Gliding Over Rio From Pedra Bonita
Gliding Over Rio From Pedra Bonita
Gliding Over Rio from Pedra Bonita was one of the highlights of my recent trip to South America. There were doubters and haters. They said I wouldn’t do it. I proved them wrong. But make no mistake! I was TERRIFIED!
I credit my tour guide Juan Sanchez for encouraging me to abandon my fear and relish a truly wonderful experience. The evening prior to my flight, Juan lessened my trepidation somewhat. It wasn’t the height that sent shivers down my spine when I entertained the thought of gliding like a bird high above the city. It was the sudden drop I expected to experience after taking off from the ramp. I imagined my insides sinking accompanied by a rolling, roller of a coaster sensation where your organs are tossed up into your frontal lobe. Juan assured, in his experience it wasn’t like that; sneering at my rising anxiety. “It’s so peaceful! Amazing!” He boasted while adjusting his black head band that barely contained a thick, poorly cut, brown mop of hair. “Enjoy the view! You have no choice.” Juan emphasized in a salty tone. “And there is no better place to hang glide than Rio!” I smiled half heartedly. ”Jer gonna lub it!” He grinned.
The next morning I awoke to the sounds, words and images strung together in a heavy metal band release banging in my skull; a rhythm much too early to appreciate. But the mental churning eventually ground to a stop. I felt sick. “Oh God!” I groaned pulling the covers over my head. My mind’s eye caught a glimpse of a flapping bird lighting upon my conscience. All the bravado I expressed the evening before came flooding back. What had I committed to?
My last memory was of Peter, a member of our tour group raising his pint. “If you’re gonna do it. I’ll do it!” He said with a mild Australian accent clinking my cocktail glass. Later, my FB status would lament my foolhardiness in committing to such a daring feat while drinking caipirinha. My pride now unfortified prevented me from backing out! The obligation made me pull the bed clothes a little tighter around me. But I remembered we had a tour booked. “C’mon Eddy! Get up!” I said to my travel buddy! We’re going to see the Baby Jesus!”
Before heading out to see Christ, The Redeemer, the concierge at our hotel called the hang gliding office. She told them four of us wanted to glide. Flights were dependent on ideal wind and weather conditions. The concierge put down the phone. We were to call again at 2 pm. They couldn’t confirm at this time. Between breakfast and 2 pm, I was “having kittens”! My mind conjured every conceivable scenario – the good, the bad, and mostly the ugly. I knew if I didn’t do it I would regret it. The debate in my mind made me feel more unsettled. I looked up at Christ staring down at me with his arms outstretched. His omnipresence emanating. “Please Baby Jesus. Will you catch me if I fall?”
At lunch at our favourite cabana bar on Ipanema Beach my queasiness was further compounded by the greasy basket of calamari. I had inhaled it and chased it with a couple of caipirinha. Eddy eyed me. Her face turned into a grin. “I bet you’re wearing a diaper right about now aren’t you?” She chided. I had been as quiet as a church mouse. I was indulging in the comforting rhythm of each successive wave pounding the shore 500 feet away. The roar of the ocean quelled the sound of my heart beating out of my chest.
The minutes ticked. 2 pm rolled around. When we got back to the hotel, the concierge confirmed a car was picking us up in a half hour. Panic set in. The four of us participating made our excuses to change and meet back in the lobby. Pronto.
We all scurried out of the lobby like sheets of paper suddenly stirred up by a great gust of air. Eddy and I disappeared into the lift to get some funds and drop off a bag. “I could change my mind.” I thought as I ascended. “Icarus flew too close to the sun. Look what happened to him!” I argued with myself. I didn’t want to befall his fate. As I dropped my bag on the bed, I debated whether to bail. My anxiety was melting the wax seal on this hastily made agreement. Back in the elevator, Eddy made bait of my frazzled nerves. “You won’t do it!” Her sentiment nipped like a fish at the unthethered bits of a worm on a hook. But by the time the doors slid open in the lobby, her teasing only strengthened my resolve. I was determined to jump!
A white sedan roared up the street and swung into a parking spot outside the hotel. A middle aged man jumped out. He had a deep, brown tan. His sunglasses were a dark shade under his long, greasy, salt and pepper hair. He exchanged a few words with the doorman on the pavement. The doorman waved to us in the lobby. He hailed a cab for Eddy and Natalie, Peter’s girlfriend to follow us. David, Alex, and Peter got in the car. “Eddy!” She looked over. “What?” “Now you can say you said. Follow that car in Rio!” We both grinned. The engine of the sedan roared to life. I jumped in. We sped off up the street with the taxi in hot pursuit.
The rush hour traffic was starting to build. In an hour, we would be trapped in grid lock. The driver was aware of his mission. He had $300.00 (US) a head in his car. His livelihood depended on him slicing through the congestion. He shifted with all the fury of a race car driver at the Molson Indy. Smoke from his cigarette billowed in huge puffs assaulting our senses. It eventually escaped out the sun roof before choking us. A Ducati motorcycle appeared in a flash beside me. The driver accelerated and wound his way in between cars ahead like a stunt man. His passenger held fast the handles on either side of his seat like a prisoner hand cuffed. They disappeared into the tunnel ahead.
The Driver’s cigarette had burned to a long ash. It finally dropped on his shirt and exploded into fine dust. If he had noticed, he didn’t give any sign. His eyes were transfixed on the road ahead. He shifted again. We sped around a corner onto a tree lined street. He puffed on the remainder of his fag with deep conviction. The smoke screen overwhelmed me. But I didn’t protest. The Driver hit the brakes suddenly. I felt my derrière lifting off the seat. I grabbed the “Holy Shit” handle above my head to avoid landing in David’s lap who rode shot gun. Our Driver gunned the engine taking advantage of a straight away opening up ahead. Motorcycles emerged on either side of the sedan like a horde of brightly coloured locusts keeping pace for a moment before speeding away. We all lurched from side to side to the mad rhythm without word or complaint. This was all part of the experience. “If I live through this.” I thought. “I’m driving a race car!”
Our Driver gained more and more ground. I loved traveling fast in a vehicle. But I questioned whether the transport to Pedra Bonita would prove a more harrowing ordeal than hang gliding. I distracted myself by looking out the window. Hang gliders materialized out of the glare of the sun. They were circling like vultures marking freshly killed carrion. The lush green cover of Pedra Bonita was their back drop. “Look!” I said pointing. “We’re gonna be up there!” Peter’s head turned in my direction. He blanched. I smiled knowingly. “Yes. I know you’re scared.” I thought. “But I gotta do this!” I looked up again. I marveled at the height. “I could do this? Couldn’t I?”
Our vehicle finally swung into a parking spot just off Av. Pref. Mendes de Morais. We all squeezed out the door as if escaping a press. Parking was at a premium at the beach. Car doors paid the price. The taxi screeched to a stop behind us. Eddy and Natalie jumped out. Our Driver spat out the filter of his cigarette and dismissed me with an indifferent wave.
I ran after the guys following them into an office on the boardwalk. I stood waiting to register. I felt I was on a moving sidewalk. My body and mind weren’t in sync. My lingering hangover and the ride made me feel like I was floating disembodied. I could not recall ever traveling in a vehicle on a public road at that speed. It had been glorious and a concern. Rio’s pace was schizophrenic. Relaxed. Electric! Erratic! Passionate! Alive! Rio’s citizens channeled energy with a zeal like no other culture I’ve experienced.
I was awoken from my mental musing by a man with steely blue eyes framed by a ruddy, brown complexion. Everyone was tanned in Rio. I was still a pasty Canadian despite being away for almost three weeks and tanning sessions prior to the trip. I dubbed him – “Old Blue Eyes.” He beckoned me over to a computer to type my name into a standard waiver template. He was agitated. He paced. Time was of the essence. The weather could change. There was
$1200 US standing before him. I wondered if this was his operation? I tried to inquire. He ignored me. There was no time for small talk. His frustration mounted when I was prompted to enter my passport number. “We weren’t told to bring our passports!” He pushed me out of the way. His thick finger jabbing the keys haphazardly punching in a random succession of numbers to over ride the delay in processing the waiver. He pressed send.
We followed him out the door like ducklings not wanting to lose sight of Mother Goose. At a cashier’s window, another man thrust the waiver at me. He pointed to the dotted line to sign. I hesitated wanting to know what I was signing. He snapped his fingers. “Oh screw it!” The man behind the glass stabbed the crisp white waiver smudging the ink. “What would the legalities matter anyway?” I thought. I signed. He opened his palm. I paid him the 40 Real. “Don’t you want the rest of it?” “Old Blue Eyes” nudged me out of the way. “Later! Later!”
My three Compadres and I jumped into another sedan. ”Old Blue Eyes” gunned the engine. We took off on a paved road up Pedra Bonita. Trucks, cars, people, and animals on two or four legs appeared suddenly popping up like foes in a video game. “Old Blue Eyes” expertly zipped and looped around these obstacles with one palm on the wheel. I was convinced this was the equivalent of a Sunday drive for him. But his mettle was tested when he had to swerve to miss a man who was crossing the street and had misjudged the speed of our vehicle. “Old Blue Eyes” shifted like a mad man! So forcefully, I thought he was going to tear the gear shift from its housing. We climbed higher and higher.
The boys were quiet. Alone in their thoughts. Alex was typing into his phone. I wondered if it was his last Will and Testament. I looked up hoping to see more of the hang gliders soaring. But I lost sight of them under the canopy of trees now encroaching the road. Our incline increased sharply. The engine lugged. “We must be nearing the top?” I thought. The motor recovered groaning in a lower gear. We leveled off. ”Old Blue Eyes” applied the brakes suddenly. He wrenched the hand brake. The wheels had stopped turning now fixed to the slightly damp mud. The carriage lurched forward and I hit the passenger seat face first. I rubbed my nose. “Nope. Not broken!” “Let’s go!” “Old Blue Eyes” commanded. The doors swung open simultaneously. We followed him up a set of wooden stairs cut into an earthen bank.
Hurry Up and Wait!
After we climbed the stairs, a wide path opened up with a forest bordering. I had hid my fear rather well to this point. But with each step I took, my legs became more and more leaden. I felt like I was marching to meet my Maker. My pace slowed. The air closed in. I chewed my gum vigorously. An effort to moisten the dryness in my throat. A hut marked the end of the path. I imagined their was a platform beyond it. My executioner hovering in the shadow of a guillotine with his crow eyes; black and gleaming.
The hut turned out to be a bathroom. Off to one side by the trees, a grotto sparkled, back lit by an electric bulb. During the agonizing 45 minute wait, I would witness Pilots and patrons kneel, pray, and cross themselves before taking flight. I debated whether to increase my odds of survival by paying homage to the saint. But I had already paid my respects to the “Baby Jesus” earlier in the day. I thought I was covered.
Hurry up and wait was an expression I had learned in the film business. The Director gives an order. It trickles down and stirs the crew to execute the order. The Director then changes the shot. The order is rescinded. The crew is highly motivated one minute and paralyzed the next. I recognized the cycle of being “on alert.” The peace around me was an anti climax to the mad dash from our hotel to the platform. A gentle breeze blew stirring the birds in the trees around me. They chirped and squawked in protest.
I leaned on the fence overlooking the ramp. Underneath was an observation platform. It was a perfect place to photograph gliders launching. Beyond was a wonderful vista of small black islands floating in a turquoise soup. The sun peaking out from behind a cloud periodically. I guessed Eddy was on the beach drinking caipirinhas. I envied her. She had a fantastic front row seat overlooking the beach and the ocean. I chewed my gum harder. The minty favour had long been savoured. I finished off the last of my water. It would be my last drink. My nervousness increased my need to eliminate frequently. I tried to swallow my gum. But my throat had closed somewhat due to my rising anxiety.
A man appeared. He slapped a helmet on Peter and made him step into his harness. The instruction about the launch commenced along with the safety inspection. Peter and his pilot were on the ramp. We called out to him. “Old Blue Eyes” told us to not talk to him. We were a distraction. We obliged. Peter’s Pilot started to run. Peter’s legs were like boneless strips of flesh. Peter couldn’t keep up with his Pilot and lagged a couple paces behind. As the glider got to the edge of the ramp, Peter’s toes dragged and dropped off the platform while his Pilot cycled his legs in the air. Peter dropped like a stone in his harness as they took flight. He yelped. We laughed. His legs hung down waving slightly like slippery strands of spaghetti escaping a ladle. The glider got a gust and lifted. His Pilot settled his toes in to the sling. His legs stretching out behind him. We whooped and yelled well wishes from the platform.
Finally – It’s My Turn
Alex and David’s takeoffs were smooth and uneventful. I knew they wouldn’t have any reservations. They had been pumped all day.
After David had taken off. The assembly area for gliders was pretty quiet. I gnashed my gum trying to keep calm. Then all of sudden, Pilots and patrons came in a wave up the steps intermingled with gliders wrapped like bodies in shrouds. The pilots assembled their gliders and lined them up one by one. A man with a pork pie hat jammed a helmet on my head. I stepped into a harness. He adjusted the straps and wrenched them tight. The zipper on the pocket of the harness was broken so he took my wallet for safe keeping.
My Pilot, Miguel grabbed my arm pulling me around. We began our safety and takeoff orientation. I was to rest my arm and hand lightly on his shoulder. He told me not to grab. “Just relax.” He said. “We have a good flight!” He soothed. “Never touch the glider. You put your left hand on your waist.” It felt uncomfortable but I listened intently. Miguel had my life in his hands. We did three practice take off runs. I was to run in tandem with him. “Don’t stop when you get to the edge. Keep running.” He said.
We were up next. I gnashed the gum. I tried to swallow. But my throat had constricted to a sliver of an opening. I tried to take deep breaths to keep me from shaking but to no avail. We walked together after being hooked into the glider. We laid down side by side suspended a foot off the ground while the inspector checked the harness and guy wires. We were good to go.
We walked down the ramp. Rio and the ocean opened up before us. I started to look down. “Holy Crap! We are high up!” “Julian!” He called. “Don’t look down when we run!” I took some more deep breaths. “Ok. Ok.” “Look at those islands. Pick a spot.” He said pointing. I forced myself to look out. I shook like a wet dog. “Ok. We are ready! On three.” “Ok.” I stammered. “One. Two. Three.” I started to run on 2 1/2. In fact I was running faster than he was. I wasn’t going to mess this up! Too much at stake.
When I went running out into space and transfixed on those islands, my life did not flash before my eyes. I remember a question and one statement as I left the safety of the platform. What did I want to do next? And…. “Don’t choke on your gum!”
I got over the initial shock of jumping off a mountain very quickly. Juan had been right about the spectacular scenery! The variance in topographical features was breath taking. From the ocean to the lagoons to the harbour dotted with sail boats to a favela’s shadow falling across the manicured fairways of a golf course. Mountains; torpedo shaped emerged as if suddenly pierced through the red iron oxide soil. The volcanic rock lashed with green jungle vines and trees with roots like dried octopus tentacles; embedded and resolute. Blinding rays emitted from a blazing sun bounced off boldly coloured murals painted on every available concrete facade. These public expressions emoted so much passion. I felt it aloft. I understood the sub text. Life was indeed a struggle for the majority of Rio’s citizens. And the bird’s eye view emphasized all of its extremes; social and economic. It’s beauty and ugliness.
The flight seemed so short. I felt like the lightest being. I now know what it is like to fly like a bird. There is nothing more wonderful and terrifying than being upheld by the grace and mercy of an air stream. Miguel reached around and unhooked my leg harness. We were coming in for a landing. We had banked across the ocean. Our runway was the beach below. “Run, run when we land.” Miguel said over and over. A few times during the flight I had tried to hold on to the steering bar. He had smacked my hand away. He awoke me again as I unconsciously held the bar.
The beach was coming up fast. Too fast. It gave me a head rush. I could see Eddy sitting on the shore wall snapping pictures of me. I smiled. I prayed I wouldn’t have to visit a health care facility after this landing. I instinctively drew up my legs. “I don’t have any more sick time. That’s all I need is a broken leg!” The ground was zooming towards me at warp speed. I could hear the ocean waves crashing on the shore. A whistle of air screamed viciously in my ears. Miguel was yelling. “Run, run!” The ground was underfoot. I ran. My adrenaline was pure octane. I outpaced him 20 to 1. Miguel stumbled slightly. But we came to a stop linked together. Our postures a mirror image. One foot in front and the other crossed behind. My right arm gently resting on his shoulder. We were like a couple of figure skaters poised at the start of a performance.
Eddy came rushing down the stone jetty with a caipirinha. I was sucking it back before the guy wires were unhooked. I felt amazing. I was leaping out of my skin. I hugged Miguel. “Thank you so much!” I was elated. “You are welcome. Excellent takeoff. Excellent landing.” “Thank you!” “It was me. The landing was not good. My fault!” I ran up the jetty to join the rest of the group. I have never felt so good. I couldn’t sit down. I wanted to bottle the energy I was feeling. And take it with me to release it when I needed a boost. I felt so carefree. “Old Blue Eyes” came over looking for the fee. I handed him the money thanking him. He beamed. He understood what I was feeling. I’m sure he had taken many flights. But he knew.
On the drive back to our hotel, there was no conversation. There didn’t need to be. The super human power that had consumed me was now diminished. I was truly spent. We were in gridlock traffic. Packed in between trucks and cars inching forward closer to our hotel. I settled in and relaxed. Juan hadn’t prepared me for the elation and freedom I would feel. I had been more focused on fear. Every nerve and cell had been awakened as if from a long sleep. A kind of liberation you’re supposed to feel when you are 50. I never felt like this on my trek on the Inka Trail to Macchu Picchu on my 50th. Jumping off Pedra Bonita was the most freeing experience I have ever had. I took a literal leap of faith. I was TERRIFIED but I did it anyway. I followed Juan’s advice. I enjoyed the view! I had no choice.
Gliding Over Pedra Bonita Part One
Gliding Over Rio Pedra Bonita Part Two