A short story I wrote based on when I fell off that waterfall a few weeks ago.
I think the most telling feature of time passing isn’t the days and nights, the sun and moon, but rather, the external features of your body. It’s the cuts that bleed and then slowly start to heal over, fresh skin to cover the old. It’s the bruises that turn from purple to blue to yellow and then leave completely. It’s the growing nails, the longer hair, the smile that gradually turns into a frown. These features all remind you that time is passing, whether you ignore it like a dog or watch it like a clockmaker, it’s passing and taking you with it. With each healed cut, faded bruise, and broken nail, you’re left wondering what the hell you did in all that time.
I pondered the strange human concept of time as I scratched the bug bites on my leg, reopening a small cut that never seems to heal. In my two weeks in Colombia, the only thing I’ve gained so far are cuts and bruises, and perhaps a word or two to add to my limited Spanish vocabulary. Of course the country was beautiful, with its mountains and jungles, and verdant colors that were such a change from the gray sky and corn-yellow dreariness of rural Wisconsin, but as every fresh-faced high school graduate embarking on their first journey outside of the walls that swallowed up four years of their life, I was looking to find myself. What that means, I don’t know, but I sure hoped that somewhere between the Spanish lessons and hikes through the jungle a coconut would fall on my head and I’d wake up with a renewed zest for life and a purpose full of passion. But with each recovering scratch and chipped nail, I’m reminded that time is passing and taking me right along with it.
On one of those hot Colombian days where you feel like doing everything and nothing all at once, I let another volunteer persuade me into embarking on a journey to some secret waterfalls nearby. We took a cab up a mountain, our driver throwing back Spanish words the entire way up, with no regards to the fact that hardly any of us understood what he was saying. We did ask about the pink little girl’s shoe he kept in his passenger door, and he rambled back something along the lines of it being for good luck. Looking back on it, it could quite possibly be the essence of that shoe that saved my life later that afternoon.
We disembarked near the top of the mountain and began towards a farm of a friend, who was absent so we were greeted by his great big human attack machine of a dog, aptly named Princessa, despite the fact that he (yes, he) acted anything but princess-like. He was only dissuaded from eating our arms off by the barb fence between us. The farmhand, whom I fondly refer to as Cowboy, destroyed our illusion of safety when he swung the gate wide open and the dog charged. After a few loud barks from the dog, and a few barking orders from Cowboy in rapidly fired Spanish, the dog backed off and sheepishly retreated. Whew, that little pink shoe must have been helping me already.
Cowboy greeted us warmly and his daughter brought out some delicious smoothies, before leading us down the treacherous slope to the waterfall. The hike down was only an hour, but the sweat pouring down my back was like a broken shower head that releases water slowly at first, and then all at once just comes streaming out. I had hoped that going through the jungle we’d see a monkey or two, but the nature only provided me with trees full of fiery ants ready to attack (and attack they did, I have 3 recovering bites to prove it) and overgrown plants that I tried to grab onto to prevent me from sliding down the steep slope, but ripped out of the ground at the last minute, betraying me and leaving me on my ass.
When we finally made it down to the where the foliage thinned and I could hear a trickle of water, I stumbled through the layer of trees and burst into the light, gasping at the sight before me and heaving from the effort. I don’t think I had ever seen such a beautiful sight, at least not one as pure and untouched as this one. When I stepped gleefully onto the rocks surrounding the waterfalls, I thought I must be the first person to ever put my foot in this exact spot on this rock. There’s not a lot of places in the world where you can say that, and it’s an empowering feeling to know that you’ve discovered something that’s rare and beautiful, and as removed from human touch as can be in this day. I won’t waste my time describing the water gushing from the falls (it was a beautiful aqua blue, and as clear as a window) or the multitude of rocks surrounding the falls (they ranged from ones that looked like the whole side of buildings, to teeny tiny pebbles smaller than the nail on my pinky toe, and a galore of colors that reflected the sun, with vibrant reds and deep purples peeking up from the bottom of the pools of water) except to tell you that the rocks formed crevices and caves and the water made everything slippery in a way that would arouse jealousy in your childhood Slip-n-Slide.
Like kids in a candy shop, we went crazy at the sight. Jumping from rock to rock, swimming through pools of water, the only screams were ones of joy and shock when we accidentally stepped on a dark rock that had been baking in the sun all day. I quickly accessed the best way to climb to the top of the falls, and with the skill of someone who’s only climbing experience was in an indoor gym during a birthday party five years ago, I made my way up the side, narrowly avoiding death with each grasp at a distant rock. When I finally pulled my torso over the edge, I had nearly forgotten what I climbed up here for. Then I turned around and was instantly reminded. The view was the kind you only see in those travel magazines you keep in a basket in your bathroom, the kind you promised yourself you’d search out one day, but never really got to it. It was what people traveled far and wide to see, only to get there and realize that even if you take a million pictures, nothing will ever come close. I struggle to recreate the picture in my mind, the river as it flowed over rocks in the distance, weaving its way in and out of the jungle, the sun high in the distance. The surrounding mountains looming like nosy parents, and the noise of birds and bugs and trickling water mixing into the best soundtrack you’ve ever heard. It was something like magic, standing on top of that waterfall. Perhaps it was magic, because that would describe better what happened next that my words ever could.
Overlooking the waterfall was a natural infinity pool, with sand padding the bottom and rocks building up the closer to the edge you got. I waded into the pool and walked right up to the rocks looking over the fall, and joined a friend as we laid down on a huge rock and looked at that spectacular view. The rock was a bit slippery, which should have been my second clue, right after the common sense of don’t lie down on the edge of a waterfall, but this place was magic. I looked down at the ground about 8 meters below me, and noticed that the bottom of this particular waterfall didn’t have a pool of water waiting, but rather some large rocks in which water splashed off and trickled into another pool a bit below.
As I laid there, I gingerly closed my eyes and basked in the sun. The last thing I expected was to have the current grab hold of my leg and flip me around, pulling me towards the edge. You know how in action movies they always dramatically slow down the fight scenes so you can see every detail? Well that’s how it was. In the split second I realized I was going over the edge of this waterfall I became hyperaware of two things, 1. slippery rocks are extremely difficult to grab on to, a lesson learned as my hands flailed desperately for anything to hold, and 2. there were only rocks waiting for me at the bottom of this fall. My life flashed as I realized my parents were going to get a call that day saying I had died falling off a waterfall in Colombia, or at the very least was paralyzed from the neck down. I felt a pang of guilt as I thought about my friends who would have to drag my lifeless body up that steep slope. What an inconvenient place to die, I thought.
Falling, falling, falling, until with a thud, I hit the rocks below. I faintly heard the screams of my friends as the water pounded down around me. Wait, I could still hear! I gasped with surprise like when you’re watching a horror movie and that monster just pops out of no where, knocking all the air from your chest as you sit with your mouth gaped open. I felt for my toes and was amazed when they wiggled in response. I got up to see Cowboy standing on the dry rock beside me, arms held out and a face that read “Wait, you’re alive?” I accepted his arms and he pulled me over and laid me down, as everyone rushed over to check out the damage. I felt totally fine. For the third time that day, I had been saved from a near death experience. That cab driver really knew what he was talking about with that pink shoe business. A friend translated for Cowboy that I was okay, minus the tiny cut on my elbow. He wasn’t quite sure though, evident through his terrified eyes and insistence that I don’t move a muscle. I heard him say in spanish, translated only for me much later by a friend, “I’ve never seen anyone take a fall like that… and live.”
Eventually I was able to convince everyone of my fineness, and we were able to go back to the previous joy of before. Although everyone jumped with a hint of caution from rock to rock now, seeing the hidden danger in the falls. Cowboy did follow me for the rest of the day, evidently terrified that I might keel over from a brain bleed at any given time. Hint: I didn’t. We gradually made our way back up to the farm after a few hours, the climb up even harder than the climb down, enjoyed more smoothies, and were on our way. The adventures of the day already becoming a memory in our brains.
The moral of this story is not that I “found myself” in Colombia, or even to not climb on waterfalls, but rather a story of human fragility and the value of life. In the coming days, I would count time with the bruises on my arm caused by the rocks, and the cut on my elbow healing slowly, made worse by a clumsy fall in the shower, and as I watched these marks come and go from my body, my very human body, I realized something. Life is incredible, we have the ability to go anywhere and do anything, and I’m at that time in my life where I have these opportunities, and I’m wasting it. I mean yes, I am in Colombia, but I’ve spent every day pondering what my purpose is and hoping a coconut would tell me. My passions aren’t just going to fall from a tree, I need to go seek them out, climb up waterfalls, fall down waterfalls. This is about taking those chances to do stupid incredible things, with the reason just being life. The passing of time wouldn’t phase me if I knew I was using it well, swinging into the next day instead of being dragged by the rising sun. So I vow to go out, explore, and know that a recovering bruise isn’t just a signal for the passing of time, but a marker of a great adventure.
Hope you enjoyed!
Lots of love,