Into the Darkness

Swimming underground in a sapphire serenity

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has thousands of cenotes. Pictured, bathers in Cenote Samula, near Chichen Itza. 
YUCATAN PENINSULA, Mexico — A hand-painted arrow on the wooden sign pointed down a desolate road.
A few wrong turns later, while bumping along in our rental car, a middle-aged man in a baseball hat rolled up on a bicycle. I lowered the window.
“Where’s the cenote?” I asked in Spanish.
He gestured for me to make a U-turn. “Follow me,” he said.
The rutted road gave way to dirt that became a grassy field strewn with large rocks, until they became too big to pass.
We got out of the car, and the man signaled for us to follow him again. We passed a grove of tropical trees, a copse of flowering plants, and followed a narrow path that led to a large hole in the ground. There was no one else in the visible distance.
My wife, Jess, decided to stay behind with our 2-year-old son, Wolfy. I followed the man down a set of stone steps into the darkness of a sprawling cave. There were a few feeble lights strung up overhead, allowing me to see the shadows of bats swooping through the chasm.
I followed him deeper along a winding, increasingly wet path, over boulders and beside stalagmites and stalactites, until I could see a sapphire glow in the distance. It was why I had come.
We walked gingerly down a flight of slippery, manmade steps. When we reached the bottom, I breathed in the cool air and kicked off my shoes. Before me was something like a secret oasis, a turquoise pool that shimmered like jewels in the ambient light.
It was one of some 6,000 so-called cenotes — a Mayan word for wells — that are scattered throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the network of subterranean rivers and freshwater sinkholes formed thousands of years ago where the region’s limestone bedrock collapsed.
The Sac-h’a Cenote on the outskirts of Valladolid was the first of more than a dozen cenotes we explored on a recent road trip through the Yucatan, from Cancun in the east to Merida in the west to Tulum in the south.
Some are hidden underground in deep caverns best explored with scuba gear, while others are concealed by the jungle and require machetes to find. There are those that have been overrun by tourists and those that have become polluted as dumping grounds for neighbors.
Nearly all feel like sacred places, amphitheaters of rock filled with cool, crystal-clear water, idyllic swimming holes like something conjured from the 1980s movie “The Goonies.”
As we made our way west along the free highway that connects Cancun with Merida, we came across another handmade sign for a cenote called Fantasma.
Several miles later, we followed another sign that pointed to another dirt road. This one was even less inviting, with small craters, thick roots, and sharp rocks. When we reached a small clearing in the woods that seemed like a place to park, Jess suggested I go alone again. This time I brought my bathing suit.
Several hundred feet down an unmarked path, I came across an elderly man sitting in the shade. He suggested I follow him into another hole in the limestone. He shuffled down the scree into the darkness.
There were more light bulbs strung above, but the entrance served as a natural skylight. There was also a sturdy wooden staircase that led deep into the sprawling cave, which was empty aside from the two of us. A vast silence made my breathing feel heavy. 
Near the bottom, we reached a platform. In the dim light, I could see a plank of wood stretching over the water, which was about 15 feet below.
Sac-h’a Cenote
Stairs leading to Sac-h’a Cenote, on the outskirts of Valladolid.
“Is it safe?” I asked the man in Spanish.
He smiled and nodded.
I changed into my bathing suit and handed him my camera. Then I walked to the edge and leaped into the inky abyss.
The cool water provided an instant balm, a release to all the stresses above ground. I floated for a while, splashing in the silence, and then swam around my private pool, careful to avoid the sharp stalagmites from below.
I took a few more dives into the clear, rain-fed water, and then followed the man back up and out.
Farther down the road, we came upon a sign advertising “Turismo Rural.”
There were pictures of the Cenote Suytun, another yawning void of rock and bright blue water. I decided this time to take my son, who was now wide awake and itching to be freed from his car seat.
We had to pay about $5 to enter, and there were cabanas and vendors selling sombreros and other kitsch. I carried him down a steep staircase, promising adventure. He started asking for Mommy about halfway down and held me tightly as we descended into the eerie glow of natural skylights illuminating turquoise water.
He wasn’t as enchanted as I had hoped. A knee-deep stone platform stretched into the center of the cenote, where dozens of catfish gathered and kissed my toes. He started to scream as I waded in and carried him across the platform. Then he pooped in his diaper.
Not quite the sublime moment of father-son bonding I had envisioned.
Jess was consumed by a book and not particularly interested in cenotes. But it was my birthday, so she was willing to humor me as we pressed on.
We went to one cenote that was so hard to find we had to follow a taxi deep into the jungle. All the surrounding vegetation made it hard to spot, even when we were a few steps away. Unlike the others, however, it wasn’t inviting. The stagnant water was coated in algae and covered by clumps of vines, as if it hadn’t been disturbed in millennia.
The closer we came to Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan ruins, the more we ran into tourists. One popular cenote featured a welcome center, parking lot, playground, showers, and food stalls. Another had zip lines, kayak rentals, and a campground.
Some cenotes had storied histories. There were those with lore that they were once used for human sacrifice to Mayan gods; others were said to have been repositories for the remains of dinosaurs, which roamed the region until a massive asteroid hit the peninsula 66 million years ago.
My obsession with cenotes started several years before on a trip to Tulum, a laid-back beach town that has become a mecca for hippies and yuppies. After visiting the nearby Mayan ruins, Jess and I followed a sign to what seemed like an empty field and found the well of a spiral staircase.
We had no idea where we were going or what we were about to see. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as we descended into the darkness deep underground. We followed dim lights toward the damp air and discovered what felt like a holy place: a cavernous limestone chamber with sunlight streaking through holes in the ground above and illuminating the cobalt water below us. It beckoned me, and I didn’t want to leave.
After more than a week in the Yucatan, we had visited cenotes with alluring names, such as the “Temple of Doom” and the “Garden of Eden.” Jess and Wolfy mainly watched or did their thing as I jumped off cliffs and plummeted through small openings in the limestone. Toothless Garra rufa fish provided a free, unwanted pedicure at one cenote; at others, I watched scuba divers disappear below the surface.
By the end of our trip, with Jess and Wolfy’s patience exhausted, I visited the last on my own.
Cenote Azul, about an hour south of Cancun, lived up to its name. In the bright sunlight, the pools beneath the cliffs glimmered with hues that ranged from aquamarine to indigo.
I dived in and snorkeled over the limestone bottom, luxuriating in the fresh water until dusk. Then the mosquitoes came, and it was time to go home.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Overcoming Nausea

Click here for more pictures of Central America.

By David Abel | Globe Staff | 4/29/2012

CANCÚN, Mexico — It was like reverse schadenfreude, in which I experienced a twinge of pain from the pleasure others took in my apparent good fortune.

Everyone we told seemed elated, while I was apprehensive, feeling the urge to escape — preferably far away.

Which is how, on my 40th birthday, I found myself in a bar that I had not visited since college. I sat there, staring into a shot of tequila, a liquid fire I hoped would free me from the anxiety that had been building in the few weeks since my wife, Jess, had told me she was pregnant.

Techno music thumped from speakers that felt like they were everywhere and an order of magnitude louder than the last time I had stopped at Señor Frog’s in Cancún, where we had just arrived to start a three-week trip through southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

We decided to call our winter getaway late last year a babymoon, which Wikipedia defines as “a vacation taken by a couple that is expecting a baby, in order to allow the couple to enjoy a final trip together before the many sleepless nights that usually accompany a newborn.”

It was the prospect of such stress and the accompanying mayhem that had long dissuaded me from taking the plunge into parenthood, a looming reality I was reminded of on the flight down as we watched an exhausted father struggle to keep infant twins from wailing and a restless toddler full of food on his face from a tantrum.

“Your life is about to completely change,” he told me, after Jess smiled adoringly at the children and told his wife we were expecting.

Like a prophecy, his words reverberated over the next few weeks and left me more determined to relish this last jaunt of freedom — this pause before true adulthood — on which we could do whatever we pleased.

Wikipedia says babymoons usually take place “at a resort that offers appropriate services, like prenatal massage.” We were going a different route, one that included 15-hour bus rides into a remote jungle, climbing waterfalls in caves while holding candles, and getting soaked on small boats as we cruised down an alligator-infested river in a tropical storm.

After the tequila — Jess, of course, was neither drinking nor craving an escape — we walked along the main boulevard of the hotel zone in Cancún, which felt like a ghost town the week before Christmas with what seemed like more soldiers than tourists. (Although the drug war has transformed parts of Mexico into a war zone, with government estimates of nearly 50,000 people dead since 2006, we never felt unsafe.)

The next day we took a ferry across the turquoise waters to Isla Mujeres, where we toured the small island in a golf cart and snorkeled with parrot fish. As we roved around, I found myself staring at couples with small children, wondering how they did it, whether we would have to give up our itinerant journeys, much-needed respites that provide those few deep breaths from our daily routines.

At dinner that night, we met a couple from France eating al fresco, with their baby in a stroller. They looked the picture of familial harmony, until the little boy, who could not have looked more blissful, inexplicably erupted in tears.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” his mother told us. “There are trying times. But you don’t have to give up your life.”

We headed a few hours south on the Yucatan coast and spent the next few days in the tranquil town of Tulum, where the factory-like hotels and package tourism of Cancún gave way to bungalows on the beach and more backpackers than families.

We did all the things a childless couple can do: We dined at trendy restaurants for as long as we wanted, read and ran on white-sand beaches, and explored well-preserved Mayan ruins and a large barrier reef full of stingrays and colorful coral.

We rented a car and searched for cenotes, ancient freshwater swimming holes that formed underground where the limestone bedrock had collapsed. The first one we visited would have been hard to find without a sentry pointing to a small opening in a stretch of dirt that led to a spiral staircase, which wound a few hundred feet below ground. At the bottom, a small vestibule led to a large opening, which looked like an underground amphitheater filled with a pool of perfectly clear water.

Free of concerns, we snorkeled in an open-air cenote that runs under a road into the ocean and luxuriated at another inside a vast cave, where bats hid in the large, dangling stalactites and flashlights were needed to avoid sharp stalagmites piercing the water. They felt like secret swimming pools, majestic places that seemed almost unreal — conjured from the 1980s classic movie “The Goonies.”

When we were ready, we boarded an overnight bus for an 11-hour trip west to Palenque, an ancient Mayan outpost in the Mexican state of Chiapas. When we awoke in this city carved out of the jungle, we found a hotel, showered, and left within the hour for a daylong tour of millennium-old temples, a towering waterfall called Misol-Ha, and a paradisiacal place called Agua Azul, where a bright blue river tumbles over a series of small waterfalls.

In a lush land full of beauty, I found myself transfixed by something else: The little girl helping her mother carve mangos and sell them on sticks like lollipops; giggling children jumping off a rope swing; a boy bursting with exuberance as he helped his parents stuff candy into a piñata.

The next day, after a minivan trip up a long, dizzying road through steep mountains, we strolled the cobblestone streets of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Here the legacy of Spanish rule persists in the colonial architecture, the influence of the rebel Zapatistas remains visible in the graffiti, and the effect of a surge in tourism drifts out of the myriad restaurants in scents of freshly brewed cappuccino, newly baked croissants, and pepperoni pizza.

Still, I could not help aiming my camera at what struck me as more compelling: the delight of two girls dressed like princesses out on the town with their similarly dressed, proud mother; the blissfulness of babies being cradled by their parents at the night market; the precociousness of the children hawking bracelets and other trinkets.

By the time we crossed the border into Guatemala and boarded a boat to navigate Lake Atitlan, where shadows from the surrounding volcanoes float in the cobalt water, Jess began to notice my budding interest in children. She smiled with some relief when I showed her my pictures of a boy devouring a hunk of watermelon and a girl staring through binoculars larger than her head.

“I hope this is a good sign,” she said.

Kids can be adorable — I know from having nieces — but won’t they rob me of my solace, end my well-honed independence, suck the joy out of traveling?

During an afternoon roaming around the colonial center of Antigua, the capital of the country before Guatemala City, we met a British woman carrying a large backpack on her chest and a baby in a floppy hat strapped to her back. I was amazed and asked how she managed.
“You have to continue living the way you want,” she said.

She pointed to a large red mark on her son’s forehead and offered advice for traveling with children in the developing world: “Carry around a mosquito net.”

On another minivan trip to see sprawling caves and underground rivers in central Guatemala, we met a couple from South Africa traveling with their young daughter, who eagerly introduced us to her mascot for the trip, Papa Smurf. The three had spent the past month traveling around the country — by motorcycle.

“Children are very adaptable,” the mother said, as her daughter consumed a bag of Cheetos.

They didn’t hit the bars much anymore, she admitted, but they insisted on doing what they would have without a child. “You just have to bring enough toys,” she said.

Over the next few days in Guatemala, I took note of the resilience of small children who accompanied their parents on an hourlong trek up a peak overlooking the turquoise river in the region known as Semuc Champey, the mischievous impulses of young boys exploding firecrackers in the Afro-Caribbean community of Livingston, and the serenity of a single mother from Utah shepherding her teenage daughters across rutted roads and bumpy rivers.

By the time we arrived in Belize, I began to think that having children was not the end of the world as I have known it, that it could be less a millstone than a source of pride, even a new kind of pleasure.

As we made our way from Punta Gorda, a sleepy town in southern Belize, to Caye Cauker, another backpacker redoubt off the northern coast, I basked in my lingering freedom: kayaking in the sunset, sailing on a booze cruise, snorkeling with sharks, barracuda, and other large fish. We awoke and went to sleep when we wanted, wandered about in whatever direction seemed pleasing, and lapped up the peace of having no worries.
It was a good run, I thought.

On the boat back to Belize City, I met a Belizian woman about my age on her way home to see her children.

When I told her I was about to become a father, she smiled. She told me about the hardships. About the costs. And about the things you have to give up.

“Everything is going to change,” she said. “But it’s going to change for the better. It will be the best thing you ever do.”

All I could do was hope she was right.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@davabel.

The trials of traveling with a baby

Click here for more pictures from Southeast Asia.


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  Aug. 3, 2013

We were now in a taxi, inching through an hourlong traffic jam that stretched from the airport to downtown. The longer we idled, the louder he wailed. For a boy who liked to be bounced, carried, swung — anything involving movement — hell was being confined to a carseat, going nowhere, especially in stifling heat.
“So, do you have children?” my wife, Jess, asked the taciturn taxi driver, after every trick — pacifier, bottle, singing, even baby iPhone apps — failed to calm our baby.
There are good reasons to avoid traveling halfway across the planet with an infant: exposure to exotic germs and less than ideal environments; jet lag that can interrupt a sleep schedule for weeks or longer; parental sanity that can quickly give way to self- and mutual loathing.
Over three weeks traveling through Southeast Asia earlier this year, we endured the full gamut of anguish, from sleepless flights that spanned continents to an emergency visit to a hospital full of insects. But we would experience emotions neither of us expected: a giddy exuberance from the affection showered on us by strangers; elation from watching our son light up with spontaneous excitement; and a surge of pride when he learned to roll over and began to perform, strangely, a kind of jig that looked like tap dancing.
As veteran travelers who worried about losing the call of the road after having children, we had bought our tickets before Wolf was born. We knew we were in for a measure of torture, but we figured it would build parenting chops. We also had the benefit of traveling for much of the trip with Jess’s family, including her brother, a doctor, and her sister-in-law, a pediatric nurse from Thailand.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” my sister-in-law promised before we left, reminding us that they had taken their babies to Thailand.
Our trip began with a 13-hour flight from Boston to Tokyo on a Boeing 787, a few weeks before all the Dreamliners were grounded because of battery problems. We had plenty of time to admire the cabin’s mood lighting and the large windows that darkened by touch, as Wolfy wanted to play for all 13 hours — without a wink of sleep.
By the time we landed in Bangkok, we had resorted to an iPhone app featuring a kind of psychedelic bear that floated on the screen in hearts and stars. It kept him occupied for long stretches, even as the accompanying electronic lullaby drove us mad. We arrived in the evening, but Wolfy knew it was morning his time. After finally learning to sleep through the night, we were back at the beginning, making our night long and restless.
The author, David Abel, his wife, Jess, and their son, Wolf Leffler Abel.
The author, David Abel, his wife, Jess, and their son, Wolf Leffler Abel.
The next day, as we wandered about the city, we discovered that wherever we went strangers who caught sight of our doughy cherub flocked to him. On the sky train, old women crowded around him. Street vendors leaned over him with a big grin until he returned their smiles. At parks, hotels, and restaurants, men and women of all ages wanted a piece of Wolfy. It was like traveling with a small deity. We began calling him Baby Buddha.
Wolfy lapped up the attention, flashing his dimples, babbling, eyeing strangers with curiosity.
A few days later, I took a bus to Cambodia while Jess and Wolfy went to the beach with her family. It was a time for me to catch up on sleep and relive the glory of traveling solo. As I toured the temples of Angkor Wat, I was glad to be relieved of diaper duty, preparing bottles, and the constant comforting. I luxuriated in the freedom.
Still, there was a gnawing absence. With every child I passed, I longed to see my boy’s smile, craved his slobbery hug, and pined to parade him around.
When we reunited in Bangkok, I held him tightly and realized how much I had changed in the past few months, how much I had moved beyond my fears of fatherhood. He returned the joy with a milky spit-up.
A few days later, we loaded our bags with diapers, wipes,
Five-month-old Wolf Leffler Abel was treated like a little deity during his travels through Asia earlier this year.
Five-month-old Wolf Leffler Abel was treated like a little deity during his travels through Asia earlier this year.
toys, and the many other necessities of traveling with an infant. We had tickets to Kuala Lumpur, but we learned at the airport that our early flight was canceled. Hours later, after airline agents, immigration officials, shopkeepers, and tourists took Wolfy’s picture, we caught a flight instead to Penang, a densely populated island off the northwest coast of Malaysia.
Over the next few days, waiters held Wolfy as we devoured roti canai, a cross between a pancake and crepe doused in a gravy-like curry. Passengers on buses made funny faces to get a rise out of him. From Little India to the region’s largest Buddhist temple, Wolfy was a model baby. He never took offense when people asked the same question: “boy or girl?”
After walking much of the city, we flew north to Langkawi, an island near the border with Thailand, where we rented a car, a trying process as we struggled to find one with seat belts to secure our carseat. Over two days, we took Wolfy for a dip in the ocean, on hikes to waterfalls in the jungle, and past packs of monkeys, which eyed our boy like he might make a meal.
Afterward, we boarded a ferry for Thailand. Wolfy pursed his lips at the wind and found peace in the white noise of the loud engines, eventually snoozing in Jess’s arms. At the port, we boarded a pickup truck and sat in the cargo bay for a long 10-minute ride with me holding our squirming boy until we reached a bus station, where ticket agents each took a turn holding him and snapping pictures.
The trip from there was another long ride, this one for four hours. It began peacefully with Wolfy asleep, but when he awoke, trouble loomed. Jess nursed him and then he sucked down a bottle. He rattled and stared at his toys, and after those lost their allure, we sang. When the psychedelic iPhone app exhausted its magic, once again, Wolf howled.
We thought we were in the clear when we made it to Krabi, the resort town in southern Thailand, but things got worse. We couldn’t find a taxi, so we had to take another truck. The five-minute ride to our hotel turned into a 45-minute eternity, and Wolfy again had to ride in my arms, shrieking the entire way. I had reached a place beyond self-loathing, wondering whether we were torturing our baby, whether this would be our last trip together.
Despite the tension and exhaustion, we pressed on and spent the next few days island hopping on dragon boats with Jess’s family. Wolfy loved swimming naked in the shadows of the islands’ rocky peaks. He rolled around in the sand during our spicy picnics and fell asleep to the rumble of engines. He was becoming a hardy kid.
By the time we returned to Bangkok, I was run-down, fighting a fever as we filed through an airport for the 10th time in two weeks. Back in one of the world’s hottest cities, I was shivering. The taxi ride in felt like it lasted longer than the flight from Boston, as Wolfy whimpered and wailed, not the salve I wanted for my throbbing head.
I tried to keep my distance, but it was futile. A few days later, before dawn, Jess woke me up with fear in her eyes. “Wolfy has a fever,” she said. He was burning up and had a high-pitched cough that sounded like a mewling cat. I was in tears. I was to blame.
We called Jess’s sister-in-law, Nai, and within minutes we were heading to a nearby hospital. When we arrived at the pediatric unit, it looked like a first-rate US hospital, with high-tech equipment, doctors in white coats, and colorful, modern furniture. But there were mosquitos swarming through the ward, and I stood over Wolfy, swatting them as they hovered.
The staff ran tests, and within an hour, diagnosed him with the flu, which can be lethal at his age. They prescribed Tamiflu, and it was a rough few days, with Nai teaching us how to give the medicine orally. Each injection made him (and us) gag.
After days of misery, Wolfy regained his color, his smile, and importantly, his flair, so much so that whenever we passed through the hotel lobby, the clerks demanded, “Show us the dancing baby!” He complied with alacrity, high stepping into their hearts, his dimples projecting his pride.
A few days later, still groggy, we returned home on a redeye, and impressively, Wolfy slept for much of both flights. At home, it took a month for him to slough off his cough and readjust to his sleep schedule.
It took the same time for amnesia to set in, and for us to start planning our next trip.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

The Dreaded X

Bump in the Road: The dreaded X, and the clock was ticking

By   |  Globe Staff  | 

MIAMI — My mom has many virtues. Patience isn’t one of them.

She’s routinely punctual, so I wasn’t surprised when my flight from Mexico landed and I found a message from her on my phone. “We’re in the cellphone lot,” she wrote.

I texted back that we had checked our bags — a time-wasting extravagance often frowned on in my family — and reminded her it might take some time getting through customs.

But the pressure was on.

My wife, Jess, and I divvied up the tasks to get us out as quickly as possible. She would wait with our restless 2-year-old in the jetway for his stroller; I would lug our carry-on bags and race to customs to get a spot on line.

Miami International Airport is gargantuan and notoriously confusing. I wended my way through the long, marbled corridors, up and down the escalators, across moving sidewalks, and onto a skytrain.

The line I found, however, wasn’t what I had expected. Instead of the usual rows for functionaries to stamp passports, I found a bank of newfangled machines that looked like high-tech ATMs, but with scanners and cameras.

I called Jess. She was still waiting for the stroller.

When I reached the front of the line at the “Automated Passport Control,” I followed the directions on the touchscreen and began answering questions such as whether I was carrying more than $10,000 in cash. (Sadly, I wasn’t.) I held my passport up to the scanner and smiled as the machine snapped a picture.

Was I traveling with family? Yes, I responded. The machine asked me to scan their passports; I complied. But then the machine asked to snap their photos too. I had to cancel the transaction.

I called Jess again. She was finally making her way over, carrying our son and pushing the stroller. Feeling the pressure, as my mom and her fiance were waiting for us after driving more than an hour, I thought I might expedite things by checking myself in first.

This was not a wise idea.

I went through the process of entering the information again, until I came to the question of whether I was traveling with family. I thought that if I had answered no, I could check myself in and then check them in when they had arrived.

But the next question gave me pause. Would I certify to the federal government that everything I had answered was true? Lying on an official document could probably be a crime, I thought. So I answered no, hoping that would again scrap the transaction. But it was too late.

I heard the sounds of the machine printing and found a small slip of paper. Ominously, it had a large X over my name, photo, and birthday. Did that mean I wasn’t going to be allowed back into the country? Was I now on some kind of watch list or considered a suspicious person? Was I heading to a secret room to be interrogated or strip searched?

It was not a warm welcome home.

When Jess finally found me, I reentered our information, again, and hoped for a better outcome. She and my son received a clean slip from the machine, carte blanche to prance through customs. I received another form with the same large X. An airport official standing next to the machines informed me that I needed to see a passport agent.

Jess looked at me like I was an idiot.

The official pointed us to the customs hall. When I showed my form to another official, he ushered me to a zigzagging line that looked like it would be quicker to walk back to Boston. Hundreds of people — most of them from foreign countries or others with the same mark of Cain on their forms — were snaking tediously through the cordons. I was trapped. I felt like I was gasping for air.

The only thing worse would have been waiting in line with our antsy son. So Jess left me the useless stroller, which he refuses to sit in, and they went to find our checked bags. That meant she would have to carry him, his car seat, and two weighty bags.

She wasn’t happy.

Nor was my mom. Despite the signs that said using cellphones was verboten, I stealthily sent her a text.

“Line is ridiculously long,” I wrote.

She suggested I goad my son to start screaming. “I’m sure they’ll let you go through faster,” she wrote.

About 15 minutes later, a customs official announced that all those bearing the dreaded X needed to fill out another form, which I lacked. I would have to start all over again.

I began to sweat.

A woman standing beside me came to my rescue: She had an extra form and even provided a pen.

About a half-hour later, the line moving at a glacial pace, another customs official made an announcement. Were there any US citizens on line? I raised my hand — high. He waved me over, and like a guardian angel, escorted me to a much shorter line.

A few minutes later, a hand from behind a computer screen beckoned me to his counter.

The customs official looked at me with the warmth of a prison guard. Then he chastised me for not filling out my form neatly.

He saw that I had logged on to the machine multiple times, which he explained was a bad idea.

There was a long pause as he looked at his screen and then at me again. I wondered whether I was about to be sent to Guantanamo.

He looked at the empty stroller I was pushing and asked where the rest of my family was. I took a deep breath, wondering if that was some kind of trick question.

But he bought my explanation, which was the truth, and admonished me for my haste. Then he stamped my passport and pointed to the exit.

When I finally found my family, they had installed the carseat and loaded up the car. Jess looked like she would have rathered I had been sent to Guantanamo. My mom gave me a big hug, as if she had barely waited.

“That wasn’t so bad,” she said.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

A lost temple in Cambodia

The ruins of Beng Mealea, a 900-year-old unpreserved temple is spread over several acres of jungle, is a series of so-called libraries, courtyards, and other chambers that surround a sanctuary.

The ruins of Beng Mealea, a 900-year-old unpreserved temple is spread over several acres of jungle, is a series of so-called libraries, courtyards, and other chambers that surround a sanctuary.

By David Abel  |  GLOBE STAFF  |  SEPTEMBER 14, 2013
SIEM REAP, Cambodia — The road to the distant outpost of the ancient kingdom was said to be impassable, a winding route either engulfed by the jungle or flooded from tropical downpours.
It took some negotiation and several rickshaw drivers before I found someone willing to make the hourlong trek from Siem Reap to Beng Mealea, which means lotus pond in Khmer. I wanted to visit the remote, 900-year-old temple along the remains of the old royal highway to see what had become of a shrine devoured by time.
Beng Mealea is a precursor to the temples throughout the Angkor Wat complex.
Beng Mealea is a precursor to the temples throughout the Angkor Wat complex.
When the driver picked me up at my hotel on the outskirts of Angkor Wat I kicked off my shoes, leaned back beneath the open canopy of his motorized rickshaw, and watched as the traffic of the increasingly crowded and polluted city of Siem Reap gave way to a lonely road.
While rutted and at times blocked by oxcarts or cattle, the road was far better than advertised. It was paved, for the most part, and had once again become an avenue of commerce, where men strapped live pigs on the back of motorcycles, farmers hauled sacks of rice piled high on their tractors, and loggers loaded up rickety trucks with mounds of tree trunks and branches.
The smooth trip ended in a small village built for visitors, where my driver pointed in the direction of a trail off the road that led into a bower. Under an intense sun, I followed the path across a timeworn bridge and over a lotus pond, until I reached the remains of the royal road and its balustrades bearing stone serpents.
In the distance, in the shadow of towering banyan trees, I caught a glimpse of the grandeur of what was once the entrance of the old temple and is now a heap of stones that loosely sustain the architecture of the era. A precursor to the temples throughout the Angkor Wat complex, Beng Mealea spreads over several acres of jungle, with a series of so-called libraries, courtyards, and other chambers that surround a sanctuary, much of which are covered in carvings from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
The ruins have carvings from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
The ruins have carvings from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
Unlike Angkor Wat, the remains here have been neither renovated nor preserved. As a result, most of the buildings have been reduced to large piles of moss-covered stones, with trees and ferns rising through the yawning crevices where the foundation once stood. The columns have been reduced to rubble, and the entire area is a danger zone of sharp edges and knotty roots twisting over the stone.
There are no signs explaining why the temple remains in such decrepitude, but there are many guides eager to offer their explanations and provide private tours.
“Come with me,” waved an old man with a sunburned face and an official-looking badge.
I followed him from the top of a platform of weathered stones, where we looked at where a roof would have enclosed an inner chamber, and down a perilous path, using my hands to climb carefully over the massive stones. He pointed to roots that tunneled into the sandstone and showed me where not to step, where boulders were cracking under the weight of time.
He spoke next to no English, and I couldn’t speak Khmer. But as he escorted me from one chamber to the next, up and down and across the stones, I recognized some of the Hindu and Buddhist iconography I had seen in the temples of Angkor Wat: the so-called Churning of the Sea of Milk and the Hindu deity Vishnu being carried by a bird god; balustrades decorated with a seven-headed serpent; and the celestial nymphs called asparas, with their lotus earrings, elongated ear lobes, and flowing, once jewel-encrusted hair topped by tiaras.
Beng Mealea is a picture of what happens when nature is allowed to take its course, even if the jungle has been beaten back in recent years.
Beng Mealea is a picture of what happens when nature is allowed to take its course, even if the jungle has been beaten back in recent years.
My guide, who managed to navigate the temple barefoot, left me to ponder the ruins at the top of an enclosure, the principal sanctuary of the complex. Vestiges of the ornate, finely sculpted columns still line the walls, but at the center are piles of stones, mud, and banyan trees, which rise high into the sky like sculptures, their roots vining through the stones into the ground.
It was a picture of what happens when nature is allowed to take its course, even if the jungle has been beaten back in recent years to accommodate a growing number of tourists scouring the lost temple.
After a few hours wandering around, several children playing on the stones urged me to follow them and led me even deeper into the complex, through courtyards shaded completely by the thick foliage, subterranean chambers suffused by scattered light, and atop perches adorned with lotus flowers.
They pointed to an area where a minefield from the Cambodian civil war had been cleared and then gestured in a separate direction to the path back to the village, where I had left my rickshaw driver.
I walked back, keeping a close eye on the ground, until I found the main path. It was early in the afternoon, and with the sun beating down, I spent a hot while searching for my driver. Eventually, he found me as I stood on the side of the road, sweat stinging my eyes. I hopped on the rickshaw and basked in the much-needed breeze. We stopped a few minutes later at a gas station, which was a woman with a rack of clear glass bottles filled with gasoline. She poured the amber liquid into the tank, and after he handed over a few riels, we were again cruising down the new road.
Back in Siem Reap, which had been wracked by violence during the Vietnam War, there were new kinds of temples rising all around — boutique hotels, chichi restaurants, well-stocked markets, all monuments to a new era of prosperity in Cambodia.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.