Adam Melin, one of my closest and oldest friends, came to visit us recently. His visit was a blessing in many senses, as Adam is one of the few people I know who is arduously and persistently questioning his culture, his upbringing, the very roots of his foundation, so that the light of inner truth my shine upon him. We spent nights around the fire discussing our lives and intentions, dancing with words and meditating when words fell short of the primacy of felt experience.
Adam’s questioning of both us and himself were inspiring and insightful. We talked about issues I have seldom discussed with anyone, ‘getting deep’, as he called it. His visit was profoundly impactful. It is a friendship which is truly reciprocal and free. His way of connecting with Claire and I, as well as Kapembwa and our neighbors, shows an intuitive light which shines well beyond his well-crafted words.
A river trip had been on our minds for some time. We discussed the possibility with Claire, and at the last minute, she was able to clear up some days for us to take a journey. So we grabbed some bread from the roadside, packed up some rice and lentils, a few blankets, a tent, and we were off the next day. We embarked from our house, putting the boat in the water just where the river laps the shore of our home and fills our spirits with possibility. I had briefly looked at a map – one whose scale was too large and whose accuracy was doubtful. There is a road with a bridge, somewhere downstream. We didn’t know how many days it would take to reach it, what the river would look like along the way, or what obstacles we may encounter. As the Lukupa River flows, so does the river of life…
The first morning was filled with joy and excitement. We turned the corner on the River, and arrived in unknown territory. We enjoyed chatting, leisurely paddling, taking in the pristine Zambian floodplain and its unique language, expressed through birds, frogs, lizards, snakes, the purr of water and the sigh of the wind. The longer we journeyed, the more intelligible the language became. The first stretch of the river was slow and pristine, and we spent long periods of time in silence, becoming one with nature and dissolving the boundaries created through the noise and delusion of our minds. The sun was hot, and the water pristine. We caught some fish with Adam’s spinning rod, stopped for lunch in the cool shade of a flowering tree bracing the riverbank, and discussed our lives and their meaning.
We continued on in such a manner for some hours, and I began to think of the possibilities of such a journey – anyone could do this, and everyone would enjoy it! I wonder how many adventures I’ll have before I will stop projecting the beginning into the end. Experience and wisdom teach that all things are constantly changing. The flows of the Lukupa River are thus. We were in the childhood of our adventure, immersed in existence without worries.
We came upon a man and his son, who had just caught a fish from the river. We greeted one another, and he let us know that the river was difficult up ahead. The energy changed with the wind, and we prepared for the unknown. After some bends in the river, we approached a dense, lush jungle with a full canopy of mature trees. As we passed silently through the jungle, we came upon a downed tree crossing the river. Our first obstacle. The water was moving slowly, and we simply stepped out onto shore, lifted the boat along the grasses, and passed by the tree.
We continued further, but now the current was increasing. We had to paddle the 10-foot boat arduously – it was bulky and slow to react. We passed by downed logs and around trees, trying our best to keep the boat from hitting the foliage on either side of the river. Soon we heard the sound of rushing water, and pulled the boat to the side of the river to scout an incredibly beautiful cascade which hurled itself down the rocks and offered its song to the jungle waiting at its feet. We spent some time stretching, meditating, and admiring the beauty of the place. Pristine, distant, untouched.
We carried the boat about 200 yards downstream, put the boat back in the water with our gear, and continued the journey. The fishing time was over now, and our concentration was on paddling. The river had quicken and narrowed, and we were paddling to keep centered, while ducking branches and learning to control our craft. The journey’s adolescence.
Further down the river, we encountered a fish trap. Fishermen in the villages make dams out of logs which extend the length of the river, and leave only small places which fish can travel through. The small pathways flow into large, woven reed fish traps, which become progressively smaller at their length, forcing fish in with no hope of escape. We had to stop and admire the workmanship – so many trees, so much effort, so much ingenuity. We carried the boat around and continued.
Not long after that fish trap, we found ourselves in another thick jungle, and we passed over a sharp stick facing against the current. We heard no sound, but the bottom of the boat began to deflate. We continued, and came upon a rapid which looked manageable for the boat. As people often do, we overestimated our abilities, and how nimble we could be given our situation. The journey was maturing.
We found ourselves abrasively sliding over a big rock, a quick ripping sound, and the bottom of the boat completely gave out. Luckily, the boat is three sections, so we were able to sit on the outer sections and paddle to shore. We found a tear in the bottom so big that water was entering the compartment, and no air would hold.
We were in the jungle. We had little idea where we were. We were lost. Or were we found? The journey was now real. It felt incredibly liberating. I sensed a similar feeling of freedom from Claire and Adam, and was grateful to be surrounded by such centered, loving, and adventurous people. One worried thought can prove cancerous in such a situation. We heard voices and followed a footpath through the trees to the nearest house. After hiding in shock, two young women emerged from their immaculately thatched, round home. After offering us some fruits and welcoming us to their home, they waited to hear our story. We asked where we were – which must seem a strange question to those who have lived centered in one place their whole lives. We are here, where else could we be? Touché. But in the material sense, where are we? What is the name of this village? Mwamba – the Chief’s village.
The ladies insisted that we were close to the bridge. It was ‘just near’. So we hopped back in the boat, the gear laid in the deflated center of the boat on an inflatable seat which still held true. We sat on the outsides, and paddled heavily, since the middle section was now taking in water. It was slow going. We encountered several rapid sections, where Claire and Adam would walk along the bank with our new posse (The two young women, and two of their brothers, were now walking along the bank following us and inquiring about our craft, our origins, our intentions). Meanwhile, I would take the boat by the rope at its bow and slowly wade through the rocky rapids, trying not to tangle my feet in the rocks or be swept away by the force of the Lukupa.
After two hours of this, still with our convoy close by (we gave them a short ride on the boat, just for the experience), we still had not reached the bridge. The sun was beginning to tire from its perch above our heads, and its rays were softening to the golden glow of the evening. The kids let us know that no cars passed over the “near-by” bridge. It was not the paved road we sought – the illusions of the middle-aged journey.
setting up camp
We came upon another fish trap, pulled the boat to shore, and found our home for the evening. After setting up the tent and repairing the boat, we lit a fire and cooked our meal, enjoying a rest on the ground and the sputtering, rushing spirit of the water as it jumbled its way through the fish trap. We talked and reflected deep into the night, discussing the Lukupa River, and the life lessons its flow offered. We slept on the hard ground, huddled against the cold.
The next morning the rising sun woke us to a world covered in dew, cold and damp. We lit a fire and cooked breakfast. The patch hadn’t stuck completely – the boat would hold air, but it was leaking. At least no water was entering. We started off, and managed to navigate successfully through rapids, around fish traps, and through jungles. We passed the Mwamba bridge, (which was not ‘just near’, as we should have known), and continued downstream. The river changed once again, opening into tall trees of Miombo woodlands, with sheer dirt banks on either side. Thick trees lined the bank, and we had to stay exactly centered in the river to avoid them – we were all more wary of how fragile our craft truly was… not long for this world.
Soon we came to a log jam in the river, which looked to have once been a bridge. The current wasn’t strong, so we let it push us into the logs, with the plan of stepping onto them and carrying the boat over the obstacles. Hidden in the grasses on the log was a sharp stick, which quickly punctured the outer section of the boat with a load pssssssssssssssssssssssst.
We pulled over and surveyed our options. We were now very far from the road we had passed (which very few cars use). Yet with the hole still leaking in the center section, we could not continue with a leaking outer section. The only option was to repair the leak and wait for the patch to dry. Sometimes sitting still is the best way to move forward. We sat in the shade of the trees, jumping from their branches into the cool water, and waited for three hours. The patch looked okay, though we knew that ignoring the ’12 hour’ drying time might cause problems. We loaded up the boat and started again.
Shortly, we found more fish traps – then more rapids. At one point, we could not remove the boat from the water and were dodging in and out of branches and brush. The patch came off at the same time that one of our paddles broke in half. We were now really a site to see. One and a half paddles, with someone consistently pumping air into two leaking sections of a heavily weighted boat, while minding the rapids and periodically pressing down the patch whose glue had not dried.
We came upon a huge black snake, which swam up to shore and watched us. At the same time, we were pushed by the current into the same shore, and needed the shore to carry the boat around an obstacle. Adam and I hesitated, but Claire jumped right out, chased the snake off with a paddle (probably a Black Mamba, but she wasn’t worried), and we continued on our way. What a woman!
Once again, the sun started to wane. We were just near the time when we would need to decide whether or not to spend another night. We still had no idea how far we were from the road. But we were really getting the hang of paddling the boat, and most rapids now were less rocky. We were running them with great joy and more control. We had accustomed to the journey, and accepted its eventual end.
We pushed ahead. Soon, the wind changed and the energy became lighter. Claire declared ‘We’re Close’, in one of her intuitive reactions I have learned not to question. We took a few more rapids, dodged some more trees, and soon we came upon 15 naked boys swimming in the river. After running away from us, they slowly crept back, and responded affirmatively to my question of whether we were at the road. We had reached our destination, but the journey was not complete.
Claire went back to Kasama, and Adam and I visited the closely situated Chishimba Falls. After dinner and some conversation, we went to meditate at the bottom of the massive falls. Watching the falls glisten in the moonlight, we could feel the energy of the water in our ears, in our heads, in our bodies. I took Adam to a cave underneath the waterfall, and we entered inside and began to meditate. Now the spirit of the water was everywhere.
I have meditated in this place before, by myself in the middle of the night, and I got the distinct feeling that I was a log floating in the river, and that I must do all I can to stay afloat, so that I could continue on my path without sinking, and reach my destination (the bridge, in this case). This time, after days of connecting with water and the spirits of nature, I simply asked the spirit of the waterfall to teach me. And it offered the most profound lesson I have ever experienced – one which compounded on the last meditation I had experienced in the cave.
The sound of the waterfall echoed infinitely through my being, and I became water. I was fluid. For short moments, I was carried by the flow of the universe. I got the distinct idea that, regarding existence’s metaphor simplified to my dull understanding, people are of three basic categories. The densest are rocks. They rarely move, and do not see the light of the sun through the depth of the delusion pinning them to the rivers’ bottom. Others are sticks – they float through the river, trying their best to stay afloat and keep moving to their destination. However, a stick is often getting stuck or retreating in eddies, delayed from its destination – though it knows not where it is headed: only that it must stay afloat. The spirit of the waterfall offered to me that night a glimpse into the last type of person. One who is simply water. Those who are water have relinquished all desire to reach a destination, for they are simply the flow of existence and consciousness. They cannot be said to be a single molecule of water, since such arbitrary human distinction is not relevant. They are both one and everything all at once. The flow of water, free from self, dissolving and reforming. And for some fleeting moments, I flowed like water over the falls of Chishimba, free from my ‘self’ and one with all existence. The waterfall told me that those who are truly water live every breath with such freedom and awareness.
We had started our journey with the intention of reaching a destination. Yet the true learning came from the unexpected consequences of the flow of the river of life. We thought we knew where we were headed, but the further into the unknown we passed, the less the destination guided our intentions. We simply began to trust the flow of the water. Now the journey is over, but in the broadest sense it is just beginning. Can we let go of our destination? With true devotion and enlightenment, all beings can flow like water through the cosmos.