Up the River

Author: Janice Gallen

Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink,” “Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” These are the only words of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” that have remained with me since studying the poem at school. What has lingered with me, haunted me, are the horrible, eerie images portrayed in the narrative. The whole crew except one die and through the uneasiness it creates, as Death visits the cursed ship, my anxious association with water is perpetuated. I can’t swim. I have a dreadful fear of having my face immersed. I have to steel myself when taking a shower, as I feel I may suffocate from the water running down my face. Years of swimming lessons have failed to overcome the problem and I have now given up. That doesn’t stop others from encouraging me to participate in activities near the water. Is it my contrary nature that causes me to avoid the beach when the temperature is soaring and every inhabitant of this sun-drenched country is moving to the shore? Or is it the fact that I am frightened of the water and all that it holds; the potential suffocation, the large sharks and the horrible slimy creatures that inhabit the depths? I know the truth. The nightmares I have where I drown and wake up choking and grabbing at my poor husband, the way my stomach reacts when I have to walk near the edge of a swimming pool and my avoidance of the water rides at the Theme Parks are all part of the real me. However, when I go on holiday I put my phobias behind me; I seem to undergo a complete personality change. Nothing is too daring for me. I can overcome and enjoy all the activities that have previously daunted me. A ride in a glass bottom boat, a walk across a swinging bridge hanging precariously over a river or even a cruise on the harbour are all within my reach. Quite a few years ago, my husband and I went for a well-deserved holiday to Fiji accompanied by our three children who ranged in age from three to 10 years. My Mrs Hyde personality was in full swing when we decided to take a ride up the river in a long flat canoe with an outboard motor on the back. My husband has similar interests to me, swimming not being one of them. He can manage about five yards before going under. Our elder daughter could save herself, while the two younger children were completely dependent upon us. We were offered life jackets to wear. Our carefree holiday personalities took over and we declined. In retrospect I can’t understand my level of recklessness at all. This is the woman who occasionally wades in the little pool with small children, and only then if they promise not to splash or push her over! The first obstacle to overcome was getting into the canoe. We had to climb down a ladder on the side of the jetty. I peered over the edge. It seemed like 100 feet to me but probably was about 20. That didn’t stop my stomach from churning as I waited in line. “You go first,” said the huge Fijian man. Did he have any idea what he was asking? At home I would never venture more than two steps up a ladder even if someone were anchoring it. And here I was about to climb down where only a narrow canoe could prevent me from slipping into the mysterious deep. I was a mass of trembling limbs when I finally, victoriously made it. “Janice!” I could tell from the exasperated tone in my husband’s voice that something was wrong. I had been so proud of myself, climbing down to sit in the gently rocking canoe. I looked up to see what was the matter. “You’re facing the wrong way!” My face flaming, I wondered how I was going to safely stand to turn around. Grabbing tightly onto the seat in front of me, I stood slowly, only to find I had the seat still grasped in my hand, having pulled it from its place. I sat down again wondering about the safety of the boat when the seats could come out so easily. It didn’t give me much confidence. Then, to make matters worse, I had to face my husband’s frown as he took the seat from my quaking hands and replaced it. But soon everyone was seated and we were on our way. The scenery was spectacular, the vegetation thick and green, some of it rising straight from the river’s bank. Tiny waterfalls gushed into the river. It was so breathtaking that I forgot about my fears and began to relax. But then the river narrowed and we began to bump over some rapids. I could sense my husband was getting nervous. He confided to me later that he was planning to throw our son onto the bank if we got into trouble and then try to save the rest of us. Perhaps we were overreacting. Some of the more confident travellers admired the skill of the navigator who steered the canoe, unperturbed by all around him. “Bugs Bunny eats carrots,” said my son after we had hit bottom a few times. We were puzzled for several minutes until our daughter pointed out that he thought we were saying, “rabbits”. Overcome by our feelings of trepidation, we managed a slight chuckle. We entered a still, deep part of the river and the motor was switched off. Apparently there was an imbalance of weight. We had been hitting bottom a bit hard. Turning around, we looked back at the navigator awaiting instruction. “She move!” Was all we got as he pointed in my direction. Everyone looked at me. I couldn’t believe it and began shaking my head. There had to be a mistake! I had come on this trip in good faith. Nothing horrible had ever happened to me on holiday. And now they were asking me to do the unthinkable. For the last few minutes a horror story had been told about a previous trip where an American tourist, standing to get a photograph, had fallen in. I looked down into the murky water. It had to be well over my head. “You’ll have to move,” my husband whispered. He was getting embarrassed. All eyes were on me. I was terrified. After what seemed an eternity of everyone giving me encouragement I finally made a move. Can you imagine a rather large woman crawling on her hands and knees along the bottom of a rocking canoe? I must have presented quite a sight as I edged my way. The rest of the trip was uneventful. Of course I don’t remember too much of it. I was still in shock. Thankfully there were no more embarrassing episodes. We pulled into our destination and the Fijian offered his hand to help everyone out of the canoe. Everyone except me. I know all eyes were on me as he lifted me in his strong arms and carried me over three inches of water to deposit me on dry land. I still go on holiday. A few years later as I travelled across Hong Kong Harbour to Kowloon, I refused to pay my fare on the ferry until I had counted the life jackets. I am improving.

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