Forty Years in the Wilderness
Clouds of dust billowed behind our jeep like a filthy veil. Scrawny boys in underwear left their jacks to chase us. Seconds later, they trailed off calling "gringos." A bachata blared in the distance as we pulled up to the palm hut that doubled as a ranger station. Two shirtless rangers leaned against grimy cases displaying ceramic idols and shards of bowls. Sitting around over cups of steaming coffee, one ranger amused us with cuentos while Mom bartered with the other for a guide.
Crabs scurried across the trail. My family and I tromped behind the ranger, eager to see caves decorated by Taino Indians. We were confident that this hike into a National Park would be an exciting challenge like our vacations in previous years to other forests in the Dominican Republic. Partially buried coconuts and fragments of brain coral created an obstacle course to scramble over on our way to the caves. James and Sarah raced ahead of the guide, while David and I meandered behind looking for lizards. Grandma won at "I spy," spotting tropical birds and brightly colored orchids dangling in the canopy quicker than any of us. Prickly underbrush and cacti engulfed the path in a sinister tangle. When we stopped for a drink, Grandpa grabbed a cactus to steady himself. His face contorted into a grimace as blood channeled between wrinkles and spines on his hand. Using my sleeve, I gently wiped Grandpa's hand and wrapped it in a handkerchief to stop the bleeding. We hiked on in silence, shattered only by chattering parrots and humming wasps.
The trail fed into the gaping mouth of a cave, surrounded by razor sharp stalactite and stalagmite teeth. We sprawled on damp boulders, munching on peanuts and hesitantly shining our flashlights into the darkness. Huddling together, we took our first uncertain strides into the black curtain. Moist air trapped inside weighed us down like a heavy wool blanket. The stench of decaying guano assaulted our nostrils in waves. Sarah slid on the slippery cave floor and the piercing echo of her cry taunted her clumsiness. Gaping holes in the walls of the chamber triggered chilling thoughts of sinister things hiding in the shadows. The guide climbed into one of the rocky tunnels and we slid after him like seals. When my turn came, I was shaking uncontrollably with fear, but I managed to climb in. With no space to sit up or breathe and nowhere to go but forward, my throat constricted. Granite closed in on me from every side. A few slithers later, the tunnel opened into a massive cave. Dizzily, we glanced around the chamber covered with simple Taino carvings. Stick figures and geometric designs decorated the ceiling with tales of rituals and battles. Bats enveloped us as we gazed up, like a curtain dropping at the end of an act.
A flashlight burnt out. Although no one actually admitted it, we were scared that the second light could burn out as well. Stumbling through caverns in complete darkness slapped...