Whatever you do, don't let your candle go out...Part 4

We spent the days in Torotoro hiking, caving, exploring. Mountains, canyons, caverns, cliff tops, valley bottoms. It was impressive. And full of surprises, which we were about to discover.

“Y aqui hay los huellas de un dinosaurio.”

“What was that? What did he just say? Did he just say something about a dinosaur?”

“Ok, holy shit.”

And there, at our feet, were the imprints of a dinosaur, going up a slight rise. From a short distance it looked as though someone had simply walked through mud on the trail. And that’s probably exactly what happened, except it was some-thing walking millions of years ago.

“Y un poco mas adelante, tenemos el talon. Creemos que es de un velociraptor.”

“What was that now? Did he just say velociraptor? As in Jurassic Park?”

“I think so.”

And there, in the bedrock, was the very clear, and damn easy to miss if I was just a-hiking along, hooked talon of a dinosaur. It was beautiful. It was fully embedded in the surrounding rock, and eroding at the same pace.

“That. Is. Amazing.”

“Yeah,” I said, “it really is.”

If you’ve ever been caving, proper caving, not one of those cushy walks with handrails and lanterns, then you know the special type of heavy quiet and lurking dark that exists deep in the earth. Only Gustavo, a handful of locals, and maybe another few dozen visitors have ever explored the cave system outside of Torotoro. I surely haven’t. What we did was go far enough in so that if we panicked we could be dragged out without much hassle. “Gustavo, how far have you gone in?”

“How far? I don’t know. I’ve been four days in.”

“Wait four days in and then another four out?”


“Whoa. What was that like?”

“Quiet…and dark.”

This man blew my mind. Eight days. How did he find his way through?

“Why did you stop?”

“Four was enough. But the cave kept going. I could hear it. Way in the distance. The drip drip of water. And when we dared to speak aloud, our voices traveled a long time before they came back to us.” That was another thing about being in the black, we never wanted to speak louder than a whisper. You know this story, someone drops a careless exclamation and the noise of it rumbles through the earth and something awakens that was best left dreaming. So, we whispered.

And how the hell did he find his way back?

“Here,” he said, “let me light your candle.”

Our candles were perched atop our helmets in a semicircle of aluminum for maximum reflectivity. He reached up and lit the candle with a cigarette lighter. I eyed that candle with a seriousness that is difficult to convey in words. “Don’t fall behind and let that go out.”

“Right. No. Yeah no way. Shit.”

We hiked, crawled, slid, shuffled, and wormed our way through the black for the next few hours. Ask me how big the place was? I have not a clue. It was immense. Or it was a hallway. I don’t know. At one point there was a section we had to sort of slide through. Imagine trying to cross a room with walls only 10 inches apart. And angled at 45 degrees. And sloping upwards. It was perhaps the most awkward and difficult 15 feet I've ever traveled. It was all incredibly fun in a terrifying way. We clung to our light like it was the last wee bit of hope left on earth. We did snuff out our flames once though. When we were all together. Sitting very close, like Shanghai rush hour subway close. The lights went out one by one. And the dark rushed in. And incredibly, after a moment of holy shit, the space got a lot bigger. A whole lot bigger. For sighted humans, eyes will always dominate the other sense organs if we let them. But take that away completely and the others have a chance to show their stuff. My ears were telling me distance and height. My nose hairs were telling me about air currents. And once the smoke drifted up, I could smell the very distinct earthiness of being inside the earth. And there was something else there that our candles had been keeping at bay. Something about the idea of millions of tons of rock and dirt above me and all around me. I don’t know. It made me uneasy. And the dark was a thing. Even though I know that the dark is an absence, it certainly had a presence.

“How’s it going with that lighter Gus?”

“Yeah. Ok.”



Whatever you do, don't let your candle go out...Part 3

By Darin Wahl

“Hey y’all!” (A southern drawl tends to creep out when I’m selling some slight madness. I imagine that makes me sound more trusting.) “You got any plans this weekend? Think you can take a 4 or 5 day trip?”

“Where? What were you thinking?”

“Ok, so I was deep reading my guidebook because I finished all my travel novels. Anyone got anything to trade by the way? I’m hurting for a good read. Anyway, so I found two or three sentences about this cave and canyon region southwest of Cochabamba.”

“Well shit. We can’t. Roads are still closed. And who knows when they’ll open again.”

“I know that. And apparently, taking the bus is not the way to get there. The area is called T’orot’oro. I think its Aymara or Quechua, means ‘mud mud’ so the bus takes forever. We can fly there.”

“Uh come again.”

“Ok so the book says we’re supposed to find a Swedish guy with a plane. And I got his phone number. So I called him. He says no problem, he can take 4 of us.”

“What? Really?”

“Yeah. So we’re gonna do it right?”

We met the Swedish pilot at the small airport at a far end of town.

“So you guys looking for a little adventure ey?”

“Uhhh we are?”

“Hahaha. Everything is completely safe.”

Great. We’re fucked.

The flight was amazing. The landing, not so much.


We had to yell. At least, I thought we did. We all had those headsets to block out the engine propeller noise. (I love these planes by the way. Feels like there’s not a lot of space between me and certain splat. I flew one of these once. True story. When I was 16. Took off, flew not 200 yards from the twin towers, right over the Verrazano Bridge and even circled the green lady’s torch.) There were mics on those headsets. So maybe I was just screaming in his ears. My bad.

“Just there. On that field.”


“Yeah, that’s us.”


We got out of the plane to find people waiting for us. Which I thought was strange. I mean who called ahead? None of us. We gathered our things and thanked the pilot. He asked us to hold on a minute.

“Ok, these people would like a ride back to the city. They heard the plane and ran out here. I’m their only ride with the blockades and all.”

Dang. How did they pack all that luggage so fast?

“So,” he went on “how much do you want to charge them?”

“Wait. What?”

“Well you paid for the flight. I’m already paid. So they’ll pay you.”

“Oh. Well. Oh. Ok, uh what would make sense?”

“Well they are very likely very poor.”

“Right, well do we care?” This was met with shaking heads and shrugged shoulders.

“Me neither. Yeah, so nothing is good.”

“Well, ok. But they’ll probably want to pay something. They aren’t looking for handouts.”

“Oh. Right right right. Well what might be fair? Something like 5 dollars?”

“Yeah. That’s probably good.”

“Ok then.” He came back with our money and after handshakes and a I'll be back next week, he left.

“The book says we are looking for a man named Gustavo. How are we supposed to find this guy? Go door to door?”

“Hola. Como estan todos? Turistas? Hablan español? Con que puedo ayudarles?” (Hello. How are you? You are tourists? Do you speak Spanish? How can I help you?)

“Uh no gracias. Todo bien. No gracias.” (Uh, no thanks. We’re all good. No thanks.)

(This, thinking back now, seems like a dickish response. But sometimes, after traveling for a while, there is this automatic polite response/dismissal to folks who make a beeline for obvious foreigners and start a conversation. We just didn’t really understand the context of this town yet.)

“No problemo. Ofrecemos diferente opciones. Permitame explicarles. Si?” (No problem. We offer a variety of options. May I explain them to you?)

“Señor. Gracias, pero no gracias.” (Sir. Thank you, but no thank you.)

“Hey, well maybe he knows this Gustavo. We should ask him.”

“Oh yeah. Ok.”

“Actualmente, conoce usted un hombre se llama Gustavo?” (Actually, do you know a man named Gustavo?)

“Si, por supuesto. Yo soy Gustavo. Lo unico en el pueblo. Soy un guia.” (Yes, of course. I am Gustavo. The only one in town. I am a guide.)

“Oh HO! Ok then. This is Gustavo. That was easy.”

“Perdon perdon Gustavo. Mucho gusto. Nosotros buscamos un guia de este region por tres dias. Esta usted disponible?” (Sorry sorry Gustavo. Nice to meet you. We are looking for a guide for this area for three days. Are you available?”)

“Si si claro.” (Yes, of course.)

“Cuanto es?” (How much is it?)

“Dos dolares por dia.” (2 dollars a day.)

“Cada uno?” (For each of us?)

“No, para todos.” (No, for all of you)

“Oh damn. I think that 5$ was way too much.”