I cannot stress enough that paying for a paragliding copilot’s license in Rio de Janeiro is the first and last step in obtaining it. My husband, Chad, and I paid the fee and voilà we were licensed paragliding copilots.
The closer we got to the edge, the more I trembled. An inch at a time, I forced one foot to protrude in front of the other over the green carpet that marked the runway. “How close must we get?” I thought. Peering over the cliff, I could barely swallow.
The next step was to sign a form. To me, the agreement said, “Yadda, yadda, yadda,” as it was mostly in Portuguese. Someone had been nice enough to translate into English the part where we assumed complete responsibility and waived all rights to sue over injury or death. After a moment’s hesitation, we both signed away our rights were ready to drive to the jump point.
Our journey up the narrow, winding road to the top of the mountain was almost as exhilarating as the paragliding itself. Our driver whipped around the hairpin curves practically on two wheels, blasting his horn the entire way to warn other vehicles, which astonishingly pulled to the side. We passed speeding cars and overloaded trucks until we made it to the top. A wooden platform accommodated a dual launch post where parasailers hurled themselves over a paragliding runway. Whoosh. Swoosh. Swish. Several experienced para-sailing pilots flew overhead and vanished quickly into the distance.
Our first test for flying competency was to run ahead of the actual pilot, who was strapped behind us. I thought that I’d better prove that I could do this. In the safety of the flight deck, I shifted my legs into bulldog and gave it my all. I lunged my entire body forward. As fast as I could, I ran, dragging the pilot’s weight behind me. “GO, GO, GO,” I screamed at myself. Unfortunately, my over-exuberance only seemed to worry the pilot.
Lips tightly stretched into a frown, he matter-of-factly laid down the law using his practiced English phrases, “If you trip during the run,” he began, “do NOT stop running.” He gave me the most serious look that anyone had ever presented me with. “Also,” he continued, “if you feel yourself being lifted up, do NOT sit down.” He paused to allow these instructions to sink into my brain. Then, he pointed at me almost threateningly with his finger, “You cannot sit down, until we are in the air and I TELL YOU that you can sit down. Keep your body straight and run on the air.”
“Okay,” I agreed, wide-eyed and terrified. I couldn’t picture myself running on air in a way that even remotely seemed safe. But I was going to try. I would follow his rules to a ‘T’ and pray that I did not kill myself.
Once he was sure that he had successfully relayed the gravity of the situation, we advanced down the slope of the mountain to the launch point. The closer we got to the edge, the more I trembled. An inch at a time, I forced one foot to protrude in front of the other over the green carpet that marked the runway. “How close must we get?” I thought. Peering over the cliff, I could barely swallow. Below me was a several-hundred-foot rocky drop that opened into a grassy valley, which was spotted with clusters of houses that eventually met the shimmering ocean miles and miles away.
Every ounce of my energy was concentrated on not panicking. My pilot continued to straighten the chute and cording. I intently watched him for the signal that we were about to follow through with this crazy idea. If I didn’t focus, I was going to collapse into uncontrollable fits of wailing. On the outside, I appeared mildly nervous and was doing a decent job of holding things together. On the inside, however, I was a quivering horrified jello volcano on the brink of an explosive meltdown. I felt the butterflies morphing into ferocious bats within my stomach. My legs were so weak that they could hardly hold me upright. I was so tense that I practically expected my head to pop off.
The pilot connected his rigging to mine, and continued to adjust the lines, giving me ample opportunity to change my mind. At that moment, it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually inquired about their track record in safety. It would be best to clarify this before we jumped.
“How many people have died doing this?” I inquired.
“Excuse me?” he asked, somewhat puzzled.
It was clear that he had not understood the word “died,” so I decided to reword the question.
“Has anyone been killed?” I restated.
“What?” he attempted to decipher my strange vocabulary, obviously confused.
By this time, I was getting a bit flustered myself, but I wasn’t going to give up now—with it being such a relevant question and all.
“Is anyone dead . . . deceased?” I reiterated.
“I’m sorry?” he shook his head.
Gee whiz! He didn’t understand “died,” “killed,” “dead,” or “deceased!” Even now, I find it difficult to believe that this subject remained uncharted territory prior to my visit. You’d think that he’d get asked that sort of thing every day. I wracked my brain trying to figure out how to communicate my concern. It’s funny what the human mind can come up with in a time of dire need. From out of nowhere, I dug deep into my memory and pulled out a word from high school Spanish class.
“El muerto?” I asked.
This literally translated into “the dead,” but I was getting desperate. It’s possible I had heard this phrase in reference to a Mexican holiday many moons ago. Regardless, it was definitely a last-ditch effort in verbal communication, and I hadn’t decided how I was going to pantomime such a question—although it would have probably involved me going limp with my tongue hanging out. Luckily, he understood my Spanish, and we were spared the dramatization.
“Oh,” he grinned, “no, not in the last 30 years.”
“Hum,” I considered, “that’s good.” I weighed his company’s success rate. His assessment was humbly truthful, I further realized, since he had relayed the statistics with a sort of knock-on-wood demeanor.
“Not since I have been doing it,” he added. “But you MUST keep running,” he reminded me sternly.
I hoped that my question had not addled him, so I decided to strengthen his confidence. I looked him square in the eye when I spoke.
“I will keep running,” I promised, “and I will NOT sit until you say so—no matter what happens.” I paused as he had done with me so that the words could be digested. “Do not worry,” I assured him, “I will NOT stop running!” And, I meant every word of it. If one of my legs fell off, so help me, I was going to keep running with the remaining limb and bleeding nub. Nothing was going to stop me from running down that slope once we were set into motion. Nothing.
His eye twinkled with the first glimmer of confidence that I had seen since we had arrived atop the cliff. He really wanted to believe me.
I figured that if he believed that I trusted him enough to relax, he might end the agony and induce takeoff. Sure enough, I had finally won him over. He was convinced that I wasn’t going to pull him over the edge of the mountain like a 200 pound rock. Less than five minutes later, the wind became “right,” and he ordered the descent.
“Run!” he commanded.
I ran. Like my very life depended on it, I ran hard and fast. The adrenaline pumped my legs forward like the steam of a giant locomotive engine. Stomp, thud, umph, I plowed ahead. Faster and faster I accelerated down the terrain until I felt the lift he had described, but I did not sit. I straightened my limbs and ran on the air, as he had instructed. My leg kicked upward and the toe of my shoe almost smacked into my nose. Locking my back, I forced my legs to run on nothing. As we cleared the last patch of earth, I pushed my foot downward and felt a sharp shrub grab my shin and rip my flesh. I did not complain. We had achieved flight!
Everything below appeared exceedingly small. I truly had a bird’s eye view. The lush valley was a verdant ocean with islands of white houses and hotels. The people on the distant beach were no more than specks. The expansive sky and glistening sea flowed as one pallet of illuminated blue on the seamless horizon. I spread my arms wide, sensing the breezy air through my fingers. “It’s nice, yes?” my pilot smiled.
“Yes,” I agreed, “It’s wonderful.”
“You fly like a bird?” he chuckled at my avian pose.
“Like a bird,” I repeated, feeling free and alive. I threw my head back, truly relaxed every muscle in my body, and allowed the wind to blow through my hair under my oversized helmet. “I love this!” I exclaimed. I was flying! Lower and lower we glided toward the beach.
After only a few minutes, it was time to land.
“Extend your legs and dig in with your heels to slow us down,” my pilot instructed.
I was grateful for the landing advice, as we had not discussed this particular aspect. Keeping my legs slightly bent to absorb the impact, I stretched them out in front of me and allowed my feet to drag two distinct trenches into the beach. He followed suit, and in no time at all we had both safely scooted to a halt on our bottoms. The chute fell to Earth behind us on the warm grainy sand.
“You did it!” he whooped.
“Yes,” I asserted.
“You did good!” he testified again in celebration.
I believe that he was more amazed and relieved than I was. Somehow he had thought that I was going to fail him—that this Kentucky chicken would lead to his demise. Well, cock-a-doodle-doo, I pulled through! Even with the stinging nettle casualty, I had overcome my fear and jumped off a mountain. Certainly, that accomplishment put a little strut in my walk.
At that moment, I glimpsed Chad swooping overhead. I wish that I had his spectacular crash on film. I’m not sure what Chad’s pilot told him about landing, but whatever he had said, it hadn’t been in English. Chad assumed that he was supposed to run along the beach, so he sprinted for all he was worth, dragging the bewildered Portuguese-speaking man behind him. I can only imagine what the flight operator was thinking. I’m sure, “Oh my God!” and “Why me?” were sprinkled among a few profanities. Their feet pounded onto the terrain until the forward thrust overwhelmed them. Instead of slowing to a soft slide, the short-lived marathon ended with an exuberant face-first dive into the sand. The pilot, who was still locked in position, piled atop Chad in a grand finale. SQUISH! They came to a sudden uncomfortable-looking stop.
Once they were untangled, Chad and I rushed to meet one another on the walkway. I inspected him for any obvious scrapes or bumps.
“Are you okay?” I inquired.
“Yeah, except for a mouthful of sand,” he joked.
The ride back to our hotel was filled with chatter about our most recent daredevil stunt. As I reflect on the events of that day, I feel proud of my courageous achievement. Faced with my greatest phobia, I was able to overcome my fear of heights, align my concentration, and victoriously attain success. Now, I feel as though I could accomplish anything! It’s funny that running off a cliff would help me find more confidence in daily life, but it has. If I start to doubt myself, I simply imagine the obstacle as a giant mountain and prepare to tackle it full force. Today, I believe that I can reach my goals if I put my mind to it. I’m so glad that I took the leap!
Author: As a lifelong traveler, Laura Stone has trekked across five of the seven continents, with plans of visiting all seven—always nurturing her love of diversity. She has devoted her life to education, art, and cultural exploration. Graduating summa cum laude with a BA from Morehead State University in art and education, she went on to earn a MA in art education at the University of Cincinnati. She has written three travel books previously: I GIVE SEVEN CHICKEN, AMERICANS IN BRAZIL, and CROSSING THE MEDITERRANEAN. (http://www.stone-laura.com/book/author.htm)