On a Bamboo Raft

Sometimes you know the answer but you can’t help asking the question.
Just as I did that day when I looked at a bamboo raft on a river bank in northern Thailand.
“For river rafting tomorrow?”
“Yep,” said Than, our guide. And he continued tying together slender green bamboos for a second craft.
I crouched down to examine his handiwork. No bolts, no rivets, no … just fifteen bamboos about thirty feet long lashed to horizontal battens. A giant Pan’s flute that would be the only thing between me and the Mae Taeng River the next day.
I glanced at the river flowing faster than before after a shower of rain.
“I suppose it’ll be OK with lifejackets.”
“Don’t have.” Than’s face was a smiling mask.
“WHAT?” My chest fluttered.
“Safe, safe. Don’t need.” He pointed to an elderly man punting down the river, his wife and children sitting serenely behind him.
“I need.”
I walked back to the Akha hill tribe village where my friends and I were staying. They were outside our stilt hut drinking Thai whisky with village elders. I confronted them with the NO LIFE JACKET situation.
They weren’t bothered.
“Lighten up, it’ll be fun. Have some whisky.”
I went into graphic detail about drowning and pressed my case for walking to the pickup point for the jeep to Chang Mai. As a last resort, I offered to pay for a trek guide.
“We’re done walking. End of.”
Whisky burned my throat. What was I doing here? I’d strained my muscles lugging a rucksack up steep hills, been bled by mosquitoes and leeches, dumped in a river by an elephant with issues, and tomorrow my bloated body would fetch up somewhere in Laos.
I went in search of a guide. Squealing children followed me from hut to hut, and old crones in black and red cackled and offered me their opium pipes.
No one was interested in walking.
A party was in full swing outside our hut when I returned. I drank alcohol of dubious proof and considered my situation – stranded in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of friends whose idea of “fun” was anything risky and whose motto was “carpe diem”.
I fell asleep to a lullaby of zinging, scratching insects and woke to an alarm of howling dogs and squawking chickens. With head heavy as a wrecking ball, I slouched down to the river.
Friends, guides, the whole village, dogs, all were waiting. And all eyes were on Than.
Our flotilla of four rafts bobbed up and down and banged into each other. The river seemed higher than yesterday.
“Hold pole so, push off rock so … aaargh.” Holdinga pole angled across his body, Than stabbed the ground and shoved.
I fished out some money and waved it. “Walk me to Chiang Mai anyone?”
Blank faces stared, heads shook. I cried.
Than held out his hand. “Come my raft. I look after.”
I clambered aboard the wobbling raft and hung my rucksack on a tepee of bamboos in the middle. And holding a pole Than thrust at me, I struggled to stay upright.
A push from villagers set us off. Pole men fore and aft in each raft sliced water effortlessly slowing down long enough to point out a green snake wrapped round an overhanging branch.
Cool water caressed my feet as I watched fishermen baiting lines, and women washing clothes. Except for the sauna-like heat, screeching macaque monkeys and elephants wallowing, I could have been in a punt on a peaceful Oxford canal. What could go wrong?
“Hang on,” shouted a unison of voices.
In the distance, angry surf washed a scatter of boulders.
“Baby rapids, no problem,” said Than.
The current sped up. The rafts tossed. Water buffeted my knees and my heart went full throttle.
I gripped the pole.
We approached the boulders as if in slow motion, Fate obviously wishing me to see every detail of my demise. When real time kicked in again my life fast forwarded in black and white. It was a short film with sub-titles about missed opportunities.
A voice in my head began screaming, “Carpe the bloody pole, sister.”
I planted my pole on a rock and pushed. The raft slewed over the rapids like a matchbox and landed in calm water with me still on the raft, heart banging fit to burst.
That was the moment I learned that fear and excitement feel the same.

J Ashbury

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