Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Free Falling

I have a lot of favorite things about Samoa, but I’m pretty sure my favorite of my favorite things is the river hike. It’s a combination of a bunch of my favorite things (beautiful scenery! Rivers (which I have decided are my favorite body of water)! Delicious food!) with some other things that can be fun sometimes (lots of sun/rain! Jumping off really high things! Freezing cold water!). It has to be good, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it three times, right?

The river hike is located on the southwest side of Upolu, which is another beautiful area of Samoa, but I don’t get over there very often. The hike lasts about 4 hours (give or take, usually give), so it’s best to start around 8 or 9 in the morning in order to get back for lunch at a reasonable time. Before the hike, we always get in a little small talk for some basic life updates. I’m super impressed with the river hike people because they always remember not only my name, but things I have told them about school and my village. It took me long enough to remember that their names are Jane and Olsen, and even now I always get it mixed up and call him Owen instead.

After some quick updates, we get going. There are three main stops along the hike – right at the beginning, about ¾ of the way through, and at the end of the river. At the beginning of the hike, you just go alongside the river and don’t get much deeper in than your feet at the few points you cross. It’s just enough chill to impede circulation to your toes. Then you reach the first jumping area. This first one has quite a few locations you can jump from. It’s a three-tiered waterfall, and you can jump from the second waterfall into a little pool of water above the bottom waterfall. The first time I went on the hike, we didn’t jump from the waterfall. The second time I went, the river was at floodwater levels, and there was no possible way we could have jumped in the middle of the waterfall. The third time, though, I made it. This was my first time from jumping right next to a waterfall, and there’s no better way to describe it than loud and wet. It’s a lot scarier jumping right next to a waterfall than just in view of one. The other jumps at this particular stop are a bit higher. Maybe 20 feet, and I want to say 35-40 feet, but since my estimation skills are pretty awful when it comes to height (I’m probably overestimating because it makes it so much more exciting), I hope it’ll suffice to say they are medium-high and high. The first time, I made it off the mid-height jump and that was exhilaration enough for me. The second and third times I made it off both. In case you haven’t had the opportunity to throw yourself into a free-fall in the vicinity of a waterfall, aiming for a pool of water at the bottom of a river, let me try to describe it for you.

Climbing up isn’t so bad because you’re focusing on the ground right in front of you and can’t see how high you’re getting, and all the adrenaline is causing excitement at this point. Then you come to the top of the jump and have an opportunity to look around and the adrenaline turns to fear. I give myself no more than 3 seconds to look around, and then I have to jump because otherwise I’ll think too much and chicken out. I don’t really jump as much as I just step over the edge. Falling down to the water (because I’m not graceful enough yet to describe it as anything more poetic) is the hardest part. For the first second or two (minutes! Hours!) the free fall is exhilarating. The deafening roar of the waterfall doesn’t matter, the scenery disappears, and it’s just the sensation of falling. The next second or two, you realize that you’re still falling and begin to panic about the continued falling. Exhilaration turns to terror. Right about now is when I start to flail my arms and legs, wildly attempting to stop myself from falling before I hit the ground because surely the impact won’t have good results after this long (hours! Days!) in free fall. In the last second, I prepare myself for impact. I can’t think at this point, so there’s no way I can focus enough to get myself into the “tuck” position in which you are supposed to hit the water. Instead of the prepared, poetic conclusion that should follow a graceful leap into a river, I just tense every muscle in my body and hope not to hit any rocks. Eventually my head breaks the surface again and I spend the next few breaths coughing, choking, and spitting out all the water that has forced itself the wrong way down my throat and nose. Assess for damage and soreness, then repeat as desired.

You get a lot of practice jumping off high things at the first stop, then when all options have been exhausted, we continue up the river. There is quite a bit of walking at this point, both through water and over the ground. It’s pretty manageable when the water is at a regular level, but when it is at floodwater levels, it’s a whole different story. Should you make a single misstep and lose your footing (which happens frequently enough in good times) you might just tumble backwards down the river and over some little waterfall. OK, so I didn’t fall backwards over a waterfall, I had a pretty good hold on a rock before someone grabbed my hand, and I was at least 4 or 5 feet from the edge, but it makes for a pretty exciting near-death story.

At the second stop, there’s only one jumping opportunity, but there is also some scenic climbing to reach the “hole in the wall.” The “hole in the wall” is somewhat accurately named, although its’ more like a dent in the wall. Supposedly, the record number of people a group has squeezed into the whole is 12, but they were a middle-school group, so I’m not sure that counts. The other record is 14, but they admitted that not everyone was inside – some just had a foot or an arm inside and were hanging out. Cheaters.

Then the last stop is “the waterfall.” The talk about the waterfall is that it’s 3 times higher than the tree (the high jump at the first stop). The first time I did the hike, it never even crossed my mind to jump off the last waterfall. The second time, I felt like maybe sometime in the future I could accomplish it because I had conquered the high jump at the first stop, but there was no way it would happen this time due to floodwater levels. The third time, I was pretty confident about it, but had started to wuss out by the time we reached the last waterfall. A few of us walked around up top (climbing up the waterfall itself is reserved for the demo/stuntman). This was the first time I had been to the top and it was not quite what I expected. There is a small dam right up at the top, so right before the waterfall, the river is really small and calm. Then all the water comes down over the edge and you can’t hear anything because of the deafening roar. Rather ironic. At first, it seems impossible – it’s much too high! But then I looked out over the edge and saw that the people at the bottom were only marginally smaller than they were when I looked out from the tree. Ha! 3 times higher! Those liars! It’s a good lie, too, because even though you can look at the waterfall and see that it’s obviously not 3 times higher than the tree, you mentally build it up so that it’s still almost impossibly high. The hardest part here was that I was second in line to jump, so I had to wait for the first girl to work up the courage to go over the edge. It ALMOST put me off jumping, but not quite, and I still made it over the edge. Repeat the whole exhilaration-panic-terror-graceless spluttering routine and you’re done. Unfortunately, I have no documentation because my camera is not waterproof, so you’ll just have to take my word on this one. But really, considering everything else I’ve done in Samoa, jumping off a 50+ foot waterfall isn’t so unbelievable, is it?

Then we have a leisurely downhill walk (the talk here is that the house is 5 minutes away. Yes, we have just spent the last 3 hours walking up a river, so no, 20 minutes is not at all far to go to get back, but if you say 5 minutes, it’d better be 5 minutes because I’m starving!) and reach the house just in time for lunch. The food here is hands-down the best food I have had in Samoa. The first time we went, we had a delicious pumpkin soup, which has been our request ever since because it is SOOOO good. It also comes with all kinds of fresh, local fruit, warm tea or coffee (which can be thoroughly enjoyed because you are soaked through and chilled to the bone), and the best muffins and cake, with a perfect drizzle of slightly tangy lemon icing, you have ever had for dessert. Pat yourself on the back and walk away because you have just conquered everything the river can throw at you, and now you’re so sore it hurts to move.

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