Rio de Janeiro, April 16, 2008
I dragged myself in at 4 a.m. from dancing at a nearby bar called The House. I seem to be reliving my twenties – what a hoot! Nobody at this hostel has a clue how old I am. I am a narc in a Billabong bikini.
I had two things planned, one was to hang glide, the other was to rent a bicycle and ride down Ipanema boardwalk. Considering my lack of sleep and repugnant hangover, I’m happy to announce both got accomplished lickety split.
Hang gliding was an impulsive move. I have a healthy fear of heights and wanted to face this fear head on. Isn’t hang gliding a stupendous idea then? Rio is similar to Vancouver in landscape, both cities are nestled between bays, resting in the bosom of ocean and mountains. One of these mountains is the take off point for my hang glide. The company that offers this service to backpackers is run by two fellas with over twenty years of experience between them. One of the instructors did tandem flights with The Police, Slash, and the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses. Can’t remember the name of said lead singer. Imagine Slash hang gliding in leather pants… or let’s not. Grubby, unwashed leather may suffice for rock gods, but not for this lady.
Let me set up the picture for you. The hang glide jump off point is 510 metres high off Pedro Bonita. The landing is on a beach called Praia do Pepino. Elevation is 1,700 feet. Holy sh*t is right. I was granted pick up and drop off service, so the chance to snake out of it evaporated. I avoided thinking about consequences, noting that it was probably good I was exhausted, if I was clear headed I might have bailed. A driver picked up myself and another crazy woman at our respective hostels and drove us to the main office where we met our instructors. I had to sign a slew of forms, probably relieving them of any lawsuits should I plummet to my death. I shook hands with my instructor. I asked for his name, he answered Hans. I said it sounded German. He said yes, but he was made in Brazil. I burst into a smile. Suddenly, I felt more at ease.
Each instructor has their own jeep with a hang glide strapped to the roof. My job was to ride along as my instructor drove up to the launch point. A helper comes along, and his job is to set up the hang glide while the instructor calms down the client.
Dirty traveling secret #2 – okay, I snuck a cigarette. You don’t understand, I really needed it. I started getting cold feet as the jeep tackled the crudely paved road edging closer towards the launch point. Hans started smoking and joked that it helped his nerves before a flight. Oh Hans, hook me up. Hey, if I was going to die why not partake in one last cancer stick before everything goes black. It really did stave off panic. Unfortunately since then, it’s been tempting to partake. I must remain strong.
Once we reached the crest of Pedro, the gravity of what I was about to do slammed me. I watched the helper prepare the hang glide. He set it down on a wooden platform, hooking up large clamps and ropes. When a hang glide is spread out in all its glory, it’s vastly underwhelming. The wings were composed of flimsy rice paper; the bar used for steering mimicked a shower bar that elderly people grasp onto to prevent a fall. I counted on that bar to be my lifeline. Mostly, I prayed the bar would hold me fast and steady. I was baffled at how one steers the contraption. Hans said it’s easy. Wind blows air into the sails while the operator simply pushes the bar left or right. There are heavy duty ropes attached to the back where your feet rest, those also help him steer. It sounded simple, but once you see photos, notice I’m attached to the glide with industrial clamps. That’s it! If a clamp should fail or detach – game over.
He could sense my jangly nerves. Let me emphasize that my fear of heights is deeply rooted. I feel nervous walking on bridges or peering down from a high rise. At varying degrees, I experience vertigo. That’s one of the delights of travel. A traveler is more apt to actively participate in insane endeavours. Stunts that may never happen back home. It’s much cheaper overseas as well. Guess that sounds like a cop out. Obviously, my reasons for doing this are different. Cheap, yeah. Conquer fear? Yes! Hans did his best to comfort me. He told me where to place my hands and asked me to put on the harness. After attaching my torso to the hang glide, he made me do a push up on the platform to prove that I would remain strapped in. Still, my lack of faith in big old clamp remained unwavering.
I took a few deep breaths, reminding myself how I brave I was. Oh lord, the final part of the journey was to come. Hans is at least 6 feet, probably more. The plan was for him to hoist up the hang glide, which was our signal to break into a run and jump off the platform together. I kept worrying that I couldn’t do it, or what would happen if I slipped? Good thing I had that cigarette. He said not to worry, I didn’t have to run fast and to simply keep running NO MATTER WHAT. I’ve watched far too many movies where the hero is trapped on the roof of a building and decides to jump instead of surrender. He never knows what will meet him at the end. There are many unknowns in traveling. I asked Hans why he likes doing this, he recommended I see for myself, then relay my thoughts after.
Hans and I were poised. I asked if he was going to count to three for the run, he confirmed, yes. I gulped more breath, closed my eyes, and when I heard “three”, my eyes shot open. The only reason I didn’t freak out was because my gaze remained dead ahead. I ran like a fat kid after a Smartie and dived off that platform. At this point my adrenaline kicked in. My whole body was suspended in space. I had morphed into a human airplane for eight minutes, everything below me was miniature, but in an airplane all you experience is the visual. With hang gliding, I merged into an organic world, where wind not only kept me airborne it caressed my entire body, and buoyant air sustained my lungs. All my nerve endings tingled with raw sensation. We flew over affluent homes, tiny dots of blue signifying a pool in every backyard. We flew over the crashing ocean and golden beaches. We flew above mountains lush with foliage and exotic wildlife. My eyes grew heavy, fear dissipated into the intoxicating, tropical atmosphere. My body went slack, succumbing to mere existence, and finally – letting go.
The landing was next. My nerves returned. I had to lift my legs like I was sitting in a chair and plant my feet on the beach. Ack! We plummeted closer and closer, my stomach dropped. I squealed at the sensation in my belly as my feet met the soft sand. Then it was over, in a blink.
Hans and I shook hands, that’s when I said, “Now I understand why you do this.” He laughed, a knowing glint in his eye.
It was a little pricey, but a once in a lifetime experience. I have the pics and video to prove it. I leaped into the unknown, and the result was exhilarating.
Two hours later, I maneuvered my bike around a pair of shirtless joggers, steering towards the Ipanema boardwalk. I couldn’t help but wonder, what could be waiting for me around the next corner? Anything could happen, but I was ready.
Hang gliding companies in Rio: