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.

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.