The Beauty, Mystery, and Allure of the Underground World

Caves attract us. I don’t know if it can be attributed to the fact that we may be descendants of cave dwellers or if it’s the damp darkness that sparks mystery in us as we ascend into the earth. We know we are not the only ones who like caves. If a writer or movie maker wants to add mystery to a story, a cave is involved. The mysteries we read as kids were always more fun when someone fell into or discovered a cave. The first Indiana Jones film starts with a great cave scene, and both National Treasure movies had the actors discovering treasure in caverns. Caves evoke images of dangerous, narrow wet tunnels and floors that disappear, treasure long left by ancients, and rooms full of spider webs, skeletons and bats.

In the Mayan culture, the entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld ruled by the death Gods, was said to be located in the caves in Central America. They buried dead in the caves and made ColoradoStairssacrifices to the Gods. When my archaeologist daughter was recently in Belize, they  were allowed to explore the caves with their group, and were able to see first hand the human sacrifice remains and pottery left behind thousands of years ago by the Mayans. She came back with great stories and fabulous pictures.

Caves are pure fun and excitement no matter which one you see. When we traveled to Playa in Mexico with the kids we went snorkeling in the caves. It was dark and beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time. The water was ice cold even though the air above was 95 degrees or more, and the caves had areas that were open to the sun, just enough to make the snorkeling visibility good. As we went along there were roped off cave areas that were off limits to prevent tourists from getting lost. Those really looked like fun, but we followed the rules and did not go past the ropes.

CaveMexAn occasional bat would fly over and we were actually surprised by the number of fish in the cave rivers. They flowed to the ocean so it was salt water and the fish were of every color and size. It was a little scary because the water was quite deep in places and as we led our young children through the caves, I started to wonder what lurked in some of those deep cave waters.

Obviously I have seen too many scary movies. I did not share my concerns out loud, because they were all having such a good time and I did not want to alarm them. It would have ruined the experience. I also went by the rule that it seemed like hundreds of visitors have been snorkeling in these caves for years and I have not heard of any problems, so if they could do it we can do it. I figured the odds were in our favor and nothing will come out of those deep dark waters to attack or steal our children.

Some of the most beautiful caves in the world are by the Apostle islands in Lake Superior. We saw them in person when we stayed on Madeline Island with friends a few years ago. You can take a boat or Kayak out to the colorful  caves on the shores of the islands, formed by the wind 140220 3698and waves of Lake Superior. We took a boat, and while we took some lovely pictures, the true beauty of these caves have only been captured in pictures by professional photographer, Craig Blacklock.

He makes these caves come alive as he was able to capture the multicolored cave walls eroded by thousands of years of water and wind that sculpted out walls, pillars and caverns in the sides of the mostly uninhabited islands. The caves are colorful and whimsical in the winter and even more beautiful when surrounded by the fall colors or the bright sun of summer. They look almost enchanted as if created for their beauty and our enjoyment. The boats come as close as possible and it is a place I need to go back to for the kayak experience. With the Kayaks you can go right into the 140220 3708caves and get a close up view. Blacklock, who I found out teaches photography lessons on the island, actually has worn a wet suit while taking pictures of the caves from the water.

We have a long history of visiting and loving caves in our family. Minnesota has Niagara cave in Forestville by Harmony, Minnesota which got its name from the large waterfall inside the cave. There are also the St. Paul caves that have a long history as a speak easy for gangsters in the 1930’s and then in later years it became a nice restaurant, and now they hold weddings and parties in the caves. We went on a tour of these caves a number of years ago and they can show you bullet holes in the walls where the gangsters would occasionally shoot up the place.

We saw Craters of the Moon in Idaho which has caves with spray painted big foot tracks. That was fun for us all! We have seen Cave of the Winds in Colorado which was close to the Manitou BigFootMexcliff dwellings site. We toured that with our family and it was fascinating to imagine the people who called the cave dwellings their home. It had to be a struggle for existence from finding enough water year round, to being able to grow food in the harsh area, but when you stood in the cliff dwellings you could see unspoiled beauty for miles and I imagine they looked for a place where they could not only survive, but one that made their heart happy.

We also saw wind cave in South Dakota which had a desert wind-swept look to the walls, like no other cave we have ever seen. In New Zealand at the top of the list of interesting caves is the Glow Worm cave. The silk type worms live on the ceiling of the cave, dropping down their silk to catch bugs and flies to eat, but their most interesting feature is that they have bioluminescence. IMG_6084They light up. They are similar to a fire fly and they glow and twinkle in the darkness. Because there are so many on the cave ceiling, it looks as if someone strung millions of tiny white Christmas lights on the ceilings. The tour is a silent boat ride where no photography is allowed. They quietly load the tourists and everyone is warned numerous times of the rules of no talking, no noises and no photos. It was the most romantic cave tour I have ever experienced.

We have been to many caves all over and each cave is unique in its beauty and mystery. Some are scary, some full of adventure and some provide a twinkling romantic experience for a middle aged couple like us, celebrating thirty years of marriage. Our kids sat in awe and wonder as they followed the big foot tracks into the cave in Idaho on a family adventure that they remember IMG_6080well, even though they are now all grown up. As an adult, one of them was lucky enough, while working in Central America to see the legendary entrance to the underworld of Xibalba of the Mayan gods and see the human sacrifices of thousands of years ago.

Caves are the essence of mystery, beauty and wonder in our world. It is no surprise that we seek the allure of traveling underground to see these dark, mysterious, scary, romantic, awe inspiring and naturally beautiful part of the underground world. Seeing and appreciating these natural places that can evoke so many emotions and so much excitement in us is what life is all about! Stir your soul and peak your excitement and interest for life by appreciating these naturally mysterious places.

Sun, Surf, Salsa & Dolphins

IMG_3544We have taken a lot of great vacations with our kids over the years, but our trips to Mexico to escape the Minnesota winters rate very high on our favorite’s list. On prior vacations we had been out of the country, but only to Canada. Mexico was our first big trip flying out of the country and it required that everyone in the family have a passport. The kids were young at the time as our first visit was in 2004. We were all very excited about it. Joe booked an all inclusive resort in Playa Del Carmen just south of Cancun. All inclusive resorts are the best deal when you are traveling with kids. The food, drinks and fun are included, so as parents you do not have to keep pulling out your wallet IMG_3545every time the kids need a soda or a meal. The food was amazing. Endless buffets of fresh fruits, veggies, fish, meats and always lots of fresh salsa and chips.

Our resort had informal buffets by the pools, all day long, in case you did not want to miss any of the ocean and pool fun. The pools all had a view of the ocean and the resort staff stood ready at the ocean to lend you fins and snorkels or give you lessons on the sailboats for use by the guests. There was an endless amount of activities to participate in and when you all had too much sun, you could go shopping in the villages or on tours.

IMG_3541There were more formal buffets in two different dining rooms in the main lodge, for evenings,
and vendors sold jewelry under the night sky, perfect to look at while strolling with a glass of wine. Family friendly movies played on the beach at night, and other nights they had magic shows and dancers of all kinds to entertain the guests. We always said it was like being on a cruise, but without the boat. These were fun times with the kids. I had to bring along a lot of sunscreen and big T-shirts so that the hot Mexican sun did not burn their white, winter Minnesota skin. Everyone got too much sun anyway, but we did our best.

On our first trip to Mexico, with our new fresh passports in hand, we decided to go through customs in an order where Joe went through first, and then the kids between us, and me last. So we were book ending our kids to make sure everyone stayed together. After we landed, we gave each of the kids their passports to hold under our watchful eye, and Joe proceeded forward as planned. His passport got a quick stamp and so did Sara and Ben as they went through. When it came to Jenny, just in front of me, the agent looked at her and her passport and looked at me. He looked at a fellow agent beside him and conversed in Spanish, a language I had not IMG_3539mastered enough to follow other than to clumsily order food or a drink, or exchange simple greetings. He was not stamping her passport and continued to discuss something with his coworker and even pointed at her passport. I exchanged a glance with Joe, as he stood just beyond the red ropes after passing through customs and he kind of shrugged. The Mexican customs agent stopped talking and looked at her passport again. I mustered up my best lawyer, authoritative, but respectful, no nonsense voice and said “Is there a problem?” He looked at me and said “no” and stamped her passport and mine and we were through. After we were out of earshot I expressed my concern to Joe and his response was “they were probably just talking about what they wanted for lunch.” That was a good laugh and ended our concern.

IMG_3546We moved on to our awaiting resort van with our tour guides dressed in matching flowery shirts, and we were off for fun and sun! We went sailing and snorkeled with every kind of fish possible. One day we decided to go to a natural water park of sorts called Xcarat. It was a short bus ride away and offered a full day of family fun. It had manatees and birds of every kind. It had bell helmet diving for the entire family. We tried everything. Jenny was the youngest and so on these adventures she had to in some ways be the bravest. She was so small but she put on her heavy bell helmet and she snorkeled with us and she never complained. I sometimes think it is why she is so adventurous now in her twenties because she was required to participate in a lot of things at a very young age.

Mex04cXcarat also had snorkeling on a river through caves and it offered swimming with the dolphins. Even though this was a little pricy, I viewed it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to enjoy the dolphins when the kids were most excited about the allure and beauty of dolphins and the ocean. They had seen movies about dolphins and read about dolphins, but to touch aMex04bnd swim with them was magical. The looks on their faces was worth the price. It was the highlight of the trip and something they still talk about as adults.

The kids loved the people in Mexico and interacted with them with ease. The young adults working at the resort worked on Mex04ateaching the kids Spanish. When they came to get towels at the pool they used the Spanish word they had learned to ask for them and said please and thank you in Spanish. Sara studied a little Spanish in school and actually helped us out when we were a little lost at the Xcarat resort. We had gotten into an area that was more remote in the park while looking for the Mex04drestaurant. The workers at the resort in that particular area were working on a construction project and not the workers trained to work with guests. They spoke no English so Sara stepped in and tried her best to use her Spanish to find our way to the area for lunch. She was successful and they understood enough of what she was saying to direct us to where we needed to be. The kids even learned enough Spanish on our vacations to negotiate purchases at the little stores and to order at restaurants.

We also went to Mexico and an IMG_3540all inclusive in 2007 when the kids were a little older, and that time we went to the island of Cozumel.   That was an entirely different experience because they were older and we did different things. The girls went parasailing and Ben and I went scuba diving. That Ben has always been a lot better than me at diving. He is a natural. Calm and cool on the dive and he was the best dive buddy ever. He watched after me and we saw sharks and barracuda together. It was a mother and son bonding event.

One day on Cozumel we rented a van and a local driver to take us slowly around the entire island. We stopped at beaches and the Mayan ruins and the shops and local restaurants. We saw IMG_3543sights and tried to enjoy the local food, culture and the people, in the warm Mexican sunshine. We had good times together and filled each day with activities, and then at the end of each busy day, when we were all tired from too much sun and fun, we had great food together while listening to the live music and shows provided by the resort.

I am so thankful we took the time to do these adventures together. We will always have those memories. Once the kids started college and worked on creating their own lives, making those family memories was a lot harder. We took the time away from our jobs and the kid’s busy sports, band and school schedules to make family time that they will remember forever. We notMex04er only had a great time, but the kids learned to interact with and respect people from other countries and cultures, and they learned to be brave in the big blue ocean and in trying new and exciting and sometimes scary things, like snorkeling in caves. They learned how to go through customs and navigate through airports together. They ate unfamiliar food and learned to love it. They swam with dolphins and they laughed and played together in the warm sunshine. There is nothing more important than family and family adventures. In hindsight, we had a really good time together as a family, but our kids also learned life lessons and now have fond memories of our time together. It made us all closer and stronger. Time is irreplaceable. Use it well.

A View From The Sky

When I first started dating my husband Joe, some 32 years ago, he had always said that he was afraid of heights. Afraid maybe is too strong a word. He would say things like I don’t like heights and I am not comfortable with heights. Heights make him woozy or dizzy. After almost 30 years of marriage I can say he was mistaken and I adv04have the pictures to prove it.

In 1986 we went to Hawaii on our honeymoon, and even though he was defining himself as uncomfortable with heights, he agreed to go on a helicopter ride over the mountains of Kauai. The helicopter swooped and dived through the mountains, over edges, and waterfalls. He hung on and so did I, but we saw some of the most beautiful scenery on the garden island that was only visible from the air. The lush adv08green mountains grew as cliffs out of the Pacific Ocean. We could see the waves crashing onto the shores below as we flew low and fast, the pilot deliberately turning the helicopter onto its side to give us the perfect view and a brag worthy ride. He gave us just the right amount of comfort in the craft, and his skills, offering high speed
turns and dips gave an exciting feeling of danger. He was adv07
a good tour guide.

We wore our little headsets to listen as he gave us the name of each waterfall and bay. He pointed out all of the tour highlights and we were able to ask him questions about the landscape. I had never been on a helicopter before and had the same uncomfortable feeling about it before we started, but it quickly became a favorite experience for both of us.

adv09On that same trip I told him I was a little afraid to go snorkeling way out in the ocean. He had been to Hawaii before and he reassured me on the boat to the snorkel site that I would love it and it was perfectly safe, even though the boat tour guide indicated that the snorkelers sometimes see sharks. The guide even gave us directions on what to do if we saw any large sharks, so I was a little nervous as we hit the water. We descended the stairs of the large tour Catamaran right into the water with our masks on and ready, but as I got in I accidentally got some sea water in my mouth, and as if surprised, I started breathing shallow and quick. He turned to me and said adv05in a really calm, but questioning voice, “What are you doing? Put your snorkel in.” It snapped me right out of it and I laughed and put the snorkel in and he grabbed my hand and we were snorkeling. We saw fish of all colors, but no sharks. I was in love with a new sport. I went on over the years to snorkel all over with Joe, including Cozumel, Mexico, the Florida Keys and Costa Rica, and about 10 years ago I even became a certified Scuba Diver.

A few years after Hawaii, Joe and I went on a helicopter ride down into the Grand Canyon. The helicopter took us over Hoover Dam and over the edge of the canyon. It had the same great mix of beauty, danger and a comfort in the pilot’s skills, as our adv02Hawaii experience did years earlier. We took off from Las Vegas where Joe was attending a conference. Flying over the Vegas strip was a part of the tour that was surprisingly interesting. I am usually only interested in the nature and natural beauty, but looking at the Vegas strip from above, with the many people walking the streets from casino to casino was surprisingly cool. It looked like a colorful river moving in unison along the sidewalks. Of course the canyon was the best.

After we had swooped in and out of the Grand Canyon, seeing some of the best highlights, we landed on a plateau about halfway down where we had a champagne brunch. It was amazing. Those red rocky deep cliffs and the sparse vegetation were adv01beautiful. I have hiked the Grand Canyon but, there was no better way to see a lot of the most famous parts of the Canyon in a small amount of time than to fly over it and get that bird’s eye view.

We have done a lot of things involving uncomfortable heights and things that took us out of our comfort zone. On our European vacation for our twenty fifth anniversary, we took the steep railroad up to the top of the mountain in Innsbruck, Austria. It was the railroad used during the Olympics. We also took the railroad to the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado when we were on our intergenerational trip with my parents and our kids. Both took us to great heights and gave us that bird’s eye view_MG_2085 that almost makes a person light headed. It was fabulous.

In 2014 we went to Costa Rica and we zip lined in the rain forest canopy. Our platforms were so tall, they had to build onto the large trees because they were too tall to be braced to the ground below. That was exciting and a little scary, but we were bound and determined to give that a try and we both agreed we would do that again.

We have made it a point not to let small adv03fears define us. If Joe and I would have always taken the safe route and not done things that made us uncomfortable we would have missed out on a lot of very exhilarating experiences. We decided long
ago not to let our fears define or limit us, and we have been good in encouraging each other even when our gut feeling may not agree.

They say you should go with your gut, but that old adage is wrong when it comes to travel and adventure. Your gut many times tells you to be afraid and cautious, but if you never did anything that was a little scary and out of your comfort zone, you would never have that exhilarating feeling of flying sideways over a waterfall on Kauai, getting a bird’s eye view of the Grand Canyon or tasting the salty ocean water and watching for sharks.adv06