In their journeys, from rugged slopes to the salty embrace of the sea, rivers pass through dense forests, narrow canyons, open plains with long vistas. Riding on their waters can bring you into an otherwise inaccessible landscape, into the thickest forests, through tall walled gorges filled by rushing water, and let you pass unnoticed by the banks where wildlife come to drink. Add to this the thrill of a turbulent ride and the exhilaration of navigating rapids, and you have my love of river-rafting. And so, in the crowded heat, laying under a ceiling fan, I signed Dave and me up for a white water rafting trip down the Ayung River.
The driver picked us up and drove us out of the Bukit Peninsula, through the craziness of Kuta and Denpasar to Ubud. He told us the drive would take an hour. Everywhere in Bali is alleged to be an hour away, even when it really isn’t. Usually it’s two, or three.
Raindrops fell through the thick, already wet, trees as we descended slippery steps leading through the jungle to the river. Even in the rain, the lush, dense forest was filled with birdsong. The river—usually clear—was brown from the last few days of rain.
Into three bright yellow rafts, the guides ushered groups of happy tourists: an English couple and a two young Chinese men; a group of middle-aged Americans, college girlfriends out on a romp around the world, who giggled often and talked loudly and constantly; and Dave and I, alone with our guide in our boat.
Approaching the first rapid, the water quickened slightly, towing us in. We were bumped about through the waves, eddies and jostling currents. As the rapid ended, it rushed out, sent us quickly gliding upon slower, smooth water as if propelled onto the next journey with all the power of the last.
Upon the slick surface of smooth water, white light glinted as it came through openings in the dense canopy. Our guide steered towards the green bank and ran us ashore, facing up river, watching for the subsequent boats.
The next yellow raft skirted around the corner with speed, riding high on the white waves. The middle-aged women paddled shallowly; the roar of the river ate up the guide’s cries for them to paddle faster. He whirled his paddle and cried again for them to paddle forward. The river yanked the boat sideways and pushed it against a large boulder. The guide called to his paddlers. The current widely swung the front of the boat around, pushing one side high on the boulder where it settled, and began dumping its frantic passengers. Colorful life vests and helmets drifted down the rapid. Our guide hurriedly threw lines to the swimmers. The overturned boat was caught and righted. The wet paddlers returned to their seats; their faces washed of color, their breathing still shallow and fast, nervous giggles began to bubble up.
The Ayung is rated a class II-III river, meaning the rapids are medium to moderate in size. With all the rain, the river ran high, its rapids bigger. Dave and I were happy for added excitement of high water. Perhaps the wet paddlers were not.
Dark stone edged the river and reached skyward in walls slick with rain. On one side, at the water’s edge, the black rock was intricately carved: a long alligator, its mouth slightly open, each scale outlined and rounded. The river surged up and tickled its clawed feet. Above it, a small-eared elephant seemed to grin and fling its trunk. Figures with full pressed lips, slanted eyes and waving unibrows, looked out, each with its own expression: wise, wondering, stoic, serene. Woven in were monkeys, a women with a basket of apples, open-mouthed fish with elaborate fins, a beautiful young stag, his head looking backwards, listening. The head of a great-eyed oxen with long curving horns butted up against a scaled twisted body that interwove part of the piece and ended in the face of a Chinese style dragon. Each figure collaged with the last, all expertly polished.
The carvings told the story of Ramayana, an epic Hindu poem from 400AD about King Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, god of protection. It tells of his incarnation as a man and birth as Rama, of his marriage to Sita, a fourteen year banishment, Sita’s kidnapping by Ravana, King of Demons. Journey and battle ensues, ending with Sita’s rescue and her unwavering walk through fire to prove her faith to Rama. As she steps into the flames, they fall away as flowers.
A local hotel paid a famous stone carver to create the masterpiece. It took the artist two years to complete. In the years since, moss moved in, coating green along ridges, turning a warrior’s stern jaw fuzzy. Young plants burst from crevices where just enough dirt had been washed down in rains and collected, that the tiny roots could take hold. Jubilant leaves sprouted from the ear crease of a crazed man with bulging eyes, a bulbous nose and straight mustache. Delicate fern leaves, barely an inch long, congregated among the elephant’s mouth below its swinging trunk.
Each river has a different perspective, leaves a different mark. That day, the Balinese forest held us in exotic vegetation and bird song. We floated through chasms of greenery: bursts of wild bananas, jurassic ferns, weeping branches cascading from above. Waterfalls emerged spontaneously, draped the steep walled sections, sprang forth with vigor from overhanging vegetation, and poured down the mountainsides into the river. We bounced and skirted through the river’s lavish pools and rapturous rapids and swam in her cooling waters. We eased to her rhythm.
But years later, I am left with bobbing yellow helmets and the way silver light danced in the wet eye of a great stone alligator.