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I spent Valentine's Day at the bottom of a coal mine. It was the highlight of that relationship.

Charlotte Ahlin   

I spent Valentine's Day at the bottom of a coal mine. It was the highlight of that relationship.
  • I spent a Valentine's Day in an active coal mine.
  • It was our first date and I thought it would be more romantic than it turned out to be.

It was Valentine's Day, and I was taking a zipline into hell. Or rather, I was suspended from a swinging bicycle seat, descending into an active coal mine. "Whatever you do," our guide whispered, "don't panic," and then I disappeared into the yawning earth.

The coal mine was Jay's idea. We'd met at a hostel on the west coast of India three weeks into my semester abroad. It was perfect. I was heartbroken, and he was 6 feet tall. He had a motorcycle and wore non-prescription glasses. I was in love.

This was our first date

We'd gone parasailing at the beach, and I'd ridden on his motorcycle without a helmet (sorry, Mom), but nothing had happened yet. We still hadn't gone on a proper date, with eating and kissing. I was starting to think that he didn't like me, that I'd have to spend the semester actually applying myself to my studies.

Then came the invitation: "Would I like to come to Jay's friend's cousin's guesthouse in the countryside this weekend?"

So, there we were, a full day's drive from my university. I was never given the why of the coal mine — presumably, this was the most exciting tourist attraction the cousin's rural town had to offer — but I was young and eager to prove my low standards for safety.

I wanted to impress him

There was no industrial elevator at the mine, just a doorway into darkness. A cable ran into the depths, with individual seats hooked on, to carry miners down in miniature ski lift fashion. I went first.

"Jay will be impressed by this," I thought. "He will see my adventurous spirit and become rapturously in love with me."

The little bike seat swung only a few feet above the tunnel floor, but the slope was perilously steep. I hung on as the cable took me down, and down, and down. Bare bulbs lit the way every so often. In between were wide stretches of perfect blackness, then a few bright red warning signs I couldn't understand, then more of the impossible dark until, at last, we reached the bottom.

"It's hot," I told Jay, stupidly as he stumbled off his bike seat. I'd expected the clammy chill of a cave, but it was properly, hellishly hot down here.

"Yeah," he said. He did not mention my adventurous spirit.

We followed our guide, the cousin's friends, and their heavily armed guard down a tunnel lit by the occasional bulb, then past a huge vent chundering sweet, room temperature air.

I fell into step beside him, hoping I could find some new and thrilling way to riff on the temperature, but the guide was pointing us down another narrow, bulb-less tunnel. It was pitch black beyond — then a light winked on, suddenly, followed by another. Floating circles of light, the whole way down, like cartoon eyes in the dark.

It wasn't as romantic as I thought it was going to be

As we drew closer, though, the floating lights dissolved into ordinary men wearing headlamps, most of them shirtless and sheened with sweat. Touring someone else's poor labor conditions was perhaps less romantic than I'd envisioned.

Our guide ushered us forward to see the tiny hole in the wall where explosives were squeezed in — then we were shooed out of the tunnel again to await the blast.

I stood by Jay. His arm brushed my side. Maybe it was just the large quantities of nitroglycerin in a confined space several hundred feet below the surface of the earth, but my heart hammered.

Then came the blast, a low-thrumming quake that shook the whole tunnel, and I grasped Jay's hand.

Looking back, I cringe (and hard) at playing tourist in an industrial job site — but I was 20.

We dated for four months. We never topped the heart-pounding thrills of holding hands in the mine. It turns out the bonds forged by claustrophobia and ecological guilt are not a great basis for long and enduring love, but it was, at least, one of my more memorable Valentines.