Dying for the Waterfall


Sarah Ghoshal


Hanging there, the water rushing in my face, the voices of encouragement tinny and far away, I thought, “I might die here, hanging from a cave wall in Belize, drowned by a waterfall in these terrible brown pants.”  I was tired and scared and uncomfortable with my impending doom. I was nowhere I had ever been before, but not quite ready to fall again. I pushed the balls of my feet against the back wall of the waterfall, lost my right contact lens, flung my right hand above my head and blindly searched for a place to pull myself up.  I couldn’t look back at my husband, couldn’t look up at the top. I just looked at the wall in front of me and it became clear:  I was on an adventure.

I am the kind of traveler that appreciates cold mojitos, bright sun and elongated beach chairs with soft cushions.  I like the goose bumps I get when those cushions are hot from the sun and I lower myself onto them, the promise of a juicy novel dancing close.  I like to relax.  But recently, I’ve been restless in my little suburban town in New Jersey, wanting to see something new, to experience adventures that might just be unlike anything I have ever done before.  So my husband and I agreed to spend a few days in the jungles of Belize before hitting the beach and let me tell you: I have fished in Yellowstone National Park and I have encountered big brown bears in the Rocky Mountains, but never before had I stood in an ancient Mayan cave in rented hiking shoes (who thinks to bring full hiking boots to paradise?), soaked to the bone and getting ready to jump from a waterfall I had climbed up only moments before. 

When we signed up for the adventure, we thought the waterfalls were out in the open.  I was picturing crystal clear pools of water glinting in the sunlight, bright green vegetation surrounding me as I jumped off of a waterfall in a two piece bathing suit under the hot sun.  What I got was, essentially, the complete opposite.  The waterfalls were in an ancient cave, the two piece turned out to be a terrible idea (even under my long pants and green t-shirt, I could have used a sports bra instead) and the only bright green I saw was the t-shirt on my back.  I was scared of what was ahead of me and the farther we went into the cave, unable to see what was behind me.

Upon first entering the cave, our guide, a bad-ass with a machete named Carlos, pointed out multiple holes in the ceiling of the cave with his headlamp.  (These headlamps, by the way, were my saving grace and also, my biggest fear.  They allowed me to see in a black cave; they also only allowed me to see straight ahead.)  I pointed my lamp above me and saw ten pairs of glowing eyes staring back at me and somewhere behind the keening scream building up in my head, heard someone say the words “vampire bats.”  But in that moment, something inside of me began to shift.  I tamped the scream down and stared even harder into the hole, fascinated by how many of these bats had shoved themselves into one, small hole.  I listened to Carlos tell me not to touch the formations in the cave if I could help it, to look down as I was walking, to not be afraid to crawl on my belly if the ceiling was low in some parts.  And I began, seven other newcomers plus two guides surrounding me, with an old, used pack and a life jacket hanging from my back. 

When we reached the first waterfall, I said to my husband, “I have no upper body strength. I can’t do that,” as I watched another woman in our group scale the wall and hoist herself over the rushing precipice of the fall, thirty feet high.  He shook his head at me, excitement painting his face in the slight light of the headlamp and assured me, “We have been working out almost every day for six weeks!  You DO have the strength.”  I puffed up my chest and looked back to the fall; the woman in front of me was giving it her best try.  Tethered to a rope attached to another guide at the top, she placed her hands on the slippery rocks and took two great, big steps.  Then, she fell.  Hanging from the rope, she banged into the side of the rocks, gathered herself and came back to us.  “I have a bad knee,” she said, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” 

And BOOM! The panic set in.  If she couldn’t do it, how could I?  I thought, “I’ve never been athletic; I didn’t even think to wear a sports bra.  I don’t know these shoes.  My pants are restrictive and my contacts are already bothering me.”  The excuses flooded my brain as if it was a perfect Saturday morning for a run and I was hung over.  I justified it to myself: “If she is going to stay, I can too, right?”  But then I looked at her, about 10 years older than me, ready to give up to sit in a dark cave by herself while everyone else continued on with the adventure, and not only did I not want to sit in the dark cave waiting,  I wanted to do it.  I want to say that I was able to scale a wall, to pull myself up, to keep up with the group around me and have a real adventure.  And when I finished, there could be a mojito at the resort. And air conditioning.  And a big, fat, steak, a sundress and lots of lights.  I looked back at my husband and waded into the pool in front of the fall, ready to take on the rock.

The first time I fell, I bounced off of the wall, off of the rushing water, like a rag doll.  It sounds unoriginal, but it’s true; I flopped around like a fish on a line, hoping to gain purchase with my hands, wishing the water was not rushing down on me quite so hard.  My nose filled up with water and I could feel a slight stinging on my arm.  Carlos pulled me over to him, out of the rushing water, and asked me if I wanted to try again.  “Yes,” I breathed. “I can do it.”  And I put my right hand up again. 

I had found a couple of sturdy places to put my feet on the first part of the climb when I had gone up before.  I concentrated on finding those spots again and staying as far away from the rushing water as I could, which was not easy.  No matter what, I was going to feel push back from the water and had to accept that I would swallow it, breathe it, soak it in.  So I pushed, and I made it past the spot where I had fallen the first time.  After some progress,  I fell again, this time behind the waterfall, feet dangling into the abyss. This was the moment, breathing fast water, unable to open my right eye, that I thought I might die.  This is no exaggeration.  When I was nine years old, I walked two miles through a herd of grazing buffalo in Yellowstone, separated from my parents.  At one point, I came six inches away from the very dirty, very irritated face of a buffalo, and still, I was not as scared in that moment as I was behind the waterfall, at least fifteen feet off the ground. 

When my husband tells the story, he says he looked over to where I had been climbing and I was just … gone.  This is similar to our sky-diving story, when the instructors made me go first at the last minute and Ron turned around in the little, rickety plane and I was just … gone.  In his story of the waterfalls, I was out of sight for at least ten seconds.  For me, it was a cliché eternity, complete with flashes of my life and fervent wishes for it all to be a bad dream.  But then, I pushed.  My feet found the back wall and pushed me through the wall of water until my hands were touching rock again, feeling for indentations and sturdy holds.  I climbed – battered, half blind, bloody on my right arm and elbow and twice as heavy from the wet – and flung my body over the top, jagged rocks, scraping my belly, my bulky shoes bumping along.  And when I got to the top, my groups member cheered as I triumphantly waited for my husband.

Wouldn’t this be quite the essay if I told you my husband never reached the top?  That it was him all along who could not negotiate the climb?  It would be a spectacular twist in terms of writing and of course, devastating for me personally, but really, that’s not how it happened.  Ron made it to the top and we all scaled two more waterfalls before turning around and jumping off of each one.  We hiked for miles, jumping over rocks and avoiding formations, listening to the guide tells us about how if we shined our headlamps to the ceiling, we could see platforms where the Mayans would perform human sacrifice.  We saw spiders larger than our hands.  And at the end, we hiked out of the cave wet, dirty and breathing hard, into a world where I knew I could scale a wall.