Rinse-cycle in Nepal: Photographer finds spiritual renewal in the rapids of the Sun Khosi
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
I’d come to the river with a hole in my soul.
Shattered by the recent death of my canine companion, Tucson, I’d made my way from the madness of Kathmandu to the banks of the Sun Khosi River. Although I’d told others I’d come for rest and relaxation, deep inside I sought a place for the legitimate suffering and multi-layered emotions that I knew lay ahead of me.
Climbing the steps of a riverside temple, I crested a hilltop enshrouded in banana and bamboo. After entering a gate, I wove beneath the rounded white domes, and tikka-coated altars portraying Shiva, Brahma and Krishna. Inhabiting the temple grounds were a scattering of devoted Hindus, each chanting prayers. Chants that mixed with the incense as it streamed through the thick jungle air.
Catching their attention, I fell beneath the weight of their curious stares. Stares that had me returning to the quiet of the river.
As I looked out over a stretch nearly a quarter mile wide, my attention was overtaken by the hypnotic movement of a vast, circling eddy.
I was following a small clump of driftwood as it moved in slow counter-clockwise rotation when my eyes landed on something startling.
It was the body of a small boy – face down in the water – his arms spread Christ-like – as he circled silently around the slow-turning eddy.
As I stood in silent witness, a group of children played near the shore.
Fixed on the scene before me, it occurred to me how disturbingly serene it all appeared. The boy, the eddy, and the sunlight, all of them moving peacefully upon the surface of the water.
Then, again came the chants. Deep, rhythmic chants that moved outward over the surface of the water. Chants that, among other things, pleaded for a respite from suffering. More specifically, an end to the suffering associated with another round of births and deaths …
My trip down the Sun Khosi began a week earlier.
Owing myself a gift after my hell-ride through Tibet, I’d had the good fortune to come across paddling legend David Allardice, owner of Ultimate Rivers, an adventure-based tour company out of Kathmandu.
Several days later, I found myself climbing aboard a 17-foot white-water raft, where I began an 8-day, 270-kilometer journey down one of the world’s classic multi-day white-water runs.
Our first few paddle strokes seemed to incite a riot, as frenzied children bolted to the riverside. “Hello!” or “Bye bye!” they shouted as their tiny figures jumped, waved and frolicked.
Before our journey was over, we’d pass villages inhabited by Eastern Nepal’s Rai, Limbu, Magar and Chettri tribes – each of their facial features varying from the next.
Many of them greeted us traditionally by pressing their palms together, before raising them to their foreheads. “Namasté!” they called, in a beautiful religious salutation that could be taken to mean:
“I recognize that within each of us is a place where divinity dwells, and when we are in that place, we are one.”
It wasn’t long before we approached a section where the canyon narrowed, the gradient dropped, and the river began to roar. Moments later, we plunged into the Class 4-rated rapids “MeatGrinder” and “High Anxiety.”
“Paddle forward!” our guide, Mani Arya, shouted as the boat dropped, twisted and flexed, sending its occupants skyward into a tornado of liquid fury.
When it was over, we howled in delight, then eddied-out for lunch.
That’s when I realized we had competition: another raft on the horizon. I’d spotted it on its approach. As I did, I re-focused my eyes to discover that it wasn’t a raft at all. It was a dead water buffalo, bloated to the size of a Volkswagen, and tipped on its side. I watched for a moment in disbelief, as the tilted carcass ripped flawlessly through the heart of the rapids.
“Now that,” I thought to myself, “is my kinda’ afterlife.”
That afternoon brought long stretches of flat water, where the sunlight illuminated the drips from my paddle. I was lost in thought when we rounded a bend and came upon a somber sight. It was a young man in the midst of building a large riverside fire – his father’s body immersed in the river, awaiting its cremation.
When the day came to an end, we took our pick from an amazing array of white, sandy beaches, where we built camp and enjoyed fantastic meals of steak and mashed potatoes, salads, curries and pastas. Each night we drank liberally from eight liters of boxed wine, or a pot of warm fruit-punch spiked from a gallon of Nepali rum.
We sat in large circles around drift-wood campfires, and when the time was right, the Basque man, Eneko Yarza, broke out his poi – two kerosene-soaked cotton-balls that hung on the ends of two short chains. Then, as the group howled again, he performed his fiery show beneath the Himalayan stars.
Near the middle of the next day, lead guide Rob Hind signaled us, and we pulled our raft to the side. We stopped to scout the only Class 5 rapid on the river: “Hakapur.” It was one of the only rapids I’d ever experienced whose presence could be felt long before it was seen. And as I walked to the scouting point, its roar seem to shake the very bowels of the earth.
I climbed atop a boulder, then ran my eyes down the long, scary section in front of me. As I did, I took small comfort in the fact that my shorts were already wet. For just up the canyon was a section where 30,000 cubic feet of water was pinched into a space less than forty feet wide.
It didn’t take a hydrologist to realize that all this pinching made the river gods angry – very, very angry. And for a section the length of three football fields, the river snarled and snapped like some great, liquid dragon.
In the middle of the rapid was a huge hydraulic, or what river rats refer to as a “hole.” A monstrous chasm of churning water that could easily swallow a pick-up truck.
Nervously I turned to Robert “Rasta” Rostermundt for re-assurance. He had run some of the gnarliest stretches of white water in North America. “Dude,” I queried, “what do you think?” He paused for a moment, and answered in a single word: “Big.”
Before I knew it, I was perched on the front of the raft like a dog out the car window, shrinking infinitesimally into the mammoth rapid before me. Suddenly, and involuntarily, my lips began to mumble my last rites. Seconds later, we free-fell into the mouth of the giant, and I stabbed at it with my paddle as if poking a Tyrannosaurus rex in the ankle with a toothpick.
As I did, it struck back. A large liquid curtain entered the boat and pummeled me in the chest like a blast from a shotgun. I flew backward. Within a millisecond, water was moving freely through every orifice, as it force-fed my nostrils, and left water dripping from the back of my brain.
After I’d regained my composure, I looked up just long enough to see another wave descending upon us. “Oh, Sheeba!” I shouted as we dropped into another trough, then rocketed skywards, where a metric ton of water surrounded us in orbital sheets.
“Wooooooohoooooo!!!” the group shouted, after realizing we were still upright and alive.
We all raised our oars together for a paddler’s “high five.”
A few days later, we finished our journey, as we reached our pullout in Chatra on the northern edge of the Indian Plains.
Before I left, I walked to the banks and said my goodbyes to the Sun Khosi River.
As I did, I thought of the boy I’d seen floating in the eddy.
Someday, like him, my time would come.
But for now, I was living the life I’d always dreamed of – still very much awake and alive.
As for the hole in my soul, it was still there – and probably would be all my life. I was OK with that.
Instinctively I knew to accept it, stay present and open through it all.
And if that didn’t work … I’d try adding a little water.
When: Oct. 1-15, 2006
Elevation: 3,200-70 ft.
Where: Kathmandu, Dolalghat, Khurkot, Hakapur, Tribeni, Chatra, Mulghat
Mileage log: 12,040
“In the South American rainforest, there is a tribe called the Desana, who see the world as a fixed quantity of energy that flows between all creatures. Every birth must therefore engender a death, and every death bring forth another birth. This way, the energy of the world remains complete. Were there no men dying, there would be no birds or fish being born.”
– Mitch Albom, from the book “Tuesdays with Morrie”
“How can you ever be prepared to die? Do what Buddhist do. Everyday [ask yourself] am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?”
– Morrie Schwartz
“Every night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
– Mahatma Ghandi