February 9, 2006

A Perfectly Good Airplane

Thinking about what I was doing last year at this time, I realized that today is the one year anniversary of my first tandem skydive. Had this been a one time deal, I might not remember it so clearly, so vividly, nor would the nostalgia be so powerful and consuming. The story goes like this (get comfortable, it isn't a short one, and I am verbose!):
I went to Mexico last year for a 3 week vacation in February. Wanting to learn to surf, I made my way from Mexico City to Puerto Escondido via the Pacific Coast. I immediately fell in love with Puerto Escondido, a surf town with a gigantic beach and a great vibe. Staying in one of the beach hostels, I met a couple of Canadians, Simon and Lylas, and enjoyed spending some time with the two of them, learning to surf and slurping coco locos on the beach. The third day I was there, the skydivers showed up, literally falling from the sky, landing on the hot sand, then setting up their tent in front of the biggest hotel on the beach, The Arcoiris. From here, they recruited travelers to join them for a tandem dive from 15000', over the beach and ocean. Simon was a diver himself, with some 30 jumps under his belt, so he was more than keen to go on his own, and was also intent on recruiting everyone in our hostel to do a tandem. My immediate response was "No way in hell am I jumping from a perfectly good airplane!", and I stuck to my guns. Eventually, most of the hostel had gone and raved about it. After 2 days of watching the divers land on the beach, at sunset, there were only 3 holdouts, Lylas, and British girl called Bella, and me. I was still pretty adament about my position, and the cost of going, but Simon kept at it...and finally, I cracked. My logic was that I was in Mexico, at the beach, and if there ever were a time to do it, it was now. I also thought about my brother, a smokejumper for the US Forest Service, and how he jumps out of the same type of plane, a twin otter. Maybe I would gain some insight into his motivation for doing such a crazy job.
The ride to the airport was completely insane! There were about 15 of us piled into the back of the truck, which raced through town at breakneck speeds, weaving in and out of cars and buses. In hindsight, that was way scarier than jumping out of the door of a plane! Once at the airport, I teamed up with Fernando, a loco Argentinian with wild hair, spanish I could barely understand, and an incredibly warm heart. I suited up in my harness, and we did a 'dirt dive' for practice, with me attached to his harness. He explained the procedure of leaving the plane, and told me what to do with my legs and arms, as well as what to expect once in freefall, and when landing. Honestly, I was terrified! I was sure that I was going to feel like I was falling, my stomache up in my throat, like falling off of something in a dream--that feeling.
Once in the plane, we all cheered at the take-off and enjoyed the view of Puerto Escondido from the air. Feeling nervous, I told myself 'hey, chill out. This dude doesn't want to die, it's going to be fine'. Of course, I was still a wreck, but it was consoling nonetheless.
Unfortunately, we were the last ones out the door, which meant I had to watch everyone else jump out of the plane ahead of me. When we took our position in the door, wind so loud I could barely hear him say 'ready, set, go', I instantly closed my eyes and hoped for the best. As we left the plane, expecting to fall, I opened my eyes in astonishment, realizing that it wasn't falling at all--it was flying! The resistance from the wind of the plane, and reaching terminal velocity, created a feeling of drag, like the air was thick, and movements of your body could cut through it, causing you to turn, and move about like I never imagined possible. My stomach was not in my throat, and there had to have been a ridiculous grin on my face, even though looking at the ground from 15000' feet in the air, over the ocean. Fernando had us spinning in circles so fast I was almost dizzy! The thought of playing around like that moving at about 100 mph or so seemed impossible to me, but we were doing it, and it was awesome!
Once Fernando pulled the chute, around 6000' or one minute of freefall, it was quiet again, and I am pretty sure I let out a big 'woo-hoo'. It was so peaceful to just loaf around up there in this huge lofty parachute, which was controlled by pulling right or left toggle to go right or left respectively. It took about 5 minutes to descend to the landing area on the beach. I wasn't scared anymore, and was pretty devastated that it was over already. Once Fernando put us effortlessly on the ground, I was all smiles, and we posed for the photo above. Tonio, the owner and passionate diver, came over, looked me in the eye and knew I was, for lack of a better word, screwed. He said to me in perfect english: "You are going again, aren't you?"; I'm pretty sure he could see it in my eyes, a glint that not everyone has after jumping from a perfectly good airplane.

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