December 19, 2006

Feeling Froggy? Jump!

Crouched in the door of the Twin Otter, waiting for the signal to jump, I see Zicatela Beach 15,000 feet below me, patiently awaiting my return. In just six short minutes, I'll set myself down softly on the hot white sand.

The yellow light comes on: “Door!” a chorus of voices shout in unison. We roll it open, and the rush of air almost sends me backwards. We check our spot, tentatively hanging out the door, fingers clasping the bar running horizontally above the doorway, and looking down at the beach, hearing nothing over the whine of the turbines and screaming wind.

Green light: “Go!” the same choir sings from the front of the plane. An instructor grins and gives us the thumbs up, refraining this time from just pushing us out the door because he knows we are working on exiting together. With very few jumps—around 100 apiece—we are definitely amateurs. I silently thank him for letting us leave at our own pace.

Facing each other, I wait for the signal from Jeanne. My eyes never leaving hers, I read her lips as she screams “Ready, Set, Go”. My timing is critical here: if I don’t leave at the same time as she does, we will separate and probably never see each other again in freefall.

We are out the door on the word go, amazingly in sync. She is holding on to my chest strap, and I am screaming in disbelief that we did not separate while exiting the plane. Grinning from ear to ear, we slowly spin then correct it, flying closely, on our bellies, faces two inches apart. Altimeter check: 12,000 feet above sea level. She lets go of my chest strap, and finds my elbows.

Moving at a speed of 120 mph in freefall, we are flying. The air is our medium, a substance not unlike water: flowing, conforming, and moving. It is alive, and we move through it. Dancing in the air, it can be as graceful as the most beautiful ballet. Movement is choreographed, rehearsed on the ground then performed in the air. There is no time to think, as the seconds fly by. You have to permit your body to move, to react and let muscle memory guide you in your routine. We separate, and then find each other again, working on trying to stay on the same level while trying not to spin, not to slide backwards. It is about control, but also very much about letting go. Relaxing, letting the air do the work. A metaphor for life, skydiving is about maintaining some control in an out of control situation: falling from a plane 2.5 miles above the ground. You have to be in control, and first and foremost, be responsible for yourself, yet aware enough to work with others in the air as the earth rushes toward you.

It is also about living in the moment. Nothing exists when you are in freefall, only you, your partner and the jump you planned to do. It is somewhat like a form of meditation. Your mind is free, because it has to be. Your body knows what it needs to do, because you are following the routine decided upon before you even put the parachute on your back. It is this surrender to muscle memory and a free mind that allows your body to submit and follow the path of least resistance. And it is amazingly easy, uncomplicated and uncluttered by too much mind. Without the worry of trivial, everyday things, like wondering what you’ll have for lunch or fretting over some foot-in-the-mouth moment you recently had. It is a true test of keeping it real.

We didn't practice the kiss on the ground. Around 7,000 feet, Jeanne leans over and gives me a kiss on the cheek. I laughed out loud, but surely she couldn't hear me. Or maybe she did.

At 5,500 feet—just under one minute of freefall—we wave goodbye, and turn in opposite directions to track away. Six seconds of flying like superman, me toward the land, she toward the sea. Fast and flat, straight legs and strong arms, my track was good this time and I covered some distance. I slow down, stabilize, then look around, wave off and then pull my parachute, flinging the pilot chute far and wide. As though my life depended on it: Because it did.

Then I arch, hard, with all my might, feeling like that if it weren’t for the bulky parachute covering my back, I could fold in half and break in two. I wait for the speed to change dramatically; wait to hear the delicious telltale 'swoosh' of the fabric as the cells of the canopy inflated, and then feel myself swing side to side as the parachute opened completely. I wait for 3 seconds, and then look up to see my opening. All clear—no twisted lines, no lines where they shouldn’t be, all nine cells inflated properly—so I reach for my steering toggles, release them and brake, pulling the lines down to my waist. I feel a slight lift; I am in a stall, the result of a full brake. Releasing them, the parachute dives down, the closest thing to falling that I’ll feel the entire skydive.

Full speed ahead, the canopy flies forward. Flying over the water, then over the town, looking down on cars and houses that grow bigger by the second, I can see everything literally from a bird’s eye view, yet somehow I always feel completely alone up there. No one can hear you, and the silence can be deafening. Sometimes I scream, hoot and holler, partly out of sheer exhilaration, and partly because it is a voice no one can hear and I like how it feels.

I am not yet that comfortable flying my parachute; with time and more jumps, a confidence will develop and I will become more adventurous. For now, I observe. I look around. I look at beautiful Mexico, I watch the surfers below me on the Mexican Pipeline, surfboards bright white and glistening in the midday sun. I see the Mexican flag—our larger than life wind sock—flying over Puerto Escondido, waving proudly in the coastal breeze.

I watch my canopy flying above me. The intricacies of a very precise but delicate system fascinate me: How this nearly transparent nylon and these thin strings can hold me up 3500' above the earth astonishes me. I am forever humble and respectful of this equipment. It saves my life every time I jump. Literally.

At 500' I turn and fly along the beach. I am over the rocks on the north end of the beach.. Everything from this altitude looks close, but in reality there is time. A little more precious time in the air to look at the people on the beach, watching us land our parachutes. I choose a spot near the water's edge. The sand here is cooler, wet from the receding tide. I see a group of people nearby, watching me, cameras pointing in my direction. In my periphery, the water blurs past, palapas, beach chairs, tourists follow. But it doesn't feel faster: time has slowed down, and I am focused on one spot right past a red flag stuck in the sand. In this moment, all that exists is that placet: I will get there, right where I want. Dead center.

Ten feet or so from the ground, I start braking, with both hands, starting slowly, then bringing them all the way down to my waist. I touch down, right foot first, soft as a feather in the forgiving sand. The left follows, my canopy falling behind, carried by the breeze. It falls to the beach, and let out my customary 'woo-hoo!’ The jump is over, but the feeling will last for hours, if not a lifetime.

Jeanne is waving at me, and I am jumping up and down, out of excitement for our jump together, and to ease the sting of the scorching sand. I am purely and utterly elated because it was successful, and completely amazed that I had just flung myself out of the door of an airplane three miles above the earth. That I had someone to share it with is the icing on an already delicious cake; someone who is living in exactly the same moment I am, without a doubt understanding it the same way I do.

We meet each other on the beach, canopies in hand, and enormous grins swallowing our faces. A big hug and a knowing glance later, we are planning our next jump, eagerly anticipating the next time we get to roll the door open, leap out of the plane and fly high above the earth, seeing Mexico—and everything else—from a fresh perspective. Knowing that, like every moment of every day, the next jump will be different, and better than the last.