October 15, 2003

spelunk, spelunk, spelunk

Today I trekked 45 minutes upriver through primary jungle into a cave, a cave made of rock forged by the dinosaur killer that hit the Yucatan 65 million years ago, a cave infested by vampire bats and blind chittering spiders, a cave used a thousand years ago for Mayan bloodletting rituals and at least 13 human sacrifices whose calcified remains still litter the cathedral-like grand chamber.

What I'm trying to say is: You want atmosphere? We got atmosphere.

It was a damp journey. The cave was carved by a cold river which is mostly wadable but is often chest-deep and sometimes required swimming, not to mention a fair amount of (very easy) rock climbing. The river is also responsible for the phantasmagoric rock formations found everywhere inside, formations that look like glittering crystalline curtains, arches draped with rippling fabric, frozen waterfalls, enormous columns of melting candle wax, Gigeresque fluted tenebrous ribs, pockmarked by perfectly spherical holes in the ceiling in which the bats live.

Apparently it was a great honour to be executed there, as it meant a guaranteed shortcut to heaven. And apparently the majesty of your place in heaven was directly proportional to the amount of pain you suffered when you died.

There were four-inch spiders with eight-inch antennae; the antennae are used to navigate since of course the spiders, like all cave dwellers, are completely blind.

On the way to the cave I snacked on live termites, fresh from the mound -- a strange carroty taste, since you ask -- and on the way out I was bitten by a spider, hopefully radioactive.

We passed Mennonite corn plantations on the way there and back. It's weird enough seeing communities of blond men in suspenders and straw hats surrounded by the Belizean jungle, and hearing them speak some kind of Old German. It's especially weird if you come from a town with a major Mennonite community and the sight reminds you of what was once your home.

Belizean word salad

An impossibly bright tropical sky, laced with skeins of cloud, patrolled by a half-dozen dark frigate birds, their five-foot wingspans and long tails sustaining them against the wind. Cracked and grimy streets shimmering in the heat, sewers carved roughly into either edge, lined by cheap concrete buildings, rickety wood-frame houses with corrugated-aluminum roofs, occasional elegant colonial buildings. Worn tombstones testifying to the appallingly low life expectancy of the British who lived here in the 19th century, proudly declaring each corpse's home county in England -- those not fortunate enough to be white in that era presumably lie in shallow unmarked graves. A narrow grap between mangrove-choked cayes, the trees reaching their leafy limbs at the water taxi threading their needle. Heat like an anvil on my back. The sandy streets of Caye Caulker, littered with restaurants, lodges, dive shops, Internet cafes, European tourists, ubiquitous reggae wafting over all. A huge green moray eel, chomping toothily on water from beneath an artifical wreck 70 feet below sea level. Rusted iron bars guarding a Belize City shopkeeper. A vanside sign advertising "Belize's Best Buy!" - beans, apparently. Children and teenagers scurrying in packs, all wearing school uniforms. Halloween costumes advertisted on the door of an Esso station. Gatorade in every corner shop. Chinese restaurants, and Taiwan-funded development projects, everywhere. A business called "The Pathology Laboratory" with branches in every city. Mennonites, time travellers from the 18th century with suspenders, straw hats, leather faces, blue eyes, and misshapen yellow teeth. Sunsets attaining a deep luminescent crimson found only in the tropics. PEPSI or COKE sponsor most of the company signs, but MARLBORO is nowhere to be found. The profound transition from secondary forest, once logged, to the giant vine-laden palm and fig trees of primary jungle. A cave opening straight out of Tolkien. Astonishingly beautiful cave formations, and the raw primal shock of seeing the first skull on the ground, its jaw frozen in its thousand-year rictus. The thick, odorless, oxygen-poor air of the cave, and the blinding daylight when we finally emerged. Claw marks of a jaguar who had used a tree we passed as a sharpening post. A long talk with three sons of Zimbabwe, and I its grandson, encountering one another by chance. The "No Credit Until Tomarra" sign behind the bar at Eva's. A sudden thunderstorm so violent that its tumbling chains of rain turned the whole world Impressionist. Working the hand-cranked river ferry myself, easier than it looks, as the ferryman looks on bemused. Flagging down a Novelo's bus populated entirely by giggling schoolgirls.