"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, July 9, 2012

Actun Tunichil Muknal

Entrance to ATM, photo courtesy of Jamir

When we began planning our trip to Belize last winter, Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM as everyone called it) was a name that appeared often in travel guides and in conversations with people who had been to that country before. "If you can only do one thing while you're in Belize, this is the one you can't miss."

At first I was intrigued by the challenge. A cave. A long hike just to get to the mouth. A longer hike to the end where a centuries old intact skeleton lay. A guide required and only a limited number of people allowed in a group.

I should probably mention here that I'm claustrophobic, don't like heights, and am not that fond of the dark either. But still, there was something that drew me.

I decided I needed to have this experience as a way to face my fears, so it became a Belize must-see for us, along with Maya ruins, toucans, and the market in San Ignacio.

For most of the winter and spring, my hip was limiting a lot of my activity, and at one point I considered maybe ATM wasn't the right choice. I was worried about being able to handle the physical challenge. Walt didn't care much one way or the other so we decided that climbing ruins was more important and ATM was probably over-hyped anyway.

Our first hour in Belize, as we were checking out our rental car, I asked the owner what was the one thing he thought people needed to see when they visited his country. He said ATM. I asked if he'd ever gone, and he said no, but he didn't change his answer.

He did change my mind, and a decision was reversed.

When we arrived at Table Rock, we told our hosts what we wanted and when, and they made it happen. We were given clear instructions. Be prepared to be wet all day. Be able to swim 15 yards or so. Take a change of clothes for the ride home. No cameras - a tourist had recently dropped his on a skull. Take socks for the part where shoes aren't allowed to preserve the artifacts.

At 8:00 A.M. on a Monday Jamir, our guide, and Ronnie, the driver, picked Walt and me up in the parking lot of Table Rock in an SUV that seemed about to lose its battle with Belize's famously bad roads.

As we introduced ourselves, Jamir asked if we were afraid of closed places, heights, the dark, or tall ladders. I said maybe a little to the ladder, but I could handle it if I didn't look down. I didn't say anything at all about the other things.

We rattled our way to the highway, then left the pavement and rattled along more dirt and pot-holed roads until we reached a barrier manned by the Audubon Society. They let us through after we promised we had no cameras and that we'd listen to our guide, and we continued rattling and rolling up to the entrance.

The whole day, Jamir told stories about the Mayas, their sacrifices, their world. Part Maya himself, his connection to the stories was strong. For one myth about the creation of man (involving twins, a Maya game called pok a tok in which the winner is sacrificed, the underworld and corn) I commented what a great story it was. He said, in a serious voice, that it was the truth, not a story.

He asked why we chose ATM. I said I'd heard so much about it, and it was the one place in Belize everyone said we needed to see. He asked what they had said about their experience. I said they said it was a grueling day, you were wet the whole time and you got to see amazing artifacts. As the words left my mouth I realized that no one had really articulated what was so special about the cave, and I said that to Jamir.

He smiled and said he'd ask me at the end if I could explain what made it so special.

For the next several hours, we hiked through the jungle; forded a wide, deep, chocolate brown river three times; swam through the mouth of the cave in crystal clear water full of tiny shimmering fish ("You're about to enter the Maya underworld, Xibalba," Jamir said.); waded, scrambled, squeezed, stretched, climbed rocks; stood in awe at the fantastical cave formations.
Photo courtesy of Jamir
At one point our guide pulled a stone from the river, rubbed it until red paste came off in his finger, explaining that this was the red clay the Mayas used for ceremonies and for making their pots. He gently applied stripes to both my cheeks and my forehead, and I felt anointed. We climbed a very tall ladder (I didn't look down); removed our shoes (I also removed my socks and followed Jamir's barefoot example); made our way through paths on either side of which lay broken pots and skulls (including the one with the hole in it from the tourist's camera) and bones; saw examples of Maya sculptures carved from stalagmites (one casting a shadow of the Maya goddess of fertility); and finally found ourselves in the presence of a sparkling intact skeleton.

"Actun. Tunichil. Muknal." Jamir said in his careful but Caribbean heavy English. "The Cave of the Stone Sepulchre."

We stood quietly for uncharted minutes, just the three of us. Walt and I absorbing the wonder of it all. Jamir watching us.

"So can you describe this?" he asked with a smile.

"Not even close," I said. Even so, I thought, I'm going to give it my best shot. And so I have - inadequately, I'm afraid. I've read a handful of other firsthand accounts in the last few days, and none of them do more than give facts about ATM, or talk about the things, the substance. None get close to the real reason everyone who has a the chance would be giving themselves the greatest gift possible by having this experience.

For the last two weeks, I've considered how I might explain the magic that happened in that cave. I entered a place the Mayas considered an entrance to Xibalba, the underworld, also called The Place of Fear. I thought about the last year and a half of my life, a time when I felt like I was living in my own underworld. In this one I felt no fear the entire time we were there. No anxiety. No worry. Nothing connected to time at all. I felt strong, pain-free, unlimited.  I felt whole, alive, and blessed beyond measure. I felt awe, wonder, gratitude. And when we swam back into the daylight at the end, that light was important, substantial, and sparkled with welcome.

ATM was a holy place to the Mayas, a place they worshipped and prayed and sacrificed in hopes their gods would bring the rain that might save their culture. Only the elite were allowed to enter. Yet there I was, an American tourist seeing sights only available to non Maya eyes for the last couple of decades. I breathed air that was in the lungs of ancient people, walked on limestone that was first trod by Maya feet so far back the mind can't grasp, saw the same formations their eyes beheld - shapes only slightly altered by the slow deposition of calcite over the centuries.

I live with and love someone who shared that experience with me. Who was as moved as I. And somehow that becomes a part of who we are as a couple at the end of our first quarter century together, and on the verge of whatever might lie ahead of us.

If I could give you more of Actun Tunichil Muknal than I have here, I would. Since I can't, I wish for you that you find your own (if you haven't already), even if you never get to Belize.

The Crystal Maiden, photo courtesy of Jamir


DJan said...

I am so moved. I would give much to be there in the ATM with you, but since I cannot, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this attempt you have made to give me a bit of the flavor. You have succeeded, and I am grateful. Blessings to the One who I know who visited the ATM...

Unknown said...

Unreal Deb.
Thank you .
I loved what you said about sharing this as a couple as well..

Safety and health and blessings and love.

tricia said...

Oh how I miss you. Only you can use words to say what ordinary people struggle to articulate. You are an amazing analyst and writer.

Anonymous said...

Honey, I knew you would find the right words to describe our incredible experience. No, not the right words. The perfect words. The experience is all the richer for me now that I have read your description.

I love you


Anonymous said...

I am not sure I could have done what you have done. I am a claustrophobic and am not keen on heights and would probably have drowned if I had to swim fifteen yards (not a strong swimmer) but having read your description, maybe even I'd give it a go now - it sounds an amazing experience. Thank you. Debbie.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Sometimes it takes an experience like that to show us that living in fear and anxiety is a waste of time.

I'm glad you had a great time.


kario said...

What a singular experience, and exactly what I expected when I heard you were headed to Belize. The way you live with your heart and your eyes wide open, taking it all in, means that you get to be party to some of the most intense emotional adventures life has to offer.

And Walt's comment brought me to tears. I am so thrilled (but not surprised) that you two chose to take the challenge.

Sandi said...

Deb, As always, you are magically led to tell the story as no other person can. I was so moved when I read about this reverent experience, but I didn't cry until I read Walt's comment. What a memorable and moving way to celebrate your togetherness; to salute your journey.

Re-reading, I think about the parallels between living with someone for twenty-five years, and how you described the challenges you faced together in order to experience ATM. I look forward to hearing more about this incredible gift you received.

yaya said...

Wow..what a fabulous experience and I'm so thankful you shared it here. I was glued to my screen as you described the whole trip. You and Walt are very lucky to be able to have shared a bit of eternity with each other. What a perfect anniversary gift.

Linda Myers said...

Oh, my, Deb. What a magical description of your experience.

I had a similar one a few years ago, in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia, Turkey. A metaphor for life, as it were.

Still, when I'm in Belize, I'll be sure to consider ATM.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

You are such a gem - and I never say that. I'm not certain what was better - your description of this experience or that your husband wrote a comment on your blog that so embraces the experience.

P.S. Will you guys travel with my husband and me and do stuff like this so I can sit on the beach and read?

Mark Lyons said...

What an amazing post!!! I could see through your eyes, but more importantly, relate to the impact of the experience. I'm glad you're home and I'm looking forward to reading tales of your trip.

I love you


Anonymous said...

What an outstanding experience! Thanks for sharing this Deb.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, as you led as farther and farther into this journey and then the cave of ATM, I forgot to breathe. So at the end of your saga I was breathless.

I felt I stood on sacred ground before Mystery. And I wanted to rise from this chair in which I sit and kneel before the wonder of the Oneness of All Creation of which you and your husband and I and the cats with whom I live are a part.

Thank you. Peace.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

This is a lovely description of your most unusual pilgrimage to an ancient sacred site. I guess I can understand why some folks hesitate to speak of their deep feelings at a place not associated with their own culture or religion, but I am glad you wrote about this!

Debbie Crawford said...

Deb thanks for sharing that amazingly personal experience with us.