Sunday, May 6, 2012

Belize, where the caves just got real!

There's a whole bunchg of caves out there. As a tourist, you can actually visit a lot of them - even good'ol Kentucky's got a rather impressive one its very own: Mammoth Cave was one of the very tourist destinations I remember visiting after coming to the States. And there's Halong Bay caves in Vietnam, India's Ajanta caves, New Zealand, the Philippines, the silver an salt mines of Bolivia and Colombia... the list goes on. Safe to say, none are like the caves in Belize. Because here in Belize, the caves just got real! As in, you are no longer being carefully shepherded along through walkways and handicapped accessible stairways - no, no, here, the caves are still pretty wild. And thankfully, the lawyers are ignorant of all this wildness - 'cause they sure aren't very safe!

What these caves are, however, is long, windy, twisty, and dark. They are also filled with Mayan artifacts, and have water rushing through them. The artifacts first - the Mayans believed that the cave systems were the underworld, which in their mythology was merely the path the souls took on the way to the heavens (not some sort of a Christian-like Hell). This, of course, made the caves important, spiritual places ... and, naturally, an ideal place for an occasional human sacrifice. Because when the weather patterns got a bit rough late in the first millennium, the Gods had to be appeased. And the Gods, it was felt, may well be appeased by some human sacrifices... (the Gods, incidentally were underwhelmed - the droughts continued, and are generally believed to have led to the pre-Colombian decline of the Maya civilization). Back to the artifacts - the caves are home to some fifteen skeletons, an several thousand pieces of pottery. Because you want to send the guys you are sacrificing off to the next world with something tasty! Or, at times, you just want to share something awesome and delicious with your local deity.

Now bear with me - say, you are Belize... you are a fairly poor country, tourism is already your major source of income, and all of a sudden, archaeologists have discovered this touristic gold mine in the hills. What do you do? Naturally, you send the tourists in there! And charge them for the privilege. What happens when you let tourists into tiny, narrow, unlit caves filled with [extremely fragile] thousand year old artifacts? That's right - they break shit! Apparently, a little while ago somebody had dropped a lens cap onto a skull and knocked some teeth out... then, fairly recently, another tourist dropped an entire camera onto another skull, puncturing a camera-sized hole in said skull. Naturally, this was not well received. National archaeological treasure and all... people were scrambled, discussions were held, a hasty conclusion was reached! As of May 3rd, no more cameras in the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal, but ATM really is a better name for it) cave! May 3rd happened to be the day I was going to see the cave, so I wasn't really amused... but this is why you get to read so much of my prose in this post instead of looking at pretty pictures - sadly, I have no pictures from this day of adventure... As to what's going to happen to the precious artifacts when some clumsy tourist simply stumbles and steps on one (with no cameras involved)? We're just going to hope that never happens! What I actually suspect is going to happen is that tourists are going to complain about doing the tour without cameras, and will become a little more reluctant to pay for said tours. At which point, the tourist agencies will start losing money, will panic, and the cameras will be right back in the cave! But we'll see - maybe I'm just a skeptic... but I will be royally pissed about not having any pictures from that day if they do reverse themselves in a month!

Anyway, so that's the Mayans - both the ancient ones, with their artifacts, and their present day descendants who are trying to figure out how to make money off of said artifacts, hopefully without destroying too many of them. Honestly, I thought the pottery was sort of cool, and the sacrifice stories fairly interesting, but wasn't all that impressed. The cave itself, now that was a lot of fun! And it was specifically fun because there was no coddling and hand holding - the first thing you do when you enter the cave is get in the water an swim for a good fifteen meters. From there, you proceed through the dark, narrow caves, navigating by the power of the head lamp (everyone in the group gets one), and walking through water levels ranging from about ankle deep to "you've gotsta swim again!" They recommended back in town to wear closed-toe shoes... in a very Belizean way, they didn't exactly insist, so I promptly ignored this recommendation. After an hour of wading, swimming, and wondering if there will be anything left of my leather sandals by the time we're done, we arrived at the elevated (and dry, but still pitch black dark) portion of the cave, where the Mayans had had their stuff. Also worth considering - the Mayans didn't have head lamps, they had crappy torches. They were scrappy like that (just like, Bing - just for you, Erica!) So getting through the water-filled cave, without putting the torch out, must've been quite an undertaking. The dry portion of the cave wasn't without its adventures either - some narrow passages to shimmy through, ledges to climb up and over (then climb back down as you return), and finally a rather rickety ladder leading to the final resting place of a Mayan princess. I thought the rickety ladder was a little sketchy, but I apparently this was the new and improved, metal ladder, taking the place of the old, even more rickety, wooden one... Oh, Belize, how I love thee! And your adventurous spirit!

As for the pictures that I don't have... I doubt there would've been all that many from the river, or the pottery. I'd probably get a few of the skeletons, but the best parts were the huge stalactites and stalagmites growing in the caves! And they are growing all over the place - in another few million years, the cave will most likely have closed back up again because of them. My favorite were the stalagmites (these are the ones growing up from the ground) which the Mayans had placed pieces of pottery on top of. Naturally, they've continued growing over the past 1000 years (~1/2 inch per year), and some have actually joined in with the corresponding stalactites coming down from the top to form a column... with the piece of Mayan pottery still stuck in the middle of it! Just a fun illustration of the passage of time... and of just how much time has passed since people last visited these caves on a regular basis. The locals apparently have always known of them, and would occasionally come in, but without exploring much. It wasn't until the late 80's when modern archaeologists (with the help of our guide, incidentally) had come down to thoroughly explore and map the caves and catalog the artifacts therein. Then turned the tourists loose on what they had discovered. Which continues to seem bad for the safety of the artifacts, but, I've got to admit, it was pretty awesome to just be struggling through this cave, much the same way that the first archaeologists would have been doing 25 years ago!

Ok, that was a lot of reading without the reward of any pictures so far... So, I can offer you the wikipedia entry on the ATM cave - I guess you could still bring in cameras when they had come by.

Other adventures in San Ignacio, Belize, which I could take pictures of(!), involved meeting more Russian tourists. Which was astounding enough, since normally I only run into Russian tourists on the beach. But here they were - Lena and Mishka, first at the ATM just as I had arrived, then trying to bargain with our eventual tour operator in town right as I had walked up. (we ended up doing the tour together. Nazeem, of Lebanese descent!?, would not budge on his price though...). But that wasn't the only noteworthy thing about these guys (from New York, originally Moscow and Riga, Latvia) - I may not have gone to the same school with either of them (unlike Anna from Seattle via Palenque, Mexico), instead we had something else in common - these guys had both been to Burning Man, and she's in fact enough of Burner free spirit that she travels with her hula hoop, to which she can attach points of fire. I don't know how to explain it better, but let's just say that after we had run into Fernando doing a fire show on the street, they got talking and soon thereafter were putting on a fire show together:

They are both quite good at their fire shows too... but I can't believe she travels with the stuff!

Mishka is a kindred traveling spirit, having roamed the world over, after also leaving a software job some five years ago... Apparently his last trip had been to Ethiopia, so he's got me beat on the sub-Saharan Africa bit. On this trip, they were both traveling around Central America with some vague notion of coming back before the end of May, but without an actual ticket back to New York as of yet. So, you know, we got along. My Russian connections seem to be becoming slightly less well tuned though - I started with Anna, who was not only from Moscow, but from the very same neighborhood as me. Mishka is from Moscow, but a completely different part of the city. Lena came from Latvia, a good ways West of Moscow. The closest I've come since has been running into a couple from Finland on the bus from San Ignacio, and a guy from Poland here in Placencia. So, I'm moving West, I suppose - Denmark next maybe?

And we'll leave you with this, as a parting shot of the inland Mayan lands (as I've made my way back to the beach by now):

A random Mayan decoration in the middle of San Ignacio

San Ignacio really is a tiny, tiny outpost of a town - much like every town in Belize actually, so this is just about all I got to see and do there!

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