Diving the Jungle
Traveler's Tales anthology series: Women in the Wild
By Denise Spranger
I've always known my true ancestors, whether they be Celts, Sumerians, or ancient Maya. They were those few who hovered at the edge as the flames leaped and the great spirits danced among the living in the sacred frenzy of sacrifice. In the midst of this pure, primal faith; in the current of wisdom that flowed between this world and the next; a silver blade was passed from hand to hand. A gift of blood demanded.
In this bold transcendence beyond physical suffering, my ancestors, keeping a sharp eye on the way out, said "None for me, thanks!" Maybe this is how the tribes determined who would be sacrificed that day.
The morning that I was planning to dive the cenotes of the Yucatan I had to face that I was, perhaps, letting my ancestors down. I would plunge into the dark waters in the jungle a willing victim.
Fed by the massive underground river system that veins the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, these fresh water pools, or cenotes, provided the ancient Maya with a means of survival and, as they believed, a window to the Under World. Divers began exploring these rivers only ten years ago, at last finding a link to the sea in 1995. When I learned it was possible to follow a portion of the course they had charted. I knew I must do it. I had to.
New to scuba diving, but practiced in claustrophobia, I was the first to arrive at the dive shop where I would meet the priest of all diving rituals, the dive master. Trying to appear casual, I paced between the racks of neon colored wetsuits, masks. and assorted paraphernalia as I plied the woman at the counter about two things: light and space. One should really not expect to find much of either in an underwater cavern, but one can hope. Just as I was contemplating a more relaxing career in sky diving, the dive master entered the room with the five others in our group.
Our leader, Luis, was a small man, a Mexican whose compact frame seemed perfect for negotiating narrow and hazardous spaces. Around his shoulders bright yellow hoses were coiled. Hooked to his belt were several flashlights, varying in size and shape. For all his commando appearance, he smiled easily as he shook our hands and introduced himself. He had the manner of one who was eager for a stirring game of volleyball more than the experienced cave diver who would guide us through the perils of watery canyons. I suspected that this was a practiced attempt to calm the less certain.
While he gathered our gear, we shuffled our feet feigning confidence. The men did this by telling war stories from a litany of previous dives. Ship wrecks, unpredictable currents. the inevitable sharks and treacheries of faulty equipment. Marta, a German -woman, kept quiet as her boyfriend, Joseph, compared the specs of his dive computer with the ones in the glass case. Like myself, Marta had begun diving only several months before. She lifted her long red hair and applied sunscreen to the freckled skin of her neck.
As we helped Luis load tanks into the back of the van, he discussed the logistics of our dive. From this I learned one unwelcome fact. I had wrongly assumed that cavern diving was defined by the presence of an overhead airspace. This is not the case. A "cavern" merely promises a visible light source either behind or in front of you, thereby denoting an exit route, however distant that might be. If you were to turn a comer and have that light blocked, it would then become a "cave," requiring special certification to dive.
While I was practically giddy about the existence of light sources', I was a bit squeamish about the absence of that nice cushy layer of air over my head. I hadn't realized that the tunnels connecting the cenotes are completely submerged. I suddenly regretted scoffing at that wise and lovely game of golf. Wistfully, I considered those green, wide open lawns in the full light of sunshine.
As the van bumped along the jungle back roads, I remembered the first time I had ever seen a cenote. I was twenty years old and traveling with friends through southern Mexico. While visiting the temples at Chichen Itza, we took the dirt path to the cenote, referred to by archeologists as the "cenote of sacrifice." Dredging its deep bottom they had found the skeletons of children.
From what they can surmise, young boys were sacrificed to the gods in a prayer for rain. They discovered the vests made of jade that the boys wore as they stepped from the high wall that enclosed the deep, clear water. There was something ominous. yet inviting, in the emerald surface gleaming in the heat. The Maya had believed that these boys hadn't died but had traveled to another world through this opening. As I stared into the sacred waters, I offered my own prayer that they were right.
Laboring over the rutted road, the driver slowed, then swung the tires through a break in the trees. Dust flew as we came to a halt in a rocky clearing; Luis jumped out and beckoned us to follow him. Stone steps wound down a hidden hillside in an overgrown glade. As our eyes grew accustomed to the light we could make out an immense shelf of rock lined at its base with a thin blue pool of water, barely twelve feet across. Small black catfish swam through the rocks that shaped its edge. Vines hung from the boulders above, their leaves just grazing the water. Here the cool air wrapped the skin in moss; filled the nostrils with the scent of a secret.
Luis pointed to the blackness that rested in the shadows beneath the looming rock. "That is where we will go," he said. "We will follow that yellow rope, can you see it? It will lead us to another cenote. There we will ascend in a cavern, and beyond that, another." I peered into the still water until I could make out a line of yellow disappearing into an inky darkness. A darkness not of absence, but presence. Sentient. Articulate. Aware. My rib cage constricted. Cold and smooth against my chest and back. I felt it. The garment of terror, the jade vest.
I looked up to see everyone lugging the equipment down the path. Like a captive enslaved by the will of others, I joined them. In a few short minutes our gear stood ready on the rocks. Desperate as a politician on the eve of an election, I practiced my speech. "No. I'm terribly sorry. Really, I am. I'll pay for it anyway. Of course. But I can't do this." Already I could see myself curled up in the van as I awaited their return. A dry, pathetic ball of cowardice sweating on a vinyl seat less than fifty steps from one of the great wonders of the world. But alive, yes, and breathing.
While some dangers afford the luxury of a minute or two before the onset of panic, mammals tend to react almost instantly to the loss of air. My first diving instructor told me that you have about ten seconds to make one decision. Maintain control. Any other choice will send you bolting to the surface, an instinct which may prove fatal.
As flashlights were passed around and fin straps buckled, I saw my ten seconds slip into the gaping hole under the rock with tidal force. I could no more control them than I could mop up the flood of eternity with a paper towel. I steeled myself to present my speech. I would not risk the life of the dive master who would be burdened with trying to save me. I would not infect the others with the virulent disease of panic.
Luis was breaking the group into two teams; it was unsafe to lead more than four of us at a time. Before I could stammer my regretful apology, Marta spoke. "Perhaps the rest of you should go together," she said, " Joseph and I can go alone with Luis. I may have to turn back. I don't think I can do this."
I sensed that I was not the only one that admired her courage. It takes a lot of guts to admit you're afraid, to stand in the full view of strangers with your own naked limitations. Though the others grew quiet, a tension lifted; postures relaxed. The secret was out: we were human. In one long breath, I exhaled my fear. My ten seconds rushed back to me.
I looked Marta in the eye. "Let's dive together," I said. "I'm a new diver too. Fm completely claustrophobic. But we can do this. We'll concentrate on the light. If either of us needs to go back, we will. No pressure." She looked at me for a long moment and the decision was in her eyes before she spoke. "Alright," she said, "we'll do it."
Her boyfriend chose to dive with the other men, trying his best not to appear anxious to do so. Having conquered all those shipwrecks and sharks, "turning back" was no longer an option. Mumbling something about "ladies first," they offered us the first dive into the cavern. I thought it an odd take on chivalry, but we agreed.
So it was that Marta and I descended into the cool water and followed Luis into the midnight that sleeps deeply in the earth beneath the day. Without currents to oppose us, we slipped effortlessly through liquid darkness. Floating downward toward the sparkle of the light that Luis shone, the cavern revealed itself. Immense. Glacial. Prehistoric. As if in candle light, the cathedral of the Under World.
Luis directed an arc of light- upon the walls. Gaping cracks grinned with the jagged teeth of stalactites. Forms, improbable, defying gravity; jutted, arched, soared. Lances of stone sprung from the floor. Poised in a kinetic stillness, even the walls gave evidence of motion. Perhaps our minds were too urgent. our lives too brief. The pace of the millennia eluded us.
Drifting through this twisted geometry, I was alarmed to see up ahead two leaning columns of fluorescent blue. It took me several moments to realize that they must be made of sunlight. Streaming from two holes in the roof of the cavern, fantastic blue rays pierced the water, brilliant and sharp as blown glass.
I checked below me for the yellow rope. It veered from boulder to boulder as it bent to meet the angles of the walls. I glanced over my shoulder to see the beginning of our journey; there, suspended in the distance. a shining opal of light. It was there that we had descended. From another world, another lifetime.
Between the luminous shafts of cobalt we made our ascent into the first cavern. Passing from the deeper salt water into the layer of fresh water, a strange phenomenon occurred. The room above us appeared to be draped in a translucent membrane. An oily skin lay between us and the bowl of air at the ceiling. It was as if we were inside a vast impermeable bubble looking into another. "A trick of the light," I told myself, struggling with the overwhelming sense of confinement in this shrouded cocoon. I turned to Marta and saw that her widened eyes mirrored mine.
My face broke the surface just after Luis. His dripping hair plastered to the sides of his forehead, he pulled the mouthpiece from his lips. "What do you think, Senorita?" he asked. "My God," was all I could utter. Marta emerged beside me; I saw her searching for the same thing I had. Yet our bubble had vanished; it did not exist. I noticed Luis smiling. Our blue columns had also disappeared, dissolved into the saffron light leaking through the ceiling.
As we bobbed in the circles of light, Luis pointed up to the birds which flitted through the openings and alighted on the delicate brows of limestone. "See them," he said, "they are the owners of this place." Molested by no other living creature here, they came to drink; to nest.
We descended once more to continue our dive; the next cavern was filled with bats, not birds. They clung, inverted gargoyles, from the tips of drooping stone. Beginning to feel the cold now, our faces shivered above the water. Luis assured us that we were only minutes from the entrance. In the maze of stone, darkness, and light, I hadn't noticed that the yellow rope had looped back upon itself. We sank slowly to a broad shoulder of stone, light filtered below as if under a threshold. Luis gestured expansively for me to proceed him; I dove under rock and was born into light. The silhouettes of the four men who waited for us shimmered in the brightness.
The men followed Luis into the cavern; it was now our turn to wait. Marta and I rested on the curve of boulders as the vines swayed in the breeze. She was concerned about Joseph; she could tell he was nervous. "He left his flashlight," she said, "and he was fidgeting with the buckles of his gear." "He didn't mention any anxiety," I offered, hoping to comfort her. "No, of course not," she said, "he would never mention such a thing."
We discussed our experience in the cavern; each-of us grateful for the strength that the other had inspired. We marveled at the mercurial proportions of time; our dive had lasted just forty minutes. Yet before long we fell into small talk, yielding to a keen thirst for the superficial. As we laughed over such vital matters. as how unfairly red hair turns to gray, it dawned upon me that this, too, was a tradition of the cenotes. While the mysteries of ritual and death intrigue us, the richest gift of these pools was that of life.
On ordinary days the women would come to fill their clay pots with water. As their children splashed in the shallows, they might linger. Sometimes, they surely laughed. They may have even seen the birds rising, as I did now, from the ceilings of buried caverns cloaked in leaves.
My spiritual ancestors preferred those days, free from ceremonies heralding the mutilation of kings or the drowning of princes. When the only sacrifices required contained a simple glory: the taste of clear water that they carried to the village. Or sharing sunlight, fresh as mango, in the sweet relinquishment of fear.