Rafting had always meant Chaco tans, sunburns, and refreshing cold river swims. I’m sure those are the dreams I woke up from, laying under our tarps on the banks of the Kali river in India.
As I snuck out to greet the sunny day, all of that changed. Clouds covered the sky. They crawled over the hills and peaks as if God’s hands tried to tear them down. By the time cheesy bagels filled our stomachs, the rain begun.
We donned rain jackets and packed our turquoise boats. The river looked menacing under the dark clouds, but we put our heads down and paddled. Huddled at the front of the paddled boat, wave after wave soaked me through. My rain jacket offered little protection but retained some of my heat. The hills faded from towns into lush green forests as the river pulled us away from our last camp.
The cold began to sink into my bones and the rain continued falling softly into the river. Desperate for fuel to keep our bodies warm and get a break from the icy waves, we docked the boats on the Nepalese bank.
We walked across the rock covered beach until the forest swallowed us up. The path wound over gnarled rhododendron roots to the white arch of a temple. I delicately entered the sacred ground. The buildings stood out in the gloom. This wasn’t a raging thunder storm but a weather system settling into the valley like an old dog to a couch.
The flags strung around the temple lay soaked like wilted flower petals in piles. It felt safe and protected from the world in those temple walls. After silently walking around the buildings, we reluctantly walked back to river.
The rain hadn’t let up and the river hadn’t warmed up. We passed wooden ferries between towns split by the Kali. My hands turned white around my paddle and shivers overtook my body every other breath, despite my frigid body the beauty around me was undeniable. In the coldest part of the day a beautiful raptor flapped its wings, catching a few rays of sun on its feathers. The sky disappeared under the rain. It was hard to believe anything else existed than the four turquoise boats and the Kali.
The river opened up and we took the first beach. Tents and stoves were set up quickly. Everyone was cold and in the middle of nowhere being cold is like a sinking ship – patch the holes immediately. I found out that day how hard it is to stay warm when being dry isn’t an option. The rain didn’t let up until later that night. I ran down beaches over and over just to keep the shivers from taking over. My mind struggled with the constancy of the discomfort.
A warm dinner of curry and basmati rice sent me to bed in my wet clothes, hoping my body heat would dry them by the next day.
The sun streamed through the clouds when I got up the next morning. My clothes were almost dry, and the stormless sky let us play in the river.
We paddled fast ahead to make up for the early stop the day before. We camped across from a vertical forest over the river in Nepal, and with relief enjoyed the rainless air.
As we settled in to baking a pizza in celebration of the good weather, thunder clouds began to peak around the bend. These massive billows sent us scurrying to anchor and pack everything away. The wind howled, whipping sand into my eyes as I ran back to our tarps. Like a hammer cracking down, it hit us. In the pouring rain I desperately threw a few more boulders on our tarp anchors.
We huddled behind our bags, praying the violent gusts wouldn’t lift our tarps into the pouring rain and watching for scorpions that crawled in out of the storm. Pizza forgotten, I settled on cold sardines and almonds. The worst of the storm passed after a long hour. As it drizzled, I wormed into my sleeping bag. The wind battered my back the rest of the night.
I woke up drained by the weather the next morning, dreading the small clouds in the sky. I sat on the storm scattered beach in a quiet morning, digging sand out of my eyes. I felt utterly disheartened. My mind and body were worn out by the weather. I stared into the steep forest across the Kali as the river swirled by. That is when the eerie song began echoing through the valley. A stunning trilling, interrupted by an ax as a woman cut wood for her cooking fire.
The wild beauty surrounding me struck me in that song as it wavered in and out, almost dancing with the rivers sounds. My mere existence shrunk. This river would do with me what it wanted to, and I’d best find a way to enjoy the magic it held no matter my bodies reality.