Friday, July 6, 2007

Rishikesh - Being There...

[Continued from Rishikesh Ahoy!]

Arrival at camp is a mixed bag. You’re shaking off the exhaustion of the journey and simultaneously trying to get glimpses of the Ganga while adjusting to the almost eerie silence (save the occasional honking truck or bus that passes by). The camp staff leads us to our tents and we dump our stuff and walk out barefoot savouring the soft sand – it’s time for a well deserved cup of tea. This is where it gets a little difficult to explain. You see, the tea is nothing exceptional. The weather is typical Delhi winter. But the hot liquid trickling down your throat feels like never before (every time, without fail). I can’t think of when I last smiled by myself, to myself.

It takes some time to digest the calm that surrounds the place. The loudest noise (oops...sound) comes from the river as it washes over rocks and gurgles its way down towards the plains. It is a privilege to see it in this form before it is ravaged by the millions in the name of religion. There is no network coverage for cell phones. That’s worth expressing twice over. There is no network coverage for cell phones. No bothersome calls, SMS beeps – even if you want to. Therapeutic. Birds twitter, cicadas buzz and the camp staff animatedly goes about doing routine chores. I go up to the river and let it wash over my feet. The water is freezing cold. I smile again.

Soon, it’s time to raft. To most, this activity represents the central purpose of the whole excursion. Rightfully so, rafting was what drew me to this haven in the first place. Lifejacket, helmet and paddle in place, it is time for a quick lesson from the rafting guide (a hardened local who is usually full of anecdotes and stories from the region). Soon, we assume our positions in the raft and push off (literally!).

Initially, it’s like one enthu boat ride. We’ve all got our paddles and are keen to get the technique right. But the first rapid soon approaches and nerves give way to adrenaline. It’s a funny hormone – this adrenaline – it beats me why no one has isolated the stuff and mass marketed it in ubiquitous little bottles that line departmental stores. But I’m glad as hell no one has done so. Waves rock the raft gently and some water spills in as well, chilling us to the bone. We shout. We laugh. And concentrate on the guide’s instructions. It passes. We rejoice.

Then comes a stretch when the guide asks us to jump into the river and float along the raft. Jump? Is he nuts? But we do. It is difficult to describe how entering the water feels...simply because I think for that briefest of moments, you stop feeling altogether. It’s a classic instance of not knowing what you’re feeling but, at the same time, knowing that this is what you’ve always wanted to feel. We float on our backs soaking in the sun and water at the same time. Time freezes. I hold her hands because she’s tentative to leave the raft and float adrift. Holding hands has never felt better. She smiles as she gingerly leaves the rope attached to the raft. I smile.

The arms and torso get tired as we progress down the river. But this registers only a day or two later. At that very moment, it’s pure bliss.

The rapids become faster and more furious. The guide yells and gesticulates wildly. We flail our paddles and grind to the task. But deep down, we know we’re at Her mercy. And that very instance – of feeling powerless yet at the top of the world – is an absolute privilege in itself.

Just before beach our raft, we stop over by a cliff that juts out 15-18 feet above the water surface. The idea is to jump off this cliff and into the river. (Just when you thought that you were through with adrenaline for the day). I know how to swim and have jumped from such heights into swimming pools before. But I get goose bumps looking down at the water. And this while the life jacket is firmly strapped on. I muster the courage and step off the precipice. Splash! Feels exhilarating as I resurface and inhale deeply. She’s readying for her jump. She’s terrified of heights. And has barely seen a swimming pool before. She steps to the edge. Then steps back allowing the next guy to jump. I shout encouragement from below. A friend motivates her from behind. Little do we realize the futility of our voices – it has to come from within her. She calls out to me to swim over to near the landing area. I give the thumbs up and set off. She leaps. In slow motion. I have no clue what is going through her head. She lands in the water and almost instantly pops up to the surface. I stroke my way over and grab her by the shoulders. Everything’s okay – just a little bit of water that’s being coughed up. She clings on to me as I swim ashore. Relieved. Secure. Smiling.

We get back to camp to a piping hot lunch followed by some rock climbing and rappelling. There’s a casual, relaxed attitude to the activity – probably because all of us are feeling a sense of achievement from the rafting.

[To be concluded. Tomorrow.]

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