31 January 2013

Catharsis

"We walk by faith and not by sight."
-- II Corinthians 5:7
 
Surprisingly, I felt rested when my alarm rang at 8:00.  I returned to McDonald’s to brush my teeth & put my contacts in.  It was Day 5 and I was stiff from sleeping in a compact car & -- more accurately – my wreck on Vieques. Also, I had not technically showered since Day 2 (the evening after the bioluminescent bay tour).  The backs of my legs itched inexorably & I pondered if that was the reason.  Although I did not shampoo my hair or wash my body, I swam in the flowing [what I thought was fresh] water of El Cañon de San Cristbal yesterday.  I thought that was better than not showering entirely, but now I questioned if I acquired some sort of river funk.

I utilized the very specific directions to Cueva Ventana.  Thankfully, la autopista a.k.a. the highway was straighter, wider and better maintained than I was accustomed to since bisecting karst country.  The gas station was unassuming & I zoomed past it like any ignorant visitor would.  I U-turned and parked in the back, of the lot near the dumpster.  Nothing identified this Texaco as the spot. In the side lawn of el estacionamiento (which served as Cueva Ventana parking) was a closed, wooden food stand.  I changed into my tennis shoes and loaded my backpack.  This was undoubtedly the petrol station that Puerto Rico Day Trips’ website mentioned, but I had no clue where to disembark. 
My confusion was answered by a teenage chico a.k.a. boy with unkempt hair who approached me and charged for parking.  He pointed to the trailhead 25 feet to the right of el estacionamiento that resembled an access road.  There was a chain blocking the uphill, dirt path so I sucked my stomach in & squeezed between the pole and the gangly, reaching plants.   

The jungle was just waking up & quiet, aside from the tweeting birds. Like any nomad, I was pleased to be by myself & without company.  After hiking upward for fifteen minutes, the ground leveled but the path narrowed.  Like the massive potholes on 605, murky puddles engulfed the visible trail. The soil was a mixture of compacted sand and dirt.  I took my time circumventing the puddles so as to not slip in the mud, but a few times I was forced to leap over them.

The trail expanded again & slightly inclined, so I was able to stroll effortlessly.  I noticed to my left a stringy tree on raised ground.  During my research at McDonald’s I learned el arbol demarcated the back (and more difficult) entrance to Cueva Ventana. Not long after & around another bend, the two, neighboring entrances to las cuevas appeared.
Did I really want to do this? Headlamp secured, I descended the wooden planks & stood at the mouth of Cueva Ventana.  It sure was dark in there.  I surveyed the gap for a trail but could only see 15 feet before la cueva was engulfed in darkness.  There were no obvious paths.  Other than the stalagmite columns, the mouth resembled a ballroom: smooth walls dim lighting, spacious.  To calm my nerves I sauntered around the areas I could see.  To my right, I was able to distinguish the ceiling of la cueva but each step away from the entrance decreased the amount I could see drastically.  In just four steps I was thrown into the void.

I retreated to the opening to get my bearings.  The ceiling to my right, implied I should go left.  I switched my headlamp on & took the first step, but the flashlight was much more faint than I had hoped.  In fact, I could scarcely gaze five feet ahead of me.  Unnerved, I replayed the ramifications of my decision.  As far as I knew, I was the only person here.  If I got lost – which was greatly becoming a possibility – I would have to wait until someone happened upon me. I had enough medical supplies & food to remain in Cueva Ventana for about 8 hours – but the mere thought of being stuck in a cave at night made me anxious. I pictured the parallels between me and the main character in the film (based on a true story) 127 Hours.

Behind me, the light from outside was already diminishing. If I was going to turn back, now was the time.  I berated myself for thinking like a wussy. Apparently, I had not learned much from Vieques (when I pushed my limits on the 125cc) because here I was, on Day 5, about to depart into emptiness, just to prove my worth. At this threshold, I – once again – took a leap of faith.  Knowing that most things worth doing in life required effort gave me a little solace.

Though flat, the ground – like the outside world – was littered with puddles.  With each step into the abyss, I felt more discombobulated since la cueva was lengthy & my dull headlamp barely illuminated my next step.  Literally, I was stumbling in the dark. 

My fears heightened, but so did my instincts.  I subconsciously slipped into survival mode.  Instinctually, I knew that water followed the path of least resistance, so I retraced my way, back to a tiny stream I recently stepped over.  Though following the water could prove futile, at least I had an objective: to determine where it led. This minor mission gave me an instant purpose and I no longer felt like I was walking blindly into the la cueva.

Within five feet the trickling water dried up.  Still, I pursued the least resistance notion and moved along the smoothest/most eroded ground.  Ten feet later the world abruptly went black…

Ahead of me was nothingness. Behind me, there was nothingness as well.  The blackness was suffocating and so solid it felt like it had mass to it.  In this limbo, my mind panicked.  I violently banged the side of the headlamp causing it to flicker.  My mind was spinning out of control with inventive, terrifying outcomes.

I have distinct memories of scary moments in the dark at age 3.  As an adult, I’ve slept many nights with the bedroom lights on because that felt safer.  Now, I was on the verge of bursting into tears from sheer terror and simultaneously cursed myself for being so foolish. Why didn’t I check my flashlight’s power before marching into the unknown? I brought spare batteries, but absentmindedly left them in my suitcase (in the car). Still stuck in oblivion, I recognized my breathing was shallow and my lower jaw was chattering uncontrollably.  To prevent a full blown anxiety attack, I beeseched myself to take a deep breath & uncloud my mind.

As I exhaled and concentrated on finding a solution, I became more aware of my surroundings.  As Dan Brown’s character pointed out in The Lost Symbol, “The human body is amazing… If you deprive it of one sensory input, the other senses take over, almost instantly. Right now, the nerves… are literally ‘tuning’ themselves to become more sensitive.”  It was true.  First, the hairs on my arms felt a cool breeze.  So, I wasn’t going to suffocate. Furthermore, that meant somewhere in this labyrinth of rock, was an exit.

Second, my ears heard the muted chirping of crickets. As Paulo Celho succinctly wrote in The Alchemist, “Life attracts life.” Therefore, these insignificant insects became my guides.  With an arm extended (to prevent plowing into a stalactite face first) I slowly slid one foot over the earth in front of me to detect anything I may trip over or fall into.  Then, my ears detected another sound: bats.  I listened intently to the beating of their wings & drew a mental sketch of the length of la cueva based on how far away the bats flew.  I knew they were harmless but I started speaking aloud to them anyway so they knew where I was (true story: 6 months earlier, a bat trapped in my bedroom slammed into my face in the middle of the night).

Truthfully, I should have used the remainder of my batteries’ life to turn around.  Who knew how much further I had to go?  Who knew how many more obstacles laid ahead?  Ever hopeful, I advanced, smacking my flashlight every three steps to get a general impression of my whereabouts.  Still tracking the crickets and bats, I rounded a corner & glory, glory, hallelujah, there was a hint of daylight! Gazing down the corridor of limestone was figuratively & literally like staring at the radiance of heaven.


However, I envisioned the final walk to the pearly gates without guano mines. 
The brightness of the sunny morning permeated la cueva now.  I emerged from the rock tunnel into a clearing & fully absorbed the grandeur of Cueva Ventana.  Oh my God, it was breath-taking!

While I did not know what to expect when I began the trek through Cueva Ventana, the terrain had not changed drastically, so to be fixed this high off the ground was an unforeseen treat!  La cueva overlooked a fertile valley with a murky, meandering river & a sole road traversing the countryside.  The bats continued their morning chatter as I neared the edge, and I felt the freaky surge of vertigo from the sheer height. I was too frightened to stick my head over the edge, but had no problems letting my camera protrude.  In doing so, I also noticed that the river in the distance flowed surreptitiously beneath.

Completely content, I unpacked the fruit I bought yesterday in Utuado & ate desayuno on a makeshift chair of rock. I positioned myself with my feet hanging off the precipice and relaxed while bats freely zoomed in and out of la cueva.  Was I sweaty from basking in the sun – or from the mild panic attack?
A car sped across the road below & I imagined the scene if our roles were reversed: I’d be the driver, cruising on la carreterra, mistaking bats for birds & wholly unaware I was being spied on from a break in the mountains.  I wondered what Cueva Ventana’s mouth looked like to outsiders.
 
When I stood up & brushed the dirt off my legs, the back of them felt as rippled as the ground.  Upon examination, there were hundreds – if not thousands – of teeny, white bumps.  Overnight, the texture of my skin transformed into sandpaper.  My suspicions of being infected by bacteria from El Cañon de San Cristobal's stream kept rising.
My eyes had been glued to the world outside, so when I glanced back, I could not believe the gory sight. Everywhere, gravity showcased its omnipotence.  There were perfect examples of stalactites amalgamating with stalagmites to form rock columns.  They resembled large candles that had bubbled over with earth-colored wax.  The columns were numerous I was staring into a limestone forest.  Standing there, admiring nature’s handiwork, I jumped when a bat urinated on my head.  Actually, the same water that carved Cueva Ventana still sculpted the limestone.

Leaving, I again had to beat the headlamp every three steps.  Twenty feet in, I anticipated the only turn (left), but instead collided with the rock wall. Somehow – in just 20 feet – I went astray.  Doubling back the absolute darkness was not as daunting since I knew what laid ahead. 

As I climbed out of the mouth of la cueva, a family of four Puerto Ricans arrived.  The two women seemed as equally apprehensive as I was.  After the fiasco navigating Cueva Ventana & with my failing flashlight, I decided to pass on the second cueva, but still scoped out the interior as far as possible.

I was pessimistic. I was borderline foolish… but I was also hopeful. This time, my faith paid off.  As God & Mother Nature taught me: when we have faith, we are never alone.

24 January 2013

Drive

“Road trippin’ with my two favorite allies,
fully loaded we got snacks & supplies
it’s time to leave this town it’s time to steal away
Let’s go get lost anywhere in the USA
Let’s go get lost, let’s go get lost
Blue you sit so pretty west of the one,
Sparkle light with yellow icing just a mirror for the sun…
These shining eyes are just a mirror for the sun”
-- Red Hot Chili Peppers  [Road Trippin’]

I followed the helpful postman’s directions to find route 143 oeste – one & the same as La Ruta Panoramica.  I admit I flew by the sign, but I was 90% sure it read este, instead of oeste.  Perplexed, I back-tracked to a petrol station and asked [in Spanish] how to get to 143 oeste.  In watered down Spanish (for my sake) the woman behind the counter repeated the same directions the postman gave me.  I told her that was 143 este.  She shrugged & admitted that was the only way she knew to 143 & the male employee next to her butted into the conversation in agreement.  He identified that carreterra as La Ruta Panoramica headed toward La Reserva Forestal Toro Negro a.k.a. Black Bull Forest Reserve.  So, I trusted the locals & returned to that same road outside of Barranquitas.  I had a few doubts, but within four miles I saw another sign stating I was heading the correct direction on the correct road.  Yet, I still could not figure out how 143 este eventually became 143 oeste. Just like when I navigated the previous night & easily found 1 oeste but never located 1 oeste.   On la mapa, La Reserva Forestal Toro Negro – the most isolated of all Puerto Rican parks – looked like a half hour drive.  As I had also learned the previous night, though the map was drawn to scale, the indirect calles turned a pleasant day-trip into an infinitely long voyage.

La Ruta Panoramica stretched on, but it was much different in the daytime – it was exciting! Unlike last night, I could see much more than what my two, small headlights highlighted: rolling montañas, treetops galore, houses steeped on the hillside and – for the first time – the ocean!  Approaching Cerro Punta a.k.a. Hill Point – the zenith of the entire country – became the perfect vantage point.  Looking out was like staring at a Bob Ross painting.  The foreground was a vibrant green, the middle-ground was a murky brown (since overhead clouds blocked the sunlight), and the further rows of montañas were illuminated bright brown.  Last, there was a sliver of ocean blue near the low, hovering clouds.
 

According to Lonely Planet the turn-off to Cerro Punta would be well-marked and on my right.  However, nothing about the highways & byways of Puerto Rico had been straight forward thus far.  Therefore, when I arrived at Area Recreativa Doña Juana at 16:15.  I was saddened to have missed the sight, but not so sad that I wanted to circle back & attempt to find it.  Here at Toro Negro the open air and unobstructed views had been replaced by encroaching flora.

The entrance to Area Recreativa Doña Juana was already gated. The guest estacionamiento was empty, save for one SUV, and the DRNA office was closed (according to the internet, since 16:00).  The DRNA was where I intended to purchase an overnight permit (cost: $4 USD). Yet, my research declared visitors could receive assistance at the police office adjacent to the DRNA office.  I pulled slightly off La Ruta Panoramica & parked next to the creamy yellow building.  Despite the lack of cars – even police vehicles – I knocked on the door.  Barely surprised that no one answered, I took stock of my location.  Since my car doubled as my tent, I had no need to hike the short distance to Los Viveros campground.  Yet, I was unsure of the whereabouts of Los Viveros and certainly didn’t feel like venturing out with absolutely no one around.  Plus, the darkness of the impending jungle sort of unnerved me & though camping in el estacionimiento would be free, I was a bit unnerved about sleeping just a few feet from 143 oeste in this desolate area. El Cañon de San Cristobal had satisfied my desire to hike here, so I did not feel like I was missing out.  My gut told me to forget the disappointments & settle somewhere I felt safe.
I made the decision to leave Toro Negro quickly, since the sun was sinking toward the horizon & I still had miles to go. But to where? Oeste – en route to Arecibo (a definite stop on my journey) – was a ciudad a.k.a. city that intrigued me: Utuado.

West of el parque a.k.a. the park, clouds crept in.  They were actually high in the sky, but it just so happened I was too. I read this phenomenon was common around Toro Negro, but for the first time, I questioned my judgment. Now I really felt the urge to get to Utuado. According to la mapa, I had two options: veer off of La Ruta Panoramica & cut through Jayuya, or stay on La Ruta Panoramica, go a bit out of my way, then head north to Utuado.  I scrutinized the roads & made my decision based solely on the straightness of las calles.
Along the way, I scoured for haciendas a.k.a (coffee) ranches that littered Puerto Rico’s central montañas. My guidebook labeled many along La Ruta Panoramica & I saw the hand-written signs posted on trees, but every one I passed had a vacant estacionamiento, or boarded up windows, or both.  I was not terribly upset because coffee was not my vice; I merely wanted to learn about the process.  Perhaps it wasn’t coffee-brewing season in March.

La Ruta Panoramica’s intersection with 140 was easy to find (thank goodness), but the road had a lot more curves than la mapa indicated.  The second I came out of a left turn, I was forced to jerk the wheel right… and this was how la calle continued. When I took the split to 605 norte, I was hoping for a more direct path to Utuado. So when I descended a hillside & caught a glimpse of the hairpin turns below, I reassured myself this was just to get around la montaña. I was optimistic about the remainder of the journey, if I could just push through this zig-zagging section.

As irony would have it, I never caught a break.  605 norte incessantly changed direction and altitude.  The roadtrip became a dreadful rollercoaster ride, consisting of ups, downs, all-arounds, and violent bends.  Deeper in the jungle, the sun resurfaced making driving through villages less menacing.  The villages were not scary, just dilapidated & forgettable.  They were authentic, bucolic karst country.  Homes on one side of la calle were usually elevated & majorly lacked curb appeal.
Now & then I had to slow down to avoid vehicular manslaughter.  Locals parked their vans on la carreterra.  Left car doors were left hanging open & people even worked underneath of them alongside the traffic!  To make matters worse, the pavement was riddled with potholes. Car-engulfing, tire-eating, broad ones concealed by blind turns.  They too retarded my progress.  Still far from my destination, I wanted to be done with 605, but every quarter of a mile (if not less) I would decelerate to cautiously cross another pothole. Thankfully, la carreterra was not a frequented road.  I often drove on the wrong side of the road to maneuver around all the punctured pavement.

The sun was already below las montañas, shadowing 111 as it snaked through Utuado. My legs were cramped & a tad damp from El Cañon de San Cristobal so I pulled into the first business I saw to stretch.  It happened to be an Econo grocery store so I bought some fruit (which was safe to eat unpeeled in Puerto Rico), bottled water and make-your-own-Tuna-salad kits.

When I emerged, it was night time.  I considered sleeping in the well-lit estacionimiento of Econo but felt too vulnerable here, since there were other jalopies in the back of the lot that looked like they would also be staying put for the night. Plus, there was only one entrance/exit into the estacionimiento & it was on the outskirts of Utuado. Regularly, these disadvantages would never have crossed my mind, but traveling solo – and camping – reminded me to be more aware of my surroundings.

Therefore, I cruised through la ciudad, still on 111 oeste.  I passed a small apartment complex that was a possibility, but it was situated ten feet from la carreterra. Unexpectedly, la calle T-ed. Not wanting to stray too far from the main artery of Utuado, I swerved right, then left into a McDonald’s.  Stepping inside, I examined my legs for the first time since yesterday (I was in pants all day at el  cañon). I counted more than ten bruises ranging in size and color – the epitome was a misshaped, indigo + black contusion on my left thigh, larger than a tennis ball.
I planned to kill time in el restaurante by writing in my journal (I needed McDonald’s electricity). I drank a soda (I needed their carbonation), and prepared for bed (I needed their restroom facilities).  I did not want to explore Utuado – interrogated its citizens about the cave Gammiel mentioned – at this hour. Plus, something odd was occurring in la ciudad. In the distance I heard latin music… but it grew louder every minute.  When the boom had increased to the point that it must have been right outside, I recognized a shiny, black, tour bus, the ones with exposed roof decks, through the glare of McDonald’s windows.  The party bus pumped out the jams, displayed a rave-like light show for the shapes of people on the deck & was stopped at the traffic light.  When the tunes momentarily ceased, a man holding a megaphone yelled rapidly in Spanish (I could not make out what he was saying).  Was it a political campaign?  The event seemed too upbeat and entertaining to be that.

When the light changed green, the bus drove on.  Yet, soon thereafter, more music blasted from the same area.  I continued to log my day and assumed there was an accident on la calle because sirens repeatedly blared.  Then a red camion a.k.a. truck, on excessively large tires, crept by & the lively music restarted.  I realized the truck also wielded the sirens.  Was this una ciudad being taken over by a renegade political party?

That noise faded as well & I finished my journal entry with “It took forever to go about 8 miles. I’ve never been so glad to get off a road [605] in my life.”  I fully understood that trying to locate Cueva Ventana a.k.a. Window Cave might be unsuccessful.  As I sat in the white, plastic booth, I decided to follow a hunch, as I was determined to find the mysterious cave.  My Verizon Wireless mobile phone powered up & I immediately keyed “Google.com” into the address bar. I felt like I was hunting “River Monsters” or “Finding Bigfoot” or verifying other myths when I typed “Cueva Ventana Puerto Rico” into the search engine.

There were scarce results but the first bore a name that triggered my memory. The identical name that taught me about El Cañon de San Cristobal [a month ago] described Cueva Ventana.  I covered up the tiny picture of the cave (I did not want to ruin the surprise) on the website and scrolled to find its whereabouts.  Cueva Ventana was not on any of mi mapas nor discussed in travel guides. Puerto Rico Day Trips was the only source of information, other than the locals.

In a country with a rather tricky highway system, the directions given on Puerto Rico Day Trips’ website were terse & exact.  Delighted at finding Cueva Ventana quickly & with little legwork, I focused – again – on settling down.  McDonald’s estacionamiento was too busy for me to linger overnight so I braved la ciudad in, what I assumed was, the middle of the riotous night.

I stalked a handful of calles, all of which were well-lit, but did not come across an ideal spot to inhabit until, on a whim, I passed el hospital (pronounced “oh-spee-tall”).  It was very secure: emergency vehicles revolving, plenty of people nearby, maybe video cameras, and who starts trouble at a hospital?

I reclined the driver’s seat and reused one of the two Delta Airlines blankets, although it was noticeably warmer in the valley of Utuado compared to the mountaintop in Barranquitas. As soon as I leaned back I heard the familiar sirens & sassy songs.  Flashing lights reflected off the buildings in the dark.  The vehicles must have been endlessly circling la ciudad.  As 23:00 approached, the repetitions lessened and my drowsiness heightened.  Tonight I would not being soothed to sleep by the coquis’ lilt.

 
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Puerto Rico Day Trips’ website.  SPOILER ALERT: The website instantly shows the end product!

18 January 2013

Highs and lows [part II]

We turned around to face the tree that would belay us.  I was somewhat hesitant to lean all my weight against the medium-sized tree perched on a steep slope.  Yet, we lowered ourselves together – Gammiel on a separate line to my right.  He verbally helped me correct my body position within the initial 15 feet, as it was a bit of an awkward position for a beginner like me.  It was obvious Gammiel could rappel in his sleep, but he suggested I take it slow and enjoy everything. I was grateful for his empathy!
The rappelling rope was bouncier than I anticipated, and my left forearm was spared from having to do hardly any of the work. I stopped midway down the cliffside & took in all the scenery.  I could see the waterfall – from top to bottom – to my left.  Eventually I dropped onto the little, dirt platform 5 feet from the Charco Azul a.k.a. Blue Pool. On the grand scale of El Cañon de San Cristobal, we humans & the platform were the only small things I encountered all day.  In fact, a flower-shaped leaf, quadruple the size of my open hand laid on the compacted soil.  The enormity of the leaf caused me to search for its source.
Gammiel pointed to the same cascade & revealed that it was our ladder.  Donning a life vest, he leapt into the water & began breaststroking toward the waterfall.  I plunged in after him, but the chilly water instantly knocked the air out of my lungs.  My floatation device popped my head out of the water and I gasped for air. I swam after Gammiel but without a graceful breaststroke.  My raincoat repeatedly ballooned with water, the oversized lifevest limited my mobility and the creek – that originally looked like slow-moving water – belied a swift current that resisted my every effort.

Gradually, but with difficulty, I crept my way upstream.  Honestly, it felt like swimming against a tsunami so I floated on my back – all the while backstroking – to rejuvenate myself.  Still on my back, eyes fixed skyward, I could see in my peripheral I was nearing the area where the cascade’s water [from above] crashed into the river [that I was swimming in].  Staring at downpouring water was certainly not smart, but I was focused so intensely on my rhythm, I inhaled not only droplets from the splash, but also drank some water plunging from the cascade.  Choking, I jolted upright and realized the quickest way to avoid the barrage of water was to swim through it.  The massive rock that supported the “upper” part of el cañon & created the dropoff for the river, revealed a grotto underneath.

Similar to being in the shower, I tried to exhale from my mouth while keeping my eyes closed as I passed through the cascade’s wall of water, but it was more difficult due the ceaseless spray.  I was blinded by the hundreds of gallons of water that pummeled against the top of my head… and I was getting tired from the swim (about 40 yards) upstream… and I was exhausted from fighting against the long pants & raincoat I wore.  A tiny piece of me wanted to give up.  Yet something grabbed my lifevest by the nap of my neck and yanked me into the protected area of the grotto.  It was Gammiel & I must have looked completely pathetic because he yelled “Are you okay?” in a concerned tone.  I opened my eyes but still could not see because my contacts were water-logged and shifted all over my eye.  I could barely hear him too because of the roar of the rushing waterfall behind me.  Finally focusing, I told Gammiel “I’m fine, I just couldn’t see because of my contacts.”  That was a lie.  I normally considered myself a decent swimmer, but I thought for a millisecond I was about to die by way of drowning.

Gammiel pulled himself out of the frio a.k.a. cold creek, onto a flat rock platform. I was eager to get out of the frio water too, and surveyed the rocks for a grip.  There was nothing to hold, so I – like Gammiel – tried to climb out of the water. I knew I wasn’t in the best physical shape, but in my defense the slippery conditions, bulky life vest & my short arms made this task utterly impossible for me.  For the third time (I imagine) I probably looked inadequate in Gammiel’s eyes because he crouched down & offered me his hand from above.

Finally on solid earth, I tried to catch my breath & let my muscles recover. Inside, the grotto was even darker than the depths of el cañon that Gammiel and I traversed earlier.  However, the midday sunlight shined through a natural oculus formed by an opening between the rocks some 20 feet above through which water gushed.  There was also another cascade.  Waterfalls within waterfalls, wholly camouflaged by the façade of the singular, tall cascade from the lower part of el cañon.

Now I truly saw our “ladder.”  It was a rope ladder – much like a cargo net – that led up & through the opening.  A second cascade incessantly drenched the large rocks & the rope ladder that laid against them. I did not feel like I was having hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) symptoms yet, but I was exhausted.  I stalled for time by asking Gammiel about the rope system.  Despite looking like a human-sized spider web sprawling in all directions, I noticed different kinds & colors of rope. Gammiel explained that he & his uncle had built the network over several trips & it was the only way to ascend in this area since the sides of el cañon were almost vertical.

As usual, Gammiel went first and made the ascent look effortless.  Anyone who has climbed a cargo net knows it can be challenging because the rope sags under the climber’s weight.  It was tricky to maneuver up the first few rungs because the shape of the smooth boulder meant I also had to move sideways along the rope ladder.  Occasionally slipping made my progress cumbersome.  My deathgrip on the cargo net saved me, but I still smacked my knees a few times against the rock face.  Additionally I had another, constant problem: water from the creek above – though not as powerful as the first cascade – still blitzed my head and made seeing/breathing tough.  I turned my head as far away from the blasting creek in an effort to breath dry air [not tainted with water] & caught a glimpse of Gammiel as he disappeared through the opening above me.  My forearms were beginning to fatigue from the rappelling and climbing, but I reached the summit of the cargo net.

I pulled myself to my knees and momentarily rested on this tiny top of the boulder.  The creek above was unphased by my presence and still freely flowed over my head, down to the grotto.  In order to ascend, I had to contort my body into an uncomfortable position and crawl around the mishmash of boulders that jutted outward.  My face had nowhere to turn to breathe since there was only a six inch gap that separated me from inhaling the creek.  To continue upward but keep my already busted body unscathed, I had to arch my back and slither underneath another boulder. I felt the top of my head grate along the rock & was thankful for the cheap, white helmet Gammiel supplied me with at the start of our excursion. 

As I birthed myself through the opening, I felt a wave of relief!  I thanked Gammiel profusely for his assistance which he brushed off as no big deal.  He asked “Since it is only us, do you want to do it again or keep hiking?  It’s your trip! If you want to jump off ten more times we can.”  Did I want to complete that part of the excursion again?  Did I want to redo the gnarliest section of El Cañon de San Cristobal?  I thought my struggle was evident to Gammiel so you can imagine my shock that he even asked this question!  While thrilling and a testament to the power of motivation, I was grateful to be out of the inexorable waterfalls.
To mask my atrophic physical state, I passed on diving into Charco Azul again on account of my diabetes.  Not a total lie.  I really should not have even gone rappelling/climbing without #1 my insulin pump and #2 emergency sugar pills.  Gammiel accepted without judgment.  I reconnected my pump, thus giving me a steady flow of medicine, and anxiously waited to see how my blood would react to the last intense 45 minutes. We returned to our original departure point and retrieved our belongings.
Mis piernas a.k.a. my legs felt like lead and my arms hung limply as we retraced our steps.  Eventually I recuperated enough to converse with Gammiel again.  Still reeling with appreciation for nature’s beauty here in the depths of El Cañon de San Cristobal, Gammiel chimed in with reasons why Puerto Rico had an ideal environment for jungle excursions.  Unlike some of Central/South America, the country had:  no poisonous frogs (only choirs of coquis!);  solely non-venomous spiders; no poison ivy, oak or sumac; and no venomous snakes (only slow-moving boa constrictors).  Plus, the only native, undomesticated mammal on the island was the bat. He certainly had a good argument!  Where else on the planet could I be more safe from wildlife?  Case in point: Australia – also an island – housed the two most feared jellyfish, 6/10 venomous spiders, 8/10 deadly snakes  & heaps of other animals to be reckoned with.

Gammiel mentioned he had an ace in the hole – a metaphorical gem still to be seen in el cañon.  We retraced our steps back to the space where the creek dwindled to trickling & stagnant pools of water.  Since I considered locals, like Gammiel, experts I inquired about one of his favorite adventures on the island.  Other than El Yunque (which is apparently a more intense hike), he identified “Cueva Ventana near Utuado.”  From the planning phase of my trip in early March, I vaguely recalled reading – briefly – about Utuado (pronounced “ooh-too-ahh-doe”).
Shortly thereafter we reached the invisible aperture that disguised our entrance – and exit – trail.  When we first arrived on the floor of el cañon, Gammiel & I veered right.  I was so excited at the time I focused ahead -- more than behind me – and totally failed to notice that we could have veered left too.  Ahead was a lone, lush tree in the foreground.
Carefully we crossed over the insanely uneven ground.  To my right, more of el cañon became exposed and I discovered the dense landscape with the same color pallet hid a much taller, wider, and more magnificent waterfall than the lower canyon area!  Here, on a comparatively flat boulder, Gammiel and I sat down for the final time.  As we snacked Gammiel confided that this was not even the best cascade in el cañon!  In his opinion, that one was deeper within el cañon (further along from where we stopped to rappel) and experienced only by those bold enough to attempt the all-day trek from Barranquitas through Aibonito.
Though the dip into Charco Azul had been almost frigid, I was hot again as I relaxed my weary body in the waxing sun.  For the first time I fully observed the earth.  I was stunned because throughout this trip I assumed the soil was a reddish-orange color from the numerous minerals.  It turned out I was not viewing dirt!  Practically the entire floor of El Cañon de San Cristobal was misshapen, rusted metal. Part of a motor here, drills there, railroad ties everywhere.  It was so unexpected – until I remembered what I read about el cañon beforehand.  In the 1960’s it was Puerto Rico’s token dumping ground.  The United States’ hippie, eco-friendly vibe of the sixties never extended to Puerto Rico. Now 2012, the decaying, non-degradable floor was a painful reminder of humanity’s excess and laziness. The damage had long been done & was never cleaned up. Luckily & eventually, the Conservation Trust intervened to protect El Cañon de San Cristobal.
I was so worn out but I couldn’t stall anymore.  Putting off the final ascent would only prolong the inevitable anguish. I begrudgingly peeled myself off the boulder that doubled as a bench.  Two hundred yards back, Gammiel easily found the path to the high plateaus that surrounded el cañon.  The sheer hike upward made the [demanding] hike down seem like a walk in the park.  Though Gammiel & I fleetingly rested every 40 feet, it was never enough.  Within ten minutes I was panting & my clothes were resaturated – this time from sweat. Imagine being on a stair-stepper, on the highest resistance, for an hour, after running a 5K.  Halfway there, Gammiel plucked a prickly strawberry that more resembled a raspberry.  Two years ago I was wary of eating two green fruit from a taxi cab driver in Elba [Italy]. 
However, Gammiel had proven to be worth his weight in gold as my guide.  I fully trusted him now so I tossed the almost-ripe berry in my mouth.  In a trance, I lumbered on.  After what felt like eons, the compressed jungle trees gave way to open air and tall weeds. Closer. Gammiel abruptly stopped and squatted down to examine a sprawling, off-white, thick plant growing out of the ochre-colored soil. We had stumbled upon a large yucca/cassava. Whooped and already loaded down (with gear) Gammiel said he would come back for the succulent, as he could sell it for a decent profit – a prime example of a nomad’s ever creative ways of generating income.
Gratefully the terrain leveled out & again, I saw the deep rift laid out before us. The vista was still astounding.  Through the private backyard & driveway gate of a complete stranger, we reached the vivid, blue Toyota. It showed no signs of a break in.  Gammiel and I both stripped off our outer layers of clothes. He reused the car mats as seat covers so we would not soak the upholstery, for which I was grateful because his seat was also my bed for the next week.

Gammiel directed me to Ricky Lopez’s house again, where we parted.  Gammiel asked where I was headed. “Probably into town to get something to eat” I replied. A bit unsure of the way (because Ricky’s house was tucked in a residential neighborhood), Ricky instructed me to follow his truck – he would show me the way.  Ten minutes later I waved my arm out of the window in gratitude as I pulled away from Ricky’s truck and into a tight estacionamiento a.k.a. parking lot.  There did not seem to be much around as far as restaurants go & I definitely wanted a wholesome meal – not fast food.

Though the outside of el restaurant looked unsightly, the inside wasn’t terrible. Devoid of any customers, I cleverly sat next to an electrical outlet & recharged my mobile phone.  I also stole away to el bano a.k.a. the bathroom to change into dry clothes & wash some of the mud off.  I emerged feeling cleaner & the amicable owner/father of the guy running the register brought me my sandwich.  That’s when it hit me.  Like smacking into a brick wall I instantly felt funny.  It’s an impossible feeling to describe: somewhat on edge; like your nerves are hypersensitive; shaky; hot; weak; starving; fuzzy in the head.  These are the symptoms – at least for me – of a low blood sugar attack.  I was glad that hypogleycemia didn’t occur until I was out of el cañon, but I knew this was directly related to the last grueling two hours. 

I paid for & chugged a Fanta.  I barely chewed my sandwich, mostly because I was so famished.  Plus, ravenous hunger is a side-effect of being low.  After my blood sugar came back up to a normal range (I can always feel the change happening) it was time to get the show on the road. I unfolded the complimentary road mapa from Thrifty.  My original plan was to backtrack east to Bosque Estatal de Carite a.k.a. Carite State Forest & take advantage of cheap camping.  Tomorrow (Saturday) I wanted to stop by Guavate & immerse myself in authentic Puerto Rican life.

At Guavate (supposedly only a happening place on the weekends), I wanted to basically gorge myself on delicious cuisine cooked at streetside kiosks: lechon asado a.k.a. a whole, roasted pig, cassava, breadfruit, arroz con grandules a.k.a. rice with pigeon peas, pastels a.k.a. mashed plantain with pork, and even blood sausage!  Stuffing my face, relaxing at a picnic table, listening to live salsa music, watching the locals dance & taking in the event sounded like so much fun & the best of Puerto Rican culture.

Yet as I gauged the distance on la mapa (about 35 miles) I remembered how twisting the roads to Barranquitas had been. I remembered how easily I got lost. I remembered the nausea from all the bends.  I remembered my ears popping.  I remembered that just last night las calles seemed to never end. Impulsively, 35 miles in the wrong direction seemed painstaking. So, I changed my itinerary right then & there!  I still had hours of daylight so I opted to press westward along La Ruta Panoramica to camp at another park: La Reserva Forestal Toro Negro a.k.a. Black Bull Forest Reserve.

From the highest city (Aibonito), to the lowest point (El Cañon de San Cristobal), and to the highest point (Cerro de Punta a.k.a. Hill Point) in the nation, I wanted to admire the view from 5,000 feet and perhaps go on a hike in the morning.  When I questioned the owner/father behind the counter on how to find 143 – La Ruta Panoramica – from el restaurant, the gregarious postman in line interjected with simple directions & handed me a red and white striped sucker for the journey.

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Puerto Rico Day Trips' website.   This particular article has great photos of ascending the waterfall & other angles of El Cañon de San Cristobal. A handy resource for the entire country (including Vieques and Culebra).

10 January 2013

Highs and lows [part I]

“Break through the undertow, your hands I can’t seem to find
Pollution burns my tongue, cough words I can’t speak...
So please believe your eyes, a sacrifice is not what we had in our minds
I'm coming home tonight.
We give it all, now there's a reason why I sing
So give it all & it's these reasons that belong to me
Today I offer all myself to this, I'm living for my dying wish.
I give it all.  Now there's a reason to give it all”
-- Rise Against  [Give It All]

The night started with me sleeping in a tank top and capris, but I felt like I was suffocating so I cracked the car windows and the coquis lulled me to sleep.  Sometime in the night, I awoke & felt chilly, so I closed all the windows, pulled out one of my Delta Airlines blankets, zipped up a jacket, and fell back asleep listening to the coquis’ trance.  I awoke a third time in the darkness and the jungle was silent. I was so cold I raised my hood, cinched it tight, unfolded my second Delta blanket over my face and curled into a ball.

I purposefully set my alarm early so that I would have time to change into appropriate clothes before Ricky Lopez arrived and – more accurately – to be out of the car so he presumed I actually slept in his son’s prison-like quarters.  With the sky brightening, I groggily opened the car door and let the mist flood in.

Like the previous night whilst driving through las montañas, I inferred Barranquitas had a high elevation since the morning shade was cool.  I wondered where the myriad of coquis were now hiding. I was still tired from the fitful rest and incredibly sore from wrecking the Yamaha less than 24 hours ago.  In the daylight, the run-down house across the street and the long driveway still looked disheveled but not scary.
(I’m only one-third of the way down the driveway)
Ricky Lopez appeared atop a steep, gravel hill behind the stone hut.  I realized all this land was his property.  Now I noticed the various foul and goat wire cages.  In an attempt to show my graciousness for the lodging, I asked Ricky if he needed help.  I expected him to give me the obligatory “no” but he responded “si” and handed me a medium-sized bag of feed for the squatty turkey.  I didn’t know if I should sate the turkey kindly by hand or place it in his food dish like I do with Onyx at home!?  Perhaps Ricky sensed my hesitation because he instructed me to “juss dump eet allover.”

After tending the farm in the rainforest, Ricky introduced me to his son, Gammiel (honestly, this wasn’t his name but he said it so fast & I was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it).  Just the two of us.  Gammiel guided me through Barranquitas & changed the radio to a booming Reggaeton station.  We stopped at a panaderia & ordered: “quisiera dos churros por favor” a.k.a. I would like two churros please.  The young lady behind the counter gave me a blank stare, then turned to Gammiel with a “what the heck did she just say?” gesture.  How was it that even when I spoke the native language I could not be understood?  Oh, a dialect! In the same way Ohioans goad West Virginians for their cockney slang, mountain talk, my very formal Spanish would not suffice in these montañas. 

Gammiel basically repeated everything I had just uttered, but in a much more authentic tone & I received my two churros. Like every traveler without electricity, I used my patronage at the panaderia to stealthily charge my batteries while we ate desayuno a.k.a. breakfast. Gammiel read the morning periodico a.k.a. newspaper and lamented that a local gang in Barranquitas shot a man & his baby (that he held in front of his chest). Yikes! That was a little unnerving considering I was lost on the same streets the night before. Again, I tried to decipher Puerto Rico: dangerous third-world country or misunderstood island anomaly? 

Afterwards, Gammiel scolded me for leaving my camera battery unattended because anyone could have walked off with it.  He gave the “you never know around here” lecture.  True. I understood his perspective & appreciated him looking out for me.  But I wanted to point out my wishful thinking & argued “…but no one took anything.”

We drove for another 15 minutes and I noticed that -- as the sun rose -- it was breaking up the dense fog.  We continued to ascend and eventually turned down a residential road where – in a random grassy area without a house – I parked the hire car. I wanted to only bring the bare necessities since we would be hiking for hours, but Gammiel insisted I bring all the expensive things with me.  We regressed to discussing why he was so adamant about securing my belongings.  Gammiel passionately answered “Because you are a guest in my country and I want you to love it as much as I do. If you come here & are hurt, or have your things stolen you will not want to come back.”

Wearing three layers of clothes on top & bottom, Gammiel and I squeezed through someone’s gated driveway entrance.  In this person’s backyard was the unmarked path to El Cañon de San Cristobal. On a trail wide enough for a single person, Gammiel and I traversed through weeds and dense grass.  Like the entire morning, I continued to struggle to grasp my location due to the fog and – now – the deceivingly flat, overgrown terrain. After the equivalent of a city block, I finally acquired my bearings as a break in the plant life revealed the hidden Cañon de San Cristobal.
El cañon was a giant pothole nestled in between las montañas of Barranquitas and Aibonito.  Even still, my perspective robbed el cañon of its glory because the thicket of treetops shadowed its true depth (more than 500 feet). Gammiel informed me that during a particularly rainy season in years past, because of the narrow walls, el cañon was nearly filled to the brim with water.  I imagined how it would resemble a brown, dirty lake & decided El Cañon de San Cristobal was much more breathtaking empty.
Gammiel and I trodded across the compacted, ochre-colored soil but the path became very steep.  The thin, tall blades of grass were replaced by skinny trees growing diagonally in an effort to endure el cañon’s crags, flash floods and sheer walls.  Here, I regretted being a cheapskate and flying with only a carry-on bag, as I really could’ve utilized my awesome hiking boots. No matter how tight I tied my tennis shoes, they did little to help grip against the rounded but large boulders.

About half way down the slick trail, my knees already ached (I’m sure wiping out on a motorbike the day before didn’t help).  I also felt the temperature rising and shed my light-weight raincoat.  It took over half an hour to descend into the belly of el cañon since my footing was shoddy and the natural path was treacherous. Yet, Gammiel was accommodating to my pace & encouraged me to rest whenever.  Eventually, the incline decreased and we emerged into the daylight.  I turned around but could barely identify our exit point as I stared at a wall of forest. I was confident we would be the only two humans around.
Time approached midday so most of the animal life quietly, relaxed in the shade.  When Gammiel and I stopped chatting I caught wind of an unfamiliar sound.  Initially, it resembled another foreign frog’s call – however I could tell it definitely was not a coqui.  A minute or two of silence elapsed, then the same sound repeated but with a different rhythm.  Silence again.  I listened more closely & that’s when Gammiel heard the gurgling sound.  He cocked his head & gave me a perplexed look. I turned myself as if I was on a swivel, carefully scanning for whatever made the noise.  Although the land itself was more level than the jungle trail, the google of rocks that comprised el cañon’s floor still made exploring uncomfortable for my ankles.  We crept closer to a stagnant pool of water.  Ten repetitions of the mysterious sound later, Gammiel & I deduced that somewhere under one of the large boulders was a tiny blowhole within the earth.  It was camouflaged, much like El Cañon de San Cristobal itself. The pitiful, “stagnant pool of water” was deceivingly a tributary of a creek that somehow had enough water passing through to give it an ebb & trap pockets of air deep underground.  As Gammiel & I briefly rested, I listened to the odd, hypnotic sound of the sinkhole breathing.
According to Gammiel, we were in the upper part of el cañon. After the rugged, drawn out descent I expected the rock walls to seem even higher now that I was looking up from the bottom (it wasn’t until I returned to Ohio & developed my photos that I realized I couldn’t see half of the rock walls’ height due to the varying slope and shape of el cañon).
I followed my guide’s lead as we paralleled the “creek.” After a few bends, it increased in width and volume as it spread out over more rocks.  It began babbling over pebbles & acting more like a creek.  Further along, the pace picked up.  For the first time, little rapids formed and I heard its flow. Up ahead, Gammiel zig-zagged closer to a precipice 40 feet high. From our vantage, the lengthy swimming hole came into view.  As I neared the edge, I also noted the massive, gray boulders with scars cut into their faces.  Now the “stagnant pool of water” surged on its course.
The cascade was actually a two-step terrace.  Gammiel pointed out that halfway down would be a relatively flat area to eat almuerzo a.k.a. lunch.  I stuck my neck over the edge and – within a second of scrutinizing the terrain – knew it would be a tricky descent.  The first 20 feet consisted of two, wide but ridiculously smooth stones at an extreme incline.  In summary, it was like looking down a practically vertical slide.  Additionally, the rock landing below did not have a lot of depth.  So I imagined myself accelerating quickly only to run out of stopping room, thus, launching myself off the rock landing into the green lake below.

However, Gammiel was a complete gentleman and my hired help. Thanks to his sturdy footwear, he could stop on a dime on a sheet of ice.  With his over-sized hiking backpack – that housed our climbing gear/first aid – he marched partially down the slippery slab and took a firm stance.  He extended his arm outward and upward to me, then confidently said “C’mon. I will catch you.” In my mind, I hit rewind then recorded a revised scenario:  The momentum caused me to wipe out both Gammiel & myself, and we both rolled head over feet into the green lake below.

I put my faith in the 23-year-old Puerto Rican & grabbed his hand.  Although we moved in alternating baby steps and my tennis shoes skidded every inch of the way, we safely arrived at the first stone terrace.  We each peeled off our equipment and another top layer of clothing.  With the calming cadence of the cascade in the background, our spot really was perfect for digging into our almuerzo and bird-spotting.
Although I cannot speak for Gammiel’s feelings towards me, I was becoming more comfortable around him.  As the journey progressed I felt less of an urge to impress him with my stealthy pace or unwavering nerves.  At the cascades I learned more about his family life – he was a father of three, young girls – and wandering lifestyle.  This led to a discussion about government assistance.  I painted a general picture of what welfare meant in the United States.  In turn, Gammiel described how welfare operated in The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and how bothered he was with the system.  Gammiel emphasized that despite his sporadic, varying jobs (he was a random landscaper; sold spices and produce at markets; worked for his father’s company, Montaña Explorer) he prided himself on solely providing for his children without handouts.

I respected Gammiel’s integrity, understood his frustration with el gobermiento a.k.a. the government, and related my most aggravating stories about the system. Gammiel was not surprised.  In fact, he told me the stories only affirmed his disgust for el gobermiento.  This conversation streamed into Gammiel inquiring about the black box attached to me that resembled a pager – a question I am frequently asked. I lectured Gammiel with the same spiel I gave everyone because it was watered down & -- in my 15 years a type one diabetic -- the script was committed to memory.  Basically, during my freshman year of high school, my white blood cells decided to mutinously attack my body.  I blacked out & awoke in the Intensive Care Unit, where I remained for a week. The first three days in the hospital were the longest I have ever survived without food or water (not even ice chips). My life had forever changed.  Every minute of every day I now needed synthetic insulin since my pancreas was defunct. 

How this chronic illness applied to traveling (in a nutshell): I never left the house without a spare battery, spare insulin pump, spare testing kit, emergency glucagons shot & sugar tablets; I toted multiple vials of insulin 36 hours to Australia & for 3 ½ weeks around Europe just in case my current vial broke; I could never be without insurance; I had to be extra-careful about getting sick due to a lowered immune system & the fact that throwing up more than twice always landed me back in a hospital Emergency Room.  Along those lines, certain activities – like drinking alcohol all day, SCUBA diving or a Tough Mudder race – were virtually impossible for me.  Moreover, my type one diagnosis meant after a strenuous activity (like the rock-climbing) I would often have serious, low blood sugar reactions and it meant I could never go swimming for more than 30 minutes – the two things I planned on doing now, at El Cañon de San Cristobal.

I admit when I first read an online, personal account of the hike (weeks earlier) I was alarmed. Instead, I considered making a brief pit stop at el cañon’s summit while passing through.  Yet, after I reread the blog & processed the various obstacles – both physically and physiologically – a voice inside of me whispered “You can do this.”  The buried rebel gained some confidence, then said more loudly “You are the underdog… prove everyone wrong.”  I thrived on being an underdog.  As mentioned in a previous Puerto Rican entry, I wanted to break the mold.  As each day drew closer to Puerto Rico, my own soul assuaged my fears & embraced them.  The week before Puerto Rico I fully accepted the risks and decided that to [knowingly] push myself so close to the brink of death, El Cañon de San Cristobal was the method.

Moving on, we scrambled along more dark-colored, slick rocks as we delved into the lower part of El Cañon de San Cristobal.  Amazed, I stopped dead in my tracks to observe the four-story tall boulder with all of its mass precariously suspended upright by two small points on each side (in the picture, the bottom hanging part of the rock is suspended as well. The depth perception makes it look like it is touching).
Periodically, I noticed Gammiel stopped to check his cell phone.  I thought it odd – considering I sincerely doubted he had a signal – but did not care in the least.  Before walking further into the belly of el cañon, he surprisingly received a call from Ricky Lopez.  Gammiel reported that his dad had been monitoring the weather, specifically checking for rainfall.  Flash floods were common and too much precipitation too quickly proved fatal.  Only 12 hours earlier I traversed the highest town in Puerto Rico (Aibonito), only to be rummaging around the lowest point in the country now.  Suddenly, I wasn’t worried about hypoglycemia being the death of me.

Gammiel and I trudged single file on a leaf-covered trail alongside more enormous slabs of rock. Long, stringy vines clinged to trees above us. The deeper we went, the more we left the only noticeable landmark: the creek.  It became darker too as the rocks and overhangs blocked the already hazy sunlight. 
Our path rose for the first time and after we rounded a corner, the creek reappeared to my right – on level with us.  From here, it plummeted some 50 feet below our trail and with the thick foliage I could not see exactly where the green river continued.  Gammiel set down the large pack again & informed me that this was our jumping off point.  This was where I would leave my emergency glucose tablets & insulin pump behind.  I had arrived at the point of no return & was expediently approaching the most frightening part of the excursion.
He emptied most of the knapsack’s contents and secured the coiled rope.  Gammiel threw the lengthy rope toward the verdant river. All save for the first 15 feet vanished below the ledge. Gammiel checked my harness thoroughly & gave me a succinct lesson in rappelling. The fundamentals sounded easy enough. At the last possible minute I detached my insulin pump from my body.  No more medicine.  No more emergency sugar in my pocket.

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Montaña Explorer 787.516.6194 doubled as Ricky’s mobile number or use montanaexplora@yahoo.com. Usually he will arrange excursions “pretty much anywhere” I was told by the owner’s son, including El Yunque and a more intense, all-day trek at El Cañon de San Cristobal.

Francisco Che  787.516.0086 (also a cellular #).  I spoke with Lia, a sweet woman my age who encouraged me I could complete the hike at El Cañon De San Cristobal.  The tour with this company (whose name I was unsure of) included lunch, but was a tad more expensive. Lia also offered to set me up with lodging at a discount with a local business they knew.