“Mr. Ranson, I think one of the goals of our rafting trip should be to wash away our sins in the river.”
When a 10th grader goes deep like this, you sorta have to pay attention. I was standing there in the front of a group of 18 students representing all four grades in high school, facilitating a brainstorming of goals for a rafting trip we were all going on together for the annual “week without walls” adventure, which for us, would take us river-rafting down the River Ganges.Most of the goals the students offered were about having fun. Then Priya, a rock-star 15 year-old reset the tone. Suddenly in that room it was cool to be deep and spiritual. This was a moment you only see in John Hughes films.
I’ve chaperoned a lot of great, and edgy, student trips but none of them included students who proclaimed the desire to cleanse themselves of sin. (In fact, most wanted to commit sins.) And this was how I began my river rafting trip on the Ganges.
A little backstory: all the high school students and teachers go on a 4-5 day trip in the fall to a different part of India — there are a dozen different expeditions. The goal is to learn more about the political, social, and environmental diversity of India while doing something physically challenging. There’s some service work as part of it, too. I was co-chaperoning the Khoj River Rafting trip. Khoj in Hindi roughly translates to adventure.
Our khoj took us to the foothills of the Himalayas, fairly close to the city of Rishikesh. We camped in tents on the sandy river bank, the mighty Ganges rushing past us day and night. Our first day of rafting required us to drive around 50 kilometers up river, along a narrow, sometimes dirt road that was cut into the side of the mountains. A friend-colleague on the trip with me described the road this way: “I’ve been on narrow mountain roads in South America and in South Africa, and I’ve never seen anything as scary as what we drove on this morning.” The drive offered plenty of khoj by itself, thank you very much.
There’s a lot of talk, when one goes rafting with high schoolers, about who is going to fall out of the boats first. There were a lot of first-time rafters in our trip, and if they weren’t nervous before we left on the trip, they all nearly shit their pants when they first saw how fast that river was moving. During the safety briefing there were plenty of faces that were white with terror. I could almost feel them muttering “please don’t let me fall in the river.”
Their prayers worked: I was the first one to fall in. And the second. I got pitched out of my boat — a rubber, two-man kayak called a “duckie” — for the first time in some rapids of distinction. My struggle with the river to stay afloat with my head above water rattled me. Pointing my feet down river, holding my paddle and fighting the rapids that seemed to smash into me deliberately was stressful. I was seriously rattled and banged up when the rescue kayak scooped me up — although I tried to hide it from the students who I could feel watching me closely when the guides transferred me into one of the 8-person rafts. My second splash into the river came about 3 minutes later when I tried to get back into my duckie boat from the 8-person raft. I leaned down to grab the far side of the duckie, and just before reaching the galvinized rubber someone shifted the duckie closer to the raft, and I missed — airballed really, and hit the water again face first. In a second I was swept back down the next set of rapids. By the time the rescue kayak got to me the second time I was a total pro at being hauled out. Piece of cake. Except that when I got back in my two-man duckie I was afraid. Really afraid. I did not want to be on that river any more. And a moment later we shot another set of rapids, and I got three big waves in a row right in the face. I drank enough river water that morning that I think I have to start my series of hepatitis shots all over again. Mercifully, we stopped on a sandbar for lunch after emerging from the froth. I coughed up water for most of the break.
Time passed slowly with the sun directly overhead. The events of the morning set in. My shoulders and back throbbed from the stress that comes from hitting that edge of “something bad almost happened.” My head was still a little soggy, and I very clearly had one thought: I do not want to get back in that boat. Or that one. Or that one over there. And definitely not that one, either.
One of the facilitators of the trip talked about a definition of khoj which means not just adventure, but moving through fear with confidence. How appropriate: I was afraid of the river. I felt like I had come close to being in a really bad situation, and it was only the morning of the first day. I still had three more days of this shit. There was no way out – no option to let the bus pick me up, for the road was 800 feet above us in the side of the mountain. The only way out of this was down that river, in the boat. Through the fear. Into the raft I went. Quiet. Tired. humbled. “What’s next?” I thought.
Next was the Ganges.
The glorious river of the ages forms at the confluence of the Alaknanda River (on which we had started and on which I had gotten intimate with the water) and the Bhagirathi River, which starts way up in the craggy peaks of the Himalayas at Gangotri Glacier. Where the ice melts into water is called Gaumukh — the “Cow’s Mouth” — and then soon that water forms the Bhagirathi. As frigid, torrential water, the Bhagirathi descends rapidly from the snowy regions down to the jungles where we were. Where the two rivers meet, brightly colored buildings jutt abruptly up from the rocky shores, and the two rivers — one blue and one light green, smash into each other, forming the Ganges.
This confluence is a holy place — there’s an ashram with pilgrims in white and bright orange robes on one bank of this intersection, and there was a funeral pyre with men donning newly-shaved heads — the sign of mourning — on another. This is the place that Siva has visited back in the days of yore. Countless devotees have followed. And I’m rafting, with a bunch of high schoolers from six different countries, right in the middle of all of it.
Somewhere between the meeting of the two rivers and the brightly painted buildings and the devotiona rituals, I forgot my fear. The river widened, and slowed down. With it, time slowed, too. Ahead of us rafters slid from their boats into the water. I remembered my fear for a second and I hesitated. My students showed me the way, throwing down their paddles and splashing with screeches into the water. Priya’s words caught up to me in the breeze: let’s wash away our sins. At first I thought that I’d already been in the water plenty that morning. But the idea persisted, and I knew that I needed to go in intentionally this time.
Back in I went. With intention.
The gorge was wide in this part, so the water moved more slowly. I floated with most of the others in my group, shivering a little because, damn, that water is still really cold. And I was laughing. Others laughed, too. I looked around. Some laughed at being stuck in the little eddies that spun swimmers around like a washing machine. Some laughed and shrieked as they pulled their friends out of the other rafts into the water. I laughed because, well, I was thinking maybe my sins are actually being washed away. If not my sins, then at least my fear, and that’s a pretty good start.