|Paragliding Tandem Paragliding|
Christmas morning we headed out of Mumbai towards Kamshet off the Mumbai- Pune highway for a first-hand experience of tandem paragliding. The last 12 kms there were on a dirt track - I had almost forgotten how bad some roads can be. At three o'clock, supposedly the best time for the right winds we went another 10 kms of dirt track down to the site where they teach their student pilots. We walked through the ploughed fields and sat waiting for the perfect winds, while Vinay, Ajay and Rollo, three pilots from Manali, who would be taking us on tandem flights, tried their first flights in Kamshet.
Nirvana's experienced pilot, Avishek an ex-air force man and a national champion at paragliding, was on crutches. Two days before that I had spoken to him on the phone, and had asked him for a realistic low-down on how dangerous the sport is, because my son had his Board exams coming up and I did not want any broken bones Avishek had assured me, "It's totally safe. No question of broken bones!" I now eyed his crutches suspiciously. "How did you acquire that?" He said it was practicing an advanced maneuver, it would not happen for a simple tandem flight.
Paragliding in India
Fair enough. Though, as it happened, Siddhartha did fracture his right hand barely a week later at an unrelated activity.
It seemed reasonably safe. Even if the flights were far too brief. Obviously not ideal weather conditions. Suddenly Sanjay asked, "Anyone want to try a flight?" Siddhartha immediately volunteered, and was asked to run up after Rollo, who with the light-footed gait of a Himachali, was already striding up the hill. Siddhartha ran behind him, trying to find a path and a foothold. Having lived in the hills in his early walking life, he managed to keep pace as he scuttled up within sighting distance of Rollo's back.
Siddhartha's flight was in zero-wind conditions. There were no more tandem flights that evening. We walked through the ploughed fields in the gathering dusk, until it was dark by the time we reached the vehicles for the dusty, bumpy ride back to Golden Glades, the only place to stay. We had a cottage with very basic facilities, somewhat unkempt. Ravenously hungry, we went for dinner to the dining room, where we had to remove our footgear, and eat the standard vegetarian thali on offer - no desert, no frills. The meals there were regimented and quite ordinary, but with no other available option we decided to ignore it.
Early next morning we woke up to a breakfast of inedible poha, before driving to the site for morning flights. Then came the ascent up over rocks and boulders. Climbing up the hill, we were acutely aware we would have to jump off it. One of the prospective fliers prepared to back out of flying, electing to try the afternoon site instead. The take-off site looked perfect, a gradual slight descent before coming to the sheer edge. But this time round the cross-winds were far too strong. After several aborted attempts, when we got ample opportunity to see the colourful billowing paragliders flop unceremoniously to the ground, the pilots abandoned any attempt of a solo flight. Tandem flights were out of the question. Instead we just lay around in the knoll, enjoying the view of the valley below, the isolation from the sheer numbers of city living, and the sounds of silence
An early hasty lunch later we drove to the same spot as the previous afternoon, but this time, we were going to climb the steep hill behind the village. As we stood at the foothill, we saw Vinay take off on a perfect solo flight. He looked like he could remain gliding up there forever, as he took advantage of the currents. It was a sheer delight to watch, an inspiration to fly. We sweated our way up, each at their own pace, and sat down to catch our breath, while the pilots prepared the gliders for take off.
Eventually they emerged from the thorn bush in which they had got caught. Rajiv's hands were a mess of bloody scratches from the thorns he had clung onto on his way up. They were ready to make a second attempt, when the pilots decided they would take the other paraglider. "Who is next?" was met with a deafening silence. The question was posed again. "Anyone weighing between 50 and 60 kgs?" That included only Siddhartha and me.
Vinay hastened to add, "I am totally confident that I can take off in these conditions." His voice was calm, reassuring. "If there is any chance of the flight not taking off, I will abort the flight." From the corner of my eye, I saw Siddhartha stepping forward. I quickly volunteered. I did a trial run before being strapped in. Checked out at which point the flight would be aborted if we did not take off. Then I allowed myself to be harnessed in, checking the straps for comfort.
Siddhartha glared at me, "You are flying for all the wrong reasons." I could do without a last-minute parental lecture from my son. Life had taught me I had the right attitude, even if my motives were sometimes skewed. I was aware that my state of mind was in that peak state of calm alertness ideal for any adventure sport. I believed that the pilot was competent. I was looking forward to the flight, totally confident that I could cope with whatever was ahead.
The wind was far from ideal. They decided they needed to use anchors - Rollo and Ajay were going to help with the initial run. We waited in position, while Ajay let a handful of dry grass loose to check the direction of the wind. We continued to wait. The passing seconds seemed longer than the time that actually elapsed. Suddenly and quite without warning, I heard "run". I might be very familiar with walking on uneven surfaces, and quite fearless of heights or tricky paths, but running downhill at that pace was a new experience. I could see Rollo's steady focused attention and Ajay's agile steps. I knew they had determined to make the flight successful. I sprinted along with Vinay, Ajay and Rollo. I felt the light weightlessness of my steps, before I felt the sensation of my feet lift from the earth and I felt the joy of being air-borne.
We flew over the valley below, we glided in freedom from touching earth. I looked around at the vast open spaces and at the terraced fields below. I felt the uncomfortable sensation of sinking that brings with it a pit in the stomach. But it did not last long. I felt us being lifted again briefly before gliding on. I had time to tell Vinay it was great fun and I was thoroughly enjoying it. There was lots of time to think and feel and say, hey, this is wonderful, indeed, I love it! I was relaxed, thinking of nothing, gathering impressions I would sort out only later. I did not want the flight to end.
But I knew we were already descending. I could see and feel the earth coming closer. It was very different from being protected by metal and glass sheets in a plane. It was more real than flying in a glider several years ago. Paragliding is the closest to the freedom of flying. It is the nearest to having wings of your own. I could understand why human beings have wanted to simulate the flight of birds - to swoop, to glide, to feel the air currents, to maneuver yourself through the skies, to see the earth below and be distant from it, be detached from it while knowing it is the earth that we belong to, no matter how often or how far we escape from it.
I really did not want the flight to end. But already the little village huts were not models built of clay - I could see the living that was happening there, as we passed by them. The wires of civilisation were a horrid reminder of how tied up we are, and though we were well above them, I knew I never wanted to be entangled there. I could see the parked vehicles and all the children gathered to watch us land, having followed our flight, perhaps with as much joy and wonder, as we who had flown.We were descending rapidly. Vinay instructed me to run as our feet touched ground, which I did, before he said, stop, and I landed gently on the harness that protected me as I sat, and the paraglider collapsed gracefully behind us.
Anita came running up to meet us, unstrapping me of the harness, hugging me, in an age-old embrace of women's bonding. I had met her for the first time earlier that afternoon, and she had greeted me saying, "I am sure I have waited more eagerly to meet you than anyone else ever has". Such warmth and youthful enthusiasm are impossible not to respond to. I had only known her from the piece on paragliding she had written, and some site-related correspondence. I sat on a stone wall with Vinay, Anita and Avishek eulogising the joys of flying, rationalising the fears of flying, sharing a common experience.
Vinay explained that for him paragliding is a meditative experience. He talked of flights in the Himalayas, of his longest cross-country flight of 90 kms, of his intention to do a tandem cross-country flight for which I found myself volunteering. For one who loves the Himalayas as I do, flying over them, through them, would be a flight of a different kind. For me, being in the Himalayas is always a walk in paradise. What would flying in them be like? Who knows where tomorrow leads us?
Photo Credit: Rajiv Butalia
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.