Rafting in the Ganges.
If 2016 was tumultous and had the worst surprises to throw at us, 2017 seems to have greeted us with an even more frenzied beginning. The world is quickening its pace of upsets and turmoil, bringing the worst of our inner depths out into a boil. So, how should one face them? Let’s consider what lessons we can learn from a rafting trip, in the Ganges.
It was quite early.We were bunched together into a van at Byasi in the Ganges basin of the Western Himalayas, about 40 kms upstream from Rishikesh. A cool, biting breeze hit us. I looked up to the adjoining mountains that made up the valley to see the first light hit its peaks. The mountains were high — so high that the river valley down below was a dark, winding path. Silver fog stuck over the cool waters of the Ganges, making it look like a long silver python moving alongside below. The river’s perennial roar still dominated the valley’s awakening, the depth and variation of the sound exposing its hidden turbulent descent. I shivered involuntarily at the thought of riding those very same waters in the coming moments — we were heading to a nearby rafting camp. The air in the van was quiet and sombre, pregnant with an anticipation that echoed through all eight of us.
We were each handed a helmet, life jacket and paddle, and a lesson in safety instructions. We were all a team, and if we acted like a team, we would survive — the instructor told us. We had a captain to lead us and guide us through the treacherous journey. His word would have to be followed to the letter. Having finished, he pointed out to the river, ‘look at the river, we call her, the Mother. This morning, she is going to cradle you and reveal glimpses of her depths you would have never imagined. Give her your love, respect her; but don’t try to get to know her fully, or embrace her,’ he laughed. ‘She is wild and unpredictable in these mountains. Don’t be allured and get ensnared by her beauty, look after yourself, follow your captain.’
He wasn’t off the mark, the atmosphere was already surreal as we pushed our rafts away, off the beachy bank. The mist was lifting with the light coming in, I felt as if I was going to float among clouds. The bank was very wide, rocky on the other side. The river was swirly and fast-flowing as soon as we paddled away. The guide told us the water level was quite high, given the recent rains that had lashed the mountains in the upper basin. He added that the river flowed among precipitous mountains that we couldn’t see, with the waterbody enveloping them.
Raju, our captain once again repeated some instructions, he would shout-out for us to follow whenever we were crossing rapids. Rapids are sections where the riverbed has a steep gradient, causing a significant increase in turbulence, like a waterfall falling into the river. Soon enough, we felt an increase in our rafting speed — we were in the sight of a rapid called ‘3 blind mice’. We held up our paddles ready in the right technique, waiting to hit the rapids. Fear rose up to my gut as I saw the bank being narrowed by the nature of the terrain, forcing the large waterbody into a narrower channel. As the channel grew closer, my eyes were startled with the choppy waviness in the waters — where did they come from? Our right side of the bank was full of rocks, forcing the river to take a bend around its curve. Our raft was flowing towards the rocks, along the current strength and Raju suddenly seemed to be screaming -paddle hard and strong! Yes, we were doing that…he kept pointing to the left-hand side of the group to paddle backward too; to steer the boat towards the left. Now that was a new one, to us novices…
Suddenly, our raft was lifted by an incoming wave, and fortunately dashed down onto the left side of the current. Whew! ‘Hold your paddles’, Raju called. We were now onto the bumpy track of waves splashing against each other, and we could do nothing to affect our outcome! ‘Sit tight’, he shouted! Suddenly, he started gesturing to us to paddle forward fast. We all followed in unison, and in a few strokes were out of the rapid and into the river again. I had no clue, but Raju realised when the bumpiness decreased, giving us an opportunity to steer the raft out.
Whoa, that was exhilerating! As if we were in a slow motion of a split second; it took no time and seemed to take everything of us! My blood seemed drained during those moments and yet, we were all alive and alert, in an automode. Aligning to the terrain, changing direction, flowing with the bumpy waves, and speeding across the manageable currents, everything happened as we would have wanted it to.
I suddenly noticed the silence in the middle of the swishing river. I looked out with new eyes and a fresh sense of respect, and an affinity to the river arose in me. I looked at others and sensed the oneness of spirit. I started enjoying the swashbuckling, spirited ride. For the next few minutes, we were captured by the breathtaking beauty surrounding us. The green vegetation closer to the river banks gradually became lighter and lighter until tone and tints disappeared, as I looked up the wall of mountains around me. The edges of the banks were uniformly uneven, splattered with silt beaches, silt dunes, rocks, boulders, forest foliage and sometimes the sheer mountain wall itself. The waters were a flowing carpet of green and muddy turbulence, highlighting the scene with its motion. The skies were a limited patch of a wonderful blue. There were terrace farms cut out at higher levels, and once in a while we would see villages and a few ashrams at varying heights. I saw a black bird dive into the waters and coming out with a catch — whoo, what a sight, that was!
‘Alright, brace yourself, the CrossFire rapid is coming up!’ Raju’s voice bellowed. ‘It’s a lower-grade rapid and looks innocuous, but dont be deceived by its looks, it fires from both sides, living up to its name. This time, you will repeat the intrsuctions you had to follow before.’ We did so, but as we set our eyes upon the upcoming skirmish spot, we felt quite assured with low height waves coming from both sides, clashing and wasting away. The turbulence seemed just a few degrees higher than the river flow. The river flow gradually narrowed down, pushing the raft onto the centre of the battle of the waters.
The raft went over, and we went bump, bump, bump…. Raju was going ‘paddles strong forward, strong forward!’ These bumps were actually enjoyable, our guard naturally went down to enjoy the pleasurable dance of waves. We were on the job with our paddles, and indulged in the fun. Suddenly, we were hit by a big thump; ‘paddles off’, screamed Raju, but we were already into the strong forward movement. The raft dived, the next wave was suddenly staring into our faces from above, and whoosh…drenched all of us as the raft came over the next wave. ‘Sit still’ boomed Raju, ‘at the edge’, as a few of us had been pushed inches inward. In a few more seconds of flowing with the bumps, we were out of it ! We all heaved a sigh of relief,and couldnt help our hearty laughs, sharing each others expressions of agony and astonishment.
The river next took us into a gorge surrounded by sheer tall mountains. The waters became still on the surface and we felt a fathomless depth. There were eroded cuts on the mountain sides, forming natural coves. The scene was ethereal. At a spot where one side of the bank was tree-lined, the raft was stopped, and we were given a chance to take a dip and swim. This was like a rest station on the rafting sojourn. I immersed myself and felt an intense embrace of the massive body of the river. My heart filled up with happy reverance. I began to appreciate how we needed to keep aligning with the moods and terrain of the river, to take a successful ride in its lap.
Out of Depth
As we moved out, Raju began preparing us for a dangerous rapid, ‘Golf Course’. He repeated all his instructions and asked us to be totally focused on responding to the water’s flow. ‘This rapid is like a collection of multiple falls plunging into the river,’ he said. ‘The rapid turbulence will throw the raft around; you need to sit tight at all cost’. The waters were still very quiet, the current flow and velocity did not really seem to warrant Raju’s stressful demeanor. But if one was sharp, you could discern a gradual descent in the flow. We stayed relaxed in sync with the atmosphere, confident that we would manage whatever comes in our wake and paddled forward.
A mountain loomed in front of us, forcing the river to turn left. As soon as we saw the turn, we were aghast! The right-half of the river was covered with rocks and boulders, forcing all the water into a narrow passage. There must have been a steep descent of the terrain too, throwing up high waves at the centre of the flow. Our raft had no choice but to pass through this passage of the stormy and raging high waves. Awe, creeps and shivers! I took deep breaths in unison with my paddling to get back to regular breathing. ‘Strong forward paddle!’ shouted Raju. We then hit the first high wave, riding it up and down, a second one, and ‘paddles up’, a third high one and whoosh, a drench. ‘Sit tight’. Next high, and thud, more water on us, fourth, fifth, and Iost count of splashes and deluge. We rode through the series of high waves, sitting tight and surrendering to the river.
Euphoria! We had completed our rafting trip, and with what oomph! Our heartbeats were elevated and adrenalins stayed exalted with us, for a long time.
In the first rapid, we aligned with the river in all its aspects and got through. In the second, we underestimated its strength and suffered a bump, but took it in our stride. In the third, we were way out of our depth. So, we just surrendered and rode through the stormy rapid, taking all its backlashes.
The common underlying theme that ran through was that we kept our cool, and stayed our course. At all times, we were alert, well prepared, used our strengths and worked as a team to align to the river to meet our goal of riding through! If and when the opposing force is no match, one has to focus on surviving the battle, even if through surrender. After all, there is a war to be won, finally.
Originally published at medium.com