By Shayne Newman

Contributing writer

"As surely as water seeks its own level, so does Karma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence." -- Karma Niyama.

Rio Tolantongo, known as the "hot springs" river, flows the length of Grutas Tolantongo -- the Grand Canyon of Mexico.

The thermal river's color, reflecting a thousand years' mineral deposits, is an aqua-blue, that's possibly too blue, against a backdrop of Cacti, and dusty rock formations, in this desert-like, volcanic zone just northeast of Mexico City.

I came to Mexico to see my friend, Isauro Perez. Isauro's English is rough, at best, and my Spanish is pretty awful. But I'm not fazed.

"I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again," writes Bill Bryson, in "Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe."

"You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."

I welcome these guesses, but they are increasingly few and far between as Isauro has assigned me a bodyguard and translator--his cousin, Sergio. Sergio is total buzz kill as far as I'm concerned, shadowing my every move, but I don't want to be disrespectful of Isauro's considerations, however unnecessary they may be.

Fed from hot springs and from the canyon's waterfalls, inside and outside the caves, Rio Tolantongo, at its rise, is a shear force. It makes its way down the mountains, reminding us how the enormous rocks were etched and carved, until it finally spills out, cooling the canyon floor.

This is where my traveling companions and I meet the river. It is tranquil. It's filled with tourists taking in mineral baths, the sun, and the waterfalls' heights. A group of small children is being baptized.

Rounding out our caravan of day-trippers is Isauro's daughter, Isaura, sons Eduardo and Eulalio, Luputa -- Eulalio's girlfriend, Ricardo, and finally, Mauricio.

Isauro applied to work in the States, at YardApes, through the H2-B Temporary Nonagricultural Worker program 10 years ago and has returned each year since. I felt it was important to see his life here.

Actopan, Hildago, Mexico has a little-known YardApes enclave. Florentino, Alfredo, Jose, Juan, Ricardo and Mauricio also live here. You're never too far from home, I think. And surprising them is worth the trip alone.

I'd known Isauro's sons-- Eduardo and Eulalio--as they'd come to the States, too, to work for YardApes in years' past, but I now met his daughter, Isaura, grandaughter, Cinthia, sister, Eva, nephew, Alejandro, niece, Mili, and Isauro's great-niece, Valeria.

Barely understanding a word at breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, is something for which I am immediately grateful. I sit back and enjoy my hosts' company with utter lack of distraction. I am in the moment. I am struck by the familial closeness I feel.

Rio Tolantongo rushes past us as we hike up the canyon. Campers and their tents become smaller and smaller, until we reach the first of the main caverns.

"The tunnel," a low-ceilinged cavern, is as narrow as it is dark. Nothing is visible beyond six inches. Volcanic-heated steam rises, as warm water showers down from the ceiling and walls.

It is a sauna.

"Muy bonito," I say, to no one in particular, as I wade through waist-deep water. I feel for a shoulder -- anyone's -- or a wall, as I go.

"Muy perfecto," I say. I can't see a thing, but everything about this moment is perfect.

Someone brushes by.

"Muy perfecto," I say again, but this time so that my group might determine my location in relative darkness, like Spanish "Marco Polo."

The clustering of people I sensed before, just ahead, and to my right, has quickly formed a collective. This can only mean one thing: the blind leading the blind have hit a wall. We've come to the end of the tunnel. And now we turn, en masse, take in the last of the thermal showers, and slowly adjust our eyes to the light.

Isauro has extended many invitations for me to visit over the years.

"Life intervenes," I would say, my catchall excuse for not creating the time, for any number of things -- personal or professional -- that existed for me in a neatly labeled, one day.

Isauro had the good sense to schedule the trip for me.

The second cavern, the large grotto, is where Rio Tolantongo originates. It is noticeably hotter in this cave. And it is dark.

The ground -- rough and irregular from the waterfalls' unrelenting pounding -- also has the patina of the thermal river that has run here for thousands of years.

Stalactites and stalagmites drop down through darkness, punctuating my route toward the recesses of the cave.

A security guard is in this area. He is in possession of a flashlight, but rarely does he use it. It's an "in case of" thing. The flashlight would intrude upon someone's experience, after all.

A rope anchored to the wall of the pitch-black grotto, in proximity to Rio Tolantango's rise, or where the river bursts forth from the earth with exquisite intensity, is an "in case of" thing, too.

I must go there, I think to myself.

I wish this could be chalked up to one of those interesting guesses, Bill Bryson writes about. That this was decision-making within the context of a foreign country, impeded by foreign language. The truth is, it looked pretty cool. And I like a challenge.

Water, fundamental to the creating and sustaining of life, heals, and it cleanses.

In cupped hands, Rio Tolantango's waters had been carefully poured over the foreheads of children receiving baptismal rites at the foot of the canyon. The same water is knocking me around, the force of its surge something to behold.

Nature's funny like that.

Nature, awesome in its beauty, is equally awesome in its destructiveness. And it's this duality that makes the beautiful all the more so. We'd have nothing to measure against in the absence of either. Incredibly, I'm thinking this -- but with expletives -- as I fight to swim.

I deserve this, I think.

Pushed in the direction of a cave within the cave, and one that is darker still, I swim.

This is it, I think.

And I am at peace. In the midst of chaotic uncertainty, I am able to process the following: one, it is not looking so good for me, and two, I accept this.

Rio Tolantango does what it does, rushes out of the mountains and down the canyon. It's seeking its own level. I am simply in its way. The river isn't harsh. It isn't punishing.

These next parts aren't too clear, but they do include an "in case of" flashlight, an "in case of" rope, and "in case of" security guard, and the best shadow-translator-bodyguard a guy could ever ask for -- Sergio. The man, who only two hours before I was trying to shake, so I could take in the beauty of Grutas Tolantango, untethered.

I can't fully communicate the breadth and depth of my experience in Mexico. There are the details: I visited a silver mine, a centuries-old ranch, sold fresh fruit at a roadside stand (true), rode a donkey (also true), and drank pulque.

And then there are the moments: the honor of visiting Ricardo's father's childhood home, and his uncle's village in the mountains -- where power was only made available last year -- and of course, being fished out of an indiscriminate, but raging river.

Stateside, and on dry land, our spring season is underway.

This morning, the Hotel Mexicano Bus Line dropped off our Actopan contingent, tired after four days on the road from Monterey, Mexico.

The feeling among them -- Isauro, Ricardo, Florentino, Alfredo, Jose, Juan and Mauricio -- is that it is a privilege to come to the States through the H2-B program.

I feel fortunate to have these men as employees, and to count them as friends. The privilege is mine.

However disparate our lives may seem, we're all in search of the same things: happy, healthy families, and a good day's work.

"The real voyage of discovery," writes Marcel Proust, "consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Shayne Newman is founder of YardApes, Inc. in New Milford.