Comfort Zones (Flashback)

*The following blog is written about events which took place on July 21, 2012.

“A ship is safe in harbour, but that is not what ships are for.”  William Shedd

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I peered down at my toes, which were slightly over the edge.  I had my hands over my head and held on to the metal bar which was above.  As I looked at my toes, fear and nervousness gripped me deep within.  I was looking down at the Nile River as I stood more than 250 feet above it.  The view was surreal; it was the most beautiful yet the most daunting backdrop I had ever set my eyes upon.  The sun had only risen an hour or two prior and its orange rays were now reflecting stunningly off of the river.  I took in the warmth of the rays, wishing they would melt my heart into oblivion.  Anything to avoid what was about to happen.

I had been terrified of heights my entire life.  This fear was temporarily subdued when I became a high ropes course manager at a summer camp for four years, but it was now back with a vengeance-filled punch to the gut.  I had never been standing on an edge so far away from the ground in my entire life.  I slowly repositioned my gaze so that I was looking straight forward at the cliff in front of me.  There was the cliff-side bar that I had spent the previous night in with friends.  It was only a few hours ago that I had accepted my friends’ challenge, climbed into a kayak which was attached to the roof, hung from it upside down, and took a shot of tequila as the group cheered.   Those same people were watching me attentively from the railing of the bar now; some looked nervous, most looked frightened.  I could really use that shot of tequila now…

Climbing into a kayak which is hanging upside down in the bar in Jinja is a tradition apparently.  Taking a shot while hanging like that proved to be difficult!

Climbing into a kayak which is hanging upside down in the bar in Jinja is a tradition apparently. Taking a shot while hanging like that proved to be difficult!

I did not want to let go of the death grip I had on the overhead metal bar, but I knew I had to.  My entire trip to Africa had been about pushing me outside of my comfort zone, and this situation was no different.  I slowly dropped one hand and then the other, concentrating immensely on my balance.  All ten of my toes were over the edge of the platform as my knees began to shake.  I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the fresh air of Jinja,Uganda, and then I exhaled.  Forget comfort zones, I thought, TIA…This is Africa…  It was time to jump.

Without any more hesitation, I bent my legs and leapt head first into a swan dive, falling rapidly towards the Nile River.  As I fell, everything around me seemed to blur in slow motion.  I looked towards my friends who were now peering down on me from the railing; we had switched positions.  I then turned my eyes towards the river as it was quickly approaching, even in the slow motion mode.  The green water looked like concrete, waiting to welcome its newest form of mortar.  My brain began to scream.  HOLY CRAP, I AM ACTUALLY FALLING! 

I tried to scream out loud but nothing came out.  Panic stormed my mind as the Nile came closer and closer.  The slow motion, nostalgic feeling was gone, terror was now my only companion.  I watched with anxiety as I knew I only had a few seconds left before I slammed hard into my target.  What have I done?!  What was I thinking?

My face smashed into the water with such force it was deafening.  My neck and torso followed suit, as I could feel the icy water against my bare skin.  Suddenly, my entire body became momentarily static.  I was frozen time, with half of my torso in the Nile River, while the other half remained above the water.  The moment of stillness left as quickly as it came.  I was ripped from the water and launched towards the sky like a pebble from a slingshot.  I could see the bungee cord next to me as I slowly rotated in the air.  The sight and tension of the cord immediately filled my body with relief.  I am going to make it after all, I thought with a grin.

I swung, fell, tossed, and turned for several more seconds as I enjoyed the breathtaking views of cliffs dumping into the Nile.  I could not help but cry out triumphantly towards my friends as I began laughing at how surreal the entire situation was.  I had just jumped off of a platform 250 feet in the air with nothing but a rope attached to my feet.  Forget comfort zones.

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Later that day was our group’s big end of the journey reward – a white water rafting trip on the Nile River.  I joined forces with Big John and Isaac, who collectively weighed more than 600 pound.  The other occupants of our boat were Christine, Sarah, Becca, Ariane, and Dana, and our raft guide, Tutu.  Tutu was a five foot seven inch Ugandan who was absolutely ripped.  Apparently steering inflated boats with eight passengers really gave his upper body a workout; he meant serious business on the river.  I am fairly certain he did not crack a smile the entire time we were on the river.

We began the half-day rafting trip by practicing for thirty minutes in calm waters.  We practiced listening to Tutu’s commands, working as a unit, and flipping over and recovering.  As we practiced I could hear the first rapid in the distance, and its thunderous roars ominously foreshadowed what would transpire over the next four hours.

The first rapid was such a forceful foe that as we approached it Tutu instructed, “This one here, it is too big.  You will get down, duck, and hold on as tight as you can.”  The rapid was rated as a category five but Tutu claimed, “It is so dangerous it’s five and a half…or six.”  As we approached, I could see why: there was water slamming into jagged rocks from three different directions with an extreme force.  A steep drop also stood between us and our exit.  Well the bungee jumping didn’t kill me…but this surely will!

Isaac and I were sitting in the front of the boat, a decision which I was immediately regretting as soon as I saw the enormous whirl pool in front of us.  We attacked rapid initially, paddling as hard as we could to try to make it do a small waterfall drop that Tutu recommended.  Despite our most valiant efforts however, it felt like we were not making any progress against the fierce current.  I wonder if we trade Big John and Isaac for two smaller bodies if paddling would be any easier!  Suddenly, Tutu screamed, “Duck down, NOW!”  We soared down a drop and smashed into the water below us which was moving at a perpendicular angle.  The entire front half of our raft submerged momentarily and the force jarred Isaac loose from his death grip.  The gigantic football player was unable to hold on anymore and he tumbled towards me, landing on my left ankle; the same ankle I had seriously injured in a soccer game at Sir Samuel Baker a week earlier.  I winced in pain but no sound came out because my mouth was full of water from the Nile River.  By the time I spat out the water and opened my eyes, we were on the other side of the rapid; we had reached our safe haven, for now.

We spent the next two hours by going through two category four rapids and getting out and walking around a category six rapid that was too dangerous to attempt.  In calm places on the river we were able to get out swim, and do acrobatic flips off of the raft, all while listening to Big John’s best mock 1970s baseball announcer commentary.  I am actually swimming in the Nile River, I thought.  How freaking stupid am I right now?!  I will probably end up with some sort of parasite.  Remember the one Big John told you about…the one that swims up a man’s ureth…stop it, right now!  Stop and enjoy the sheer awesomeness of this entire situation.  Speaking of, that man really just loves talking to himself.  My thoughts were cut off by John communicating with his made-up color analyst named Jim.  “Ohhhhh Jim, did you see that last rapid?!  Lil’ Feisty sure lived up to her nickname, ohhh boy,” Big John said in an accent too similar to John Madden.  “It reminded me of back in ’71 when a five foot nothing Clive Worchester hit the game winning homerun for the then Washington Senators.  We all remember that amazing moment for a franchise that is now the Texas Rangers.”

After soaking in the river and the sun for a few hours, it was time for us to conquer the final rapid – a category five beast.  “There are three options,” explained Tutu.  “We can take the way which we will not tip, but it is not fun.  We can take the way that will definitely capsize the boat, or we can do a fifty-fifty chance.  You people vote.”  Big John, Isaac and I all voted for the definite capsize, while two were on the fence and three voted for not tipping.  In the end, a fourth joined us three men, and voted for the definite capsize.  God, I love democracy…  …and it would be that democratic decision which almost killed me.

In order to make it to the part of the rapid which would cause us to definitely capsize, we had to attack the river with everything we had.  We paddled ferociously as Tutu shouted commands from the back of the raft.  Even with every ounce of strength, we could not challenge the momentum of the river and we missed our destination by mere feet.  Amazingly, Tutu somehow stopped our momentum and steered us towards the fifty-fifty route.  “RIGHT SIDE, PADDLE HARD!”  He screamed.  “FASTER! …GET DOWN!”

The next ten seconds happened so quickly yet so slowly I am still unable to completely process the entire event.  After Tutu yelled for us to get down, I dropped to the floor of the raft, grabbed onto the rope surrounding the boat’s perimeter, and jammed my legs into the front of the raft as I ducked.  At this point, Big John and Isaac were both sitting on the right side directly behind me.  We hit the rapid with such force that even with the heavy weight on the right, it was that side which shot into the air.  My grip proved to be no match for the force of the river.

I looked down as I catapulted from the raft.  I was flying in the air, over the top of the left side of the boat which was partially submerged.  HOLY SHIT!  I thought as I was literally flying over the top of what I thought was Ariane’s head.  Suddenly, I smashed into the river as I swallowed what seemed like a gallon of water.  With a hard thud, a body landed on top of me and ruined any chance of a speedy accent to the surface where the oxygen was taunting me.  Fear immediately captured my mind as I was severely disorientated.  I began to panic as I swam towards what I thought was the surface of the water, but to no avail I remained submerged.  HOLD ON!  I thought, finally having a chance to come to my senses.  Big John told me with situations like this to just let the life jacket do the work; stop swimming…you could be fighting your life saver. 

I heeded John’s advice and was breathing air again within a second or two.  I must have only been underwater for ten seconds, but after the body landed on top of me and I became disoriented, it seemed like I was lost for nearly a minute.  One of the rescuers on a kayak came over, told me to grab on, and transported me back to the raft which was about over fifty feet away when I finally spotted it.  The rest of my team members were also being transported back to the boat.  As we piled back into the raft, I looked around and noticed that same green color on nearly everyone’s face.  “What a day,” I muttered as I plopped back into the boat.  What a day.

I probably would not have bungee jumped or rafted if I had not been in Africa.  The entire trip was about pushing out of comfort zones.  I often used the excuse, “Well, how many times am I ever going to be in Africa?” or, “TIA!” …I am glad I used those excuses. True growth only occurs when one is outside of his or her comfort zone.  My adventures on the final weekend in Uganda were a very extreme way of breaking away from my security blanket, but my entire trip was similar in that sense.  For six weeks I was in a foreign place, with complete strangers, living in a way I had never experienced before.  I am a different person than before I left for Uganda.  Although I am still not sure where I am running to, I will continue to run…run away from my comfort zone.  I refuse to be that ship that sits safely in harbor for its entire lifespan.

…and besides, “I’d rather be scared to death than bored to death.”

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