Thursday, April 13, 2006

Rafting Wrap-Up, Or How I Found My Sense of Humor in Uganda (How Did It Get All the Way Over There?)

So a month later I am posting something called Rafting Wrap-Up, mostly because I just received an sms out of the blue from one of the rescue kayakers in Uganda who saved my ass about 20 times, and was suddenly reminded that I haven’t blogged yet about one of the best things to do in Africa: raft the Nile. Better late than never I guess.

There is a running tradition in PC/Kenya that each group of volunteers goes rafting in Uganda right after in-service training, about three months into their service. Because of the lockdown in November, our IST was postponed to December, and our rafting trip was postponed to March. I’ve been a swimmer my whole life but I don’t think those skills really cross over to being catapulted out of a raft into churning Class 5 rapids with euphemistic names like The Bad Place and The Dead Dutchman. So I was a bit reluctant to go. I’ve rafted a few times before, in the U.S. and in Thailand, but nothing more than Class 3 rapids. Rapids are graded from Class 1 through 6, and as PCV Misty, a veteran rafter, explains, Class 6 = Death.

Just a plug here for Nile River Explorers in Jinja, Uganda. There are three rafting outfitters that ply that stretch of the Nile flowing from Lake Victoria. Nile River Explorers supposedly is the cheapest, especially with the Peace Corps discount. The camp faces west over the river and has a nice bar, dorms, private cabins, campsite and best of all, shower stalls with one wall “missing” that looks out over the Nile. The staff and guides are top-notch, well-trained and take your safety seriously. Of all the outfitters I’ve ever rafted with anywhere in the world, NRE is the most professional and their guides and rescue kayakers are world-class. Many of them are on the Ugandan kayaking team.

Our whole group of 27 PCVs showed up at the put-in area the first day lathered in sunscreen and giddy with excitement, or second thoughts (“I’m voluntarily marching towards my own death. Admittedly a rather romantic one, in which my cold purple corpse could be floating down the longest and most legendary river in the world, eventually becoming an evening feast for crocodiles, Nile perch and cormorants.”)

A small flock of inflatable orange rafts was waiting for us on the bank of the river, while our guides tried to look busy (shirtless and flexing their muscles) doing some final maintenance on these thin tubes of rubber that meant the difference between returning to our noble lives as PCVs in Kenya, and a letter that begins, “We regret to inform you…”

Obviously the risks involved with rafting are smaller than I’m making it sound. The designated “safety talker,” Juma, hopped onto the end of his raft and began his speech.

“I’m Juma and I’m here to talk to you about safety. Unfortunately I don’t speak much English so hopefully you’ll eventually figure it out yourself.”

What’s this? Something strangely foreign yet familiar. A sense of humor? I haven’t seen one of those in awhile.

“To put on your life jacket, make sure you pull the straps really, really tight around your chest. Make sure it’s so tight you can’t breathe, because you don’t need to breathe when you’re underwater.”

After the safety talk, we selected our rafts. I climbed into a raft with Jen L, Tom, John, Tessa, and Patrick (who later bailed due to that fact that he’s smarter than the rest of us). We settled into our chosen seats, paddles resting in our laps, helmets and life jackets strapped on tightly. The boat was still well inland, on the sandy bank. Our guide, Alex, came over to introduce himself, but instead just looked at us like we were idiots. “You’re all facing the wrong way,” he said.


He instructed us to get out of the boat and carry it into the water. Good advice. Once we were on the river, Alex gave us another safety talk, about how to handle our paddles without decapitating or inflicting lifetime head injuries upon each other, how to respond to the commands he would use to guide us through each rapid (“Get down doesn’t mean get funky and start shaking your booty. It means crouch down inside the boat so that all your weight is lower.”), how to fall out of the boat, how to get back into the boat, how to float down the river, and how to communicate with the safety kayakers.

“Okay, are we ready to hit our first rapid?” Alex said in the most charming Ugandan-New Zealand accent ever.

“Uhh…” We’d probably never feel ready.

“Don’t worry, this is the first time I’ve ever guided anyone on the river. Hakuna matiti!” (No boobs.) “Oh, I mean, hakuna matata.” (No problem.)

As all the rafts made their way downstream towards the first rapid, a laid-back Class 2, we heard one boat scream, “Alex’s mom is a pregnant gecko!”

In retaliation, Alex had us yell, “Juma is a lizard!”

A few moments later Juma sailed by and said, “Hey Alex, how are your wife and my two kids?”

I started to realize that despite the fact that our guides were probably recycling these jokes and one-liners day after day for each new batch of rafters, I was laughing. Really hard. Like I hadn’t laughed in months. MONTHS.

I needed to lighten up at site. Lately there had been nothing to distract me from obsessing for hours on end about how absurdly offensive it is to be screamed at everywhere I go for looking different. Or about the suffering and struggle that people, especially women, in my community go through every day because of corruption and gender inequality.

Alex was a great guide, and a deadpan comedian who rarely cracked a smile at his own jokes, but laughed at everyone else’s stupid comments (the operative phrase being “laughed AT”, not WITH). Strangely enough, he claims he’s never been outside of Uganda, yet his accent sounds like someone who has lived in New Zealand for years. He took us all the way down the river without letting us flip, except for the very last fall, an insane Class 6 (“Death”) that involved a short portage to the last section, which was calm enough to be rated a Class 5. This was where “The Bad Spot” was.

We watched two rafts ahead of us sail right through with no problems, and we thought, “Maybe it just looks treacherous. We can do it.”

No, we couldn’t. We all shot out of the raft like cannon fodder, and within seconds the rescue kayakers had converged on us and plucked us all out of the water. We took a short hike to the pickup point, where our buses and a BBQ picnic were waiting for us. And by BBQ picnic, I mean the best lukewarm steak, salad and beer I’ve ever eaten in my life. The staff hustled us onto the bus so they could clean up before the rains came.

“Who’s going rafting tomorrow?” someone asked.

Not me. I had to get back to site. It couldn’t possibly get any better than today.


The next morning, I was on a truck with six other PCVs to go rafting again. We were the crazies, going back for a second dose of life-threatening adrenaline. (Not really, Mom.) Everyone else opted for a day of relaxation (read: drinking beer at the bar), hiking and swimming along the river bank, kayaking lessons, or for the truly fearless, bungee jumping over the river.

Each raft holds six rafters plus a guide, and there were seven in our group, so I volunteered to go in a raft with a bunch of strangers – a British couple and a German woman. I thought that fewer people in the boat meant we’d flip less often. I was wrong. We flipped on nearly every Class 3 and larger rapid.

Later I found out that just for kicks the guides basically instruct you in a way that makes the boat flip or not, depending on how much swimming he or she wants to see you do that day. Our guide was Juma, and he was a grinning troublemaker. Thanks to him, I got to know all the rescue kayakers pretty well.

And honestly, the more times I got thrown out of the boat, the more I began to shed my fear of the river. Most of the rapids look intimidating, but even the “washing machine” spots that suck you under and churn you around like an old pair of jeans eventually spit you out after 5 or 10 seconds, and then your life jacket forces you back to the surface. What makes it scary is when you don’t know the dynamics of these spots, and you think you’re being sucked to the bottom of the river. The guides warned us of sketchy places, and made it a point to avoid them, telling us which direction to swim if we got thrown out of the boat.

I had a painful sunburn on the top of my thighs from the day before, so I wore a long skirt in the boat. It seemed like a good idea at first, but ended up being a big drag, literally, everytime I fell in and tried to swim. But I didn’t want to be sizzling for another six hours because of what Misty describes as “basically sitting on a mirror all day.”

I didn’t have to worry about that. After an hour the equatorial sun started retreating behind some clouds. Some ominous gray clouds rose from the horizon behind us, and by lunch time we were basically paddling to outrun the storm.

The other three rafters in my boat stared at my head and started laughing hysterically.

“Look at your hair!” the German woman said. “It’s standing straight up!”

I looked at her hair and it was doing the same thing. It was like something out of a cartoon, long strands of hair sticking up perfectly straight, as if she had stuck her finger in an electrical socket.

“Um,” I said. “Isn’t this what happens to people just before they’re about to be struck by lightning?”

No one else seemed to think it was very plausible, and I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but (whisper) we didn’t get struck by lightning. But the storm had caught up to us, and it started raining big, heavy drops. The wind picked up.

“Juma, let’s paddle,” we said to our guide. “We’re getting cold.”

I was glad I’d worn my skirt after all, because although it was wet, it was still warmer to cover my legs with it than not at all. Even Juma was starting to shiver, and while we paddled, he huddled down in a ball inside the boat to keep warm.

“What a crap guide,” I said. “He’s so scared of the river he’s shivering.” I was still trying to get even with him for knocking me off balance when I was trying to dive off the edge of the boat earlier in the day. I’d fallen in sideways and sucked in a nose-full of schistosomiasis-infested Nile water.

All the rafts rendez-voused at the top of a big fall, a Class 5. The rain was pounding down in a blinding sheet now, and combined with sound of the roaring falls, everyone in my boat was basically staring glassy-eyed and intimidated at the rapids ahead of us, which we could barely see. Jen, the one female guide (who has a body of steel), paddled up with a bag of long-sleeved nylon pullovers and passed them to us as we gratefully reached out our cold, white, snot-covered hands.

“Let’s go,” Juma said after we’d put on our pullovers. We looked at each other in confusion. Go where? It’s raining.

We paddled into a rock-enclosed eddy to the right of the falls, and hung out for a few minutes. He just wanted us to find a calmer spot to rest, I thought, much to my relief. We were all still being pelted by cold rain, and I was in no mood to go over those giant falls and be cast into the water when I was already feeling hypothermic.

“How long do you think it will be until the rain lets up?” I asked Juma. He shrugged.

“Let’s go,” he said again. I looked at the other people in the boat, who all looked as nervous as I did. We started paddling obediently, but we weren’t sure what he was thinking. We weren’t ready to go over the falls. “Paddle forward!”

The raft edged out of the eddy and downstream towards the rapid.

“Juma, we don’t want to go yet,” I said. The German woman behind me looked terrified.

“Paddle right!” he said. The boat straightened and we were heading into the falls.

“Wait,” I said. We all said it. “Wait! We don’t want to go yet!” The German woman started to cry. We stopped paddling in protest, but Juma paddled us closer to the falls.

“Juma!” I yelled. “Stop! Stop!” I imagined us all being flipped out of the boat and the German woman drowning in her panic. But it was too late. The rapids sucked in our raft eagerly and we were in the middle of it, being tossed high in the air on whitewater, then plunging down into the base of the waves, dwarfed by heartless, sparkling sea green.

“GET DOWN!!” Juma bellowed. We did. A large wave crashed over our heads and into our boat, but miraculously, or maybe not so miraculously, we were still afloat and upright, and the rapids were behind us. We all looked at each other, then broke into huge grins. We’d made it! And we were warmer, because the river felt like bathwater compared to the rain.

“Let’s do it again! The water’s warm!” the British woman said.

I looked at the German woman, who was also smiling with relief. Then I looked at Juma, who was calm, but wouldn’t make eye contact with us. He seemed annoyed and hurt that we hadn’t trusted him.

At that moment, I realized that maybe an American guide would have waited until we were ready to go over the falls, but our Ugandan guide, despite ignoring our pleas, trusted his own instincts enough to take us through the falls safely. It’s not the way I would have done it, but even though we didn’t know it at the time, Juma knew the river, and his own skills, well enough to know he wasn’t compromising our safety. I loved this man.

The rain eased to a determined, but not aggressive, hammering. None of the guides had ever seen rain like this on the river before. Most of them had kayaked this stretch hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. Even though we were rafting the same route as yesterday, it felt like we were on a different river altogether. The rapids were no more or less brutal, but the weather made everything a greenish gray, and the rain elevated all our audio and visual surroundings to melodrama. The day was beautiful in its own right – moody, stark, and cold. We were literally at one with nature, not exactly embraced in her warm, reassuring bosom, but swallowed into her belly.

The day before had been one of those clear-blue African skies days, leisurely floating past vibrant green banana farms and the funny round huts common in this area of Uganda. Cormorants perched on poop-encrusted rocks, lazily fanning their wings to dry. The sun bore down on us, with no respect for SPF 45. Our legs, which had been covered by long skirts and trousers for the last nine months to protect the sensibilities of our conservative village communities, fried. Fortunately the safety helmets we were wearing, which made us all look like kids on the short bus, were dense enough that they shielded our faces, ears and scalps from the sun. I was one of the luckier whities. My legs only felt like they were on fire for two days. I could still walk, gingerly, and I never blistered. I only peeled – huge, satisfying sheets of skin, in clean wide strips. If you looked closely at the peels, you could even see the little holes where the hair follicles were. It was fascinating, to me only.

The rest of our trip was relatively uneventful. Juma directed us right into the roilingest part of each rapid and we were consistently tossed out of the boat as it flipped over, but by then we were all comfortable bobbing down the river in our life jackets, with our feet pointing up and in front of us, while safety kayakers chased after us. BBQ and beer greeted us at the end again, and the crazies all agreed that our second day on the river was even better than the first. No regrets.

When you visit Kenya, I’ll take you to Uganda.


Blogger Jess said...

You've got me SO EXCITED for Kenya.

I have a bazillion questions, though, beginning with 'aren't we supposed to get a packing list, with suggestions from current and past PCVs?'

Great writing, by the way. I love it!

9:16 PM  
Blogger Ebony said...

i love your writing. you should write a book!

11:44 PM  

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