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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

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.


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