A Travelogue :Part Two
Finally got used to the shock of being home again.Played enough video games,ate enough Chinese food,and will get around to unpacking
the moment I run out of laundry or too bored for words.Managed to pry some photos out of my camera,but its very reluctant to give them
up.It freezes up every 20th picture and I have to restart and stuff in order to get more.Slowly but surely you will get to see them in some
fashion.For now let this be just a monologue:and maybe I'll get things sorted out by Part 3.On with the show...

We last left off with me typing away at a internet cafe in Belize killing time while Maria and my sister went snorkeling again.That trip
was short and far sweeter:2 hours of hardcore action as opposed to an all day Jamaican party boat like the day before. I was so burnt by
the sun that day it took a whole 5 days for me to endure lying on my bed at night,and only with the miracle French ointment I got from
Europe last year.At the moment I am shedding skin as fast as my cat does hair.Any extended trip in the sun would have killed me no
matter what sunscreen I had on. And the place they dove at was DEEP,and considering the leaky mask I had previously things would have
gotten damn ugly damn quick.But despite my misgivings both my sister and Maria had an excellent time,with REAL fish at a REAL reef
that I would have stared at blurrily with nearsighted eyes.They had fun and in my way so did I.

We went off to dinner for the last night in Ambergris Caye,and my sister managed to menace a poor young couple out for a romantic
dinner by first blasting them with the flash of her camera,then babbling at the female half as the male just clutched his forehead in
disbelief.I tried telling her that taking pictures of people randomly without their permission is rude,and using the flash doubly so.No
good."I didn't see them there!" she says,sitting literally next to them with a window separating us(we were inside,they were
outside).Gee,try looking through the VIEWFINDER!And all the time at dinner she couldn't be moved to ask the waiter to change the
direction of the fan that blew directly on her so much her left eye dried out and had to get the Doctor to put some drops in it before we
left the next morning.I also had an agenda that morning too:we were on the wrong side of the island for a spectacular Caribbean sunset,so
I thought we could try for a sunrise instead. So Maria and I managed to crawl out of our beds at 5am to see one,and what little sun we
photographed was hidden by clouds.Oh well.

We saddled up and flew back to the Belize mainland.We meet our driver and have a jolly 2 or so hour ride to the middle of nowhere.Or
at least to a very picturesque resort in the middle of nowhere rainforest called Chaa Creek.This is an "Eco-Friendly" resort,or some silly
terminology.Which means NO refrigerators in the rooms,No pool (but a Jacuzzi),and NO AIR CONDITIONING,just large ceiling fans
continually blowing down on your sleeping areas.My sister shakes visibly from Modern Convenience Withdrawal.Very pretty rooms,well
manicured lawns and foliage.Real wildlife running about.On our way to dinner the first night my sister was surprised by a thing the size
and shape of a cocoanut that hopped madly and pissed violently in its escape from her scream.Twice.I think it was a toad,if there's a type
that has jet propelled pee.Tarantulas,scorpions,lizards of all sorts,an assortment of bugs.Even saw a pair of Toucans with black bodies and
yellow beaks.Too many critters in my opinion.When the hired help become blaize' about cockroaches as long as your index finger I tend
to get concerned.We went on a late night nature walk when we settled in.Not much to report:its all pot luck critter-wise and we were
assed out.But next time you are in the wild at night,shine a light at the ground.See all those sparkling blue lights? Wolf spider eyes! Muah-
hah-haa! We had better luck with early bird watching. But the real fun was later that day.Real fun and real danger!

ACTUN TUNICHIL MUKNAL:
Here are a few links: The first from a National Geographic article,the second a page with photos,the last a touch of history about it.

http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0411/feature2/fulltext.html
http://www.socomogro.org/gallery/Belize http://www.belizemagazine.com/edition01/english/e01_16caving.htm

Our guide was named Carlos,36, intensely passionate about preserving the environment,a bit crazy over and above this,and extremely
likable. We managed to survive out trip in and out of that wet and slippery place thanks to his patience,and the experience was far more
memorable with him leading us.He ran around in BARE FEET through those 3 rivers(wide shallow streams) and over those slick and
often jagged rocks.And leading Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on top of it.Lets proceed to the play by play of the whole trip.

A long bumpy car ride to the site where we began our hike was uneventful.The long acres of corn we saw passing were actually owned by
Amish farmers who relocated South either during the 50's or the 60's to escape the draft or somesuch. I saw a few one day in
Ambergris:two females at a passing glance I mistook for a hallucination so out of place were they in their American Colonial garb. The
ones down here have embraced technology a bit more with tractors,but still insist on looking like refugees from a syrup bottle.Anyway,we
pass these farms and wind up at a clearing at the edge of the forest with a few cars already parked from other tours.We prepared ourselves
for the hike as best we could.We were told that some water was involved,crossing streams and swimming,so we brought our water
shoes,these being slipper like shoewear with rubber soles for walking in nasty natural places like sea shores without stepping on sharp
shells and rocks.I recommend heartily with 20/20 hindsight to buy yours a size too big and put gel comfort soles in them for long
walks.And since we were expected to get wet,we had extra clothes to change into afterwards,and boxed lunches to carry there.We were
also told to bring socks,and I'll explain why later.I put in new batteries into my camera,not being able to carry the fanny pack like usual
thinking I was covered.Silly me:the batteries were dying when I got inside the cave.But I managed a few shots anyway.I also recommend
a waterproof case for any camera you may bring inside,because its only at the "dry" area we were allowed to retrieve our gear from the
guide's dry sack.Lots of cool stuff missed.But now we were at the hiking bit.

I believe this was the point we were truly thrust into "The Rain Forest" for the first time.And surprisingly not much different from the
North American North Eastern Forest I grew up visiting.Humid,buggy,lots of critter calls. Just more palm and fern and vine like growth.
Stranger trees too,chicilata from whose sap chewing gum was made scored with a dozen scars from tappings. More low greenery than
your NA forests too.We wound our way through this following a beaten trail,crossed those three rivers,or more likely crossed the same
river system 3 times:all were about knee deep and covered with round pebbles of assorted sizes.Slow and clumsy going but only my sister
slipped once on the way back from weariness.She dropped her water bottle and it floated away downstream,but Carlos managed to
outrace it by running through the jungle ahead of it and grabbing it as it floated to him. He was born and raised here,and understandably
very protective of his land.He pointed out various plants that were useful for medicine,even one very bitter tasting leaf we chewed to
drive away the mosquitoes. Supposedly a steady diet of this stuff will make you produce a subtle odor from your pores that will keep the
bugs away after a time,and I was impressed that he could find in nature a solution that we had to resort to nasty chemicals to
overcome.Apart from the nature bits he also related stuff about the folklore of the cave,and Mayan religion as well.You thought 2001 was
a big deal? HAH! In 2012,the world will be into some BIG STUFF,at least according to the Mayan calendar.It'll be the end of a big
astrological cycle and the last time this came around the Mayan world was irrevocably altered for the bad.And THAT was the Spanish
coming on the scene. And this archeological site,the cave, was tied in that somehow:the high priests were getting anxious and felt the urge
to get religiously hardcore.The National Geographic article mentioned a long drought they tried to alleviate,but who knows.Some poor
girl was dragged into that place,bound and killed.Possibly raped as well: I saw impressions between her spread legs where a pair of
priest's knees could have been.Sadly plausible and wholly typical. And Carlos went on about the weather getting more wild as the Time
of Doom approaches. I shudder to think of what the weather will be like in 6 years superstition or not.And who will be sacrificed to
change it?

A little under an hour later and we reach the base camp.Two grass thatched huts without walls,and benches to put what isn't going
inside.Yes,the "south" has just oodles of these grass huts straight out of Gilligan's Island things all over the place. Never saw anyone
building a new one,mind you.It just screams Tourist Trap to me,even though I've seen hovels in Guatemala built from them. A trail was
pointed out to me where the,*ahem*,sanitary facilities were kept. Open air no doors two holes go fast wipe well run like hell
conveniences.Ick. We had a short walk to the mouth of the cave where we had our boxed lunches.Or as I refer to them,the
Complementary Archeological Artifacts. Corinne and I had the roast beef on whole wheat,Maria the egg salad. A small banana,a cookie,a
fruit cup.Utterly inedible. At least the sandwiches were. Never strayed beyond the first two bites.The cave mouth pours a lovely stream
from the waters that carved it in the first place,and the minnows that swam in its basin were less ungracious with appreciating our food
and fought each other madly for each mouthful.Lucky them.I replaced the lunches back at the camp and now we were ready to enter the
long dark.A brief scramble over slipper boulders outside the cave and we stood in the mouth with the stream rushing over our feet.Here
the water is deep,18 feet or so,but its a short swim across it to where the rocks we'll be clinging to are.Throughout this adventure I went
last to watch over my sister and her friend and help them over what rough spots there were,a Fred Mertz counterpoint to this Desilu
Production. Through gallantry in some respects:Carlos did little except repeat orders like a mantra,leaving us neophytes to make our way
as best we can,often running up ahead too far for comfort.He DID have a huge backpack with our water,assorted first aid gear(including
antivenom for snakes he said could be around),lamps and whatnot.But I can't blame him for putting a little distance between his
experienced self and Lucielle Ball goes Spelunking.Maybe slightly unprofessional on the surface,but I'm sure he'd appear instantly when
needed,and happily he wasn't 99% of the time. After all,if one of us did a nosedive into some water carved limestone a kilometer or so in
the bowels of Belize,HE was the Man. And after my brief passionate affair with the dock,I was too aware of doing just that.Maybe a
mantra of recitation was the way to go with Tourist #325342356. Anyway,I had an interest in keeping my sister alive,that being not
inheriting my nephews! I guess I showed enough competence to be safely ignored. A complement I suppose.

We waded past the first bend and carefully crept over surfaces that churned with water gushing through channels carved beneath them.We
wore hard hats with separate little miner's lights attached to them,and they weren't very powerful.Good for seeing where the next foothold
might be,but poor for casual gazing about.Carlos would bring out a powerful handheld lamp toward the latter end of the journey,but I was
wishing for that now,being tantalized by the merest hints of the wonders beyond what my weak light revealed.There were narrow places
where the water sprayed out fast that we crawled on our backs to get through,wide deep places where we hugged one wall or another and
half swam half waded along.There were flat spots with a high domed ceiling that had silt for a floor and ankle deep water,and some
places you had to walked crouched down to avoid the delicate calcite drippings that took hundreds of years to form.Occaisionally a bat
would flit past and between us,attracted by the strange noises and light. And in one narrow jagged place I was waiting to scramble
through I heard a noise about three feet to my left slightly above me.I pointed my lamp and saw a bunch of bats haging like grapes ina
tight cluster,and the light made them chitter faster.So I looked away and got the hell out of there.All this climbing and wading was
manageable for me,the girls less so,but I kept thinking to myself how the hell did little squat Mayan priests do this while holding a torch
in one hand at the same time,let alone dragging some poor girl destined for the chopping block? Caves were their Portals to the
Underworld,and it must have taken a big dollup of religion to get them in here in the first place.And when we reached the Dry Place,I
could understand their attraction to this great water filled hole.It awed me, as it undoubtedly did them.

A lifetime or so of wet treachery later,and our little group halts at the foot of a largish knobbly rock.Our guide points above it. That is the
dry place.We are to climb up this rock and onto the overhanging shelf just above it.The thought balloon hovering above all three of our
heads share the same phrase:"You're Shitting Me!".No he ain't! He climbs up with those bare feet and backpack and we both help the
ladies up,me last again.We sit and rest a moment as Carlos gets out our water,our cameras,and our socks,as well as a pair for himself.He
explains that the socks are to protect the site from too much water and erosion and such.I normally don't even cross my rug without
slippers,let alone rock climb in my socks. But there is no time for the horror to sink in: already at some point above us there are a
scattering of voices and lamps of a much larger group waiting politely for us to ascend so they can leave.I skitter past them,again having
to catch up,and I drift into the main cavern.It's big.Damn big.The limestone is caramel colored and swirled where the water flowed over it
eons ago. Its a vast empty space above,with hints of ceiling here and there where cascades of stalactites and stalagmites flow down frozen
in time. I think of that passage in the Lord of the Rings:The Two Towers where Gimli the Dwarf expresses a love so profound of the
Caverns of Helm's Deep that he convinces Legolas to visit them with him when the War is over.And around the eddies of flowing stone
are pools of artifacts left ages ago and utterly open to the casual stomp. Pots and bones and skulls just lying about,some lodged in crevices
between drips of calcite,some shattered and sitting in the hollows once formed by waters long fled.We had to walk carefully,almost not
daring to look anywhere but where one steps to avoid crushing these cultural treasures by klutzes like me. And still the cavern went
back,back. We followed it to another climbable set of stone shelving,and up above that was the ultimate goal of this quest: the Crystal
Maiden. This time I led. The girls were tired,but I wasn't going to let them hinder me in this last march. I crawled up and helped them
up,and lastly the final obstacle was an ordinary aluminum ladder tied securely in place,leading to the last chamber.We went up.

And after climbing up,we crawled down a bit into a shallow hollow,then up again.The very end we all crouched,the ceiling was barely
shoulder height.Another skeleton,less well preserved than the maiden,but defined well enough to see that it was a child with its hands
bound behind it,a bit of rope as its only warning to avoid trespassing over it accidentally. The Maiden herself had special privacy:Steel
Wire Bars cut off the world from her last resting place,a sign in English warning No entry beyond this point! And beyond that,a small
skeleton dusted with calcite drippings to glaze her bones in eternity.The Maiden. Not much to look at,really.The few photos scattered
about these websites do the scene enough justice. Until you remember that what you are looking at is over a THOUSAND YEARS
OLD.THEN it becomes an amazing sight."I hope you have enjoyed your tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal", Carlos suddenly
says,mechanically.And after a moment or two,we head back. And the journey back goes by swiftly,more swiftly than the way in. The
water seems a bit more frantic in places,a tad deeper in others.Flooding is possible here. The rains of the mountains hundreds of miles
away that feed this cave may trap us.But they don't.Wehead back to the car,change in the grass hut and head back to Chaa Creek.We
resolve to take Carlos to dinner in town,and the girls are drowsey.I am wake enough,being used to long labors in my job and our
conversation is animated.Carlos mentions a club nearby with live music,and I had pestered him jokingly about introducing me to one of
his many friends he greeted while traveling there back and during dinner from town.I had odd dreams of partying here,meeting a chicita
or two,and here was my chance.But,to my shame,I declined.I had a temporary tooth that was wobbly after the fall on the dock. I think it
was the one that plunged through my lip. Now it had come out altogether,and I could only press it back in temporarily for random
amounts of time.And I imagined trying to chat up a senorita and having this tooth fly out of my mouth and ping her nose! So,I said my
goodnights and left with the girls.Carlos went away the next day,to Colorado of all places,to continue his training in Cave rescue.I wish
him well.And I have started my own path,of a lifetime of regret for a great grand golden night.And I think I swallowed that damn tooth
too.