Costa Rica 1998


Senior Speech

by Ben Aiken


The lush, dense jungle swarmed on all sides. The main road was now fifteen minutes behind us, and the Pacuare River lay ahead. Our van chugged along the rocky, dirt road as anxious emotions began to settle in. It was the end of November, 1998, and the paddlers representing the Baylor Walkabout program were approaching the most sought after river on our nine day Costa Rican adventure. Sixteen miles of continuous rapids went through dense and untouched jungle. Once on the river, the only way off was at the take-out sixteen miles downstream. Nothing but a jungle full of deadly snakes, feisty monkeys, and three-toed sloths would surround us.  The van soon reached its stopping point, where we unloaded the boats off the top of the van and prepared to set off. I put on my gear, loaded my boat on my shoulder, unstrapped my sandals, and proceeded down the final 50 yards of the steep, rocky road to the side of the river.  At that point in time, I had convinced myself that I could do it, and soon we all hopped in our boats, attached our skirts, and set off downstream. The first rapid quickly approached. I entered this relatively simple rapid not too worried and had no trouble flipping right over half-way through it. Somewhat frantically, I set up to roll and soon returned right-side up. I must say that I was thrilled at my stellar start and encouraged that I was going to make it to the end of this river. We then proceeded on down the river. After each rapid I successfully completed, I gained more and more confidence. Soon, the first couple hours had quickly gone by and lunchtime was approaching. "This is the last significant rapid before we stop for lunch," Ken, our guide, told us as we began to round a bend in the river. "It is not as difficult as some of the ones we have already completed, but still, follow me," he continued. I confidently approached this rapid ready to finish off what seemed to me as a successful morning, but a frightening experience surfaced.  I entered the rapid, and Ken made a quick move to the left of a slightly visible rock. I, closely on his heels but a bit off line, attempted to do the same. I didn't make it. In less than second, I was pinned forcefully on the side of a rock. My paddle flew from my hands as the water powerfully beat against the side of my boat, holding me snug against the rock. Fear rushed through mind at lightning speeds. All attempts to push off the rock or move were useless. The most eternal minute I have ever experienced slowly passed by.   Then, I aggressively pulled off my skirt. Water flooded my boat instantly pushing it off the rock. Luckily, I was quickly able to remove myself from the boat and swim the remainder of the rapid.  A feeling of shock echoed through my mind and body as I came through the end of the rapid and was pulled to the shore, where Tim Williams and Ken met me with my boat. I proceeded to hesitantly re-enter the boat and realized I had a problem. I had no paddle. I thought I was done. Perhaps, I could swim the remainder of the way down the river or maybe just float along using my arms. What a glorifying experience that would be. Well, I was wrong. Tim, being the trustworthy guide that he is, removed his skirt and pulled out a replacement paddle that he quickly hooked together and handed to me. I have never seen a more beautiful piece of graphite in my life. This paddle was the first thing that had gone right for me in the past five minutes. I was pleased. Then, as my nerves still flared, we paddled the remaining 200 yards through some waves until we reached lunch.  Physically, lunch tasted good and went down smoothly, but mentally, I was a wreck. I could not find any justification for why I was there. I had no desire to go on. I had no understanding of why I had even gone on the trip. I almost lost it.  Lunch was soon over, and everyone loaded up his or her boat, and we set off downstream. The second half of our adventurous day lay ahead. A few rapids into the afternoon, and the most beautiful section of the river approached. Tall, steep, mossv walls began to rise on both sides. It was as if the jungle was growing around us. Waterfalls and vines began to emerge from the tops of the walls, and it was truly one of the most inspiring sights I have ever scene. After viewing this spectacle for some time, a realization hit me. I had been so caught up with myself and what lay ahead that I was missing the point. Here I was paddling through a real live jungle full of wild animals that I have dreamed of and imagined all my life and I wasn't even enjoying it. The remainder of the day, I had one the best times of my life. I didn't want it to end. We proceeded through awesome rapids and narrow gorges that I can still picture vividly in my mind. The wild, untouched jungle followed us the entire way down the river.  That day, I learned how to relax and enjoy what I was doing. I realized just how fortunate I was to even have the opportunity to be there and that I must make the most of it for it may never come again. This world works in a strange way, and all things seem to happen for an unexplainable reason. Do not let the minor or distasteful things bog you down and prohibit you from enjoying life.  I will never regret my experience that day in Costa Rica. I will always be obliged to Walkabout and my parents for giving me the opportunity. I stepped out of my boundaries and took a risk. Maybe I had an unpleasant event occur, but it cleared the way for the good to come in. Take the time the sit back and look at things you are doing and be aware of your surroundings. It will change your entire perspective on things as well. My good friend Ferris Bueller once said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." - Thank you.

What is Ben doing now?  He is getting his masters degree in public health and focussed on exploring and improving the third world.  Ben is pictured here on a 2006 Walkabout exploratory trip kayaking in Sikkim - north India.