Sunday, June 25, 2006

Going Not So Rapidly to the Rapids

There is a very good reason why I broke my 25-day writing streak this Saturday. This weekend, we set out to Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city, located to the south of the island. Kaohsiung, which lies below the Tropic of Cancer, is almost as far south as Hanoi in Vietnam. It also happens to be one of the warmest places in Taiwan. But our final destination wasn’t the city itself, rather, it was Lao Nong river, one of the most exciting spots for rafting in the country.

We left Taipei City during the night of Friday to Saturday, taking the midnight bus leaving from Taipei Main Station. The distance, as the bird flies, between Taipei City and Kaohsiung is 290 kilometers (for the sake of comparison, that between Montreal and Quebec City is 270 km). This is close to the full length of the country itself, at approximately 360 km from the northernmost part to the southernmost one. In relatively flat countries like Canada, driving the 290 km would take around three hours, if not less. But Taiwan is, well, a bit different. The expressway which links the two cities is anything but straight; instead, it winds its way round mountains and goes through numerous changes in altitude. With a 40-minute break in the middle of the night, we arrived in Kaohsiung at 07:00 the next morning. In little more than six hours, we had covered the 290 km.

On the way there, and even more so on the way back, we could see how fecund the Taiwanese soil is: all around us, the country’s trademark bluish layered mountains hovered about; below them, thick forests bursting with life (there are more butterflies in Taiwan than anywhere else I have been to), flooded rice fields were brushing elbows with sugar cane fields, palm trees, bamboo, and mango trees. To prevent insects from eating the delicious fruit, every single fruit in a mango tree is covered by a bag.

But the discomfort of sitting on a bus was soon forgotten as we caught our first glimpse of the river we would soon be taking on. First, however, we needed to get our gear and stand in an oven-like hall while a burly Taiwanese explained in Mandarin how to properly harness our safety vests (do it the wrong way and as they pull you out of the water your family jewels will remind you that you should pay more attention next time). After we were done listening to the man (during which half hour I must have sweated gallons of water), we were put on a bus and headed for the embarkation area. Altogether, there must have been fifty eight-seater rafting boats on the river. We divided into teams and soon got on our boat.

We got to an ill-boding start. No sooner had we engaged into the water than we hit a small rock and two of our passengers went overboard. Once we’d recuperated our team members, we decided to reorganize who did what. As the heaviest person on the boat, I was put in front, one of the two rowers. Next to me, Chris, a Taiwanese editor at the magazines I work for, had the other paddle. We were the two men on the raft. Stephanie, sitting behind me, was the only crew member who’d ever done rafting before.

There are six official categories for whitewater rafting, though the sixth one doesn’t really apply to mortals. Class I is no rapids, smooth flowing water; II is some rough water, though the way is clear and easy to see; III is active but safe for large raft boats; IV is for experienced paddlers only; the route through the rapids may require quick maneuvering; V is worse; and VI is impassable, exploratory only. Ours was a IV. Chris and I weren’t bad on the paddling, but experienced we certainly weren’t. Still, we managed to do the entire river with relatively little damage. Many other rafts capsized at the more challenging points. Often, we’d see helmets, paddles and running shoes pass us by in the water. Whenever there were too many people in the water, the rule was that we were to wait for them on the bank while the rescuers, armed with speedboats (and one of them with a cigarette in his mouth, without fail) put everything back together. One area proved especially difficult on the rafters, so much so that their trip ended there and they were driven back to the base. The physical injuries were all minor, but the psychological damage was done; many swore they’d never set foot in water ever again.

But that wasn’t us. We cleared the waves, rocks and other obstacles with unexpected skill, and during the entire bumpy ride we only lost one more person (the lightest of us all, and she was, indeed, quite a diminutive Taiwanese). We also lost five or six shoes, but in the process we managed to get from two to four paddles (no one seems to know where they came from).

It was an amazing experience, demanding physically but quite cathartic. As I write this early Sunday morning, every muscle in my body, from the legs up, reminds me that what we did yesterday was no walk in the park. Rafting is an occasion to be in nature and to challenge yourself. Every now and then and depending on the level of difficulty, we are reminded that nature is in charge. You can maneuver, paddle and hold on to dear life; sometimes you’ll manage to alter the conditions so that the worst is avoided. But as with everything else in life, you can only do so much. Sometimes, you have no choice but to go with the flow. In a way, rafting provides a good metaphor for life. It teaches us, much like the wise Lao Tzu did a long time ago, that one need accept, as opposed to always fight, one’s fate, and to let life take us where we are meant to go.

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