I’ve been accused that my last blogs have been boring. I can fix that. There’s been conversetion lately about risk so let’s hear about what it’s really like to be a travel writer- from the back side- the Paul Harvey “rest of the story.”
I went to Veracruz, Mexico last year. Travel writers often get invited to discover countries who have recently decided to attract American tourists, either they are hoping to get on the tourism market bandwagon, or have recently cleaned up their act so that it is now safe or safer for us to travel there- we Americans who need a place to be very safe before we want to risk going there.
You may recall that it wasn’t too many years ago that there were many beheadings in Veracruz. It was a pretty corrupt violent state. (Actually, when I just Googled it, there’s been some recent beheading activity). But in 2013, the state welcomed the adventure travel trade and I went to check it out.
Veracruz made sure we felt safe, the whole 5 days we were there. Everywhere we went, we were followed by a truckload of medical folks- like docs in long white coats with emergency medical bags. In addition, we had our own armed guards- another open pick-up with a handful of soldiers with machine guns- they actually leaned on the cab and sometimes took aim as we traveled. That made us feel real safe.
I signed up for whitewater rafting, rapelling down a sea cave, caving and dune buggy riding.
Let’s start with whitewater rafting. It was Class 3-4. We each had a beastly Mexican man in the stern that yelled commands to us in Spanish. So we had to first learn AND REMEMBER what “paddle forward”, “paddle backward” meant as well as “left side”and “right side.” That was a challenge, especially as a hydraulic was about to swallow up the raft. We needed a few seconds to translate in our brains, a few seconds we might not have.
Our guide asked if we wanted to “swim” the rapids. “Here, it is safe- no rocks.” A few of us said, “Why not,” and rolled overboard. I never swam Class 3-4 ON PURPOSE nor by falling overboard. As I ran the river and struggled to keep my feet up to prevent entrenched foot (caught in rocks- because who knew if there wasn’t a single boulder under water), the massive waves kept hitting me over and over and over again, slapping me in the face with such force. I gasped air inbetween but never knew what was behind each wave, so I began to drink in water fairly quickly, because they were unceasing. It took some time to think I should be turning my head to the side every time a wave swept over my head, that way it would not be forced up my nose at least. (we were given no instructions) I grew concerned because I could not drink much more water before I would be in trouble. The rapids ended just in time and they hauled us into the boat by our life jacket arm pits, a little weak from the experience.
Later on, I made the mistake of asking our guide if they ever surf waves. “Oh yes, would you like to try?”
In order to stay on top of the wave, as you position your raft upstream, you must paddle like crazy to remain on top of it. My group did not. They lily dipped their paddles and in two seconds, the river dumped half of them out. A few got caught underneath but the raft had not flipped so there was no air for them to breathe. They were pretty scared. They were trapped under there pretty long. One older woman blamed me for the whole event.
Next day was repelling. We started by being told to pile into two wooden fishing skiffs on the coast. The plan was to motor around the point where the sea cave was and the cliff which we would repel down. The sky behind the boats was dark and jagged lightning was slicing through the sky. Raindrops had begun to fall. The sea was wild and the boat rocked and rolled. Walking was an option to get to the cliff top. Since I get real seasick. I did not want to be in that boat one second longer than I had to, plus I did not like the looks of a storm brewing and being in a boat. A few of us opted to walk.
When we got to the repelling site, there was a 70-year-old Mexican man in polyester long pants, a white button down dress shirt, a cowboy hat and barefeet. He had ropes and caribeaners and would belay us down the cliff, over the sea cave, and into the rocking and rolling skiff in the sea below. I was skeptical. I asked a bonafide climber to check his equipment out and he did say it was legit.
I have climbed and repelled in the past. I know to keep yourself perpendicular to the face, legs apart and hop or walk down. As I repelled, the Mexican man up top disappeared from sight. He could not see how fast or how slow I was going. He let out line too quickly and before I knew it, I was laying flat against the wall, upside down. The rope was tight. I couldn’t move. I yelled up, “I’m in trouble down here. I’m not scared but I might start to get scared soon.” I laid against the wet rock wall completely upside-down , head first and the sea churned far below me. He begins yelling something to me in Spanish and I have no idea what my instructions are. Soon he repels down over the lip and reaches his hand out, yelling to me. I tell him in English, “I am not climbing UP this. Figure out how to get me down.”
Our travel guide interpreter up top begins to yell translations. “Get your feet undernath you and STAND UP.” They let out some rope to create slack. All my comrades were down in the swaying skiff holding their breath, praying. I figured it out and finished the repel, hanging above the cave in the air as the ocean rolled in and out of the monstrous mouth of the cave. My comrades teased me once safely in the boat and said I was doing Cirque de Soule ala Cindy. When I told my daughter back home, she behaved as though I was the child and she was the parent, telling me to be careful. “I need a Mother.”
The next day we went caving. By this time, I started asking questions. “What kind of cave? Is it a cave or a lava tube?” CAVE they said, not a big deal. We had no flashlights. We traveled to the jungle, along with our entourage of trucks full of medical people and soldiers.
We walked through the jungle and found a cave that we crawled into its mouth. It WAS a lave tube. Lava tube floors are treacherous things- full of glassy, abrasive lava rock that cuts and rips if you so much as touch it. People turned their cell phones on for illumination. The soldiers had to juggle their machine guns and phones for light at the same time. The doctors and EMT’s had smooth soled leather shoes on. They were not happy following us in there.
When we got to a section where the ceiling broke down, and the light of day entered, we all paused and talked. Someone said this was the end. I got bored and turned around with a few others and decided to walk back early. Unbeknowst to me, after I left, one of the guides asked if they wanted to go in further to see the bats.
“Seeing the bats” meant penetrating further into the lava tube with cell phones. Cave rules are THREE types of a light source for each person. NOT, with this establishment. The explorers had to crouch down and nearly crawl. The bats, which were vampire bats became disturbed and began flying out , past the people, brushing their hair and face and arms with their wings, freaking both of them out- people and bats. The soldiers were stumbling. The medical people were stumbling. The writers and travel agents wondered why they were following so blindly and had given over so much trust.
When we were all reunited afterwards, I was bummed that I had missed out but those who did not miss, were white with fear and traumatized. THIS would not go over big with most American tourists. The Veracruzians can’t lead just anyone down a cave like that.
The next day we went 4-wheeling over crazy high sand dunes. I was starting to catch on to these people and their idea of risk and especially safety, which was a tad different from ours. The folks in my group played it safe, but another buggy of American tour operators rolled and got a little hurt and a lot scared.
Our last night, we went out to dinner on the square and I noticed the young man in our group who had been in the flipped buggy was staring and was silent. I went and sat with him and asked, “Had enough high adventure, eh?” And he quietly shook his head. “I wanna go home.”
Wanna know what I got paid to write that story? $75 and it cost me $100 to get myself to JFK so I left America with a deficiet of $25 from the get go. I DID NOT have to pay for my memories however. They were provided by the Veracvruz Tourism.
PS- This is only ONE side of the Veracruz trip- there were many deightful segments making the entire adventure certainly worthwhile…but if you want to look AT RISK- depending on where you travel and how you travel, adventure and risk is fairly easy to come by…. This is what we travel writers do for you Americans to TEST whether a country is prime time and ready for our comrades.
Here’s another side…cindyrosstraveler.com/2013/08/23/bat-caves-iguana-dancing-and-other-adventures-in-los-tuxtla-veracruz-mexico/