Life Lessons on Swiss Waters

I'd made some unusual plans for my trip to Switzerland—wild swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking—so I was prepared for some novel experiences. But I also found some unexpected life lessons on the way. 

Chaitali Patel Published Jun 21, 2024 21:40:48 IST
Life Lessons on Swiss Waters All photos:

“Just go up and jump. Don't think. If you do, you'll just complicate things,” shouts Nuno Ferreira Santos, a photographer travelling with me on a press trip to Switzerland. I hold onto the cold metal railing, while he eggs on me to keep going. As I reach the top rung of the ladder leading up to the diving board suspended over a bottle green pond and look over at the vast nothingness sandwiched between, I do exactly what Nuno tells me not to--I think. A hundred scenarios flash through my mind. The next thing I know, I walk to the edge, close my eyes, hold my breath, and jump.


I don't remember the fall. What I do remember is the time it took me to break into the water's surface. It feels long, very long. For someone who gets by with breast strokes and can't tread water without holding onto something, it feels like a barrier has been overcome. Maybe it was the thrill of diving or the setting, but something changed the moment I jumped off that five-metre-high diving board into the depths of Drei Weieren, a chilly 17th century pond in the city of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Once a hub for embroidery and lace manufacturing, St. Gallen’s ponds supplied water to the city's textile factories. Today, its residents flock to the ponds for a swim during summer and to skate in the winter.


Still high from the thrill of my dive, I couldn't stop grinning as I changed out of my wet clothes in the wooden art nouveau bath houses and wondered what it was that wrapped me in such deep delight. Maybe, it was the challenge of doing what I would otherwise never tried–jumping off an edge. Maybe it was the freedom that Santos' words compelled me to embrace. What he said hold true for so much of life, doesn’t it? Don't we all complicate things by thinking more than we need to! Sometimes one needs to quiet the voice of self doubt and throw oneself into something.

For someone who likes immersive travel this was my chance to enjoy the season the way the locals do: hitting the water every chance I get. Over a week I throw caution to the winds and try new things with varying levels of success. As an adult beginner, I focus on the effort, knowing full well that the outcome is beyond my control. This becomes crystal clear as I cling to a paddleboard on the inky blue waters of Lake Constance–that stretches between Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein–the water's surface in complete contrast to my emotions.


Sitting astride my paddle I row away from the water's edge and then put into practice what I learnt minutes ago, from Dario Aemisegger, my paddleboarding instructor. I manage to stand for a few fleeting seconds before crashing down into the lake. After what feels like my 10th collapse I feel conscious, tired and ready to give up. The voice of self doubt keeps getting louder but I choose to silence it, focusing on the sun, waves and water instead as Aemisegger had suggested. Never mind how I appear to those who are watching, if they were watching at all. There are lessons to be learnt from failures. By not giving up I had gained more than had I not tried at all.

Sometimes it takes more than one try and one situation to drive home a point. When I thought I was done being tested, I found myself again on the water's surface a few days later. This time in a kayak on Lake Brienz in Interlaken. Having kayaked many times before, I was confident of doing this. One by one we follow our affable guides Andrés de la Torre and Stephanos Gaitanos from the High Tide Kayaking School out onto the emerald green waters of the lake. As we venture deeper, Torre proudly points to the water and says, “Millions of years ago this was a glacier. This is the closest one can come to something that old, so reach out and touch it.”


Handling the oar to the best of my ability I try to play the part and take in my surroundings, but soon I begin to drift away from the group. In a panic I begin to row even faster. Far from helping, this pushes me further away. After what feels like an eternity, embarrassed and exhausted from the effort, I wait to be rescued. When Gaitanos catches up with me he patiently guides me on how to oar. As I try harder and harder, my arms burning, he tells me to simply do what I know. The minute I let go and relax, I manage to get control over my kayak and steer it in the direction I want.

In that moment, Gaitanos had given me an important life lesson: when things go wrong, sometimes all we need to do is step aside and approach the situation with a calm mind. As we row towards the group everyone cheers me on. I felt proud of myself, for having tried, failed and learnt. In that moment Lake Brienz truly shone in all her infinite beauty and I was fully present to take it all in.


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