Of morality and pre owned cars!

I met a man. He looked at me with deep, intense eyes and looked and looked.  I smiled, I shifted, I perhaps even blushed, I squirmed, I shifted, smiled some more and moved away.

Uneasy! you bet. He looked some more, I squirmed some more. It’s the pursuer and the pursued, at some point you succumb, you chat, you laugh, you walk together you talk. There is an attraction – what is it? The fact that you enjoy the feeling of being wanted or the fact that it is actually an interesting man? Whatever, the actual fact in the forefront of the mind is that he is not free. Yet you are behaving like that puppy on the road, slowly being enticed toward that stroking hand – lord what a laugh, and you are watching yourself in glee waiting to see what you will do – it is an enjoyment of the forbidden and you don’t know the end. It’s like a drama unfolding all of your own making.

It is a taboo, a no no, for what reason? A sisterhood thing – you do not betray the sisterhood.  My best friend says ‘what nonsense, you are not betraying anyone, it’s not your business, why are you doing the thinking for someone else?’ Another says ‘ They don’t call them used or second hand any longer – the politically correct term is pre owned – that makes re owning better?

But it’s a rule I have – the whole damn thing makes for sleaze and hiding and the whole purpose of an attraction is to enjoy the damn thing – how do you do that if you are in hiding?

So, perhaps no. Then you spend more time and realise, hello, not just nice to be pursued, it’s a very interesting pursuer. So, you happily spend the time. You think; a flirtation, a jaunt, a moment in time.

Then you think some more – are you capable of loving many people, yes, so why is not another capable of the same. And then you think some more – you have not made a vow to love just one etc etc. You are not pre owned – so is it alright? At this point your brain starts to get fried and nothing destroys the equilibrium more than a fried brain. And nothing should destroy the equilibrium.

Quit out thinking – it is a moment in time. You meet a kindred spirit for a fraction of life, you enrich some portion of it for each other and keep the memory for rereading like a good book. Morality thy name is convenience in a used car lot!!

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What school meant?

In this, the 50th anniversary of our school, I have been asked to write what was it that school gave or meant to me. Abstractly I probably know, however  how does one define it. Giving it a shot and hopefully they will find it good enough to put in the new coffee table book?

I joint Welham Girls school in January 1965. A few weeks after my 7th birthday and passed out in Dec 1973 after giving my isc exams a few weeks before my 16th birthday.

What went into the years and how they shaped me and my life is what I am challenging myself to explore here for the first time.

If I take memory back it throws up incidents and moments. In connecting those or rather remembering them may appear what school meant.

That first cold day, in new grey slacks and overcoat –I was a gray little drab of a person, and I met just such another one. Also holding a parental finger and  completely unaware like me, that this was to be the start of a new chapter in our lives. We were suddenly to be left all alone in a completely alien environment of which we had been completely uninformed.

So Joy, my very first friend and I stood in the back verandah of the ugly – also gray junior school building and watched our parents walk out the gate. Not at all understanding that everything familiar was disappearing from our little lives for what would end up being the majority of our transition from little girls to young women.

I think that was the first and possibly most important learning – alone and a necessity to cope. There were no choices here. You couldn’t even sink you had to swim. Accept the change, cope with what came, survive it. Does that lesson toughen you – yes and how?

This is something I’m figuring now as I write. At that point I wonder if  Joy or I even had a thought in our heads. We were just two very lost little girls who cried themselves to sleep that night in utter confused misery. And spent the next few weeks in what the seniors termed the crying club.

In the dining hall that first morning, I was the last person left, trying to finish my breakfast –till then a bad, slow eater. I was hustled out and told to go stand in my line for assembly. I had no idea what assembly was and even less of an idea  which line I was meant to belong in. I can’t remember how I sorted that, but I must have somehow – so I guess there began survival. After a few more unfinished meals I become a gluttonously fast eater and still am. And after being yelled at for loitering and not being where I was meant to be I also learnt to always know where I should be and how to be there well in time.

One night in number 3 dorm as I hacked into my pillow with the kind of cough only 7 and 8 year olds seem to get, an angel in a white nightgown, with one sleeve pinned up (Mrs. Ayling) appeared with a little glass of warm brandy, honey and lemon and sat with me till I slept.  There was never anything that quite matched the most wonderfully warm, cared for feeling that delightful lady gave one lonely child.

Another night. Possibly a year later and I can’t remember the matron, but I do remember the lesson.  During the afternoon in a spirit of generosity I offered someone the pleasure of sleeping with my favorite doll – Padma.  Padma had become for me my only family, my security blanket and the person that kept the demons away; now all those needs generally emerged at night. So during the day magnanimity reigned. Once it was bedtime and Padma had gone to her new,for the night, home. My poor bed had become the terror house of the world. So I went and tried to get Padma back. However whoever had her did not want to be magnanimous in turn and I became ‘a very bad girt who was not willing to share with her friends.’

Who was to understand what other terrors were manifesting themselves. So Padma stayed away and I coped with a million insecurities, and somehow after that – though Padma was still much loved she ceased to be the person who looked under the bed first before I put my feet down.

Did any of you ever have all of your friends suddenly start treating you like you had bad breath and BO all combined. Yes, sent to Coventry: shunned, turned backs, no one talking to you,  and you don’t know why – so you go –

a)    Who cares, they’re just being bitches, I can be by myself, walk alone, eat alone, read my book, not share any fun or chat or tuck or not even go to the playroom on Saturday night.

b)    Then you decide – ok I’ll ask my best friend, but she is the one who turns most viciously away.

c)    So start thinking back what could I have done? And sure enough you find it or some kind soul takes pity on you and finally tells you.

d)    Then of course you didn’t mean it like that, but hey. That’s how it came across – so now say sorry and understand what you did and how it affects people and eventually yourself.

You know this is what the  HR companies are creating programmes to teach people,

We got it growing up.

I also discovered books make great friends.

And you know that thing called a counselor /  therapist that you pay lots of money to go to when you are down, out, confused?  Ever tried an old school friends’ get together – whether with one or two or twenty. They start with lunch and can end with breakfast the next day and you can get everything off your chest, have twenty opinions, all from full lives lived and experienced. From people who are not going to give you jargon, but who care, lots of support , and someone who will actually work with you to help, help, help, if needed.

I sent both my girls to Welham, mainly to get that, a support system for life, plus the confidence to just be you and a sense of survival, which allows you to have that confidence.

You know, it probably happens to all kids sometime somewhere, but if you are home – I think someone is always there to make things better after any and every hard learned lesson. At school, you just learnt it and dealt with the traumas and plodded on. It leaves you with a cushion to bounce off all your life.

Nothing can take you down, if before you were ten you were able to fight and win. Wow, but you can take on the world today, do anything, and go anywhere, what do you have to fear any longer. It can’t be hurt, it can’t be loss, it can’t be alone.

What a lesson in survival and sense of self!!

It doesn’t end there; Miss. Russel took nature study classes in the hedgerows of Dehra Dun. Who knows about the telegraph wire of a spider? I am still showing it to schoolchildren that come on nature camps with me.

That trees when you sit under them and listen, will talk to you, their leaves murmur their branches creak and a falling leaf on your cheek can be as comforting as a kiss. A stream, or river will talk too – it batters itself loudly against a rock wall, because the rock is hard and unyielding and it murmurs softly onto the next soft sandy bend because the sand is soft, yielding and comfortable.

I am writing this while I sit in my camp on the banks of the Ganga and have used that allegory so many times to so many impressionable, learning minds. How much I hope it stays with them as much as it stayed with me.

Jew Singh making Shakespeare much loved instead of not understood and fearful.

I don’t know how much one can keep remembering and writing about?

Maybe these are all things that are not uniquely learnt only at school. But for me that’s where I was and that’s where they were learnt and they shaped my life.

Today I live for 7 months of the year in a tent on a beach on the banks of the Ganga River above Rishikesh. It is more my home than any other.  My shower hangs off a tree, I cannot express the luxury off hot water pouring out of a branch while you watch a full moon setting on a silvered river, or a brilliant peachy sunrise lifting the mist off mountains.

That a corporate team-building workshop feels like a children’s birthday party comes from those growing years.

That I consciously run as many  nature trips for schools as I can possibly manage (while still retaining my sanity) is because I got lucky enough to learn what I learnt – it definitely needs sharing,

I think school taught us to be able, come whatever.

A river rises and….

My home is a tented camp. I run very satisfying trips for myself and the people who come share it with me.They come holiday, have a break, raft some amazing white water, hike lovely hill trails, meet a culture and a people for whom time and distance have no measures. Like me they get a glimpse of a different perspective.Some have pure fun, some touch base with the earth and themselves.

Know that feeling when you stand barefoot in the shallows? One wave washes the sand out between your toes, and the stresses with it. The next embeds your feet deeper and that rooted calm seeps up. Most go home replenished and rejuvenated. Some don’t, “there’s creepies in the tent, beasts in the night and sand in everything!” Discoverers all of us, in some way or other .

Is life satisfying?

It wasn’t always so. I grew up loving the outdoors – swimming, sailing, riding, trekking, snorkeling, climbing. Walking through the fields, sitting by a gushing tubewell, fishing for tadpoles in the canal. If I’d been the son, I would have been a gentleman farmer, watching over my acres and seeing my crops grow. Quite content. A different story.

As it is. I married the right (very wonderful) man. I was a happy wife, became a good housewife, became a happy mother, I lived in a big house, ran a beautiful home. Entertained bankers and CEOs. For those around me, I had it all. It just didn’t seem like it to me.

I became a stressed housewife, an irritable mother; the ‘wife’ ceased to exist, the person ceased to exist. It was
a shambles. The way it was meant to be – wasn’t. How was it meant to be? It fell apart.

The only tenuously right thing, for me, I seemed to be doing was helping friends run an adventure tour outfit.
I opening a similiar one of my own, in partnership with a colleague. It limped along for me as I limped along, still trying to be the perfect homemaker & mother, fulfilling a preconceived notion of how it was meant to be. The task loomed like an unclimbable mountain.

Coming upto the river and camp, running a trip – was like coming home. I was happy, fulfilled, I felt successful. But the guilt loomed – like I was running away, should get home and face the responsibilities. That magical river seemed to be watching it all. Probably decided a sharply taught lesson in building and rebuilding, choices and decisions, and the inevitability of flow, was in order………

For those of us who live on the banks of the Ganga, she’s a friend, soulmate, provider and playmate. I lie on her waves and feel the most comforting sense of solace and peace. She not only washes away sins, but also fear, pain and sorrow. The same waves toss you playfully in a kayak and tumble a 20 foot raft like a handkerchief in a washing machine. She had always been benevolent and providing.

We woke one morning, after three days of incessant, unseasonable rain, to a swollen, brown river.
She’d risen some seven to eight feet through the night and was lapping just outside my tent. It was still raining and she was still rising visibly.

The people already in camp were evacuated. The group meant to arrive was stalled.

The staff and I started taking down tents closest to the water as fast as we could. Setting marker rocks to ascertain the rising water; praying and believing it would stop soon. We’d never seen anything like it.
She didn’t stop. All the tents came down, wet and heavy they were dragged and dumped from high ground to higher ground to still higher ground. The kitchen tent being located above what we considered the high water
mark, was left for last. The whole day had gone in manhandling gear into the forest above the beach. With dark setting in and no beach left, we clambered through the forest to the kitchen tent. Water lapped just outside, still rising. A raging torrent flowed past with piles of debris whirling along in it’s angry spread.

It was time to abandon it all. Pulling gear out of the kitchen with water lapping at our ankles we finally abandoned the kitchen tent to the river – it was too late to save it.

There was nothing more to do, it was dark, we were tired, wet and cold. We sat under dripping trees amidst our piles of semi salvaged equipment- beds, trunks, life jackets, potatoes and bread scattered through the forest
and along the path leading to the road. Every so often we moved higher and watched as she grabbed a tent, a pole, a crate of drinks that we were too tired to move.

She rose all night. We abandoned our camp to the monkeys and any life that chose to make use of it for that long rainy night and went to Rishikesh town. Wet and chilled with all our worldly possessions lying on the forest floor in the path of a wildly raging river.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. The monkeys had eaten all the bananas. The kitchen tent was wrapped around a boulder. The dining tents were buried under a fresh layer of flat white sand where earlier there’d
been rocks.

In two days the beach had appeared again. She’d lifted and flattened, added some sand here and taken some elsewhere. In a weeks time she was back to her sparkling green, lilting self and the only evidence of the
complete devastation was to be seen in the floor matting of the tents hanging in tatters from the tops of the trees above us.

Camp was dried out , up and running: it was hard work but it didn’t feel like it. It got done happily: the sun shone, the birds sang, tents got dried out and mended, kitchen got set up under the trees. It all got put together perfectly.

As I went about doing all this, the thought kept going around in my head – why is this so easy? From complete wipe out to rebuild with humour and cheer. No panic, no despair. The lesson needed to be applied to the rest of my life: choices that make you happy, not feeling guilty about chasing happiness; its not frivolous, it’s essential. Duty, jobs needing doing, responsibility all flow comfortably along.

A large home, a high flying job? Success needs to be an individual measure.

I am successful: I wake up and hug myself in glee, I do the same at night. My home is a tent on the river – if need be it will get bricked, mortared, thatched or tiled. My shopping and provision run is a twenty minute walk and a round drive of fifty two kilometres. I walk up to my jeep through the forest, new plants and flowers, myriad birds. I drive along a lovely hill road with beautiful views of the river and mountains. My suppliers in Rishikesh are friends, small town life has time. We catch up on news as my lists are checked and packed.

The power of dreams and the power of nature !
This is what I want to share with a host of us out there, whose dreams, much like mine, must be getting buried under a myriad humdrums and never become important enough! Please keep them and nurture them, it’s what
ultimately gives you that huggy, champagne feeling. The world becomes a great place to be.

Dreaming Dreams

(An article written for the Cosmopolitan, in it’s avatar of a ‘womans’ magazine’ the year it was first published in India.)

I’m a dreamer. I’ve dreamt forever about writing a story, but I don’t do it. I just imagine: best-seller, childrens story, romance, thriller. I plan plots, schemes, ultimate sex scenes and then get distracted – I stop to watch a bird, shadows on the hillside, stories in the clouds, the way the wind blows sand into patterns, sunlight on the water. I thought a wave broke in the same place everytime, some do, and some flow along for a distance. On the sea, the light catches one spot, until the light shifts. On the river, a gleam gets caught and sped along by the water.

Ethereal things, clouds, shadows, patterns in the sand, gleams and dreams – I found there’s reality to them.

For seven months of the year my home is a tent on the banks of the upper Ganga river. A magical place to live. I woke up this morning with an immense bubble of pure, joyful glee in my throat. Hugging myself and grinning at the leaf shadows dancing on the walls of my tent. I needed very much to share it.

One of my oldest dreams was to live some place that had both mountains and the sea ( as in beaches, surf, swimming, walks through the forest, mist in the valleys). Now as I look outside, there’s a huge beach of silver white sand, the blue green water of the river and early morning mist on the mountains. It’s not the sea, but it sure is very like my dream come true.

Another of the numerous things I dreamt about was learning how to kayak, properly. I can kayak, I know how to sit in it and keep it balanced. Also move it in the direction I want. But, I want to be able to dance through the water, be part of the river, currents, waves. I just haven’t pushed hard enough to learn. It’s that same questioning guilt thing – is it important enough, isn’t there more that needs doing, do I have the time? I don’t have a spray skirt, the waters’ too cold, my arms aren’t powerful enough!

Today the cracked red kayak sits before me on the sand, the sun’s sparkling on the water, there’s nobody in camp to feed my fears and the waves are inviting me to dance. I stop thinking, grab a life jacket, strap on a helmet, push the beautiful craft into the water and paddle away. I am headed for that little rapid upriver from camp. It has rained last night, the water level is up, but my fears and questions are gone. I am going dancing.

This cracked red boat slaps merrily through the little swells – a boil catches the tail, swings us into a perfect pirouette. The bow goes up, the stern dips gracefully, my heart does a somersault and we glide onward.

Hugging the shore, dancing from rock to rock we go, our aim to hit the top of the rapid for the final riotious waltz down. The occasional errant current catches us for a naughty frolic, but my cracked kayak and I make it.

We sit parked behind a rock, watching those fat waves curl and flip, gathering our courage.

Four swift paddle strokes, point her nose, angle slightly left, lean downstream and whoopee – that huge wave kisses my cheek, floods into my skirtless kayak and into that  wild waltz we swing. Spray  in my face, the waves spin me around and toss me up. That lovely wallowing, water weighted boat puts her nose down, swishes her tail, surfs, swims, swings her hips and down the centre we come in the most joyful dance of all time – the river, the cracked red kayak and one un-learned kayaker.

When I learn how to do it, I’ll probably do worse. Today I danced with the river. It’s a high. That bubble of joy still fizzes in my throat as I shower in my makeshift stall – it’s hidden in a gully, the pipe hangs off a tree, I’m curtained by a wildly flowering vine of red flowers. Purple shadows on the hills, silver river, birds coming home to roost, the lamp glow from my tent and the first stars in the sky.

It keeps amazing me how powerful dreaming and nature can be.

ROMANCING THE ELEMENTS

An article that I wrote for a travel magazine in 1986 after my first ever rafting trip, ammended later for another magazine some years later when I was part of the fledgling industry, it still pretty well describes what we did for many years.

WHITE WATER ON THE GANGA

White Water – the words themselves have a special cadence, fascination, power. The hydrologic cycle is all around us: water evaporates, clouds, falls, freezes, melts and flows, creating powerful shaping forces – Glaciers, Rivers and Seas. All that water also has  many personalities and it is alive – sparkling, calm, playfully boisterous in a tumbling stream or  forbiddingly awesome as it thunders on a gale-torn shore or through a high mountain gorge.

One of the great moments in history must have been when man discovered he could move in and on water, either swimming or riding a log. There must have been many who negotiated a river or ran a rapid for exploration or sheer joy. Jack London, the American writer whose entire life was an adventure, describes an incident during the Gold Rush of 1896.The area was that of the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory of north-west Canada. Creating a hazard on the miners’ trail north was a great juggernaut of white water created by a spring flood. Loading their equipment on logs lashed together, attempts to negotiate this monster were being made by only the intrepid, with no success. London spent a day watching their efforts and studying the flow of water. He then built his own raft, and with mathematical precision, gauged the way the water was flushing, his point of line up and maneuvered himself through the rapids in an upright raft with no mishap. He spent the rest of the spring, while the flood lasted, running the miners and their equipment through the rapids. What was his motivation? A driving need, a test of skill, a belief in himself, a desire to help, a challenge or his own gold rush?

Today only the equipment differs. The game is still the same: one of skill, excitement, fascination and discovery. A test of personal mettle and skill for the river runner. Pure fun and enjoyment, a wonderful ride for the uninitiated. But for nearly all who experience it, there’s something more, something ineffable yet deeply satisfying.

Though today I form one of that group of river people who live and work on the Ganga.

My first introduction to white water took place on a weekend charged with many wonders. The memory is still clear as a picture, but in trying to recount it, images start overlapping. The most idyllic surroundings. A wide expanse of silver sand lapped by the jewel-green Ganga. Forested Hills. Silence and bird-song backed by the muted roar of  the frothing rapid in front of Camp. Our river guides gauged rising & dropping river levels by the sound of the roar.

We drove north out of Delhi and through Uttar Pradesh on a smoky dawn. Some hate the drive, but it’s an incredible experience. Green fields and villages, cow patties along the roadside. Trucks and bullock carts loaded to the gills with sugarcane. Overturned trucks and traffic jams, of course. Nerve-wracking, but never uninteresting. Hardwar and the ghats were passed on our left, on through some lovely forests. By passing Rishikesh, we met the glowing green Ganga. We followed the beautiful river up into the hills- forested and green, broken up where little villages nestle amongst terraced fields. Camp was some 28 kms beyond Rishikesh.  This 40 km section between Kaudiyala & Rishikesh is the rafting capital of the country. There are quite a number of camps, a few of the professional one’s are listed below. Ours was beyond the general crowd around Shivpuri, closer to Byasi. A deserted bend of road, tall green trees to pull up under. Down below through the trees you see blinding white sand. We follow a zigzagging footpath down through the jungle to the beautiful silence and expanse of the beach and  river. It seeped in as we walked towards the large white parachute tent which acted as the ‘mess and common room’. Here we met those incredible men whose lives are spent on their ‘sticks’ (oars, as recounted in their camp song) There were Yousuf, Ajay, Vikram and J.D. – hospitable, unflappable, highly skilled and totally professional. River guides are a different breed, they do what they love, and this lot does it very well. These were the original professional Indian river guides. All are still on the river, but are now called the venerable ones !

We were offered a drink while our luggage was carried down and then shown to our tents which were dotted further along the beach. Then they were little pup tents, now they are very comfortable, safari style tents with camp cots and regular bedding, quite luxurious. There were & are very adequate ‘loo’ tents set back near the forest and wonder of wonders, running hot and cold showers, true one hangs off a rock and they are in tents, but that is their charm and romance.  The camps all follow a strict environmental code, and it’s easy to see how it’s maintained – those pristine surroundings demand it!

The river flows calm and deep, an incredibly crystalline green. The farther bank rises sharply out of the water – a steep and thickly forested hill bisected by a darker cut of denser vegetation which marked the path of a spring which emerges in a waterfall half way up the hill.  We were surrounded by the hills. The forest behind us stirred with bird song and monkeys. The effect was soporific and rather unbelievable. Lunch was served, a little crunchy with sand. That setting and that camp was the backdrop against which all the action took place- the rafting and the camping, experiences blending together to make pure magic.

After lunch, we were issued life jackets and helmets & told to grab a paddle each. The rafts were ready and waiting for us. Our life jackets were fastened into flattening corsets, helmets jammed on our heads- the very picture of inelegance. But safety comes first, as explained exhaustively during the briefing given by Ajay in a manner which was meant to be  reassuring, but  as he went about saying, ‘if you fall overboard’ or ‘in the case of a raft flipping’ I don’t think many were reassured – he did say though that, ‘the most frightening part of the trip was the briefing’. To them, it is a way of life: many could not take it quite so casually.

Excitement mounts the moment one reaches the ‘white water’. The first day we ran what is called the Initiation section, the largest stretch of the rapids being ‘Three Blind Mice’ Grade III (gradings are listed at the end). The guides made us perfect our paddling strokes on the flat section, ‘forward’, ‘back’, and ‘hard forward go, go, Go!’ they shout. You really get into the swing of it. ‘Get Down’, he yells, and everybody lands in a heap at the bottom of the raft wielding their paddles like clubs. Of course, that isn’t the way to do it and it is very patiently explained again. Great team spirit, and you’re feeling pretty good, but still hanging on to his every command- ‘all overboard’, and it almost happens, we’re all so spellbound. ‘How deep is the river? pipes a voice. Ajay gets this look of deep concentration, bends and scoops up a handful of water, rolls it meditatively around his mouth like the ultimate wine-taster, then spits it out and says ‘right here I’d say about 8.02 meters, give or take the .02’. For seconds we all gaze at him in awestruck admiration, then the penny drops and the questioner wants to melt away and merge with the surroundings. The right answer, of course, is ‘it’s chest high on a duck!’

There’s no describing that flow of adrenaline, the sheer joy of pounding  through those rapids. It starts something like this – “All paddling forward nice and easy”. The current catches the raft and the sound of the rushing water envelopes you. ‘Hard forward, hard forward – look out for the big hole on our left – lets go, go, go’. Paddling furiously, hitting air and water we careen through. ‘Great work guys – relax, take a break’. You look back at the frothing white, slightly shaken, thrilled to bits, wanting more.

We see a lone kayaker behind us. We now watch a master craftsman practicing his craft. He plays the water like a musician, and the water plays back. It’s uncanny, they’re friends, that river and the kayaker in his kayak. He ‘flips’, he ‘rolls’ he does ‘enders’. The water cushions him, pushes him, laps lovingly and smothers him. He comes along, skimming the waves, weaving in and out. He catches an eddy and spins around- paddles half-way up the rapid. Stops to surf a wave for a bit, like saying hullo to an old friend- allows the wave to catch his bow and stand him on end, like a salute, and then he’s flung straight up in the air and out, then skimming on down. An amazing equation between man, craft and the river.

White water, as we learnt, isn’t just a froth of water created by the drop in a river bed or the narrowing of a valley. It also has definite characteristics- ‘holes’ and ‘hydraulics’ which in turn can keep you or flush you out. ‘Riffles’ (small waves) and ‘haystacks’ (large waves) and ‘eddies’ and ‘boils’. All these features are ‘read’ by the river guide like road signs telling him how to negotiate that stretch of white water.This requirement of literacy by river guides I recognized much later. That day they were only magicians.

Another discovery comes with the ‘Body Surfing Rapid’ Grade II – a long series of big waves just before the end of the days run. ‘Tighten your life jackets, shoe-laces and spectacle bands, and jump overboard’. This time we do. The freezing water makes one gasp, there’s no time to retrieve your breath before the next wave washes over you. ‘Point your feet downstream, breathe in the troughs’, the instructions were so clear. Of course, the troughs are never deep enough for a breath, but once you get the hang of it, it’s joy, a long coasting, splashing ride bobbing like a cork, speeding down a trough, breathing water because you thought you’d crossed that wave and didn’t. Exhilarating and freezing, it was pure fun.

Back at the camp, the sun goes down and the witching hour is upon us.

Silver river, lengthening shadows and a walk towards the far rocks. The river here sings and gurgles. Colourful birds whirl around like dervishes, obviously an evening game they play. Flights of cormorants skim past, dark against the river. Down on the sand a family of Red Wattled Lapwings perform a loud parade, marching around in perfect formation like a troop coming to order for the last reveille. Back towards camp the fire is glowing and the strumming of a guitar sounds faintly. The chill creeps in from the water and that picture of warmth and fun invites one back to dinner and an evening of songs and mad games, moonlight and shadows and pure romance. Sleep seems a waste of time. I want to keep gazing at that star-spangled sky , the river and hills bathed in moonlight.

Morning mists lifting softly, like a gentle unveiling- a few more trees, half a hillside and suddenly the sun spilling over the hill lighting up the tendrils of mist to a golden haze. A walk towards the rocks and closer to the jungle other inhabitants of the area are stirring as well. The Lapwings repeated their parade, in precise order and much noise. There is a shy Sand-piper bobbing nervously by the edge of the water.  Sitting quietly on a rock I watch a very interested Pied Kingfisher watching me with great curiosity. I obviously find favour, because he takes off suddenly, swoops out over the water, and with masterful showmanship, hangs hovering in the air getting set for his dive, which when it comes is perfect. He repeats his act a couple of times and it’s a great performance but for the fact that he never once catches a fish! The jungle is full of birds – the Indian Roller, White-eyes, Fantails. I could possibly have spent the day just wandering around, but the rafting stretch today requires an early start.

We drive some 12 kilometers upstream to Kaudiyala. En route we stop to scout the awesome ‘Wall’ Grade IV+. The guides inspect it through their binoculars and we hear incomprehensible comments like ‘it’s flushing from the right’, ‘the eddy’s forming’, ‘hit it straight and boom right through’. This is the ‘mother’ of all rapids on the Ganga and has a phenomenal build-up. Didn’t look like much to us from the road, but once we got there it put our hearts in our mouths.

We begin the trip by negotiating ‘Daniel’s Dip’ Grade III+. It’s named after Mark Daniels, a Canadian river guide who had been teacher and mentor to our own guides. In spite of his hallowed status he’d managed to hit the wave wrong (it can happen to the best, at times) and went for a swim – and the name stuck. We floated down the river, where the sights are ever-changing – high rock walls with amazing textures, hidden sandy nooks overhung with vegetation just begging to be explored, great expanses of white sand and moulded boulders. Around one bend we came upon a line of ducks along a grey beach.  Another rocky outcrop had monkeys lying around sun-bathing! The forested hillside would open up in places to a vista of green and even red terraced fields and little houses.

We’d followed a few small rapids and then the river opened up, a sandy beach on the right bank and a rock wall on the left. The rafts were parked on the beach and now we could hear the sound – a muted roar. The guides went along the rocks above the rapid to scout once again. We could only see the water turning glassy and fast, slipping in an inverted V over the edge to the immense sound below – the cause of which was quite hidden. It came into view as the raft got caught by the current and we were in that V being accelerated forward – the whole foaming, frothing mass lay below, there was no time to think. ‘Whoosh’ we were in there paddling for all that we were worth, ‘hard forward, hard forward’ ripped the command, down the unending hole, how were we going to climb out of that mammoth? We stopped plunging, up she climbed that very game boat, she was  standing on her tail – ‘everybody get down’ yelled our guide, pure skill. The momentum which we helped to build up brought that hugh volume of water cascading over us, flinging us every which way. Were we still in the raft? Would that wave ever end? Timeless seconds later we burst through, into the eddy we swung and turned around to wait and watch for the other rafts and the kayak coming through. Sheer exhilaration, gut-wrenching fear and euphoric relief.

Watching the other two rafts slipping into that cavernous hole was like reliving the experience. They were a thrilling sight as they burst through. The kayak actually made it look like a piece of cake – it swooped in with a graceful swish, then we lost it in that welter of water and my imagination saw it churning and turning cartwheels… but there she was, a flash of yellow, creaming right through that wave like a knife through butter, still upright and seemingly dancing for joy. After that incredible high followed a few smaller ones, and along with them came a smug complacency, didn’t we know it all now? (I was very properly brought back to Earth the next day.)

That evening in camp, our last, offered even more fascination – we sat down by the water, the sun had slipped away – it was that reflective time of stillness. Across the water by this sheer rock face we had the good fortune of seeing a shy Doe ‘Ghural’ being wooed by a burly Ram. It seems ‘ghurals’ come down that face almost every evening for a drink. Anybody keeping their eyes open can get lucky enough to see them. It’s just the place, these are natural every day things here. We were the ones finding them unusual, but infact we were the occurrence there. Later, by the campfire, the guides sung us their hilarious rafting ditties. Those evenings were very special, the guitar, singing along and the fire glowing – a spirit of relaxed camaraderie and warmth.

Our last day gave us the big white water on the Ganga – ‘Roller Coaster’, Grade III+ and ‘Golf Course” Grade IV. Once you tune into the river people’s zany sense of humour the names of the rapids make sense. We started the trip from Shivpuri. ‘Good Morning’ Grade II effectively woke us up with her playful splashes. ‘Return to Sender’ Grade III was a lovely ride.  Roller Coaster comes up, she’s big and lovely and we’ve all been looking forward to her – the first wave looms up, we’re pointed straight down. We splash through, our rafts swivel to to meet the next challenge, it’s big. Everything winds down in slow motion, I can feel that wave come, it’s going to hit me square and I’m going out. I know I’m making all the wrong moves – ‘lean into the wave’ remembered the logical mind, but of course I’m retreating. Flush in the chest like a bludgeon and over I go, the senses are slowed to total clarity, frame by frame – ‘You’ll bob up right beside the raft nine times out of ten’ sound the words of the safety briefing. I’m not bobbing nowhere, I’m churning dizzily around learning what my clothes feel like in a washing machine.

Suddenly it’s a still, green world, glistening bubbles and I rising together, a shadow above me, I put up my hand and there’s the life-line, grab and hang on tight. Split second timing and I’m hauled back into the raft landing like a beached porpoise. I’ve lived an age but we’re still on the Roller Coaster, and I’ve been off the raft for about 30 seconds. Might have been a fun body surf, I think, all post action bravado! I was granted ‘veteran’ status.

The next rapid on the agenda is ‘Tee Off’, Grade II, followed only naturally by the ‘Golf Course’. It runs to nine holes, so the name. One of those holes is the ‘ball breaker’ and it’s ‘bopping’ according to Vikram as he returns from scouting the rapid. The ‘ball breaker’ has apparently had many a good guide upset with her tricks. As with many good rapids the ‘Golf Course’ is invisible, this time around a bend. She only hits you sound and volume all together as you swing around that bend and down on her. Whether our guides were smart or had mastered the ‘ball breakers’ tricks was an unasked question, but we powered our way through with great style and incredible high spirits. ‘Club House’ the rapid following ‘Golf Course’ (obviously) was a nice, big body surf.

A leisurely float later we stopped by a waterfall for a break. A stream ran down through pretty fields forming a series of little falls and pools – perfect to laze in and under. Our run ended just short of Rishikesh. Getting into dry clothes and driving back to Delhi was anti-climatic. Only the magic of the river, and the idyllic quality of the trip lingered and I fully agreed with the river catchwords – ‘Your first encounter is the beginning of an addiction’.

RAPID GRADING

Class I     :    EASY moving water, small waves, no obstacles.

Class II        :    MODERATELY difficult, with clear passages.

Class III        :    DIFFICULT, high irregular waves, narrow clear passages requiring precise maneuvering.

Class IV        :    VERY DIFFICULT long rapids, powerful irregular waves and hydraulics, very precise maneuvering.

Class V         :    EXTREMELY DIFFICULT. long, violent, highly congested, for teams of experts only.

Class VI        :    UNRUNNABLE – suicide!