All my life, I have been afraid of heights.
It started long ago when I was a young girl. On a family vacation in northern Pakistan we went on a beautiful mountain hike. We came across a suspension bridge swinging from one mountain to another, across a ravine. The Swat river gushed below. The bridge was pretty rickety looking, maybe 3 feet wide, the kind made of wood slats held together by rope, with another rope on either side to hang on to. When you stepped on the bridge, the whole thing swayed from side to side, your feet in one direction and your arms in the other… Everyone in the family was pretty daring and crossed, except for me.
Fast forward a few decades and many life experiences, but the fear of heights…it just didn’t go away. If anything, it got worse. I’d venture on the occasional tall building or roller coaster (thanks to my kids) but it was an unfailingly uncomfortable ordeal. An eyes closed and teeth clenched kind of experience.
But on the other hand, I was also completely fascinated by birds. I loved watching birds, from the littlest hummingbirds to mighty eagles, soaring in the sky with not a care in the world. What does that feel like, I wondered. Looking at the whole world from above, everything so small that it looks insignificant.
My dream of being a bird came true last summer, when against my better judgment, I got talked into paragliding.
The place: Babadag Mountain, Oludeniz, Turkey
The time: Early morning
The weather: 75 degrees, seemingly perfect
We stood in a line on the beach. The van arrived to take us to the mountain. Names were called. I thought about running to the restroom to hide, my stomach in a knot. But seeing my girls' excited faces, I resisted.
‘I’ll just check it out and go along for the nice scenery on the bus ride,’ I told myself.
The bus lumbered up the windy mountain roads for what seemed like an eternity. Beach gave way to thick pine forest and sunshine to clouds. At last, we arrived.
6500 feet. It was high. Like… really high.
We were introduced to our coaches who would be riding tandem with us. The we waited, and waited..
After about two hours, the coach came up.
‘We will have to cancel for today.' he said. 'No visibility. Too many clouds.’
What! I looked at the ring of tall mountains all around us, now half submerged in clouds, with the distant sea, now invisible.
‘Are you serious? You're telling me you navigate by sight?’, I stuttered.
‘Yes, mostly. We have GPS too, but just last month some people were in the clouds and crashed into the mountains. So we don’t take any chances. Safety first.’
I didn’t ask what happened to the poor people. His expression said it all.
Back on the bus we all went. A debate ensued. This was a pretty expensive excursion so the vote was four against one in favor of rescheduling for a better weather day. You can guess who that lone vote was, to cancel and run back home.
We were back on the mountain top two days later. This time, the sun was shining bright. A light wind was blowing, with puffy little clouds scattered here and there.
We all lined up on the launchpad, which was kind of a big sloping paved field, the edge of which disappeared down the mountain side. I was reciting Ayat al Kursi on repeat, silently under my breath.
I glanced at my coach Mehmet. He had a kind face and eyes that crinkled in a smile.
‘My life is in your hands’ I said.
‘Don’t worry. I got you.” , he said, ‘ We have only a small window. The clouds are coming in again. When I say walk, you walk. When I say run, you run. Okay?’
We were harnessed up together, like Siamese twins. The giant parasail lay rumpled on the incline behind us. There was no going back now.
Without warning, there was a sudden gust of wind and the sail filled up like a giant balloon.
All I heard was,
And suddenly there was no ground beneath my feet. I was sailing among the clouds.
I was a bird. It felt magical.
I was surprisingly unafraid.
The clouds parted to reveal the turquoise coastline of the Aegean Sea, far, far, below.
I waited for the panic attack..but, nothing happed.
‘There’s our world’ Mehmet said, ‘So small, and so beautiful. But such a difference between haves and have nots in this world’, he whispered softly.
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘‘It looks so peaceful from up here. Our small world, full of all kinds of people, all colors and shapes and sizes, with their joys and sorrows. All the problems in the world seem so far away from up here. Like they don’t exist.’
‘What’s the longest flight you’ve ever done Mehmet?’, I asked.
‘123 km in the mountains of Nepal. It took eight hours, riding on the thermal air currents’, he replied.
‘Wow’ I can’t imagine being suspended in the heavens for eight hours’, I think to myself.
I am a bird. And this is as close to heaven as I’ll get, in this lifetime.