Thursday, January 26, 2012

Traveling is not always fun and games

During my volunteering time in Dec, I had a close call experience that I typed up but would blog post when I returned home to avoid worrying friends and family.

Some background to this close call, kayak river rafting story. I was near the Sarapiqui River, world renowned for water rafting. Annabel, the other volunteer, already rafted it and was interested in a different experience. We were able to go kayak rafting with guides and a rafting group. The kayaks were inflatable so they were more stable, we were told. This would be more fun than just rafting, which is true. I kayaked a bunch last year and have rafted 2x but I have never kayaked on a river before.

I flipped out of the single, inflatable kayak within 15 mins and could not get back on. At the same time, Annabel flipped too but she got rescued by the rafters nearby. The rapids were intense and deep. I could not even try to flip the kayak back over, but tried to hold on to it. Then I got swept away. I saw that there was a beach far to the right so I tried to go in that direction. It was hard to see anything while being in the rapids. I lost my paddle and went down in the water.

Down, down, down for a while being thrashed around like I in a washing machine. I did not breathe for a whole minute but it seemed so much longer than that. I could see the light and knew I was near the surface but had a hard time reaching above the water even with a life jacket on (very frustrating at the time and I am sure I panicked). I wondered how long could I last underwater w/o breathing, how much time did I have left? After being down for a min, I was able to quickly grasp for air twice. Then finally I got air again, for more than just a second. Then i saw the guide, held on to his kayak and then got roped to the rocky beach nearby. This must have been past the rapid portion, which just seemed would never end.

I truly thought I was going to die. It was such a real realization. So helpless, struggling for air, for life. I thought of my poor parents having to deal with this and that I was to die while having fun in Costa Rica. But I was not ready to die after just figuring out what wanted to do with my life. How selfish of me, I thought. My legs, knees, and ankle bruised right away. And I was amazed how damn weak I felt (I must have struggled a lot in the river). It took 10 mins to calm down and breathe normally. My ankle hurt the most and later my whole thigh was sore for a few days. One guide said I was in the water for 5 mins and it was crazy. I don’t think they have dealt with such a situation before.

I got on the raft and asked how much longer, they said 2 hrs. I said no way. I was getting cold, coughing like crazy from all the water, and just wanted to lay down. They stopped, called the office, and the van picked us up from somewhere we were able to get out of the water and onto the main road. I am amazed that they thought I could and should raft for so long after such an ordeal.

I kept inquiring the guides if I should see a doc to make sure I don’t have water in my chest and that I have accurate oxygen levels. After what happened to my friend in Malaysia from a scuba diving incident and not being treated right away, I am now aware of the importance of after care. The guides did not speak much English. The driver of the van said it would be a waste of my time to go to their small clinic and wait uncomfortably. Luckily, the volunteer place had a private doc that came by. Later on the van driver told us that after hearing the reports from the guide that I should get checked out. He probably thought I was being a paranoid American before. Anyway, the good news is that there was no water in my lungs (if there had been that could lead to pnemonia) and I got out without breaking a thing. Amazing.

In retrospect, we were not told what to do stay on the kayak and what to do after falling out. I can’t believe I let that slip. But then again I did not realize how strong the rapids were and did not think we would flip out. When we entered the water Anna was a little scared. I told her, it will be fine. The rapids were a class 3. B/c Anna rafted there before she remembered the safety instructions and was able to stay afloat and get picked up quickly before getting hurt. I was glad to hear that as I was worried about her while I was struggling.

The following week I was tempted to give rafting a chance in order to overcome such an experience. But by then it was raining nonstop and did not want to push my luck. I also had travelers insurance, which was pretty cheap; something I have never done before.

I have had injuries and multiple surgeries, but that was the closest call I have ever experienced, especially in such a short amount of time, so unexpectedly. I am posting in such details not to freak people out, but we, especially travelers, need to recognize that they are many dangers out there, especially in doing such activities, so lessons learned:
- Pay attention to safety instructions and make sure they are given.
- Have and carry travel insurance
- If something does happen, talk to lots of people (if feasible) and if you think you should see a doctor, see one.

I am very thankful to get out of that situation unharmed and my volunteer org had a doctor that saw me that night! Travel safely is a phrase I say to many and always truly mean every word.


  1. wow, that's pretty scary! glad to hear that you are safe and sound. be careful out there!! looking forward to hearing more of your adventures!

  2. Thank you for the story! Stay well and do the things you want. :)