Rafting Through the Himalayan Gorges
Angela greeted me warmly, kissing me on both cheeks, like a long-lost friend. It was the first time I was meeting her. Back in Mumbai, her husband had made the travel arrangements for our stay in Nepal. Angela, the travel agent, tried to convince me that river rafting was the one thing I really wanted to try. It was just a matter of a few extra hours spent on the river as we travelled from Kathmandu to Pokhra. She said it was a breeze. She said she had done it even when she was 6 months pregnant. She said the water was as gentle as a lullaby.
Thrills of Rafting
I looked at her high-heeled boots, at her short black leather skirt. As a woman, I should have known better than to trust a woman who looked so chic as she talked glibly of adventure sports. As one who had seen the travel trade from inside out and rejected it because it was a pack of unspoken lies, I should have known better. I certainly should have used my innate sense of survival to know that rapids are never as safe and comforting as a ride in Disneyland. I, who couldn't swim, who was petrified of water.
I looked down at the River Trishuli and the gathering rafts and rafters. The river looked so gentle. What the hell... if so many people could do it... I had to believe that Angela was right. So, I donned my life jacket and helmet. I heard the instructor's voice without really listening. They had already kept a 'safe' spot in the raft for me. I did not need to paddle furiously... just to sit in the middle of that raft and watch the river in the gorges as I enjoyed the ride. I did not really need to listen to all the instructions. I could concentrate on the beauty of the scenery while the others dipped their oars into the water.
There was an American theatre actor... a tall, blonde, almost handsome Boris Becker carbon copy called David. There were two strapping young RAF pilots, Rob and Guy, who could surely handle a raft, right side up if they could handle fighter planes upside down. There was a young enthusiastic Swedish couple, Anna and Bjork, barely into their twenties, confident, fit, adventurous. There was Rajiv, whom I trusted completely to save me in the water. He was once a national swimmer. There was 14 year old Siddhartha, who thrives on adventure, coping with crises without batting an eyelid. Our young soft-spoken guide sat at the back with his assistant who was even younger than him, if that were possible. Around me I saw eager faces; confident, daring, very relaxed.
Cruising slowly down the river, it was a sight to behold. I knew why I was on the raft...the road just did not have the same feeling of stark elemental participation, as the motion of the river though the deep gorges, and being part of that very flow, drifting along in the rushing stream.
The instructor warned us that we were approaching our fist rapid. There was a palpable excitement. David, hoping for some action, wanted to know what grade it was. The instructor's voice, calm and without any real urgency called, "forward, faster, faster," as the raft climbed up against the rush of water. The first rapid was not quite as gentle as I had expected it to be. I gasped as the icy water splashed my face and body. Gasped at the cold, and gasped at the proximity of the water from which there was now no escape until the end of a several-hour journey.
There was no denying the sheer thrill of crossing that rapid. It was the first surge of an adrenaline high. As we left the rapid behind us, everyone wanted to know the grade of the rapid. The instructor informed us it was just a baby... did not qualify being graded. Well. That was the forerunner of things to come.
The two rafts got into a jocular water fight. The buckets kept to fork out the water that gathered in the rafts were now used instead to chuck water at each other. In the other raft, the instructor's assistant, in his enthusiasm to dunk us, dropped his bucket into the river, and dived in to retrieve it, to our unconcealed merriment. That was one fight we had indisputably won. We could afford to leave the losers behind.
With a little maneuvering and more luck, we successfully crossed several rapids, as we proceeded on our way, till we tied up the raft to stop for lunch, stepping out on to the boulders, looking much like drowned rats, cold from the icy waters that drenched us each time we crossed the rapids.
We sat in the middle of nowhere, enjoying ourselves hugely with strangers we did not know yesterday and we would not know tomorrow. And yet we shared a common moment that would remain forever - the thrill of a first time experience of river rafting.
Returning to our raft after the interval of a meal together and of hunting for discreet bushes behind which to take a leak, everyone looked like they knew what rafting was all about... so the team of 'experienced' rafters now took their places with pre-determined certainty and a bold new confidence.
And so we braved several rapids of grade 1 to 3. Each of the rapids had a name that was evocative indeed of the feelings that we learnt to associate with each rapid : Lady's Delight, Twin Rocks, Landslide.
I know I was mesmerised by the journey itself. It was an amazing perspective of the mountains from the river. I have known the Himalayas from many different angles, many emotions, many seasons, may moods, many reflections. This was a new one, somehow very awesome. For me the Himalayas are familiar. I feel a sense of belonging to them, that far precedes any sense of time. Indeed that sense of home that I have known in the Himalayas, is so real. It is an indefinable, undeniable bonding, stronger almost than any other I have known. Because in the Himalayas I can recognise myself, I can recognise other beings, I can recognise nature and all that is and all that exists in a timeless state of being. And yet, flowing down the river, tossed and turned in an elemental playfulness, I saw another face of the Himalayas, that I was not as familiar with, even if I was aware of. For I have never known fear in the Himalayas. The mountains have always comforted me, and so faced with my fear of water, which was total indeed, I was still not afraid, because the Himalayas are mine, they are my home of freedom. There were passages through rapids that soaked us so completely in the icy waters, that when the flood of water passed, I looked around to see if anyone had fallen in. How could it possibly be that everyone could remain in the raft, through that swell of water that knocked the breath out of one, that required sheer determination to keep paddling through with the urgent command of "faster, faster" that the boy-man guide issued with a complete confident calmness even if not with the requisite degree of authority.
The guide's urgent voice announced the rapid ahead. Through the roar, as the raft climbed the next swell of water that was a virtual cliff, even the command "Faster, faster" faded without an echo. The mountain of water that enveloped us held us momentarily spellbound, before there was nothing but the water, everywhere. I felt myself tossed, turned, twisted. There was no fighting the water any more. I knew I was one with the water. I had to surrender to it. I knew one moment of total surrender. One moment of nothingness, of bliss.
When the water receded, so I could emerge from within it, I knew I had fallen into the river. Looking around, I knew I would not see anyone, that I would be alone. But I was not prepared for the light of understanding that slowly dawned. Indeed I was alone. But I was the only one still clutching the ropes that tied the barrel to the raft. Everyone else was thrown into the water. But the raft waited for no-one It continued on it's relentless journey. It was a momentary nightmare of fear and terror.
I thought I was rooted to the spot, frozen, unable to move, to think, to act. I did not notice helping others clamber back onto the raft. The oars were retrieved and passed on to the raft. The guide was among the first back in the raft. Anna's nose was bleeding as she climbed on. Almost everyone bore the marks of struggle and of the bruises earned.
I could see Rajiv in the river. "Where is Siddhartha?" I asked. "I have him with me" he replied calmly.
But Siddhartha was under the raft, being dragged along...his thin wrist emerging from below to clutch the lifeline of a rope that ran alongside it. He was calm, thinking straight, thinking ahead. He knew he had to emerge from under the raft, that his breath was running out. Rajiv held his wrist and tried to yank him free. There was an impossible drag. Siddhartha tried to create a little space between the bottom of the raft and himself. Then found himself suddenly pulled hard and freed. Rajiv pushed him over the side of the raft, and he fell in a trembling heap into the raft. He had lost his spectacles, and with a power of minus 7.5, he was totally dependent on them. He had lost his prized underwater watch. But what he gained, was a rare confidence in his own ability to cope with what life brought in it's wake, with equanimity and calm. The raft was still speeding down the river. Siddhartha was already picking up his oar, ready to paddle on.
Now everyone was aboard the raft, except Rob, left far behind. The raft was maneuvered to the side of the river. One of the instructors clambered over the rocks to reach Rob, who had somehow climbed onto a boulder, and slowly managed to wend his way back through the thicket adjoining the river, to the raft.
It was a quiet raft, of serious rafters now. Everyone was deep in thought, a little shaken, but distinctly sedate and composed, with a new respect for the untamed Himalayan rapids. We talked quietly now, the earlier excitement now controlled. It was not the childish thrill of adventure that drove us any longer. It was the quiet maturity of knowing that rafting is a serious business of learned skills. We all knew we had taken chances without adequate precautions. A sobering thought. A reflection of what rafting should not be. And most often is. A joy-ride of danger.
As the sun lost it's sharpness and shadows blurred, the early evening chill descended on us, as we maneuvered through other rapids, till we came to the camping site, where we finally climbed gratefully onto familiar land again. I was glad that what lay ahead of me in the days to come was the trek to Poon Hill, a part of the Annapurna circuit. A time for quiet reflection. A time to be. A time to touch base with myself.
I will always remember the ride through the rapids. I will often wonder what made me try it. Nothing about me sees myself as adventurous. Or foolhardy. And yet, perhaps we should judge ourselves by our actions and not by the image of ourselves that we cling to. Isn't that after all what travelling is all about? Opening new doors of perception. Seeking affirmation that we are alive. Truly alive. And never more so than in our brushes with death. With our confrontation with our fears. When we stand face to face with the Unknown.
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.