December 16, 2011

falling water

Rain patters on the windshield of the van, making me nervous. We've been driving for 90 minutes, the last 20 of which on roads the locals will later tell me not to take. If the locals say the roads are bad, listen to them. There's some uncertainty, we've made no phone calls, no reservations, nobody is expecting us and, at the moment, nobody is coming to greet us at the gate.

I've talked this place up. I've sold it to them. We better get in. I don't have their phone number, no way to contact them. I honk the horn. After a minute, a young man comes bounding down the driveway under and umbrella. He greets us with English that leads me to believe he knows how to speak it. He doesn't. I think my Spanish is better than his English.

He knows why we're here - this piece of property lies adjacent to Rio Fajardo, which spits out of the rainforests of El Yunque toward the Atlantic. This is a base camp for a short hike to a sort of natural waterpark a quiet, secluded spot where the water falls down a chute like a waterslide, pools up under rope swings, with high rocks on all sides, deep so you can dive.

A rainy day means a surge in the river, which can make this place dangerous. We navigate a brief conversation about the rain, that it's not a good day to use the upper spot with the high jump and the waterfall, but the pool with the rope swings is fine. He sends me off to park the van up the hill.

We tumble out with stiff knees into the damp coolness of the rainforest, the canopy overhead cancels out the rain. It smells like Spring and rain and - and wet dogs. A sign nearby warns of perros peligrosos - dangerous dogs. They sniff us and leave us alone. Their only danger is their odor.

Another older man comes out, greets me in English, except he really does know English. I hand him some cash before he can ask for money, hoping he'll just accept my lowball offer. It's their property and they like you to pay to park and have the mud washed off your feet when you get back. He takes a quick head count.

Two dollars each. How many are you?
Fourteen.
I hand him some more, overpaying just a little. We'll keep coming back here; we want to curry favor with them.

He and I have another conversation about not using the waterslide or the jump next to it. He tells us to stay at the low part.

If there's a sudden surge, he says, stay off to the safe side and don't try to cross. Each year we have some bodies wash up here below. If you're stranded, we'll send a helicopter to rescue you.

The warning fills me with more curiosity than worry.

The path up through the jungle is rocky and uneven, slippery, lined with thick layers of thriving green plants of all sizes, and a few abandoned structures that nature hurriedly reclaimed. Waterfalls tumble from out of sight, birds and coquis chirp all around us. Soon, we descend the rocks toward a landing in the river.

Here.

This is the place, the quiet spot in the jungle where it's just you and the birds and the trees and the water and the rocks, the place you'd be stupid not to drive 90 minutes to, the place some people would drop everything to fly to, the escape, the place by which all other future escapes might be judged. It's rainy, the very worst of conditions save for a hurricane, and still - it is near to perfect.

We slip into the cold water, and clamber over the rocks and dive and jump and splash and play for hours. The sun falls behind the mountain and the light starts to fade.

I dive in, deep, wondering how long I can stay there, until I return slowly, reluctantly to the surface. There, I draw a deep breath and lay back as my arms and legs and torso float on top of the water. Everything slips away, and I stare up at the treetops and the waning daylight. My ears drop below, and I hear nothing but the distant, muffled roar of a waterfall.