Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sotto Terra

It's still amazing to me that I have been a part of Macerata's annual spelunking course for three years now. It was four years ago that I took the course myself, as a new student, fumbling my way through introductions, geology lessons, practical information, and eventually, hours in Le Marche caves, climbing up and down ropes in pure darkness, wondering exactly what I had gotten myself into. In those days, my Italian was fortunately bad enough that I didn't know the difference between thirteen and thirty meters of rope-climbing, and my complete ignorance made me up for anything. I remember, as instructors would describe in detail the complexities of an upcoming caving excursion, the rest of my classmates watched on in horror as they described gravity-defying drops and endless black tunnels and the lakes of water that we'd have to trudge through. I, clueless, would raise my hand half-way through and say, stumbling over my italian, "do I need to pack a sack lunch?"

Last year I felt I really got to know the caves, since finally my Italian was good enough to actually follow the lessons. I would sit through all of the lessons which I had sat through before, but this time I would look on, fascinated, as the other instructors explained geologic formations, photographic techniques, the history behind the caves in Italy. At the end of the evening, when Antonello and I were driving home, I would say, "That was really interesting. I didn't know that caves were formed like that." He'd turn to me and laugh. "But you learned all of this already, didn't you? You took the course before!" I would just smile. Apparently my complete lack of understanding had gone relatively unnoticed the first time around.

Now it's my second year as an instructor's helper, and I feel like I have a certain amount of authority when it comes to caving in Italy. I have survived many a caving trip now, and I have caving gear, a helmet and caving suit that are good and muddy--a sure sign that there is a bit of la grotta flowing through my veins. I've come far enough as a spelunker to know my weaknesses and strengths, to know the difference between the different rock formations, to understand what I like about caving, and what I don't. Each year, as the caving course begins again, I always find it a bit of a pleasure as students approach me and ask me for help suiting up, help learning how to use this bit of gear or that one, help moving from one rope to another. I, the American of the group, have learned how to cave in Italian, and my caving vocabulary is limited to Italian words, gear that I only know the name of in Italian, even techniques that I can't describe for the life of me in English.

Sunday was our first cave, Cinque Laghi (Five Lakes) up near Fano, and even after three years, I found things in this rather basic cave to be challenging. But it was my first time in months returning to a cave as a spelunker, and hopping into the coldest waist deep water, shimmying through tunnels the size of the trunk of a car, and climbing up slippery, muddy limestone rock made me feel like I was a part of something special, something bigger than me.

Afterwards, when we had clambered out of the cave and into a sunny meadow in the mountains, all of the new students taking the course gathered around with our resident psychologist and discussed their first cave. I listened along with them, interested to hear their experiences: those first feelings of being in pure darkness, of claustrophobia, of bats and bugs and sticky mud, of something brand new and different. The psychologist, in his deep wisdom, said, "And isn't this true with caves--that you can't really compare them to anything. They don't exist in our every day world. The sensations you feel in a cave don’t happen anywhere else."

Maybe that is true, I thought, having never entertained the idea before. I hugged my muddy knees and rested my helmet on the ground. It had been a long day, and I was tired, yet happy. I felt like a beginner again, after three full years.



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