Before we adjourn to the bar, we’ve got to float through some haunted caves to get there. I guest I shouldn’t call them haunted, that sounds so unfriendly; but then I doubt we all came out of there with the same impression of how hospitable the visit was, how kind our hosts.
The next scheduled stop on the itinerary of the singles tour that had brought my new found friends and I together was San Pedro, that pretty little island village Madonna sang about. The three days at the Belize Botanical Garden, with the side excursion into Tikal, had been full indeed. I’d written off the very strange sensation that I’d been spoken to by a monkey as a dream, or at least I was trying hard to. Taylor was clearly a sensible person, but also an open one, and if he’d heard the monkey talk, I’m confident he would have admitted it.
After all, he’d spoken to the monkeys himself, which made him my kind of guy. I was sad to say goodbye to him when we left the garden.
To get to the lovely little island of song, we first had to travel to the Belize airport and puddle jump the little bit of paradise between the mainland and the barrier reef. Along the way, we had the option to go either cave tubing at an archeological reserve or zip lining in the rain forest nearby.
Zipping, like bungee jumping and roller coaster rides, is not for me. I seek my thrills elsewhere, as vertigo, nausea, and whiplash are not my cup of tea. At least I used to seek my thrills elsewhere; these days, thrills kind of seem to seek me. I’m pretty sure that one or two sought me out in the caves.
Our guide, Rudy, loved the caves.
“The spirits in the caves like me because of my Mayan blood. Since I’m small and have played in them since I was a child, I’ve been the first to enter many sacred spaces to make sure that it was okay for others, particularly tourists, to do so, too.” He smiled at Patrick and Kevin, who were eager to do some much more serious spelunking. “There are a few caves I’ve been forbidden by the spirits within to share with others. And sometimes, the cave spirits just don’t like a person.”
“That’s stupid superstition.” Kevin had a whole lot of upper crust Bostonian intellectual arrogance about him and he did nothing to try and disguise it. He’d been just a little bit too wound up for most of the trip, most definitely harshing the beautiful buzz the place was giving me, and Rudy had been struggling to find a way to make him happy. While I was, at the time, every bit the rationalist and as skeptical as Kevin about cave spirits, I found Rudy’s ghost stories to be quite charming. Kevin, not so much. I was glad when he’d decided not to join us at Tikal. He’d gone horseback riding on his own up to a Belizean ruins near the garden that day instead. The horse had thrown him and he was still ill tempered over it.
“It is what it is.” Rudy smiled again and turned his attention to the rest of us. “You should go into the caves with an openness to the spirits. They’re really very friendly. Sometimes they bring luck. Sometimes it’s good luck and sometimes it’s not so good. Remember that as you float through and keep love in your heart. Listen to what the spirits have to say, they have gifts to offer.”
It seemed like good advice. Rudy was such a pleasant and happy guy, always smiling. Back then I didn’t believe for a minute that his natural joy had anything to do with spirits, I figured it was all about attitude. Perhaps they’re one and the same.
“My cousin Yhony has been through this cave so many times that the spirits tell him all about the people floating through. Ix Chel loves him very much, and she often visits the caves. Ask him about it later on at lunch, he’s always happy to share”.
“Yeah, what’s he charge? Twenty dollars?” Kevin really was obnoxious.
We all tried to ignore him as we gathered up our stuff for the long schlep over the river and through the woodsy jungle upstream to the launching point for our trip through Wonderland. It was warm and very wet out, and a steady rain had the river running with gusto at several of the crossing points.
“This certainly is different from tourism in the states, isn’t it?” Eric was helping me up the river bank. He was definitely starting to grow on me. He was incredibly earnest in everything he did, from his inquisitiveness with the guide at Tikal to his steadfast courtship of Anna, the young woman he’d taken a liking to. He struck me as a man on a mission to fall in love and start a family. He was playing the role of the gentleman at the end of the line, making sure the ladies made it up the rough spots okay. “There’s no way anyone would leave his business open to the kinds of lawsuits a place like this would face. I bet people get all kinds of banged up on these trips.”
“That’s a fact.” I replied, doing a little bit of huffing and puffing as I did, glad that I hadn’t gotten banged yet. Well, wait. I was glad I hadn’t fallen and hurt myself yet. “This isn’t nearly idiot-proof enough for the states.” I was wondering if it was idiot proof enough for me by that time, having darned near lost it more than once crossing the river. I was trying hard to maintain my self image of cool capability as I juggled clinging to the guide rope, my tube, water, bag and headlamp.
At the higher elevation of the launch point, the river was very broad and calmer. Yhony turned out to be an incredibly gorgeous Afro-Caribe with long dreadlocks and a booming tenor, softened by its happy lilt. It echoed through the caves and danced when he laughed, which was often. It was hard to imagine that he and Rudy shared a Mayan grandmother, given he was twice as massive at ten years younger. When he smiled, the resemblance showed through.
“There are two things to remember when going through the caves.” He had me mesmerized already. I had no clue who Ix Chel was, but she had damned good taste. “The first is this: When I say to you “butts up”, you pick your butt up and you keep your butt up till I so okay. You get me?”
“Jesus, what’s not to get?” Kevin whined. “Don’t scrape your ass on the rocks!”.
For a nanosecond, Yhony lost his grin. Then he smiled at Kevin. “Very good, YOU do get it. The second thing to remember is this: Stay quiet in the caves and you might hear the voices of the spirits. Show respect. Open your heart. Offer gratitude. Are we ready to go?” We all nodded in agreement; Kevin harrumphed.
“I’m gonna count you as you go in the cave, I give you a number. I haven’t lost anybody yet, but so many come through these days, and my wage from the company comes from the number I bring through safe.” He smiled again, something that came from the source. “There be nine in Rudy’s group. What’s your name, beautiful lady?” He smiled at Anna, and she smiled back. I’m pretty sure it would have been impossible for a heterosexual woman with a pulse not to.
“Beautiful Anna, as we move through the cave, you be one of nine. Your beautiful friend be two of nine.” He pointed to Marie, Anna’s tall, brunette traveling companion. Marie was developing into Eric’s arch nemesis. She’d been working diligently to block his success with Anna. Thus far she seemed to have the edge in the game. She’d been applying steady doses of Malbec to Anna every evening at dinner, rendering her a lot more malleable to her domination.
Singles travel is a lot like reality TV, or at least what I imagine reality TV to be like.
“Can the gentleman tell me his number?” Yhony pointed to Patrick.
“I’m three of nine and feeling fine and ready to meet some cave spirits!” Patrick was in a jolly mood; he had a flask with him. I think he really enjoyed the slog through the jungle a lot more than I did. He was a little older than me, but a whole lot more fit, ready to take on every adventure the trip had to offer.
“As soon as you all be in, I swim ahead to the lovely Anna and lead the way. Let’s go!”
Each of us called out in turn. As we got our numbers, Yhony wrote them down on a slip of paper and put a symbol next to each. I assumed it was an ID of some kind, didn’t give it too much thought. After he recorded his data, he’d help each tuber into his or her vessel for a cast off into the slow, swirling current.
I followed Grace, a retiree from Montana. Four of nine to Yhony.
“Five of nine” I smiled at him. I had a funny feeling that rushed straight from eyes past my foolish grin down through my thumping heart into the pit of my stomach and onward to concentrate itself in my nether regions. Kundalini sinking. He had that effect. He smiled back and drew my symbol next to the number 59. “Butts up, listen close, lots of love, Mama.” Oh yeah.
“Six of nine.” Eric was right behind me, likely plotting his strategy for some fancy tube maneuvers aimed at keeping the lovely Anna up ahead safe from any evil spirits of the cave. Them and Yhony. Poor guy, as if Marie wasn’t enough of a challenge. But he seemed to like the challenge, and I admired him for it. He had a lot of spunk for a Gen X’er.
“Seven of nine.” Louise was behind Eric, followed by Kevin.
“Eight”. The big Ginger threw the word out there at Yhony like a challenge. The bigger yet Chocolate man just smiled.
“Remember, butts up and shuts up, mon.”
“And I am ninety nine Yoyo, let’s go!” Ruddy looked like a six year old as he grinned and boarded his tube.
We floated into the darkness. Everyone had fallen silent on entering the cave; it wasn’t so much that Yhony had advised it, there was something magical about the space. Quiet just happened. As we drifted further in, I hard a voice from the entrance we’d left behind, quite clearly, the word “binaries”. Probably some IT person in the next group. Funny we hadn’t heard them coming. Eric and I smiled at each other as the darkness become complete.
“Butts up!” Yhony’s booming voice echoed in the cave. I arched up in my tube and took a deep breath, unsure how long it was going to be before we got the okay, when I heard a woman’s soft whisper.
“Rushing Water” it said. It was ethereal, lovely, enchanting, for a minute any way. Almost immediately, my inner cynic spoke up and I found myself disappointed that Yhony and Rudy probably had a friend or two hiding in the caves. Maybe it was the tour company that made them do it, they seemed like such sweet guys.
“Okay!” called Yhony.
“FUCK!” came Kevin’s reply. Apparently he’d just had the first of several good ass scrapings.
We emerged into the light and floated on down the river. The rain had stopped and the sun was starting to come out. I looked ahead and saw Yhony floating on his back towards the entrance to the next cave, a rainbow in the mist over its entrance. Looking back, Rudy was squatting on his tube, perfectly balanced on his feet. He didn’t need to worry about picking his skinny little butt up, he’d kept it up! That’s how he’d managed to avoid what Kevin hadn’t.
Kevin’s butt was definitely up and showing through the rip in his baggies. A tiny, trickling trail of blood was being left in the water behind him. There was no way he was going to hold that pose for long; he was too big a guy and yoga was clearly not his sport. He looked more like an ice hockey kind of guy. For a second I let myself worry about Piranhas. Then I drifted into the next cave.
“Create Justice”. Now there was an odd thing for a tourist trap cave spirit whisperer to say. It sounded like exactly the same voice I’d heard before. It had a slightly different flavor to it from the relaxed position of butt down. It got me thinking. Does water rushing create justice? I guess it created the caves. Maybe the cave spirits consider that justice; they really are lovely, a nice place for a spirit to hang out. “Winds of change.”
The calls from ahead and behind brought me out of my reverie. The degree to which I’d managed to let my mind wander off with ideas about cave spirits when I was clearly being messed with by someone was funny, even fun, and I decided to just let go and enjoy it.
We drifted out of the cave and into the light. We drifted back into darkness and limestone.
“Ecosystem Earth.” she whispered. “Strong crocodile.” Geez, I sure hope there aren’t any crocodiles lurking around here anywhere, especially not strong ones, not with Kevin’s blood letting, my inner voice replied. “Soaring Eagle”.
By the time we reached the end of the run, Kevin’s rear end was a mess. He’d gotten kind of quiet; it was clear that just below the surface, something nasty was brewing.
After a change into dry clothes, Louise and I joined Eric at the table where he was chatting with Yhony and Rudy. Yoyo held a sheet of paper in his hand. At the top was the number 79 and the symbol he’d drawn next to it.
“Seven nine is the wind. Did the spirits have anything to tell you, my friend?”
Eric smiled. He and Louise and I had talked about the whisperers in the caves. They’d heard them, too. It’s kind of funny, the fact that they’d heard them absolutely convinced me that it had been a kind of scam. It wasn’t like the talking monkey at all. I’d let myself start to believe in lots of silly hokum since I’d been on this trip.
“Oh yeah, changing wind does justice work and dogs are warm to ancient owls. And jaguars lose their faith sometimes.” He said it will a laugh; after all, it was all in good fun.
I found it amazing that as close together as we’d been in the caves that he’d heard something different than I had. I assumed he was paraphrasing, maybe it was a trick of the echoes in all that limestone. At least we both heard the same justice chick and winds of change. Yhony dutifully wrote all that down on the paper and handed it to Eric.
“Remember these things, mon. They help you find your lady love.”
Louise spoke right up. She was very much into the spirit of the New Age and cave whisperers, ready to believe anything. She was pretty much into the spirit of Yhony, too. Like I said, it was kind of hard not to be.
“Changing wind and sweet death brings gentle light to the magic rabbit!”. She was wide eyed, totally enthralled. She’d bought in hook, line, and sinker.
“Ah, sweet Jaguar spirit lady 89. The cave spirits recognize you as one of them indeed.” He wrote down her words without having to ask her to repeat them.
He turned to me. “Ix Chel, she like you, Mama. She tell me words to give lady 59. But don’t peek now, you look later”. He handed me a carefully folded sheet of paper. I figured that Rudy had told him that I was no yokel, and they were hoping I’d play along. I was happy to.
Each of us gave Yhony a small token of thanks, as is the custom for tour guides. Gorgeous guides like Yhony probably took home more cash every day than most of their fathers had made in a year doing manual labor. Kevin made his way slowly to the table just as we were saying goodbye to him.
“Oh, what’s this?” He looked at the paper Eric held in his hand. “You aren’t actually paying for this bullshit are you?”
“No mon, nobody gotta pay Yoyo for nothin’. “Ix Chel, she have something for you, too. You hear her in the caves?”
“I didn’t hear anything other than you saying okay when it very obviously wasn’t. I should sue. Sue the fucking country. I’ve had about enough Belizean bullshit!” His naturally pale skin was starting to give his ginger’s hair a run for it’s red money as his blood pressure spiked.
“Well, I wrote what she say down for you, but don’t peek ‘til later.” He handed Kevin a slip of paper that looked just like mine. Probably another explanatory note for my fellow skeptic.
“Screw you!” Kevin violently opened up the sheet to reveal it’s message. THIS IS BULLSHIT.
He stormed away.
The fever and chills didn’t hit him until we’d boarded the puddle jumper. Thankfully, the explosive diarrhea and projective vomiting he suffered for the last four days of the trip didn’t kick in until we’d checked into the hotel on San Pedro. We didn’t see Kevin again until we were flying out of Belize on our way back to the states.
It was an interesting trip through the caves indeed.
It got a lot more interesting at the bar a couple of days later.
Linda Brooke Stabler, Ph.D.