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Sometimes you can’t help asking stupid questions

Essay by Columbine Quillen

Tourism – November 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Although I had been surrounded by it for most of my life, last summer I finally got a taste of the whitewater rafting business. That’s when I worked for Colorado Whitewater Photography — where my job involved going to various rafting companies to sell their clients pictures of their once-in-a-lifetime whitewater adventure.

During the summer, I overheard people asking what I then regarded as some of the most idiotic questions imaginable. But lately, I’ve started to wonder whether those questions were really all that silly after all.

I guess my perspective changed as I prepared to survive hurricane season in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I’m attending the university for a year.

Last summer, when a tourist on the Arkansas asked whether the boats were all hooked together like a train, I was astounded. He’d seen those boats stacked up, and he’d seen them put in the river. So what was he thinking?

I wanted to walk right over to say, “No, those boats aren’t connected. If they were, what would happen if one wrapped around a rock? And besides, even if your guide decided to turn around, he obviously couldn’t make it back upriver. What do you think he is? A spawning salmon willing to give his all to go upstream?”

Boatmen might look strong, but not that strong.

Last summer, I heard several people ask if their boats would put out where they put in, and I was amazed. Did they think the Arkansas was a lake?

But in September, as Tropical Storm Erica swept toward Puerto Rico, and a hurricane watch went into effect, I churned with questions of my own. I was eager to embark upon emergency preparedness, but just what was I supposed to do?

I asked my knowledgeable roommate, who had weathered 24 years of hurricane seasons and had even survived the wrath of the devastating Hugo, and she said I needed canned food, water, and cash.

But how much water? Enough to drink for a few days? Enough to drink and wash for a week? Enough to hold out till the Red Cross arrived?

And I couldn’t understand why I’d need cash. I certainly couldn’t see myself running out into a hurricane to buy beige and plum scarves — even though they have been popular here in Puerto Rico this fall.

Luckily, before I had a chance to pose that question, I ran across a bank commercial that reminded its clients that the banks might be closed for days after the hurricane, and the ATM machines wouldn’t be working.

Yet there was still a lot I didn’t know about what to do in a hurricane.

Should I go to the basement? Stand in a doorway? Put my head between my knees? Or stop, drop, and roll?

In a building threatened by both rising floodwaters and hurricane-force gales, should I run upstairs or downstairs?

Fortunately (since I had only five gallons of water and I sincerely doubt that would have been enough), Erica headed out into the Atlantic without stopping for a visit.

But my ignorance — down here where the sea winds blow and the cockroaches hustle — has hardly been confined to hurricanes.

When I arrived in Puerto Rico, I didn’t know a riptide from a detergent.

Right after I settled in, I went to buy a fan, but the clerk wouldn’t ring it up. I could tell she was trying to tell me something, but I sure couldn’t tell what it was.

Soon, I was surrounded by a crowd of helpful customers speaking a language so fast, clipped, and foreign that it could have been Klingon for all I understood (and that, in spite of years of Spanish classes).

I wondered whether the fan was for sale or not. Did they think I was stealing it? Was I about to be arrested?

Hot or not, I was about to leave that fan behind and head for the door, when something about all the gestures, pointing, broken English, over enunciated Spanish, and visual aids clicked. I was supposed to go to the service desk to fill out a warranty card so I could return the fan if anything went wrong with it.

For some reason, questions just don’t seem as stupid when you’re the one doing the asking. And some questions just come naturally. For example, “What is it?” seems almost automatic when you’re served fried, mashed plantain. And “What do I do?” comes out rather spontaneously when you’re stung by a jellyfish. (The answer? Hurt for a while.)

At times, it’s been a great solace to remember some of those questions I heard on the river — back when I had all the answers.

Last summer, I heard a man ask how they put rails on the bottom of the Arkansas, and why the rails didn’t rust. At the time, I wondered if he actually believed we emptied out the Arkansas for a couple of weeks each summer to lay down and repair track. And if so, how did he think we drained the Arkansas without building a dam bigger than the proposed Elephant Rock, a prospect many Chaffee County residents are known to despise?

At one of the rafting companies, I watched as a desk person tried to explain why there aren’t seat belts in rafts. And I imagined spinning a tale that would justify that customer’s obvious anxiety.

“The reason our boats don’t have seat belts is because we buy seconds from a big life-raft company that caters to all the major cruise lines — so we can’t order them with extras like padded interiors and shoulder straps.”

But is the truth better?

“No, no, folks. It’s so you won’t drown if your boat tips over.”

I found myself asking exactly that when Erica approached; did I really want to know the truth?

And yes, I did. With Erica nearby, I actually felt better knowing that my dorm room had metal blinds (that let all manner of wind and noise through) instead of regular windows so that a hurricane can’t bombard me with broken glass.

All in all, even though I’m sure I still have dozens upon dozens of stupid questions left to ask, I’m relieved to know I’m not quite as ignorant as I used to be.

In the last few months, I’ve began to realize that what seems clearly obvious to us, may not actually be that obvious.

So I guess it’s only natural that people far from home need to have some things explained.

Come to think of it, maybe anyone spending good money to ride a little rubber raft down a raging, cold river of whitewater in an unfamiliar place inhabited by unknown wildlife should have questions.

After one winter in Iceland and three in Gunnison, where she’s a student at Western State College, Columbine Quillen is enjoying the tropics as an exchange student at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan.