in Essays Travel ~ read.

Fear

I'm sitting here on my bed, typing on my laptop keyboard. Two years, one month, two weeks, and thirty hours ago, I was standing on top of a cliff.

I.

"Turn off your lights," said Rossano. "This might be the only time in your life when you get to experience true darkness." He was right. Aside from our headlamps, there was nothing illuminating the limestone walls. Not a ray of sunlight, not a single bioluminescent insect.

Black

Darkness by itself is pretty scary, but it wasn't the darkness that froze us, it was the jumping. I had never dived off anything before, including your standard planks at the swimming pool (those were for the adventurous kids), much less an underground cliff in an underground cave; we would be jumping easily twenty, probably thirty feet into a small pool of water below in complete darkness.

Say I miss the water and hit the rocks instead? Those last moments of consciousness must exist, when I'd be just inexorably aware of it all, my final sensation being perhaps a few piercing milliseconds of pain shot through the nerves underneath the skin encasing my skull before it cracks and splatters blood and brain and bone all over. And then the headlights come back on, and gasps turn into screams.

Or perhaps the worst way to go would be to never go at all. Instead of dying, I'd get stuck in some inescapable variant of Zeno's Paradox where instead of a man and a tortoise, it's my head and the rocks. Maybe I'd be like Jaromir Hladík in Borges' The Secret Miracle, where God would reveal himself and pause time right before I crashed to let me think a few final thoughts before pressing play again. Maybe I'd be a victim of the strange and horrific concept thought experiment known as quantum suicide, where the only true fact about the (assumed) consciousness-generated universe is that consciousness never ceases; you've never died, after all...

But alas. In the single most stomach-churning second of my life, my knees bent themselves and propelled me off the cliff. You ask, "What's it feel like, to free-fall in complete darkness, what of those two interminable seconds?" I honestly can't imagine jumping off a bridge or a burning building feeling much different - and though statistics tried assuring me that I was going to be okay ("no one's ever died doing this"), they failed.

Needless to say, the human body is not meant to exist in free fall. One way or another, it will tell you something is wrong, in this case through that primitive catch-all coping mechanism for any scenario it has no idea how to deal with: pumping adrenaline into my bloodstream. The sheer velocity of the fall was matched in intensity only by my absolute certainty that I'd missed the mark and would be hitting the rocks in a few seconds, because if I'd aimed properly then I probably - definitely - wouldn't be feeling this sheer, awful dread.

Nonsense, of course, but proof that we're never fully in control of our thoughts, only by degrees. For example, you know that because I'm typing this right now, I - Hey, what's that? Did you automatically infer the second clause? - obviously didn't hit the rocks and die.

Anyways, unpause: I'm falling through the damp cave air and my sense of proprioception has been completely obliterated, my body has no idea what's up or down, left or right, its only response to crank its adrenal glands to eleven. As if that would help. A second or so later, either my hand, my elbow, my shoulder, or my head - what order I don't remember - broke the surface tension of the pool. At that moment no thoughts were running through my head - just pure sensation. The sensation of submersion. Of water jetting up my nostrils, breaking capillaries; the smell of blood. The sound of muffled bubbles; water flooding into my ear canals and pushing out the air.

Thoughts begin again. The first of them is prayer. I pray that my life jacket is still on, that it will bubble me back to the surface so that I can breathe again. Being nonreligious, I classify prayer as a sublimated version of hope. It's a more desperate kind of hope, the kind to which you surrender, knowing you have no influence whatsoever on its outcome. The second thought - which occurs even before I emerge - is that I have thoughts; I am conscious, I am alive. Je pense, donc je suis, wasn't it, René?

Cave

It's tempting to say something like "moments like these demonstrate what one is truly capable of" or, if you're a screenwriter, to call this a "character-defining moment." Perfect college essay material. But, like most things, once you break it down it just seems rather silly. All I did was jump off a cliff inside a cave underneath the Puerto Rican rainforest. In complete darkness. On second thought... that still sounds pretty badass, so let's leave it be :^)

II.

Two nights earlier, we were walking back to our area hotel, which in a humorous twist turned out to be this romantic lover's resort (we are friends, not lovers) complete with a long driveway through a meadow with ponies and a king-size canopy bed (it was the cheapest on kayak.com, I swear).

On the way back, we had to pass through a sketchy neighborhood. All the houses were single-stories; all elevated on hills above the road. Even though - and perhaps because - no soul could be seen on the street at that hour, it felt like we were being watched; maybe they're all inside for a reason. At one point, a dog bolted to the fence of one of the houses and started barking at us, which spooked the hell out of me.

When we were about just half of a mile away, there were no more houses left, nor streetlamps. We came to a dim, narrow, foliage-enclosed tunnel of a road:

Tunnel

Nor wind; nor sound, but for our footsteps.

I recall reading somewhere in the Buddhist mythos about a psychologically harrowing rite of passage undertaken by acolytes who arrived at a certain stage after years of meditation. Alone, the acolyte would have to walk through a long cave. First, his sight would be taken away, for there would be no light. Then, his hearing, for it would be silent. Smell, touch, taste - these, too, would leave him as he walked. A physical method, perhaps, of inducing the much-dreaded Dark Night of the Soul, a synonym of existential horror marked by hopelessness and subsequent despair.

Emerging from this tunnel, is the monk transformed? Does he achieve some sort of transcendence? Enlightenment? What do these words mean? I don't know. What cannot be denied is that he has had an experience, which will gestate into a salient memory, fertile ground for the seeds of meaning.

This rite of (rather literal) passage could not help but come to mind as we walked down Highway Nine-Ninety-Seven. Step, step, step... a silhouette materializes. A dog, or some kind of four-legged being, standing in the center of our path, glaring at us from a distance of several meters. Uh oh. We stop. At that moment there was no difference between man and beast; my thoughts escaped me, as they had when I leapt off the cliff.

Was this fear somehow more genuine? Where before it had been mediated by an adventure tour guide in a, yes, controlled environment (though it didn't feel that way), here there were no illusions. The dog could rush us and bite and chew and rip our skin. Fight? But there was no guarantee we could win. Flight? But surely it could fly faster.

So we stood still.

And to much relief, it walked away after a minute or two. Perhaps the hound, gauging us as two while it was one, decided we weren't worth pursuing. Perhaps it saw our stillness as an intimidation tactic (which it succumbed to). Perhaps it was just curious; perhaps it was just as afraid as us. But perhaps... is a game of hypotheticals. Fact: we were scared out of our minds, and just because it walked away didn't mean it couldn't be hiding, waiting to spring us at the perfect moment.

As we had to get back to the hotel, we began to walk again, treading, as if our pace could keep us safer, as if our silence could somehow erase its memory of our existence.

But it never came back.

III.

A few minutes of flowing ink can soothe disquiet memories; I figured writing my thoughts down A.S.A.P. would make them particularly true to form, and our room just happened to have a guestbook in which random travelers left mostly saccharine comments about the fantastic experience the resort provided them. Now I didn't have a blog back then, but I still had the precursory instinct that anyone who blogs must possess: the thirst for readership. Tunnel still pregnant, I grabbed the archive and penned the following:

It's entertaining to think those pages have been read a few times since then, even more to imagine the reactions of various guestbook readers: all lovey-dovey types I'm sure, reading either to confirm, indeed, that their predecessors had had just as lovely a time as they were having, or as a manual for how to feel (but that's another story for another day). And then they happen upon my entry.

Pie chart

...Well, who knows how they reacted. Maybe they even talked about it.

IV.

What is fear? A basic neurological reaction to perceived danger. But that definition lacks character, which means it's certainly no fun, so let's try poetry instead.

You get up on a stage to give a speech;
to perform a recital on your piano...
A coffee shop, waiting for a date.
A boardroom before an important presentation.

Are you afraid?

Perhaps fear is the price of turning dreams into reality.
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