There comes a time when you realise you are not in control. You never really were. Control was an illusion.
I had spent the day white water rafting down rapids and over waterfalls. Manning a paddle. Part of a crew. Relentlessly drilled to obedience by an instructor. Told our lives depended on it.
When, not if, you fall out of the boat: don’t panic. Float on your back. Feet first. Go with the current.
Legs bent. Absorb the impact. Mind your shins.
Bum raised. Avoid submerged rocks. Mind your tailbone.
Watch downstream. Aim for the river bank. Mind your head.
Rapid fire orders came from the rear of the raft, where the instructor used his paddle as a rudder. Colourful language. Hard to hear over the rushing water.
The crew reacted instantly. Obeyed flawlessly. A well-drilled unit.
The raft spun sideways under a waterfall. One side dipped precariously, water surging over the side. A mighty rocking motion saw four of the six crew ejected from their seats and vanish over the side in a tangle of flailing limbs and flying oars.
The rocking continued.
So too the shouting.
Attempting to follow the torrent of instructions, I was launched from my seat. One arm grabbed the rope running down the side of the raft. One foot wedged beneath the seat in front. Precarious, yet secure. For now. I even managed to retain my grip on my paddle.
The rocking increased. So too the swearing.
I looked over my shoulder. The instructor stood high on the rear of the inflatable watercraft. Using all his weight to rock the raft. Building up momentum. Grinning like Ahab upon sighting the white whale.
It hadn’t been the rapids that despatched my crew members, it had been the instructor. Bastard!
I glanced at my last remaining crewmate. He too had seen the cause of our misadventure.
Hard-won trust instantly shattered. We had been set up. Lied to. Taken advantage of.
We clung on.
Determined not to go overboard.
To not let the instructor win.
It was every man for himself!
The instructor realised the jig was up. Rather than relenting, he doubled down. Cackling wildly as the raft slapped against the surface of the water. Bouncing harder than a bed full of drunk horny teenagers at their prom after party.
We grimly held on. Centring our weight. Countering the momentum.
Then the world turned upside down. The raft flipped over. Spilling captain and crew alike.
Air escaping from lungs at the shock of the cold water.
Somersaulting along the bottom of the river like a sock in a tumble dryer, propelled by the unrelenting current. Not knowing which way was up. Yet still determinedly clutching the paddle.
My shin cracked against a submerged rock the size of a fridge. Leg bending at an unnatural angle, as its forward motion was halted, while the rest of my body was swept along by the sheer momentum of millions of litres of churning water travelling at great speed.
At least I now knew which way was up! As my vision dimmed around the edges, I gave a massive push towards the surface with both feet. My banged-up leg protested mightily as my head broke the surface in an explosion of coughing, spluttering, and swearing.
Swept along by the wrath of Belisama, I struggled to orient myself in line with the survival instructions. Float. Feet first. With the current. Questioning the whole time whether those too had been a lie?
In quick succession, I surged past my fellow crew members as they clung to boulders or struggled to drag themselves out of the river. All were alive. All appeared relatively uninjured. Of our raft, there was no sign. Vanished downstream in the watery maelstrom.
After what felt like an eternity, long-forgotten instincts from my youth kicked in. I bodysurfed across a bend in the river. Drifting into the shallows. Clambering to my feet. Turning and grabbing hold of the instructor’s life jacket as he came barrelling past. Limp. Head first. Face down.
I hauled him up onto the river bank. Briefly considered giving him a paddling with the oar I inexplicably still carried. Instead, I checked his airway. Put him in the recovery position. Somewhat foolishly gave him a sharp prod with my sore leg.
The instructor vomited up a minor tributary worth of water, then gave a grateful nod and rueful grin.
Together, we rather gingerly commenced the long walk back to civilisation. The instructor confessed that falling out of the boat was viewed as a right of passage. An experience they attempted to inflict on all first-time crew. Keeping them humble. Teaching them to respect nature.
I looked at the paddle in my hand. Had it been a useful tool? Or merely a theatrical prop? Designed to instil the appearance of control, while in reality having no tangible impact on the outcome.
The rafting equivalent of a stock price chart or economist prediction.
Creating a placebo effect.
Designed to trigger action where none is needed.
On reflection, the strong river current had been doing the bulk of the work, carrying the raft forward at a great rate of knots. The instructor skilfully steered from the rear, a position carefully out of sight of the excitable punters whom he had been tasked with keeping entertained for the duration of the ride.
Later in the afternoon, our group assembled in the car park. Bruised. Battered. Wearing broad smiles. In hindsight, the rafting experience had been akin to riding a waterlogged rollercoaster. Helmets, life vests, and wetsuits served as costumes to bring the experience to life. Helping transform the punter from audience member to actor.
Somewhat miraculously, nobody had drowned or broken significant bones.
There was one minor concussion. Caused not by the rafting, but by one crew member clouting another upside the head with an oar in the staging area before the boats had even entered the water. Getting his revenge in early.
Tall stories abounded.
Tales of daring do.
Fear at seeing their life flash before their eyes.
Complaints at the loss of phones, keys, and wallets. Sacrificed not to the river gods, but to opportunistic thieves back at the staging post. Overriding the electronic lockers. Liberating the treasures inside.
Yet everyone was smiling. Basking in a feeling of accomplishment. Of achievement. Of adventure.
I wondered why it took endangering our lives to make us feel alive? Savouring an all too brief escape from the rat race. The exact opposite feeling common to our daily routines. Commuting. Conference calls. Face-to-face meetings. Meaningless small talk with colleagues of convenience. Store bought salads and sandwiches. Desperate for an escape.
Was this why people leapt out of perfectly good aeroplanes? Or dived beneath the waves? Drove too fast? Took drugs? Cheated on their spouses?
Out of control.
Playing chicken with consequence.
One thing was for sure, as we boarded the coach for home, nobody was thinking about budgets. Deadlines. Performance appraisals. Professional development. Spreadsheets. Status reports.
Instead, we basked in the afterglow of a veritable array of altered body chemistry. Adrenalin. Cortisol. Dopamine. Endorphins. Riding the high now that the danger had passed.
Revelling in feeling not in control. In feeling alive.