I’d just stepped in human shit when I noticed Arun and Tilak praying next to the river’s put-in. I wanted to join them, but by the time I had scraped the squished feces from my sandal-clad toes, the young men were finished.
“We made the offering, but the eggs were not rotten. It wasn’t so good,” Tilak tells me later as he and Arun stack dry bags on the bow of the raft for me to rig.
“Rotten eggs are better?” I look at my two students, who are along on this exploratory trip as training river guides. Our small team has come to India’s remote Subansiri River to see if it can be developed as a commercial trip.
“The Ones on the other side like everything backwards from us,” Arun explains. “We eat fresh eggs. They eat rotten ones. This is the Donyi-Polo way.” Donyi-Polo is the local religion in Arunachal Pradesh, and is focused on nature worship.
It’s not a stretch to see nature as divine here. For several days, we have lived with the Subansiri—we’ve paddled Hypalon rafts downriver, passing fishermen in wooden canoes returning to villages upstream with abundant catches of golden mahseer, and awakened on luminescent beaches touched only by delicate civet tracks. We’ve had our ankles gnawed into swollen lumps by shrewd dam dum flies, and we don’t even care; the palpable magic of the wilderness we’re in is so captivating, it’s an actual balm to physical pain.
Our first night on the Subansiri it rained, and I was kept awake not by thundering cracks in the clouds as I expected, but by silent bursts of lightning moving through the air around my tent, flashing close to the ground.
But today, it’s clear skies as we go from rigging boats to scouting and running rapids that, until now, have been known only to the river’s fishermen. Our team navigates nine river miles before stopping just above the gorge. We’re treated to a near-full moon rising above the canyon wall as we put away the dinner dishes. I walk to my tent, noticing mica flecks glittering in the moonlight like stars beneath my feet. I wonder if that’s how the Ones on the other side feel walking above us on constellations of light. Maybe each of us picks up the sun’s reflection, appearing on the opposite side as stars. This is the sort of wisdom the Subansiri imparts.
I awake feeling out-of-sorts, and get to work early pulling buckets of water from the river, tuned into my iPod. The Indigo Girls’ heartbroken rendition of “Down by the River” shuffles into play, and it hits me that it’s the day before my mother’s birthday. Whenever I’m reminded of my mom and our turbulent relationship, I’m flooded with an overwhelming mix of sadness, rage, shock and powerlessness. Usually, I blink it back and run into another part of myself or find a distraction to sidestep the pain. Over the years, drugs, black-out drinking, snorting men and hurling myself down remote whitewater rivers have been my main methods of distraction. As a sober woman in recovery, the usual check-out strategies don’t work for me anymore (except occasionally escaping to remote whitewater rivers).
She could drag me over the rainbow—the Indigo Girls are singing about my mom and me. The grief is so jagged, it pulls me far away from this river’s shore, to a place where I can’t swallow the pain—instead, I am eaten alive by it. This grief has crippled me since the Easter Sunday when Mama split from herself, simply woke up as someone who was the opposite of who she’d been. On the outside, she looked the same, but inside she was—and still is—unrecognizable to me. The grief comes from having a mother who has died, yet is still alive. I scan the beach to see if anyone is watching me before turning with a shaking chest to face the Subansiri.
She is watching me, as She has since I first put my hand into Her malachite water and admitted to Her that I didn’t have the answers. Over these last few days, the Subansiri has pushed my guiding to a deeper level, getting me to do things like line-up for the biggest rapid of the trip while closing my eyes. Above the river-wide, stomping ledge hole, I realized I could feel the current better than I could see it. I used my oars as long extensions of my arms, swirling them to grasp the current She wanted to lead me toward. When the tension on my oar blades released, I knew I was centered on the line: I shipped my oars in, like a bird folding its wings, and braced for the drop. I opened my eyes as the raft arched over the ledge smoothly with hardly a splash, then sailed past the house-sized rock at the bottom.
This push/pull dance is not an isolated incident: It has been like this between the Subansiri and me since the put-in outside Daporijo, which is why She knows the exact nature of my strength. She perceives me as I really am. As I struggle on shore to navigate the blinding pain I’ve had since girlhood, the Subansiri holds up a mirror, and I see that to sidestep this feeling is to quit being the woman She knows me as. But how do I stop chasing the illusion that I can outrun the pain?
Stand in it, She says to me. Try to stand in it.
But how? The anguish is crushing.
You are strong enough—it won’t harm you.
I trust Her. Focusing on Her pulsing current, I stop squirming and stand square in the pain. It rocks through my whole body all at once, like water flash-flooding a side canyon.
It will pass and you will still be standing. She shushes me, holds my gaze. You are this strong; no pain can match your strength and endurance.
I believe Her. I let myself feel the aching wound all the way—the complete storm. My body jolts with electricity as old toxins zing through my cells. I weather on, through the tears, knowing my freedom is in my strength, that if I can bear the full weight of this sorrow, I can step into the answer and find peace.
I’m in the vortex of it for two, maybe three minutes and then it’s without energy. The force of it peters out and I am still standing, just like the Subansiri knew I’d be.
It’s a defining moment in my long jag of running: standing still. I walk upstream from camp and immerse my whole body in Her, offering my transformed tears of freedom and gratitude as I float in Her bosom.
The next day, on my mother’s birthday, we float through emerald mun zala rainforest, watching these “deep forest” monkeys gleefully chase each other in the canopy above stretched-out, shimmering beaches. Then we notice them: unnatural, concentric waves pulsing upstream.
“What is this?” Kevin asks from his kayak, perplexed by the vibrating, curved lines forcing their way against the river’s gradient, against gravity. In all our combined decades of running rivers around the globe, no member of our exploratory team has seen anything like this. We stare at the water, then each other; the reversed flow of water eludes logic.
We see it and hear it at the same time. The entire forest on the river’s right bank has been stripped away and replaced with cement that’s been applied scalding hot, burning the earth’s oozing wound into an enormous gray scab.
There’s a pounding that grows stronger with the pulsing waves, a spiritless drone that underlies the nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching of metal scraping river rock. Jackhammers and scores of grinding bulldozers throb inside my chest.
It’s a dam site.
Our rafts float into it haplessly; behind us a trickling, moss-lined waterfall gently carves its way through elfin forest to join the river. Before us is hell itself.
Hundreds of workers in yellow hard hats are lined up on the road above us, waving and cheering delightedly as they see our rafts emerge from the forested canyon.
Upriver, our flotilla was similarly greeted by Apatani villagers who lobbed oranges from shore in case we were hungry. I had excitedly waved to the river-dwellers and returned their blown kisses. Floating through the dam site now, no one in our group waves to these dam workers or returns their whistles and cheers.
Our 18-foot boats are tiny specks next to the dam’s mammoth foundation; the pipe-fittings have all been secured. The walls supporting the structure are built with river rocks. The Subansiri is being killed with Her own bones.
To know that a river is being dammed is one thing—to feel it vibrating inside your chest is another. Horror, rage, shock and powerlessness force their way up from my stomach, stinging my eyes with tears. It’s the pain over one of my greatest teachers dying. This much madness is too much sorrow, the line in the song goes.
We take out just below the dam site, accessing the road that’s facilitated her demise. As I step onto shore, headed for my home on the other side of the world, I have no illusions that I can outrun or distract myself from what I’ve witnessed. I say a final goodbye, and surrender to keeping the Subansiri alive by reflecting, honoring, celebrating—immersing myself in Her memory, over and over again—the nature of Her strength.
Postscript: Nine years after that exploratory trip, construction of the dam on the Subansiri River has still not been completed, in part due to sustained public outcry and protests along Her shores. As India and China fight over the power that She could generate for a nation, those who fish from Her waters and wash their babies in Her eddies—and those who have studied her currents and found healing in Her teachings—have taken a stand for the Subansiri, that She remain forever free flowing.
Reproduced with permission from The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology: True Stories from the world’s best writers (tenth edition) © 2016 Lonely Planet.