Can you identify whether a river is masculine or feminine? Did you even know that there were female and male rivers? I didn’t. Not until I experienced river rafting in Bhutan.
On a week-long trip to this tiny country nestled in the ranges of the Himalayas, we headed to the town of Punakha, famous for the Punakha Dzong (fortress). But before visiting the fortress, we stopped at the rafting point on the gently flowing Mo Chhu river, which meets the more turbulent Pho Chhu somewhere downstream of the fortress.
A handful of rafts, in various stages of inflation, sat at the edge of a parking lot. Gentle waves lapped at the edges of the fully inflated ones which waited for the next group to get ready. I walked up to a narrow metal bridge festooned with colorful prayer flags and walked over to the other side of the river as I waited for our turn. Like elsewhere in Bhutan, it was calm, peaceful and soothing.
There’s always a first time
While I have been brave enough to get up on a hot air balloon in Turkey, tried my hand at parasailing in Australia and have also done skydiving in New Zealand, for some reason, I had never tried river rafting. The image that always came to mind was of a helpless raft on an angry frothing river with people either holding on for dear life or daredevils who laughed while their raft bumped on rocks and turned over.
But this was different. Like the people and the pace of Bhutan, a peace-loving Buddhist country nestled in the HImalayas, the river was serene and welcoming. After having gone up and down several mountain ranges, I was ready for a river ride in the plains.
I stepped into flipflops before wearing my life jacket and helmet. Our rafting companion handed us our paddles and explained four simple commands that were self-explanatory – forward, backward, stop and hold on. We happily tipped our paddles together for a high five and started downstream.
Life lessons are everywhere
On a perfect spring day, the sky was a bit overcast but the conditions were perfect. As I turned around to see the source of this pristine river, I saw the hills on either side, some dusted with snow, others already green, I recollected the large lakes of Switzerland, surrounded by snowy mountains and felt an instant state of calm.
However, the river, like life, had other plans. Sometimes clear, sometimes turbid, the waves changed from gentle to turbulent, the path veered off in more than one direction, but at all times, it taught us a lesson in acceptance and flow.
Here are seven lessons from my river rafting experience:
1.When the going is smooth and easy, we seldom appreciate it. Instead we crave and often create our own drama when there isn’t enough drama out there. The first part of our ride was slow and serene. Stumps of old trees protruded from the shallow river base, we could see the bottom quite clearly, all very lovely, but also a tad boring.
2. No matter how unprepared or risk-averse you are, there will be rapids. The chaos of life will hit your smooth-sailing boat, not at the time when you are ready or from the direction you expect or of the magnitude you anticipate, but in a totally surprising way. Of course, you will get wet. No one sails through life completely dry and untouched. I held on to the rope on the outer edge of the raft as instructed, expecting a wave to hit us head on but the raft veered sideways and it hit right beside the spot where I was seated.
3. The river will fork. You will be faced with choices. Don’t hesitate too much. Or try to game it. Either side is OK. Guess what? Once you go a certain distance, you can see that the two forks merge again. Every experience counts. How often have I stressed out about some trivial decisions and some major moments? When seen through the long arc of time, everything seems to have settled well.
4. Sometimes, even when you are rowing forward, your boat will get turned around 360 degrees. But that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. In fact, it’s a chance to observe how far you have come. The view is completely different when you turn around. The best part is that you finally understand that not everything in your past was a total disaster. As you age (and hopefully mature), you tend to stop and notice the path you have traveled, but only if you pause and take stock. Why not do it more often?
5. The smooth parts may feel easy but when you go through rapids, you go (and grow) much faster. Bumps, obstacles and adversity may seem like things we must try to avoid at all costs but there is a downside to seeking only comfort. You miss out on opportunities for growth. The new job that was so different from the old one, the move out of your comfortable home town, that crazy idea that you believed in, all of these exciting experiences led to unexpected growth, right?
6. Even on ordinary days, don’t forget to look at the world around you. There is so much to appreciate. A gently flowing river hosts many large and small creatures in its ecosystem. We saw kingfishers and wagtails flying around randomly, walnut trees in bloom, while the tall and unchanging evergreens watched us solemnly. How extraordinary each day is! Don’t be in such a hurry that you miss the beauty that abounds in your mundane life.
7. Change is inevitable. In springtime this glacier-fed river is slowly finding its flow. As the days get warmer, the water level will rise and it will sprint through the valleys with great vigor. The exposed islands of rocks at the forks and the half-buried tree trunks will soon be fully submerged. What should you do when things change? Instead of worrying about all the what-ifs, it’s best to keep your instructions for life simple – follow the four commands for rafting – forward, backward, stop, and hold on.
Do you agree? What life lessons would you like to share?