14 fun, fearless, clueless souls, most of them book geeks from my book club took advantage of the Labor Day weekend and grabbed the chance to tick off a bucket list item: Spelunking at Sagada. I was one of them. And that cliche about learning lessons the hard way -- this experience exemplifies it.
Here are the lessons I learned the hard, slippery, slimy, smelly, scary way:
LESSON ONE: The dumb gets farther; the dumber gets dead. - For a bunch of book geeks, we did not do our research thoroughly enough. When asked to choose between the normal cave tour (PhP 100 per person) and the Connection Challenge (PhP 400 per person), which traverses 2 caves, Sumaging and Lumiang, we chose what sounded more exciting, more difficult, more unforgettable. Maybe we’ve been reading too much fantasy. Maybe it's the hashish in the Sagada air. We wanted to release the inner extreme athletes inside us. And we got what we asked for. And failed to anticipate just how difficult it would be, for geeks as well as non geeks, for the fit and for those whose most strenuous exercise is carrying bag loads of books from Booksale. We all had no idea what challenges lay ahead. The guides did not give us a clue.
On hindsight, that naiveté, that ignorance, that stupidity was good. If we had known how formidable the challenge was, most of us in the group would probably have not taken it. We would have backed out when we still could. At the mouth of the first cave.
Instead, we went in, excited, awestruck, dumbfounded, dumb as rats led by the pied piper. And got the surprise of our lives. Many surprises, in fact. Gimongous walls to scale, steep crags to climb down, cliffs to descend, slippery rocks to walk on, knee-deep muck to dip our bare feet into, blind corners to hug, streamlets to swim in, the narrowest of edges keeping us from plunging into deep dark pits. It was unbelievable what we had to go over, go under, go through, jump into, squeeze in, hurdle, straddle.
Truly, if somebody had shown me first a video of what we had to do, I would have chosen not to do it, knowing full well knowing full well that given my fitness level, I couldn't. Not knowing made me do it. It was sheer stupidity that got us there, literally in between a rock and a hard place. The uncertainty almost killed me, but it was also what got me through. The dumb, the clueless, when unaware of the dangers ahead, can actually accomplish more as he walks in ignorant bliss. And I’m glad I was stupid enough to do it. Because that was by far, the most exciting, most amazing thing I had to do in my whole life.Of course, we were blessed to have survived relatively unscathed despite our ignorance. Tales of those who were stupid enough to go in without guides and never to come out again serve as a counterpoint to this lesson. It’s okay to be clueless sometimes, but rash stupidity could cost you your life. LESSON TWO: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Aww, shut up! - I do not fear heights, nor water. I have scuba dived in open water. I have rafted through grade 4 white water with a stupid smile on my face. I have parasailed alone and was able to look down without feeling squeamish. I get a kick from roller coaster rides, the higher, the faster, the scarier, the better. My bucket list includes bungee jumping and skydiving.
The first time I had to take a high ropes challenge, I couldn’t contain my excitement and wanted to zip down the wire a dozen times. I was fearless. I was 25 years old, a size 6. I could do anything.
As a trainer facilitating high ropes challenges, I had seen participants break down in tears as they confronted their fear of heights. I could only watch without really understanding what that fear was all about.
Until now. 42 years old. 70 pounds overweight. My sense of balance faulty. With nothing to rely on but the grace and strength I got from ballet classes with Ms. Valeriana in second grade, and from a few lousy attempts at a badminton regimen.
In the cave, we had to rappel down a cliff, the bottom of which we couldn’t see from where we were. No harness, no safety nets. The ropes did not even have knots for gripping. And what confounded us was that the rope was tied to a lithe, little man, barefoot, sitting by the edge of the cliff. Our lives depended on him being strong enough not to be pulled by our weight to go hurtling down with us to our sure deaths.
I was afraid of falling to my death, the guides picking up my brains and innards splattered on the cavern floor. I was afraid I would die without having completed my scrapbooks. I was afraid of falling and not dying, but being permanently disabled and not being able to drive myself to the bookstore. I was afraid I'd look stupid.
I was afraid. Petrified. As afraid as I’ve never ever been in my whole life. So afraid I cried for a few seconds. What made me cry was this inner struggle of accepting that I had to do it. There was no chickening out, no charming or bribing my way through, no delegating the tough parts to others, no negotiations, no way to circumvent the challenge. I had to get down that cliff or else stay in that cave forever subsisting on a diet of bat sashimi. I was so afraid, so stupefied my brain could not even manage to make my life flash before my eyes.
But then again, after all the drama, when I got out of the cave, got home, and had a shower, I realized I had no scratches. No bruises. I did not even break a nail or scratch my pedicure. Not even though I slipped a dozen times. Not even though I missed a step rappelling up a crag and I held on the rope, swinging dangerously, ramming my already sore body against a rocky wall. I suppose fear kept me safe. It made me walk slower, and made me look like a stupid granny wimp, but it was also the instinct that made me take only sure steps and kept me from harm.Fear is not always a bad thing.
LESSON THREE: We are stronger, faster, harder than we can ever imagine. Like I said, I’m not in the best shape. I find myself panting just mounting the bed. And I would never believe that I could do what I did in those caves. I still could not believe it now.
Nearing the exit, we stared at a 3-storey high, 15 degree steep wall that separated us from the freedom outside. In normal circumstances I would have thought it impossible to climb it and survive. But all the earlier challenges showed me that I could do what I never thought I was capable of doing. So even if the adrenalin was already starting to dwindle, and I was tired from 7 hours of gruelling spelunking, I just took a look at the challenge in front of me and did it. I heaved, I grunted, I whined, and I climbed, and climbed,and climbed until I finally got out of that cave. I realized I am stronger than I ever thought. I can do far more than I ever thought possible.I realized how much our mindsets limit us from doing what we want to do, how much we underestimate our strengths, how much power is within us. It took the caves of Sagada and 5 sadistic guides to make me discover my inner strength.
LESSON FOUR: Crap is inevitable. – In the last upward stretch out of the cave, we had to climb stone steps, made extremely slippery by bat excrement. The stench was unbearable, but the worst thing was that we had to hold on to some of the rocks to balance or lift ourselves up. Our fingers would land on inch-thick sludge – thick, icky layers of moist, mushy guano. And every germophobic fiber in my body would cringe and cry. But I just had to hold on for dear life fueled with the desire to just get out of that wretched cave that had held us captive for far too many hours.In a Mythbusters episode, Adam and Jamie once concluded that “Poo is everywhere.” Literally. Sadly, it is true metaphorically too. Life can get crappy sometimes. Oftentimes, one can walk around and avoid stepping on poo, but there are times when there is just no way around it, and one has to bear with all the crap. You just have to grin and bear it. The thing is a little crap ain’t going to kill us.
LESSON FIVE: That big, fat ass (or nose, or ears) of yours will someday be put to good use. - What got me through the toughest physical challenges and the most perilous conditions? My stamina? Strategy? My upper body strength and leg power? Nah! It's my big, fat ass.
As we slid on rocks and soil, our guides asked us to rely on a skill creatively called the butt technique. Many, many times, we had to get ourselves closer to the pull of gravity and sit down, and let our butts do the walking, the wading, the sliding. And for the first time in my life, I thanked God for my ample assets.
I have always had what are euphemistically called child-bearing hips and the most generous rump to go with them. I hate how they get in the way of fashion and vanity. But that time at the cave, I was so grateful for all that generous padding.
It was a clear case of making lemonades out of life’s lemons. Life is fair when the things we consider as faults are actually blessings in disguise. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about 1930s born Jewish lawyers who were barred from WASP law firms forcing them to develop skills that would actually spell their success 20 years later.
So, don’t whine too much about your big ears or your big butts or whatever it is you consider a liability. They just might come handy someday.
LESSON SIX: Trust the experts, especially when you’re not one. –For all the bravado and the pride we felt after that incredible experience, we all know we couldn’t have done it without our guides, James, Andrew, Mark, Matthew, and Jory. (Those apostolic names did not escape my attention.) So many times in that whole experience, we really did not know what to do and were too afraid to do whatever it was we had to do. We had to literally let our guides lead our feet through every step. I mean every little scaredy step. And they would even let us step on their knees, shoulders, hands, and bear our weights as we shifted our balance to move forward.
For control freaks like me, it was very difficult letting go, trusting someone else, and bearing the shame of total reliance on others. But what choice did I have? So, I had to let go and let the guides get me through. When the guide said, “Trust me,” I had no choice but to obey. I trusted him with my life.
It’s the same thing in life. Don’t be macho. There are times when we have to let the experts show us how. We have to humble ourselves and allow others to help us for the sakes of safety, survival, and success.
LESSON SEVEN: Rest when you get the chance and enjoy it. – Spelunking with a large group, we had to sometimes wait for each other as we shared 5 guides and the light of a few kerosene lamps. Those were moments for rest. I loved those moments as we caught our breath and had the time to look around and admire the beauty within the cave – the fantastic rock formations, the shadows and the lights creating moving art against the smooth and the rough rocks, the heights, the layers, the sexy curves of walls, the secret crevices, the trickling and falling of the water, awesome sights no camera can capture. They’re meant to be etched in memory.
LESSON EIGHT: The less you have, the less you fear. – Travel light. Travel light. Travel light. It’s a lesson that in my years of jet setting and island hopping, I still cannot comprehend. But when you’re in a slippery niche, 20 feet off stable ground, trying to balance yourself is made more difficult by anything hanging from your neck, shoulders, arms. Having too many things -- some of them precious like high-tech cameras, your return tickets -- complicates matters as you try to protect your goods when really you should be protecting your head and limbs. The less you have with you, the less you worry about losing or breaking them.
At one point, I had to accept that my camera had already been destroyed by the water and the blows. Strangely, I felt liberated from having to take more pictures and finding time to download them when I get back home.Travel light. It’s still a maxim I find hard to accept wholeheartedly. But it is a lesson well learned in those dark, dank, dangerous caves where material possessions play second fiddle to life and health.LESSON NINE: Shoes are important. – You have to use the right shoes for the right time and place. I thought my trusted Teva’s were good enough. But they are trekking shoes, not spelunking shoes. And at some point, it was better to go barefoot to let our feet grasp the rocks more securely. Having the right shoes for the right time and place is important. Okay, I don’t really know what this teaches me about life. I just want to justify my shoe closet issues.
Today, I say CAVE is a 4 letter word. My joints are still sore. My voice a bit hoarse. My body recuperating from all the slips and falls. But I can say about spelunking at Sagada, I’ve been there and done that. And I’m glad I did.
Sagada pics here: