On our final full day in Medellin, we met the car and the driver at the trendy El Poblado neighborhood, as scheduled. We got there early enough to eat breakfast and for Victor to buy a few bags of coffee beans at Pergamino Coffee Shop. As we climbed into the back seat, the aroma of coffee from our backpack permeated the air.
“It is just us today?” Victor asked.
The driver shook his head.
“Plenty of people today,” he squinted at the sky, “Good weather.”
We drove into the hills.
As the road twisted and curved higher and higher, I watched Medellin spread out in the valley below, sparkling in the morning sun. Finally, after 40 minutes, we arrived at a small clearing with a parking lot, a convenience shop, and a restaurant.
“Head up there,” our driver said, pointing at a small path in the woods, leading higher up the mountain. We started climbing.
“What was that?” Victor asked, a bit alarmed. We stopped and listened.
Someone on top of the mountain was screaming at the top of their lungs.
“This was all your idea!” I said, “Too late to turn back now.”
Victor has had his share of insane travel ideas. Best way to see coffee plantations in El Salvador? Zipline above them, of course! Looking to discover the jungles of Vietnam? Get on the back of motorbikes with strangers we just met! Want to explore Mexican cuisine beyond tacos and burritos? Crickets and grubs on a platter! Interested in a volcano? Camp on top of one! Are all destinations too touristy? Let’s go to Iran! (That one hasn’t happened yet. But he is talking about it incessantly.)
So, when he said, “Let’s go paragliding over Medellin!” I was just relieved that we weren’t camel racing in Chad.
Soon the forest cleared up and we had a direct view above the tree canopy. Colorful paragliding parachutes dotted the dazzling bright skies above us, soaring, spinning, rising, and falling with the wind. I stared up, holding my breath. It was incomprehensible to me at that moment that I would be up there, in the sky, with nothing to anchor me to earth, with nothing to support me except a quivering parachute.
On the very top, we were greeted by a paragliding instructor who, to my infinite relief, seemed to have a decent grasp of English. My biggest fear at the moment, except falling out of the skies, of course, was not understanding the instructions and thus screwing up the ascent or the landing. We were asked to wait twenty minutes and so we did, chatting with other tourists and trading stories while watching parachutes floating above us. I was surprised that there was no introductory lecture or video or even written instructions but figured that my instructor will tell me everything I need to know while strapping on my equipment.
Finally, it was our turn. I was given a helmet and a GoPro on a pole, strapped into a tandem paragliding harness with the instructor behind me, and the parachute was stretched out on the grass. I was looking sideways, trying to see if I could spot Victor being outfitted and possibly snap a picture when the instructor behind me started yelling.
I snapped my attention back just in time for him to bellow “RUN!” into my ear.
Run? Now? Where? How? Are these all the instructions I am going to get?
I started running. Well, I wanted to start running, but the parachute behind me inflated with a sudden gust of wind and I landed on my rear with a heavy thump on the ground. Multiple people rushed towards me to hold me down, as I slid backward on the grass, a half-inflated parachute dragging me along. I was grabbed, pushed back up into a standing position and the parachute fabric rearranged again.
“I am sorry…” I gasped.
“No problem!” the instructor said casually, and then with sudden ferocity, “RUN!”
I ran. I ran exactly two steps when my feet abruptly lost contact with the ground and I found myself, quite unexpectedly, in a sitting position inside my harness. I didn’t have to arrange myself or worry about any straps or my position within the paragliding pod, I was simply running and then flying. No instructions necessary.
As we soared off the cliff, Medellin stretched out below me in the valley, houses climbing up into the steep hills surrounding the lowlands. Twenty years ago, I skydived exactly once, and will never forget the violent rush of air beating against my face and body, inflating my cheeks, making it hard to breathe and think. Paragliding, in comparison, felt like being suspended in warm, still air. I gaped at the gorgeous landscape underneath my feet – the colorful houses of the glittering city, the wooded mountains, the rolling vale sheltering under rugged hills, and it felt as if I was not really there, as if I was watching a movie as if this was just a dream.
A large reddish hawk swooped down and glided right next to my parachute. He was flying at the same speed and velocity as me, his wings stretched out and motionless in the wind current, following the same path curving around a mountain. And suddenly I became overwhelmed by one singular thought.
I was flying.
I WAS FLYING.
I was gliding through the air, flying like a bird, soaring in the sky. As a child, this is the superpower I wanted, so much of my school time was spent daydreaming about swimming through the air, rising above buildings, plunging and twirling towards the ground, only to suddenly swoop up again. I had long forgotten these childhood fancies and now, high in the sky cruising next to a hawk, all my memories and dreams came rushing back.
I started crying. I’d like to say that I slightly teared up, overcome by the emotion of the moment, but GoPro footage later revealed the uncomfortable truth that I ugly cried for a full minute while trying to hide my face from the instructor, so he wouldn’t think that I was scared or uncomfortable and cut the paragliding short.
I finally got a hold of myself, just as the air around me got colder and colder and the wind stronger. We were ascending higher, rising into the wispy clouds, as the ground underneath me fell further and further away. At the highest peak, I was freezing and couldn’t see the ground well through the mist of the clouds, and still didn’t want this experience to end. If I could, I would have stayed up there forever.
As our twenty minutes were almost up, I spotted Victor’s parachute circling in the air below me. He was in a tight spin, sides of the parachute flapping, spiraling swiftly towards the ground. As I received absolutely no instructions about paragliding except “RUN!” and had no idea what to expect, I had to settle on two most likely theories of what was happening right in front of my eyes.
Either this was a normal way to descend prior to landing or Victor was about to die.
Later, on the ground, I told Victor that neither theory was exactly comforting.
“On one hand, I didn’t want to plan a funeral. On the other hand, I really didn’t want to be next to spin toward the ground like that. It was really a toss-up as to what I would have preferred.”
Victor was not amused.
Strangely enough, watching another parachute plunge down was a lot scarier than performing the descent. It didn’t feel abrupt or disorienting, still mostly felt like floating, but with the ground rapidly approaching beneath.
As we got closer to the landing field, my instructor gave me the second and last line of instructions, “Feet up!” I raised my feet, and we swooped down towards the ground, while multiple ground crew rushed towards us to grab and detach us from the parachute.
As swiftly as it began, it was over.
My legs felt weak, and the ground felt strange, almost unfamiliar.
“I prefer paragliding,” I told Victor.
“To?” he asked, “Zip lining? Skydiving?”
“Walking,” I said.
And I meant it.