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River Wild!

Sami and I had had a great time white water rafting in Oregon last spring, so when I saw an ad for river rafting, I was psyched. Though it didn’t seem like an especially Balinese thing to do – no sarongs, offerings, or monkeys involved - it did look like fun. We booked an afternoon ride with Bali Adventure Tours (I can’t recommend their service highly enough)!

Despite the apparent lack of “cultural” trappings, the day turned out to be a wonderful window into a dimension of Bali we had not yet seen. The 90-minute drive from our hotel to the put-in point took us from the coast into the lush interior along twisty mountain roads.

I sat in the front, and marveled at the roller-coaster experience of being surrounded by motorbikes (many of whom carried two or three people, none with helmets) which buzzed around both sides of us. I used to think I was a good driver, but was quite content to sit back and let our driver handle the zany swerving and passing on the too-narrow roads while I gazed out the window at the unfolding panorama of the Balinese countryside.

Small villages, each of which took about a half-minute to zoom through, alternated with achingly green-terraced rice paddies, all bustling with people taking in yet another bumper harvest from Bali’s famously rich soil. It’s one of the few places in the world where the land supports three harvests a year, so there is always a high level of activity in the fields.

Zooming through one village after another, I noticed similarities. Each had a beautiful central temple and a low-tech mini-market (usually some sort of lean-to stacked with essentials like Coca-Cola and Lifebuoy shampoo). Everything was swept clean. Everyone looked healthy and happy. About half the people wore no shoes, not out of poverty (since they were fully-clothed and well fed), but simply because it was more comfortable. The architecture was simple, but decorative touches abounded: rooflines that turned up at the tips, cement walls adorned with statuary, and of course, floral offerings everywhere.

I wish I had taken more pictures of these “ordinary” scenes, since they are such a contrast to similar peasant-agrarian places like Mexico, Costa Rica and China. Bali is so clean, so peaceful, and so beautiful. The richness of the land and the culture provides a sense of social cohesion and happiness that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

If I were reborn as a peasant, Bali is the place I’d want to be.

We finally arrived at the put-in point, got suited up in high-quality gear, and made our way down to the river at the bottom of a steep gorge. The downward trek involved picking our way down 400 steps that clung to the sides of the deep ravine.

Around step 273, my legs were starting to feel wobbly. Then I saw two local women climbing up in our direction. Each was carrying a 15-gallon, open washtub of river water. On her head! And the water wasn’t even sloshing around. They gave us big smiles as we passed, huffing and puffing, on our way down, then continued placidly on their way up. I suddenly felt even more out of shape.

Winded by the downhill hike, we relaxed by the riverbank as the guides inflated the rafts. The ravine walls were almost vertical, stretching up at least 800 feet.

The river didn’t seem to be flowing too fast, but Miranda and Sharon, novice rafters, were a bit apprehensive about the rapids downstream. Sami was excited, and I figured we were truly committed, since none of us wanted to climb back up those steps!

The four of us, plus our guide, Made (Mah-DAY), pushed us off in the lead of our five-raft flotilla. Turning the first corner, before we even had time to realize what was about to happen, we had plunged through some true Class IV rapids! Shrieking, laughing, and very wet, Miranda and Sharon were immediately hooked by the thrill. “When do we get to do that AGAIN!?”

For the next hour and a half, we paddled through one set of rapids after another, with at most about three minutes in between sets. It was as if the rafting company had compressed the spaced-out rapids of a standard trip into a special, high-intensity “highlights” adventure. A true “E” ticket ride: plunges over little waterfalls, hard bumps into large boulders, and water flying everywhere! I had hoped to take some photos, but it was much too wet and wild. Fortunately, the company had sent ahead a photographer, who took a great photo of us traversing a steep rapid.

Just when the constant excitement threatened to become overwhelming, we turned a corner and saw a gorgeous waterfall cascading down the side of the canyon. Our guide hopped out and urged us to follow him into the spray. Happily, the river bottom was comfortably sandy, the water was a lovely temperature, and there were no critters lurking (or so they told us).

I couldn’t resist the call of the waterfall, figuring that my helmet would help absorb the force of the water (besides, I am known for my hard head).

After only a little coaxing, the girls gamely jumped out of the raft to give nature’s big shower a try.

At first they were excited, but after one blast hit them hard enough to knock them off their feet, they (sensibly) got a bit frightened. It took them a few moments to regain both their balance and their composure, but when they did, they felt a real sense of accomplishment.

It was one of those special moments every parent treasures – helping a child face a fear and overcome it. (Or were we just creating future Xtreme-sports-competing, thrill-seeking adrenalin junkies? Only time will tell.)

As we pushed off from the falls to resume our downriver course, we noticed that five village women, who had stationed themselves on the tiny riverside sand bar to sell us cold drinks while we played in the falls, had carefully taken off their pants and bundled up the heavy cans of unsold sodas into their clothes. They then proceeded to wade slowly into the river, single file, with the bundles of drinks and clothes balanced on their heads.

Made told us they would walk upstream – picking their way over the rocky rapids – all the way back to their villages. They do this every day in the hopes of selling a few soft drinks to passing rafters like us. It was hard not be amazed by their strength and tenacity.

The rest of the route was comparatively calm. The rapids were no less energetic, but we were all much more confident of our skills and our boat. Our guide clearly knew what he was doing after 10 years of guiding on this river. In between issuing well-timed and flawless directions to us, he entertained the girls with an amazingly resonant, loud and authentic imitation of a cow mooing! He was happy to do it as many times as they asked.

With less need to focus on staying afloat, we noticed more about life on the river. We passed under several fragile-looking bridges made of lashed-together bamboo, one of which climbed at a 45-degree angle from one side of the riverbed to the top of the ravine’s other side. It looked impossible to use, especially if you had to balance a heavy load of stuff on your head!

We floated past many people using the river for their afternoon baths. Some were construction workers laboring on the several new hotels, built on cantilevered struts jutting out from the top of the ravine. The girls were both appalled and amused to encounter male anatomy from a fairly close vantage point, and they marveled that the women were not at all bashful about splashing around naked while calling out greetings to us. I could only imagine how the Dutch traders must have felt when they first visited Bali centuries ago. It felt as if it hadn’t changed all that much.

At the pull-out point, we thanked Made and began the long trudge up another set of steps - only 275 on the way back!

Maybe it was the adrenalin rush of our adventure, but somehow the climb uphill seemed easier than the downhill trek that started our adventure.

Was it really only a couple hours ago? It felt like we had spent an entire day lost in a different world.

Next: New Year's Eve 2004


Bali chapter shortcuts: Intro Xmas Eve Zoo Temple Market Balinese Beauty Tsunami
Batik Monkeys Rafting New Year's Biking Elephants Sea Sports Cremation Dress Up Missing!

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