River Tracing in Wulai

I feel lucky to be alive! This experience in under 10 words: sheer terror punctuated with moments of fun!

Our work group decided to do a team building, and (unfortunately) didn’t do much research after someone suggested something called “river tracing”. A few people asked questions: is there much hiking involved? No. Do you have to know how to swim? No. Any snakes? No. All of  these turned out to be incorrect.

Let me clearly say: this is an activity for those who love extreme sports and are addicted to the attendant adrenaline rush!

Knowing what I know now (having experienced this first hand), I’d tell you: Do not attempt this activity if you are:

  • overweight
  • out-of-shape
  • not a seasoned rock climber
  • not a strong swimmer
  • over 40
  • have any unusual medical conditions
  • afraid of heights

We were to meet at the Xindian MRT at 8am on a Friday. 8am? Xindian is an hour away by bus + MRT ride so I got only a few hours of sleep before having to get up and out the door. After a harrowing taxi ride from the station into the Wulai canyons, we stopped at a hotel where we put our bags in lockers and met our guides (2 guides to 12 Trenders).

We were given a helmet, a life vest, some neoprene booties, and woven gloves, and told: test each rock before you step on it; if it’s slippery, find another rock to step on.  Uh….okay. Sounds reasonable. Perhaps the guides thought we were all well-versed in river trekking and that no additional safety precautions or information about what we were up against was needed…and off we went.

Beginning of the trek

30 minutes of hiking later, we came upon the low bank of a a river, with an 8′ waterfalled dam and shorter rock barrier. We were instructed to fall off the rock barrier backwards. The water was cool, but not too bad. Then we had to find a way to the top of the dam and jump off into a “deep area” below. This was a bit harder and by the time everyone was done, we were soaking wet and ready to start the trek.

For the next few hours, we pushed our way upstream, through running water that was often chest height (for me) or higher. Over rocks. Through rocks. Several other groups passed us by, evidently in a hurry to get somewhere; we never saw them again. We saw myriad exotic butterflies, a water snake, huge water spiders and praying mantis, small fish, tadpoles. I got my foot stuck one and twisted it getting it free. I slipped and fell into a shallower area, onto some rocks, once. Finally, it was lunch time. There we were, wet, bedraggled, hungry, huddled like sea lions sunning ourselves on rocks. Our guides, who make many such trips every week, broke out a camp stove and  fixed a gourmet meal of….yup, ramen noodles (with canned fish for most, and plain for us vegetarians). It was served in a small tin cup. (Luckily I had brought an energy bar + drink + orange for later.) After lunch some people went back into the water. I sat and talked a bit with the guides. They siad that once, their boss took a group out past dark and the police had to come and give them flashlights to get out of the canyon. Eek.  It must have been somewhere around 2pm when we left the lunch (rock) site and got back in the water. The guides said that the exit from the river was “100 yards” ahead. Okay, I thought I can do that. Then, we came upon a rock slide. Of course everyone had to try it out (I went twice but managed to bruise my one kidney) even if it meant climbing back up a huge boulder with the use of a rope. Lots of pictures were taken and then we headed for….not really sure except I thought it was the end of our odessey. Wrong.

At the bottom of the rock slide

The river bank butted up against the mountains. And I asked how we were getting out since I saw no trail. “Up” said the guides. You’ve got to be kidding! So, soaking wet, we began our ascent on a barely visible (and super slippery) path. Several times I thought I was going to have an asthma attack, I was breathing so hard and wheezing.  There was nowhere to stop (I had people ahead and people behind me). Thankfully, everyone stopped until I could catch my breath and then, up again. Finally, after what seemed like an hour but was probably *only* 30 minutes, we emerged onto a paved area and rested. We all decided to let the person having the most difficult time with this activity choose the next one.

I thought we were nearly done. Wrong again! The next few hours is a blur but I remember walking up another steep incline and then down. Imagine an 18″ dirt path, littered with smooth stones and a 200’+ cliff with no barrier on one side and the mountain on the other. There was NO ROOM for error here! Then came the “stairs” (old railroad ties holding up dirt, still on a steep incline). My hips hurt, my knees were killing me,  I was hot and thirsty, but we still had a ways to go. Finally we made it  to a paved path (hallelujah!). Again the guides told us it would be another “10 minutes” back to the hotel. 30 minutes of walking mostly uphill again, we got to the hotel. Some were so exhausted they had no energy for a (cold) shower. I was covered with dirt and leaves and brine from the river and had to get clean. Then, another crazy taxi ride downhill to the MRT. Onto the MRT and a bus and then in search of dinner near my apartment. Afterwards, those last 8  flights of stairs up to my place were torture.  I hurt so bad, was sunburned; I slept all the way through Saturday.

Was the teambuilding activity a success? I think everyone is glad to have survived. I wonder if any of the younger, fitter members will do this again? I can say for certain: for me, once is more than enough!

RIP Ambrose

My dear friend, Ambrose Ofuani, has died. We were connected in a way few people are – but let me start at the beginning…

I first met Ambrose 7 years ago when we lived on the same street in Tallahassee. Every morning at 7am I’d see a tall, black man dressed in colorful African clothing walking toward the Parkway. And every every evening at 7pm, he’d be walking back the other way, towards the home he shared with his nephew. One afternoon, I happened to be at home and when I went back to work, there he was, walking. I stopped and offered him a ride and that was the start of our friendship. I learned that he had had a stroke while driving and had spent a year as an in-patient re-learning everything: how to walk, how to talk, how to cook. He spoke of this experience, but not in a negative way. He expressed an obvious frustration for the difficult tasks he had to do in order to master simple skills, but more importantly, he chose to focus on his successes. He was finally able to go back to work but wasn’t able to drive anymore. So twice a day, he’d take the bus to and from work. For the next year and a half while I lived in Tallahassee, I’d ride the bus to work too, and he’d often save me a seat. On the bus, he’d tell me stories. Stories about the various African tribes and some of their rituals (to explain why some of the other bus riders from African nations had scars on their faces). Stories about other bus-travellers. He seemed to have a smile and “Hell-ohh” for everyone. He was a large man, and his personality was large too.

He often referred to himself as a “proud Ibo warrior” and told me about his ancestors and his place in the rankings of his tribe. Even though he wasn’t anywhere near his home continent, I could tell he still felt connected to his family there and to the Niger. Oh, he had stories about Nigeria too! He longed to go back and show his son around. He told me about his days as a soccer coach and it was evident how much he enjoyed teaching and encouraging his teams. I think he thought that one day, he’d play soccer again. And I hoped that for him as well. He told me about his older sister in Africa, who had died from a stroke and how blessed he felt to be living in America, with its medical advances. And when he told me about his son, I could tell how proud he was of Philip, his scholastic and athletic achievements. He told me about his various serious relationships. The woman he married and had no children with and the woman he had a child with and never married. He spoke matter-of-factly and didn’t seem to have any regrets.

He loved to cook. Once he invited me over for dinner and made a special bread made from a purple-ish grain. He showed how to knead it in my hand so that it could be used to soak up gravy. And he laughed when it took me a few tries to get the hang of it. Once he came to my house and fixed a fish dinner – tilapia, telling me that it was the fish mentioned in the Bible story about the miracle of bread and fishes.

Church was important to Ambrose. Maybe not so much for the teachings, but because he loved to give thanks for every little blessing – and he counted most things as blessings. That, and he loved the female attention he got! A tall, dark, handsome man, proud of his heritage, full of confidence and love. Who could resist that? Not I!

After I moved to California, I didn’t stay in touch with Ambrose as I should have but when I returned to the south several years later, we reconnected. That’s when I learned that he’d had what he thought was another stroke. And he told me the story of being on the train, going to Orlando at Christmastime to visit Philip when suddenly he was in medical distress. He was so determined to see his son, he did not want to get off the train to seek help! Then, for added fun, he went into renal failure. As always, there was no trace of anger when he described the round of doctor’s appointments, medication, and altered diet that had become his life, in between working half days for the State. That first time I saw him again after that, I was shocked! The big, strapping man I remembered was now a shell of his former self, physically.  I could tell he was struggling. I remember taking him to Carrabelle beach one afternoon. We stopped at Subway (his favorite sandwich place) and had a picnic on the sand. I encouraged him to at least take his shoes off but he told me he couldn’t be in the salt water, that that would counteract some medication he was taking.

I don’t think I really understood how serious his condition was until he went on dialysis. He would tell me about it, especially after the ports had to be surgically implanted in his arm. He told me that it hurt but that the nurses were so kind. And, that it was exhausting. At this point, he was working Monday, Wednesday, and Friday  and was in dialysis for hours afterwards. It was painful to see him in pain. And yet, he would talk about the future, about taking his son to Nigeria and playing soccer again. He was always full of hope and optimism. That was one of the many qualities I loved about him.

I’m not sure how the topic came up, but at some point we discovered we were the same blood type. And, having previously done research into kidney donation, I told him that I’d be willing to be tested as a donor. One time we went to see his doctor’s at Shands, me driving down from Georgia, picking Ambrose up, driving to Gainesville. I remember telling his doctors that Ambrose was a great transplant candidate because of his overwhelmingly positive attitude.  On the way back to Tallahassee, we stopped at an antiques mall. Oh, he was like a kid in a candy store. I was worried that he was too tired, but he rallied and checked out booth after booth, finally buying an unopened Coke can that had special meaning for him. He was so happy with that purchase.

Then came the day 2 years ago when he was placed on the transplant list. I had already filled out a donor evaluation form and immediately called the Shands transplant coordinator to find out what to do next. After tests, tests, and more tests (none of them fun and most of them done in Gainesville) we got the news: I was a match! I wish I could have been there when Ambrose got the news but I was so excited to be able to finally do something to help that I drove down to Tallahassee to visit Ambrose in the dialysis center. It was a bit daunting to see all those people hooked up to machines and to watch Ambrose wince as they inserted the tubes into his ports. I held his hand throughout that treatment and all I could think of was: only a few more dialysis sessions for Ambrose!

Ambrose could be stubborn (understatement)! I think that is what sustained him through his life’s challenges – that and his genuine love of all people. He had a big heart and loved to laugh.  I saw Ambrose the morning of the transplant surgery and he was in good spirits. Afterwards, people called me a hero. I don’t see it that way. I had a friend who was dying and I could do something about it.

I saw Ambrose when I was back in the US this past February.  I could tell he was struggling but he always seemed to pull through. I did not know when we hugged goodbye that that was the last time I’d see him.

Last week, before I knew of his death, he came to me a dream. Not the Ambrose struggling to breathe and barely able to walk, but a younger Ambrose, with his jolly smiling face. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I woke up smiling, at peace. And I think that’s exactly what he’d want for all of us – to know that he is in a better place. I’ll miss you my dear friend but I’ll smile when I remember how much vitality and joy and love you brought into our lives. Until we meet again…

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As for me, I will take the road less travelled…