The slopes around Turrialba, Costa Rica (photo: bidstrup.com)
Our SUV has become stuck in mud on a narrow jungle road for the second time this morning.
A few hours before dawn – before we’ve trekked across the mountain village of Turrialba to the office of our rafting outfitter – a brief thunderstorm had sent sheets of heavy rain pouring onto the slopes of the mountains, reducing much of the earth to dribbling brown liquid.
As the guides work to free the back tires, we struggle groggily out of the truck to stretch our legs on a dry part of the road, snacking on Clif Bars and surveying the scene below.
To the south down the road lay the low shacks and bridges of Turrialba. To the west and about a thousand feet straight down from the ridge, the two main rivers tumbling out of Costa Rica’s central mountain ranges – the Rio Pacuare and the Rio Reventazon – crookedly intersect, wriggling like a couple of long lazy earthworms washed out of their burrows.
From these heights the rivers look motionless and two-dimensional as photos, shimmering through a haze of evaporating fog and mist, shot through with mottles of bright sunrise. It’s breathtaking. And slightly intimidating. After all, in a few minutes we are scheduled to be on one of those rivers – the Rio Pacuare, one of the top rafting rivers in the world – and headed into our first major Class IV rapid.
Finally the back tires spin free and we’re on our way again, bumping and roaring up and down steep jungle hills scattered with deciduous and banana and palm and the occasional wild coffee bush.
It doesn’t look like we’ll make our put-in time.
The Rio Pacuare. (photo: livingincostaricatoday.com)
Finally at the put in, we unpack our gear as our main guide, a short and friendly Tico who looks no older than 18, explains the situation.
Normally, he explains, they would do a test-run in calm water so that inexperienced rafters can practice pulling others back into the boat, and the ones being pulled in can get used to being in the water. Also in normal circumstances we’d all practice floating a small section of rapids in only our life jackets.
But it’s late – we’re behind, there are several other groups behind us, so the guide skips all this. Instead they just show us how to stay in the boat (by jamming our river sandals under the seat in the center), tell us to paddle like hell and “avoid the big holes”, and throw us in.
You can probably guess this is a bad idea. With the exception of my then-girlfriend, we’ve all rafted before. But our experience has been limited to predictable rapids in high desert rivers of no more than Class II or at most Class III, with few swells and no huge holes or obstacles in our way. This river….well, let’s just say this river is an entirely different beast. An angry, homicidal beast.
There’s a period of calm as we launch out in the shallows from the pebbled banks. The guide, perched at the rear with the steering paddle, goes over our upcoming route. We’ll be covering 18 miles of the Pacuare, with one break in between for lunch. Safety kayakers will be stationed to the aft and to the rear of us as we go.
This all sounds reasonable, reassuring. Less so when, seconds later, we’re shooting down the river toward our first Class III (made a Class IV by the rainstorm and the rise in river level), and I’m barely able to remain seated atop the side. It feels like I’ll be launched into the river at any moment.
We bang on easily through the first Class III even while straining to discern the guide’s shouted commands from the rear. After catching our breaths, we look around at each other. Jungle birds shriek and chitter above us, invisible in the dense foliage drooping down from the canyon walls.
Is it supposed to feel this precarious? Why can’t I get a solid perch on this side? Should it be necessary to correct my balance every two seconds to stay upright even in calm water? Should I have bought rafting sandals in my own size, rather than borrowing my stepdad’s, which are much too large and already slipping off my feet? Am I just being a paranoid noob?
Then – BAM! A giant wave rears up bronco-like directly in front of us, towering over the stern of the boat, and the time for thinking is over. We plow directly into it.
We are aloft for a split, terrifying second, disconnected from the river, from the raft even – I see the bodies of my companions beginning to float helplessly up from their sides as if gravity had become unbolted – and then we slam back down into the water at an indescribable angle, so violently that the whole front of the raft folds like a check mark. My neck pops and the teeth of my upper jaw crush against my mandible.
The rear of the raft pops out backward as it straightens itself out, flinging the guide’s body aftward. How his back is not broken after this little flight I still don’t know.
This is like us, but with way more time IN the boat (photo: Wikipedia)
We have no time to catch our breaths or even to feel elated. A giant hole looms ahead. I blink, can’t quite believe what the visual information indicates, blink again. The river level drops at least 10 feet in directly in front of us. A long, flat ledge of rock marks the edge of the hole, and we’re only a few seconds away. Too close to do anything but hold on and plunge into it.
All higher thought disappears from my mind. Cold terror consumes me as I paddle. The guide screams behind us, jamming his steering oar as deep behind him as he can without losing grip on it – “Paddle! Paddle! Left side! Left side!”
Abstractly I think – dude, aren’t you the one who is supposed to be calm and keeping us together? He is clearly losing it.
We paddle as instructed. The edge draws nearer like an executioner’s blade. It’s like fighting a bear, pulling against this current. But we slowly coax the raft to our right. We’re clearing it! We’re clearing it! I think wildly.
But relief is short-lived. In our haste, we’ve over-corrected and don’t have time to get straight. The back end sweeps around almost 180 degrees. The stern catches the flat edge of the rock.
TO BE CONTINUED
LEG ONE: FROM PORTLAND, OR TO SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA
Perry Farrell is on our plane from Portland to L.A.
In fact, we walk right alongside him and his two children and his very petite Asian wife all the way through the PDX International gate, and also the boarding tunnel (through which he carries his young, excitable child upon his shoulders while his wife carries a stroller) and into the plane, after which he and his brood settle into the first-class cabin and we are shuffled back to coach.
And then after we depart the plane in Los Angeles to await our connecting flight to Guatemala City, we can’t escape him. There he is in baggage claim next to us, horsing around and embracing his wife and chasing his kids and laughing the way one almost never does after an uneventful and surely routine flight. At which point my little brother Keifer (pretending he is taking a picture of my girlfriend) catches him on film, blurry in the background of his shot.
This is very cool of course. He is a celebrity. And personally vindicating to poor Keifer, as right off the bat, this event almost justifies the added trouble of the extra forty or so pounds of lenses, tripods and film that he has lugged along on this ostensibly stripped-down, month-long trek of Costa Rica. But it doesn’t stop the rest of his travelling companions (myself, my girlfriend Stacky, and my brother Chris) from cruelly ribbing him about it.
Sometime during the following, interminable overnight flight from L.A. to Guatemala City and then to San Jose, a movie flickers into life on the monitors hanging above our seats. This movie is titled “Down with Love”, starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger.
Now, I cannot sleep on planes. Never have been able to. Maybe it’s just me, but something about having no control of whether I live or die – entrusting my life to a strange, exhausted pilot who is somehow maintaining 75 tons of airliner at an altitude of 35,000 feet above dark and jagged mountains – prevents me from drifting off into careless, baby-like slumber.
So, because it is the only activity to engage me in this dark tube of hurtling steel filled with lucky sleeping bastards, and because we have entered that peculiar suspension of time that occurs on long overnight flights and I need something with a definite running time to reassure me that this flight is progressing somehow, I watch Messr. McGregor’s “Down with Love”.
No. Down with THIS MOVIE. (image courtesy of fanpop.com)
After the credits roll, I mentally recite a short list of activities available to me that would have been preferable to sitting through “Down With Love”. An abbreviated list follows:
1. Suffocating on the collected noxious emissions of the gastrically distressed fellow in front of me.
2. Punching a hole in the fuselage and being sucked out to free-fall gently into the Pacific.
3. You get the idea.
And I still cannot sleep.
Compared to the chaotic behemoth of L.A.X., the Guatemala City airport terminal, hunching low and blocky in the dim wilderness of 3 a.m Central America, looks like a poorly lit gas station that we’ve pulled up to on an overnight bus trip.
We’ve landed in Guatemala City in the dead of night to pick up a few passengers and to let a sick and feverish man off the plane. The man slumped to the floor around halfway through the flight and the crew have been propping him up ever since. Through the dark filter of my sleepless delirium, the ordeal of the two flight attendants assigned to escort the poor man off the plane seems grim. They strain epically to drag the bulky fellow out of the side exit and finally manage to stumble down the stairs to the tarmac below.
With that bit of unpleasantness done, the crew passes around immigration and customs forms for everyone to sign as if nothing has happened. Then we sit in the dark on the tarmac for what feels like hours before taking off again. All I can do is stare out the window at the gas station lights.
Sleep has not come by the time dawn sees us flying over the Nicoya Peninsula. We immediately begin our descent. We have finally crossed the massive Lake Nicaragua (which is more like a sea) and passed rather dramatically into Costa Rica.
Now, intensely green forested mountains rise to the left of us, rolling down to deep shadowed valleys and impenetrable tree cover, while to the right, the Pacific glistens vast and green blue with white misty shores. It is breathtaking.I’m immediately cheered. Soon, I will sleep a long and needed sleep (I cast my red eyes upon my brothers and my girlfriend slumbering just next to and behind me – lucky bastards!) and then, my rest taken, it will be off to romp around this giant playground.
—TO BE CONTINUED–