BELLY OF THE BEAST
by Bob Johnson
At 5:00 a.m. a taxi drops us off at our rendezvous point in San Juan. Still not fully awake, my son Aden and I lean against the cool, damp metal shaft of a streetlamp and wait. The lamp’s diffused light eerily illuminates the layer of pre-dawn fog floating above us. Grogginess aside, we’re eager to begin our daylong expedition through one of Puerto Rico’s famed underground cave systems.
Gradually, in a scene reminiscent of those black and white 1950’s spy movies, small cadres of other people move silently out of the darkness and take up positions beneath the glow of nearby streetlamps.
We’re drowsily amused when a peculiarly painted bus creeps out of the night and into the light. It comes to rest fifty yards from us, extinguishes its headlights and waits, idling ominously. Suddenly, piercing music blasts from the vehicle’s loudspeakers. We cringe instinctively and seek cover as the theme song from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” fills the shattered silence.
The bus rumbles forward. Its exterior is smothered in murals of tangled vines, fallen trees and ancient lost cities. It grinds to a halt right beside us. We back away. A painted passageway (the door) jolts open, and like a lunging jaguar, out leaps a lithe figure swathed in black.
Before he even hits the ground, Rossano Boscarino is peppering us with rapid-fire welcomes, introductions and briefings on the potential dangers ahead. He thrusts clipboards with medical and legal forms at us. He spews corny jokes in the quick rat-a-tat-tat cadence of an automatic weapon.
I shake my head to clear cobwebs of sleepiness and try to catch up with Rossano’s rant. “No!” I shout inside my head as I realize that this overexcited, spandex-sheathed whirlwind is going to be the lead guide on our twelve-hour caving adventure.
“Oh my God, can this guy please slow down? I haven’t even had coffee yet,” I whisper to Aden.
The moment is surreal. I’m dazed and confused by the frenzy of activity and verbal bombardment. For the first time, the disquieting mystery and serious stakes inherent in our upcoming encounter with the underworld really hit me. I’m incredulous. “What the hell am I doing here? What was I thinking?”
It’s not like I hadn’t been warned.
A few weeks ago my buddy, an orthopedic surgeon, chastised me and warned against such folly. “You’re bone on bone, no cartilage left in either knee. You are fifty-five years old. You’re an idiot!”
I had no clever comeback. I just smiled and shrugged.
A week earlier when Aden (a native Floridian), suffering through his first real winter lashing in the frozen urban tundra of Manhattan, had called (desperation in his voice) to suggest we go on a “little caving excursion” to balmy Puerto Rico, a father’s largesse kicked in.
We’d climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro together in 2001, where I’d squandered the last of my knee cartilage on the slopes of the world’s highest freestanding mountain.
“Look at page 293 in the Journeys of a Lifetime book,” Aden pressed.
In the moments of silence that followed as I rifled through my copy of the book, I swear I heard him mouthing prayers.
“An unforgettable underground adventure,” the book gushed.
The bottom of the page offered the website of Rossano’s company www.adventuraspr.com.
“No experience necessary,” the site boasts. “Should not participate if you have weakness or medical problems with your legs.”
Honestly, I’d been feeling sorry for myself for the last couple of years. Gimpy knees forced me to give up competitive tennis and serious hiking. And I know I won’t be climbing any more mountains.
I’m already on the short list for knee replacements. So what if a jaunt into Puerto Rico’s wild underground countryside expedites the process a little? Who knows how my body will respond to the titanium joints lurking in my future? This could be the last chance for Aden and me to share a challenging eco-adventure and for me to test myself physically before the addition of bionic body parts.
“Weakness” and medical “problems” with the legs are relative terms, right? Since Aden and I climbed to the frigid top of Africa together on Kilimanjaro, a subterranean journey to the center of the earth on a sultry Caribbean island seemed the perfect plan to bring our exploits with nature full circle.
OK, so my knees ache and swell with fluid after prolonged hiking or walking, surely they can take me through just one more twelve-hour escapade. “Right, Doc?”
“You’re an idiot...”
Yeah, well, I’ve learned that you can never spend enough quality time with your kids. Here was my son asking his dad to go on another expedition ripe with opportunities for self-discovery and bonding. I’m going to pass it up? Not a chance.
So I called Aden. “Let’s do it. The Doc says it’s ok.”
A “whoop” of excitement burst from the Manhattan side of the connection.
“It’ll be worth it,” I keep telling myself. “I’ve got one more adventure left in me…”
Things did not begin auspiciously. I must have been a Conquistador or worse in a past life, because just past midnight, only hours before our scheduled rendezvous for the caving excursion, the Puerto Rican mofongo (dense mounds of mashed, fried green plantains originated by the islands ancient Taino natives) I’d had for dinner struck back at me with a vengeance.
An hour and a half on my hands and knees in the bathroom, serving a heaving penance for the apparently hideous sins of my past life, left me weakened.
Standing here in the vaporous darkness with Rossano whirling about like a Latino version of the Tazmanian Devil, my body having thrown me a wicked Puerto Rican curveball, I am now convinced this outing wasn’t such a good idea.
“All aboard,” shouts Rossano.
Right up until this moment I have done a remarkable job of blocking out the true nature of the challenges posed by this journey. But now, waves of panic and doubt roll over me. This is complete folly. I have no idea if my knees will hold up. If I go ahead with this, it’ll be on a wing and a prayer.
But I can’t back out now. It’s too late, and not in front of my kid! I flip rapidly through the psychic pages of my past, searching for some morsel of guidance or reassurance.
“Pole, pole,” I recall the guides urging us on our trek up Kilimanjaro. In Swahili Pole, pole means, “take it slowly.” I repeat the chant, “pole, pole…pole, pole.”
But, to hop into the dark maw of this mural-choked bus, headed for a potentially treacherous underworld, is about as fear inspiring to me right now, as would be a jump out of the open hatch (without a parachute) of a plane. “Pole, pole.” I breathe deeply and follow Aden into the cramped interior.
Thankfully, none of our eighteen new companions are any more awake than we are. There’s no talking, just a few hushed whispers.
Even Rossano’s slapstick riff fades to mute, as he fumbles in the darkness with TV, DVD, stereo and sound system components stacked in the front of the bus. God forbid when he finally gets his technology set and hits the juice. But for the instant, the bus is enveloped in a blissful shroud of silence.
I use the respite to morph my “pole, pole” chant into a “one step at a time, one step at a time,” mantra. Yeah, that’s the ticket, “one step at a time.”
I swivel slightly in my seat at the front of the bus and steal surreptitious glances at the other members of our group. I know I’m not the only one who sizes up and takes the measure of my adventurous companions. I try to quickly spot the know-it-alls, the macho men, the good sports, the whiners, the pains-in-the-butt, and the clueless among us.
A number of married couples are on board, as are a thirty-something pair of chain smokers from Canada, two surprisingly plump, newly wedded Iraq war vets, and a duo of sunburned, sleep-deprived backpackers. Two entire families are packed into the far back seats. The moms and dads are fortyish and appear to be in average shape. The five teenagers with them are sleepy, more than a little surly and completely unreceptive to human interaction. Just behind us sits an athletic looking father from Canada and his two buff college age daughters. I’m a decade older than anyone on the bus. “Hmmm, who in this group is more likely than me to struggle or drop out today?”
The calm dissipates as Rossano fires up his electronics. Wielding the microphone like a set of nunchucks he works to shake us from our stupor with more corny one-liners.
“This dude has got to chill,” laments a barely post-pubescent voice in the back. Rossano doggedly coaxes us to introduce ourselves and share our adventure credentials.
We discover that some in the group have done a little whitewater rafting, others a bit of hiking and a bungee jump or two. The only ones with some real experience are Dave, the dad from Canada sitting behind us, and his daughters. Dave also climbed Kilimanjaro a few years ago, and his girls, Ali and Rachel did some high altitude hiking in the Swiss Alps.
At most we’re all just weekend warriors, a bunch of pseudo-explorers; a group of regular folks stoked to test ourselves and willing to take a measured risk to experience one of nature’s most mysterious environments.
As the sun rises, so too (unbelievably) does Rossano’ energy level. He’s bantering back and forth with his sidekick, Anibal Reyes, who is part jungle bus driver, part straight man for Rosano’s verbal hijinks, and part cave guide. The pair’s snappy, over rehearsed and clichéd attempts at humor elicit eye rolls, deep sighs and loud groans. It’s all part of the program I observe, as their campy farce gets the group (except the teenagers) responding and showing legitimate signs of life.
Rossano pops in a Discovery Channel DVD. And there he is, on screen, Rossano Boscarino, scaling the sheer face of a rock cliff. In another scene he’s climbing a mountain, and in the next he’s leading a group of vacationers deep into the underworld. We discover that the little dervish has set two world records in mechanical rope climbing! He’s an accomplished rock climber and a renowned spelunker. The dude is famous, man.
“Hey,” blurts a surprised teenage voice, “check it out, this guy is for real.”
There’s nothing like electronic media validation to shake teenagers from a state of unconsciousness. Rossano uses the power of his instant celebrity to fully focus our attention on the task ahead. The man is a master. He never says a word about himself, but gains the confidence and respect of the entire group. The video verifies, “Rossano is bonified!”
Though he’s endearingly playful, Rossano is spot-on serious about our safety and he’s passionate about the ecological sustainability of the cave.
An hour later the sun is up and hot as we slice our way through the Qebradillas valley toward our cave. This is the heart of the Karst country, a limestone landscape of bizarre formations, such as massive collapsed sinkholes, gargantuan cliff side fissures, and eerily dissolving haystack-shaped hills. We’re about fifty miles west of San Juan.
Here, the Rio Camuy, after spilling from the heights of the Cordillera Central, vanishes from the surface near the town of Lares, and begins a spectacular eight-mile subterranean journey through the world’s third largest water-linked network of underground caves, sinkholes, caverns and canyons.
Our bus grinds to a halt along a winding dirt swath carved out of the dense forest. We dribble out of the bus and into the humidity. It rained heavily here last night. The engorged forest perspires.
I’m sweating profusely. This isn’t good. I never re-hydrated properly after last night’s episode. “Idiot.”
The narrow path we walk along is slimy, its mud floor blanketed by a treacherous layer of slippery decaying leaves. Sunlight evaporates beneath the towering canopy. Before we can even make it to our staging area two of our group go down. They’re smeared foot to shoulder with coffee-colored ooze.
We arrive in a clearing in the forest and meet the rest of the crew responsible for keeping us safe and alive throughout the day. We’re issued harnesses, helmets, thick gloves, heavy battery packs for our headlamps and lifejackets. The clearing is nothing but a slick, gooey test of our patience. To move our feet at all courts disaster. More people go down. The language gets salty. The forest absorbs the curses.
I need to get to the Gatorade in my backpack, but everything is moving so quickly and I have to keep up with all of the pieces of equipment being issued and the litany of instructions. I make a poor choice and ignore my thirst. Yeah, I know.
If this expedition is to be successful, Rossano and Anibal have to fashion our group into a well-coordinated, mutually supportive team. I’m more than a little concerned about the teenagers’ contribution. They’re obviously not committed, certainly not properly focused. As for the adults, the terrain and an inability to properly don their gear frustrates a number of them.
Rossano, Anibal and their crew move deftly among the group helping us gear up correctly. They provide clear instructions on the proper use of each piece of equipment. They aren’t about to take us to the next stage of the journey until everyone is comfortable with the process. The anxiety level drops palpably as Rossano lucidly lays out how the adventure will unfold.
To everyone’s surprise, though, and before the zombie-like kids can react and yelp “no,” Rossano assigns each of the teenagers a role that involves real responsibility. He informs them that when we get to the zipline that will deposit us at the entrance to the giant sinkhole we’re headed for, they are to manage the jumping off platform. They’ll have to check everyone’s harness and clips to ensure that our hookups are correctly placed on the cables. They are to make certain that our hand placement on the zipline is appropriate and safe. Then they will position us on the platform at the proper intervals and send us on our way.
There’s a rumble of disbelief among the adults. The anxiety levels spikes. But, we’re quickly taken aback by the kids’ response.
The youngsters see their assignment as being “put in charge” of the adults. They’re psyched, immediately attentive, focused and diligent. Rossano is amazing.
“After the zipline,” he says, “we will rappel over two hundred feet down into the Angeles (Angel’s) sinkhole, to the mouth of Angeles Cave, where the real journey begins.”
The man is a professional. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He should. He’s been at this for nearly twenty years.
“Teams,” says Rossano, “stands for Together Each Achieves More Success.”
With the kids on board we actually do have the makings of a real team.
We scuttle through the forest for about fifteen minutes and reach a sheer precipice. As each of us eases around a narrow bend in the trail we come face to face with the zipline platform and a large yellow sign with black letters that reads: “Point of No Return!”
Up on the platform the kids rise to the occasion and marshal us in good order through our paces. They heap encouragement on the newbies who’ve never done a zipline. Soon we’re all flying through the canopy at breakneck speed hundreds of feet above the forest floor. Screams and shouts of delight fade as each of us disappears into the distance.
When I land on the far-flung platform, Rossano, who knows that I’m going to write about and photograph this adventure, informs me that he has a “special plan” for me.
“Up there, Bob,” he says, pointing skyward to another zipline far above where we stand. The cable traverses the entire width of the enormous sinkhole. He gestures toward a shockingly slender trail that runs along the edge of the sheer cliff.
“Double clip yourself to that cable which leads to the next platform. Make your way over to it and I’ll come soon and hook you up to the zipline. From that place you can slide out to the middle and take shots from above of everyone rappelling.”
For whatever reason I don’t even question the wisdom of his suggestion. I don’t contemplate the potential downside of falling out of the sky into the dark abyss below. I don’t protest or ask for clarification. I’m dehydrated and a little lightheaded.
The people standing around me, all new acquaintances, don’t know what I’m dealing with. So none of them step forward to shake some sense into me. None call out, “You’re an idiot. ” Not that that ever works anyway.
Aden has always seen me in control and on top of things on our journeys. He’s not fully aware of my condition either, because I’ve hidden it from him. I don’t want to appear weak. As I watch him rappel down the cliff side, I feel anxious and suffer an unexpected sense of loss. I recognize, as he slips out of sight, that I might very soon need his help. It’s humbling.
But, off I go anyhow, heading toward the zipline above. I don’t know why.
I connect, disconnect and reconnect each clip with methodical, meticulous precision. I understand that this is a dangerous exploit. I’m overheated and weak. Why can’t I just stop and admit that this is just not a good idea?
Before I can talk some sense into myself, Rossano arrives and quickly harnesses me to the zipline.
“Just head out about fifty yards. From there you’ll get the best shots, man,” he encourages.
“And then do I make for the other side?”
“No, no,” he counters, “you must to pull yourself hand over hand back to here, “ he indicates the platform we share. Again, I can’t summon the logic or wisdom to refuse. I step off the platform and sail into the thick air.
Soon I’m dangling upside down, suspended in mid-air, with nothing between me and the forest floor some three hundred feet below except a crotch clasping harness that raises my voice a couple of octaves.
Sweat seeps from my pores. My shirt is soaked. Salty droplets trickle into my eyes and mouth. The crotch clamp that keeps me tethered to the zipline limits my mobility. I can’t get a decent angle to shoot photos. I try looping my leg around the zipline so that I can hang upside down and shoot. Not brilliant. The sweat just reverses course and streams down, which used to be up, into my eyes and plops on my camera lens.
Far below me, the first few in our group begin to rappel into the sinkhole. I twist, turn and wiggle, trying to get a decent angle. Finally, I just hold my camera out at arms length and start clicking off shots. I have no idea if anyone is in focus or if any of them is even in the frame. At this point I just don’t care. I’m super dehydrated and kind of disoriented.
Blissfully, a breeze begins to blow. God it feels good. The forest foliage slowly comes to life, swaying back and forth. Like dreadlocks flopping from the heads of a jamming Rasta band, long, slender, tentacle-like leaves and branches bob rhythmically.
Far below, the massive rocks that line both sides of the entrance to the cave look like a set of giant molars. Suddenly I feel like bait on a hook waiting to be swallowed. Remember the camouflaged mouth of that gargantuan worm-like monster that Han Solo accidentally flew the Millenium Falcon into in The Empire Strikes Back?
I watch from above as one by one, the other members of our group rappel farther and farther down into the twenty-five storey deep sinkhole. From way up here the great gash in the earth’s surface looks like an oily-green elongated esophagus. The groups’ tiny red and yellow helmets look like M & M’s being swallowed by a beast. “That’s what I have to look forward to,” I groan out loud and pull myself back, hand over hand to the zipline platform.
Things are a little dicey as I make my way back along the pathway to the jump off point where I’ll rappel. I don’t have the energy, nor is there room on the tiny path to shed my equipment and grab my Gatorade. I am withering, but do my best to not let on to anyone.
For God’s sake, I used to throw 275lb. high school wrestling champions around the mat when I was coaching not that many years ago. I’m not used to or willing to succumb to weakness. It’s embarrassing.
Luckily, Rossano plugs me into the queue ahead of seven or eight people who are still waiting to descend.
I’ve never rappelled before. I’ve got no strength left in my arms or legs. As I slide over the cliff’s edge, I’m simply too spent to be frightened. This is no time for pole pole! I need to get to the bottom- fast. I push off with my feet, release the clip on the rappel rack and freefall downward.
I hear one of the teenagers above shout, “Look at him go! I thought he said he’d never done this.”
“You have no idea, kid.” I come to a halt a hundred feet down and rest my feet against the cliff. My arms are like jelly. I feel as though I could pass out at any moment. All I can do is release the brake and hurtle the last hundred or so feet straight to the bottom.
I muster enough strength and tighten my grip on the brake bars just in time to slow myself and avoid the splat of my body on the bottom of the sinkhole floor.
Someone unhooks me from the rope. I crumble into a sitting position on a nearby rock and drop my head between my legs. The gig is up.
“Are you gonna make it, Dad?” I hear Aden ask, concerned.
I can’t lift my head to respond. He unfastens my backpack and thrusts a Gatorade into my hand. I drink deeply. It helps, but at the moment I just can’t function. If the call to move out comes, I’m done.
Mercifully, several of the least athletic members of our group have yet to rappel. Rossano is always thinking ahead. He must have noticed my weakened state and then moved me ahead in the rappel line. He knew I would get some recovery time down at the bottom. One by one the last of us carefully and slowly make their descent. It takes a good twenty minutes.
At the mouth of the cave it’s much cooler. The lull is a godsend. I lift my head. I can breathe deeply and focus. I’m still whipped, but as the final few touch down, I’m able to wield my camera and shoot photos.
Still, the sensible thing for me to do is to call it a day. I can rest here and recover for the five hours the group will be in the cave.
But, the lightheadedness is gone. I’m standing. I’ve stopped perspiring. Somewhere in my consciousness a feeling percolates, becomes a thought, “Why give up? I can still do this.”
I trust that this conviction doesn’t come from some perverse macho mentality. I’ve just always found ways to persevere in sticky situations. I’ve fought through heat stroke to win tennis matches, altitude sickness to summit Kilimanjaro, and a shattered leg to play competitive sports again.
I just hope I’m not about to be like those old over-the-hill prizefighters who for no rational reason accept one bout too many and end up punch drunk, brain damaged or worse.
Which faculty should one look to for guidance in such a situation, the body, the conscious mind, the deep sub-conscious? How do we know when to stop challenging ourselves, when to stop pushing the envelope, when we’re actually over-the-hill?
I have no proof that I can’t finish this adventure. I’ve known from the beginning that it wouldn’t be easy. So what’s changed? It simply doesn’t feel like it’s the time yet to bow to age or some artificial standard of common sense. The look of alarm on Aden’s face says otherwise. “Are you sure about this, Dad?”
Well, I guess we’ll both learn a little more about his father today. I’m going in.
We’re immediately dwarfed in a misty world of colossal boulders and mammoth ferns. It’s like the set of Honey I Shrunk the Kids as we scamper into the mouth of the cave. Soon, daylight is a pinpoint far behind us.
Consumed by the darkness, we flick on our headlamps. Somewhere up ahead the churning waters of the Rio Camuy gurgle portentously, like the ravenous rumblings of a monstrous gizzard.
Rossano leads us single-file through a canyon filled with frigid knee-deep water. Soon we slog out of the water and scramble up a muddy little hill. On the backside of the hill, we slide on our rear ends down the smooth, slimy surface of a rocky incline.
It’s close quarters down here and treacherous underfoot. I have to shift, grind and bend to maintain my balance. One misstep and I’ll be careening down a stony slope or finding myself wedged between two huge boulders. Even the youngest and most sure-footed among us struggle to remain upright. I understand now why the company’s website warned about “medical conditions with your legs.” The one indispensable body part necessary to negotiate this treacherous terrain is a good pair of knees.
Next, Rossano has us leap off of a Shaq-high ledge into another murky pool. We swim across and scramble up a steep boulder-strewn rise on the far side.
I struggle on quivering knees, trying to push myself the last several yards to the top of the rise. Suddenly, I see Aden’s floodlit-face looking down at me. He reaches down and grips my forearm. My initial instinct is to pull away and bark, “I can do it!”
For whatever reason, though, I finally make the sensible choice and allow him to haul me the rest of the way to the top. In this moment our relationship forever alters.
Resignation claws at me. I’m not the leader today, and probably won’t be any longer. On our future adventures I won’t be the one blazing the trails, protecting, looking out for and helping Aden along. He’s the stronger, healthier one now; better equipped to take the point.
I must be woefully shortsighted. I never anticipated or allowed myself to contemplate such a moment. I have no choice now, though, but to accept and embrace this new reality if I’m going to make it out of here in an upright position.
Though walking through the water is mostly a breeze, the sharp rocks, fat boulders and un-level, narrow paths are slick as ice. My shoes fill with sand and muck.
Each step is a physical and psychological confrontation with the cave. My muscles are tense with stress. This place is equal parts Fantastic Voyage and The Incredible Shrinking Man. It is truly an otherworldly environment, intriguing, overwhelming, frightening.
At each obstacle that we encounter, out of the corner of my eye, I see Aden clandestinely observing my progress, gauging whether or not to lend a hand. He also has to deal with this revolution in our relationship. He’s cautious and doesn’t want to offend.
As we stumble from a murky lake onto terra firma again, my feet slurp and squish loudly with each step. “Oh beautiful,” I snap to myself, irritated. “The expensive ‘waterproof socks’ that I ordered are totally saturated. Perfect!” I slog along.
The cave presents a Tapas-like menu of creepy encounters. The light from my headlamp illuminates hundreds of free-range roaches. They scurry in and out of crevices and blanket every rocky surface.
“Careful where you place your hands on the walls,” Rossano calls from somewhere back in line.
Aden tugs at my arm. His light falls on two, foot-wide spiders. Rossano moves up beside us.
“Not actually spiders, Whip scorpions,” he tutors.
He soon points out a trio of real scorpions.
“If one bites you,” he warns, “don’t go running around screaming, Rossano, Rossano. If you do the poison will get into your system faster. Stay calm and send someone to get me.” He flashes a huge smile.
“Is he serious?” one of the teenage girls groans.
I pull out my new shockproof, waterproof camera to snap a photo of the scorpions. Phosphorescent cracks spread across its shattered display screen, looking like a burst of fireworks. The piece of **** is neither water nor shockproof!
We push on. A little farther ahead Rossano gathers us together on a high ledge. Fifteen feet below, the river Camuy surges past. He leads a young woman up to the edge.
“Turn off your lamps,” he instructs, “we’re going to jump.”
“What?” we all gasp.
“In the pitch dark?” a woman asks incredulously.
All lights go off.
“Ready?” Rossano asks.
“Yessss,” Ali squeaks. Then a loud splash.
One by one we’re over the edge. We plummet into the churning water and plunge beneath the surface. In a few moments we’re leisurely body rafting down the underground river. There is a chorus of “icks,” “ewes” and “yucks” as we pass through some swirling puffs of frothy brown, spittle-like foam that clings to our helmets, vests and faces.
Except when in the water, we’re either constantly covered in filth or wiping some disturbing substance out of our eyes or off our faces. At what point, I wonder, will this experience move from disgusting to pleasurable? Not yet anyhow.
Our next obstacle is an alarmingly narrow, twenty-foot long, water-engorged tunnel that leads from one large chamber into another. We’re told to float flat on our backs, feet first with our heads thrown back as far as possible and allow the current to carry us through the constricted passageway. Easier said than done.
“You gonna be alright, Dad?” Aden knows I’ve had some irritating bouts with claustrophobia in a couple of Mayan and Egyptian tombs in the past.
Rossano and Anibal go through first. I take a deep breath and attempt to hold panic at bay. Pole pole. As I take my turn and float through the tunnel there is so little space between my face and the ceiling that my headlamp scrapes the rock. Several people ahead of me lose control and end up like breech babies in a birth canal. Fortunately, I remain calm.
From the far chamber Rossano and Anibal reach back into the passageway, grab hold of each struggling spelunker, deftly rotate the squirming bodies and pull them through safely. I glide uninhibited right through to the other side.
This cave is a breeding ground for hydrophobia, claustrophobia, arachnophobia, and any number of other psychogenic conditions. But so far, everyone is doing relatively fine, facing fears, and overcoming doubts.
As we climb and descend boulder-strewn passageways, negotiate water jumps and navigate the twists and turns of the underground river, Rossano has us shout out warnings to one another of “sharp rocks here,” or directions like “stay left, hug the wall on this turn.” The soaring chambers echo with our shouts of encouragement as we encounter challenging obstacles. We ease into a natural rhythm.
Suddenly, we’re a team. Almost imperceptibly, the tension melts and fun overcomes fear. I’m surprised, and finally begin to actually enjoy the adventure. Don’t get me wrong, the whole thing is still physically taxing, stressful and tiring as hell, but the positives are in ascendance.
We pass icicle-like stalactites that hang from the ceiling like toxic tonsils. In other places slimy stalagmites scattered across the cave floor look like organic alien birth pods.
Rossano keeps us in tight formation as we push ahead through the stunning and extraordinary underground environment.
I’m finally becoming relaxed and able to appreciate some of the more subtle aspects of our march. We stop for a breather and I realize that some strategic positioning is called for. For much of the hand-over-hand climbing we’re doing, my face is less than an arm’s length from the person’s *** in front of me, which is intensely illuminated and magnified by the glow of my headlamp. If I’m going to have someone’s butt in my face for the remaining three hours of this journey, it’s not going to be Jim’s or the chubby army guy’s!
When Rossano calls us to get started again I politely allow Rachel to move into line ahead of me. Even deep down here, for the perceptive, there is an aesthetic sensibility to the experience. Clearly, the smoker guy from Canada who falls in line behind me isn’t very discerning.
We body raft along a series of subterranean rapids and soon encounter a bottleneck at the entrance to another tight passageway. Our bright yellow helmet-covered heads bob up and down in the water at the mouth of the opening. We ricochet aimlessly and uncontrollably off of the chamber’s walls and bump into one another. We look like a gaggle of those yellow plastic ducks that race blindly along the tin aqueducts of a carnival game.
Once on the far side of the passageway, we slosh out of the river and onto a soggy beach. Rossano tells us, “Look up at the ceiling.”
The lights of our headlamps crisscross on the dark vault of the cave’s high ceiling, like those giant spotlights in the night sky that announce the grand opening of some new business. My light slides along the ceiling and passes over a dark smear. I jerk my head back and rest my spotlight on what I realize is a giant bat. In silhouette, the bat clings to the rock face with its wings spread wide, looking just like the signal that summons the Dark Knight to Gotham City. Yeah I know. I’ve seen far too many movies.
The bats are everywhere. We hear the swish of their mass exodus as the creatures seek the comfort of darkness deeper in the cave.
Farther on we come across “The Three Amigos,” a trio of impressive stalagmites formed over the millennia by dripping calcite mineral deposits.
A few minutes later Rossano casts the light of his large electric torch upon his favorite formation.
“Mofongo!” he celebrates. “See? Looks just like it. I love the stuff.”
He’s right. It does look like mofongo. My stomach churns at the sight. It looks like a pile of vomit to me. Thank God we don’t linger.
We arrive next at the “bath mat,” a steep slope of smooth flat rock that rises at about a 50-degree pitch.
“Just walk right up it,” Rossano yells from the back of the line. “Trust me, that rock is sticky. It just looks slippery.”
He’s right again. My shoes grip the rock. But the sheer incline is hell on my knees. At this angle they’re not steady or strong enough to propel me up. I have no choice but to compensate using upper body strength. But, Aden has surveyed the situation and switched positions in line. He gives me just the right amount of push from behind. I scale the rise easily. The transformation in our relationship is unspoken, but clearly he senses my acquiescence.
I grasp a rope that is attached to a boulder at the top of yet another precipice and begin to pull myself up hand over hand. Half way up the hill a burning sensation tears through the upper tricep of my left arm. At the top, I clutch at the muscle and ignite a searing pain. At this stage of the expedition it doesn’t matter. What am I going to do? I can’t turn back. The only choice I have is to push on.
“Damn.” Things were going so well.
Back again in the river, the cold water numbs my arm. We float through a large chamber. Rossano illuminates a massive wall of interlocked stalagmites and stalactites and proclaims, “Behold, the Let’s Make A Deal Curtains!”
Our groans and moans at yet another of his lame attempts at humor ricochet through the cavity. He loves staging these comic catastrophes.
This outing is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, literally and figuratively. One moment I’m having a great time clamoring along through the bowels of the underworld, amazed by millenniums-old natural formations, bizarre creatures and the abject isolation of this deep, dark place. The next instant, I’m glowering at rivulets of blood seeping from the five knuckles of my right hand, which I’ve scraped against the rough rock edges of a boulder as I try to catch myself after slipping and stumbling head first toward an innocent, unsuspecting stalagmite. The ancient Taino petroglyphs painted on the cave’s walls intrigue me. Yeah, but one of my ankles is swelled from being twisted and wedged between two rocks, and the other one is sprained and bleeding from being gouged on another spastic free fall. My arm aches non-stop. I want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Mercifully, it’s time for lunch. Rossano leads us up a precipitous pile of mammoth boulders. It’s a waterfall-like cascade of rock that tumbles down from the cavern’s soaring ceiling. People are tiring. We’ve been in here, pushing ourselves deeper and deeper, pretty much non-stop for three and a half hours. We climb to a muddy little circular mesa at the top of the boulders.
“Welcome to the Banquet Room,” beams Rossano, arms akimbo. A number of weirdly shaped, flat-topped rocks scattered about the tiny summit serve us well as seats. On three sides of the mesa thirty-foot sheer cliffs look down on fields of jagged rocks below. We drop our backpacks and plop ourselves down in the spooky refuge.
Dehydration’s effects catch up with me. Fatigue is a factor again. I’m shot. There couldn’t be a better time for a break. The entire group is pretty spent and somber.
“Lights out,” Rossano orders.
“What now?” I roll my eyes. I’m beat, and with this second wave of low energy I’m very concerned about the rest of the journey.
Headlamps go out. I can hear people shifting their tired butts on the hard rock seats. I hear them breathing rhythmically, but I can’t even see my own fingers as I wiggle them just an inch from my face. This is what outer space must be like, but without the muck.
Rossano flicks a cigarette lighter and the flame illuminates his face. He lights a stubby white candle and sits it down beside Rachel. She’s suddenly discernable to the group. One by one Rossano and Anibal light more candles and sit one next to each of us.
I drop my helmet on the ground next to me. Something smells funny. Aden raps me on the shoulder and gestures toward my helmet. “****!” I’ve laid the plastic helmet right next to the burning candle and it’s melting the damn thing. I snatch the scarred helmet away, hopefully before anyone notices my dumb *** mistake.
In the ethereal luminosity on the mesa I gaze down at my blood and mud-caked hands. For the first time since we entered the cave I’m able to take a look at each individual in the group.
Some, who’ve made the mistake of wearing cotton instead of water-wicking fabrics, sit shivering. All of our exposed skin is grimy and our clothes irrevocably soiled. Remarkably, no one is bitching or complaining.
“How quaint,” I reflect, caustically. “A candlelit lunch in hell.”
I’m a little on edge. Attitude adjustment necessary! Aden rifles through our packs and hands me a sandwich and a bottle of glorious Gatorade. It is amazing what a little sustenance will do for an exhausted body and a wearied psyche.
After a few bites and several long gulps I feel almost chipper. I’m surprised, but not about to over analyze why I’m revived. I’ll call it a gift from the universe and be satisfied.
Every one in the group seems refreshed. Suddenly the mood is upbeat again.
We continue to munch our snacks and recuperate while Rossano preps us for the last leg of our journey.
“Listen carefully,” he warns. “You must pay close attention.”
There’s a different, more intense tenor in his voice. Instinctively, we zone in on his words.
“From here we head back through the cave and make our way out. This, you must understand, is when most injuries occur, when people get excited about finishing the journey and sometimes lose focus and become careless.”
A couple of weeks before, I had read about an incident that happened in this cave system some years back. A group of spelunkers got disoriented in an ill-advised rush to exit the cave system. One of their guides was injured, knocked unconscious while saving a young woman. In their haste, the confused adventurers caused a miscommunication between the other guides who thought their injured partner was fine and on his way out. Not so. The snafu resulted in the injured guide being left behind. He died in the cave. The entire group was trapped inside overnight.
“It is called exit fever,” Rossano warns. “Like summit fever on a mountain, and just as dangerous.”
In the Karst region, far above us on the surface, the trade winds often deliver late afternoon thunderstorms that send tens of thousands of gallons of rainwater raging through the underground river system, flooding the subterranean caves, caverns, and canyons. We must be out of here before any such storm occurs.
Whoa, even with renewed energy, it hurts to drag my battered body to a standing position. My muscles are stiff and sore. But there is no doubt in my mind now that I can finish this thing. I’ve just got to focus like Rossano said. Plus, I’ve got Aden watching my back. It’s not a bad feeling after all. I’m no longer embarrassed to accept some help.
“For much of the way back,” Rossano tells us, “we’re retracing our steps.”
At intervals he stops us and shines his lamp on spectacular formations that we never saw on the way in, even though we passed by just a few feet from them. That’s because for the most part on the way in our headlamps had been focused only on the person’s butt directly in front of us.
After sliding ourselves sideways, backs against the wall of a very narrow corridor, we emerge into a large vaulted room. From where we stand the room is about forty yards in length to the far side. The floor appears flat and smooth. Rossano breaks our elephant-like nose-to-tail formation and arranges us in a side-by-side line that stretches across the ten-yard width of the room.
“Here we must have a race,” he schools. “No kidding.” He points to the floor. “It’s a mud field. Knee deep and thick. If you stop or hesitate, it will suck your shoes off and immobilize you. Do not stop for anything!”
“Oh Jesus, this is going to be a cluster,” I say to Aden.
Jerking my legs free from this gooey mess is going to play hell with my knees.
“Get ready,” Rossano yells.
I draw a sightline across the mud field to a rock that looks like the prow of a ship. I remember that, “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” The fewer steps the better. This is the one time that I actually give a **** about a math concept!
“Go!” comes the command.
All hell breaks loose as our line surges forward. Any hope for a straight path to my rocky prow disappears immediately. The thick mud sucks on my legs like a primordial breastfeeding fiend. It’s chaos.
The person to one side of me -I don’t know who- falls down heavily, splattering me with gobs of slime and knocking me sideways off course. My knee gives out and I begin to tumble. From the other side Aden saves me from going down with a shoulder push that keeps me upright. I stumble forward. Mud flies everywhere. It’s in my mouth and in my eyes.
The noise is deafening. The cavern reverberates with the screams and shouts of people trying to propel themselves through the mire.
The mud field is alive, intent on swallowing us whole! I feel the joints in my knees separate each time I yank my leg free from the subterranean succubus. Bones grind against one another with every step forward.
Aden must be far ahead of me by now. I can’t see much. Everything and everyone is the color of mud. I lose my balance and drop to one knee. How the hell am I going to get out of this?
I hear someone slog up beside me. A tiny shaft of light pokes out from my mud-caked headlamp and falls on a muck-slathered face. Aden grabs my arm before I’m totally immobilized and hoists me to my feet. Wow, are things ever different now. We press on.
Only a couple of steps forward and the mud’s relentless vacuum-like suction negates our momentum. Cursing doesn’t help. We churn slowly onward.
Miraculously, we reach the far side. Like forlorn castaways thrashing through the surf to reach the shore of a desert island, we slosh out of the goop and collapse in a heap among the bodies of our fellow survivors. As the last of us stomps out of the mud field, I take a look around. People gasp trying to fill their lungs with clean air. Others groan with exhaustion and spit mud from their mouths and blow it from their nostrils. Everyone digs the muck from ears and eyes. We look like a bunch of demented swamp monsters that would scare the hell out of most living things on the planet.
Rossano herds us down a corridor and around a bend. We come to a wide pool. The deep blue-black water shimmers in the light of our headlamps. We wade into its coolness and the filth slides like a melting fresco from our bodies.
We body raft leisurely along the river and emerge on a small sandy beach. I smell vegetation. The air is not as cool here. We’ve got to be close to the mouth of the cave.
We make our way through another narrow canyon, and as we clear the last stretch of rock wall an aperture of light flickers in the distance.
“Careful” Rossano cautions us. “We must take our time. Watch your footing. We don’t want any mistakes. No injuries now.”
We obey the master. He’s led us on a grand adventure without serious incident. Helped us take on a challenge whose true nature, if we’d known it ahead of time, many of us would have considered impossible, perhaps even idiotic.
Elated and limping through calf-deep water, I can’t help but smile and sigh, “I did it…I mean we did it, Aden and I together,” albeit via an unfamiliar modus operandi.
I am confirmed in my belief that genuine revelatory insights await discovery on worthwhile journeys. As I slog back toward the bright light of the surface world, it takes no effort to apprehend the penetrating disclosure of this subterranean pilgrimage.
The six intense hours spent in this mind-blowing, fascinating, gut-checking netherworld have been cathartic. It’s been a ritualistic rite of passage for both of us.
Walking ahead of me, Aden, silhouetted against the glowing mouth of the cave, appears larger somehow, more confident, more at one with himself than I’ve ever seen him. I’ve changed as well, adapted to some new physical realities and gained some wisdom in the process. “The torch is passed.”
There’s such an amazing sense of freedom in it. As we submerge ourselves in the last pool of shimmering clear water before the exit and wash off the final bit of mud and muck of the day, I feel as though we’ve sloughed off so many of the burdensome arbitrary roles and unrealistic expectations of fathers and sons. We’ll be equal partners on life’s journey now. It happened so naturally.
Now, I might be an idiot, because I’ll barely be able to walk or even move tomorrow. I’m bleeding in more than a few places, my injured arm kind of just hangs limp at my side, my left knee snaps loudly with each step, both ankles throb, and I can hear the Doc sharpening his scalpel. But damn, today was awesome, and totally worth the struggle.
Our first step out of the darkness of the cave and into the light heralds the debut of my and Aden’s new relationship. It’s a profound moment…..until the thunderous chorus from the “Rocky” theme song blasts from a hidden niche somewhere in the dense jungle foliage.
Rossano! The guy never quits.