Fear of Flight

Scared Shitless

Fear and Learning in Himachel Pradesh

NO. That was my first reaction to: “Let’s go paragliding in India.” The trip was a suggestion, not a question or a challenge. NO, No, no, no and no. On so many levels the proposed trip was out of my comfort zone. International travel, a group scene, and the next level up in paragliding. I had ten flights under my belt, all in Revelstoke which is already not an easy place to learn. Our destination, Bir, was a global gathering place for experienced pilots to make xcountry flights, at high elevation. But my answer was: Yes. I spent the next six months in denial.  

Reality is like barbed wire—it can be clean and sharp, rusted and blunt, loose and stretchy, or taut and difficult to see in low light. You can step on it and be boosted over a sticky barrier or drawn further into the tangle with every attempt to escape. We started the six-hour drive to the airport in fresh snow. In the back seat of a packed truck full of men, I surrendered the illusion of control and hoped for the best.

On the upside, I took heart that the crew on this trip was stellar. Amongst the best in the mountain sports and driven by a lust for life that I envied, they were passionate and if not practical, like cats, they always landed on their feet. If a zombie apocalypse was going down, you’d want to be rolling with them. In contrast, my life approach and paragliding ambitions were cautious and ambiguous. I was the most reluctant flier, always taking a good amount of time to set up my wing and commit to the launch. It was not like a duck taking to water. Having buried my head in the sand for six months, I had not given the flying much thought other than surviving. India—the crowds, the smells, the poverty; I had no idea what to expect but knew it would make me uncomfortable. While I had been to nearly every nook and cranny in my native B.C., the rest of the world was a complete unknown.

International travel is a warp zone. Between long hours of captivity, sleep disturbances, missing meals and waking to a stranger’s head on your shoulder, it’s a deep immersion into some of the uncomfortable realities of humanity. Trapped in airports until officially cleared, customs and security set a steel cage around our concept of free agency. Delhi airport—massive, busy, loud, clouded in smog that rolled in through automatic doors. Enter our small mountain of duffle bags and wings, radios, GPS units, and other electronic equipment. Officials shook their heads in the international signal that means, No sir, you cannot take that on the plane—despite the obvious truth that we had already done so in order to be there. The hassle that ensued and its repeat performances during the next four weeks was destined for the post-trip joke roster. Many hours later, we finally arrived in Dharamshala, each with a brick of rupee bills in our money belts, pent-up energy, and only one of us without luggage. Not bad.

“Holy shit.” Someone laughed nervously. We were spread out on the hot tarmac, hands in pockets, taking in strips of blue mountains that made a wall against the sky. The Himalaya take landscapes to the next level. It’s like standing next to The Friendly Giant; you look up, then you look way up. I quickly recalculated the number of days I had to get through: 25.

Garbage, flowers, food, decay, and heat wafted through the van windows en route to Bir. Our driver stopped for cold colas and bidis, the local hand-rolled cigarette. “I am a writer,” I told myself. “This is a storytelling opportunity.” Another way of saying What the fuck am I doing here?

Denial is a powerful drug, but it had outlived its usefulness. I was here to engage. To embrace. Uneasy about either doing something I wasn’t into or not doing anything at all, I braved the insane taxi rides up a mountain road under Indian-style construction. At one point, we got out of the car to run past cascading rocks pushed over the bank by workers on the switchback above. Only to gain the top where hundreds of paragliders crowded together; it was like launching in a stampede. The house thermal was a swarm, house flies circling in (mostly) the same direction. We learned of mid-air collisions, botched landings and also witnessed women in gilded saris floating down to earth with their tandem pilots. Glorious. My strategy was to fly straight out of the mayhem, catching the occasional thermal only by accident. It was beautiful when it wasn’t terrifying. The guys cheered me on, before casually making long-distance flights at 5,000 metres—some for the first time.

The groove soon wore off; I wanted more than a quick sled ride to the valley bottom. More mountain time, more interaction with Indian people. I decided on a five-day trek, hired a guide and at the last minute, my boyfriend decided to come along. He has an appetite for discovery.  We met our guide, Kamal, a small man two-thirds my size, carrying an enormous backpack that turned out to have nothing more than dried beans, rice, an extra sweater, and pressure cooker inside it. He led us over the hills into a distant valley that crept back in time the higher we climbed.  We slept under stone shelters, in fields, shared simple meals with local farmers, cooked over the fire in rooms with no chimney. Nothing was, nor ever will be, more delicious. We met happy, chatty women who came over high mountain passes in their broken plastic shoes, carrying lambs in a shoulder bag. Towering over them, I felt like a giant. Dressed head to toe in Arc’teryx; spoiled, grateful, humbled, and welcome.  

Growth springs from being shown the open ground. Back in Bir, reunited with our group, I felt like one of them. My zombie apocalypse crew, free rolling, with a tumbleweed approach to adventure. During those five days, and in the days yet to come, they had blown into their own metaphorical barbed-wire fences, scaled them, and got to the other side, dusty, bent, adaptable. It inspired the artist in me. The woman. We were a unit. I believe this is known as community.

In the end, India, with its sheep jams, cows grazing on garbage dumps and burning piles of plastic, cleansed me. I was open. On our final evening there we returned to our favourite shanty for the last group meal. In a homemade tandoori oven, the chapati master cooked endless rounds for us, serving the traditional unleavened flatbreads with various dahl on marginally clean tin plates. Like everyone else, I ate with impunity.