Actun Tunichil Muknal.Posted: January 25, 2012
I have a friend who, though he’s been to Belize many times, has never been to Actun Tunichil Muknal. I said, You must go. You must. You must. He asked me to explain why, but all I could come up with were disjointed words. “Water” and “stone” and “darkness.”
When I was in the cave, I felt such a deep, unspeakable happiness. I knew that something was happening to me, and that all I could do was hydroplane across the surface of the experience, and let it do its deeper work over the coming days. And years.
The Mayans went deep. One kilometer into the earth, lit only by torchlight. They built shrines in chambers just above an echoing underground river. We followed where they went, swimming, wading, climbing, dropping, and sometimes squeezing through gaps no wider than our throats. The only light came from our headlamps. The light barely brushed the cathedral ceilings above. I felt humbled: here nature works, the ultimate artist, answerable to an entirely Other sense of time and space. A column of stone takes thousands of years to make. I placed my hand over one, so that the rare drop of water splashed on my palm.
I wanted to stay. Of course, this is the fatal impulse. Cavers die because they convince themselves to penetrate farther, just into the next chamber, which becomes a next, and a next, until an accident happens and they can’t get out. But the cave made me so happy, it also made me a bit mad: I wanted to explore forever, get lost, make camp on triangle of subterranean beach, and exhaust all my candles until darkness fell, and I’d sit there, listening to the water, forever.
Gonzalo, a guide who became a good friend, assured me I’d go crazy after awhile. He’s probably right. Nevertheless, I still feel choked up and quiet when I think about the cave, like I’m in love. Being away from it, I miss it; but I don’t want to go back too soon in case I spoil the experience. Gonzalo says the caves extend far beyond the shrines, five kilometers into the earth, and knows people who mount expeditions to go all the way in. I’m already plotting how, and when, to come back.
Some story needs to be told.