Thursday, July 30, 2009

To Xibalba!

I wrote this last night, but after I'd gone back to my room, so I couldn't post it.

I worked my ass off today. I guess I subconsciously figured if I was going to be screwed out of a day in the lab, I might as well make my time in the field count. I also think I should have been working alongside cute Belizean field workers and the English archaeology princess* all along. They’re both excellent to talk to, and not wanting to look like a tool is easily the best motivation I’ve found so far.

Things I wanted to do before leaving include washing my clothes in the river, buying more gifts from a particular shop in town, and getting a henna tattoo. It appears that most, if not all, of these things are not going to happen, mainly because someone took it upon themselves to decide we were going to work until 5 instead of 4 all week, which they were supposed to ask all the students about before deciding it and didn’t. Martin calls it Fun Week (sarcastically, of course—he doesn’t like the way things are run, either).

But anyway, I owe you the epic tale of Actun Tunichil Muknal, or at least my trip to it.

Well, I went last Wednesday with Flex, Tori, Alette, and Kathryn. It was about an hour’s drive, mostly on very, very bad roads, roughly southeast into the Maya Mountains. Then it was a hike of another 45 minutes through beautiful jungle before we reached the cave itself. We forded the river in the van twice and on foot three times, and stopped once along the trail so our guide could poke a stick into a termite nest and offer each of us some. I think I mentioned before that I declined.

The cave has an hourglass-shaped opening, into the side of a mountain. The big chamber at the entrance contains a deep, clear pool of water, so you have to swim into the cave and climb up on some rocks. It was COLD. Fortunately it felt good deeper in, whether because it was actually warmer or because I got used to it I’m still not sure.

So, onto the rocks, and then over the rocks, and then back in the water. There was water in most of the cave, usually between knee and waist high, sometimes up to my chest. At one point I had to swim, but that was just because it was easier than continuously falling off the ledge I could have been walking on. Sometimes we climbed up over more rocks, and sometimes there was a stretch of dry sand. Our guide, who was quite entertaining, pointed out interesting rock formations (including one whose shadow looks like the head of a jaguar) and talked about Maya beliefs and rituals along the way. Finally, we came to a ridiculously tall rock, with a gap and then a shelf of rock, and then some kind of sandy-rocky formation that sloped steeply upward even higher. The guide announced that we would be climbing.

I had been worried about going to ATM. I even considered not going at all. I was afraid of the water. I was worried about small spaces (which turned out not to be much of a problem). But I had talked to others who had already gone, and they reassured me about those things and talked me through a lot of detail about the cave before I got there, so I was about as comfortable as I was going to get. All of the people I talked to failed to mention there was climbing involved, (other than something about a ladder that I’d forgotten but did recall when I saw it). Not just climbing over rocks, but scaling a cliff, essentially.

So I stared up at the wall of rock in front of us and wished I’d never come, I considered sitting right there and waiting until the rest of the group came back.

I asked the guide, “Do we have to climb back down?” hoping that this was only the way in, and we would take another path out.

The answer was yes.

I cried.**

We went up. We took off our shoes. And we entered “the cathedral”, the huge main cavern that’s littered with offerings. It’s like a vast field of pottery. And bones.

Then there was some more crawling through passageways before we reached the ladder, which also scared me but not nearly as much, which we climbed up to reach the ledge where the two most interesting skeletons are, one of a teenager who was killed while kneeling with their face to the wall, and the famous Crystal Maiden, sprawled out and amazingly complete. She was about twenty years old when she died and was 5 foot 2. Creepy.

Going down the ladder was considerably more difficult than going up, and going down the cliff would almost have been better avoided by leaping into the water and hoping not to break anything, except that my anti-leaping instinct is rather strong. Everything afterwards was fine, and seemed considerably shorter than it had on the way in. I was almost disappointed by how quickly we reached the entrance pool.

Altogether, we spent about three hours in the cave, though I had no idea at the time how much time was passing.

Back outside the cave, we retrieved the lunches we’d left behind and attacked them like fire ants on an earthworm. (Or your foot.) This was partially because we were hungry and partially because it was the best lunch we’d had in days. (Lunch in the field is chicken and rice almost every day and chicken burritos on the rare exceptions.) Ham sandwiches with actual vegetables on them, and FRUIT, and CHOCOLATE.

The hike back out to the van took forever because I was tired and wet and didn’t want to do anything anymore. It was a shame, because it’s a fairly easy hike and very pretty. But anyway, when we finally got back, we changed into dry clothes and came back. The end. I’m glad I went. It was a good experience, and parts of it were a lot of fun. But other parts of it were not, and I don’t really feel the need to ever do it again.

* That would be Flex, who has been doing archaeology for five years, which I would NEVER have guessed upon meeting her. In fact, I had trouble picturing her as an archaeologist at all. A movie star, perhaps. She could be Keira Knightley’s little sister. She’s Archaeology Barbie.
** I’m not kidding.

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