October 30, 2012
When I realize that Dale and I are the only travelers over forty standing at the mouth of Semuc Champey’s K’anba Caves, I suck-in my one-piece swimsuit. I feel more confident when I don my headlamp. Except for our Guatemalan guide, everyone else in our group of about a dozen has to carry candles. That will prove awkward in several places where swimming and climbing are required. But I’ll admit, although my headlamp is handy, there’s something mysterious about the shadows of the others splashing through water under the bobbing glow of candlelight. It feels as if we’re part of a Victorian expedition…except for the bikinis.
It feels as if we’re part of a Victorian expedition…except for the bikinis. (photo courtesy of Jill Packham, third from the left)
We wade and swim through water that varies from ankle-deep to who-knows? We scramble over rocks, climb ladders, and haul ourselves up ropes. When I can’t touch bottom, my frightened heart tries to drown me – not because I can’t swim, but because I’m uncertain how long it might be before bottom returns.
When my shins encounter sharp underwater rocks, I loudly introduce myself to the hot young scuba instructor in front of me: “Fuckin’ A!”
He holds out a strong hand and pulls me to the next level. “Are you okay?”
“It’s just pain. I’ll survive.”
He leans toward me and confides, “Yeah, there was a moment back there when I thought I broke my leg on a rock, I hit it so hard.” It’s sobering to realize this buff scuba hottie probably would not confide this if he were flirting, but likely sees me as a mother figure? This was the most sharpest rock of all.
Mostly I stick close to Dale — you know, my husband? I worry about him when we have to cross deep water. His eyes look enormous, and he swims with jerky strokes until I point out a foothold. He’ll later confess, “I faced two of my greatest fears at once: small dark spaces, and water where I can’t see the bottom.”
At one spot, the guide offers the men a chance to free-climb a rope through a waterfall, but tells us women we can’t. Instead, we walk under the falls and climb a ladder. “He said it’s because we’re not strong enough,” an American girl complains.
Minutes later we reach the finale. The first guy dives off a 12-foot cliff into a small glass of water — or something like that. The miffed American girl says, “If he tries to tell me I can’t do this because I’m not strong enough, I’m just telling him I have a penis.” I wonder if she’s disappointed to discover this won’t be necessary.
Dale opts out. He has a hip replacement, and he hates being on display. The cliff is just high enough, and the pool just small and dark enough to make this unnerving for all of us. One girl hesitates for several minutes, peering at the spot where we’re all shining our lights. “Where? I can’t see where!” Finally, she shrugs and jumps. I can’t tell if she liked it or is just grateful to survive.
I’ll only make matters worse if I stare too long into the miniature abyss. So I shout to the shivering group gathered around the pale circle of water below, “Give me a count!” relying on my Pavlovian response to cheerful echoes of “Three! Two! One!” After one long second of freefall, icy water rushes up my nose and my feet kick for the surface. I emerge to cheers, my blood injected with adrenaline like a shot of pure joy.
My Pavlovian response to cheerful echoes of “Three! Two! One!” (photo courtesy of Jill Packham)
When the guide jumps, he fails to come up. For five seconds…ten…fifteen…thirty. As our nervous laughter dies, he pops up behind us, cackling at our relief. He swam through a hidden hole beneath us.
On the way back, we have an opportunity to slide through an inscrutable hole filled with rushing whitewater beyond reckoning. The guide leads Dale up and around this spot via a boulder and ladder. The rest of us remain lined up behind the hole, exchanging confused looks.
“What’re we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do we just go?”
“I don’t know.”
Answers about how far the hole goes, how long we’ll have to hold our breathe, whether we’ll only pass under a waterfall or find ourselves completely submerged – answers to all our questions are on the other side now.
Several people shrug and drop into the hole. I take one look at the roaring white mouth and make an instinctive decision. “Nope. I thought I could, but I can’t.” A young Canadian named Jill takes one look at my face and follows me over the boulder, where we meet the furious guide returning. Apparently he told us all to wait, but nobody heard. He was quite put out to see people’s heads popping out the other side.
On the other side, the dazed-looking scuba guy again leans toward me. “That’s okay. You really don’t need to do that one. It was pretty scary.” If someone who makes his living underwater was unnerved, I’m content with my decision.
However, the American girl with the penis gives a macho shake of her wet hair and declares, “That wasn’t bad at all.”
“You made the jump,” the scuba diver tells me. “That’s the important thing.”
Is it? Why? Were we doing drugs together – passing adrenaline around and each taking a toke? Were we proving something to ourselves? To someone else? Were we reminding ourselves of the joy of living by creating a brush with mortality? I don’t know. But there was something alluring about jumping into a hidden, watery place, surrounded by firelight and expectant faces.
Here were earth, air, fire, and water. Here was momentary flight. Here was a depth unknown and unquestioned. What took us through that moment was our trust in the moment after. In that leap lay fresh insight into breath and light and now. For me, such candlelit memories are worth storing against the many ordinary nights in the small dark space of my own fathomless mind.