The Worm Holes of Sagada

©Copyright Kelley Mether, 2016
(Photo By Aldrin J. Garces (ag) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Worm holes are not just the stuff of gardeners’ dreams and Stephen Hawking’s theories of time travel, I discovered in a small village in the Philippines.

My story begins and ends in Sagada, on the main island of Luzon in the Philippines. I met Daniel, a fairly eccentric (as in, totally mad) Englishman in a bar there on my first night in town. That there was a bar at all is odd enough, for Sagada was a very small town back then. That there was an Englishman, all of 25 years old, and five years a resident of this backwater, was even odder, since this was a pubic holiday, transport almost non-existent, and foreigners in the town even more so. And so, as is often the case for expats, whitey started talking to whitey. Truth to tell, we had no choice. Besides ourselves and a somnolent bartender, the place was empty.

Something that ordinary people do not ordinarily think of, if they think of the Philippines at all, is caves. But there are wonderful caves in the Philippines. Loads of them. Some of them have mummified bodies sitting out the front of them, which is pretty cool, and some of the better known ones are soaring, cathedral-esque caverns disconcertingly lit with heat-producing floodlights which unfortunately damage the natural environs and alter the humidity of the caves and eventually ruin them – but that’s another story.

This story is about worm holes. Sagada’s worm holes, to be exact, found inside an enormous, cathedral-esque cavern that had no discernible markers, guide-ropes, stairs or safety rails, a cavern that looked like it had never seen another human, let alone a heat-producing floodlight. And it all started because of Daniel, the mad Englishman.

Mad people can be very convincing, and so it was that the day after our meeting, I waited on the outskirts of town for Daniel and two of his local friends to join me. They turned up with a couple of small torches between them, a few candles, and several meters of rope. I had nothing besides some thick layers of blind optimism, always handy in dangerous situations. They did not seem at all perturbed by our combined lack of caving equipment, and so my optimism did not waver.

To my delight we set off straight across the rice paddies at the side of the road, balancing our way between the terraces and making a slight bee-line up the gentle mountains surrounding the village. Walking through rice paddies is a truly peaceful, meditational way to start a day, and if you have never tried it, you should. I was not to know that these particular rice paddies were lulling me into a false sense of safety, or that when I walked back through them late this same afternoon, it would be with the fully conscious sense that I was lucky to be alive to see them at all.

After an hour walking through verdant mountains spotted with yellow daisies that looked as if they’d been air-lifted straight off the set of The Sound of Music, we reached a cave entrance. I had, by this time in my travels, explored many caves in South East Asia, and my confidence in the veracity of Daniel’s tales of an ‘unexplored, untouristy cave’ soared instantly at the sight of this cave entrance. Where were the hawkers, the screaming sound systems spewing forth garish music? Where were the drinks and food sellers? Their absence cheerfully reminded me that I hadn’t even packed a muesli bar. Oh well.

We paused long enough at the entrance to check the torches and spare batteries. Not all the spares worked, but no one seemed to think this was much of an issue. Daniel reassured me that there was absolutely no wind inside the caves, so the candles would definitely work. And yes, we did have matches, so all was good and we were set to go. One of the locals even went to the trouble of stretching the rope out and looping it carefully so there would be no knots to contend with in the dark. We were truly professional in our approach to personal safety.

There are several points in this story which could stand out as the one in which I suddenly realised how fucking dangerous and mad this whole thing was. I’m just unsure which. Was it about fifty metres into the cave when a sharp bend in the tunnel we were following, bent over at the waist as it got lower and lower, abruptly pitched us into thick, inky blackness, against which the two wavering pinpricks of torchlight at the head of our congo line were completely useless? Was it the point when Daniel and his two friends stopped to confer in broken Tagalog whether we should take the right or the left fork, and I couldn’t even see the forks they were discussing? Nah, that was too early in the story, and one of them really seemed pretty sure of himself.

Could it have been when the tunnel we were squeezing sideways through, caught between pitch black slimy walls that I could feel, when I breathed out, and smell, when I breathed in, suddenly opened slightly onto a tiny rock platform that I couldn’t see, but could feel by edging a nervous foot around, and we had to jump, completely blind, one at a time, over a bottomless chasm to another rock platform, about one metre away? Nah, not even then. What about that bit when we balanced, walking tight-rope style across the sharp length of a triangular prism-shaped boulder, and all three of my companions cheerfully admitted they had no idea what lay on either side of the triangle, since no one had ever explored it or seen it? That may have been the point that my stupidity struck me, especially when they continued on to chat about the group of five locals who had gone missing in here the year before, their bodies never found.

No, the truth is, realisation of my own stupidity did not fully strike me until we got to the worm holes. The worm holes, as I mentioned earlier, were in a truly magnificent cavern. Probably the most striking and grand cavern I will ever see in my life, especially given that Daniel was telling the truth about its inaccessibility, which in turn meant that the stalactites and stalagmites were impossibly long and impossibly tall, and equally impossibly (from my experience of caves in South East Asia thus far), intact. Shaking from fear and possibly a slight hysteria, I pretended an intense absorption in the pretty sparkles of the limestone deposits given off by the candles while I waited for my racing heart to allow me to speak coherently again.

The three boys were having no such troubles. They strolled around the gargantuan space, playing with the shadows thrown off by the candles each now held, sensibly conserving our last remaining torch. Did I remember to mention that we dropped the other while fording yet another bottomless chasm, and all listened breathlessly for it to hit the ground, but it never did? Anyway, back to when reality hit me.

I heard Daniel yell out excitedly to his friends, and made my way over wet, clay-like earth to where they stood looking at a shadowed depression in the wall. When I got there, however, I realised it was not a depression at all – it was a perfectly round hole in the wall about three feet off the ground, a small-human-lying-fully-laid-out-on-their-stomach sized hole. Daniel was shouting something about, “I told you it was here!”, and his friends were shaking their heads, probably in refusal, it later occurred to me.

Buzzing with confidence and excitement, he turned to me. “Wormhole exploration time?”

I don’t even remember agreeing. Daniel’s body disappeared in one swift movement and I followed, literally on his heels. I could feel that the walls of the worm hole were as wet and clay-like as the ground of the cavern had been, and I was soon covered in thick mud. I hardly had time to note it – Daniel had the only torch and I was following what I could make out of his hiking boots in the bobbing, dancing, gloom. The tunnels were so narrow that I could not extend my head upwards very far, and could only use my elbows, wedged into the walls, and my slightly bent knees and feet to propel myself forward. We really were wriggling along like worms.

Deep in the depths of the mountain as we were, there was absolutely no sound in the tunnels, save for my own rasping, fear-laden breathing and the scuffling of boots and clothes on wet clay.  The fear was something that was creeping up inside me, threatening to take over my mind every time we came to another twist in the tunnel that I couldn’t see, or Daniel hesitated a second too long before choosing which fork to take, forks that again I couldn’t see. At times the holes narrowed even further, and I had to reach my arms straight forward, digging my hands in to the wet clay for some sort of leverage to pull my shoulders forward through the enclosing tunnel, my head down and my nose sometimes scraping the clay below me.

I was determined not to give in to panic, but when Daniel suddenly rounded a tight corner, and the thin torch light disappeared, his feet just as suddenly disappearing with it, I let myself go. I gave vent to a blood curdling scream, which shocked me by manifesting itself as a hoarse squawk, thankfully loud enough for Daniel to hear. His voice was slightly surprised and obviously muffling a laugh when he asked if I was okay. “I’m fine,” I lied in a not-too-shaky voice, “but you’re going too fast.”

I probably spent no more than two minutes in total in the womb-like, claustrophobic worm holes, but it seemed to go on forever. When we plopped back out into the main cavern, we were about one hundred metres from the hole we had entered. The look of surprise on Daniel’s face when he saw this was enough to convince me that he really was mad. His waiting friends seemed just as surprised, but I think their surprise was probably that we re-appeared at all.

Making our way back out of that cave is a blank in my mind, after the worm holes. I only remember the relief I felt when the first glint of sunlight became visible, and then the overwhelming gratitude that I was still alive when I felt the sun on my skin again. I checked my watch. We had been gone only six hours, but in my mind it was an eternity.

We headed back into the little town. Time for a beer.

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