Almost two years ago, my friend Seth came and spent a week with me in Rio. It was only a few months before I was planning on leaving Rio and moving back to the US. I took advantage of Seth’s presence to have a few of the adventures I’d been meaning to accomplish, but kept putting off for a better time. One of those adventures was hang-gliding. Hang gliding in Rio is pretty different from the other few places I’d seen hang-gliding done. Instead of relying on thermals to give you a long flight, the hang-gliders of Rio rely on the wind.
The morning I went, we spent some time getting a basic flight lesson down on the beach. We then drove fifteen minutes up the mountainside of the Tijuca National Forest until we reached the launch platform, which rested 1,700 feet plus above sea-level. As I put on my harness and helmet, the instructor gave me a few pieces of advice as we went over the procedure for our flight.
“First of all,” he said, “See that ramp over there that ends abruptly over a 500 foot drop? That’s our take-off point. We will strap in to the glider, and run off the edge as fast as we can.”
“As fast as we can?”
“As fast as we can,” he reiterated. “If we don’t run fast enough, we won’t have enough speed, and we’ll fall.”
That was pretty good incentive for me. After a few practice runs on solid earth, he deemed me ready for flight. We strapped ourselves in, waited our turn in line, and I tried to still the butterflies that jostled and howled to be released from the confines of my stomach.
“Oh, and one more thing,” the instructor casually stated as we were next in line. “Whatever you do, DON’T jump!”
“When we run off the ramp,” he explained, “You’re going to have the temptation to jump off the edge. It’s only natural when faced with a 500 foot vertical drop. But I’m going to need you to NOT jump. Just run as fast as you can, and when you reach the edge of the ramp, keep running and allow your weight to pull you forward. It’ll be ok. Trust me. But you need to remember not to jump, even when every instinct in you tells you that you have to.”
This isn’t what you want to hear moments before you fling yourself off a cliff, no matter what you’re strapped to.
And suddenly, it was our turn. Adrenaline raced, my legs got jittery, and my mouth was dry as I enjoyed that delicious balance of nervousness, fear, and anticipation of doing something incredibly fun: feeling 100% alive. I glanced over at the instructor, grinned up at him, nodded once, and then focused my eyes straight ahead of me. All I could see was the 20 feet of wooden platform built out over what felt like a bottomless abyss, even though I could clearly see the crisp ocean, creamy beaches, the high rises, the jungle, and the jagged rocks far below. I breathed deeply, and listened for my cue.
“GO GO GO!!!” he yelled, and I began to run. I sprinted – ran as fast as I could – hit the edge with my right foot, my left foot flailed and spun for a fraction of a second, and then we dropped. I felt my gut begin to yell at me, screaming “You said we would be flying. But we’re not. We’re FALLING!!!” 10, 20, 30 feet down, speed increasing, and me wondering why we aren’t zooming around like the birds do. I would like to say we dropped like a stone, but in reality, we were a little more aerodynamic than a stone. After dropping about 30 feet, the wings filled with wind, the instructor leaned into the wind, and we began to climb.
Just like that, the fear was gone, replaced with pure exhilaration as we banked, soared, climbed and dipped over the cityscape. A dive or two, a couple spins, and above all the quiet and peace that enveloped me as we floated high above the world. For 15 minutes we laughed and played and my heart danced. We finally pulled in for a landing on the beach, and as we gently touched down (pretty near perfectly, I might add), I realized that the grin that was plastered to my face had left me with a sore face. It was incredible, and I was addicted. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching friends and strangers fly above us, come in for landings, commenting, laughing, and soaking up the joy of being alive.
However, it was easy to look back and forget that one little part – those few seconds at the beginning, when adrenaline and fear and terror tried to overwhelm me and stop me from jumping. And even when I gathered my heart and jumped, those first few seconds sure did not feel like flying. They felt like I was falling.
And as I think about it now, I wonder… Maybe now, when I feel like I am in a state of free-fall, plummeting through the atmosphere, arms and legs thrashing in the wind like a rag doll, that is not the end of the story? Maybe now, when I feel unmoored and uncertain, when I see the ground rushing up before my eyes, when my plans aren’t making quite as much sense as I’d hoped, it’s just because I’m still a child, and to me, falling and flying still seem very much alike?
Praying we all can find the courage to continue to jump with abandon into the arms of the One who has called us to fly, and who has promised to give us wings…