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Feb 10, 2011
Note: This piece was a runner up choice in the 2010 Leap Local travel writing competition. See it on page 4 of the Spring 2011 edition of The Local, here.
The Local Spring 2011

The Local Spring 2011

He pinches the end of his cigarette and puts the butt in his pocket. He’d sooner drop garbage on his living room floor than leave it here. The carbide canister slapping against my thigh is an insistent reminder of his respect for the mountain. Calcium carbide produces acetylene gas when mixed with water; the flame “burns clean”. Marijan Buzov wants me to see the cave through his eyes, so I’ll observe the stalagmites and stalactites by the light of a carbide headlamp.

Dingie runs ahead in anticipation. “Some people are afraid of dogs,” Marijan says, “but she loves caving.” He was pleased when I agreed to the canine company (tentatively, as I’d misheard her breed – pharaoh – as feral).

I met Marijan through his site for the Zara Adventure Agency. When he unexpectedly offered to host during my visit to Croatia, I agreed. He’s encyclopaedic. Did you know that Croats first settled the area in the seventh century, or that Croatia is responsible for the neck-tie?

Dingie crests a hill and drops out of sight. She’s led us to the mouth. Instead of a wide earthy fissure, it’s a crawlspace covered by a locked grate. This is the perfect place to hide a body.

Marijan unlocks the access and slides in. “Come on your belly, like I did.” Adrenaline squeezes my chest as I crouch, pushing my shoulders into the opening. Marijan’s strong hand expertly guides me into the chamber.

Inside, it’s cooler. The light leaking in is neatly choked off. Marijan’s eyes are bright; he and Dingie have the same excited demeanor. As he’s talking about geology, it hits me: I’m inside the Earth. I’ve never been here before.

It’s a complicated passage, through narrow apertures. “Place your leg through the hole, bend your head and push. Your body will follow.” Yeah, I think, but how do we get out? This route was formed by nature, and it’s a pathway Marijan wants to preserve.

At some level of local government, tourism advocates are trying to open the cave. They want groups to be able to mosey in without dirtying their shoes. An avid caver and naturalist, Marijan’s lobbying against the initiative. “It’ll kill the cave,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’ll let in heat and light. The cave can’t survive that.”

In an antechamber Marijan gestures towards a table-shaped formation. “Here’s where I married my wife. That was our altar.” The story made local news: Reporters arrived to record the nuptials but the wedding party had already crawled into the mouth, their finery safe under bulky coveralls.

Dingie leads the way back. The journey out seems impossibly quick. In absolute darkness, time is measured or rushed according to your imagination.

Fresh air rushes in, diluting the tang of acetylene. “Some say it smells like garlic but to a caver that’s the best smell in the world.” Marijan pushes his lanky body back out into the real world. As I reemerge he takes a picture.

The overexposed hillside smolders in my dilated pupils. Marijan burns out the gas left in our lamp lines. He says there used to be trees here until government workers impulsively razed the area. He kicks a dry stump. “We could’ve had a shady place to sit.”

Back in the van we talk music. Marijan can’t think of any Canadian musicians except Celine Dion, whom he dismisses, shaking his head. Ruefully, he admits that Croatian music is no good either; he likes American rock and roll.

My hand hangs out the window, floating on the mid-summer wind. Lou Reed urges us to take a walk on the wild side. My body’s tired but my mind is busy with the memory of stalactites and stalagmites in the glow of an acetylene gas flame. It just wouldn’t be the same by fluorescent light, with a rented headset whispering cold geological facts in my ear in English or Italian or German.

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