“So, you know how to swim?”
Our tour guide asked us this almost as an afterthought as we pushed our raft into the Patate river. The members of the rafting group nodded. I did too, trying not to look at the river water churning around boulders.
My rafting group didn’t exactly look like we belonged on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Our group consisted of a twenty-something Irish man, a middle-aged mother and her adolescent daughter, a young Swiss backpacker, and then my friend Anna and I. Only the Irishman had any rafting experience. We were all shivering on the shore in ill-fitting wetsuits and the matching Keds sneakers the rafting company had given us. But I was sure we could swim – though I generally preferred the peaceful, chlorinated waters of the YMCA.
The icy river water licked at my ankles as I climbed into the raft. “We aren’t going to tip,” I told myself, looking up at the olive-green mountainside that towered above us, rather than at the snaking river ahead of us. I tried not to think about the freak accident that had occurred the year before, when a tour guide led a group on dangerously high river levels and lost two tourists.
Rafting had originally been Anna’s idea. She loved adventure and she loved the water. She was only visiting me in Ecuador for a month, so I wanted to make the most of it. Hundreds of people did this every year. Besides, Anna and I had asked at the tourist agency yesterday whether beginners could go rafting. The tour agent had smiled at me. “It’s more fun when you’re a beginner,” he told me.
Suddenly we were off. “Paddle!” our guide screamed. I stabbed awkwardly at the waves as our raft dove up and down, spraying us with water. I was fairly sure most people could have paddled better than me with a kitchen spatula. But there was no turning back now. “Woohooo!” Anna screamed in delight. “How is somebody not scared?” I managed to wonder amidst frantic paddling. And then, suddenly, it was calm. Flat water stretched before us.
“Well, he just threw us right into the tough stuff, didn’t he?” the Irish tourist commented nonchalantly as we glided downriver. He seemed about as relaxed as if he’d just taken a long nap. The mother, on the other hand, looked like she was ready to sue the rafting company.
“All right, next up, Class Four rapid!” the guide announced.
Anna and I glanced at each other. Class Four was the second highest – and therefore second most difficult – class of rapid. From what I had read, most beginners didn’t go higher than a Class Three.
The rapid swept us in, our raft dodging and tipping crazily. I wedged my foot more firmly under the seat in front of me, trying desperately to keep paddling while rocks flashed passed. Waves of water sprayed us as we went, making me feel like I was going through a car wash, but without the car.
But gradually I relaxed. Maybe this WAS fun… no matter how much we dove into the waves or almost beached on rocks, the raft somehow righted itself and we sailed down the current. I was beginning to feel invincible.
Soon we were over halfway there. Four rapids to go, the guide said. We approached a fork in the river.
“So!” the guide asked us. “Do you want to go the easy way or the difficult way?”
“Difficult!” the more adventurous people on board shouted. So our guide steered us to the right, around a giant rock. Or he tried to. The left side of the raft upended. “Stay in, stay in!” I thought to myself, desperately leaning in. But then I looked up to see Anna literally over my head, hurtling into the river. Stay in? Not a chance.
And then we were all in the water, current sweeping us downstream. The Swiss tourist smiled reassuringly at me. “Just keep your feet ahead of you!” she told me. I tried to smile back, when suddenly the current caught me. The force of it dragged me under, engulfing me in white water. I came up struggling for air. There were rocks everywhere. My raft was nowhere in sight, but another rafting group was sailing by. “Help!” I screamed uselessly, but they were too far from me to do anything. They watched me helplessly as I floundered, river pushing me through rapids and past rocks. I braced myself for the potential impact of those boulders, water filling my lungs when the current pushed me under too fast.
A kayaker appeared out of nowhere, yelling in Spanish. I grabbed his kayak. “Not like that!” he seemed to tell me, wanting me to switch positions. But he couldn’t explain it thoroughly while he was diving around rocks. I was whipped back and forth as if my wrists were rubber. Another current caught me….I was pushed underneath the kayak, where I held on from underneath, my body dragging over the rocks on the bottom of the river. My wrists were aching from holding on, my body clenched in case of a crash against one of those rocks. I couldn’t manage to keep holding on while breathing, so I let go. When I popped to the surface, I was suddenly among two other rafters. “Grab on!” the Irish guy said. We caught up to the kayak.
Exhausted, I snatched at the kayak, but the weight of all those people was too much. It swirled around for a moment in the current and then, to my horror I saw the kayak tip. “What will we do NOW?!” I thought in despair. I spun downstream, unable to see, too tired to try to swim. I felt a rock scrape off a rafting shoe.
Another raft sailed by…and somehow, miraculously, the Irishman and the Swiss woman were on the raft. “Help!” I wailed plaintively again. But of course, by then, they were too far away to even hear.
Out of nowhere, the kayaker appeared again. “He must not have tipped after all,” I thought, overcome with relief. This was possibly the greatest miracle on record. I grabbed on.
In a moment, we hit calmer waters. “Get me out of the water!” I screamed at him in desperation, seeing another rapid up ahead. This poor kayaker looked like he was about nineteen, scarcely out of high school. He looked back blankly. I mustered my Spanish. “Necesito salir el agua!!” The kayaker listened this time, steering me towards the shore. Gratefully, I crawled onto the beach.
But where was everyone else? I asked the kayaker if he knew. He just shrugged. So we waited.
After a small eternity, a raft emerged around the bend. I strained my eyes. There were only three people instead of seven: Anna, the mother, and the guide. I climbed on shakily, grateful that I didn’t have to paddle – there were only two paddles left on the raft. Instead I hung on to the mother who was seated in the middle. At first, she seemed surprised, but then she smiled at me.
“Did you float all the way down here?” she asked me.
“Float is one word for it,” I said.
We went through one final rapid and rounded a bend. Our guide did a quick count of the people on the beach – everyone was there. Another raft had picked them all up. The mother sighed in relief when she saw her daughter waving.
We all exchanged stories over lunch that day – some better, some worse. We were all just glad to be in one piece. And I decided that if anyone in Ecuador ever told me something was for beginners again – well, I wouldn’t believe it.