One day, I knew I wanted to fly. Not for the practical sake of getting from one location to another, but to experience the sensation of soaring over the Earth with the wind blowing against my skin.
While I have this in mind as I go to Colombia, I’m not sure if I’ll actually take flight when the time comes. But when I arrive in San Gil, I find that thrill-seeking is contagious. There’s nothing overtly macho about San Gil like you might expect the adventure capital of an adventure-filled country to be, but it seems that a certain type of person is drawn to that city — people who like to to push personal boundaries through cultural immersion, food, and of course, extreme sports.
So after a day or two in San Gil, adventure sports begin to seem commonplace. One guy comes back from mountain biking with scratches and bruises all over his body and a big smile on his face. People with strict budgets choose activities based on what they haven’t already done elsewhere and they are able to narrow it down to just one activity out of about five or six. I’m surrounded by slightly crazy, yet functional people and extreme becomes the new normal in San Gil. Paragliding is added to my schedule and it feels as natural there as the rest of the activities like Spanish lessons, sightseeing, and grocery shopping. It’s just something I’m going to do.
As the cab that will take us to the paragliding spot pulls up in front of my hostel, I feel mildly nervous. I am joined by a pair from France who are attempting to go paragliding for the second time after stormy weather the previous afternoon cancelled their excursion. The tiniest part of me hopes it will be cancelled again. But most of me is ready for it.
The cab driver takes us to the paragliding company’s office where a guy comes to the car and checks us in. I pay the rest of the pesos I owe them (altogether, it’s a little over $30 for the option I chose) , then we leave San Gil for the hills of the nearby countryside. As we get closer, the driver points to people paragliding in the distance. This is going to happen today. When we see the signs that reads, PARAPENTE →, I begin to question that part of me that feels ready.
As soon as we reach the top of the hill and step out of the cab, the paragliding pilots are calling us over so we can get started. We insist on using the bathroom beforehand because we’re nervous and no one wants to be the one to pee in their pants.
If I was paragliding in the United States, there would likely be forms to sign, official-looking people checking the equipment, perhaps an instructional video. This is definitely not the case here. Before I have time to process what’s going on, I am being strapped into a harness, attached to a paragliding guide, and a helmet is put on my head. A guy who looks like he’s in his teens checks over the equipment and okays it. I’m now silently hurling insults at that part of me that felt ready for this.
However, even as the guy I’m going to be tandem paragliding with casually spits out a cigarette moments before lift off, I have a peculiar faith in these guys. These rugged paragliding guys seem simultaneously too hyped up and too relaxed, but they also seem like they know what they’re doing, like they live for this stuff, like those large wings are an extension of their bodies. I let go of my fear and trust them. Or maybe, more accurately, I don’t have time for fear because everything happens so quickly.
Another traveler told me that in her experience with paragliding, she had to run off a cliff to get started. In our case, almost as soon as everything is ready, we are lifting off the ground. Someone rattles off some brief instructions to me in Spanish that I don’t understand, and then we are flying over the countryside.
It’s euphoric up in the air. There is nothing else in this space but this moment; there’s only fresh air and the birds eye view of the countryside and the Chicamocha Canyon in the distance. And gratitude. It’s a blessing to be able to experience the world in this way.
It’s nowhere near as scary as the scene I’d dreamed up; mostly I am chilled out, sitting in the harness and enjoying the view. But there are moments when the daredevil I’m flying with zooms around quickly and towards the end of my 20 minutes up there, he does a terrifying thing that paragliders call wingovers. He swoops us from side to side, tilting us far to the left and right. I think my fearful medium-pitched, “Ahhhh!” only encourages him to keep doing this.
When it’s time to land, I realize what the guys were telling me as we lifted off — that I need keep my legs extended for the landing. I quickly kick my legs out from under me moments before we hit the ground and avoid injuring myself. My guide lands smoothly like the pro that he is.
I’m the last one in my group to come down and the atmosphere is celebratory as we say goodbye to our paragliding pilots. The mood on the ride over had been pensive, now everyone is chatty and thriving on adrenaline. Even our cab driver is animated; it was his first time going to the site and he took countless pictures of the view and of us paragliding on his cell phone camera.
On the way back to San Gil, he points out the tobacco and coffee crops and picks a few coffee beans off the branches to give to us. At various points in the drive, there are cows or dogs just hanging out in the middle of the road and they see us coming, but they stay put as we head straight towards them. “Tranquilo!” he says as points at them and shrugs, joining us in our laughter at these nonchalant and audacious animals.
It’s not until we get back to San Gil that I feel that I am on solid ground again and even then, the rush remains. As someone who loves to travel, I’m intrinsically drawn to the area beyond boundaries, but not typically in this way. But that’s one of the great things travel offers — the chance to redefine, or perhaps undefine who you are; to open yourself up even more to the boundless ways in which you can experience the world.