Las Bocas del Toro, Panama
As soon as my companion dropped her light we were gobbled up by total darkness. Expletives were uttered in a fruitless search through the almost waist-high water to find her lost torch. “It probably won’t turn on,” I think as I listen as I hear her feel through the darkness. I angrily hit my useless headlamp on my head. “Please, Please turn on!!” It still won’t work. I could feel all the sequestered fear I’d had burbling back up from the deep vault inside myself where I’d buried it.
“Deep breaths,” I remind myself, “In and out.” I exhale forcefully every time just to release my extra stress. My companion and I stand in the total darkness quietly now, waiting for someone to catch up to us with their life bringing light. Bats whistle by our heads. The roar of the mini river rushes past our feet and thighs. In any other moment, it would have been peaceful. To calm myself I start thinking about the earlier events of the year and day.
The morning had started off amazing.
We woke up in a sunlit room to the noises of the jungle. Our room was completely open. The only thing separating us from the jungle outside was a rather thick mosquito net that hung around our bed. We were staying at an all natural hotel which was exclusively dependent on the surrounding jungle for survival. Our meals each day had been prepared with ingredients that were grown on their jungle farm. It blew my mind how much time and effort it took to prepare a single meal for eight people. We had eaten mango salsa with eggs with coconut bread this morning for breakfast. I was eager to make it back to dinner tonight.
Taylor, my girlfriend, and I were a rather new couple. We’d been together for about six months as part of a poly relationship and this was our first big trip abroad together. I’d agreed to go on this trip this morning because it had NEVER been mentioned that cave swimming would be part of our expedition.
I hate caves.
I always have. When I was six or seven I had my first cave experience with my family. We would drive to Michigan each summer from Washington state to visit my dad’s family. It was great I always loved these trips. Each year we’d visit new scenic spots and this year we’d decided to go to a cave. I was so excited for this trip. I could hardly wait. A cave!! Yay! I loved rocks and dinosaurs fossils you named it. Geology was looking like my calling at that time and my life.
My family and I watched the introduction video, which brought us into a room that was a simulated cave. I’ll admit I remember not really liking that room all that much, but my six-year-old self shrugged it off. “The cave the cave!! Let’s get to the cave!” I shouted with glee when the video was over. My mom though was smart she knew something was up. “Are you sure you want to go to this cave? It’s a long hot walk. “Yes, the cave let’s go!” My little brother and I were jumping up and down with excitement. My mom gave a knowing look to my dad, “Alright! Let’s go!”
Like horses from a starting line, we cantered off up the hot dusty trail to our first cave.
As it was hot we soon started walking and my parents caught up. On our trek up to the cave, my nose was practically covered in dirt and almost scuffed up I was looking so hard for fossils and cool rocks in the dirt. “Come on, walk faster!” My mom shooed me along. Finally, I was able to get my nose out of the dirt. I looked up and there it was the opening of the cave. I immediately thought of Aladdin and how he was swallowed by a cave. Fearfully, I slowed my roll and hung back. My brother and dad sped up as they saw it and were inside as quick as can be.
My mom though stayed with me “Are you okay? How are you feeling?” “I don’t want to go in,” I ashamedly muttered. “We walked all this way let’s just try to get inside,” my mom murmured. Tentatively I approached the entrance. Its large mouth taunts me and I wait for it to gobble me up. The rest of our tour group has arrived by now and they are waiting for me. I hang out just on the outskirts of the cave mouth. My mom goes and talks to the tour guide. Together they come back over and gently encourage me to enter the cave. “Just go as far as you want sweetie,” the tour guide recommends. I encourage myself and take some purposeful strides into the cave.
The tour starts and we descend down the first flight of steps. With images of Aladdin and the ground collapsing over my head I turn tail and run out. Even though my parent tried to get me to go back in I refused and so my first cave venture ended, unlike any way I had foreseen.
This hadn’t stopped me later on in life from trying out caves. I visited Ape caves in Arizona and loved them. They were so large and full of depth. It’s truly incredible the size of some of these caverns, and the delicate ecosystem that lives inside of them. I remember looking out over this underground mud flat and was just stunned that I couldn’t comprehend the depth. They said that like 50 football fields could fit in the one area. All it looked like was that one would be able too. The original footprints of the first cave explorers were still there! Embedded in the mud, Just incredible!
The evening we arrived at our luscious and green jungle resort, we were offered future options for additional items to add to our itineraries.
One of the items was to see a bat cave. The only other information was that you might get a bit wet. Keyword in that sentence was might get wet. This made sense because we had to take a boat to get to the cave. We all thought they meant some water might splash up. Understatement of the year. In my soggy state, I was sure they had never been on this trip before. Given my history with caves, a bat cave was my least favorite option, but it was Taylor’s first. I’m not sure why she was such an eager beaver to visit the bat cave, but it was her number one choice. Coincidentally it was also was the trip that our other travel companions wanted to do. Since we were a small group of eight, it was decided that we would all go check out the bat cave.
It was only because of Taylor’s excitement that I agreed to go. She talked about it all night and even sleep talked about bats and caves. As I lay there in dread of the next morning, I resolved to see it through. It would make her happy and since we were in our honeymoon phase this was very important. In the back of my mind, I felt like I might even impress her with my cool-headed bravery.
We awoke to the sound of screeching monkeys and loud insects.
Our trip departed early in the morning almost immediately after breakfast. I ran back up to my room and tore apart my bag looking for my headlamp. It wasn’t anywhere, which was super annoying as I’d had it only a few days before. Luckily Taylor hadn’t lost her lamp and so we had one between us. We trotted down from our treehouse onto the boardwalks that connected all of our jungle accommodation together, down to the docks.
The docks had been lovingly built within the mangrove forest that protected our lodgings from the sea. The roots of these trees are so impressive with their gnarled bark and claw-like appearance. Each tree seemed to be a cat kneading the earth with its claws. We hopped into the boat and away we went into the quiet morning. We first motored through a calm mangrove forest and saw many, many sloths. I’d never seen sloths before or knew anything about them except that they are very slow. Our tour guide chattered away telling us the history of sloths and their life cycle. For instance they leave their trees one time a week to poop and they are fast swimmers. I thought to myself that must have been a really slow study.
Once we reached the end of the river we got out and started to walk to this farmer’s house where we ate a slow leisurely lunch.
We watched the many chickens and chicks that ran around the property and tried to imagine living in a jungle like this. The house was constructed of local wood. It was on stilts so that when the river flooded the house wouldn’t flood. There weren’t any doors, only blankets. Even the toilet only had a thin piece of cloth that only covered your knees. There was an upstairs with beds made of blankets and palm fronds. My favorite part about the house was the open floor plan and my least favorite part about the house was the open floor plan.
To get into the house there were steep wooden steps that were merely palm trees cut in half and nailed together. The main floor was uneven bits of long trees that were cobbled together. It was a little bit tricky to walk around lest you get your shoe stuck in the floor. The main part of the room was taken up by a long table with a few picnic chairs. In order to keep people from falling out of the house there was a single bit of long wood nailed between the support beams of the exterior of the house.
It was here that they outfitted us with hard hats and flashlights and we trooped out of the house into the jungle.
The walk through the lush green jungle was serene and relatively quiet apart from constant chirping of birds and cicada songs. It was when I saw the cave mouth that I began to get suspicious of the intent of our trip actually was. It was a huge opening that appeared as if a giant had taken a part of the mountain and tore it off. The echoes of thousands of bats were amplified. The rustling of their wings and their high pitched screeches were unnerving. I was content to stand just outside the opening viewing everything from the outside, but our guide insisted that everyone follow him in and so our river trek into the depths of the cave began. And that’s how I ended up in this pitch dark cave without a light.
I longed for my girlfriend whom I’d left as she was preparing to cliff jump again into a dark, bottomless, whirlpool.
Talk about fearless, I hoped she thought me nearly as impressive. Bats whistle by and over our heads. I shrug my shoulders and decide to push on. My next step lands my foot in a diagonal crevice. It’s also brought the river water up to my chest. I feel little fish swishing around my legs and hands as I slowly extract my foot.
Finally, we see lights bobbing towards us. Like small fish being drawn into a larger predator fish in the depths of the ocean, we tried to move towards them.
My girlfriend caught up with us. “Hey! I found…. How about you come over here a second.” Her facial expression of happiness changing to one of unease and fear. I followed her advice no questions asked. I knew asking would only result in further panic. Just smile and breathe. She brushes something off my stomach and grabs my hand. “Let’s get out of here!” I second that motion and quickly, it was still pretty slow, follow the slimy walls that guide us to our exit. It was hard to notice at first but I began to see a pinprick of bright light ahead of me. That light was my Holy Grail. And I’ll admit I ran the rest of the way out of that deep, dark throat that had swallowed my eight companions and me.
Once outside in the jungle, I quite literally sat down and prayed a prayer of gratitude.
I also stood a little prouder that day. The score was officially caves five me one; but after 25 years of fighting that fear, one triumph was enough. I guess love does conquer all after all.
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