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Entries in adventure (17)

Saturday
Jan052019

The stone sepulcher aka craziest thing we have ever done!

The previous post on this Belize trip series is here..

The main attraction we were going to see on this trip was ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal), a hidden cave created by an underground river which the Mayans used as a sacred place. 

We had heard that the Indiana Jones movie was inspired by this place. Not sure if that is true. Even after reading accounts of other people going through the 4 hour wading/ swimming/ hiking through this cave system to see the large sacred chamber where there is a crystallized fossil, we underestimated how challenging it was going to be!

ATM is in Western Belize. So it was not the usual 1 hour drive from the resort. It was a 2 hour drive to the meet up point for ATM guides. We left the resort after a breakfast at 7. The kids had just done the Altun Ha climb and walked the Zoo the previous day. So it was no surprise that they complained about a 5:30 wake up call. The resort staff are not used to folks going from there to ATM. Apparently most folks who visit ATM stay in San Ignatio, another small town in Western Belize with a population of almost ten thousand. ATM pick up point (called Pooks hill) was 45 minute from there.  The resort staff were up and ready for us and served us breakfast. Then off we went. 

The area was called Belmopan and was full of crops. Reminded us of driving towards Monterey when we see lush green fields and similar landscapes.

Once we reached the pick up point, our driver handed us off to an ATM guide. This guy Manuelo or Manny spoke 5 or 6 languages, had a mix of Polish Jewish, Mexican, Mayan, etc. etc. mixed ancestry and was born and raised in Belize. For some reason he spoke with what sounded like a Ukranian Russian accent! 

To the kids, he remined them of Madras thatha (my dad) because of his jokes. He had to tell us he had just cracked a joke!

It was only 7 miles from the pick up point to the Tea Kettle Village (there is no village as far as I could tell.. it is two sheds where you could sit and have lunch and a parking space with one really good restroom with changing rooms and a shower) and the road was not paved.. there was 3 to 4 feet of water at places and the vehicle had to cross it. Manuel joked "don't worry, this vehicle knows how to swim. if not, tourists know how to push!". 

A video of the bumpy ride... the TKO plantation was all teak and Mahogany introduced by the British. On one side was Valencia oranges. 

The Belizians call the Teak and Mahogany an investment for their grand children. It apparently takes 50 years to 80 years for these trees to mature and their wood is extremely sought after. The kids in Belize are also taught to carve these woods.. you see wood carvings sold everywhere!

We had two other couples on the trip from that leg. One from Spain (where the lady was a swimming instructor!) and another from Colorado.. the guy was 6'4" and that had its advantages and disadvantages on the tour. 

Manuel informed us that there was no photography unfortunately at ATM because many years ago, a tourist dropped his lens on one of the skulls and broke it! So some idiot had to spoil it for the rest of us.. I cursed that guy on sacred ground and moved on.. 

We got our safety gear (we were used to the lifevest and miner helmet combination by now) and got a crash course on what we were to expect. Most of Manuels don'ts ended with "you will die!" and much later we realized he wasn't joking!

The the couple from Spain suggested we at least take a picture before the start, given the cameras were going to be left in the vehicle. We got a good picture! Think after this the next smile was 4 hours later..

ATM is a "shock and awe" trip. You walk for 5 minutes from the parking lot and you see a river that is going quite fast and there is a rope tied across it. You can swim across, but if you are not a good swimmer.. you have to hold the rope and pull yourself to the other side as you float. I managed to do that after gulping some water at the deepest point. San was lucky. She declared "I no swim" to Manuelo and he literally pulled her across to the otherside as she was floating facing the sky.  It should not have been that difficult for me.. but the water was very cold and the thermal shock is what got me. The kids swam, the tall guy mostly walked and had to swim for maybe a few seconds. 

Then we kept walking through the jungle and reached antoher river, this time it was 2 to 3 feet deep but was slippery. So we held the rope and walked across. The little one swam across!

More walking and a third river crossing.. by now we got used to the routine. Then some more walking and we came to a stop. We were at the cave entrance. But there was a catch. You have to almost go underwater to reach the cave entrance. How the Mayans figured this out itself was beyond me. I got some help from the guide this time as well and once we reached the cave entrance, it was pitch black. The lights came on and we were told that given our swimming grades were F for San, D- for me and an A- to A+ for the rest of the folks on the team, we will be following Manuel and everyone passes on the information from him to the person behind as we move along. 

It was the most challenging thing we have ever done. You walk, wade, swim against the river as you go into the caves and there are some places where there is barely enough room to squeeze through rocks. To add to this, you are not allowed to touch the walls on some places because they have stalagtites or stalagmites growing and sweat from our skin will make those stop. So we would get instructions like "right side only" or "left side only"  and in some places the water level would go from 3 feet to 8 feet abruptly.. so we would get warnings for those. 

After going through this for an hour and a half, we reached a point where there was a near vertical rock climbing. Then we knew why socks was mandatory. You are not allowed to wear shoes and go up as it was a "sacred place". You were not allowed to go barefoot as it would damage crystal formations. So you go with wet socks. There was a ledge where all 9 of us assembled and removed our shoes. We had to wait for the previous group to get down and then we climbed up. 

Once we were up, there was this dome the size of a football field with crystals everywhere.. there was mist particles dancing in front of us with the miner helmet lamps, the ceilings were full of crystals left behind by the eroding river and the whole thing was like a natural Cathedral with Stalactice columns reaching down to their stalagmite counterparts.  On the floor were beds (naturally formed by the water).. think little pits 8 feet by 3 feet with ridges and skeletal remains in each of those pits. 

We walked for five minutes to the other side of this dome and it was time for the grand finale. There was a ladder tied to another ledge on the top with a rope. Again we waited for another group of 8 people to climb down and we went up. There was not much room up there in that litle cave within a cave but there was a crystallized skeleton there. Think of an old pickle where the sugar or salt comes out in needles.. the entire skeleton was like that. 

We saw that, got a lot of interesting theories on what "possibly" happened there... actually the whole place is fascinating, given all the artifacts and skeletons we saw there.. infant skeletons, jaguar skeletons, older people , people who were literally "offed" with a blow to their head with their hands tied behind their back and kneeling down..  you get the idea?! 

Then it was time to climb and get down. This was again challenging with the wet socks. So we come down literally on our butts by going from stone to stone. 

After having been out of the water for a good hour, we forgot how cold the water was.. so when we jumped from the last rock to the water below.. that was interesting.

Then the wading and swimming and tip toeing in neck deep water started. This time we were going with the water flow. So controlling the speed with which we went was challenging. Almost all of us had cuts and bruises on the return as we hit sharp rocks under water or got our hands cut as we tried to hold on to the walls (again sharp rocks) to slow us down. 

Finally we came to the ledge where the cave entrance was. Manuel took San and walked out. The rest swam out. I froze. My confidence level in getting out of this was low. Luckily he came back and said "you can do it. I will be here" and I managed to half swim, half wade through. Apparently things were not this difficult till 2013. Then the river flooded and water level rose a good 10 feet higher than what it is today and it also eroded and cut the path to the cave to be a good 6 feet deeper. 

We still had a 45 minute trek back and three river crossings. This time the swim instructor from Spain was my savior. That couple stayed back with me and literally gave me a crash course on swimming with a life vest on.

Once we made it back to the parking lot, we showered, changed and had lunch (not from the resort) but provided by the guides. There was no veggie option really that worked for me, but I had granola bars. The wife and kids ate salad and some rice which did not look very appetizing to me. Quaker Chewy never tasted better! 

Then it was time to go to the main road. We said bye to Manuel and were back in the resort pickup truck. Two hours later we were tired and exhausted and happy to be back at the Spa. 

It was almost a little after 6PM when we reached the Spa. It was time to go shower, change again and have a nice dinner. A lot of folks we met were leaving the resort the next morning. It was a good dinner.

Before leaving for ATM, I had asked our Spa manager if she would see if there was any spots to visit Lamanai, another big pyramid burried within the jungles.. which was an all day trip. After ATM, I dropped the idea.

The last day was going to be a day of rest for the family, exploring the resort area and getting some much needed last minute pampering before flying out.

One thing kept coming back to me. I should learn to swim better. Would have enjoyed it even more if I didn't freeze everytime I saw a fast moving river or stepped into nothing while wading in water.

This years goal is to learn to swim properly and with confidence.

ATM is definitely the highlight of the Belize tour.. a jaguar licking my forehead being a close second. If you have health issues, check with the guides before you plan this trip. Learn to swim properly before you go. Also don't bother lugging a heavy camera bag or take gopros etc. No use. Always take extra socks with you so you can do the last climb easily. (we put the extra socks inside our miner helmets). We were lucky that one of the usual guides at the resort told us to take extra socks. He had been to ATM before. 

A must see and experience place if you visit Belize!

Wednesday
Jan022019

Butts up!!

The previous post in the series on the Belize trip is here..

On day 3, our schedule was supposed to be a visit to ATM. However, the Spa manager told us that due to some conflicts we were only confirmed for ATM two days later. My heart sank and I told her that our main reason for coming to Belize was ATM and she has to make sure that we visit on that day. 

They have to get drivers out of the Spa to various locations.. given we were the only family going to ATM from the Spa and there are a limited number of people who go through ATM a day, our Day 5 became the new confirmed date. On Day 3, we were going to do Cave Tubing and Zip lining instead.

We had the same guide who went with us to snorkel and that was a good thing. We started at 8AM and were at the tubing place,  Nohoch Che'en reserve, by 9:30 AM. We had to rent Crocs to wear as the tubing involved carrying a large tube and wading through water on slippery surfaces. We also got a helmet with a light on it and life vests. For the most part the tubing was in shallow water that was 3-4 feet deep. Only in a few places it was 5-6 feet deep. 

There was a 45 minute hike from the parking lot to the starting point on the river where we entered the caves. During this hike our guide gave us a lot of information about the local forests, the type of plants etc. etc. It was interesting and was like listening to a talk on Ayurveda. We saw some smaller caves on the way to the starting point.

One thing that was common to all caves was the bats on the cave roof.. there were lots of bats.. and the caves smelled of the bats!

Walked past a lot of ant hills.. red ants, leaf cutter ants, fire ants.. the entire biting family was there. As long as we kept walking, we were fine.. or so our guide assured us. We learned about the various poisonous plants, snakes and antidotes available from other plants.

After 40 minutes or so we reached the river.

Then our guide tied up all the tubes (there were 8 of us in the group) and tied that to his tube and pretty much pulled us or navigated the group with the flow of the river. 

We got to see a lot of rock formations created by the flowing river and a waterfalls inside the caves. It was a two and a half hour deal and we got our butts kicked by the rocks at places.. 

Every now and then our guide would shout "butts up!" and we would have to pull our butts up within the tube. San and me had front tube seats (or the absence of it) and the kids deliberately went to the last row to avoid the camera. Was not happy with that. Someday they will look at these pictures and appreciate them.. or so I hope!

A video highlights of our tubing experience.

 

Here are two slideshows from the Cave tubing..

 

We had lunch at the parking lot picnic tables after a quick shower and change of clothes. Then the four of us went to Zipline while the rest of the group was asked to shop around or go for a walk in the trails near the parking. 

The Zipline was only 45 minutes with two steep hikes and 4 zip lines, but two of those went across the entire river we had just tubed across. It was my first Zip line experience. 

There were no phones, go pros, nothing allowed on the Ziiplines as you needed your hands free and your undivided attention on the Zipline. Fortunately our guide took my phone and said "I will walk to the end of the first line and take photos of you guys. So we got some photos! 

On the longest line, San got her glove stuck on the line and that automatically made her brake and she never made it to the other side. She was still a good 10 feet away. I was behind her but the guy who was clearing us could not see the other side of the river. He said I was good to go. I see a bunch of people waving on the other side and the employee asking me to brake. Had to break a good 20 feet from the other end while they threw San a line for her to be pulled up. That line was not going to reach me. 

Was basically hanging out there and the attendant shouted "Sir, can you go flat along the rope and use both hands and pull yourself towards us?".. It was not like I had a choice.. Did everyone proud by pulling myself one hand at a time all the way to the end. That was an interesting experience. Was 200 feet above a river and was doing Tom Cruise style stuff. Was not expecting that. 

After we came back, it was a quiet drive back to the Spa. There was just enough time to get a shower, get ready to join the rest of the groups for dinner. Dinners at the Spa were becoming almost like a family feast. It was the same bunch of folks we were meeting every night. We shared stories of the day from the different groups and showed pictures and videos. Got to make a lot of new friends. It was fun..

The next days plans were still being made.. but we knew what we wanted to do!  The Spa manager had to juggle some logistics to make it happen.. 

Would strongly recommend the Cave tubing even for smaller kids 6+ as long as they can stretch themselves across the tube. We thoroughly enjoyed it. The Zipline, you have to be above 40 inches tall and the last two legs were scary. So it may not be for smaller kids. 

Another day well spent in Belize!

Sunday
Sep032017

Golden temple by day

The previous post on this series is here..

We got up early in the morning and went back to the Golden temple. The tour guide said that if we go early enough walking bare feet on the roads and in the temple will be easy on the feet. The kids co-operated and got ready early. 

The previous night we had visited the golden temple and on our way out had a late dinner at a Dhaba right outside the temple. Let's just say that everything was "extra buttered" and extremely delicious. It was a miracle we got up in the morning at all after all that food. 

Golden temple by day is as magnificent as it is by night. There was a one hour wait to go to the inner sanctum, even early in the morning. We stood in line, said a prayer and came out. Then we walked around the entire temple, sat there to gather in the vibe of the place and that was that!

Here are some of the pictures that made it interesting for us. Will always cherish this pic of me and San as well as this one of the ladies walking out. They were already tired as it was getting pretty hot. Amritsar in summer is hot!

The little one looked sooo cute with a head scarf that I kept calling her "bittu". All the shop keepers there were calling her bittu! 

The rest of the photos are on a slideshow here..

We also got to go do some shopping at the stores that line up the walkway to the temple..

The next stop for the morning was the Jalianwalah bhag memorial which is right at the edge of the golden temple. . .

Sunday
Sep032017

A line drawn...

As a kid, I would sometimes wish that India was never partitioned by the British. It was their ultimate victory even when leaving India. When so many calories are spent fighting what was your own, it seemed stupid that just because some british guy decided to draw a line on a map, a country gets torn apart for the foreseeable future. Then there was the much anticipated India Pakistan cricket matches and that seemed to be the only plus point for having Pakistan. That was the kid in me..

This time we actually got to see the India Pakistan border at Wagah on the Amritsar trip.

It was quite an experience. Given our US passports, we got to go sit with all the foreigners, which gives you an interesting perspective. We made up for part of the few brown and black people in a sea of white faces on that section. The rest of the gallery was full. 

The changing of the guard ceremony was what we had gone to watch. It was a rehearsed display by the Border Security Force of India and their Pakistani counterparts. We waited for 2 hours in the heat for the ceremony. Given the soldiers were dressed even more than we were and were sweating it out, we used that as motivation to sit and watch the proceedings. 

The flags were brought down, handshakes were in display but so was all the dramatic signs of agression from either side as part of the ceremony. The crowds on either side did not make me comfortable either. There were chants of "down with Pakistan" from the crowd which I thought was uncalled for. There was also the competition to see whose loud speakers could drown out the other side which made your ears hurt. This went on for a full hour. 

It would be great to have pin drop silence with thousands of people on either side of the border stand quietly in solidarity. A large group of silent people always puts things in a different perspective than a loud jeering crowd. 

At the end of the ceremony, it started drizzling and there was a mad dash for the exits and parking lots. Just before leaving, I caught a dove that came and sat right on the flag. It was touching and also ironic that the tension is so high and it takes very little for it to flare up. 

Every country should be proud of its defense forces. You do get goosebumps watching parts of this and seeing what folks sacrificed and continue to sacrifice. Peace is a better option is the only bitter thought that kept rushing back.

Turn the volume low before playing this.. 

On the way back we stopped by a Dhaba for some maggi noodles and tea.

It was perfect for the clammy weather. Kept thinking "how do you get the average person to love and not hate? How do you make folks realize that the other side is not much different?". Did not have very many answers. For one, you cannot force people to do Yoga or breathing. That would help calm folks down, but there has to be a willingness that comes from within. 

It was definitely quite an experience and would recommend this to desi folks in US who are trying to explain the "India-Pakistan" divide to their kids. Expect 20 questions.. or 200 and be prepared and do the right thing and focus on love being the answer.

We went back towards Amritsar for a night visit to the Golden temple.

Sunday
Sep032017

The Yellow Chilli next to Pathanjali...

On the recent India trip, we visited Amritsar for two days. It is a family deal now that we do a trip within a trip to go see a place that the four of us have never been to within India. This breaks the monotony of visiting the same relatives on a tight schedule in Chennai and Mumbai and flying back. It also gets us to interact with family in a "non-home" setting in India. 

This time it was Amritsar with my in-laws. As soon as we landed at the airport, the tour guide/ driver took us to the hotel which was 15 minutes from the airport. We checked in and the plan was to go to the Wagah border right away with a quick stop for lunch. 
For some reason, he decided that we should go to an upscale "bar" type place. Why, we dont know.. maybe he had a deal with the place. So we went to "The Yellow Chilli". It had Sanjeev Kapoors face everywhere and the ambience was definitely not a "family restaurant" one, but a couples place to get drunk. We were definitely the only family there and there were no kids in the place.
I amused myself by looking at the Pathanjali "super store" next to the restaurant. I did not know there were stores like this. Over the last year, have become a big fan of Pathanjali shampoos. Rate them highly right along Loccitane! I digress. Pathanjali products are great, but this post is about The Yellow CHilli. 
Once the menu items showed up at our table, we really didn't care what the restaurants customer base was. We were hungry and the food looked and tasted great!
Every item was better than the previous one or so it seemed. Then came the final dessert. This thing was downright divine! The hot/cold combination was amazing.
The video says it all..
We gupled the thing down and were off on a drive to the Wagah border. We also told our driver, "this was good.. but next time.. dhaba ka khana!"