I love Bear Grylls, quirky English star of “Man vs. Wild” on the Discovery Channel.  I love his funny accent.  I love his penchant for getting naked on the show.  Mostly, I love his unshakeable schoolboy optimism in the face of adversity.  I like to make fun of his catchphrase: “It’s not ideal.”  Example:

 “Right, I’ve just jumped into this pit of icy water.  I seem to have dislocated my right shoulder, and I’m fairly sure that a killer seal has hold of my left leg.  The bank is too slippery for me to grab a hold of, and I can feel my brain cells shutting down from the cold.  It’s not ideal, but I think I can get through it.”

 If someone created a spectrum to measure adventurousness in humans, Bear Grylls would be at one end, and I’d be pretty darn close to the other.  I wouldn’t be right at the end– I did come to live in rural Africa for a year– but I’d be close.  People generally consider me a city girl.  You know, concrete jungle rather than real jungle.    

 My experience rafting on the Nile River last weekend sort of blew that perception out of the water.  Literally.

 There’s a town at the source of the Nile in central Uganda called Jinga.  According to most guidebooks it is fast becoming the adventure capital of Eastern Africa.  This is mostly because of the crazy-ass white water rafting available on the river.  The dam at the source creates a series of class 3 to class 5 rapids within the first thirty kilometers of the river which are perfect for rafting.  Although, I suppose that depends on your definition of ‘rafting.’  If you’re the sort of person who likes to stay in the raft, then I suggest you find another stretch of river.

 The Canadians talked me into it.  Especially Mackenzie.  He’s the only guy in the group of nursing students we have staying at the guest house right now, and he is gung ho.  He’d be approaching Bear on the spectrum.  We squished into a matatu and all headed down to Jinga last weekend.  We stayed at a beautiful campsite over-looking a set of falls along the river.  They stopped being so pretty when I learned that I was going to be going over them in a rubber dingy the next day.  To compensate for my growing nerves, I drank.  I also met Andrew, an extremely amiable and outgoing American who explained that he was “drinking his way around Africa.”  I liked him immediately, and we decided that he would be in our boat the next day.  It also helped that he was big and strong and had done this sort of thing before.

 The next morning I was definitely hung over, as were Andrew and Mackenzie.  We were committed though, and climbed onto the truck along with 21 other tourists, looking dubiously at the large orange rafts towing behind us.  I was sitting next to an English man named Gary.  He was 60, wore glasses, and looked like I could have broken him over one knee.  Gary only learned to swim last November.  I began to put things in perspective: if Gary could do this, I could.  At the rafting center I drank two large cups of coffee and tried to avoid watching the video of previous rafting trips playing on the TV screens.  The movie-maker had added a jaunty indie-rock soundtrack, but I wasn’t fooled.  Those people looked freakin terrified.                  

 Ruben, the manager of the place, stood up and gave us a sort of rambling introduction to the day.  He was from New Zealand and looked like he drank more than I did the night before.  He had a dry, sarcastic sense of humor, which I usually appreciate in a person.  But I was freaked out and hanging on his every word, and found his little quips disconcerting.  I also expected a serious training scenario, maybe with some large colorful posters and instructional videos.  I was mistaken.  Ruben informed us that we would get all the safety information we needed on the boat, and told us to go and get our lifejackets.  We must have looked like a herd of nervous sheep, white and bleating, bumping awkwardly into each other as we searched for a life jacket that fit.  A young Ugandan man helped me get strapped into my jacket.  He smiled widely:

 “My name is Joseph.  I’m one of the safety kayakers.  Later today I may save your life.” 

 “Well, uh, thank you in advance,” I responded.

 The whole operation was so low-key.  It turned out Ruben was the guide for our boat, and when we got to the river he nonchalantly instructed us to carry the raft down to the water and jump in.  I grasped my paddle, sat awkwardly on the edge, and listened avidly.  He seriously could have told me to stand on my head and sing Jingle Bells and I would have done it if it meant I wasn’t going to die.  He gave some pretty simple safety instructions and went through some basic commands: forward paddle, back paddle, get down.  It wasn’t rocket science.  Then he told us all to practice falling out of the boat, keeping hold of the rope that ran along the side of the raft.  We all looked at each other awkwardly, and I finally took the plunge.  As I rose to the surface Ruben was looking down at me: “Good, now try actually holding on to the rope.”  Turns out that holding on to a rope is a skill I fundamentally lack.  It was a deficiency that would haunt me for the rest of the day.

 Rafting is not a graceful experience.  I, in particular, struggled with getting myself from the water back into the boat.  Usually I waited until someone was available to grab the shoulders of my life jacket and yank me in.  Several embarrassing things can happen at this moment.  First, your wet, loose shorts can slide down a foot or two and leave you spread-eagled over the side of the raft, basically mooning everyone.  Second, the person pulling you can fall backwards and sit down, leaving your nose planted pretty firmly in his or her crotch.  Third, you can writhe around awkwardly on the raft side and floor for far too long, sustaining several paddle wounds, before you are actually upright.  Combine these three, and as Ruben said: “Some people would pay good money to see this.”

 Simply speaking, the rapids themselves were the most intense things I’ve ever experienced.  The pattern for each was similar.  As we approached all the friendly banter would cease, and Ruben would begin telling us which way to paddle.  We were like a pack of eager boy scouts, paddling our little hearts out.  Once we were on a line that Ruben liked we would paddle straight into the rapid then he would yell ‘get down,” meaning crouch in the center of the boat and hold onto the outside rope.  At this point the raft would start bucking like a bull on speed, large quantities of water would engulf me, and I would scream manically until it was all over.  On our first class 5 rapid we hit the center wave and got caught in this weird surfing limbo on top of it for about thirty seconds.  Huge waves were pouring in on top of us and we were all holding on for dear life.  As Devon succinctly said: “I thought I was going to drown, in the boat.”  Looking at the footage later that night, we saw Ruben waving his paddle around and bouncing on the back of the boat, whooping like some demented cowboy.     

 We had our first flip on a class four rapid called Chop Suey.  I definitely knew the raft was flipping for about five seconds before I was actually in the water, and I also definitely failed to hold onto the rope.  As we went under I felt something connect pretty powerfully with my upper lip, but then I just focused on getting my head above the surface.  The water was churning with waves and bodies, but I managed to get my head above and see that I was reasonably near the raft.  I swam over and grabbed a hold of the elusive rope.  Ruben had already climbed on top and flipped it back over in a matter of seconds.  Andrew climbed in smoothly, and then they set about yanking the rest of us in.  I was a little bruised and battered, but I was exhilarated. 

 In between rapids there were long stretches of calm.  We could jump out and swim, play balancing games, chat.  Andrew and Ruben exchanged humorous rafting stories.  Andrew laughed his big booming laugh and swam around pulling everyone else out of the raft whenever possible.  We had splashing contests with the other boats.  We all got intensely sun burnt, especially our knees.  We all laughed at the Spanish dude who had worn a Speedo rafting (“No nut-huggers allowed,” according to Ruben). 

 Late in the afternoon a dramatic thunderstorm rolled in.  The cold rain pelted the water and everything turned slate grey.  We had one rapid left: a class 5 called “The Bad Place.”  Speaks for itself, really.  To get to this rapid we had to get out and carry the boat overland, past a class 6 rapid that led into The Bad Place.  We all stood on the muddy bank, hunched over and shivering, watching the driving rain and the lightening and the roiling, thundering water.  It looked like the Apocalypse.  I was cold and tired and dehydrated.  Devon was freaked out after the last flip, and didn’t want to get back in the boat.  We all gathered around and persuaded and entreated and implored.  Emotion was high and the setting dramatic.  Even Andrew had stopped laughing.  Ruben had been telling us for the last half hour that his goal was to get us through The Bad Place with no funny business, no flips, no nothing.  Now he stepped it up a notch.  He told Devon that he rarely made promises, but he promised that the raft wasn’t going to flip on this rapid.  She finally agreed to come.  I walked away with the calm certainty that we were going to flip and I was probably going to drown.  I even said a little prayer.  For real.         

 We flipped about twenty seconds after we pushed off from the bank.  The rope wasn’t even a concept in a corner of my mind.  I was gone, sucked away and hurtling along underwater.  My eyes were open but all I could see were brown swirls and bubbles.  I had no idea which way was up, or how to get my head above the water. 

 It was not ideal. 

 Just as a giant bubble of panic rose in my throat my head popped above the surface.  I was immediately confronted by another giant wave and took a shallow breath before my head went under again.  This continued for a few seconds, and in between waves I panted and looked around for somebody, anybody.  I couldn’t see any rafts, and I couldn’t figure out how far downstream I was.  I finally saw a kayaker in the distance plucking Mackenzie out of the water.  I raised an arm and began timidly calling for help.  Think Kate Winslet in Titanic when that one boat comes back and she’s all frozen.  Then I saw another kayaker close-by, and began ineffectively swimming towards him.  He spotted me and paddled over.  I grabbed onto the front of the boat and wrapped my legs around it in yet another awkward rafting position.  I lay back in the water and stared up at the dark grey sky.  I stifled an urge to laugh.  My panting began to subside and I looked up, right into Joseph’s smiling face as he paddled me back to safety.

 “Hey!” I said, “You told me you were going to save my life.” 

 His smile widened.  “And I did,” he said.

 That seriously happened.  Even I wouldn’t make up something that cheesy.  Bear Grylls eat your heart out.

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