By Karla Heusner
Edited by Naturalight Productions

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With my 40th birthday approaching, I thought my childhood was surely far behind me. But quite by accident, I discovered the fountain of youth, right here in our little Belize. Granted, the sensation of being a child again is short-lived -- a mere hour or so -- but believe me it's worth it, especially since it is so easy to find.

The Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve is off the Western Highway, the same highway you use to get to Belmopan from Belize City. This, in a way, added to the excitement of the discovery; how many times had I passed this very cutoff on my way to do business in the capital? How many times had I seen the wet, bathing suited tourists get off the buses at Cheers Restaurant and wondered why they looked so exhilarated and yes, even happy. Happy as kids at a Disneyland theme park. What exactly had they been up to?

I was, on a summer morning, about to find out. I had never been cave tubing before but welcomed the break from an otherwise routine week when co-workers suggested the outing. Life jacket and tubes in hand, we made our way down a rocky path to a gurgling river. One part of it had carved a gaping hole into a vine-draped, tree-covered limestone wall; the other meandered freely between flanking trees and disappeared around a bend. In some places the sun pierced the forest canopy to reveal hues of marine blue and jade green. Visible beneath the rippled surface were colorful, flat stones ranging from slate to moss green to shale.

At the instruction of our able and licensed tour guide, Israel, we followed his five years of guiding experience through a shallow path to ford the river. Life as we had known it ended on the banks of the Caves Branch River as we disappeared into the forest. Israel, led us through this new world that rose, wound and dropped past medicinal plans and don't-ever-touch-this trees resounding with the chatter of forest birds camouflaged by the thick leaves. The excited human train strung along the path until finally we emerged into the mouth of another karst formation. Here we paused for a Kodak moment.

I wasn't a bit nervous when we braced the cold -- about 65 to 75 degree -- water and mounted our tubes. I am an excellent swimmer. I thought to myself.

It wasn't until we were in our tubes riding the river that I realized that when you are tubing, you aren't exactly swimming. So cocky me wound up like a cockroach on its back, arms and legs flailing around trying to make myself move forward instead of spinning around uselessly, or getting stuck on the rocks as everyone else sailed merrily by.

No matter what I did with my arms, or what other people did with theirs, we were little more than a bunch of bumper cars in the water, gently knocking into each other and apologizing for accidentally brushing someone else's extremity.

It was strange to be suddenly so intimate with people you work with, all of us unleashed in some sort of natural playground, where pecking order no longer played any role. Where people like me who normally feel so in control, so completely in command of their work environment and sure of their skills, found none of these office-type behaviors got us anywhere at all. We were truly babies in the woods.

Although some of us, apparently, are water-babies at heart. One completely at home archaeologist shouted gleefully "I was born to do this!" as he rode the current, and a female co-worker who was normally quite reserved and composed was flipping in and out of her tube as happily as a porpoise.

I wanted to be like them too, but my form was terrible. One minute I was dog paddling furiously to get somewhere, the next trying just as hard to slow down as I approached a rocky outcropping.

Exiting the first cavern brought us to a location that could have come out of a Hollywood movie. An intrepid hero posed on a limestone ridge looks sixty feet down into the aqua depths as a graceful damsel floats by completely unaware. The camera pans to the lush foliage where the limestone turns into the forest before returning to our protagonist. He reverses a few steps and takes a flying leap, much to delight of our heroine. While coworkers dramatized the hero's jump, I hung on to an outcrop to stop myself from drifting into the waiting mouth of the second cavern.

As soon as we took off, I discovered that by letting myself go with the current instead of resisting it, my tube moved easier. Moving my body in a relaxed, rather than frantic way made movement much easier. With these newly acquired skills, I was better prepared to keep up with the group. The race was on

But as the cave got dark, we suddenly realized the need to keep an eye on each other. It stopped being about individual differences. One brave young woman who can't even swim, but who was determined not to miss out on the experience, got stuck on some rocks in a deep area and started to panic. In the absence of any tree or rope and surrounded by nothing but solid rock walls, a guy from our group made a snap decision and jumped out of his tube to get her himself.

After this sobering incident, we all stayed closer together. But somehow, seeing how our quiet accountant had, without hesitation, risked his life for a co-worker he barely knew, I felt much, much safer. (Looking down at the trusty life jackets we wore helped too.)

Collectively we relaxed enough to marvel at the experience of floating along in the semi-dark, with lights on our heads, looking all around at the beauty of the cave. The cool rock walls of our temporary housing rose on both sides to form angled or dome-shaped ceilings. Jagged or rounded outcroppings merged to create interesting patterns. Adding to these features were an underground waterfall and a crystallized ceiling that looked like sequins in the dark. Each was regarded with fascination by us city dwellers.

It really was like a subterranean cathedral! No wonder the Maya used these places for worship, viewed them as the entrance to the underworld. For truly you feel spiritual here. I discovered as I spun involuntarily in my tube that sometimes we are so focused on what lies ahead, we miss the incredible view behind us.

The whole thing had felt very Disneyland-esque. We had walked down this long path to get to the attraction, then everyone had boarded little boat-like tubes and set off for the "ride." Even the feelings are similar: excited and nervous at the start, screaming out of sheer thrill or just to shrug off the nervousness, and comfortable with knowing what to expect. There is one difference between cave tubing in Belize and a Disneyland ride: there are no fake rocks or trees; everything you see and touch is real. It is a natural amusement park and the fun lasts even after the "ride" is over.

I may never go tubing again but I brought home some incredible inner photos that I can pull out whenever I feel stressed or frustrated. Even now, sitting at my computer, I can still feel the cool water below me, darkness above me, little slits of light giving way to wider expanses of sunlight, trees framed by jagged bits of rock.

Best of all, I discovered it is possible to still feel as free and incredulous as a child, if you let yourself just go with the flow.

Images Courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • Dreddi
  • JC Cuellar

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