Living on the Edge

Seeing a corpse laid out on the edge of the river for cremation just before entering the three most challenging rapids of our white water rafting trip seemed like a bad omen. Up until that point, I had actually had a very enjoyable day. With four young friends from our hostel, we had journeyed by tourist bus to our rafting place about 2 hours south from Kathmandu. The bus was crowded and I shared a seat with a German man about my age. He never spoke a word for the first hour as he snapped lots of photographs out the window. The views of the mountains were mesmerizing. The road, pitted with holes and stretches of gravel, wound up and down the mountain side which seemed to be at an almost vertical pitch. It was a very narrow road with a steep drop off on the side where it was better not to look. As this is the most direct route to India where most of the goods are imported from, the road was filled with colorful trucks. Somehow, we managed to share the road with vehicles moving in both directions but on the narrow corners, we sometimes had to wait for each to pass before continuing.

After an hour, we stopped for breakfast at a simple roadside restaurant. I had an Indian samosa, spicy and filled with mashed potatoes, and Nepali tea. Back on the bus, my seat mate and I struck up a conversation about our travels. He has worked in Asia for many years and now travels regularly to Africa. His stories were very interesting (including having a gun put to his head in Sudan) and the time passed quickly.

When we arrived at our rafting place, I spotted the piles of helmets next to the paddles and life jackets. My heart rate increased. This was not going to be the easy ride down the river that I had heard about. Actually, when I first signed up for this program in Nepal I said that it all sounded great except I would skip the rafting part. Once in the country, people assured me it was an easy ride except for maybe one part. My friend, Rosalie from Quebec, had had the exact same reaction to the rafting. We encouraged each other to try it, convinced that it wasn’t going to be that challenging and we may as well go with the others.

Once suited up in our old and worn life jackets and helmets, our guide went over the paddling and safety rules. We all paid attention as he told us what to do in case the boat tipped over, what to do if we were alone in the river and how to do different kind of rescues. What the heck was I doing here?

There were a group of bankers from Kathmandu joking and laughing on the bank of the river. A couple of them joined our group on the raft along with a young woman from China, a father and son from Denmark (he was a doctor – great) and our group of four.

We set off after practicing our paddling skills, leaning into our strokes and tucking one foot under the seat in front of us. As we went through the first set of waves, I calmed down and started to enjoy the experience. This was fun. What was I worried about? The first set of real rapids though were soon upon us. Our boat tipped wildly up and down as the water swamped us from either side and we were instructed to paddle “Faster! Faster! Harder! Harder!”. At times we were backwards or twirling around. People screamed. I grabbed the rope to hold on and then, we were through.

There were stretches of the river where the water was calm and we could enjoy the amazing views. Not having a camera on the water, I tried to remember the steep sides of the mountains coming down to the water, the long suspension bridges connecting the sides high above and the cable cage where a group of children were pulling themselves home after school. Our guide told us of how every year children drown in the river, pulled in by the current.

There were many sets of rapids. Some were really fun, bouncing up and down on 5-6 foot swells of waves. They had creative names like the Butterfly and Ladies Delight. Others were more frightening as the boat tipped or got swamped. Each time we got through there was the thrill of having conquered the rapid.

And then we reached the hardest part. This was where the men on the side of the river were piling stones to make a cremation pier for the deceased lying in a white shroud on the river bank. Our guide said that we were now at the most challenging mile of the river. There were 3 sets of rapids. He told us if we fell out which side of the river we should swim toward. Oh great. The first two were indeed more intense as our boat pitched and tossed. The hardest was the last, a class 3 plus at this time of year (and over 5 in the monsoon season). It was called the Upside.

Almost immediately, I knew this was trouble. There was a big hole of water behind some rocks. The banker fell in first as our boat tipped almost vertically to the right. I held tightly onto the rope and then I watched as our guide and Rosalie fell in. I held on as long as I could, probably only moments, and then knew I was going headfirst into the river.

My first thought was the disbelief that the thing I had feared most, falling into a rapid and being trapped underwater, was actually happening. I was aware that I was doing somersaults under the water, something I had only learned to do in my 30’s when I finally conquered that fear. I was out of breath and may have surfaced once only to hit the under side of the raft or maybe just not high enough to get air. Around I went again in another somersault. There was a part of me that knew my life jacket should get me to the surface but it sure was taking its time. My jacket was also up over my face as my helmet seemed to be covering my eyes. After what seemed to be an incredibly long time, I finally surfaced. After gasping for air, I pushed my life jacket down on my shoulders so I could see and realized there was no sign of a raft anywhere near me. I remembered that I was to stay in the middle of the river and basically floated there, unsure what to do next.

Eventually, off to my left came a raft. It took awhile to get close to the boat and I couldn’t find a rope to hold onto. I was pulled over the side by my life jacket, the same skill we had learned in our rescue lesson, and after two big tugs, and feeling like a trophy fish dragged onto a fishing boat, I was in the raft. With a sigh of relief, I looked up and there was a boat full of unfamiliar faces. “Are you alright? Are you alright?” It took me a moment to answer, still in shock as to what had just happened. Someone pointed to my arm with a nasty red scrape from my hand to my elbow. I realized my finger was bleeding but otherwise, I was alive and intact. I finally gave a thumbs up, still unable to articulate anything.

I huddled down in the back of the raft as their guide shouted instruction,s “Paddle faster! Paddle harder!” as we hit the next set of rapids. I held on in shock as we rode up and down, up and down the next set of waves. As the water settled, I was almost giddy with relief. I was alive.

Maybe 10 minutes later, my raft caught up with us. As they maneuvered to the side, I jumped back into my place in the back of my boat, grabbed my paddle and caught up with my raft mates. Rosalie, the only other person on the boat who had dreaded falling into the river and I compared notes about our survivor experiences. She had come up under the raft a couple of times before she was able to surface and was afraid she was going to die. Others in our boat helped her up as they worried about where I had gone. Manish, our Nepalese banker, told me that he had surfaced to see me somersaulting through the water. Our guide was distressed to see that his paddle had disappeared as had one of Rosalie’s sandals. I was so glad that I had decided to leave my prescription sunglasses in my bag on the shore.

At our dahl baat lunch on the river side, we had more time to process our respective experiences. Manish said that he kept picturing me somersaulting under the water and worrying about me. Rosalie said how ironic it was that the two of us who were hesitant to do white water rafting were the ones who ended up in the river. Maybe it was the universe pushing us through our comfort zones which were tested again on the last few sets of rapids.

Our lives were not completely out of danger for the day as we boarded the public bus for the next two hour ride to Chitwan National Park. I was squeezed into the last seat in the back next to the window with maybe 10 inches of seat. My daypack was on my lap and my knee was jammed into the seat in front of me. An airline seat would be luxurious in comparison. We raced down the road, passing trucks and bumping over the roads. Each time the horn blew to indicate we were passing, I just held my breath and hoped we would survive this journey. I practiced my deep breathing, unable to control anything beyond my next breath. All I could see out the window was the steep side of the mountain and it was probably better not to be able to see what was on the other side of the road as we passed truck after truck, brakes occasional squealing at times to avoid collisions.

When we reached Chitwan, we stretched and breathed as we piled into the open back of a tiny Jeep to take us to our lodging at the edge of the park. Katrina and I are in the elephant room, a simple room with a luxurious hot shower and mosquito netting for our beds.

Sleep did not come easily as I replayed the tape in my brain of my time under the river over and over. Eventually, the sounds of the peacocks and insects lulled me to sleep along with the help of a Tylenol PM to ease both the pain in my hand and my addled mind.

Morning came early. Up at dawn, we enjoyed a Western breakfast before walking over to the park dressed in our muted colors (red and white forbidden). Our day started with a wonderful ride in a dugout canoe down the river. I was glad to have my binoculars (a wellness gift I got the day before I left home) as we spotted birds of many kinds. There were several kinds of egrets and herons, brilliant blue kingfishers and helicopter kingfishers who hovered in the air looking for their breakfast. We saw a pair of native peacocks in their mating dance and an eagle. The crocodiles were not yet out. They grow to 18 feet long here, and yes, people do get eaten.

Out of the boat, we followed our two guides to the edge of the forest. There we learned that we had another lesson in how to deal with an emergency, this time what to do if we saw certain animals. For one of the rare, one-horned rhinoceros, we should either climb a small tree, hide behind a big tree or run in a zig zag pattern. For sloth bears, we should clump together and yell. For a tiger, stay calm and look him in the eye as you backed away slowly. For a wild elephant, run. Rosalie and I just looked at each other. Were we really going to be in danger again so soon?

Yes. Within five minutes, our experienced guides spotted a rhinoceros through the trees. Hushed, we could hear its grunt and could glimpse just a bit of its grey hide. Scanning for a tree to climb, I saw the huge animal move. We spent the next half an hour or so following our guides carrying big sticks through the forest tracking the animal, moving quietly, heart beating just a bit faster.

Eventually, we came to the edge of a grassy field. Just ahead was another rhino just visible through the grass. We tucked ourselves behind a huge cotton tree for a look, cameras on and ready. The two ton animal came toward us, suddenly alert and annoyed by our presence. Our guides yelled and whacked sticks to the ground and then threw one directly at him as we huddled, frightened and excited behind the tree. Now what?!

The rhinoceros just settled in, munching away at the grass. Our eyes were wide as we stood nearby, maybe 20 feet away from this endangered rhinoceros, taking pictures, mouths open with amazement that we were actually seeing such a sight. After awhile, the rhino just walked away as we returned to the forest, once again sharing stories of our reactions to such an incredible sight.

The rest of our 3 hour jungle walk was less exciting but no less interesting. We saw huge hives of bees where the sloth bears like to visit, tiger claw marks on the trees, signs of wild elephants and a couple of huge crocodiles on the river’s edge. Our guide pointed out medicinal plants and flowers including one that closed up its leaves when you touched it. We heard tales of how local people collect rhinoceros urine for its medicinal powers to heal earaches and asthma. He also told of his stories of encounters with tigers and bears. Just a couple of days ago a guide was wounded by bears when a tourist went off the trail and got between three bears. There has been a man-eating tiger in this village that killed 6 people last year before being shot. Once they have the taste of salted human blood, he told us, they come back for more.

Despite the dangers of tigers and crocodiles, I’m so glad that I’ll be in this area for my orphanage work the next couple of weeks away from the pollution and noise of the city. First though, I have another day and a half of adventures here in the park before my friends leave on Sunday. Stay tuned. Once the power comes back on, I’ll share them with you.

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13 Comments

  1. Sabine

     /  March 23, 2012

    Wow, Ellen, I’m feeling breathless just reading your post. Congratulations on making it through all of that, such amazing stories to reflect on! The next phase will seem so tame…

    best,
    Sabine

    Reply
  2. Joanne

     /  March 23, 2012

    Another morning coffee , safe and snug at our kitchen table.. as I read your post aloud to Johnny.. since this blog is written in the first person.. we know you tumbled your way out to safety and we are able to enjoy the excitement.

    Reply
  3. pam perkins

     /  March 23, 2012

    I sat on the edge of my chair, eyes wide open, mouth agape as I read your latest adventure. You are one hell of a woman. XXOO

    Reply
  4. Mary Kay

     /  March 23, 2012

    Lions, tigers, bears?? Oh my! Ellen, get some red ruby slippers!! Love you, stay safe! Awesome!

    Reply
  5. Connie G.

     /  March 23, 2012

    Yes, amazing stories, Ellen. I’m very glad you’re still alive, and I love reading about your adventures. Yesterday the temperature here got up to 81 or more, and the lilacs along with some other trees and bushes have started to bud. Off to look at colleges this afternoon . . .

    Reply
  6. Janie

     /  March 23, 2012

    Incroyable! I knew it would make an amazing blog story and glad you are around to write it.

    Reply
  7. Marty Mueller

     /  March 23, 2012

    Hooray for you, Ellen! Your adventures make my last week’s trip to the freeways and tummel of Los Angeles seem tame by comparison. I look forward to your stories in my email. Big Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  8. Candice Stein

     /  March 23, 2012

    Just finished reading about your experience under water. I used to think crossing the country on a bike was a big adventure. No more.

    Reply
  9. will you be the same Ellen when you return? Don’t think so. In the mornings I think of you greeting each child as they arrive at school with that smile you never lose. Love you.

    Reply
  10. Amy

     /  March 24, 2012

    Yesterday I printed out all your Nepal pieces for Mom/Ceil to read – she LOVED them. Before that, I told Kamini about your rafting adventure..and then lo and behold! The Barbies took a rafting trip in Nepal that morning! (During our usual morning fantasy play.)
    This a.m. I showed Kamini all the photos you posted. She’s incredibly interested…a little challenged by the cremation photos. “Can you be buried in Nepal if you want to be?” I said I didn’t know and we could ask Anjana when she’s here in a few weeks. We are TOTALLY with you in spirit! xoxox Amy

    Reply
  11. Barbara

     /  March 24, 2012

    Ellen, I was holding my breathe through your entire time in the water! You are incredible and can cross several more “to-dos” (don’ts) off your list! Be safe.

    Reply
  12. margery

     /  March 25, 2012

    OMG!! I knew you had to be alive because you had posted the blog, but I held my breath a few times for you,especially when you were somersaulting around in the rapids!
    What an adventure. I remain in awe! Love, Margery

    Reply
  13. paula

     /  March 25, 2012

    Holy crap, Ellen! I read this post with such anticipation, since you set it up so well with your opening line, my heart was already in my throat when the fall came. As others have said, I knew intellectually you couldn’t be posting if you hadn’t survived, but wowzer…what a tale! I used to compare all pain to childbirth,(“it’s not nearly as bad as that”) and now I tell myself something isn’t as hard/painful as open heart surgery. From now on, you can face your fears, realizing nothing could be as frightening as somersaulting underwater in strong rapids in the middle of Nepal! I am so glad you are okay and I am so awed by your strength and courage. It’s safe to say we are so beyond the point where I have to tell you how special you are not!

    Reply

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