"Since it's just the two of us," he said, "we can take one of the motorcycle for rent, instead of the car, if you want."
While the thought of riding a motorcycle in India left me a little terrified, I couldn't really say no. When was I going to get an opportunity like this again? Plus, we weren't in or near Delhi, or another heavily populated area, so there wouldn't be the amount of people/bikes/cars on the road that there was in the city. I only momentarily battled my more cautious side before nodding my head in agreement.
I picked the red bike (I'd be more descriptive, but I know nothing about bikes) and Bunty grabbed me a helmet, shrugging off my suggestion that he have one also. I was giddy with a mix of excitement and fear when we started the two hour journey to one of the top paragliding sights in the world. I tried to play it off like it was no big thing, but each time we rounded a curve or sped up, my heart raced and Bunty sensed my fear as my grip on his side or shoulders tightened. At one point he actually leaned back and told me not to worry - he was a good driver and he'd been driving bikes for a long time. That did little to curb my squeezing, but I did enjoy the thrill of riding the curved roads by buddhist temples and through a mix small towns, forests and hills. It was a sunny day and with my human wind shield and nano puff the temperatures were great for a morning ride. We dipped through the green into the lower elevation, passing military bases with speed bumps we didn't slow enough for. My tense nervousness melted away as I got the hang of being the passenger and eased into swaying with the bikes movements rather than resisting them. He did know what he was doing, and I just needed to enjoy the wind and the scenery whizzing by.
We ended the steady climb into Bir with mountains rising in front of us, heading both east and west as far as the eye could see. We stopped at the paragliding office and I signed my life (and the companies responsibility) away. There was an Indian family there; two teenage girls, and their parents, who were also paragliding. They all piled into the company van and we followed them to the landing spot in the tourist park.
Bunty introduced me to my guide, Sohan, and explained that I was a special customer, a friend (after my stay in his hotel and our two hour bike ride) that wanted the full experience. I cleared my throat and they both looked my way. I wanted a little clarity on what the "full experience" meant. He must have seen the skepticism in my eyes because he reassured me that I'd be fine, but I'd be getting the VIP treatment. I wasn't sure what VIP in a paraglider meant, but I'd find out soon enough.
We watched a few more people land (smoothly, thankfully) before our guides, the other family, Bunty and I all piled into the jeep taking the dirt road up the mountain in front of us . I imagine these guys drive this road several times a day; every day that the weather/season allow for their sport. Even though I'm sure they knew the road well, I was still terrified at how fast we were going. We went around and around to the top, leaving our seats with each pot hole, speeding up for the straightaways and tapping the breaks late and hard on the blind turns. I was the only one that seemed to notice. Maybe it was my slightly frayed nerves from the bike ride there, or maybe I'm getting old (say it ain't so!), but I was excited to climb out of the jeep, and onto ground I wasn't speeding over, when we finally reached the top.
We walked on the well trodden path to where we'd be making our running take off. I surveyed the uneven, rock and pocket filled hillside and wondered how I was going to manage running down it without falling. I watched Sohan unpack the glider and expertly lay it out it, proficiently, attentively, carefully. The two girls took off before me, running down the same hill I would be without missing a beat.
Sohan called me over to the readied glider and I put my feet into the harness and raised it to my waist. My arms went through the straps and I felt the weight of the pack. Bunty took a few pictures and I wished I'd had a long sleeved shirt to throw on under my jacket as the wind wipped around. Sohan assessed the glider one more time before attaching it to himself and then attaching himself to me. I started to get nervous as I again gauged the pocketed, uneven hill and my chances of making it down without tripping.
"What if I fall?" I asked.
"Don't stop." He replied.
"Right, but what if I trip."
"Just don't stop" he repeated.
"Right, well, falling on my face with you and your heavy glider on top of me isn't exactly part of the plan, but I'm not the most graceful person I know," I thought to myself. I only had time to think about it for a few more seconds before a guy materialized next to me, supporting my arm while Sohan told me to run. He waited for my lead and we jogged off the top of the hill, starting the descent, my feet and eyes on the ground. Luckily, before I had time to tangle with the earth, my feet lost the resistance of the ground below and peddled in the air. I shifted back into my seat, felt my stomach cartwheel and my face break into a smile as I realized I was flying.
Being that free in the air is a pretty amazing feeling. I never got very good at whitewater kayaking, but that's the most similar rush I can equate it to. In a kayak, you're as close to the water as your'e going to get without actually swimming through the rapids; you feel each and every wave; the cold water hitting you from every angle; you're intertwined with the river you're paddling through. Paragliding is the same - you feel each cold and hot pocket of air as you glide through it; the wind and the guides arms are a symphony of synchronized movements, one responding to the other to keep you in the air; your legs dangle below you, hundreds of feet above the ground; you get a whole new perspective; you're manipulating the wind and your glider to get you where you need to go; you're there, free but focused, trying to concentrate on the movements, not the danger involved.
We descended and came back up to above the level where we'd started, making this loop time after time. The wind was blowing softly, but Sohan was constantly moving one arm or the other to keep us level. I watched as over and over again the valley and trees below got a little bigger and then receded as we went back up to and above our starting point. My stomach lurched a little each time we were sideways. We waved to the people watching and Sohan yelled something to one of his co-workers below, looping the same small area again and again until he was sure he'd gotten the point across (he was yelling in Hindi and I have no idea what he was saying).
We were able to talk a little on the flight and when I said that I'd glided in Switzerland he asked me to tell him about it. I told him it had been in the picturesque town of Interlaken, surrounded by mountains and while beautiful, the ride hadn't been like this. We hadn't looped around and back up to a higher elevation and the ride had been much shorter. He said that, with the right wind, he could spend hours in the air, and pointed out a mountain, far in the distance, that he could get to on the best of days. Apparently, that was part of the competition that was held here each year. That and tricks that were awesome to hear about, but that I didn't necessarily need to be a part of. After he was satisfied that we'd looped back enough times to make me feel like a VIP, we started our final descent down into the valley.
We banked down to get a better look at the area and Sohan pointed out where a solo glider had gotten caught in the wind and fallen into a tree, simultaneously tangling himself into the branches and his cords. I could tell he couldn't find the right English words to describe this comical event to me, but he did let me know that his friend was fine. I pictured my paragliding friends, Mikey, Matt or Ben, in a similar situation and knew that none of them would ever live it down. I'd wager to bet this guy was in the same boat and still receiving lots of harassment over the incident.
As the landing area came into view, Sohan asked how I was feeling and if I was enjoying myself. I responded with an enthusiastic yes and then he asked if I wanted to do a flip. I hesitated only long enough to realize I couldn't say no to this either and responded with a slightly less enthusiastic yes. His arms moved in a series of quick movements and my stomach, and the glider, responded as we turned upside down and back to right side up in a matter of seconds. I had to make an effort to not clamp my eyes shut. I didn't and got to watch as the sky switched places with the ground and once again was above me as we righted ourselves. My palms were sweaty and my stomach kept turning upside down and back to right side up even though the rest of me had stopped, but I loved it. I didn't necessarily need to do it again, but it was great the first time :)
We landed without any mishap, me lifting my legs and Sohan taking control as we slid in and he ran, dropping to his knees at the last moment. I was giddy and disoriented from the ride and I stumbled with my first few steps, using Sohan to stabilize myself.
As I waited for Bunty, I got to meet the owner of the company, a constant participant in the Paragliding World Cup. He'd grown up here and been all over the world paragliding, making his living by bringing his sport back to his country and sharing it with other Indians and foreigners alike.
Bunty and I got some lunch with Sohan and one of the other guides before heading back. They tried to speak in English for my benefit, but lapsed back into Hindi when the conversation was above their skill level or when they were addressing each other. I was again reminded of friends I have at home - never without a smile, easy going and carefree, good at what they do (paragliding and just life in general) and living with an obvious passion for life and adventure. I enjoyed being in their company and watching their conversation and interaction, even if I couldn't understand what they were talking about.
After our late lunch we started the journey back, making pit stops at two Buddhist temples, a Hindi shrine and one of Bunty's favorite cafes for a quick chai. We got back after dark and I couldn't thank him enough for being a great guide and going above and beyond with the bike, the temple pit stops and the VIP treatment.
It had shaped up to be a pretty memorable day!