Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Finca Ixobel - Part III The End

How can I make a decision right now? I’m much too busy clinging to the wall. Geoff shouts, “I think we can do it.” I give this a few clock cycles and decide that he’s right. We cross the wall in about 10 minutes and I’m so relieved to get to the other side. Waiting on the ledge is a graceful, tall, athletic Israeli in her late twenties wearing a bikini top and shorts. I’ve noticed several times that she is weathering our expedition better than anyone else, and she crossed the rock wall with the confidence of a professional climber; so I call her Rocky. Rocky is waiting because she noticed that Mike and Dutch stayed behind, and she’s sure that we are not coming back this way. I had considered this too when I decided to continue on. We were told that we could leave our packs at the mouth of the cave, but there is no way we are going to come back against this current. I had guessed a while ago that we’d be circling around the outside of the cave, but I really wasn’t sure. Besides, it’s the only reason I can think of that the guide hasn’t turned back. It’s become evident that the rains of the last couple of days have made this much more dangerous than the photos beside the sign-up sheet had made it out to be.
The guide is too far ahead. We can’t find out for sure if we are coming back or not. Rocky makes up her mind to go back and get Mike and Dutch. She’s so agile. She’s back with the boys in two minutes and patiently guides them across in 15 minutes; showing them exactly where to hold and where to stand. As they reach the end I hear her congratulating them on a job well done. Dutch doesn’t seem to think that anything about this is well done. I don’t know how much further we travel. Concentration and exertion make me lose all track of time. We swim a few more times, but it’s getting harder. The water is flowing faster and I have to keep my feet in front to me to fend off protruding rocks, it make it hard to steer myself.
Finally we arrive at the long anticipated jump into the pool. The guide jumps in. One after the other we leap 15 feet to the bubbling water below and swim 20 feet across the pool to a flat rock landing. Geoff is in front of me and jumps without hesitation. I’m tired and shaky. I’m getting cold from waiting my turn to jump. I look down and don’t move. My mind has decided to go, but my body has decided to stay. I’m not having any kind of particularly coherent thoughts about the matter. There is enough adrenaline in me from the trip so far that looking down this small jump is enough to make my heart race. I make an attempt at jumping and sway forward, but it’s a false start. This time the body is willing but the mind vetoes the operation. I sway back falling on my arms completely ungracefully. I step back and let others go. I eventually step to the ledge again. Geoff’s shouting up that I can do it and finally I jump. No rhyme or reason. Pride I guess.
At the bottom of the pool I look around. There is no exit. The river flows out from underground. Shit! There is only one way out. We have to go back the way we came! After 10 minutes or so we all pull ourselves back up the small cliff using a knotted rope and we reluctantly follow the guide back up the river.
We are pushing hard against the rushing water. Chest deep my body creates a lot of resistance, and I have to pull hard with my arms each time I move forward against the current. The guide is alarmed and much more impatient now, and he doesn’t stop for stragglers anymore. I pass candles that were feet above the water when we entered that are partially submerged now. The side we are on has become impassable. It’s too deep to find footing at all and the wall is un-climable. We have to dart across the river 20 feet. The guide pushes off against the wall and swims hard to the other side. He’s been carried back 15 feet by the current. A twenty something American girl goes next. She leaves from the same spot as the guide, but isn’t as strong a swimmer. The guide reaches out his hand to pull her in, but they miss each other. She drifts another 10 feet before she succeeds in grabbing the wall. The guide moved slowly to her and pulls her back. It’s dangerous going and I wonder what the hell will happen if our only guide gets hurt. It’s my turn. I decide to move up stream as much as I possibly can before I cross. I crouch down. Puting my feet against the wall, I push off as hard as I possibly can and swim like hell. The guide catches my hand and pulls me up. I’m breathless from the swim, but also from the adrenaline. We had to do this several times. Each person waiting to catch the other after crossing. It was the only way for us to keep up with the guide, who wasn’t about to be waiting for everyone to get across.
The rest of the trip is a long sequence of difficult river crossings. There is a tense time when the Japenese girl is swept down the river into the darkness. She grabs frantically and finally catches herself on an outcropping in the wall. The raging water pulls her sideways, her legs stretched out behind her and she screams afraid that she is going to loose her grip. We form a long human chain, hand grasped in hand, and finally make our way to her and pull her to safety. The guide is nowhere to be found. He is so afraid of the rising water that he is gunning for the entrance.
Finally I see through the candle light that we have reached the stone wall. One by one we swim against the current to a pool of relatively still water. The small opening that was there earlier is now completely submerged. The guide reaches down 4 feet into the water to lift the rope that we are going to use for the underwater crossing. The guide crosses and we follow one at a time. The third to last person, Ishmael, ducks under water. I don’t know how this happened, but Geoff and I are the last two on this side of the wall. Left just the two of us, we notice how dark it is. It’s unsettling to have lost all contact with the group even if they are just on the other side. I’m holding on to the rope as I tread water. The rope goes slack. I guess that this means Ishmael is safe on the other side and one of us should go. Geoff says, “You go”. I don’t really want to leave him here alone. It’s very creepy. The fewer the people the darker it got and we are both winded. “You sure”, I said. Geoff nods. I’m just wasting time debating this, so I take a breath and duck under. It’s much harder this time swimming against the current. And I have to go down several feet before I find the opening by feeling around. I come up the other side with a gasp of air and choke on some water. I swim to the other wall and wait. I’ll feel a lot better when I see Geoff. It seems like minutes, but it is probably seconds. Geoff comes up, also gasping for air. He swims right past me. He couldn’t get far enough away from that damned underwater hole. He had lost his head lamp. The current had taken it off his head. We’d share mine.
It isn’t much father and we finally reach the mouth of the cave. We all have battle scares: bumps, bruises and scratched, but nothing serious. Dutch’s girlfriend had sat through an hour long down pour watching the water at the mouth of the cave rise 6 feet. The guide was relieved to be the hell out of there and declared that the tour tomorrow would be cancelled. No kidding!
The trek back to the Finca was hot and muddy but uneventful. We all talked about wanting dinner and a shower when we got back. Some of us were Jonesing for a cigarette. The whole trip took 7 1/2 hours.
I’ve described this as quite an ordeal, but I’d do it again (sorry Dad). Some of you will wonder why I’d enjoy such a thing and some of you will understand exactly why.

No Joy in Geoffville

After kicking around Quito for the better part of a week, with a brief sting in the boring city of Otavalo, we have ended up deep in the Amazon basin on the northeast border of Ecuador. We took the night bus last night, 11 1/2 hours then a mini bus 3 hours, then a small motorized boat 2 hours to get to the campsite. Its a series of connected, open air, thatched roofed cabins. They have 1/2 high walls and a small semi enclosed area for a toilet on the back of each one. They all have double beds with mosquito netting that tucks under the bed. There are two outside, cold water showers and no electricity. Privacy is not an option here. We are one American, one Canadian, A French couple, an Israeli couple, a Danish couple and a young single Swiss girl. Quite the multinational group.
The bus trip painfully slow. It left at 10:00 PM and was supposed to get in at 6:30 AM in the town of Lago Agrio. There was a thick fog for most of the drive. So much so that the driver really had to keep his speed in check. A rarity for Ecuador. About :00 AM this morning, we came to a dead stop. I could see the lights of vehicles in front, beside, and behind us. The next 2 hours until daybreak were the only true sleep that I got last night. The roads were so bad that the constant bumping up and down of the bus made for a very fitful rest. The bus seats, although comfortable, are not meant for sleeping.
When daylight finally appeared, we got a chance to see why we were stopped. A river had washed out the road and 2 buses were stuck in the middle of it. Traffic had backed up for 1/2 a mile on both sides while we waited for a bulldozer to arrive from who knows where. One bus had been fortunate enough to almost make it across and all its passengers were able to get out. The other was smack dab in the middle and all the people were stuck inside, looking forlornly out the windows at the crowds that now stood on the river bank. We of course took a picture.
The bulldozer went to work clearing a new path through the river next to the buses and soon all the traffic on the other side of the river was crossing to our side. Some strange Ecuadorian ritual must have been done to decide which side went first. Once that had cleared, we were the second bus to go across. The water came up to the wheel wells but it was a relatively easy crossing. Not sure what happened to the stuck busses, as we roared on up the road at regular breakneck bus speed. I guess the roads wash out all the time in this area.
Finally back on the road we had another 2 1/2 hours to go to reach Lago. Of course, we had no idea how far it was. When we got on the bus, they said that there was a bathroom at the back. They were right, it just did not work and the door was bolted shut. After I don’t think I can adequately explain how badly I had to pee. I tried to go while the buses were stopped but with everyone standing around, a severe case of stage fright set in and there was no joy in Geoffville. Now imagine that condition after 9 hours on a very bumpy bus. I also forgot to mention that I had eaten Indian food the night before and so I was emitting a steady stream of gas all night long and the pressure of it was also pushing on my bladder. Pain, pain, pain. And the ride kept going and going and going.
Currently I am lying in a hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle and conversations in 4 different languages and am damned happy that the last 24 hours are over. We are making friends with the cockroaches, tarantulas and other numerous insects that inhabit our cabana and all is right with the world.