Tuesday, June 06, 2006

from Pierrerue: into the swim of things

It is morning. The bread lady comes. Marie-Rose runs to tell me, anxious, because last week I missed the delivery and everyone felt awful. To compensate, I buy way more bread than I need for the day.

You are going to the beach? The bread lady asks.

Now why would she say that? Ah, the shorts. No woman ever wears shorts here. Unless she is going to the beach.

No, no, I am going to Roquebrun. After work, this afternoon, I am renting a kayak and doing the rapids on the river Orb. I hope I will see you tomorrow.

Indeed. I have done a lot of kayaking in my life, but never on rapids.

The set up is well orchestrated. You rent a kayak or canoe (the difference amuses me; the boats are identical, only the paddle varies) for a half day or a full day. A van drops you and your boat up river (twice the distance for the full day) and you paddle down. Simple.

Except that there are rapids.

Here are two bins for your belongings. Put your things in the little one and put the little one into the big barrel. Shut it tight. Double protection.

Protection from what?

Do people roll over?
Yes, all the time
. She looks surprised that I should ask.

I notice children are required to wear helmets. Why aren’t adults given double head protection? Our heads are bigger, there’s more to crack.

Are the rapids treacherous?
Medium. The bigger ones are on the full day.

Of course, the French bike up hills and mountains. What is medium to them is horrifically insane to me.

And what valuables should I put in my double bin protection? I took only my car keys and a ten Euro note, just in case I get stranded and have to bribe someone to help me out.

There is, however, the issue of the camera. And here is a cautionary note: you should not go solo in a kayak through rapids and expect to take photos. There you are, scraped and pounded from all sides by boulders, sprayed by water so that there is as much in your boat as outside of it – what does not belong (apart from, arguably, you)? The little Sony digital SLR. Especially outside its double bin protection.

But, I am stubborn. I want pictures. And so what follows is a combination of pulling up to the shore for a minute, paddling upstream to reconsider what just happened, finding quiet spaces, intersperesed with not a small amount of risk taking, whereby, through a series of rapid maneuvers, I quickly unscrew bins, take out camera, snap like crazy, throw it back inside, seal the damn barrels shut and continue, all in the space of 2 seconds. And so, I am able to indulge my stubbornness.

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all is calm, views are grand

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looking up...oops, heading into the bridge

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troubled waters

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the plunge

Foolish? Perhaps.

But oh, the rewards!

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I had chatted earlier with someone who had done rapids and his advice was to paddle backwards and survey the rapid before you go in. Wonderful advice. True, in the end, I would conclude that the only way to survive is to paddle furiously right into the swirling mass of water and rock and hope for the best. I became quite good at the “paddle furiously into the swirling mass of water and rock” bit.

Indeed, my proudest moment happened when I approached a series of sharp bends between boulders. To the side, three young men were bathing. One was climbing out on a rock and I noticed he was completely naked, deeply tanned buttocks and all. This is France. I had encountered here and there the occasional swimmer, topless even, but men somehow managed to keep their skimpy pants on up to now.

As he sprawled on the rock, letting the sun dry off various parts of his magnificent body, he watched me approach the S curve. I plunged, back paddled, turned again, plunged and came out right side up, with only the usual tub full of water inside. The young man stood up and applauded. Well done, he shouted. I felt alive!

[Of course, ten minutes later, I wedged my kayak between two rocks, sideways and watched in horror as torrents of water came gushing in. The muscle I used to get me out of that mess needs at least a month’s rest.]

So why did I do it? Why risk losing a camera, nay, my life (okay, perhaps not that) on a brilliant Monday afternoon?

For this, the moment where I pull over to a shallow area, get out of the boat and, in shorts, tank top and running shoes, lie down in the water and watch the ripples form around my shoes:

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watching fools rush in

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at the end, Roquebrun