A Day Trip to the Underworld

It’s a breezy Sunday morning in Belize- it happens to be unusually cool, perhaps an ominous foreshadowing of the day’s activities. I’m in the front seat of a large passenger van, head resting against the window, simultaneously trying to ignore the bumping and lilting of the van on the dirt road and trying not to fall asleep after our early-morning start.

We’re headed towards Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), the cave where the ancient Maya believed they could access the underworld. As if that weren’t spooky enough, the Maya also performed human sacrifices here. Just the idea of entering the cave has me nervously tapping my foot in the van.

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After the journey from San Ignacio, which included an ever-so-important stop for snacks, the MayaWalk Tours van arrives in the ATM park and we meet our guide. Hector, who promises to give us “One Heck-of-a-tour” (ha!), helps each of us get outfitted with a helmet while explaining the itinerary for the day. We leave most of our belongings in the van, except for water bottles and socks. No cameras are allowed in or around ATM because of previous accidents that did devastating damage to some of the artifacts. Ahead of us we have approximately 45 minutes of mild hiking to the cave. I figure this leaves me 45 minutes to mentally prepare to enter the #1 most sacred cave in the world, according to National Geographic. I hope it’s enough time.

RiverCrossingIn no time at all, we’re faced with our first obstacle: a river crossing. Clothes, water bottles, and all, we jump into the river and swim across. The river is too deep to stand due to the erosion damage from last year’s major hurricane, but it is relatively calm. Some of us pull ourselves across using just the rope that has been strung between the two river-banks. We continue onwards, our wet clothes dripping along the way. Hector points out important plants as we wander down the trail- some with significant medicinal uses. The air is thick with humidity and the calls of tropical birds that must be watching us from the trees. We cross two more rivers, this time only knee-deep. A large iguana scampers across the river rocks in front of us.

Sure enough, after 45 minutes, we arrive at a small rest area. Here we must leave everything except our courage & a pair of socks. The anticipation is suffocating as Hector hands out headlamps. We all take turns blinding each other with the headlamps before figuring out how to angle them correctly. I inhale the miniature pack of chocolate-chip cookies I brought along.

And we’re off again.

Within minutes the mouth of the cave is in view. Wide open, ready to swallow us whole, the cave beckons us in. Hector helps us down the embankment and into the river that is flowing out of the cave. “Just swim” is his advice. I’m nervous and I feel like humming Dory’s “just keep swimming” song as I paddle into the darkness.

The next hour is a whirlwind of adrenaline. Hector directs us where to put our feet, when to swim, and how to avoid damaging delicate cave structures. He points to a crayfish swimming in and out of a crevice in the rocks. One of our group members spots an enormous cricket. It doesn’t avoid the beams of our flashlight, because it is blind. Never having been exposed to sunlight, the insects inside the cave rely on large antennas and their sense of touch to navigate their surroundings.

We reach a shallow part of the river and the cave opens up around us. The cave extends through the mountain for another few miles, but we’re stopping here. Now, there is nowhere to go but up. Hector instructs us to precisely position ourselves while scrambling up thick stalagmite to access the next level of the cave. These upper layers of the caves are where the ancient Maya made their sacrifices. This is the heart of the Maya underworld.

ClayPotWe pause to take off our water shoes and put on our socks. The cave association mandates visitors to do this for preservation reasons. As we move into the sacrificial areas, we realize that the only barrier separating us from the hundreds of clay pots is a thin line of red tape placed around groups of artifacts. Although the cave has been well researched and each piece has been catalogued, the archaeologists decided to leave everything in the place that it was found, in an effort to preserve the authenticity of the site. Almost everything is exactly as it was over 1500 years ago.

Soon we’re facing another climb. This time we quickly ascend to the next level of the cave via a pre-installed metal ladder. The number of artifacts in the next chamber is stunning. Clay pots litter the ground. We encounter several piles of human bones. The skulls of the victims are strangely shaped- almost alien like- because of the ancient traditions of skull-flattening. I try to listen to Hector’s constant stream of historical facts, but I’m finding myself absorbed in awe of the cave.

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Of course, the best was saved for last. At the far end of the upper level of the cave, lies a skeleton known as the Crystal Maiden. The six of us crowded into the small chamber to see her. She is perfectly preserved, sprawled out, and slowly being taken over by beautiful calcium crystals. It turns out that “she” is actually a “he”. Previously believed to be a female, the Crystal Maiden has now been confirmed to be a teenage male. One by one, we take a final look at the “maiden”, pondering what led to his demise, and leave the chamber. With the help of Hector, we retrace our steps, down the ladder, down the stalagmite scramble, through the lower cave, and back into the light.

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The walk back to the park entrance is bittersweet. My legs feel like jelly. I really need a bathroom. My stomach is telling me I should have packed more snacks. But the “real world” seems to pale in comparison to the mystery and adrenaline of the cave. There are no more sparkly cave formations, and I no longer find myself wondering what ancient artifacts will be hidden around the corner.

By the time we reach the picnic area for lunch I know one thing for sure-

rum punch never tasted so sweet.

 

Thursdays are for Arts & Crafts

nefry's retreatI am lucky to have the best, and possibly most unique, work-life-balance on my co-op in Belize. Because I self-designed my co-op I definitely don’t have a traditional office environment. In fact, I actually live with my two bosses and their family, and we all work from home. Nancy and Jaime, the husband-and-wife team who founded Barzakh Falah and supervise me on my co-op, have a beautiful home and a loving family.

Every morning we all have breakfast together at 7:30, Jaime takes the kids to school, and afterwards we all pull out our laptops and start our work day at the kitchen table. Around noon, someone will leave to take food to the kids for lunch (parents are invited to picnic with the kids at the schools here). On the way back, they’ll bring Leo home, since he attends a half-day school. All is quiet for a few more hours until the girls get picked up from school at 3:30 and come home. Once they’re home, all productivity is lost for a few hours while we referee after-school activities and prepare dinner. Sometimes I stay on my computer typing away, but work for me typically resumes after dinner.

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Yahzzarra, Jasmine, & Victoria

On Thursdays, Jasmine’s best friend in the whole wide world, Victoria, comes over for arts and crafts. Her mom Ms. Deb, comes along too. The adults drink coffee (for Nancy and I, it’s probably our 3rd cup of the day) and snack on ginger cookies, while the kids tackle the project of the week. Victoria’s family is actually from California, but relocated to Belize a few years ago to give the kids a cultural exchange experience while being homeschooled. Last week the kids made stenciled t-shirts with fabric pens and showed off their button bowls from the week before.

Having lived this lifestyle for 2 months, I now completely understand why Barzakh Falah had very little online presence before I arrived. With all of the meals, pick-ups, drop-offs, and play dates, Jaime and Nancy can really only manage the most essential functions of day-to-day operations for the non-profit and other small projects they run. To give you a better grasp of what the family is like, here’s a little more information on all the characters:

The Adults:

Nancy (or Mom) wears many hats. She is a “retired” activist, a humanitarian, an entrepreneur, a chef, a fantastic mother who parents with spunk, and most recently, a cook-book author (click here to check out her first book!). Nancy’s ability to keep the whole family glued together while managing several small businesses is truly inspiring.

Jaime (or Dad) is the architect behind Barzakh Falah. He has degrees in architecture and eco-sustainable building. He manages and supervises the hard labor when we have volunteers. Also makes excellent lime juice slushies and iced “hot chocolate”.

There is another co-worker, Louis, who also lives at the house. Louis helps out with everything from shuttling kids around to booking volunteers for Barzakh, while running his own construction contracting business. He is a master coffee-maker and makes sure to keep everyone heavily dependent on a caffeine drip.

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Louis, Jaime, & Nancy

Grandma and Grandpa (Nancy’s parents) don’t actually live with us, but they might as well. They are right next door and frequently call one of us over for various things. Common requests are: “can we borrow your toaster” and “Leo can you feed our dog.” But having a good relationship with Grandma and Grandpa has advantages- they have the best snacks. They currently split their time between living here in San Ignacio, and a house in Chetumal, Mexico.

The Kids:

Xena is the oldest- the 17-year-old Instagram star, who is sure to become internationally famous at any second. She’s just starting the college search, so we talk quite a bit about what my life at university is like, and what she might want to major in. Her biggest dreams at the moment are to turn 18 and to move out of Belize.

DSC_0020Then there’s Leo, a 14-year-old genius already attending an accelerated high school. Until recently, he was pretty sure he wanted to be an astrophysicist, but since it’s not statistically realistic for him to become an astronaut… he’s decided to lower his expectations and pursue Biomedical Engineering so he can build prosthetic limbs. Not to mention, he’s quickly becoming an excellent photographer.


Jasmine
(Jazz) is 11, and “aaallmost 12” as she would tell you. At the moment, Jazz is tackling the biggest challenges of 5th grade- spelling and memorizing Bible verses (the two youngest kids attend a Mennonite school- more on this later). She always wants to know how your day was, and if you’re ever looking to split an orange, she will always be willing to take on the other half.

Finally, there is Yahzzarrah (or Yaz). 6 years old. Adorable. She has absolutely everyone wrapped around her finger. Currently going through a phase where she pretty much refuses to eat anything except for Nutella, fried plantains, and grapefruit. But hey- at least she likes grapefruit right?

Are you exhausted just reading this? Now try a work-from-home lifestyle while being surrounded by this crew 24/7. Don’t get me wrong though, I really do enjoy living here. I’m so glad that I’m getting to experience what it’s like to grow up in a big family that is so different from my own.

I can’t leave a blog post without doing a little bit of “work” for my co-op so please give us some love on social media! LIKE/ SHARE/ FOLLOW Barzakh Falah because the best thing you can do for a tiny non-profit, with almost no effort, is to make it visible to others:

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Caye Caulker is my favorite color

img_0440This is the blue out of your crayola crayon box. That unbelievable “no-filter-needed” cerulean blue that doesn’t look real- even in real life. This is Caye Caulker.

In celebration of Hannah’s last few days in Belize, we departed on an un-Belize-able weekend getaway. (HA. Un-Belize-able. You can’t even blame me for using that pun because I swear to you, it is on every single tourist t-shirt in the country) Puns aside, this island is something magic. Maybe it’s because I never went to Disney World or other fancy Caribbean destinations as a kid, but the seaweed littered, rocky beaches of the southern coast of Cape Cod simply cannot compare. A quick 45 minute water taxi can transport you to this little piece of paradise directly from the port in Belize City. Be warned though- this isn’t a cruise ship. It’s a full throttle speed boat with people packed in like sardines. The whole way there. Prepare for wind. See video for our reactions to this part of the adventure:

 

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” Go Slow” is Caye Caulker’s motto- and trust me, it’s not just a suggestion. You can feel it as soon as you step off the water taxi- you’re on island time now. It’s actually nearly impossible to move quickly. The only form of transportation on the island are golf cart taxis that roll along sandy pathways barely wide enough for a car. Although the island is so tiny there is really no reason to use them. Wandering on foot, or by borrowed bicycle, is by far the best option for getting around. You might find yourself moving even slower than usual if you’re suffering from a lobster food coma, or if you’ve been sipping rum punch in a hammock all day.

Despite our inevitable participation in the lobster-eating and rum-punch-drinking, Hannah and I’s main purpose on Caye Caulker was snorkeling. There are dive and snorkel shops every few feet on the main pathway of Caye Caulker and it can be a bit of a daunting task to choose the right one. Luckily, as soon as we arrived at our hostel (Bella’s Backpacker’s), a fellow traveler immediately gave us a raving review of Stressless Tours- a new eco-friendly shop on the island. It’s hard to argue with that, so we set off to book with them for the next day. (*Side note:* All snorkeling tours are a standard price of $65 USD on the island- but it’s well worth the money)

One life-changing lobster dinner and a picture perfect sunset later, we were off to bed to prepare for the long day ahead.

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Sunset on Caye Caulker island

The next day was a reality check.

I’ve never had a snorkel in my mouth, I can’t remember the last time I swam for that long continuously, and I forgot what true seasickness feels like. Despite the fact that I pulled 2 consecutive all-nighters last semester, I’ve never experienced physical exhaustion quite like this snorkeling experience. Yet every time we jumped off that boat, it all just melted away. It was really just breathtaking.

From here, I really don’t have any photos or video that can possibly explain how insane this trip was. For a while I had some serious regrets about not renting a GoPro for the occasion, but now I’m glad that I didn’t have the distraction. I think by really looking around, instead of fiddling with a camera, I got the most out of the experience. Just know that it was absolutely mind-blowing.

For the most representative footage of a Belize Barrier Reef snorkeling experience please see Finding Nemo. Our tour guide was essentially Mr. Ray.