February 10, 2006
A Perfectly Good Airplane: Part III
It was sooner rather than later that I found myself back on a plane to Mexico City, then on to Puerto with a one-way ticket, having spent 2 weeks in the states. Most thought I had lost my marbles somewhere on the beach in Mexico. Well, to their credit, I had. But I had found myself along the way, and I felt free, completely alive, and exceedingly happy to be who I was. So much so that I sold a few possesions, moved my things into storage, busted out a painting job, and off I went to live in Mexico for an undetermined amount of time. My life in the states had to wait; returning to Mexico to work was something I could not pass up.
I arrived in Puerto on an AireCaribe jet. As we landed, I could see the skydivers loading up the Otter in the far corner of the tarmac. I waved frantically, and considered the possibility of running over and going up with the load just to be in the plane again (turns out my friend Tris tried to come over to give me her parachute so I could really have a proper homecoming, but they wouldn't let her cross the tarmac to do so). But, airline procedures wouldn't allow this, so I had to refrain and go through customs, where they promptly confiscated a banana that I had puchased in Mexico City but had not yet eaten. They almost fined me for it; luckily my spanish skills could argue otherwise, and I was spared.
I did feel like I was coming home. All of the divers from Cuautla were in Puerto for Semana Santa, as were plenty of tourists. I went right to work the next day, organizing flights, logistics, rousting tandem instructors to get out of bed in the morning. My job was a little like herding cats (said the gringo pilot Kirk); here was a little gringa telling these guys what to do. I have to admit, I enjoyed it! Deep down, they did as well, although I think they found me annoying at times, having waaay too much energy for the beach in Mexico, where "ahorita" technically means "right now", but can mean anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours from now. I also heard it used to refer to 10 minutes ago. The concept of time just really doesn't exist, so my boundless energy and american effiiciency and work ethic drove them nuts at first; in the end, however, they were grateful to have so many plane loads going up. My first day, we had 12 flights, a new record for Skydive Cuautla in Puerto. Money talks. They really couldn't resist calling me "Sargento" (sargeant) though.
After Semana Santa, the tourists and the skydivers left. Flights were to a minimum, and tandems had to be worked for. Head salesperson Fernando recruited most of them from the beach, mainly women. I did my job, but it was really casual now and I had plenty of time to jump as well. I rented a cabana near the beach from a darling couple named Tacho and Pati. It was cheap, private, and safe.
The skydiver lifestyle is very carefree. The guys live in the moment; they eat, breathe, and sleep skydiving. They live at the drop zone in a trailer, and most have no debts, just spend their money on cameras and parachute rigs. And chelas. Lots of chelas. When a person does something stupid, they buy chelas for all. When you do something for the first time, it's "chelas" again. When something is done well--ah, "chelas". You really can't win! And you learn to stop sharing new experiences, knowing you'll certainly owe chelas. Most of the time its a joke, but they don't complain when you oblige.
Favorite skydiver expressions: "My drinking partner has a skydiving problem"; "When skydiving interferes with your work, it's time to quit your job"; and Tris and I's qualifier for "how you know you've been hanging around Skydive Cuautla for too long": When you are standing on a tall bridge and you say to yourself 'Nope, too low'. Another classic was the guys telling a 6 year girl (jokingly of course) that SHE had to buy chelas after her first tandem jump! (The funny part was, her parents actually bought chelas).
The party oriented lifestyle was new to me, having always been outdoorsy and relatively fit. I enjoyed it for awhile, and managed to maintain a balance by running on the beach nearly every day to La Punta and back, doing yoga, and trying not to drink too many yummy Pina Coladas. The guys went to Cuautla on the weekends; I chose to hang in Puerto with my friend Whitney. Admittedly, I enjoyed the time off, not that my job was really "work" in any sense of the word, but skydiving did seem to monopolize my time a bit. 12 hours of the day were spent in skydiving mode, so the weekends let me go surfing (ie, get my butt worked over on a surfboard) and do other things. I think that the time spent on the beach waiting for the skydivers to return was the first time I really let myself relax. I was still fairly spastic, but I did mange to loaf around more than I ever had before.
By mid-April, it was hot--Africa hot--and we slowed down. The following week, the week of my 30th birthday, the guys didn't come to Puerto, and I was crushed because we had a huge group jump planned with me riding horsey style on someone's back. They had to switch pilots from Skydive Chicago, so had no choice but to wait in Cuautla. There were always mixed feelings about coming to Puerto when the tandem potential was low. They spent a lot of money there, so sometimes it wasn't worth it. But they loved the beach, the girls, and of course, jumping over the ocean. Sea level affords going to higher altitude than they can in Cuautla, which sits at nearly 6000'. The difference is more than 3000' higher, and about 20 seconds more of freefall.
I made my 50th jump near the end of April, and of course, had to buy chelas. I learned to pack a parachute, my friend Pana's (because it was a small canopy, easier to deal with), and I always stood on the ground looking up, waiting to see the green, black, and white canopy to open properly. Pana was always saying "oh,it'll open, relax. You have to tie it in a knot for it not to open"; it was more the issue of HOW it opened, not that it wouldn't. My 20th jump was from a helicopter in Cuautla (yep--chelas again), my most personally satisfying, and terrifying, jump. I love helicopters, and have spent lots of time riding in them fighting fire in Idaho. Jumping from one was amazing. You had to stand out on the struts, and just sort of fall off. So quiet and peaceful, and the closest to feeling like you are falling (not much forward speed from a moving helicopter so less initial resistance). The freefall was short, and you could see other people in freefall relatively closeby (again, less forward speed, jumpers end up closer together). Tonio gave up his spot so I could go, saying to Tris and I that it was an amazing opportunity, as he knew people who had 1000 jumps, and hadn't gotten to do it from a helicopter.
We jumped with Tonio a lot, doing Relative Work (flying with other people, approaching them, hanging onto one another--the basis of multi-diver formations). On our own, Tris and I jumped together and practiced approaching each other in the air. It was challenging, as we were both at the same level at the time. Flying in the air with another person in indescribable. Seeing their face up close and waving goodbye, turning and tracking away from them so you can pull your parachute at the agreed upon altitude (one person a bit higher than the other), then landing near each other on the beach.
As the time neared for the plane to return to Skydive Chicago to begin their season, I began to consider my options. The season in Mexico was winding down; with the loss of the Otter, there would be no more jumping at the beach, and therefore, not a lot of work for me. Tonio said I could help out in Cuautla, but that meant only weekends, and an occasional stint in Cuernavaca recruiting tourists, and in Mexico City helping Hector in the office.
It was a tough decision, as May would be the start of potential work for me at home. I also had an offer from Skydive Chicago to work manifest there for the season. I was really torn, and oscillated between the three options, not wanting to miss out on climbing season back at home, my friends in Mexico, or the opportunity to make tons of jumps in Chicago. I really wanted to do all three.
In the end, after 12, nearly 13, weeks in Mexico, I found myself on another plane. This time, I would be flying home in the Twin Otter, back to Skydive Chicago, where I would potentially work manifest. My friend Whitney and I loaded up in the plane, a road trip of sorts, with Woody the pilot and set off for a two day flight (this is all an entry of it's own) to the US, at 18000' and below.
I spent a few days in Chicago, checking the place out. Completely broke, I had to return to the Gorge and figure out what to do. I had mixed feelings about living in the midwest. The job was only part time, and I wouldn't be able to save a dime for the next year's traveling adventures. I would get to jump to my heart's content, which tempted me. But the thought didn't thrill me; I think that part of the romance lie in where I was jumping: the beach, in Mexico. The spontenaeity and carefree lifestyle, in lawless Mexico where you CAN ride in the back of a truck and walk down the street with a beer in your hand. Somehow, though I knew it could potentially be amazing, jumping over cornfields and living so far away from the west coast just didn't appeal to me. Maybe I wasn't ready to commit to skydiving to that extent ?
Once in the gorge, I pondered my options. I love the mountains, summer, and being active. This is a part of me that I just am not willing to compromise for anything. The reality was, I was ready for a break I think, from the Mexican diet of Pina Coladas and guacamole (holy schmoley!), and from drinking so many chelas. It was fun for awhile, but, like anything else, it lost it's novelty when it became too ordinary.
I can't say there is an end to this story, not yet anyway. I haven't skydived since Mexico. It just hasn't felt right, without the beach, the camaraderie, and the concept of "ahorita".
To say that I'm a skydiver feels wrong to me. I don't do it as a lifestyle, and I don't live it like the real skydivers I know. I can say, however, that there is a skydiver somewhere inside of me, waiting for the right time to emerge, perch herself in the door of a Twin Otter, and jump once again from a perfectly good airplane.
Photos, top to bottom: AFF course graduees; Zicatela Beach from altitude (Photo Daniel "Pana" Angulo); Pana landing on the beach; My 30th birthday in Mexico; 3-way (Photo Pana); Tracking Dive, out the door (Photo Pana); Val and Rifle (Photo Pana)