A Jenga Kind of Day
Part One: The Gran Cenote
When you play Jenga, you first construct the tiny wooden tower, then as the game progresses each player pulls out small rectangular blocks until the structure collapses. It is a game of entropy. For me, this simple process of minute devastation encapsulates what often happens when we travel. In the planning phase, we meticulously select, then piece together all the factors that will construct the memorable experience we hope for. Then the game begins. Mother Nature, the Travel Gods, bad decisions, bad people . . . each player takes a turn pulling blocks from our perfectly constructed tower. On the really good days, the structure perseveres, and things turn out as planned. On the really bad days, the entire thing comes down. One the very rare day, the scattered blocks come to rest in an entirely unanticipated yet delightful pattern that exceeds our expectations. This is when you get a Jenga kind of day.
It was one of those situations that the travel advisories warn about: four friends stranded on a desolate stretch of road in Quintana Roo, Mexico. I was there with my wife, Lisa, and our friends Mike and Louise. Scrub jungle boarded the road and, except for the dilapidated entrance to the Gran Cenote, extended unbroken as far as we could see in both directions. Storm clouds hung low in the sky. The first drops of rain were beginning to fall, and we appeared to be out of options.
This situation had not been one of the elements of our carefully constructed day.
And up until that moment, everything had been perfect. We had hired a taxi in Playa del Carmen and rode the fifty minutes south to our first stop for the day: The Gran Cenote. This cenote is not too distant from Tulum on a road that cuts through the jungle north-west to Chichen Itza. Ages ago, the ceiling of an underground river had collapsed and opened up a sinkhole in the jungle floor. The result was a splendid chaos of tangled vegetation, crumbling earth and impossibly clear water. In retrospect, that collapse was the first step of a predictable and oft mirrored progression: a calamitous event creates a natural wonder; the natural wonder becomes a sacred site in the local mythology; the sacred site transmutes into a tourist attraction.
So there we were.
After paying the cab driver, and cheerfully—unwisely—waving him off, we paid the small entrance fee and passed through the makeshift gate. To our right, there was an equally makeshift “restroom,” a four by four space cut out from the jungle and enclosed within a slightly off-balance structure created by dusty stalks of bamboo. After shared looks of apprehension, we veered left and followed a short path to the cenote.
I have a few travelling friends who refuse to visit any location that has been branded with the moniker: “tourist attraction.” I understand their philosophical aversion to such places; however, I believe that they have barred themselves from many rich experiences. A talent often required of travellers is the ability to see past the commercial trappings and appreciate what lies beneath. The Gran Cenote was such a place. Everything we had encountered up to that point had hinted that we should turn back, but when we saw the cenote itself, none of that mattered.
Imagine hiking along a jungle path and noticing a spot ahead where the trees seem to thin out and disappear. You wonder: Is there a clearing in the middle of this twisted foliage? Am I approaching the edge of a cliff? You pick your way forward until, quite suddenly, the floor of the jungle drops away. There is no clean edge, so you wisely step back a pace and grab hold of a branch for support. Opening before you is a roughly circular hole some sixty feet across and forty feet deep, a celebration of thriving anarchy—a riot of colour and life twisting above a tranquil pool of blue. You briefly envision an angry Mayan god smashing his gigantic fist into the jungle floor and then drinking from the subterranean river that he has uncovered.
We descended from the jungle floor down a rickety wooden stairway that creaked toward the surface of the underground river. Creepers hung spiralling to the water. Vagabond roots thrust into open air.
On the wooden platform at the bottom of the stairway, we dropped our packs, stripped down to bathing suits, and donned our snorkel gear. Then we distained the ladder at the edge of the platform and jumped into the water . . . then jumped right back out again. The afternoon heat smoldered, but the underground river squeezed lungs into a tight gasp, and rivulets dripped off us in icicles. Like the head of a frightened turtle, select parts of my anatomy jerked up into my body cavity with a faint swooshing sound.
Yikes. (Read that in Falsetto.)
Still, we hadn’t come all this way to sit on the sidelines, and the crystal waters beckoned. Toe by toe, shin to knee . . . and higher . . . we eventually immersed ourselves.
The Gran Cenote is one of those places where imagination adds a significant element of the experience. On the surface (pun intentional), it is a relatively small pool of water enclosed by crumbling walls of dirt and stone. Cool enough (pun coincidental), but there is so much more to it. Entering the sinkhole is like hiking the badlands and stumbling upon the exposed talon of a T. Rex sticking out of the clay—what remains hidden challenges comprehension.
What makes the Gran Cenote so special is that it is part of an underground, freshwater river system that extends for hundreds of kilometres beneath Quintana Roo. We floated just below the surface of the water and gazed down into cavernous hollows that fell in arches to the liquid night. The improbable distances stretching below beggared our imaginations
As if to illustrate this subterranean immensity, at one point during our swim, a group of scuba divers arrived at the cenote. The startling thing was that they came from below, not above. I had to look twice, and then look again. Either the world had turned upside down, or the arrow of time travelled in reverse. Was Alice entering or leaving the rabbit hole? Stranger and stranger still.
Another fascinating aspect of the Gran Cenote was that in the further reaches of the cave—where the sunlight began to falter—it was brighter below the surface of the water than it was above. The world did indeed seem inverted. My friend, Mike, who has a degree in physics, explained that we were experiencing a phenomenon called “total light reflection,” which occurs when photons strike an air-water boundary and are reflected back down beneath the surface. The effect of this unbalanced light was otherworldly and deepened the mystic of the Gran Cenote.
It’s interesting travelling with a Physics major. Whereas I might quote poetry at a beautiful sunset, Mike will explain that it’s not really the sun we see: it’s actually the gravity of Planet Earth bending light back over the horizon. We’ve played with the idea that he could fund his travels by performing as a thinking person’s busker—he would set up a booth on a beach with the sign: “Physics Mysteries Explained, $1.00.” (Maybe $2.00 if he just wore a bathing suit.)
When I snorkel, I love to dive down and see what is hiding below rock ledges and outcroppings of coral. (For those so inclined, you can find reef sharks this way.) In the cenote, I kicked underwater to go swimming around water-clad stalactites and small, pale fish that regarded me with bulbous eyes. Returning to the surface from one such dive, I noticed that there were pockets of air trapped up against the stone ceiling of the submerged river, not too distant from the open surface of the pool. Little oases of oxygen in a liquid desert. It occurred to me that I could explore within the cave by swimming from one isolated pocket of air to another—underwater leap-frogging, as it were.
After several deep breaths, I ducked below the surface and skimmed the submerged ceiling of rock. Within moments, I spied what I was looking for and kicked toward it. Underwater pockets of air offer a bit of a visual contradiction. Normally, when you rise to the surface of water, you are swimming up toward light and can see through to the sky above. Each of these pockets of air, however, was a small alcove of near darkness, the only illumination being surrendered by the water below. There was no looking through to the sky. It is difficult to describe the effect created by this inversion of light. I realized that a “pool” of air pressed against an underwater ceiling has a “surface” quite similar to a pool of water. My movement had disturbed its mercurial surface and small ripples rolled away at my approach.
Of course, I was holding my breath, so it just took longer to write this paragraph than it took for me to register the unusual visual phenomenon and quickly come up for air.
Stale air, to be more precise. My head barely fit within the pocket, and my snorkel was pushed down by the stone above. I gulped a few lung-fulls, laughed at the weird situation, and then I pushed below.
The technique worked well, and I was able to move further and further into the cave. With each successive stop, however, an increasing sense of apprehension took hold of me. It grew until a singular fear finally compelled me to turn around. I broke back into daylight with mingled sensations of exhilaration and relief.
Afterward, I related my little adventure to a spelunking friend of mine, and he informed me, rather dryly, that occasionally those pockets of “air” are actually filled with poisonous gas. I still retain a visceral memory of how that declaration chilled my blood. (And caused select parts of my anatomy to imitate the head of a turtle.)
Even the best of experiences run their course, and the four of us began looking past the cenote to the seaside ruins of Tulum. We climbed from the water, dried ourselves off and made our way back to the surface.
So far, the tower of wooden blocks stood securely and the elements of the day remained as we had constructed them. Soon, however, the Travel Gods would gleefully pluck loose a pivotal rectangle and our small tower would begin to sway upon the tabletop.
(To be continued soon.)
Kenneth D. Reimer