â€œTheyâ€™re in the cabinet above the back
seat. Get them out and Iâ€™ll do it when I come back,
â€� Amanda said just before marching toward the
restroom. The foaming rapids of the White Nile had a
mesmerizing effect and I sat watching them in silent
defiance of her bossiness. The van rested on a small
mound in an open grassy field overlooking the source
of the Nile where the river meets Lake Victoria at
I climbed in and flipped open the cabinet then
stared with bewilderment. I could not remember what
The cabinet was in a place that required
uncomfortable contortions to reach, and consequently
was stuffed like a jigsaw puzzle with items we rarely
used. The small sewing kit was right in front, and I
moved it out of the way. Behind it I found the
binoculars. I took them out and played with them for a
few minutes, looking at the huts further down the
river, then set them on the table. I found a small box
of votive candles that Amanda periodically produced
on quiet evenings. I had often wondered where she
kept those. I kept digging, removing items and setting
them on the stove and the floor in the hope that my
memory would be jolted when I came upon the item
Then I found my collapsible fishing rod stuffed way
in the back corner. I had to remove a two-yearâ€™s
supply of sunscreen and insect repellant to get it
out. When I purchased this nifty piece of equipment
at a flea market, I had such high hopes. But I hadnâ
€™t used it as often as I would have liked, primarily
because I couldnâ€™t remember where it was kept.
Amanda teased that I had never actually caught a
fish with it, but it was one of those things I had to
bring. I took it out and began spinning the reel. It
was rusty. The last time I used it was in salt water,
so I set it on a greasy towel and began to take it
apart for a good oiling.
The oil was in my tool kit in a separate closet
Amanda liked to call Tool World. She called it that
because it was the only place in the van that was a
mystery to her, a lost world full of tools. Every time I
opened it she would cluck and shake her head,
hoping one day to get the opportunity to reorganize
it so that each item had its own place. I learned from
hard experience that if Amanda poked her nose in
there, Tool World would be far neater, much more
logically arranged and, from that moment on I would
have to ask her where everything was kept. Tool
World was a cluttered, disorganized mess and I liked
it that way.
When I unscrewed the bolt that held Tool Worldâ
€™s door in place everything came tumbling out on
the floor of the van, conveniently spread out so that I
could find the exact item I needed. Once everything
was scattered I promptly forgot what it was that I
wanted. Then I saw the disassembled fishing rod on
the table and began digging for the oil. The can was
buried under a heap of miscellaneous junk that I
piled on the port-a-potty. Grabbing the oil, I got to
work lubricating the fishing rod.
Thatâ€™s when she returned. â€œWhat are you
doing? Did you find them? Where are they?â€�
â€œWhat?â€� I asked. â€œIâ€™m oiling my
â€œWhat? What do you mean, what? The
scissors,â€� she demanded.
â€œOh, yeah. I looked but I couldnâ€™t find
â€œI told youâ€¦the scissors are in the sewing kit,
in the front of the cabinet.â€�
â€œOh, the sewing kit. I didnâ€™t see that.â€�
I sat with a towel wrapped around my neck, as
motionless as humanly possible, while Amanda
trimmed my hair. There arenâ€™t many situations
in life where a man appreciates a gentle touch. In
fact, at the time I could think of only two, but that day
I added the Barber Shop to the list. Itâ€™s strange
that such a petite woman could have two hands
made from heavy bricks.
Snipping around my ears, she pulled them down
and peeled them out of the way so hard that my
eyes watered. As she trimmed the back of my head
she shoved it so far forward that my chin rested in
my belly button. But it was the last part that was
A group of Ugandan teenagers had come to sit in
the grass overlooking the rapids, and they were all
watching as Amanda stood in front of me and said, â
€œNow turn your head so I can see if the sides are
I turned first to the right, then to the left.
She said, â€œFaster so I can see both sides.
I turned faster, left then right.
â€œI canâ€™t tell if itâ€™s even; keep turning,
left, right, left, right,â€� she said.
I looked over at the group who were laughing, â
€œI donâ€™t care if itâ€™s even. Donâ€™t worry
She insisted, â€œNo, I want to get it right. Just
turn, back and forth, real quick. Câ€™mon.â€�
â€œBut my barber never makes me do that,â€� I
She was already angry from the mess in the van
and said, â€œIf you want me to cut your hair, this is
what you have to do. Now turn, fast, and keep going
until I tell you to stop.â€�
Normally I would have relented right then but I saw
the teenagers laughing and said, â€œButâ€¦but it
doesnâ€™t matter if theyâ€™re even. Nobody can
see both sides of my head at the same time.â€�
Just then a raft floated by with seven helmeted
white people and they paddled as they effortlessly
rolled over the foaming rapids. We both silently
watched as they passed.
The Ugandan teenagers ran along the banks,
following the rafters down the river, and they all
disappeared around the bend. Once they were
gone I did my head twisting routine and Amanda
finished up the haircut by trimming a wedge from my
left ear lobe.
A few hours later a young Ugandan man with
tightly twirled dreadlocks approached and asked, â
€œDid you see the rafters as they passed here?â€�
I told him we did.
He squatted a few feet away and said, â
€œTomorrow weâ€™re organizing a trip down the
White Nile and we have a group of four. Would you
like to join?â€�
Amanda was skeptical and said, â€œI donâ€™t
know. Weâ€™ve never been rafting before. Is this
a good place to try it for the first time?â€�
The young man said with assurance, â€œAh, it is
not bad at all. Nothing to worry about.â€�
I asked him the price for the trip and a few other
minor details then said with confidence, â€œSounds
great. Iâ€™m gonna do it. How about you?â€� I
looked toward Amanda.
She was reluctant and asked, â€œAhâ€¦wellâ
€¦does this include safety equipment?â€�
Ben, the raft leader, steered us to a calm spot
above the second rapids. I turned and saw a crowd
of locals lining the banks. Ben had stopped the raft
to give our group a pep talk and yelled above the
roar of the water, â€œThis is the one I was telling
you about yesterday.â€�
I wanted to mention, â€œAh, what? Yesterday.
We werenâ€™t there yesterday.â€� But I didnâ€™t.
Ben continued, â€œYou can fall out of the raft at
any other rapid, but for this one you want to stay in.
This is the most technically difficult commercially
rafted rapid in the world. Thereâ€™s a four meter
waterfall and sharp rocks at the bottom.â€�
â€œHuh?â€� I was in the front and turned to
look at Amanda, who was behind me, but she was
facing Ben who was at the back of the raft spewing
Ben yelled, â€œOK! This is it! A class five-plus
rapid. Are you ready? OK. Letâ€™s go! Right
paddles back, left paddle forward, all paddles back.
Here we goooOOOOO!â€�
I was thinking â€œfour meter waterfallâ€¦.mostâ
€¦difficultâ€¦.rapidâ€¦ in the world,â€� and I missed
Benâ€™s instructions. My oar got tangled with
Amandaâ€™s. Because I messed up the paddling
we hit the rapid all wrong. Everyone else in the boat
was in a squatting position, holding tight, but
Amanda and I were struggling to unknot our oars as
we crested the waterfall. We crashed in. The nose
of the raft dug under and bent like an accordion. I
was dragged directly underwater at the base of the
falls. I knew Amanda was also thrown, but I didnâ
€™t know where. I immediately lost all sense of
direction. I opened my eyes and saw only churning
brown and white. Despite the heavy life preservers,
the mass of water pulled me under with ease and
spun me around and around.
Ben had warned us about this. He told us that if
we were to fall out we should not fight it. His advice
was to stay still, keep from trying to swim, and let the
life preserver do its job. Eventually we would be
pulled to the surface, he said. The best course was
to stay calm.
Easier said than done. I fought against the
rushing avalanche of water and finally remembered
his words. Those few seconds underwater, spinning
in a tumbling, brown, out of control washing machine
seemed to last forever.
I somersaulted in the water at the base of the
falls, never moving more than a meter from where
the raft landed. I bobbed to the surface right next to
the raft and Ben yelled, â€œPull him in! Pull him in!â
€� But Amanda wasnâ€™t in the raft so I began to
swim away. I couldnâ€™t find her and refused to
get into the raft until I saw she was safe. As we
hurtled down the rapids I gripped the side of the raft,
scanning the water, looking for any signs of her
bright red life vest.
After what seemed like an eternity, Ben yelled and
pointed near the bank. Amanda was floating in a
swirling eddy, but I was too low to see if she was
injured. One of the rescue paddlers rushed over
and pulled her up on to the front of his snub-nosed
The group pulled me back into the raft, and I
discovered that the force of the water had ripped the
sole from one of my sandals.
The rescue paddler deposited Amanda back into
the raft, soaked and exhausted. She sputtered as a
delirious grin spread across her face from ear to ear
and said, â€œÂ¡Hijole mano! Increible. Â¿En
donde estoy?â€� (Oh my goodness! Incredible!
Where am I?) She babbled away in Spanish before
collapsing flat on her back on the floor of the raft.
Glancing toward the bank, my eye caught on the
teenagers from the day before, laughing and
pushing one another, as if they had seen something
a signed copy