Hanging out in the underworld. Again.

Yesterday after the ATM cave, I immediately set about figuring out the plan for today. Apparently I’m not that great at staying still. I’d liked the clambering parts of ATM, so when I found a tour labelled “HARD! CHALLENGING!”, I got a little curious and competitive. With Brother’s consent, I signed us up for the Crystal Cave (Mountain Cow Cave).

Now, admittedly, I’m a circus artist. My idea of hard and a Muggle’s version of hard will probably not be quite the same.

Spoiler alert:

It’s hard.

We booked through Maya Walk Tours and I hesitated because it wasn’t a ruin (and I wanted to see more pyramids and there are SO MANY RUINS around San Ignacio) and also it was rather expensive in USD. But I did, and I’m glad.

We met up with our tour guide, C, at 8am and once we got on our way, stopping once to pick up some more snacks. Once we got to the park (which is actually a chain of caves), we parked, donned helmets & lights, and set off; just C, Brother, and me.

Our journey started with a hike through jungle. It seemed innocent enough; a wide, cleared, mowed path with the jungle healing over to create a nearly hedge-like wall of green.

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Just C, Bro, and me, going on a lovely stroll through the jungle. And earth.

Birds sang, the sun blazed. The insects buzzed and bit, but all the same, it was fairly tame. After a few minutes walking, C grabs a thin stem of a vine, strips it, and crouches down to a hole, where he uses the stem to reach in and tickle or entice something out.

“A tarantula!” C explains as we watch in confusion and then (well, for me) dawning terror. It’s not much of a secret, but I’m not a fan of spiders. Yes, they play an important role in our ecological systems. Yes, they can create beautiful webs and are fascinating and realistically, as a New Englander, I have no reason to fear most spiders. And I’m not afraid of much! Heights only occasionally bother me, snakes, mice, rats, centi- or millipedes are fine, commitment is nearly my middle name, darkness, people, and fear itself don’t stress me out much.

But spiders?

*shudder*

Anyway, so here I am, staring with huge eyes at a squashed-baseball sized hole under a root as my brother crouches down with a quiet cackle and his camera and some apparently insane guy tries to lure out a huge-

Something is moving.

But it’s okay! You’re brave and they are harmless (I think?*) and it’s just another bug and-

oh god a fuzzy leg

-no but I can do this, I am a strong woman who was just yesterday referred to as a warrior by a stranger I can do this-

hereitcomeshereitcomesohgodit’shugeandblackandbrownandfuzzy

C dances out of its way (wait, that’s not a good sign) and drops his sheathed machete to cover its hole and prevent its retreat.

Instead, he accidentally catches the tarantula squarely under the 12+ inch machete and it’s unharmed, but briefly pinned in place.

WAIT, UNHARMED??????

nope nope nope nope nope

I can feel my teeth I’m so scared. Like, I’m aware of my teeth in my skull. How is that a beneficial fear response, body? Not “run!”, not “scare it away!”, not “get extra strong to fight it off!”. Just “hey. Here’s what your molars feel like. Let’s think about that intensely for a few moments.”

Anyway, that part all ended** and so ended the scariest part of the trip. Now for a quick five hour sojourn into the bowels of a cave where we’re deep underground in pitch darkness, able to survive only because our guide is one out of 8 (yeah….8) people who are licensed to take people down there.

We continued, and saw a beautiful rainbow lizard, as well as others including, a basilisk (without frill or helmet!)

Now, at this point I’m just going to do a quick pause because while writing this all out in my journal, I straight up just fell asleep. I was so tired and realized I was falling asleep and literally scribbled bullet points to remind myself as my eyes were firmly falling closed. So the narrative gets a little interrupted by taking rather illegible notes to myself, just so you know how tired I was.

Where were we? Ah yes, the hike in. So we’re on a lovely, wide, fairly flat path.

It pretty quickly became a tangle of roots, and while I was looking down at them to watch my footing, the path leapt up into a steep climb.

After just a few moments, all 3 of us were panting and sweating profusely. A rive poured down my nose, and my arms were drenched. Between the climb (stairs, basically, and occasionally literally) and the unforgivable humidity, I was already understanding the “hard” label.

But then we arrived at the mouth of the cave. I looked up (why up? apparently I’d forgotten how caves work) and saw and expansive rock face, dripping with vines.

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Looking up

Then I looked down.

And down.

And down.

And down.

And then I couldn’t see any farther.

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Looking down. It just keeps going in.

So. That’s ya know. A pretty big hole. (Granted, the picture doesn’t look like much, but where the path looks like it slopes in, it’s actually a shear drop down about 8 or 9 feet, and then you head into the dark part.)

C had us pull on our helmets, and then he ver purposefully sat down on the lip of the cave and talked us through the specific handholds and technique to get down. This happened several times over the next few hours. C would sit, pat this rock with his right hand, that rock with his left, put his heel here, turn around, and climb down backward. (Or variations on that theme.)

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Looking out! And in just a few minutes, we’ll be far from the reaches of that glorious blazing sunlight.

Over the next few hours, we saw incredible things. We saw ancient pottery and were able tog et close enough to see the detail in the carvings. We saw stalactites that looked like huge truck-sized chandeliers shimmering in the light from our headlamps. We quickly climbed in far enough that no light could reach us, and we sat in the thick blackness where Cisco regaled us with the history of Mayan sacrifices. (I’ll admit, I got spooked enough to be grateful when we turned our lights back on.)

Every so often, Cisco would check in on us to see how we were doing (and presumably to gauge the length of our climb based on energy/interest). He’d mentioned a “back room” called Wonderland and Brother and I agreed it’d be cool to check it out. This became relevant later, as it turns out. As we continued on our way, we followed a taped out path. I’d assumed -as was the case in the ATM cave- that it was a signifier not to cross the boundary. Instead, we found out that it was a training tool for new guides to learn the path. When they were confident and knew the safest route, then the tape would be slowly removed. No boundaries were needed, as pottery was scattered, perched, and sometimes placed from a crevasse to a more visible ledge by the archeologists.

One thing that was a clear sign of others (in spite of how we were the only ones in the cave that day) was the mud. It’s a pretty muddy climb, and we got pretty well covered in the brown clay. Our shoes, butts, legs, arms, and hands all showed the evidence of using 3, 4, or 5 points of contact. Of course, once there is mud or clay on your hands, it’s on everything you touch. Your bag, your water, your face, your brother’s face (because you’re a little obnoxious) and the gleaming white stalagmites that offer surprisingly stable hand holds. For the most part, it was just a fact of the climb. At other points, C would instruct us “Don’t touch these walls here. See look, damage.”

A few moments involved some pretty epic wedging. I’m quite flexible and strong, and I’m not a terribly large person , but there were definitely some tight squeezes.

Eventually we entered a smaller crawl space and came upon some wire that was set up as a barrier. Right beyond it, a skull lay in the dirt. It had been smashed in on the top of the head, but C explained that he saw it happen when a lizard perched on it. It turns out that it’s quite fragile!

This skull belonged to a 35-40 year old male, though there wasn’t a lot more information about him, unfortunately.

We climbed more, scrambled, slid, and clawed, and then came to a pretty open, relatively flat space where we sat, drank water (thankfully C brought an extra liter since Brother and I had pretty well demolished the 1.5 liters we’d brought) and ate some snacks. After the rest, C had us take off our shoes and we entered Wonderland in our socks to prevent tracking in extra mud. This was incredible. There were incredible formations that glittered and were almost overwhelming in their size and quantity.

C encouraged me to climb up onto these beautiful perches for photos, and we all enjoyed playing some impromptu music on the formations.

At one point, we all turned off our headlamps and out of the darkness -flick!- C’s lighter illuminated the walls, setting off more dancing shadows and glittering formations. When he pointed a laser at them, we suddenly became three people sitting in the world’s quietest rave, as lights bounced off all the walls. I learned from Cisco’s lighter that every cave breathes; some inhale and others exhale. Our inhales, so by following away from the flame’s lean, we knew we were heading out in the correct direction. (Well, that and C’s been working in this cave for well over a decade.)

Climbing into view of daylight was both exciting and disappointing. I was exhausted, hot, dirty, hungry, thirsty , and eagerly awaiting the promise of a visit to the Blue Hole swimming spot just down the road (not to be mistaken with the Blue Hole which is a geological formation in the ocean).

Daylight was not quite blinding, but was a little shocking. We all got out safely with no mishaps other than Brother’s unexpected sacrificial auto blood letting, compliments of a lightly scraped knee, elbow, and knuckle.

On the hike down, we saw two howler monkeys (a male & female) lounging and grooming in a tree overhead!

Right as we pulled up to the Blue Hole, Brother found a huge “soldier” leaf cutter ant on his shoe. C grabbed it and asked me to hold out my shirt. He held the ant’s body and explained that the Mayans used them as stitches when they were injured. They’d hold the skin of their wound together, put the ant head first at the cut -here the touched the ant to a proffered fold in my shirt- and then -SNAP!- in one smooth movement, the ant grabbed hold with its huge, sharp pincers, and C tore the body away, leaving the head embedded in my shirt and the legs kicking wildly as though searching for their head.

They’d leave the heads on, and I gotta say, it was on TIGHTLY. I couldn’t pull it off without tearing my shirt, though I did manage to finally wiggle the fabric out of its pincers.

The water at Blue Hole was PERFECT. Exhibit A.

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Actually, this doesn’t capture the perfection. It was perfect.

Needless to say, after quite a while swimming hard and climbing  up those walls, it was a fairly early night and I slept like a rock.

*I did some fact checking: “In the face of a threat or a perceived threat, a typical American tarantula has two lines of defense. It can use its fangs to inflict a bite (all tarantulas are venomous), or it can use its urticating (barbed and mildly venomous) abdominal hairs to cause soft tissue or eye irritation. Fortunately, while painful and aggravating, the tarantula’s fangs or or hairs appear to cause no long term damage in most cases.”

WAIT, ITS HAIR??

“If a tarantula should cast its hairs into your face or inner arm – should you get too close, especially to a surly spider – it will cause redness and itching of your skin for a couple of days and irritation of your lips, tongue and eyes. A tarantula’s urticating hairs can produce allergic reactions, including significant skin rashes, swelling and breathing problems, calling for medical attention.”

……eugh somehow that’s worse….

**and the nightmares have almost ended, too! Hahaha I kid…sorta.

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Abridged journal entry from June 11th

[Editor’s note: Entry has been edited for clarity, storytelling, and interest, but not spelling because I can only do so much.]

Yesterday we went out for a nice breakfast in Flores (Guatemala). Huevos rancheros for brother, eggs over easy w/ frijoles voleante (? spelling, I’m sorry!) for me, queso fresca & another kind of queso, sweet cinnamon porridge, oj, and caffé con leche for both of us! Then we jumped on a bus back across the border to San Ignacio, BZ. The border was pretty quick and easy and we arrived without incident, and mostly just hung out. I did some work, we both played on the internet, did some trip planning, and some reading.

Today I took my brother to the Mayan underworld.

It started like any other lovely vacation day.

An alarm in the morning and finding some tasty breakfast at Martha’s! I got the…erm…El Cayeño(?) plate. Chorizo-like sausage, eggs, onions, and green peppers scrambled together, “local cheese” (which was basically that kind of cheese that comes in a wheel but is individually wrapped slices in metal foil….the cheese is like a tangy wedge-shaped cream cheese. Anyway, this was a local version of that), blended black beans, and 3 large fry jacks (meant to be served with honey, yuummmm). Fry jacks are basically sopapillas: triangles of fried, puffed chewy dough that are soft and delicious and hollow from the aforementioned puffiness, and they create a perfect pocket for honey or sandwich fixin’s!

After breakfast, we met at Pacz Tours’ office, where we met Chicago H and Arkansas H and our driver/guide, O. We got on our way to Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) and picked up R, from Bombay, who teaches laughing yoga!

On the way, we passed several tree farms: mahogany, spikey yellow…uhhh…something, and other stuff. [Editor’s note: alright, apparently I’m not even editing for clarity. *shrug*]. Mostly it was a lot of young mahogany! And they were planted in P E R F E C T  R O W S. They were so perfect. When trees are planted in rows like that and you can see the Moiré effect, it’s something between both a brain itch/scratch and it gives me this bubbling feeling of inevitable magic. I can’t help looking because in my deepest heart, I expect to see a mythical creature flitting by. A wood sprite, a unicorn, a satyr, a witch, something! And it’s such a wonderful joyful feeling!

Now imagine just running through this. It’s just my favorite thing to look at, and apparently the internet has no gifs of it and that’s a shame. Still, even just these rows make me pretty darn happy! (Photo courtesy of reddit’s Tyler1492 on r/oddlysatisfying thread. Thanks, internet!)

But then the cave.

[Another editor’s note, which is silly because I’m my own editor. Content warning: the Mayans were a bit gruesome and violent in their religious ceremonies. I’ll write about it, but won’t show anything.]

It starts by arriving, unloading, and getting our helmets on and leaving most of our things in the car, save a bag with water and socks (no cameras, and we’ll find out why later).

First, a 1 minute walk to the river. A truly massive fig tree leans over it, dropping figs and leaves occasionally. The helmets already seem wise.

It’s a quick swim across the river, and it’s fairly shallow (~5ft?) and quite slow. As the rainy season picks up, this will live up to its name, The Roaring River. On the other side, we resume our 30 minute walk and we cross the river twice more, though it’s less than knee deep each time. Along the way, we see lizards and brother spots a basilisk lizard! It’s that lizard that can run on water and it looked very silly running across the path on its two back legs with its frill jiggling.

We didn’t see any other animals other than fish and leaf cutter ants, but the bird call were lovely.

Finally, we arrived at the mouth of the cave. The light lit up the perfect teal water at the mouth of the cave (or, actually, the exit, since that’s where the water was coming out). We’d do a loop, so we’d end up both entering and exiting from the same area. Vines dangled down and it just felts so very…jungle-y! We swam in and turned on our headlamps and began to work our way in. We’d only end up going about half a mile into the 3 mile cave, but it still took several hours.

O talked to us about how the Mayans believed in 13 levels of heaven, our plane on earth, and 9 levels of the underworld. Caves, as it turns out, were the deepest level of the underworld, and so brought them closer to their gods. This cave was used for offerings and sacrifices to the rain god Chaac, and his wife, Chac Chel, goddess of creation, destruction, families, and actually, a long list of other things as well. The Mayans entreated to the two gods, and to Chaac especially during drought. As the drought persisted, the offerings escalated…

O also talked about the geological formations and how the running and dripping water creates stalagmites & stalactites (from the floor & ceiling, respectively). Calcium carbonate from the limestone made these beautiful, sparkling formations. We swam, walked, climbed a little, and turned off our headlamps several times when instructed to. The darkness was consuming and I loved it. I couldn’t see my hand as it touched my nose! And as other groups came around corners, their headlamps threw shadows dancing on the walls…similar to what the Mayans would have seen as they moved through with the flame-lit torches.

We finally came to the dry part of the cave, where we climbed up onto a ledge, shed our water shoes, and donned socks. The oils from our hands and feet decolor the white rocks to a dark black, so the socks help preserve them.

As we started walking through, there were areas with fluorescent tape marking off parts of the floor, indicating not to pass. Beyond them (only just barely, and sometimes not quite beyond) lay ancient, undisturbed artifacts. Broken pottery everywhere! The less well-preserved pieces had been carried by flooding water and was broken in the process. However, they were also broken ceremonially. Priests would fill them with offerings: corn, fruit, cacao, and other food or drink. This would be done carefully to fill the jars with spirits. The spirits would then be released and offered to the gods as sacrifices when the priests broke the jars. Some of the pottery was intentionally placed face down, on its side, or face up. One piece had a carving of a weird four limbed figure with a face and four fingers on each hand, and four toes on each foot. Perhaps it was a person, monkey, or other creature, but O told us it was Tata….erm. I forget the word, but it translates to Grandfather Goblin, and he was believed to live at the mouth of caves and not be friendly. Even as a child, O was told that Grandfather Goblin would be warded off by making an x with your arms (the 4 pointed-gesture was quite powerful), though it’s best to tuck in your thumbs because he’d take them if he saw them.

We also saw two shallow blood letting bowls, which would have collected blood from the priests’ hands, fingers, arms, tongues, lips, ears, and perhaps genitals. The tips of the fingers would also have been cut off for offerings and placed in “finger bowls”. (Well named, though a little cross.)

Not far beyond that shallow bowl, we came upon the skull of a 35-40 year old man, cracked from blunt trauma. A little further up, 2 more skulls and assorted other bones had been scattered from their original resting place as a result of water flow. As the drought persisted, the Mayan priests offered up the most valuable sacrifice: human lives. We can tell that the sacrifices had flattened foreheads and cosmetically filed teeth that were considered beautiful, and they were all males, but we don’t know a lot more about them. One of the skulls had significant more skull trauma than the other, and most of its front teeth had been knocked out. Apparently, 5 years ago a tourist dropped his camera on the skull. Hence the no-more-photos rule.

Then there was one part of the cave that opened up with high ceilings and a wide, fairly flat floor like a gigantic room.

But beyond that and and bit higher up, after a quick climb up a ladder, lay a sacrifice that was the deepest offering in the cave: the Crystal Maiden.

She -or rather, as they figured out several years after her discovery, he– was almost perfectly preserved.

His skeleton, that is. He was approximately 17-20 years old and his remains hadn’t been disturbed like the others’. The water did however, cause calcium build up on his skeleton, leaving these sparkling, almost fuzzy-looking deposits that completely coated his bones. He was lying face up, his right arm bent over his head, his left down by his side. His left leg stretched straight, but his right was gently bent. All in all, he was eerily in the same position I like to sleep in. Granted, there are a few differences. One of the big ones is that his hands and wrists are no longer attached, though they’re still nearby. O  said it looks like they’d been removed, not shifted from water. More importantly, his spine was broken around his lumbar. Perhaps he died from a disemboweling. Maybe he was killed from blunt force trauma to the skull that we can’t see. Either way, he’s beautiful. Terrifying in a way, for sure, but beautiful.

The trek back out of the cave left me in something of a daze as I processed everything. It was…truly incredible.

I did learn that stalactites make a very cool sound when you knock on them, and it’s probable that the rituals were incredibly musical, in addition to being a little horror-movie-esque by current standards. They’re hollow (the stalactites, that is) and since size affects pitch, you can really make an interesting variety of sounds on them! They’re certainly the oldest instrument I’ve ever played…it takes 100 years to create 1 inch of growth!

 

[Last editor’s note: that photo is from the mouth of the cave from the inside looking out! Not my photo (and I don’t know those people), as we weren’t allowed cameras, but that gives you an idea of how pretty it is!]

Belize Adventure: Guat-are you even doing?

Several months ago, I mentioned to my brother that I wanted to go to Belize with him to see the pyramids. We’d seen the Egyptian pyramids 18 years ago, and Belize has been on my bucket list for many years, and this year was one of those big birthdays, so I figured it was time! My brother’s the coolest, because his reaction was “sounds good, lemme know when you want to go!”.

AND SO WE DID.

Or…are doing currently. (These updates are admittedly belated, but we’re still in Belize, so it counts!) Let’s jump back to (last) Friday morning.

2:50am. My alarm goes off, and in spite of only a few hours of sleep, I’m immediately up and getting dressed and on my way to scoop up my brother where he’s getting a couple z’s at a hotel near the airport. Fast forward several hours and the two of us have traveled by two planes, a taxi, a several-hour bus ride including a walk across the border from Belize to Guatemala, and a short walk to arrive at our hostel in Flores.

I’d told him that I wanted to go to Belize, and then I immediately take him to Guatemala. I can’t be trusted. It’s probably worth noting that I told my brother the days we were traveling and what he should pack, but didn’t actually give him an itinerary, so he was pretty clueless about everything.

But here we are in Guatemala! We settle in, acquire tickets for the next day’s adventure, and pretty quickly fall asleep after a delicious and cheap dinner of empanadas and crispy tortillas at some food stalls.

At 3:50a, we’re up and heading to catch our bus to Tikal. It’s a dark, long-ish ride, and involves paying an entrance fee at one office and then taking the ticket we received to the actual entrance to the park. As is universal, we wait in a bit of a line, but there’s a crazy leaf bug and moths the size of my hand (which is tiny for a hand but HUGE FOR A MOTH) hanging around! Once we’re in, and we’re in for a magical experience.

Our guide, L, grew up around Tikal, and has a truly admirable amount of archeological knowledge about the area, as well as a lot of knowledge of the wildlife. (Including the ability to mimic many of the bird and monkey calls!) We saw temples that were built in an era ranging from 900 BC to 900 AD. 1800 years of a civilization and we still aren’t totally sure why it collapsed. Likely overpopulation along with dwindling resources, war with neighboring cities (Xunantunich and Caracol in Belize being two of the big ones) and some disease just to top the apocalyptic sundae.

In spite of that decidedly not-delicious dessert, they did leave some incredible architecture.

One of the impressive things about these ruins is that they just kind of go on and on. Like, you see one and you’re like, “OH THAT’S SO COOL” but buckle up buttercup because you’re at the very start of a 6 hour tour of this place and even though you started at “THAT’S SO COOL”, it’s gonna escalate.

Tikal National Park is a little more than 200 sq miles, and Tikal the city was in use from 900 BC to 900 AD. (Speaking as someone coming from a country less than 250 years old, the idea of a 1,800 year old city is a little mind-boggling.) Initial estimates put the population at 10,000 – 90,000 people, making it a big city, to be sure, but still vulnerable to arguments over whether it was the center of Mayan civilization (an argument that archeologists seem to really enjoy having). However, with really recent LiDAR satellite imaging, they’ve found 60,000 new structures which suggest that the population was probably closer to 10-15 million. Soooo yeah. It was the hub. (For reference, in 2018, Greece has a population of just over 11 million.)

One of the highlights is the main plaza, featuring Temple I (Temple of the Jaguar) and Temple II (Temple of the Mask, built for the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil who is entombed in Temple I).

 

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Temple I on the left, looking out at the plaza. Temple II (not pictured) on my right. Turns out that building a huge temple is intimidating even several thousands years later. For scale, the stela (standing up rocks at the base of Temple I) come up to my shoulder or so.

 

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Temple I on the right, II on the left (the other side of the previous view)
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Obligatory for-the-parents pic!

 

There are 6 main temples, I’m-note-sure how many structures, and even more altars and stela (“stee-lah”, which are carved stones at the base of the temples & altars). The tallest (and newest, built around 800 AD) required us to climb 195 steps to get to the viewing space. I forgot to count the steps there, but it still put us a few stories short of the top of the structure. The view overlooks a verdant jungle, gently softened by the low clouds and fog, and punctuated by the tops of a few of the larger excavated temples and the sounds of several hundred specific of birds.

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Exhibit A: Temple IV in the background, build around 741 AD, according to carbon dating from the wood lintels in the doorways. I think the shorter one is Temple Talud. Back in its heyday, all of the trees and jungle life would have been cleared away. Humans: responsible for deforestation since 700 BC!

It was breath taking (not just from all the stairs), awe-inspiring, and a little bit terrifying as I discovered when I folded into a back bend for a photo. Nothing quite like being upside down on an uneven surface and looking out at the treetops to make you just a little dizzy…

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It’s fine I’m fine I’m like 200 feet above the jungle floor and the stone’s a little uneven but it’s fine why do I do this to myself???

Speaking of birds and wildlife in general, I noted all the animals we saw!

Emerald toucan
Killbill toucan (Edit 5 days later: apparently it’s a keeled bill toucan. Misunderstood L’s accent. Whoops.)
Another kind of toucan, the name of which starts with a c
Spider monkeys
Capybara ? I think?
Brown jay
A termite nest
Occelated turkey (incredibly colorful plumage! Almost similar to a peacock!)
White tail deer
A red headed woodpecker with a name I didn’t quite catch
Leaf cutter ants looking like models for David Attenborough
A huge family of coatis, including countless 2-ish week old babies

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Coatis, a racoon-like cutie pie

Adding to the soundtrack but not the visual landscape were the howler monkeys.

Animals I did not see but really wanted to:

Jaguar
Tapir
Any kind of dinosaur, but that’s just always wishful thinking.

Seeing the sun come out from the otherwise overcast day as we entered the main plaza just added to the thrill of seeing incredible six foot tall masks carved from stone and beautifully restored pyramids. I’d read a lot of reviews and seen many pictures, but I was not prepared for just how interesting the temples were or how wonderful our tour was! I was pouring sweat from the heat and high humidity, but I was also grinning like a lunatic as well.

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Circus hipster: put a handstand on it! (One of the first temples we saw)

For our first full day in Guatemala, it was definitely the coolest.

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The end of tour

Well, as my mother always says, life is what happens when you are busy making plans.

Due to a medical situation, the remainder of the tour has been cancelled. C are I are still in Boston training and spending time with our loved ones, but we aren’t rehearsing for the show anymore. On Wednesday we will drive out to the boat on Cape Vincent, retrieve our things and give love to the people who are going to stay on for the next leg of the adventure. A handful of folks have already left to pursue other artistic endeavors, but I have very little doubt that I’ll run into them again in my life.

It feels a little like having the rug pulled out from under you, in spite of the fact that the rug had some serious issues and you kinda suspected it might happen.

But hey, I learned a lot these last several months.

I learned how to do navigation.
I learned the tricky details of steering a 90 foot boat.
I learned how to tie a bowline…and it actually stuck in my brain!
I learned how to tie an alpine butterfly and in what situations it is a useful knot.
I learned which rung on the starboard side ratlines is just a little bit higher than the other ones. I almost stopped tripping on it.
I gained some proficiency on rope & fabric.
I learned the best way to store my leatherman (multitool) in my bikini top while working.
I learned how to take down and put up a massive truss 30′ in the air.
I learned the value of power tools.
I learned what anodes are for and how to replace them.
I learned how to deal with the head.
I learned that the trick to really good pasta is to cook butter.
I learned that ice cream solves more problems than I thought.
I learned how to play many songs on ukulele (most recently Accidentally in Love, Skinny Love, and I’m working on Build Me Up Buttercup!)
I learned how to do handstands on a moving boat.
I learned how to gracefully explain to an enthusiastic family that a show deals with mature themes and that they are of course welcome to bring little ones, but should have a heads up that certain scenes and language may not be appropriate.
I learned that 21st century boat life is still filled with sexism.
I learned that one of the largest locks in the US/world is 40 feet.
I learned that many riverside towns are in post-industrial ruin.
I learned that goats don’t like citrus, but they love watermelon and banana peels.
I learned that if you meet someone who is really good friends with your friends, you will quickly discover that you love them too and you’ll have a wonderful new person in your life. (Shout out to C, who kept me sane and healthy for the last many months!)
I learned that I don’t know as much about stars and constellations as I want to know.
I learned that even though I’m kinda meh about hummus usually, I absolutely love it when it’s made with peanut butter instead of tahini.
I learned that C likes her coffee with just a little almond milk, our captain likes his tea with milk and a heaping spoonful of honey, S likes his tea carefully brewed in a pot and then milky and with honey, R just likes hot water but if he does have coffee he just wants a little and then it filled up with water (americano), N doesn’t like strong coffee, and R likes her coffee so strong it has its own personality. (This is perhaps not the most useful knowledge with which to walk away.)
I learned that half (153 miles) of the Hudson River (NYC-Albany) is tidal.
I learned that I really don’t like IPA’s.
I learned that when building things/taking them apart, hitting them might actually solve the problem.
I learned a little bit about the Amara Zee’s custom built engine (though not nearly as much as I wanted to know).
I learned that sometimes the ginger ale is hiding under the floor boards.

I learned so much more, but honestly, I reckon I won’t realize all of it until later.

Zebra mollusks are better than spiders

Samuel L. Jackson should do a sequel to Snakes on a Plane and call it Spiders on a Boat because there are too many motherflipping spiders on this motherflipping boat.

There’s nothing quite like scooting yourself out on the end of a scrim line (a pole sticking out from the truss that holds up the scrim for the show), picking up a coil of rope to feed through the pulley and finding a bleeping tarantula* snarling at you from inside.

And then it hides and you can’t see it anymore oh god it could be anywhere.

It doesn’t really help that J, who works with me up on the truss most often, is also scared of spiders. Ugh. They are just the worst. Fortunately, there is often someone else around to chase them away (R) or smash them into oblivion (everyone else).

Yesterday we managed to to get down the doors, the scrims, the aerial pods, the fore and aft truss and the grates on the main truss which doesn’t sound like much but ohdeargod. OH! And the sixto! (A projection screen thing that is meant to be a monster. It is hands down the most obnoxious set piece to set up/break down.) Right, so we got it all broken down because we wanted to be ready to sail at 8pm tonight back to Oswego. Oh, wait, not 8pm, 5pm. We just got a phone call from P, he said leaving around noon or 1pm. Actually, we are going to try to leave at 9am. And then P and N (who had just returned from the border to get P’s visa renewed) came in last night and told us that nevermind, P will wake us up at some unspecified time and we’ll leave an hour after that. **

Currently 9:14 and the boat’s fast asleep. This is why I don’t bother planning ahead anymore.

Oh except that now I am planning! C and I are going to sail with Caravan to Oswego and then we’re gonna hop a bus and a train to get to Boston. We’ll be there for two weeks training: polishing our current acts, working on gaining back lost strength from weeks without training, and I’ll be putting together a lyra piece for Murietta’s torture scene. (Good family fun!) It’ll be good to have that time to condition and work in a studio. (No wind/weather! Mats! A wall against which one can do handstands!) Plus, I’ll get to see my Boston friends (many of whom I haven’t seen since I moved to VT four years ago) and some not-as-local friends who are coming out to visit, too!

We’ll join back up with Caravan in early Sept in Yonkers for our shows on the 4, 5, and 6th. It’s gonna be weird being in the real world again rather than the boat bubble, but I think it’ll be refreshing too.

Speaking of refreshing, last night I went for a quick dip. The St. Lawrence River is so unbelievably clear it’s incredible, thanks to zebra mollusks that were introduced a few years back and even at night you can see to the (not terribly deep) bottom.

*not actually a tarantula, obviously. Just some 8 legged evil beastie with demonic intentions.

**As it turns out, we are on standby for leaving likely tomorrow because of a health issue.

The night sail

When I was in college, my circus collective had a set of rules:

No jails, no hospitals, no uncontrolled plummeting.

As it turns out, C actually made that up for festivals and I have no idea how it filtered into my circus group. But there ya go!

Lately, we’re not doing so well on two of those three points. The jail thing is complicated and involves a hearing in early September in Sylvan Beach, the hospitals refers to one of our actresses who has a throat abscess had to go home to Canada to have that dealt with…only to find out she has mono.

Given the amount of drink/utensil/everything sharing that goes on, there’s a fear that it’s gonna race through the boat, but only time will tell. (I’ve had it twice, so theoretically I should be immune?)

But C and I are gonna watch ourselves: no uncontrolled plummeting!

We left Oswego at 9 pm on Sunday night and did our first night sail across Lake Ontario and entered the St. Lawrence River as the sun rose. I had the 12-4am watch, so went to sleep early and woke around 11:30pm. I popped my head up to check and see how well I should bundle up but then I looked up.

Stars.

Stars everywhere. So many. A blanket of stars, a constellation of bright freckles on night’s dark skin, crushed diamonds flung into the sky…my mind raced with cliches and comfortably settled on a quiet, “Oh.”

The moon wasn’t up yet and we were in the middle of the lake and it was beautiful. The Milky Way was positively dripping and there was not another ship in sight. The only other time I’ve seen so many stars was in Western Australia, where the night sky is so vast and consuming that I felt like I was going to fall into it.

It was just so incredibly beautiful. S, T, and R were lying on deck watching them and when S noticed me sitting there jaw open in awe, he nudged me to lie down and join them.

And then they started falling. (Maybe that’s our uncontrolled plummeting?) Everyone was happily chatting and then “oh!”maybe from one person, sometimes from several, often accompanied by pointing to the fading tail. A half hour flew by and suddenly R and I were on bow watch and I realized that I’d never gone to get more clothes, so I was sitting in the tank top and shorts I’d slept in. And even though it was properly chilly, I couldn’t help but be so happy with where I was.

Fortunately, S was the roamer and brought me his big warm wool jumper (leave it to the northern English to have really fantastic sweaters), N let me borrow his touk (lol Canada), and I got a big wool blanket to tuck in around my legs. All that plus a cup of warm tea left me glowing. I felt so wrapped up and cozy and safe and happy. R wasn’t in much of a talking mood and there’s pretty much no reason to radio the helm when there’s nothing to hit, so we just sat there quietly listening to the slapping of the waves on the hull, the purr of the motor, and watched the stars fall all around us with soft sighs of acknowledgment. It was the happiest I’ve been here.

Navigation was similarly quiet; the normal light was off and a red one was on, to reduce the number of curious bugs. I spent my hour and a half looking at our slow progress across the lake, but without buoys to report or obstacles coming up, it was almost as quiet as bow. I spent a lot of time looking up through the hatch at the stars and on the half hours wrote sweet notes and drew pictures in the comments section of the readings we take (which include our lat & long, distance covered, tachs, oil pressure, temp, weather, battery, etc.).

When we arrived in Clayton, I poked around town quickly, but then we started setting up the truss since the next few days are meant to be rainy. We were bustling around on the ground and then suddenly this beautiful bird swoops by, soars around, and lands on our mast. An osprey! And another one! They hung out with us for probably close to half an hour, and I realized that at the end of the pier we’re on is a massive nest. So that’s really cool!

In which Victoria rambles on about locks

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(Written late last night, posted now that I have internet)

Once upon a time, there was a circus artist who got hired by a truly bizarre theatre company and meant to write about it but then would forget to write about the important things and only write about the things that don’t matter as much and then when she finally DID remember, she started writing down notes for herself to reference later for when she had internet access and then those notes got to be roundabout and confusing and so she just started writing and then simultaneously, all of her high school English teachers suddenly woke up in a terrified cold sweat, knowing that somewhere -somewhere- there was a run on sentence that just wouldn’t quit and definitely  wouldn’t be edited.

The horror!

Actually, it’s entirely probable that her cousin, who writes horror fiction, also woke up in a cold sweat in fear of a badly constructed story. Actually, no, I doubt he’s asleep. Wellll maybe. I think he’s more of a get up early type of person…

OHMYGOD see, I did it again! NONE OF THAT IS IMPORTANT TO THIS PRESENT ADVENTURE. I’m just taking advantage of a platform to yell loudly into the void about noooooooothing.

Mayhaps I need an editor.

You wanna know the most ridiculous thing? The reason I’m off on a completely irrelevant tangent is because I want to talk about locks. Not door locks, but water locks. There are, like, a million in the Erie Canal. OH! Speaking of which, we weren’t in the Erie Canal when I thought we were! Which is to say, we traveled up the Hudson River, and then after the lock in Waterford (which was our third lock? second lock?) then we were in the Mohawk River, and then after Lock #(I don’t remember) THEN we were in the Erie Canal. And it’s funny; the Erie Canal is kind of like a highway! Rivers have all jagged edges and slopes and curves and inconsistencies (because water is an imperfect -although persistent- architect), but the Erie Canal has stone edging and is a consistent width and is in most places just a straight line! It felt super strange after being on the river to being in this very manufactured canal.

Right! But locks! There were…uhmmm…28 locks I think? Is that right? Gosh, that seems like a lot. But I think that’s how many episodes there were…wait, Victoria, focus. Okay, so I don’t think it started with our first lock, but somewhere early on in the lock process, P started telling a story and each lock would be a new episode of it. All told, I heard pieces of one earlyish episode (the story of how the got his stallion, Rom?) and then I heard (although I was distracted by my own thoughts and wasn’t fully listening) the penultimate one. I think there was an ongoing thread about a girl with luminous eyes, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you anything more specific than that. I know that the early stories weren’t necessarily part of the thread, they were stories with a grain of truth and a massive amount of creative padding. (I was about to say a massive amount of creative myelin sheath because apparently when I’m thinking about padding, the first thing I think of is neurons. Nerd.) Anywho. So that was a great idea, because locks provide 15-20 minutes where you have a captive (literally…we can’t go anywhere) audience who are holding lines.

Basically, we arrive at a lock, which looks like a huge blocked off area of the river next to a dam. Often, there will be a red light and it’s closed, but if the green light is on and the lock is open, then we go in. We slowly glide in to this enclosure, the massive doors of the lock creak closed behind us with a sound that would send shivers of delight up the spine of my aforementioned cousin (see? hah! tangent becomes relevant!) …well, wait, actually, as we glide in, P and N are on the walkie talkies (P at the helm, N up at the bow checking our distance to the wall). Once we are close enough to the wall, we use these hooks to grab ropes which are attached at the top of the lock and hang down into the water. Those ropes get pulled through and we put a bite (loop it around the big metal cleat once) on it. This prevents the boat from bopping around as the water level changes, which is especially important if there are other boats in the lock at the same time. If we are going up (which was most of our journey with the exception of the last two locks), you have to constantly take up tension and keep a very tight hold on the line (line = rope) so it doesn’t go slack.

Then, once we’re all snug up against the wall, THEN the lock doors close behind us and for the next 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the lock (OH! lock 40 is one of the biggest in the world! It was 40something feet! And it’s in Little Falls, NY. Generally they’re 18-25 feet) the water level rises. We all go up, occasionally chatting to the lock master, which was usually some variation on the same conversation every time.

“You guys just missed Pirates Weekend!”

“Yeahhh, we know.”

“Where you going?”

“Oswego, for a performance!”

“Oh, you going there for Harborfest?”

“No, we’re going to miss it by a few days.”

“Oh. Huh. You guys are missing everything.”

“…..Yup. Guess so.”

And once the water level has completely risen, the monstrous doors in front of us groan open, we let go of our lines, and start forward to continue our journey several feet higher than we started. It’s basically like an elevator for boats. I took a video and sped it up because sure, it’s fun at first, but no one actually wants to sit through 15 minutes of watching water very very very slowly rise. Or maybe you do. Oh well!

https://vimeo.com/135172561

So that’s what going through locks is like!

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Now we’re on Lake Ontario in Oswego, NY, where we have shows July 5, 6, and 7th (Wed, Thurs, Friday!). Our set up this time around was actually not too bad! Also, Lake Ontario has the PRETTIEST skies. The sunsets last forever and are consistently stunning (see figure A). Also, last night there was heat lightning that took over the whole sky, lighting it up as a silent spectacle. And then the moon was massive and the clouds were this ghost-like veil floating over it. So gorgeous.

Figure A
Figure A

Lately the big challenge has been training. I mean, now the truss is up, but for the past week I’ve been waking up at 6:30am, rolling out of bed, throwing on sneakers and going for a run before my body wakes up enough to say, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WE HATE THIS, STOPPPPPPP”. Usually by then I’m already 5 minutes in and c’mon, it’s only another 15 minutes. I meant, it’s basically only another 10 minutes because the last 5 minutes are always really easy anyway. And look, by the time you finish running up this hill -I know, I know, hear me out though- by the time you finish running up this hill, you’ll only have like, 3 minutes until you’re halfway and coming back is always easier, you know that. See? See look, that was 4 minutes! Now 1 minute is just silly, you can’t turn around after one minute because you haven’t even finished this block. Get to the end of the road and THEN we’ll turn around. Oh shoot, it’s taking longer than you thought. Well, better run faster!

Anyway. So I go on my 20-30 minute run, get back, stretch, and do abs. Sometimes I find a place to do pull ups too! By then, it’s time for wake up and breakfast and morning meeting and then getting started on work!

Which means that ’round about 6pm I am tiiiiireeeed. But it’s not like I’m going to work all day and then work out for 2 more hours at the end of the day. After dinner, I am doooone. I am so not a night person. And lunch is barely enough time and it’s usually too hot. Soooo that puts us at waking up too darn early and going for a run. Which puts me in a perpetually vaguely grumpy/hazy mood which doesn’t really seem sustainable. Merg. I’ll figure out a better system at some point, right? In the meantime…

Next time, I will try to remember to write about tugging the tugboat that (may or may not have) shot down a Nazi plane during D-Day! (Spoiler alert: it took credit for it. History buffs cast a dubious although indulging eye at giving this boat credit for it.) (Wait, actually, that’s pretty  much the whole story. We had to move it forward 20 feet or so, so a bunch of us helped pull it. The end!)

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These are dolos! They are 16 ton concrete things shaped like anchors. They get dropped down in a mess and create a break wall.

 

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The work is confusing, the hours can be long, but you can’t beat that view.