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Lessons in Boyhood, Manhood Learned on the Rio Sarapiqui


Gregory J. Rummo

AUGUST 12, 2002

I spent the better part of the night tossing and turning in what had been a very comfortable bed the prior evening. I dreamt that I was trying to swim across a raging river. But the current was too swift. Just when I was ready to go under I woke up in a cold sweat.

It was that short three-word phrase that stuck in my mind. It had rolled off everyone’s tongue at the dinner table and I kept hearing it over and over again in my sleep. It is a lyric phrase, somewhat poetic and alliterative. If you repeat it softly, you could lull yourself to sleep. But it is not possible to divorce its meaning from the simple sounds of the words spoken together: White water rafting.

“Dad, I live for stuff like this,” my thirteen-year old son John had told me shortly before we went to bed.

“John, the Rio Sarapiqui is not like the little Lehigh in Pennsylvania,” I warned.

No fear—teenagers are unfazed by things like shooting through class two and three rapids on a river wider than the Delaware.

Now, as I looked over at him in the dim light from across our room at La Posada, the bed and breakfast where we stayed for a week in July in Costa Rica, his slow, rhythmic breathing evidenced the fact that his sleep was peaceful.

The day dawned shrouded in fog in San Ramon. In the mountainous regions of Costa Rica, it is often cool in the morning and several members of our party donned sweat shirts and long pants for the four-hour bus ride that would take us through the misty mountains of the Cordillera Central to the northern lowlands and the small town of La Virgen.

It was here, as our bus bucked and swayed across a rickety bridge spanning the
narrow gorge, that we got our first glimpse of the translucent, milky currents of the Rio Sarapiqui.

Everyone on the bus was excited.

Well, almost everybody. All I could do was make a giant sucking sound as my adrenal gland emptied itself into my bloodstream for the first of what would be several times that afternoon.

The bus stopped and we all piled out. Making our way down the steep embankment and around the bridge supports, we met our guide, Juan.

“You’ll need a helmet,” he said matter-of-factly. “What color would you like, blue or yellow?”

“I’ll take yellow,” I replied with a nervous chuckle. “Yellow is bright and easy to see bobbing in the current.”

The rafts were large and held six adults with room for our guide in the back. My son sat across from me in the middle.

Before setting out into the maelstrom, we paddled around in the large pool under the bridge. Juan shouted commands to us to make sure we knew what to do: “Paddle forwards! Paddle backwards! High Right Side! Lean in!”

Five minutes of this was the sum total of our schooling in the art of white water rafting.

When he was finally satisfied he raised his voice above the roar of the current and yelled, “Okay, let’s go!”

“That’s it?” I asked incredulously, convinced that we were all insane.

The river wasted no time introducing itself. We had barely floated two hundred yards when our guide pointed out to us that we were bearing down on The Gringo Hole. I assumed The Gringo Hole gets its name from the number of Gringos who are flipped out of the raft.

As we drew nearer, I knew this had to be the reason. The water dropped precipitously in front of us, then, seemingly in defiance of gravity, flowed upwards in a huge white hump. Bracing myself, I jammed my left foot into the space between the raft’s outer wall and the air-filled cushion in front of me. My right foot was already wedged into a strap on the floor of the raft.

Suddenly we pitched down, accelerating into the roaring wall of water in front of us. I thought for sure we would be swamped but miraculously, the raft climbed up and over the top of it, the force launching us like a rocket into the air.

And so it continued for the next seven miles. We shot through pieces of white water with names like Superman and Confusion. Twice we took a break to rest and catch our breath. I thought it would never end.

Mercifully, two hours later, we climbed out of the river dragging the raft behind us.

I looked over at my son and thought the boy has become a man. Then I realized
it was the other way around: It was the man—this man—that had become a boy
again—at least for two hours on the Rio Sarapiqui.

Gregory J. Rummo is a syndicated columnist and author of “The View from
the Grass Roots,” published in July, 2002 by American-Book. You may order an
autographed copy from his website You may e-mail the author at

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