By Jackie Leavitt
I’m focused on the rhythm of the paddling. The person in front of me dips her oar into the brown water, and I need to time mine perfectly so that I don’t crash into hers, like I seem to keep doing. I’m the last in line on the left side of the inflatable white water raft, so the paddling is a domino effect: the second person follows the first, the third follows the second, and I follow behind.
Part way down the class IV rapids on the Magdelana River in San Agustín, Colombia, I begin to realize I’m missing some of the passing scenery because I’m concentrating so much. I take my eyes off the undulating water whenever I can, soaking up the rocky and sandy beaches, the trees spilling around the banks and the whitened ripples of the river. But when our guide shouts, “fuerte,” I paddle hard, timing myself to the rowers’ rhythm.
And that’s why I have no idea we are tipping over until I fall all the way to the right side of the boat and see six of my fellow rafting crew members tumble into the turbulent waves frothing around our boat. For a moment it seems like the raft will flip, with the left side pointing high into the sky. But then we sink into a whirl pool, and three of us remain drenched and clinging to the round boat: me, the guide and a petite Colombian woman who can’t swim. We have a moment of stupor, when we just look around, as if confirming that — yes — there are only three of us here. And then it clicks: Six people are in the water. With their paddles. And we are still hurtling through the rough rapids.
We cast our own paddles to the floor, and it’s a mad rush to the side of the boat. Hands from our fallen friends stretch toward us, trying to grasp on so they aren’t swept downriver. We get a couple people half into the boat when we careen around another rock, tumbling them back into the water. When we right ourselves, I blindly thrust myself toward the squirming fingers rising from the water and grab on. I tug at the hands and arms of a British girl, but she can’t pull herself up, so I eventually grasp her lifejacket (and a bit of her blonde hair) and help lift her in. I stick out my paddle to a middle aged American man a few feet away and pull him in to the boat. I see a floating paddle and hook it with my own.
Everyone else is doing the same: grabbing arms, lifejackets and paddles when they come into reach. But some people get pulled away. One girl clings to a rock and reluctantly lets go to catch up as we swing by. Another guy is neck-to-neck with us in perfect floating form, feet pointed downriver, but is across the stream. A couple paddles are being swept away, so we rescue those before pulling into a quiet pool to wait for the last two people to swim in.
Eventually we get everyone back into the boat. And we laugh. And some shiver. And my mind reaches a quiet place where thoughts flow steadily and assuredly as the water we are on.
And I glance to the sun, shining strongly above our heads, and am thankful for the warmth. And I look at the rushing, glimmering water and know its power. And I gaze at the verdant mountain cliffs that loom over us and experience the wonder that this river, which flows all the way north to the Caribbean, carved its way to its current spot. And I listen to the whisper of the wind and the singing of the birds, and am soothed. And I feel each heart beat and each breath as something special. And I know what it’s like to be alive.