From there, the students boarded buses for a white-water rafting trip with interludes from the park’s scientists. The mood was playfully competitive and cheerful, even as the weather turned cold. Matthew Evans, a high school senior who plays trumpet, bravely socialized through chattering teeth after his raft took a plunge with him in the front row and left him soaked right as the sun was retreating behind the mountains.
But there was a reward as they paddled to shore and saw Ma there, playing his cello on the sandy riverbank. More of a surprise, however, was when he put on a life vest and joined one of the rafts. Michael Farmer, a pastor who works with Step by Step, said of Ma: “He’s such a down-to-earth person, him being part of it didn’t seem like it was out of place.”
Throughout the day, Ma had been filled with wonder at the sight of nature, but he seemed most animated reflecting on the connections he had made — through, he said, culture. “I think it basically opens worlds for the mind and for the heart,” he added. “Culture is not trying to get you to do something. It’s trying to do something. It’s trying to get you to understand the other and be at one with the other, to be communal.”
And that’s how the evening ended. The rafters arrived at a barbecue dinner that evolved into something like an open mic night, complete with a singalong of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” At one point, Ma stood up and gave a brief speech.
“I came as a stranger, and I hope, I pray, that I’m leaving a friend,” he said. “That’s because you have all been so welcome. You let me know your community, and that’s what we all are. I have friends in all of you. In music, in culture, when you start a relationship, you never break it. I’m sure we will never forget this.”