I’ve always thought it would be a terrible thing to die on vacation. I mean, wouldn’t that just be the worst thing to have your life end during a pleasure trip? In my travels, I’ve had several times when I could almost foresee a terrible accident waiting to happen while enjoying a hard earned vacation: a shark attack in Bermuda, careening off a cliff on the Amalfi Coast, or maybe even crashing into a tree while skiing in Vermont. Luckily, none of those things have ever happened to me, but I can remember one trip where I thought I would die from a panic attack in the unlikeliest of places.
The year was 1995. My ex and I had been saving for our second trip to the island of Aruba in the Caribbean Sea. We’d been there once before and loved it enough to take a second excursion to the beautiful tropical island. It was midsummer and we’d booked a week’s stay at the all new Sonesta Resort in the heart of Oranjestad, the capital of the island nation.
From the moment we arrived, we started enjoying ourselves immensely, sunning and swimming on the beautiful beaches, dining at five-star restaurants, gaming in the world-class casinos and taking moonlit walks along the beach. We’d rented scooters to get around on, since the island is relatively small and riding them was so much fun.
One day along our travels, I noticed a sign that said “Come see the magnificent caves!” I was intrigued. I’d been to Howe Caverns in upstate New York and remember being fascinated by it. I suggested we give it a try one afternoon. Jay agreed.
We hopped on our scooters one morning and headed out for the barren, rocky side of the island, where the caves were located. There were plenty of signs to mark the route and we found our way there in no time. I should’ve realized what we were in for when we reached our destination.
At the entrance to the cave was a man seated at a folding table. There was a sign that said, “Cave Admission $5.” That was cheap enough for an adventurous jaunt, I thought. I approached the man with a ten dollar bill. He handed me two flashlights and said, “Follow the red arrows.” I immediately became a little apprehensive. In Howe Caverns, we were taken down into the caves by a tour guide, who lead us through the expansive underground fissure. Here, we were being told to go it alone, a prospect that didn’t make me feel too comfortable. To make matters even more nerve wracking, there was not another person in sight. We headed towards the mouth of the cave.
For the first ten minutes or so, everything was alright. The passages within the cave were spacious and the red arrows were clear enough to help us navigate them easily. As we crept along, however, the space became narrower and I became more and more nervous. Eventually, we came to a dead end. It seemed as if there was nowhere left to turn. There was no pathway to the front of us, nor the left or right. Jay and I moved our flashlights around in every direction, searching for a red arrow, any red arrow, to show us the way. I panicked.
My heart started racing and sheer panic welled up inside of me. We were the only ones inside the cave and we were a long way from the entrance. I yelled out in my hysteria, which made matters even worse as I stirred to life some bats that had been invisibly nesting along the roof of the cavern. The flapping of the bat wings just above my head sent my heart racing even further and my breathing became labored. I screamed once more as all the while Jay kept his calm still searching for that last red arrow. In a few seconds, which seemed like a lot of minutes, Jay called out.
“John, look there!”
I turned my head to see where Jay’s flashlight was pointing. On the far wall was an arrow pointing straight upwards, a final marker pointing towards the exit of this terrible place. I scrambled towards the arrow, placing my foot on what now seemed an obvious step towards escape. Within minutes, we were up and back outside in the open air, me still breathing hard from the panic attack I had just experienced and Jay being his usual calm self.
I have never since ventured back into a cave, any cave, and I don’t think I ever will again. That was one travel nightmare I will never forget!