Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nepal, Winter 2009, Part 3

I wanted to learn how to fly.

My last trip to learn paragliding was beset by problems with the weather and the site conditions. These will always be challenges no matter where a pilot flies (even in paragliding meccas as vaunted as Annecy, France), but they are especially vexing for student pilots just learning to fly.

I chose to learn how to fly in Nepal as I had heard that weather conditions there were “super consistent”. I was not disappointed. My fellow students and I flew every day of the course after our first maiden flight (excepting the three day strike, bandh as it is called in Nepal).

Frankly, the first day of our course did not start too auspiciously. But first, here's a picture of where we spent the first day of our course: the training hill for ground handling.

The main flying sites in Pokhara is are Sarangkot, a small mountain community. On the first morning, en route to the training hill to learn ground handling, we heard news of a terrible bus crash.

Apparently, an (overloaded) bus had toppled off the highway between Sarangkot and Pokhara. Of about 40 over passengers onboard, one third were killed and the rest seriously injured. And the crash site was right in the middle of most of the paragliding take-off sites.

I heard stories from fellow pilots in Pokhara about mangled bodies and crushed limbs when they rushed over to help. It was not pretty. Our instructor (British), commented that while tragic, these things happen all too often in Nepal because of chronic overloading, old buses with dysfunctional brakes, and any number of bad things that are par for the course in a poor country like Nepal. [Mental note to self: Taking a local bus in a third world country is probably a bad idea, even if you are totally into the whole immerse-yourself-in-the-local-culture experience].

The bus accident started our course on a somber note, but in the days to come, the tragedy receded as we concentrated on learning how to fly.

I met lots of interesting people during my course. My fellow students were a Londoner documentary maker/investment analyst, a Canadian Quebecois Twin Otter pilot for a small commercial airline, a German who was the hotel manager for the Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu, and later on, an Icelandic graphic designer and a French girl (who I never found out did what in her day job).

The first day of flying was momentous. After 2 days of ground handling, we headed to a place called Kahun Danda, where we climbed a 130m tall hill (exhausting when you carry the 20 kg glider and harness up) and took off from near the top.

Nothing truly prepares you for the emotions of your first flight. Your technique may be sound, and the muscle memory may be ingrained, but the emotions that accompany the first launch are incredible. I am sure it is the same for a first-time skydiver or base jumper.

In truth, I didn’t learn paragliding just solely because it seemed tremendously cool and fun. This is going to sound very weird to a lot of people but one important reason why I wanted to learn how to fly was that I felt that I needed to step out of my comfort zone, at least for a while. I felt that I had become too comfortable in my routines, and that I wasn’t taking enough risks in my life. Part of me wondered if I was even still capable of shaking up my life a little. The last time I did that was when I attempted my first marathon, but I have 5 marathons behind me now, the most recent one literally the day before I departed for Nepal.

Completing marathons was no longer a way to challenge myself. It no longer had the call of adventure. Call it a quarter-life crisis or what you will. Middle-aged men take up ballroom dancing; I was a twenty something who felt the need to hurl myself off a cliff, if only to prove something to myself.

OK, philosophizing moment over. Back to the nice touristy pics. =)

Here’s a picture from the Kahun Danda take-off site looking onto the LZ: rice paddy fields after harvest.

I traveled to Nepal for one reason and one reason only. Everything else was peripheral and incidental.

It looks high, but it takes only between two and three minutes to glide down to the LZ.

When it was my turn to launch, I was all excited and got myself ready in the forward take-off position, waiting for the winds to be right, and then I started running forward strongly once my instructor said “Towards me.”

I ran forward, feeling the pull of the risers against the harness as the wing came up over and above me. My heart was pumping hard...then my instructor said “Stop.”

I could feel my heart sinking to the ground as my legs came to a standstill. I could feel the wing above me maintain pressure but it would soon deflate and collapse. Did I do something wrong? Would I ever be able to fly?

Then my instructor shouted “KEEP RUNNING!!!”

My body reacted before my brain did, but by the time I got to the point of being confused why my instructor had changed his mind mid-launch, I was already in the air.

It was a wondrous feeling.

[Later on, my instructor told me that one of the lines in my wing had got tangled up as the glider inflated and came up over my head, which was why he had told me to stop mid-launch. But just as the words left his mouth, the line spontaneously untangled in the wind, and I was good to go.]

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