Monday, June 05, 2017

Spirit diving

I EXPECTED least but got a baptism when I recently swam in the underground waters of two caves in Camotes Island.

A dedicated armchair tourist, I still somehow ended up in caves, from the wartime bunkers in Alegria, south of Cebu to the trans-water caves, with a few running for 2-km stretches, in Trang An, Vietnam.

Caves exert a powerful hold. From World War II survivors in Alegria, I learned how upland caves aided their escape from the Japanese Imperial Army and town collaborators.

Almost a quarter of a century after, survivors recalled vividly how the caves held water they took care not to spoil with human waste. Inside these caves, entire clans lived and wove mats of river reeds for extra warmth and barter while under siege.

Yet in caves, too, repose our primal fears. When the husband had me sit closest to the prow of the boat, he kidded that he only wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall off while we were part of a group exploring the Underground River of Palawan.

Inducted in 2012 as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, the now-renamed Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park has one other thing, aside from stalactites and stalagmites inducing awe, that it has in common with other sites of natural heritage: tourists.

As tour operators and communities co-exist in uneasy compromise to manage traffic and the inevitable degradation, tourists of all persuasions—including newly-weds having their pictorial while balanced on a bamboo boat outside the trans-water grottoes of Trang An—dispel superstitions enshrouding caves.

Only some.

Perhaps because entering a cave involves descending and leaving a realm where light and air are taken for granted, caves bring to mind entering a crypt and never being able to leave it, like Persephone hostaged by Hades in the bowels of the underworld.

Bukilat Cave on Poro, Camotes is ideal for families. It has seven “windows” or natural ceiling apertures to let in light dappling the cool brackish pool, and serving as natural spotlight for selfie poses and Facebook memories.

High tide raises the level of the underground waters of the Amazing Island Cave in San Francisco, Camotes. A life vest and buddies helped me hurdle for the first time being dunked in the water to go past a low ceiling, competing for thin air in a cavern overcrowded with tourists, and kicking around like a day-old tadpole in waters about 9-ft deep.

Later, while drinking my fill of the sky above the sea in Mangodlong, I realized why swimming in caves draws and repels: as life throws a curve, caverns deprive us of our comforts and conceits, forcing us to claw inside and reach for that which we never knew existed just to break through.

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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s June 4, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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