At Languin I joined a day trip a friend had recommended. A small bleary eyed group of backpackers were herded into the back of a truck, and then bounced awake down broken muddy road’s winding through the mists that drifted in veils across the rainforest. We were off to explore the caves at Semuc Champey, to climb into the cool darkness of the hill where a waterfall spills out into the the green breath of the forest.
As we entered the cave we each held a single tall white candle. Its flicker seemed somehow suitable for exploring the earth’s timeless secrets. There was a romance to its warmth, its living light. But the dark seemed undaunted, dense to the touch, holding its silences.
I cupped my flames closer, found myself wishing someone, at least the guide, had a flashlight in case that delicate glimmer burned out.
At times we waded. At others we had to swim, holding the candle up with one hand, listening for the instructions shouted from up ahead, so as to avoid the hidden rocks and deeper channels, the currents that could tug you into the teeming black.
With so little light the world grew small, senses heightened. The candle lit little worlds, private beauties.
But in the thick darkness the hazard pressed breathless close, knees were cut, legs bashed, bruises bloomed unseen.
The candles seemed like delicate flowers, bright blessings, love gifts to treasure from a long lost world of sky.
We climbed underground waterfalls, scaled rope ladders, slip-slid down tunnels awkward and one handed, stiff-armed with our efforts to keep the little breath of fire above the waters. It took technique to guard the light close without holding it so close that it set light to hair, clothes or ropes.
The candles often went out, extinguished by a splash, a fall, a iced breath and in the creeping dark it was easy to grow jealous of your own candle light, to not want to share its spark to light another. It was hard to be generous when the candle wax waned short and the tunnels seemed long.
Fear makes us foolish, selfish, and excitement and fear flickered like phantoms through the vaulted chambers.
In many ways those hours in the deep were an exercise in trust, in relying on one another, believing someone’s word and trusting that they will still be standing beside you if your light goes out. There is a point when you have to relinquish even the illusion that you are in control, to release and let be.
I crawled, clambered, squeezed through spaces that my head and every instinct I have told me not to go through. At one point I had to let myself drop into a small dark hole where water gushed down. And I could not see where the drop ended or how deep the water below might be.
I felt the fear rising in my throat as black and blinding as the miles of darkness. I paused, let the panic ebb down as I heard the voices call to me from down in the black. I dropped, candle held high into a world of water and then there was air, faces, flickers and the world was made around me again.
When we turned a corner and saw bright light playing on the water I saw the beauty of sunshine as if I had never seen it before. The streaming light fell like a blessing and the green beauty of the forest looked fresh washed waiting.
I felt I had been freed..