We got on a plane in the United States where vending machines offered iPods; toilets automatically self-evacuated after you did; well-dressed, officious-looking policemen with ample but not menacing firepower kept the peace; even the worst food was docile enough to only give you a little gas. When we boarded the plane, if felt as rote an endeavor as slipping through the door to a grocery store. We disembarked in Belize City on a buckled cement airstrip where there was a glorified machine shed for a terminal, and dogs and chickens ran around everywhere—inside, that is—and boy-cops loitered in soiled leisure clothing with semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders like baseball bats.
Then we got on a second plane—a five-seater, one-propeller job—that was to take us down country to the coast. The pilot was young enough to be my son, even though I was barely thirty. There was another family who was trying to get on our plane, but Jenae and I were already seated, our luggage tucked in the little alcove behind us. The pilot was not satisfied with the distribution of weight and so he only let the woman come on board with us. The man just shrugged, but when the door closed behind the woman it felt to me like the moment you cut away from in the montage leading up to her disappearance followed by the arrival of a team of blue-windbreakered investigators from the FBI. No matter how civilized the brochure says, I’m pretty sure it’s poor form to willingly separate from your spouse whilst in Central America. Any America, really, but this one especially.
The plane bounced through the air like a gyroscope with wings, pitching and yawing such that it seemed as though the horizon was really just a baton a child was waving at us from a great distance. I tried to calm myself by staring at the dashboard where a red LED timer counted our flight time to touchdown, hopefully, rather than impact. And then, without any song or dance about seatbacks, tray tables, and original upright positions we were plummeting toward a badly maintained soccer field on spit of land between a lagoon and the sea. We hit the ground hard—the kind of landing my friend Bruce chalks up to Navy pilots used to moving, floating runways—and then—another first for me—the pilot slammed on the brakes and we actually skidded to a stop, close enough to the ocean that the plane looked like a pony who had just skidded up to a watering hole.
A small, wily guy in a Hooters tanktop with a smile slightly wider than his face took us to the resort. His name was Basilio and he talked the entire time despite the fact that the windows were down and the old Mitsubishi van was so loud we couldn’t hear anything he was saying but we knew he was exuberant about it.
The resort was a modest assortment of native looking huts with thatched roofs and palm tree-covered walkways between them like tunnels, but today apparently the sand fleas were bad and so they lit fires in trash cans and heavy smoke hung thick throughout the camp. I wondered if Kurtz was snacking on a human heart somewhere nearby.
The next morning, the Australian steward of the resort came by to see how we were doing. “Enjoying the Mosquito Coast then?” His name was Rob and he wore a red calico bandana around his neck.
“As in the Harrison Ford movie?” I asked.
“As in the Paul Theroux book,” he said. “The one were everybody goes nuts.”
“Oh, Wolfie,” I said. We were sitting on the beach in Adirondack chairs, looking as tropical as only a couple of German and Irish tourists can. We may as well have been wearing grey socks and sandals.
“We’re much farther north than that,” Wolf said. “That was in Honduras. That’s a whole country away.”
There were hibiscus and hummingbirds everywhere, and in the skies above pelicans and seagulls wheeled around the sun until one would spot a fish and then hurtle itself into the sea like a missile. On a much smaller scale but with a similar ferocity, biting flies and fleas buggered the pasty flesh of our legs and arms.
“Do you guys want to really do something wild?” Rob said. I didn’t know much Australian, but I was already beginning to wonder how much I was losing in translation. “Most people,” Rob said, “they go snorkeling and turtle watching and shopping and such and that’s just fine. They can buy their chubber kids some stupid T-shirts and go on with their lives. But if I were you, there’s just one trip I wouldn’t miss while I was here.” Rob leaned in, conspiratorially like a ham. “I wouldn’t mention this to just anyone, mates. But you guys look like you’re up to the challenge. In shape, aren’t you?”
I looked at Wolf and Wolf looked at me.
“Do tell,” Wolf said in his best Hedy Lamarr.
A breeze picked up and the sand fleas were temporarily in the wind. The sand itself, however, blew up with the gusts and my mouth and eyes were gritty. I never did care for the beach (gets in my socks).
“Ever hear of the ATM cave?” Rob said. The night before, over several Beliken, the best Belizean excuse for beer, he told us all about his globe trotting, his exotic guitar inspired by Yngwie Malmsteen, his fiancée and the rings they had just picked out (replicas from The Hobbit).
“ATM cave,” Wolf said. “No.” Wolfgang spent a year studying abroad in Perth and I think there’s something too Sydney about Rob for him.
“ATM,” Rob said again, as though the letters were Cyrillic or Greek (or Hobbit) and have some special significance outside their colloquial meaning for personal banking convenience. “Actun Tunichil Muknal,” he said, casting a spell. “If you’re not up on your Mayan, that means Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher. Of course, you might not want an adventure.”
The ATM cave was, apparently, one of a kind. It had only recently been explored by archeologists and, because Belize was trying to pump up its economy with tourism rather than science, the government allowed a couple of guide companies to bring tours into the cave. Rob told us that the cave was totally unmodified. No guardrails. No paths. No lights. In addition to the cathedral-like cave, the under-water entrance you have to swim through, the total lack of infrastructure and all the ancient pottery, there were fourteen human remain sites inside.
We must have looked concerned.
“Sure,” said Rob, “it’s a little dangerous. But you’re Americans. If you guys died in there, it’d take weeks, maybe months until they could bring another group in. That’s a lot of lost revenue, mates.”
We said he’d given us a lot to think about, and we went immediately to the bar.
The next thing we knew, just one before Wolf’s wedding, we were being driven by Zefarino, Basilio’s brother, down the Hummingbird Highway. He was less garrulous than Basilio but also a little older and, we hoped, a better driver. His family apparently made their entire living by ferrying around American tourists in their fleet of mid-eighties Mitsubishis—one of which, we would learn later, he had rolled just the night before after a Belikan bender at another resort. If he was any the worse for wear, he wasn’t interested in showing it.
In these vans, there was no air conditioning, no seatbelts, and no shock absorbers—all of which was a likely product of the terrible roads, which they all drove over as quickly as possible so as to theoretically surf on the top of the washboards, potholes, and unsuspecting children. The Hummingbird Highway, the country’s main artery, was basically a shoulder-less winding road shared by pedestrians, the military, poultry, and livestock. Most of the road wound through hilly rain forest, but then suddenly we’d be in the middle of a village with goats and naked eight-year olds everywhere. It made me feel an odd surge of missionary-zeal, like I had to somehow do something. At the very least, get them some Underroos.
Without warning, Zefarino pulled over to the side of the road and shut off the van. “We wait for guide,” Zef said. He slumped down in his seat and went almost immediately to sleep.
We all felt a little panicked. We liked Zef. We felt like we knew Zef’s brother. We had even met their father. None of them had killed us yet. It all felt very secure and trustworthy until we were some unknown distance in the interior of the country, waiting on the side of the road for lord knew what.
We sat and adjusted our sandals for a half an hour and tried to huddle ourselves into feeling better. Zef and Rob would never have sold us into slavery, we said. We didn’t have anything to fear. Never mind the fact that we didn’t know where we were or, for sure, which country we were in. We’ll just let men we’ve never met lead us and our womenfolk into a remote jungle cave so we can check out some early human sacrifice action. I felt like such a hypocrite for having judged the husband who had let his wife get on the plane without him. Sure, Jenae and I were together, but that felt like little compensation at this point.
“Do you know what meat this is?” Jenae asked. We had gotten moist, literally home-made, tamale-looking things at the gas station on the way. “I can’t even tell if it’s been cooked. Do they not have salmonella here?”
Wolf felt, I know, somewhat responsible for us as both the host and groom as well as a travel writer. “Just don’t,” he said about the tamale. “Mine had a knuckle in it.”
A pair of black SUVs pulled up behind and in front of our Mitsubishi. Zef snored on. A tinted window rolled down to reveal what may as well have been another of Zef’s brothers and a vaguely terrified white guy next to him. The driver looked calm and competent and not in the least bit cannibalistic. The passenger looked like he was contemplating where and when he’d vomit next, having already exhausted his best options.
“Hey you guys,” our presumptive guide said, “you come be mine now.”
We drove through fields of burnt sugar cane and partially harvested bananas for what seemed like hours, until we arrived at a clearing near a hundred foot mahogany tree where other SUVs and vans were parked. We all piled out, armed only with complicated digital cameras and similarly confusing technical clothing from REI.
We headed into the forest and almost immediately our guide told us to freeze.
“Stay back! This is very danger,” he said grimly. A few feet in front of him was a pencil-thin snake, no longer than his forearm, and it lazed about on the trail in front of him like a legless, and very skinny cocker spaniel.
Before any of us could get a better look, he took a machete and hacked at the ground around the snake like a Benihana chef. You didn’t have to be a fellow tour guide to know that he was hamming it up. My grandmother had killed snakes more decisively than that with a potting trowel.
“Most dangerous snake of all Belize,” he said. I didn’t know why he felt the need to be such a schmuck, especially when there were bound to be plenty of real threats that would suffice. “Do not get close,” he said, and again hacked at the ground until there was nothing left of the little lime green snake. “Much poison. Much, much evil.”
The guide flipped the julienned snake bits into the forest with the tip of his machete. “You are people of great fortune,” he said. It felt true; it felt false.
After about forty-five minutes of marching, wherein he had harvested a chunk of a termite’s nest for us to snack on and showed us a plant called “Pissa Bed,” which, he said, was a great cure for scabies, we finally came to a clearing beneath a canopy of tall trees, with rough timber shelters and primitive picnic tables. The detritus of other travelers was strewn about, and everywhere—everywhere—there were ants, large and small.
“If you need go bathroom,” our guide said, standing dramatically before us as we munched on bananas and greasy ham sandwiches, “take machete with you.” Much as I hated snakes, I relished the thought of trying to go to the bathroom while handling (another) small sword even less.
After we ate, and successfully dodged the viper pit that supposedly surrounded the latrines, our guide handed around a box of Ziploc bags.
“For your values,” he said.
I thought he was again playing us the same way he did with the snakes, but I decided I didn’t have much to lose by putting my wallet and camera in a plastic bag.
“And no shoe. No sandal,” he said. “No footprint in cave. If we leave mark, we lose cave. Sock only.”
He had outfitted us with helmets with headlamps and told us now was the time we would want to use both. “Hard to find light when dark,” he said. He was beginning to take on a sort of hybrid personality somewhere between David Carradine from Kung Fu and Duane Sueme, a guy I used to work with at a bike store who would get confused by his own pants.
Our guide walked down the muddy riverbank and into the water. We waded in after him, just as a group of tourists came sloshing downstream. They were soaking wet and looked like outsized newborns, their eyes and mouths open wide.
“Unbelieve,” one of them said, not even able to finish her word. She held a Ziploc bag with a silver camera inside it as though it were a relic. A strand of wet red hair looked like a slash across her forehead. “Belize,” she said. “Belize . . . Belize.”
It sounded again like an expression of astonishment, and also a little bit like James Brown begging please, please, please.
The group disappeared downriver and we were alone again in the jungle stream. We waded upstream just a few yards when a huge hole yawned open in the mountain. I know it couldn’t have possibly moved, but where before there had been only jungle upon jungle, green upon green, suddenly there was a hangar-sized black hole. The jungle gave way to a small mountain and the mountain itself gave way to a river and the river itself gave way to a cave and we were going in it.
The problem with the cave, however, was that it was only twenty or thirty feet deep. Its back wall was dark but clearly visible as its limit. It was like the Holland Tunnel, but filled with water. We were supposed to go under that?
“No way,” somebody said. It may have been my wife. I couldn’t say. I was petrified.
“Swimming is for you,” the guide said. He smiled broadly and generously. Where before he seemed like he was half actor, half indentured servant, now he seemed all guide—our jungle Virgil, ready to take us up a river and inside a mountain.
I was trying to think of that line from Dante, but all I kept coming up with was the Woody Allen version of Emily Dickinson. She said that hope was the thing with feathers. Dante said something about abandoning hope, and Woody was decidedly without feathers. I didn’t know what good feathers would have done me right now, but I sure wanted something other than a Ziploc bag, wet socks, and a loaner helmet.
The water got deeper and deeper until we had to hold our chins up to breathe. Our guide stopped for a moment, making sure we were all still standing or floating to his satisfaction.
“Now,” he said meaningfully. “Only hard part. Water a little high because of much rain. Sometimes you can swim in and take air if you need. But other guides say no air today. Okey-dokey?”
We all paddled frantic looks at each other.
“You just go whoop down water and then whoop pop up in cave,” he said. He was smiling but he wasn’t laughing. I wondered if we could help him find a better way to describe the process for future groups—presuming we wouldn’t be the last. “Everybody lights on?” he said. “Hold each other and keep wall on left. Everything be all right. Ready go.”
And because we didn’t know what else to do we all took a breath and simultaneously disappeared.
I opened my eyes underwater, despite the fact that I had heard that there were all manner of aquatic jungle bugs that could enter your body through the eyes, but I saw nothing except the murky criss-crossing of the beams from our headlamps. I could feel rock to my left but nothing anywhere else above or below me. Then Jenae’s socked foot kicked me in the face and let me know at least which way forward was. Because the water was cold and we had been hot, it felt thick to me, gelatinous, and I was afraid it was going to set and embalm us in it forever.
When I surfaced on the other side, it was pitch black except for the weak beams of our headlamps. We were still deep in water, and my socked feet slid around on rounded rocks, trying to stay as firmly footed as possible. The water moved from upstream and slid around our bodies like an animal passing close by. We made our way around a rock wall that bulged out and without even realizing it we ended up on solid ground. It was still pitch dark—I just couldn’t get over it—there wasn’t any light coming from anywhere except our headlamps. It smelled like our basement after a heavy rain, but earthy and fecund, not musty. Everywhere, water dripping.
We spread out a little on what felt like the back of a large turtle, and, instead of creating more light as a group, we instantly all fell into our own isolated pools of night.
“Like your swim?” our guide said. He was feeling cheeky now. He didn’t have to pretend to kill any pseudo-venomous snakes in here. He knew that we had to trust him biblically or we were screwed.
We walked in silence, slightly uphill, crossing back and forth through the water as we went. Our wet socks and soaked clothes make squishy sucking sounds that kept us tense. When you turned your head left or right—or up or down—there was no telling what you were going to see: a wall right in front of your face or the light from your lamp receding twenty or thirty feet until the darkness prevails. The speed of light was one thing, conceptually, but in this cave, its power was quite another.
The first set of ruins we came upon was a pot without a bottom. It was made of clay, undecorated, lying on its side and big enough around to stick your head in if you wanted. And then I noticed it was everywhere, as though this place were the Crate and Barrel of its day. Broken pieces of pottery lay all about and I couldn’t believe that there weren’t any cordons to keep us away from the artifacts.
“This is really legal for us to be here?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer now or after we got back to the hotel, given the delicacy of our situation. In a vaguely mob-owned restaurant I once worked in, I asked my manager, Johnny Volpe, how, with all the water seeping constantly into the dry storage area, they managed to pass the health inspection. When he explained that “you don’t ask those kinds of questions,” I feared for my kneecaps then the same way I now feared for my entire skeleton.
“Yes,” our guide said, his face swimming out of darkness and into the light from my lamp. “Much luck we have, no?”
We continued to make our way uphill until the sound of the river grew faint and then nonexistent and at last he had us all pause.
“All together,” he said, “put headlights here and look.” He pointed to his left and we all followed his hand and suddenly there was a wall of blue and white crystal-coated stalactites and stalagmites. It felt like we were inside a huge, unbroken geode. The ceiling must have been thirty feet high, but broad and deep as the dome over a football stadium, and everywhere—on the floor, the wall, the ceiling—milky white, bright calcified crystal, glittering darkly, like a secret barely kept.
I knew as I have known few things in my life: I had never been here before.
“Not much time,” our guide said, “but there one more thing to see.”
I wondered what he was so worried about the time for—it’s not like it was going to get any darker in here—when I realized that we still had a forty-five minute hike through the jungle to get back to the truck. That would be bad in the dark.
When we reached what appeared to be the end of the cave there was, of all things, a red aluminum ladder lashed to the rocks with cheap yellow rope. It seemed like cheating until I remembered the facts of our surroundings: there was no light except what you wore on your helmet, you were soaking wet in a sixty-degree cave, you were being led by an uncredentialed guide who had you down to your wet tube socks a couple thousand feet into the middle of the earth. If anything went wrong, it was difficult to imagine how the US consulate would ever find out. We would become the new remains. Before long, same as the old remains.
I don’t know when the last time you climbed a wet ladder in your wet socks was, but it had been quite some time for me. It’s like trying to walk across ice in roller skates or high heels. I was the last one up. The light from the others’ head lamps was just a few meters away, coming from something like an alcove or chamber. They were all huddled around something on the ground and their lamps made it shimmy in the dark. Circled around as they were, intensely focused, shoulder to shoulder, they appeared to be on the verge of performing some kind of ritual funerary rite. Then I saw it. The body.
Artifacts I was expecting, maybe even some bones or a random jaw here or there. But an almost entirely intact corpse, not so much.
She was, we were told, once a young Mayan girl, preserved in an inch of calcified crystal that looked like sparkly flesh. What I took to be the fullness of her form was really just new rock, growing, glowing out from her own bones. She lay on her back, somehow relaxed, and her head appeared to have been propped gently on a rock. Her arms were slightly askew, with one pulled up by the elbow and one of her legs was bent at the knee as though she might have had a rough night’s sleep. She did not appear to have suffered, nor did she appear to have been unwilling. Her skull was intact and her teeth were filed flat in the Mayan tradition. Every bone was accounted for as though this had only happened moments ago, and I suppose it could have except for the hundreds of years it would have taken for the crystalline shell that had grown from her bones. I’m sure she was a pretty girl, but she was a beautiful skeleton, turning as she was from flesh and bone to crystal.
The rest of the trip was an unspooling of that timeless moment. We made it down the ladder, out of the cave, out of the jungle. There were tarantulas, more sand fleas, a purported jaguar, a scorpion in the groom’s mother’s cabin, and, of course, our friends’ wedding that involved the last-minute bribing of an official, some high-speed driving on the part of Basilio to get the right paperwork in time and, finally a barefoot, beachside ceremony, but our trip really began and ended in that cave, at the stony, last bedside of that millennia-old virgin. As Wolf and Courtney took their vows, while my wife and I held hands and looked on, I wondered if there wasn’t a moment where, perhaps, like our about-to-be married friends, that Mayan girl too was asked a very serious, life-altering question before a group of her dearest friends, family, and clergy—a question to which she merely replied, “I do,” or, “Please,” I’m afraid, “Don’t.”
Matthew Batt is the author of Sugarhouse, and the recipient of grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the McKnight Foundation. He teaches writing at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He’s at work on a novel called A Zodiac for the Lonely.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised how difficult it was to write a travel essay that wasn’t only a retelling of an experience, but an experience in itself.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: To stop writing in the middle of a sentence—I think it’s one of those old Hemingway saws—so that you know where to begin the next time you pick back up. Even though it feels a little gimmicky, I follow it religiously and tremble when I don’t.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Andre Dubus’ short stories still leave me like I’ve been hit with a two by four. Especially “A Father’s Story.” Oddly, on the other end of the spectrum, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential made me realize you could sound like whoever you actually are in your writing and not worry about sounding like a watered down Henry James or something. And Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius just totally unlocked something in my own work. I think I needed to know that some kid from a lousy suburb could write acrobatically just because he wanted to. And the other Dave—David Foster Wallace—not so much his fiction, but his essays. They just totally reinvigorated for me what was possible in the space of an essay.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I’m not fussy. I like chairs and desks. Tables will do. I’ve got a bunch of goofy talismans that I’ve accumulated over the years—a stone from the Ganges—a gilded aspen leaf—a coaster I cut out of a piece of slate—but I’ve made sure that I can take or leave them. I think it’s far more important to keep yourself nimble with respect to where you write—and what you do while you write—or else if you lose one of them or get evicted or have to quit smoking, there too go the words.