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Cave Adventure in Guangxi

By: Gabriel Nelson

“Hey! Hey! Shine your light over here! Look! Look! Shine it here!”

The four hyperactive little boys buzz around me like mosquitoes, distracting me as I try to take a pretentious photo of some old personal photographs lying on the cave floor.

“Yeah, okay, okay.” I turn my flashlight in the direction they’re demanding, and reveal… Nothing. There’s a dead end. Rather than disappoint them, this seems to fire them up even more, increasing their drive to find a passage through the mountain.

“Here! Here! Shine here!” they scream, and I quickly oblige. “Ah! It’s dark!” they yell, and the oldest one grabs the youngest by the shoulders for dramatic effect. The little one responds exactly the way you’d expect a four-year-old to respond when grabbed from behind in a dark cave, and his panic is contagious, shooting through the other three like wildfire (including the one who grabbed him in the first place).

They run away down the corridor screeching giddily, and I continue to eye the passage. It is dark; I think there might be a way through. I squeeze myself into the narrow opening just as a couple of the boys gather up the nerve to return. The sight of me half-disappeared sends them into another bout of noisy excitement.

“Is there a way through? Can you go through?”

I’m looking around, but there isn’t. This is the last tunnel in the complex; there’s nothing to this cave apart from the main chamber. “No. You can’t go through. Come on, I’m coming out.”

I squeeze out of the hole and wander back towards the sunny entrance with my young spelunker apprentices. They charge ahead of me like maniacs, screaming something I can’t understand and pointing up at the right-hand wall of the main chamber. I shine my light up and it looks like there may be another entrance there, but it’s about four meters up. There are pretty good handholds, and I pocket my camera and flashlight and climb up a few feet.

They holler with delight, and begin to clamber up after me. “No, no,” I tell them, but it’s obvious that my leadership role here is only one of instigation; once a game’s begun, it’s not stopping until they decide. I realize that the upper handholds aren’t reliable, and I hop down to the ground, look up at them, and prepare myself to start catching plummeting four-year-olds like some perverse arcade game.

“Hey, come down, little guys. Come down. It’s not safe there!” I’m not sure who I’m kidding. They manage to make it onto an upper ledge, which looks to be simply a narrow ridge of hardened clay, and scurry about like over-caffeinated lemmings, readying for their inevitable death plunge onto the rocky floor below. I’m standing beneath them and imagining newspaper headlines: “Crazed foreigner leads children to their deaths!” “Cavern of Doom: Could your kid be the American cave-killer’s next victim?”

Their need for Olympic-scale sprinting facilities finally outweighs their delight at being suddenly tall. They all manage to scamper down the face of the wall without any falls (little kids are really pretty good at not hurting themselves, all things considered). I breathe a sigh of relief.

I want to take a few more photos of this cave, but at this point will settle for just getting out of here with no manslaughter charges. I say, “Okay, let’s go. Time to go, I’m leaving!” and turn around to find the biggest kid standing right behind me with a giant grin on his face and a pair of even bigger hypodermic syringes in his hands.

“Ha ha!” he laughs with gleeful abandon. I can’t see my own face, but I imagine I’m a little bug-eyed. He’s holding the two enormous syringes straight out in front of him, sticking them into the air diagonally like a flamboyant, pistol-wielding villain in a spaghetti western. The sun shines through the mouth of the cave and glints off the bare, shiny surfaces of the needles. I’m kicking myself for not catching sight of the drug paraphernalia when I first entered the cave, but with this pack of little hellions dangling off of me like a gymnasium, what could I do?

The kid is in heaven: He’s just found something even better than those plastic guns they sell at carnivals! Heroin needles! What fun! It’s kind of sweet, to see how happy he is with such a simple pair of toys… But my only thought is, If you play with toy guns by pantomime-shooting your friends, then how do you play with used syringes?

I manage to keep my cool, and calmly but firmly say, “Hey! No! That is not a toy! That’s dangerous! Dangerous! Not a toy!” I bark a little gruffly at the poor kid, but it works. He puts down the needles and we walked back out to the entrance together.

I think I jarred him a little with my tone. I try to placate him by taking a few pictures of him and his friends. That works just fine for them: Sometimes, it’s really nice that little kids have such short attention spans.

We walk out of the cave, into the stretch of land farmed by the kids’ families. It’s a pretty poor-looking area; the drug paraphernalia in the cave is probably a symptom of this. I hope these little troublemakers end up all right. Assuming they do, I think the community has several future Indiana Joneses on its hands.

Editor’s Note: Gabriel Nelson is a certificate student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and spent the New Year vacation traveling in Guangxi province in Southwest China.