Saturday, October 8, 2011

Musings from the road: Rafting in Hudson

I never cared much for adventures. Going to some scenic place and basking in the glory of Mother Nature- that’s my forte. But then, it becomes monotonic. So I had a change of mood- why not go and have some fun! And when everybody else around you is up for something, it gets pretty hard to resist the temptation.

The day began with the pretty usual stuff of waking up the girls and reminding them of every tiny detail that comes so naturally to us. I was anticipating a bleak, uneventful and boring drive to the campsite. And I got more pensive when Ashu was late in picking us up while others were already on the road. Well, come he did and going into the ‘country-side’ and picking up Mridul did not turn out to be a hard task thereafter.

The drive turned out to be okay- uneventful, but not bleak either. Ashu was fun to be with today. Nonetheless, I must say I found his driving skills a bit clumsy and reckless for my taste – but anyway, I have always been like that. And Anish got to see the car chase he had been longing for, for such a long while now. The irony- he himself was in the car that got chased. For me, on the other hand, it was a very novel experience. In movies, the scenes involving a cop stopping a car for speeding were always a foretelling of some calamity. The cop coming out of his car, asking the driver to part with his license and stuff, him going back to check in his data base and the driver coming out and shooting the innocent cop-BANG—(no, that last part didn’t happen – just my imagibnation ;) ). And we were soon back on the freeway. It was funny though, when the cop told Ashu that he had been fined some hundred odd dollars for going at a speed of 81mph while he would have been exempted if he had stuck to below-80. Anyway, bar some minor set-backs and a few interspersed calls from a certain troubled soul who at times tries in vain to taunt me with ‘food-talks’ (though I must add, she sometimes tastes success with the other glutton), we reached the camp site safe and sound.

Adhar looked as composed as ever, with that boyish smile on his face. Sushmit was his usual self, constantly asking me what was so funny that I kept smiling at him. The lady brigade did what it had gotten used to- go to a corner and indulge in 'you know what happened over the road?'. ‘Sabu’ seemed like he had had a haircut, but he denied it nonetheless.
Now, wait- it’s time for some advice. Whatever you do, do NOT enter a bathroom in a campsite. Go find some open place if you really need to excrete those unnecessary fluids in your body. Trust me; you DON’T want to piss on other people’s ‘stuff’, even if it looks like slurry with all the phenyl water around it. Yuk!

 A little playing around with a ball and a few futile attempts of Haldar at breaking Ashu’s car past, we got to meet our guide- Brian. Standing at six feet tall and sporting some nice red blonde hair, he had the usual charm and confidence of an adventure-sports-guide. Many safety instructions were passed on - but hey, we both know how many actually pay heed to that stuff. It doesn’t matter anyway. You hardly, if ever, can remember and adhere to those instructions once you are in peril. Go ask Jaina, Samanvaya, Sushmit or any of those other poor souls who fell off of the raft. ;)

You get into the boat, hold the **oar** in your hand and even when you are fully dressed with a life jacket and a helmet, your heart races. The guide teaches you a few basic manoeuvres and you suck at it. Ashu and Sriram are piloting. Sriram looks calm, though nervous; but Ashu is excited. I look at Jaina, sitting in-between Ashu and Anish, guarding the left end of the raft. Anish is balancing me and he is wearing that blank expression he always does. Vasudha looks back and smiles, though I can’t figure out if she is nervous or just excited, or both. Mridul is guarding the rear, all alone; but she has gone rafting before and Brian is not that far from her. Brien shouts, ‘Guys, give me two forward’ and we try to move in unison. It takes time, but we get to synchronise our movements after a few clumsy attempts.

 Our first fall is a five foot one. The tension builds up. The water ahead looks calm. But then we also see the rafts in front of us disappearing once they are across a certain point. We row on. I clamp my feet harder under the cylindrical airbags. Brian assures me that the friction is enough for you to do a complete flip, when the adrenalin rush is at its highest, and still stay inside the raft. But I don’t believe him and rotate my feet to the point of breaking them. And we dive. Water splashes around. Everybody shouts. The initial fear is gone. We are looking at each others’ face. Some seem to think it was not as bad as we were anticipating. I agree with them. Some are only savouring their first dive and the splashing black water of the black river. The raft undulates, with the waves guiding it forward and we sit back and do a ‘paddle check’. It gives you some sort of unexplainable pleasure to see all those happy faces around you. These are the times to cherish, when you are amongst your friends, laughing out loud even on as small a thing as clearing a level two drop, oblivious to all the tension and pain hidden inside you. I snap back from that philosophical outburst. Sorry, it's an incorrigible short-coming of mine.

When we are on calm waters, Brian tells us stories and incidents associated with the river. One of them strikes me. It was a cold January night. And the bridge that we are about to cross was covered with snow. When you are stuck in a car during snow fall, the last thing you should do is come out and try helping yourself. Well, the poor soul did just that and ended up diving into the river. Imagine falling thirty feet down into rock and ice-cold-water. The guy suffered from hypothermia and was in ICU for three days. But as luck would have it, he was left without any major injuries and went home after three days’ care, with a few minor bruises only. The kayakers of Black River still cut jokes about how he should have played a hell lot of lotteries.

‘The water is pretty still. You can jump in if you want to.’ Ashu doesn’t need any more cues. In he goes, just as he always does when he is around water. Anish and Sriram follow suit. Now usually I have a predisposition of not doing anything that I don’t absolutely have to, but it looks fun. So I dive in. Paddling in water and staying afloat had always given me a nightmare; but with the life jacket on, life looks simpler. I stay afloat, straight, for the first time in my life, and I sure do enjoy it. Hesitant at first, Mridul and Vasudha jump in; though I must add here, the latter is pretty scared of water. Jaina still stays back, even though I ask her umpteen times to give it a try. Well, she would have her fare share of ‘water-sport’ in a short while though. Uh oh, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves now, should we?

I turn about to see a kayaker kayaking with us the whole time. “He is the leader. He is the one who is gonna assist you if you fall off the raft. And you know what, he is a Youtube sensation. Go find a video on ‘how not to do a kayak roll’ and the thirteen-year-old-kid you see getting bloody trying it is him. He is only nineteen now.” As Brian tells us about him, we watch him do a perfect kayak-roll off a level five fall. I give him a thumbs-up. He smiles back. And after a look at that boyish face, I realise I am older than him.

We decide we should name the raft something. Vasudha suggests ‘Mermaid’. I disagree. ‘Mean machine’ seems more appropriate. Anish supports me. Ashutosh nods. Now I could never understand what it is with girls that makes them stick together when they are up against boys, even though they fight amongst each other most of the time; the girl brigade, obviously,  goes for ‘Mermaids’. The silly bickering goes on for some time before an equally silly solution is suggested- ‘Mean Mermaids’. I give up. ‘Concentrate on the white water’, I tell myself.

‘Here comes the Knife’s Edge, the most dangerous fall you have to raft through today. Pay attention to my words and do exactly as I say, as a team. Give me two forward.’ We all paddle at the same time. But it hardly counts. We miss the water and essentially paddle in the air. Brien shouts, ‘Give me three backward.’ We try harder. I reiterate Brian, shouting at the top of my voice. In the excitement, I hit people around me while paddling. But everyone is too engrossed to notice anything. Thud! The raft crashes. The water swirls and with it, the raft too. We jump off our seats. But my legs are firmly pressed onto the holder. We undulate. Water rushes everywhere, but we still hold our ground and enjoy the panic. We are all safe inside the raft and looking at each other. Oh no, wait! That was a premature statement. Someone from the shore points to something floating away in the water, with the current. I look closer and it hits me. I look back and yes, Jaina is missing. Amidst all that excitement, I hardly noticed when the person sitting behind me had done a belly flip and was now enjoying the sway. I remembered, Jaina did not want to dive in before, when all of us did. May be the Black River got too interested in her to let her go! ;) They say you can’t think rationally when you are facing peril. Jaina has two choices- to go after her shoe, which is floating away in front of her or to swim for the oars we are stretching out to her. She decides she would rather have the lone pair of the long lost shoe as a souvenir.

‘Now it’s time for my favourite part- “The Cruncher”. It is gonna be very adventurous and it is optional. You don’t have to do it if you are afraid. So, what do you say guys, are you up for it? Why don’t you first see what happens to the other team in the Cruncher! ’ We look up. The Cruncher is essentially a spot where the rocks are so aligned that once the raft gets into the cracks, it gets caught in the vortex and it is almost impossible to row out of that tight a spot. Other guides throw you a rope and then you have to be pulled out. We see the other group go into the Cruncher. We hear them shouting. We see them disappear in those large waves and we panic. But what’s the point in coming for rafting if you are going to miss the most perilous part of it! So with a bit of apprehension in heart, we move forward. Getting into the Cruncher seems easy. We revel. And then the first wave hits us. We had seen the previous group suffer. Now we knew how much worse and more dangerous it actually is. The raft is almost overturned. The left side goes straight up and Brien shouts, ‘Hit the deck’. We move into the middle of the raft. But that is hardly of any help. I press hard against Sriram.  He gets uncomfortable. But then, at a time when you can’t breathe, a squeeze hardly ever matters. I see Ashu and Anish enjoying. Mridul and Vasudha are huddled together. Mridul forgets to hang on to the rope and the two poor little souls rock from here to there. What is Jaina doing- I have no idea, nor the courage to look back.  The fun part gets over, at least for me. I am shouting, ‘Haven’t we had enough of this? When are we getting out of this? Is it gonna continue forever?’ Well, while this poor fella was scared to death, Brian was busy pulling us all out and in a short while, which seemed like eternity, we are back in calm waters.

‘How was the Cruncher?’ ‘It was freaking awesome’, comes the unanimous reply. ‘You people up for any more adventure? Because hell yeah, I still have something up my sleeve. You see that spot over there, where the water is swirling? You can jump off a rock into that spot and then be carried away by the water current- a novel experience.’ 'Don’t panic, there are no rocks down there’, he adds after passing a cursory look at my face. I don’t need a nudge this time. Almost everybody agrees. It looks like fun. Only Vasudha panics, thanks to her aquaphobia. I jump in and take help of the Kayaker to come to shore, as the current is a bit too much to negotiate on your own. Jaina dives and drinks a lot of water, unintentionally. Mridul perhaps was too empathetic of Jaina’s lost shoe -- so she loses one of hers. Anish enjoys the splash thrice and still then, he is not satisfied. He considers another dive in, but decides against it. And finally, Brian comes up and Vasudha finally gives way, defeated in front of Brian’s charming wit. Still, she hangs on to him for dear life when they both dive in. Anish and I have a blast pulling her leg.

As the day progresses, the excitement gradually starts to wear off. We hit the Square Rock without much ado. After that experience in the Cruncher, the falls are a lot less scary now. The rafting is over. We don’t see any more falls in the distance. Brian lets the air out of the cylinders that were working as a support all the while. We lie down. I am far from exhausted. I start singing. ‘Who is singing like a girl?’ I don’t stop. Samanvaya and party come closer. We take each other’s pictures. The rafts are all tied to a boat and we are pulled forward. Jaina is busy in small talks with Brian. Ashu jumps into the water and I have to pull him up.  Mridual is a bit restless. She doesn’t know what to do. First she tries sleeping for a short while. Then she sits up and comments on my songs and tone. May be she is still mad about getting hurt when she was pulled onto the raft off the water a little while back. Vasudha and Anish are busy dipping their legs and playing with water on the left side of the raft. Sriram is just sitting there, smiling. We taunt the other team, for almost all of them fell off the raft, some time or another. And Sushmit got a hatrick. We enter a very beautiful place. There are tiny islands scattered around the river bed. We cross them. It’s a feast to the eye. I notice the trees are lying down, as if to reach out to the water with their leaves and branches. I remember a description about roots of trees not being able to seep enough water and then the branches coming down to take care of themselves. I pass it by Jaina. She disagrees. I am not convinced.

I stand up. The view looks perfect this way. I remove my life jacket. Cold breeze gives me a shiver. But I am enjoying it. I lift my hands to embrace the sensation and feast upon nature’s beauty.
“Are you trying out the Titanic pose?”
“Well, I wasn’t. But if you care to come up, I can do that, since I guess there was a girl in the front.”
“Ah, that’s exactly why YOU are in the front.”
I am reminded of my wingies. I miss their jokes and the leg-pulling. Anyways, the present company is equally alive and kicking. So I stop contemplating and keep gazing into the setting red sun.