Arun & the Karnali Chaos

Arun is a 6 foot tall Nepali man who has a slick back ponytail and a pair of matching black eyes that dare anyone to mock his style. He’s perpetually smoking a Marlboro and speaks with a tone of utter indifference yet complete conviction that you are definitely the most unintelligent person he’s ever met. He’s been in the rafting business for 30 years, serving as guide for the last 25. On the 15th of April, 8 of us, a multinational group of novices, embarked to raft the Karnali with him as our guide.

As we began setting up camp on the first night, dozens of adults from the town trickled in to sit and watch us. Minutes later, the kids came sprinting in with pink cheeks and teethy smiles. Some kids poked, unzipped, and jumped on the tents while others followed us around, continually speaking in garbled Nepali. Then, in what I can only assume was desperation, as we had largely been ignoring them, they began throwing sand at us. I soon learned the people were like the river unrelenting in the attempts to communicate with us despite the language barrier. Arun, I think, tried talking to townsmen. But the sand hurling did not abate and who-is-this-Arun-guy-anyway began spreading throughout camp.

So as our paddles hit the chilled water for the first time and we were transported away from the land of chaos – and let’s face it, hatred – I felt at peace. Looking around I saw my lulled expression painted on my fellow foreigners, though perhaps I’m mistaking peace with sleep deprivation.

Then, I caught site of Arun. His face now relaxed followed the river as he gracefully rowed, grazing the water as Michelle Kwan does ice. Long strands of his thinning black hair flowed behind him and I think he might have been smiling. My Ausie roomy, who didn’t take bullshit from anyone, noted that “Erin looks like one of those Yank Aborigines” (Erin being Arun and Yank Aborigines referring to Native Americans). I too noticed this when I first met him as he hardly looked Nepali. But somehow he had transformed from the iconized Casion-ruuning tobacco-spitting Indian to the serene Native American plastered on the front of every Oklahoma postcard. I saw his loving camaraderie with the biting, unforgiving waters of the Karnali. And I might have laughed at the bizarre transformation.

For the first day, we practiced rowing together as Arun issued instructions like “Lef side back, right side foewode” or “Sttooo.” His casual speech we had grown accustomed to tuning out was replaced by a demanding, eager tune that bellowed out over the rushing water, accompanying the water’s song as if in a duet.

When I saw the water, I saw a white and blue swirl that was constantly bringing new surprises and adventure. Arun, on the other hand, seemed to see an old friend whose curves and idiosyncrasies he knew by heart, ingrained into his memory from years of knowing one another. He could constantly issue new instructions to us because he always knew what the river was going to bring next. Arun was more than a guide. He was a translator between the Karnali and us (though argueablly that is part of a guide’s job). And hell after a couple of days with him, I even began to like him.

The Karnali river is located in the west of Nepal and is one of the top 10 rivers in the world to raft (though who gave the rating is still unclear). Thus it isn’t hard to believe that it had quite a few exciting rapids to go down. Some of these rapids even required getting out of the raft to scout the banging waters. One momentous section was called God’s House, a 4+ rapid with 4 meter waves attending to it. I found it intriguing that any omniscient being would call it home though I could see the grandiose, almost transcendent powers that water possessed.

As we began down what would prove to be the most exciting, demaning, and exhausting rapid we would encounter, I was pleasantly surprised by our cohesiveness. I sat at the front paddling my hardest and everyone else seemed to be matching my pace with equal vigor to the beat of Arun’s “Hadd-ahh.” After awhile (about 15 seconds), Arun stopped issuing instructions because I assumed it was obvious, we just needed to paddle hard forward. Then, I glanced back: Arun wasn’t on the boat. Chaos broke out as this knowledge rippled in our raft. We went on to hit every rock in God’s House and manage to each row completely out of sync with one another (a feit if I hadn’t been worried for my life, I might have stopped to appreciate). The rapid ended with us safely reaching the bottom and picking up an exhausted Arun from a rock he had taken to. Paddle high fives and excited yelps were done victoriously. But the story doesn’t end till we reach Kathmandu, where we find out Arun injured his rib and nose (he had bloodied his nose the first day rafting when he slammed his paddle into his face). It was another case of guides not wanting to tell anyone that anything was wrong in fear of a tattered ego or lost job (or whatever is deemed more important than personal health). It happens with guides not just in Nepal but from America, Australia, India, New Zealand etc. I guess I just felt sad he didn’t think he could tell us despite our always ardent “Are you ok?”s and “How are you feeling?”s.

Some of the mentalities like not showing pain or illness are inherent to all cultures, and I strongly believe will adapt with time. Other mentalities like allowing India in the next 10 years to damn the Karnali, a river which is a source of money and pride in Nepal, for electricity for India are part of the boggling politics of Nepal. Neither is ok, and I think it’s important as a tourist to show them and tell them it isn’t ok.

My trip down the Karnali was pure chaos and I loved every second of it. I’m not sure how long beautiful rivers like Karnali will last so I urge to pick a paddle and get out and get rowing.

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