I’m at 10,000 feet and the only thing separating the ocean from the sky is a few clouds.
It’s amazing how clear everything is up here. A world of blue, every shade but all the same. I can see the beach, where five of my closest friends are waiting for me, and where the water meets the land. I can see the ocean floor there, but soon the water is too deep and too dark, endless. I strain to find the horizon, but it doesn’t exist.
As I sit on the floor behind the pilot of the wide-bodied Cessna, I silently recall how I got here. Even if I wanted to share my tale, the instructor and photographer are asleep beside me. It’s funny to me that they can sleep so easily, but not so strange because I too feel eerily at peace. I’m amazed at how calm I am. I retrace my steps and relive the conversations I’ve had over the past week. That’s it, one week’s preparation before jumping out of a perfectly good airplane for the first time.
The idea for skydiving actually came up about two weeks before my vacation in Cancun. A fellow colleague and 450-time jumper pitched an article on the behind-the-scenes of the extreme sport for a magazine we were working on. It was just too bad it was January and far too cold for anyone to go up. Well, since I had always wanted to do it and was going to Cancun anyway, why not make the most of my trip? So, the seed was planted, but I’m not going to lie, I didn’t actually believe it would happen.
I had my first ever panic attack on a Friday. It was two days before I left for Cancun and the day skydiving became a definite. I got to the newsroom early, around 8:30, checked out the Skydive Playa website and sent an email to inquire about reservations. I still didn’t have my passport so I kept calling to find out if it was in but the line was perpetually busy. The skydiving place emailed back within the hour, it would cost $239 USD for the jump and $99 USD for the photos. Still couldn’t get through to Passport Canada. I was leaving in less than two days and the only thing that was for sure was that I didn’t have the money to be doing this. So, I was not exactly mentally stable at the time. I kept thinking I’ll relax when I get there, it will be worth it; skydiving will be worth it. I had always wanted to do it, and now I was going to do it over a beautiful beach where the sand is white and the ocean is clear blue. Nothing bad can happen in a place like that. What better way to experience something so exhilarating? And by exhilarating I mean crazy. What was I thinking? Lots of bad could happen.
I sat down with my colleague to talk about the risks and nonchalantly scanned her limbs and looked for any sign of permanent disability. Everything seemed to be intact and there was no hint of a limp or disfigurement. Good start. She told me that in 2005, only one Canadian in 150,000 jumpers died. Worldwide the odds were one in 100,000. I like those odds. She talked highly of her career as a skydiver. In nearly 10 years and 450 jumps, only once did she seriously hurt herself – she sprained both ankles and one knee on landing. Since I would be jumping tandem, her best advice to me was to get my feet up when landing, the instructor would take care of the rest.
As for ignorant first-time jumper worries, she told me to wear sensible running shoes, shorts and a tank-top, something long that could be tucked in. A suit would be too hot. I would be geared up in a harness and provided with goggles and maybe a soft helmet, called a frap hat. Remember Natalie Portman in Garden State?
Feeling a bit better, I said my goodbyes, I mean my see you laters. I headed down to the passport office and just hoped for the best. No hassle, no waiting, straight to the front of the line and my passport was in. Feeling even better. I was still shaking though, that had been going on all day. I even noticed that while talking to my magazine adviser that morning, I was swaying from side to side. And not a gentle sway, more like the jerking of a strung out, drug-deprived addict. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I recognized my jerky composure, stopped myself, and realized a minute later that I was doing it again. When I left the newsroom, I drove with extra care. My mind was racing. What if I don’t get my passport on time? What if I do? Will I have to skydive? What if the parachute doesn’t open or the plane crashes? I hate what ifs. Would the Mexican government conspire against me, an innocent Canadian tourist? They could sabotage my chute, then write my death off as an accident. Paranoia is a crazy thing.
I got off the highway. Chapter’s was the perfect diversion. I walked into the giant bookstore, my safe haven, and randomly picked an aisle. When I looked up, I was standing in front of Jack Kerouac’s section. Kerouac wrote of love and adventure while experiencing life and emotions fully. He also traveled to Mexico regularly. It was a sign. The shaking stopped. I could do this.
Once in Cancun, settled in and nicely buzzed, I called Skydive Playa and confirmed my Wednesday reservation. I would be training at noon.
Training, ha. The whole thing took five minutes. A quick walk through of a perfect jump from a hole in the wall posing as the door of a plane, while my friends watched in disbelief. The plane would climb for about 25 minutes to get to 10,000 feet. At 8,000 feet, the instructor would strap me to him; then we would wait by the door until the plane levelled off. I would take the first step out, onto the wheel rail, with my right foot. Then I would step out completely, holding only my harness at chest level, since the instructor would be attached to me and holding onto the door. He would follow my lead until we were crouched over the wheel, perched nicely under the wing. Then we would just fall toward the back of the plane. He would tap me gently on the shoulder when he wanted me to put my arms out in 90 degree angles directly in front of me. We would fall for about 40 seconds, at which point the instructor would pull the chute and we would coast nicely to the soft beach. In theory.
Let me tell you, I was much cockier in the days leading up to the jump than I should have been. My mind had done a complete 180 since my minor bout with schizophrenia. I even started to think I wanted to jump solo; this tandem stuff was for sissies. On the bus to Playa del Carmen, where I would be jumping, I saw a man with a t-shirt that read, “Stop thinking, Start living.” I hear ya, I thought.
Now, as I stare out over the beautiful scenery, I feel more balanced. I’m glad that someone will be taking the leap with me, but I secretly wish for the frap hat I wasn’t given. I’m not terrified, but I feel a tingle of anxiety, and I remember what my colleague, the seasoned jumper, said. “If you weren’t nervous, something would be wrong. There’s only one place to go and that’s down.”
The only thing left to do now is jump.
The door opens and I inch, crouched and restrained, closer to the edge. I’m ready to take the first step and when the instructor gives me the go-ahead, I slowly reach for the wheel rail with my right foot. My leg shoots out towards the back of the plane and writhes around spastically until I pull it back and regain control. They hadn’t mentioned the wind factor in training. Much more firmly, I step down and gain some sort of grip. The left foot is easier, as I blindly trust the man on my back, and in a blink I’m hunched under the wing, hovering over the ocean. I don’t feel a push, but I’m sure there must have been some urging because suddenly I’m plummeting with my eyes tightly closed and the wind stretching my skin.
I feel a hard tap on my shoulder and I open my eyes and stick out my arms. We were literally diving, head first through the clouds, but we start to level off as I perfect my pose, arms at 90 degree angles, feet together, knees bent, back arched. Huh, that lesson stuck with me after all. We zip through the mist.
Forty seconds of free fall feels like an eternity. I have time to compose my thoughts and take in the feeling as well as the scenery. I realize I’m not screaming. I haven’t screamed at all. My mouth is wide open but there’s no sound coming out. Am I breathing? Yes, I definitely am, I think. I realize, too, that my mouth is very dry. Oh, look, there’s the beach.
With a jerk, the parachute deploys and I’m upright, my feet swinging underneath me. I take deep breaths and gasp a few appreciations. I’m just hanging over the earth, a privileged view of life. When my breathing is a little more regulated, I hear the instructor tell me to pull myself up on the chute ropes and put my feet on his. I do it. Arms stretched out above me, grasping the ropes, I hear him unclipping my harness and instinctively my hands and arms tense. What’s going on here? Nobody told me about this! In my ear, I hear reassurances.
“Relax. Let go. Hold onto your belt strap. Trust me.”
The man I trusted in the plane has quickly become my biggest enemy.
“What are you doing?” I shout.
There’s no way I’m letting go. Apparently my paranoia wasn’t so crazy after all, he’s about to drop me into the ocean from thousands of feet up. Surely, I won’t survive. He tells me he needs to steer and my arms are in the way.
“Relax,” he keeps repeating.
I have no choice but to trust him. If he really wants to drop me in the ocean he will make it happen. I’m helpless up here. I push aside every fear and force myself to let go. I drop a few inches but seem to remain secure. For now. I look up at his hands, which are busy maneuvering the parachute and relief floods my body.
“No peeking,” he teases.
Since I’m going to live, I decide to enjoy the rest of the flight. We soar back and forth over the beach where my friends are jumping and waving. Boats are ripping over the waves and sunbathers are blissfully basking. As we come in for the landing, I lift my legs and fall to the ground. Oh sweet earth.
I’m shaking and smiling uncontrollably when my friends greet me. That was incredible. I’ve never felt so many emotions, so intensely, at the same time. I’ve never had a sense of complete abandon and control over mind and body in the same instant. This is definitely a feeling I want to experience again and I’m already dreaming of my next jump.
“Thank you so much,” I say to the instructor.
We’re friends again.
(Originally published in Sweat Magazine, Humber College, 2007)