I am not a thrill-seeking person. Adventure loving, yes; adrenaline junkie, no. I’ve always hated roller-coasters, other stomach turning amusement parks rides, and anything that makes me feel like I’m on the brink of death. I think that skydiving and bungee jumping are the most counterintuitive activities one can dream of doing and cannot understand for the life of me why people do skeleton. Needless to say, I try to get my daily dose of euphoria from other activities like doing a hard swim practice or stumbling through a debate speech.
However, sometimes it is important to push your comfort zone. After all, how are we to know our limits if we never test them? For example, on my grade 8 band trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota we went to Valley Fair. I had never been on a large roller-coaster because I instinctively knew I hated them, but wanted to look cool in front of my friends. I marched up to the biggest ‘coaster in the park (aptly named “Wild Thing” as it begins with a 63 metre climb immediately followed by a 60 degree drop) and strapped myself into the front seat. 10 minutes of soul crushing adolescent regret later and I knew my limits. Happy I did it, but would never do it again.
My adventure yesterday is another great example of a “happy I did it, but would never do it again” moment. The following story will take you through the ‘ups and downs’ of yesterday. Limits were tested, lines were drawn, and prayers were said to every divine entity that humans have dreamed up. I hope you get more joy out of reading this story than I did living it.
Monday evening at 7:16pm waiting for Mr. Boda. Tomorrow is a national holiday in Uganda (“Hero’s Day”) so me and my fellow Scholars are looking to get out of Kampala and do some exploring. I receive a text from Shelby notifying me that she found a whitewater rafting company and that I, she, and Rachel are lucky enough to have snatched up the last three spots for the trip tomorrow. “Ah, balls”, I exclaim a little too loudly. A six year old girl in a private school outfit gives me a weird look and her nearby mother nods in disapproval.
If you are to put the three of us on a spectrum of risk-adversity then I will lie on the far left, nestled in comfy armchair with scotch, a book, and a grand piano playing gently in the background. I like the great outdoors and can canoe/portage until the cows come home, but prefer to have my feet planted firmly on the ground if at all possible. Rachel probably lies somewhere in the middle: ready to strap on the adventure boots or hit a wild theme park, but not crazy enough to jump out of an airplane or off of a bridge. Shelby, on the other hand, is already out of the airplane and spinning in spirals before you can say “wait, we’re not done the safety checks!” She is not worried if the chute will open, but rather if she has enough time after skydiving for some bungee jumping. I’m not exaggerating. Shelby did actually go skydiving, and she requested to be spun during her freefall.
That said, the three of us approach our day of whitewater rafting on the source of the Nile River with different attitudes. I will be happy if I survive, Rachel is ready for a bit of a thrill, and Shelby is already out of the raft and swimming in the Nile before we hit our first rapid. I guess you can say that we complement each other.
The ride to our drop site – located about 40 minutes outside of Jinja, a city East of Kampala – is a bit surreal. The three of us step on the bus and are greeted by 16 white faces looking back at us. Without exception, every person on the bus (save for the driver and a few guides) is a white girl with un-washed hair up in pony tail. Many have tattoos on their feet of arrow heads, small birds, and really deep sayings like “live, laugh, love”. These girls are the real deal. It looks like a hybrid between a MEC fashion show, a Me to We commercial, and a Lulu Lemon boxing day sale. I am moved to be in the midst of such altruistic and genuine people; true cosmopolitan global citizens, every last one of them.
The three of us let out a small chuckle when we see the nationalities of our fellow “rapiders” on attendance list: “Generic name #1 – Canada – Female – Age: 21; generic name #2 – USA – Female – Age: 20; generic name #3 – Canada – Female – Age: 23. You get the idea. It turns out that everybody on today’s rafting trip is either Canadian or American, in their early 20s, and is in Africa to either do bad voluntourism (see Entry #13), work at an NGO, or find themselves by visiting the “true Africa”. Classic. Realizing that we are probably not much better than most of the voluntourists – although we do have ethics and Her Majesty on our side – my fellow Scholars and I slump into our seats, embrace our generic appearance, and enjoy the scenery.
We step off the bus and lather on our sunscreen in concert. After a short breakfast at the drop site we are divided up into three different rafting groups. My group consists of: Rachel #1 (my Rachel), Rachel #2 (a Ugandan girl), Shelby #1 (my Shelby), Shelby #2 (an American girl), me, another man who cannot swim, and a guide. We are an all-star team, there’s no denying it. We get fitted for lifejackets, strap on our helmets and hit the Nile.
My first thoughts are: “Wow, so much for whitewater, this river is like glass”… “On the Nile, alright, not bad Jeremy, on the Nile”. These thoughts are ill-founded. Our guide speaks up, “Okkkkkkayyyyy ladies and gentleman. Who is ready to have some funnnn today?!” Rachel #1 and Shelby #1, “Woooo!” me, “yayy?” The guide goes on to explain some basic safety procedures like how to properly hold on to the raft during the rapids, what to do if we fall out, and what to do if the raft flips. “Wait what? The raft can flip? In the middle of rocky fast-moving water? Ah, balls”, I thought to myself.
Our guide gets very serious as we approach the first of our 8 rapids for the day . “This is a grade 5 rapid (the largest and most dangerous kind people are legally permitted to go on), it is called the Dead Dutchman”, he says. Shelby #2 pipes up and asks why. The guide laughs and explains to us that a Dutchman rolled his raft on the quickly approaching rapid and went on to die. “AH, BALLS!” Shelby #2 goes on to ask what we should do if we roll our raft during the upcoming rapid. The guide responds with a devilish face, “We can’t roll on this one”. I then hiss to Shelby #1, “What the F*** have you gotten me into?” Shelby responds with a smile that reeks of pure and unadulterated joy.
*For the remainder of this story, in order to keep things somewhat PG, the “F” word will be replaced by “fart”, “shit” will continue as “shit”, and any other miscellaneous swear words will be expressed using the words, “donkey”, “Stephen Harper”, or “house cat”*
We approach the mouth of the first rapid and I feel like I’m about to shit on a house cat. We get sucked into the fast moving water and our raft pitches down at a 65 degree angle. Our guide yells “PADDLE FORWARD, PADDLE, PADDLE, FORWARD!” At this point I am actually too terrified to scream. As we approach a giant rock with water poring over it our guide screams “DOWN, GET THE FART DOWN”. The raft hits the wave created by the rock and immediately goes vertical. This time I do yell. “FARRT, DONKEY SHIT-STEPHENHARPER-HOUSE CAT FARTS!” Apparently Rachel #2 can’t get her “fart down” soon enough and as a result is flung into the air. Luckily enough she lands on my toe.
Once our raft returns to a somewhat horizontal pitch our guide yells: “UP, GET YOUR DONKIES UP AND PADDLE FORWARD LIKE A HOUSE CAT!” A wall of water rushes into the raft. Nonetheless I start paddling, but notice that there is no water under my ore. In fact, my entire side of the raft is about 6 feet air born at this point. I don’t know how and I don’t know why. Time runs at quarter speed for a few horrifying moments. Slow motion, I paddle through noting but air and sky; my face is wet with a mix of spray from the Nile and tears. I scream something unintelligible as Shelby #1 glances back at me with a look of pure ecstasy. My soul senses that end is near and silent wish I spent less time on facebook and more time on twitter. Just as my heart rate passes 200BPM my side of the raft lands back on the Nile and I hear my guide say with disappointment: “Mother farter, we missed the 16-foot waterfall! We are going to be the wimps of the day!” Shelby #1 and Rachel #1 look disappointed, but I for one am just happy to be alive.
As we make our way out of the first rapid, Rachel #2 wisely decides that rafting isn’t for her and makes her way to the safety boat. Envious as I am, I realize that I have to see this day through so I paddle on. A few minutes later we hit another rapid and the story is much the same: “STEPHEN HARPER DONKEY FARTS ON A HOUSE CAT COVERED IN SHIT!”
Rapid #3 is where things go from “oh my god” terrifying to actual near-death experience terrifying. Before we hit this rapid we see the raft ahead of us flip; it is like looking into the future. “AHHHHH BALLLLSS!” The water speed picks up again and our guide instructs us to paddle forward as hard as we can. But our efforts are no match for the mighty Nile. The rapid grabs our raft and turns it 90 degrees, it then sends us in a 5 foot nosedive towards a ‘centrifuge of death’ (CoD). Our raft hits the CoD with enough force to knock a pack of Newfoundlanders drinking a bottle of Screech clean off Signal Hill. As we dive into the face of the CoD our guide yells “GET YOUR ASSES DOWN!” The CoD slaps me in the face and the next thing I know our raft is upside down and fully airborne. I crash into the fast-moving Nile and the raft crashes into, well… me. I am underwater and struggle to find the air pocket under the raft. At this point I am convinced I am going to drown. After a few seconds of panic I find the air pocket and take a short breath before the capsized raft hits another large wave. I am thrust underwater yet again and eventually make my way to the surface after a few more seconds of pure horror. The guide flips the raft back into its god-given position and we climb back in. “Well, that was a nice gentle roll”, he says.
After tackling another rapid aptly named “50/50” (at least they are honest about my chances of surviving this time), we head to a small island for lunch. Three hours have passed and my nerves are shot. Shelby #1 and Rachel #1, on the other hand, are visibly elated. We converse with a few voluntourists and I lose my appetite after one of them calls a slum “the real Africa”. I do a quick prayer to: God, Allah, William Shatner, Poseidon, and even Neptune for good measure – and then we are off for Act 2 of “Jeremy’s Last Day on Earth” staring Shelby #1, Shelby #2, Rachel #1, Rachel #2, that other guy, and our guide.
Although they are grade 4, the next 3 rapids are actually somewhat enjoyable. Yes, our raft achieves acrobatic feats that I did not know were physically possible without reaching escape velocity in the Soyuz – but we stay upright and that is enough for me. I might have even cracked a smile between bouts of tears while tackling “Vengeance”. The names of the rapids are, of course, always reassuring.
We continue to paddle along the Nile for another half hour or so before we hit our last rapid of the day. The sky starts to darken and thunder roars in the distance. We have hit a calm patch of river and our guide lets us jump out of the raft to float in the bath-like waters of the Nile at a few points along the way. One thing that Canadians do not experience is naturally-occurring warm water. Anyone that has swum in Lake of the Woods in south-western Ontario knows the feeling of jumping into the water on a mid-summer day: a thousand cold, sharp knives stabbing into your lungs. The Nile, on the other hand, wraps around you like a warm blanket when you wade in its fast-moving waters.
I decide to stop “swimming” and let my lifejacket do the work for a few minutes. As I lay back and look around me I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the richness of the Ugandan landscape. The surrounding areas are an absolute sensory overload: dark green treetops contrast with light green grass; the thick air makes everything in the distance look like an oil painting; you see rare varieties of birds dive in the water and scoop up even rarer varieties of fish. The sights, the smells, and the sounds. Wow.
Our last rapid rapidly approaches and we pull ourselves back in the raft. Actually, I get in first and proceed to hoist Rachel #1, Shelby #1, and Shelby #2 from the river. We quickly learn that there is no graceful way to climb into a raft. The best way to imagine it is if you picture a baby calf shooting out of his mother’s womb and trying to take his first steps – kind of awkward, very funny, yet somewhat majestic. We dawn our helmets as our guide’s tone turns serious once again, “Our last rapid of the day is called the Nile Special”. Me, Shelby #1 and Rachel #1 all say in concert: “Like the beer?” The guide laughs and confirms our question. He quickly recounts the story of a group of rafters who had a few cases of ‘Nile Special Beer’ in their raft (google it, best beer on the planet). The rafters happened to flip their boat in the upcoming rapid and the beer proceeded to spill everywhere – thus, “the Nile Special”.
The water speed picks up as the noise from the upcoming rapid becomes louder. “Ah, balls, shit, Stephen Harper”. “We are going to pass over some large swells, but whatever you do, don’t stop paddling forward! If you fall out, don’t hold onto the boat, the speed of the rapid will rip your arms out of their sockets”, said the guide. I shoot Shelby #1 a dirty expression that conveyed: “This is the last time you get to pick an activity”.
And then it starts to rain, hard.
The river takes hold of our raft as rain pounds down on my helmet. Africa by Toto starts to play in my head as I paddle over swells the size of small giraffes. “IT’S GONNA TAKE A LOT TO DRAG ME AWAY FROM YOU — MOTHER FARTER DONKEY SHIT — *paddle, paddle* — THERE’S NOTHING THAT 100 MEN OR MORE COULD EVER DO — DONKEY FARTS ON STEPHEN HARPER’S HOUSE CAT — I BLESS THE RAINS DOWN IN AF…” our raft goes from horizontal to vertical in the blink of an eye. The last thing I see is a wall of water and Shelby #2 racing towards my face. The raft flips on top of me and I am stuck underwater. I fight to get to the surface, but my head is still trapped somewhere under the raft. After nearly drowning, yet again, I make my way out of the underworld and take a quick breath of misty air before I am sucked into another swell. A few seconds of mortal panic pass before I surface and find myself out of the rapid. Rachel #1 and Shelby #1 are 20 metres upstream, while me and Shelby #2 are a few metres away from the guide who is gingerly standing atop the capsized raft.
As I float down the river and wonder how I continually manage to escape the claws of death, Shelby #1 and Rachel #1 yell to see if I am okay. I respond, “NEXT NATIONAL HOLIDAY WE ARE GOING TO THE LIBRARY AND DRINKING SCOTCH!” We all laugh and spend the next 10 or 15 minutes enjoying the, once again gentle, current of the Nile.
p.s. I will post pictures of our rafting adventure on my facebook page in a few days’ time.
Epilogue – The Mosque
I could feel my colon contracting more and more with each step. “It’s okay Jeremy, you are only ten stories off the ground climbing up a winding staircase in a concrete tube of death supported by god knows what” I thought to myself. “HOOLLLY TITS! Don’t look down. Jeremy, why did you look down?” I quickly avert my gaze from the cold, hard concrete floor tens of meters below. I take a peak up, “okay, only seven or eight stories to go – just put one foot in front of the other… one foot right in front of the other. Hmmm, you know, the only thing separating me from falling to my death is that thin metal railing. I wonder how stable it is. *grasps the railing* “HOLLLY F**** NOT STABLE, CAPCOM I REPEAT: NOT STABLE!” I continue to ascend the spiraling staircase that leads to the top of the Gaddafi National Mosque in Old Kampala. When I am not singing a Kyrie or wishing I could hug my mother one last time before I fall to my death, I think about the people that made my terrifying climb possible: Idi Amin Dada (“The Last King of Scotland”) and Muammar Gaddafi.
That’s right, folks. One of the most beautiful structures I have ever laid my eyes on was completely funded and built by two of the biggest tyrants the world has ever known. It is funny how something so beautiful can come from someone so ugly.