March 12, 2003

any landing you walk away from

Gut-wrenching terror. Repeatedly hurtling towards what seem like inevitable collisions at breakneck speeds. There's only a little consolation in being surrounded by other people doing the same crazy thing. It's hard to think in the fog and confusion, with the ceaseless noise and chaos all around, but only perfect coordination and split-second timing stand between you and certain death. Yes, driving a stick shift through rush-hour Barcelona is not an experience for the faint of heart.

I also went skydiving. That was fun, in retrospect. It was also fun, way fun, wowee-zowee-this-is-amazing-my-God-I'm-flying! fun, at the time. It was less fun in advance. I'd been edgy all week. It's one thing to think of skydiving "gee, that would be fun to do someday." It's quite another to actually go. "Painfully nerve-wracking" would be a best-case description of the first time you sit on an ascending aircraft, knowing in a few short minutes you will throw yourself out of it relying on nothing but the contents of your backpack to save your life. The time spent on the ground, waiting for the plane to land and load, is a time of enormous nervous energy and a very intense, adrenaline-heightened sense of the world.

I did two jumps. The tandem jump was less nerve-wracking, and less fun. On a tandem jump you're just a passenger; it's the instructor that actually launches you out of the airplane, deploys the canopy, and lands you on the ground. On the AFF Level 1* Jump, you're more or less on your own. There's a jumpmaster on either side of you during the free fall, and if you do freeze up they will reach out and deploy the canopy for you, but you probably won't be invited back to Level 2 if that happens (and you probably wouldn't be eager to go either). In any event, once the chute is open, they can't help you with the landing other other than giving you good advice.

It's the landing which is the most dangerous part, which isn't saying much; the nervous tension and fear involved in skydiving is visceral, not intellectual, as various safety advances over the last two decades have turned it into a statistically not really all that dangerous activity. The five minutes before the landing are fantastic. Even a big student canopy like mine was remarkably manoeuverable, turning 360s and 720s on a dime, and high-performance canopies like the Russian national team had (they were practicing at the same drop zone) swoop and plummet like birds of prey. All this from 5000 feet high, the snowcapped Pyrenees to one side and the gleaming blue Mediterranean on the other, demarcated by a perfect coastline arc, on the near side of which were the doll-house buildings and canals of Empuriabrava... glorious, I tell you, glorious.

No, I didn't know there even was such a thing as national skydiving teams either. Live and learn.

Whoops, time running out. Spanish keyboards are _weird_. Anyway, I lived, I loved it, and soon I fly back from the fabulous urban labyrinth of Barcelona to the brooding gloom of London. Further bulletins as events warrant.


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