18 November 2009

Falling for the First Time

Travel stories wedged into those short four months at sea slowly surface in a variety of forms. When I told the story of skydiving in Cape Town over Table Mountain, I was speaking to a crowd of people at a Toastmaster’s meeting. Here's the speech:

I’m sitting in a plane with the side door wide open, clear goggles squeezing my ears together, engine noise blaring behind me, legs dangling off the side, and heart racing because I’m about to jump! I’m about to free-fall from 10,000 feet.

I'm about to go skydiving.

Some of my friends had dared to dive in Namibia and they raved about what an exhilarating experience it was. Some of my other friends had heard that it was cheap in South Africa. I’d never really even thought about skydiving before… not that it seemed unappealing, it had just never entered my mind.

But now it was all anyone could talk about. It was exhilarating and cheap: sold. I jumped on the bandwagon.

Last week when I researched “skydiving” I found out that it’s more common name is “parachuting.” I also found out that choosing where and when to skydive is a crucial decision that one should consider before they even decide to go. Some companies are not certified and others have higher accident rates, so many articles recommend researching which companies have more experienced instructors. Jumping from thousands of feet can be a dangerous activity and one should make sure he or she is in good hands. The average death due to parachuting is 30 out of every 100,000 jumps.

I definitely missed all those memos.

 In fact, I didn’t even think about the risks or technicalities involved. I was only going to be in Africa for a week and I was going to do something outrageous while I was there. While we sailed on the ship, we were only allotted 2 hours of internet time for the entire semester. Needless to say, I did absolutely no research for my upcoming adventure. I googled “Skydive South Africa” and chose the first link on the list. I opened the website’s contact information page and immediately signed offline so as to avoid using up any extra internet time. I called the number, made reservations, and that was that.

Skydive South Africa is a member of the Parachute Association of South Africa, a governing organization that keeps parachuting companies certified and safe. The organization’s website says that all first-time skydivers are required to sign a safety waiver before they jump. When I arrived at the jump site, a friend taped me signing this waiver in a “Hi Mom and Dad” style video. What I didn’t know at the time was that they should have been there with me. Legally, persons under 21 who skydive in South Africa need written permission from their guardians.

The Parachute Association’s webpage also explains that first timers must take a 6-hour instructional safety class before they even go up in the plane. I think my entire skydiving process- including driving to and from the site—took about half that. The guides strapped me into some coils and carabineers and practically threw me onto that rickety little puddle-jumper. Before I could even blink I was in the air, plane door open, with my instructor in my ear telling me it was time to go.

Most people are slightly scarred, if not terrified, to fall thousands of feet. There is a great deal of fear and anxiety that goes along with this extreme sport, and understandably so. It’s dangerous…especially if you haven’t done your research.

But honestly, I don’t think I would have ever gone if I had to search for the right location with specialized instructors. My experience was intensified because I had limited resources and only a few days to plan. But even if you are home with unlimited internet minutes, I’d say follow your gut and be spontaneous. And not just when it comes to parachuting… we could all use a little impulse here and there.

So back to the airplane. I did a tandem jump, which means that someone attached to your back pulls the parachute for you. Julianne, my instructor, told me to put my arms above my head and let my body fall naturally whenever I was ready. There was no hesitation- I was only going to get nervous if I thought seriously about what I was doing.

I raised my arms… and fell.

For three minutes that felt like 3 seconds my body catapulted across the skyline. Lips flapping and entire body tingling. I don’t think I blinked once. I didn’t breathe. I was screaming out of excitement and the indescribable, overpowering adrenaline flowing throughout every inch of me. It was the most alive I have ever felt.

And I think I am still coming down. 

This article has since been published on the Art of Backpacking website. 

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