I review my assignments:
- “One” — Lock eyes on horizon.
- “Two” — Lean forward.
- “Three” — Start to move.
- “Go!” — Run until I’m in midair. Until, like Wile E. Coyote, I’m off the cliff and treading sky.
Antonio nods and starts to count. On “Go!” we bolt forward. After a dozen paces, he jerks me to a halt.
“Nao, nao!” he shouts. “You must go faster. Much faster.”
That’s how my hang-gliding venture started — and almost ended. Just a few miles from the glitzy Rio icons — Copacabana and Ipanema — lies a tiny strip of sand called Pepino Beach. Tourists come here to watch the “bird men” float down from Gavea Rock. Other tourists, those seeking a little more action, can accompany one of the bird men on a two-person glider. That’s where I am, taking my last practice before takeoff.
The staging area on top of Gavea this morning is ablaze in rainbow-colored gliders as various “pilots” assemble their fragile crafts on the ground. It looks like a rug merchant’s convention in New Delhi.
As I watch my pilot, Antonio, assemble our craft, the absurdity of it hits me: “Our flight today will be delayed, ladies and gentlemen, while our pilot attaches the landing craft and our flight attendant screws in the tail rudder. Your patience is appreciated. By the way, would anyone have a Crescent wrench?”
I approach the precipice from which we’ll soon hurl ourselves — and gasp. The cucumber-green Tijuca Forest stretches out like a cavernous amphitheater below us. A tiny wooden ramp no more than 20 feet long — the off-ramp, as it were — juts out from the edge of the cliff and slopes down sharply. There’s nothing below it for thousands of feet.
A pilot approaches the ramp with his completed model. Up close a glider looks like one of those homemade contraptions invented by Einstein-haired Christopher Lloyd types in their attics: “Great Scott! Come quick, Marty! It’s finished. This time it’ll work, by golly!”
Just the term “hang glider” implies something deviant was at work in the original blueprint. Up close, its shape confirms it: Is it a clothesline with wings? A half-assembled tent? A kite for sadists? One can only shudder at what the design failures looked like. And how does one practice? Your first try is your solo.
The pilot sets his glider down and steps into the harness that dangles from the craft’s spine. The papoose-like fitting suspends him horizontally just below the wing. From there he checks to see that he’s comfortable and securely fastened. I wonder what’s going through his mind. Is my will in order? Did I turn off the oven? Will she remarry?
He rises to his feet, takes a couple of deep breaths, and lunges forward. Five or six giant steps and he’s off — and up. That’s it. In seconds he’s a pinpoint in the sky, just another bird.
A hand clutches my shoulder. “Joao, it is time.”
Antonio is standing beside our blood-red, death-winged gravity defier. I suddenly feel like lying down. I want to be home. I want my therapist. I want to be at sea level. Antonio hands me a helmet.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“Just in case.”
“I thought this was supposed to be sa–”
“Hurry or we hold up the others.”
Antonio repeats his instructions: “The only thing you do is run. I do the rest.” I’m reminded for the hundredth time not to look down to see where I’m running, not to try to plant my foot on the end of the runway, and not to touch any part of the glider during the trip. One slip-up and we’ll plummet into jaguar country.
By now my heart’s doing all the cliches you read about: racing, pounding, thumping. To our right is a mountain shaped like a giant watermelon stuck in the sand. To our left are two massive humps about a half-mile apart. Between them, a portion of Ipanema lies bare. Ipanema. Home of dental-floss bikinis, cocoa butter, and The Girl From. Why am I not there? Why am I diving into a canyon of tree spikes instead? From where I shake, Pepino Beach looks like a No. 2 pencil.
I look at Antonio, but he’s just staring into the abyss. Hurry, man, before I lose my nerve. What’s wrong?
“Waiting for wind,” he says as if reading my mind. Okay, wind I’ll wait for. In fact, a few jet streams would be nice. A medium-sized tornado would be better. Toss me around at 200 miles an hour, I don’t care. Just get me up and keep me there. Having to wait for wind worries me, though. Where has it gone? Why did it leave? Is it playing one of Mother Nature’s cruel jokes — gusting before we take off, then vanishing as we jump? Like Lucy pulling the football away an instant before Charlie Brown kicks it?
“Okay, ready now,” he says. I gulp in as much air as I can. No turning back now.
“One,” he commands. I focus on a spot on the horizon.
“Two.” I dig in my feet. The glider creaks as Antonio tenses its bars in his grip.
“Three.” Our wing billows a final warning. We edge forward.
“Go!” We blaze down the ramp in a blur. “Run or die” is my last thought. I run and run — and then a funny thing happens. I’m not on the ramp anymore. I’m not on the mountain. Gavea Rock is football fields away.
We’re up! I hold my breath as we swoop over the edge of the world. One moment I’m on solid ground, the next I’m suspended over a gorge of unfathomable depth. Everything is hushed, still, peaceful.
“It’s beautiful! This is great!” I hear myself say over and over.
“Everything okay! We all right!” Antonio keeps answering over and over. He must think I’m panicking. On the contrary, once I see we’re horizontal, I’m in wonderland.
And then it happens. The thermal we’re riding suddenly vanishes and we stop dead — neither of which you want to happen when you’re hanging over what looks like two time zones. I, of course, do what most people would do: pray for dull branches. The next moment we’re rudely introduced to Gravity, the last fellow you want to meet under such circumstances.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Antonio reassures me and glides us down until we catch another thermal. Ah, so that’s how it’s done. Hang-gliding is like surfing; you simply ride each updraft as far as you can, pull out, then wait for the next swell. Far out, dude!
We hang ten across the face of the nearest mountain just as the previous glider emerges from the other side — the sun shimmering off his bat-like wing as he drifts in slow motion. “Not bad, eh?” Antonio winks at me.
We sail over houses, over roads, over hotels. We cross a highway and head toward the beach. Instead of coming in for a landing, though, we sweep over the crashing waves and shoot out to sea. A rocky crag looms ahead. As the waves thunder against it, I try not to think what sound our glider would make if we crunch into it.
I also wonder where the hell we’re going. We pass the pinnacle and keep going. Maybe the wind’s taken us out farther than Antonio intended. Maybe we’ve caught a fluke jet stream and are looking at Capetown in 13 days. Then, as if to allay my fears, Antonio leans left and we soar gracefully back over the white caps, lashing our faces against the ocean spray, and scatter a bunch of sea gulls that stop to gawk. Beach towels, bodies, and bikinis come back into view. All is right with the world again.
As we glide over the sand, Adriana Lima wannabes wave at us. One in a black-and-yellow tanga catches my eye, and I memorize her towel location as we ready for landing.
I’m supposed to straighten up when Antonio does, but that’s going to be difficult because I’m not supposed to hold on to anything lest I throw off his steering.
“Now!” he shouts and pulls the glider frame up. I lurched up as far as I can but swivel sideways instead, flopping around like a fish. Antonio spreads his feet apart and bends his legs as the sand rushes toward us on fast-forward.
With a muffled pfft, his feet — and then mine — sink into the sand as lightly as if we’ve hopped off a three-step porch. I can’t believe it. We’re down.
Hours later, caipirinha in hand, surrounded by glider groupies at a nearby beach cafe, I recount how grandly my initiation was. I tell them how it changed my life, how I’ll never look at a sunset the same way again, how I may never get that stain out of my shorts. And then I depart, leaving them to guess which peril I’ll tackle next — Everest on skis? Serengiti by bike? Tokyo on $5 a day?
* * *
Newsday (September 20, 1987)
The Miami Herald (October 18, 1987)
Daily Breeze (December 6, 1987)