Friday, July 18, 2008

Everybody Forward!

After horseback riding it was difficult to imagine our planned whitewater-rafting trip. I didn't want to be wrong again, but it just had to be a disappointment after the horses.

The trip began with the van pulling off to the side of the road where we had to scurry across the highway, down a ravine, and across some railroad tracks to three lean and muscular Russian-Kyrgyz men in skimpy bathing suits. They ferried us on a raft across the river to their camp, where they outfitted us with wetsuits, life jackets, and helmets. They made what sure sounded like surly comments about us in Russian. Our translator/guide confirmed that they were in "bad moods."

They guided us back to the raft, where six of us got to paddle on our knees with straps holding us in place. The rest of the crew straddled an inflatable bench in the middle of the raft and held onto straps. Four strong guides joined us as paddlers at each of the corners. The lead guide said, "You: left side" - pointing at my side - "You: right side" - pointing across the raft. "I say: left side forward, right side back paddle. I say: right side forward, left side back paddle. I say: Everybody forward. I say stop, you stop. Pay attention. Dangerous place. OK?" - slight pause, and then, "Right side forward, left side back paddle." We did as he said and the boat turned towards the current. "Everybody forward!" We were in the whitewater within seconds. "Stop!", and the four guides took over steering us around rocks and safely through the rough water. I was drenched immediately from the splashing waves.

Before 20 minutes had passed, the guides steered us to shore so they could reinflate the boat. Then they huddled together with the lead guide giving instructions (or so it seemed to the non-Russian speaker), and then they all laced their arms over each others shoulders and bowed their heads for what appeared to be one last prayer for safety. Nice effect, because we listened a little more carefully when we were allowed back on the raft and the lead guide pointed ahead with his paddle and said, "This very dangerous place. Pay attention. Everybody forward!" We followed his instructions and we were rewarded with a nosedive down the next set of rapids. When my paddle reached out only to find air, I reached a little bit further, because all I knew was that if I wanted to survive, I had to obey that calm, certain, and heavily-accented voice over my right shoulder. He knew where every hidden boulder lay, and if we listened to him he was going to navigate us safely past them and down the river - no matter how crabby he was.

We had two hours of near-constant rapids. It was two hours with a little bit of terror, but mostly great fun. I wanted it to last longer, but my knees shook like jello when I finally unstrapped them from the boat, so it was probably a good thing that we were finished and ready for another nap in the van and a drive to the lake.

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