark. Oscar tells us where to place each foot on the rocks to descend to the lower level and then asks us to turn to the left for a big step. Looking down at Mark and Oscar, standing on a rock with my left foot, I step with my right and reach—and reach. I’ve lowered so far that my hip is even with my foot, right leg dangling in the water. I’m hesitant to jump down because I can’t see bottom, but logically I know it’s close.

Eventually our group is down, making our way toward the exit. Oscar asks us to turn off our headlamps. We can barely see light peaking in ahead. “We’re progressing from here with no light,” he tells us. Immediately, Mark turns to me and whispers, “Are you kidding me?” He’s all nerves now that we’re back in water. Reluctantly, he switches off his headlamp.