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.

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