Tuesday, August 14, 2007

We go be tourist Part III; An unexpected raft voyage

It was now nearly 2:30.We had enjoyed a late lunch, seen a temple and a gas station. We sat on the bus wondering when on earth we were going to arrive at the blasted hot springs and start relaxing. Our tour guide appeared with a brochure.

It showed a group of people wearing yellow helmets and orange vests packed by two’s into small inflatable rafts. There was a picture of a waterfall crashing over what looked like a fifty foot precipice. Eric looked at me skeptically. “Where do you think this ranks between totally lame and wildly unsafe?” he asked. We were about to find out.

We filed off the bus and began to hike. Our guide said something to the effect that we could hike or take a tram. It wasn’t far he said. Next to the trail every so often you saw some rusty carnival equipment. It all lent a dismal air. There was a bedraggled looking roller coaster, with four empty cars whirling around. We saw a target practice game with three stuffed panda prizes in yellowed cellophane bags that looked to have been there since China opened to the West. Forty five minutes later we arrived huffing and puffing at the mouth of a giant dam. We were drenched in sweat from the effects of the hike and the ruthless sun as we surveyed the scene around us.

It seemed that everyone in China had also decided to “go be tourist” this weekend. They swarmed around a series of lockers like wasps on a puddle of spilled coke. Everyone was trying to accomplish the same set of tasks simultaneously and it was a noisy operation.

First there was the business of changing into swimsuits, though it wasn’t really clear to me where this was supposed to take place. There was a concrete bunker with a green towel hung over the window, but no markings on the door to indicate which gender might be in various states of undress on the other side. I boldly entered amid a flurry of angry Chinese and thanked my lucky stars that I had indeed chosen the ladies room. They glared at me and I turned to face the wall and peel my sweaty clothes off my body. This was no longer about having fun. It was a test of endurance. I grimly wriggled myself into my suddenly impossibly small swimsuit and marched out the door again amidst what I can only assume were the protestations of my bunker mates.

The next task was to stow my horrifyingly damp and stinky clothes in a locker. I managed to elbow my way through the crowd to the woman dolling out keys, and at just the right moment our tour guide appeared at my side and to shout some friendly but incomprehensible instructions. Now I had to find my locker. I turned to face a sea of orange life jackets, whirling arms, neon floral printed spandex, and black heads.

The lockers appeared to be portable. Apparently they would bring them to the bottom of the river so that we didn’t have to trek back up the hill. But no attention had been given to organizing the things numerically. I entered the fray and emerged triumphantly with my hair a muss a few claustrophobic moments later. I looked around for Eric. In moments like this, one is glad to be such a freak of nature in China. We can always find each other immediately, if not because of our height, because of the circle of onlookers watching our every move. He looked as bedraggled as I did. We both wanted the whole ordeal to be over and we hadn’t even been outfitted with gear yet.

Twenty minutes later after a bewildering sequence of lines and one enormous pile of soggy yellowed fabric “elbow pads” that I opted out of with broken Mandarin and some well timed hand wringing, we found ourselves sitting in a raft in a brackish green pool, surrounded by Chinese people having the time of their lives. They were splashing each other with their paddles, ingeniously using their helmets to dump water onto one another, generally full of laughter and merriment. Eric and I sat facing each other, joylessly gripping our paddles, the one silent, still raft in a pond rippling with fun loving Chinese tourists.

“Is this what you thought we’d be doing today when we got on the bus this morning?” Eric inquired dryly. I laughed. People were still being loaded into boats, though it didn’t appear there was a cubic inch of space available in the pond. Tanned, muscular, old men in straw hats heaved rafts down into the green water from giant stacks at the shore. Behind us, the dam rose steeply and we saw the waterfall crashing down. We couldn’t leave until 3:00, our guide had stressed. Now the reason became apparent. They were raising the level of the creek with the dam water.

On the long trek up, we had seen the channel we would be rafting down. It was clearly man made and entire sections of it were lined with concrete. It had all looked pretty tame on the way up. Now as the crowd edged towards the mouth of the creek, it suddenly looked less innocuous. It wasn’t going to be like our rafting trip on the Nile, but it wasn’t looking like a day at Six Flags either. The drop off was quite steep and one person would be facing backwards for the length of the trip.

While others jockeyed for position around us, we sat patiently, knowing that eventually we would be sent hurtling down the canal, ready or not. I prayed I wouldn’t be the one to go backwards and for a fleeting moment it seemed I would get my wish. But the old man guiding people into the canal had other plans. He took his giant bamboo pole and turned us around so that Eric could steer. Off we went, holding to the sides for dear life and bitterly regretting leaving those mildewed elbow pads behind.

It wasn’t as though the raft was going to tip over, it was just that the creek bed was littered with jagged rocks and the only thing protecting our rear ends was a thin piece of rubber. But I wasn’t complaining. Ever since traveling in Africa, Eric and I have often talked about the refreshing lack of safety measures in the developing world. It’s a world untouched by the ravages of liability lawsuits. So, if you are dumb enough to pay someone to go hurdling down a rocky crick in nothing but a swimsuit and a flimsy life jacket, and you get banged up along the way, you have no one to blame but yourself. So, when I banged my tail bone on a particularly big boulder, and spent the rest of the weekend wincing every time I sat down, I knew I could only blame myself for agreeing to “go be tourist” in the first place. (And for the record, we never did make it to the fabled "hot springs...")

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