I was on a four-day trek en route to Machu Pichu during which I survived climbing through dense jungle foliage in the rain, mountain-biking down dirt roads (also in the rain), and using my bum to shift along mountain edges following the Inca trail – I am terrified of heights and the path was about 2 feet wide, on one side I had the mountain face, on the other, a long fall down to the Urubamba river, singing Lion King’s ‘Just can’t wait to be King’ was the only way I could go on. Also it was raining.
So there I was having survived all the forseeable challenges of my trek only to be tricked by fate to go on a spontaneous rafting trip down the Urubamba river and almost drown. We had just parked up in one of our stopover hostels, I was already wet, you know from all that rain, and so when the rafting guy came to gather a group together I figured I’d go along. You only live once right? Or at least die trying. We were in the raft being instructed by the instructor. I was sat in the middle – I’d heard this was the safest place – opposite a German man. By the end of our introduction to rivers and rafting I had learnt that we were in a Level 3 river (the danger scale goes to 5), the signals for the crew to jump inside, what to do if you fall overboard etc. I was having an amazing time, I was literally smiling to myself with that conscious thought; the sun was shining, I was – in my own opinion – a natural at this rafting jig, and I was in my element (I’m a water sign I take this stuff seriously). I was so euphoric at this spontaneous gamble that upon seeing some fisherman at the river bank I couldn’t resist a wave.
Moments later the instructor warns us of a rip that was coming up, we had already cruised through one earlier so I was confident that this one would be the same procedure. Yet as the raft lulled into the rip I could feel the difference this time around. The force of the water running in multiple directions was turning us around at a faster rate than we could compete with. The instructor gave the signal for all in-board and as we obeyed a scene unfolded of which I can still picture in slow motion. The raft flipped over and all I can remember is the flash of yellow of the raft, and the cold rush of water that swallowed my body. All I could think of was surely I would die because we were told what to do if one person fell out, not everyone! As chance would have it, the raft recovered itself to an upright position with the other five passengers still intact, it was the passengers in the supposed safest seats who were catapulted completely free of the raft. I found myself barely afloat in Peruvian river, the contrast from being totally content moments before to fighting to keep water from filling my lungs was overwhelming. I realised I hadn’t planned for death.
In the moments – and I say moments because my whole concept of time as I knew it was lost to me – that passed I went from sheer panic, to despair, to survival. Initially I tried to swim my way across the river’s current to the bank. It didn’t seem too far but I was soon to learn I had no control in this element. Although I was wearing a life jacket rapid waves threatened to drown me as I gasped for air. I thought how this couldn’t possibly be happening because I hadn’t told my parents I was here, it was impromptu, no one would know what happened to me I had only know my fellow trekkers for a day or so. As I skipped through the irrational thoughts I remembered our earlier instructions: in the event of falling into the river lie flat on your back FEET first. I ran out of patience with this tactic as I saw the distance between myself and the raft increasing. I took a risk, stupid one but one I’m not want to regret; I turned around to be propelled head first and swept down the river pass the abandoned German. At the sight of him my panic returned as I realised how desperately I wanted to survive and how alone I had felt for those seconds, minutes, lifetime? I grabbed him, a human rock in the midst of this motion. I latched on to be rescued by a man just as helpless as myself. I could have drowned him. Shocked by own actions I released him from my death grip back to the river.
I had managed to keep hold of my wooden paddle the entire time that I had spent flailing (drowning), as if it would save me from the monstrous river. It was my last defence. But the instant I touched the raft and felt an infinite number of hands grab hold of me, I no longer needed the paddle. I practically pushed it away with disgust; in my mind I must have imagined there was only room enough for one of us. I was determined it would be me. The look on the instructor’s face as he saw me cast out the stiff competition was painful. I have the rest of my life to be sorry I chucked away his livelihood, but that’s the point: I have the rest of my life.
The rest of the ride was spent chasing down the missing paddles. The sun was shining once more. My shock of a near-death experience manifested itself in the form of a manic smile and the distinct feeling that electricity was charging through my body. I had no time to process the experience, I was too busy apologising profusely to the German guy who I almost killed whilst simultaneously straining to avoid eye contact. He reminded me too much of my ugly survival instinct and I was ashamed.
We can never tell what will be just around the bend but to continue walking is to live, to stop still is no life.