Sorry. Work duties called so I had to put this down for a minute. Now where was I? Oh yes! Day 3! Just a little background on me and the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. From the first time I read about this cave I wanted to do it. The thought of being so close to ancient artifacts was intriguing to me but I had 4 potential problems: (1) I'm not really a big adventure type and I've never been caving. In fact this was the first adventure type trip we've ever taken. Would I have the stamina required to do this tour? (2) As you all know by now. I don't really care for spiders. If the spiders in the jungle are huge, what in the WORLD would the spiders in a CAVE look like eek ? Could I overcome my apprehension regarding the spiders? (3) I tend to get a little claustrophobic in places where I can't move or my arms and legs are pinned and I understand there a couple of really tight spots in this cave. Could I mentally prepare myself for that? And could I calm myself down if I felt panic setting in? (4) I don't swim very well in a swimsuit much less full shoes and clothing and I understand there are some parts of the cave where you have to swim (namely the entrance). Could I push myself to do this or am I literally getting in over my head? These are the things that were running through my mind since I first heard of the ATM cave. Darren was all rearin' to go though. He was actually looking forward to it. He told me not to worry. It was all mind over matter. All I had to do was tell myself I could do it. He knew I could do it, now all I had to do was convince MYSELF I could do it. I went ahead and set the trip up with Patrick Warrior...

Day 3: Personal Challenge Part 1. Once again I was up at the crack of dawn. I think this time it was more from anxiety at what the day might hold. Darren and I both hastily got ready and grabbed a few things we thought we might need: dry bag, digital camera, waterproof cameras (just in case), insect repellent, sunscreen, alcohol swabs, bandages, bottled water, snacks, and dry socks and clothes. We looked at the clock. 7:15am. Great! We should have time for a quick breakfast before Patrick arrived. We grabbed everything and headed down to breakfast. Wim was already in the dining area as he usually gets up about 5:00am every morning. We couldn't find the breakfast menu, so we took a seat. Immediately a young lady brought out the breakfast menu. Darren had his pancakes, eggs, bacon, and orange juice for US $9. I had the cheese omelet (which was really good) and orange juice for US $5. I was a little nervous and didn't want to eat heavy. As we ate breakfast, Wim tried to reassure me that everything would be OK and not to worry. He continued singing Patrick's praises and told me 'Patrick is extremely patient. Just tell him you're a little nervous. He'll make sure you have a wonderful and unforgettable experience.' After breakfast, we talked with Wim and Chantal for a minute and then decided we would take a walk back to where the horses were while we waited for Patrick. After about 15 minutes of walking and not seeing or hearing one single horse, we decided we had better head back. We went down to the parking area to make sure Patrick hadn't arrived and then headed back to the dining area. Wim and Chantal looked a little surprised to see us because they thought we were already gone. Chantal looked a little concerned that we were still there. She said Patrick was usually early. It wasn't 8:30 yet and I figured I wouldn't start worrying until about 9:30am to allow for 'Belize Time'. So we waited. Wim thought he heard a car so we headed down to the parking area again but there was no one there. We decided to just wait there. After awhile Wim came walking by and was startled to see us still there. He asked if we had Patrick's number and suggested we radio him. As we walked back to our cabana Wim mentioned that we had been up for about 3 hours already and we were in for a long day in the cave. 3 hours?!?!? We've only been up for 2 hours. What are you talking about? Wim: 'You guys came down to breakfast at 6:30am.' Us: 'Huh??!?!?' This is when we discovered that our clock was an hour early, we had forgotten to set it when we got to Belize. We apologized profusely for coming to breakfast 30 minutes early. Wim waves it off and says it's OK but we insist on stopping by to apologize to the staff and thank them for preparing an early breakfast for us. They all assure us that it was no problem as well. Darren no longer has a problem with not getting lunch yesterday.

We retrieve Patrick's number and Chantal goes to radio him to see where he is. After a few minutes she returns and says that Patrick hadn't heard from us so he thought we didn't make it into Belize. No worries though. He is going to get the gear and lunch ready and he'll be here soon. Darren and I are fine with this since its right at 8:30am. Chantal and Wim however seem a little concerned. We were asked to confirm with Patrick but knowing we wouldn't have easy access to a phone once in Belize, I called the Thursday before we left the states not knowing he wanted us to confirm with him again when we got to Black Rock. As far as I was concerned, still no worries. Patrick would be here soon. But Wim and Chantal still had the worried look on their faces and they finally explained to us that the ATM tour was an all day tour and they were concerned that we wouldn't have enough time to do the tour today and that we would be rushed through it which was not good as it's something to be savored. They said that all other groups would be exiting the cave just as we were entering it and that it would be close to dark during the hike back to the vehicle. Now Darren and I were both a little concerned. Wim and Chantal both suggested we ask Patrick to do the tour tomorrow when we could start on time. It was settled. We would wait for Patrick and ask if we could do the tour tomorrow. Wim and Chantal needed to check on the other guests and a few other things but assured us they would return if they heard Patrick drive up before they came back. About 9:40am, Patrick arrives and true to his word, Wim comes running. As soon as Patrick gets out, Wim suggests that the tour be given the next day and gives the reasoning for why. I am already intrigued by Patrick as I watch him listen patiently without interrupting. This is amazing because back home they would both be talking at the same time neither one listening to the other. After Wim finishes, Patrick says he was waiting on confirmation that we had made it to Black Rock because people sometimes book and never show up and there is wasted time, gas, and food. Chantal has now appeared and at this point Darren asks Patrick to sit down for a minute. Oh s*%t! And I'm sitting in the middle of them! Darren is upset but extremely calm. In fact he's a little too calm as he talks to Patrick. Darren knows how badly I wanted to go on this tour and how nervous I was about the tour and he's afraid that after all of this that the nervousness has settled back in. Once again Patrick listens patiently and then apologizes again. Wim offers Belikins while we discuss the matter. Darren is the only one that takes him up on it. After they leave, Chantal speaks up. Patrick looks at me and assures me that (1) He is sorry for the confusion (2) We DO have enough time for this tour. He has been giving this tour since guides were first allowed to give the tour, he is a bushman, and has been in the jungle since he was like 5 years old. He wouldn't take us if he didn't think he could give us the proper experience (3) He will NOT rush us. And if at any time we feel rushed, just let him know. (4) We WILL have the time of our lives. Corny side note here: I truly believe that the eyes are the windows to the soul and I often look into a person's eyes when I need to understand where they are coming from. Patrick's voice and demeanor is trusting but I look into his eyes for the real truth and am satisfied at what I see there. The only thing I need to know at this point is 'Will we be back in time for dinner at 7pm?' Patrick says yes and Chantal says they will hold dinner for us if we are a little late. I see something in Patrick's eyes again and tell Chantal NOT to hold dinner for us. From the look in Patrick's eyes, I think we're in for more of a treat than I expected. Of course, I want to consult with Darren first but as he and Wim walk up, Darren looks at Patrick, smiles, and says 'Let's go man.'. Patrick smiles, they both shake hands and we're off! As we're pulling off, Patrick apologizes again and I apologize as well, as I feel there was a misunderstanding on my part too. Patrick then says, 'OK. Everything's good and OK and we will have the time of our lives!' I knew I would like this guy laugh !

As we're driving, I mention to Patrick that I'm not a good swimmer and am a little concerned about the swimming in the cave. He tells me 'No problem.' He has something for me to use. As we drive, I am full of questions about everything (local culture, diversity, present day Mayans, ancient Mayan history, Patrick himself, etc.). Patrick smiles and answers all of my questions patiently and in depth. We all talk and laugh the whole way. In San Ignacio, we stop and pick up Lenny, our driver. Once again I look wistfully around town. Will I ever get a chance to actually STOP in San Ignacio? We're off again and we travel down a really long, dusty, bumpy road (worse than Black Rock's road). I could see where this road could be a major problem during a good rain storm. All along the way Patrick points out different trees and animals. He answers all of my questions about the agriculture and land surrounding us. He actually seems happy with my questions on agriculture and I find out later that agriculture was one of his studies. We have to make a stop at the ranger station to handle some business and after a few more minutes we stop at the edge of the jungle. I look around and can't see any opening where we could possibly enter the jungle. Anxiety level shoots up and images of huge spiders falling on me out of the trees fill my head. I tried not to let on that I was getting nervous again and started to help get our stuff together. Any anxieties I had about being in the thick of the jungle were quickly dispelled as Patrick jumped out of the truck with no shoes on, whipped off his shirt, slung a sarong around his waist, and put a knife between his teeth. Once again the thought that we were doing something either very stupid or very courageous came to mind. I took one look at Patrick and had no worries what so ever. Darren decided he wanted to be a semi-bushman and go shirtless as well. I decided to be a little smarter and kept my shirt on. Don't get any ideas. Bikini top was under the shirt wink . Patrick took our camera, put it in our dry bag, and then put that in his dry bag. He packed our lunch and a few other items in his dry bag and distributed our helmets. He took one look at us and said 'Ready?' 'I am most certainly NOT ready!' I thought to myself. 'Where in the hell do you propose we enter the jungle?!?!' I STILL didn't see an opening. But I smiled and nodded. Patrick took the lead, I fell in behind him, and Darren brought up the rear and there before us appeared an almost imperceptible opening inviting us to enter the jungle.

As we began to walk Patrick began to tell us about the things we would be seeing on our hike to the cave. All I could concentrate on was the sound of rushing water I was hearing from somewhere ahead of us. I knew we had to cross a river three times and it was my understanding that the water wasn't that deep. But what if it had rained and the river had swelled? Crossing the river proved to be an easy feat and quite refreshing.

Patrick and Nikki after crossing the river

The clarity of the water was UNBELIEVABLE!

River we had to cross

I just wanted to pitch a tent right there and spend the day. It turns out I didn't have a problem with any of the river crossings. The highest the water ever got was knee level on me and I'm really short about 5' 4''. Just make sure you have shoes with a good grip because the rocks are really smooth and can get slippery. I know some people are comfortable with Tevas or other water sandals but I felt more comfortable in my amphibious tennis shoes as I didn't like the idea of any of my foot being exposed. Patrick is very knowledgeable about the Mayans and the surrounding area. Along the way he stopped to point out trees, animal markings, different plants, fruits, and various other tidbits. I was like a sponge, soaking up every little thing.

Patrick and Nikki

We were only hiking through the jungle and hadn't even made it to the actual cave yet and this was easily the best and most informative adventure I had ever been on. Patrick is a wealth of information! We stopped to pick wild limes and Patrick cut one so that Darren and I could taste it. It was incredibly bitter yet incredibly good at the same time. I can't quite explain it. I can see why the "Caye" Lime pies are so good here! At first I kept my eyes to the ground making sure I didn't run across any snakes or spiders but I quickly noticed that there wasn't a need because Patrick was already taking care of that, so I began to relax and just enjoyed looking around at the surroundings.

About 45 minutes or so later we stopped at a natural pool area that looked like it could easily be the mythical waters of the fountain of youth. Not only was the water unbelievably clear but it had a beautiful, mystical, bluish-green tint to it. Patrick tells us to go ahead and take a look around. As we marvel at the surroundings and how clear the water is, we catch our first glimpse to the entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal. It's a wonder I didn't die on this trip because for the second time my breathing stops as I am awe struck by the beauty and mystery of the entrance to the cave.

Entrance to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave

Patrick tells us we can swim in the water if we like, while he got our lunch together. Darren was all for it but I decided to just sit and watch him.

Darren in the natural pool

Darren in the natural pool #2

Patrick getting the gear ready

Anxiety sets in again as I look at the darkness within the cave and the water at the entrance. But I am also intrigued and soon the intrigue wins out. Then all of a sudden Darren calmly and quietly says 'Don't panic.' Instantly I start to panic. My heart rate and breathing increases. Something's obviously near me. I don't know whether it's above me in the trees or below me on the ground. I notice Darren's looking at the ground. My first thought is 'My God! It must be a fer-de-lance!' I stand absolutely still. Patrick hasn't noticed that anything is going on and as I'm getting ready to call to him for help, Darren says 'There is a REALLY big spider right in front of you.' I actually calm down as I'd rather face a spider than a fer-de-lance ANY day. I look down and sure enough there is the biggest spider I have ever seen in my life.

Wolf Spider

By now Patrick has come over to see what we're looking at. He says it's a Wolf Spider and he's having a little drink. He's talking about it like it's a little fluffy white bunny. Meanwhile I'm thinking any time I can see the eyes on a spider without kneeling down over it, it's too damn big! We then sit down for lunch. Patrick has brought some really yummy sub sandwiches, bananas, and bottled water. Patrick and Darren have a sandwich and water. I have a banana and water. I'm too nervous to eat but I take a small bite of Darren's sandwich. After lunch we wait a little while and then we get instructions on how to use the helmets. We're ready!

To be continued....