Submitted by Amisha Upadhyaya
I was stuck under a raft as the river rapids rushed past. It was the first day of the Class IV rapids in the mecca of white water rafting: Turrialba in Costa Rica on the River Pacuare. The water was the kind of cold that was refreshing and energizing.
We were in Costa Rica where nature made me confront my true nature.
I was excited. But under no illusions. Or not the ones I thought. I’ve lived in New York City, Mumbai, LA…nature is not my forte, mainly due to my excessive need for warmth, bathroom facilities, and having no animals except dogs around me. Activities where I’m in and out, respecting and going with nature are all fine, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of natural living because I know that “natural” can be poisonous and not what one imagines to be from the postcards.
I have never challenged nature knowing anyone who does will lose. I no longer seek adrenaline rushes that could keep me from the ones I love and the life that awaits outside the 30 seconds of pure energy. I had just been sitting on the raft, not even in a rapid, crossing to the other bank for a hike to a waterfall when a riptide or eddy or something knocked me right off and before I could grab onto the rope as they taught us, I was dragged under the boat!
All I saw was black and all I felt was the underside of the boat. The water’s force was too strong to move any which way. I might as well have been stuck in an enclosed box, a…well, you know. Except for a fleeting nanosecond, I forgot I was claustrophobic. I somehow did some instinctual assessment and knew which way to move because I could tell our guide was leading the boat out from under me.
And I emerged. The guide pulled me in. I could tell from my husband and fellow travelers’ faces that they too were shaken. For a few seconds there had been no sign of me. The whole incident had lasted under a minute or two but it had gone in slow motion for me like they say sword fighting looks to a Zen master (a great scene from The Last Samurai) or as if they had entered the fabled wormhole and I returned years later thinking only seconds had passed.
When most of the people in the raft got knocked out the next day by a wave, the fear was less because there were others, because the situation was expected as we had been going through an unusually violent rapid, and I stayed afloat, alert and rode with the water until I could grasp the rope and be pulled back in. It’s the aloneness that makes the difference.
That night we stayed in a rainforest in our guide’s land. He is from the Cabeccar tribe who live along the river. His mother, God bless her, lives an hour uphill from where we were staying.
So living in a rainforest: there is a lot of rain. Clothes never get dry. A dampness seeped into my bones that never left until we got to the beach two days later.
I didn’t become a bigger fan of natural life when we were attacked by red ants — the bites go away but when they bite, it’s a searing, burning pain that shoots through your limbs. Not when I saw our tents were really tents on a wooden platform and not the log cabins we passed earlier. Not when I saw the bathroom and found out the nicer one in the other camp was off-limits. Nor when I saw the banana spider or whatever it’s called — it’s huge — that set up a web — two of them for one day at least — on the way to the bathroom. Not when I when I was told about the fer-de-lance, one of the world’s deadliest snake, found in abundance in Costa Rica.
But I lived to tell, and I did not complain. Much. As verified by my fellow travelers might I add. I tried not to be the neurotic city girl. And had fun…in that our fellow travelers were lots of fun. A couple from Seattle both named Alex. Our kayaker guide river rusher. A geographer and former river guide with a documentarian out to save the river from being dammed. It’s a critical project (check it out here). Their knowledge tremendous, their assessment real, and their passion infectious. We played cards, chatted, ate dinner with wine — it resembled my “real” life basically. Except with snakes, red ants, rain, and a jungle surrounding us with only a tent separating us from death.
Community also surrounded me as our guides joked with us — jovial and jolly are archaic but appropriate here — as we ziplined through the canopy of the rainforests of Arenal the next day, but I felt alone in my fears. The rope to the other side seemed endless, the drop to an unseen forest floor seemed endless, and the speed made my stomach drop. I gripped the hand that was supposed to be a brake often out of tension and mistrust that the holster carrying my body weight would hold despite seeing facts to the contrary as men three times my size went safely across.
I broke out in a cold sweat. Between peer pressure and really having no way out except to keep doing the lines, I realized screaming “Woo!” eased my fears immeasurably. “Woo” was perfect as it gave the impression I was having fun instead of scared out of my mind and keeping my stomach inside my body. And I ended up having fun!
I’m not a fan of the ocean in terms of swimming in it. Just as with animals in a jungle or a desert, so I love my fellow organic species and want them to just be in their space, and me in mine. If I’m bitten by a shark, it’s because I’m in their home not vice-versa. Pools are for swimming. But Jaco Beach, the best for beginning surfers is mysteriously free of too many of these squishy, wiggly, yuck-inducing creatures. Also, when surfing, one can be on a board and the waves are something I absolutely love.
Turns out I’m a natural.
I had a feeling. Being a Jersey girl and New Yorker, surfing has never been part of my life, but I’ve always irrationally had my heart set on it. I withstood the fin of the board jabbing into my rib, the endless battering by waves pulling me off the board, under the sea, dragged by the leash of the board. The second day of the three days, I was aching and tired. Our turnaround time was short, our breakfast uneaten, and I need to eat well before any physical activity. My digestive fires are hot as they say in ayurveda.
The third day I almost didn’t go. My body was bruised and battered and aching. Mysterious bug bites, most likely mosquitoes, were riddled into patterns across my back, legs, arms, anywhere that skin could be visible. But I went. Again between the peer pressure (this time my husband) and just sheer pride, there was no bowing out. And I Kicked Ass. The teacher even begin teaching me tricks, like turning to face another direction while riding the wave.
Willpower, verbal release, instinct for survival, community each got me out of bad spots. I am not who I thought I was. I had the wrong illusions: I wasn’t a city girl…only. I not only can swim in oceans, I am at home in one. I am not a claustrophobic…only. I can be master of my mind. I can be a master of speed — given I have a proper holster. That latter addition does make a difference: your tools must be in shape. Your body must be in some shape. You must know where to find the reins of your mind and breath. As inconsistent as my pranayama or yoga practice may be, it was breath that I turned to.
So when I lay in bed, stuck with debilitating thoughts and the cold of this city even in summer, the last things that I want to do are what will save the day. The first: reach out to other people. If nothing, this trip taught me, no one can live in this life alone. Urban life deceives us. We need someone to hold out an oar if we’re drowning, to give us tips and teach us skills, to challenge realities and opinions held too dear, to teach us about rivers and oceans, to lead us down dark paths.
The second: a return to physicality. Immersion in activity to the point of thought stopping. There was a reason I was a dancer. How could I forget. But we all do. You gotta go back to move forward sometimes. The most obvious is relegated behind fears, often disproportionate and sometimes imaginary.
Physical challenges can stop thought patterns, as habitual as our daily routines. In that immersion of an activity, we’re thrown outside of our comfort zone, outside of our physical and thought pattern. And when you return to thought, it is clearer. There is now room to be wrong. There has been an experience to show that opinions and assessments may be misguided or limited about a situation, person, or even yourself, just as you were wrong about, let’s say, being claustrophobic. You see yourself more clearly and in so doing, those with whom you are in relationships.
Our hearts are not fragile as we think, and our spirits most certainly are not. Our bodies are mortal but these vehicles of our lives which we love and hate, are made of stronger stuff than porcelain or even metal. Whether through listening to the river, going literally with the flow of the ocean, practicing on a mat, going into a Tai Chi pose with your breath, whichever path is chosen, the external can be a way to the internal where our little selves can be joined to the bigger universe. That is Zen. It is Vedanta. To be in rhythm with the larger so there is neither us and them, me versus the world, and in those free moments, free from habit and past and doubt and fear and thought, we meet our true self.