Paragliding, Bullying & A Bit More Bull!

Thur 1st May 2014
Living to Be Happy 

My friend Rohit lives for paragliding (that's him in the video above), and the 2 years I was living in Dresden, he would often invite me to join him on one of his weekend drives to the mountains. Sometimes I couldn’t go because of work, and if there wasn’t work, then there was a couchsurfer coming to stay at my place or some other social event going on, and then there was always the weekly Lazy Sunday that I organised for my friends in Dresden – the scoobies.

But these weekend responsibilities were excuses at the end of the day; for we can always make time. The fact is that I was never that keen on paragliding. In my head I wasn’t that keen because I imagined it to be a very expensive and elite sport that requires years of committed training, but maybe all that was just an excuse for the fact that I have a fear of heights, and ‘paragliding’ is another word for ‘flying’ :p

Just before I left Dresden to go on my South America trip, Rohit showed me this video here, and I changed my mind in an instant. Paragliding looked beautiful, almost magical, and I decided at that moment that I would take advantage of the cheaper South American prices and take a course.

I found the best school in Colombia to learn according to reviews and comments on the internet, and I signed up – but then I cancelled. It turned out that Colombia was not as cheap as I expected, and especially not paragliding in Colombia. The 10 day course at Colombia Paragliding may include lodging too, but it still costs 2500,000 pesos ($1290/£765/€930), and that would take a huge chunk of my travelling money!

But I was not to be dissuaded, so I checked out paragliding in Ecuador since I would be travelling there next, and found a course just over the border from Colombia in a place called Ibarra. I contacted the instructor, Jorge, who confirmed that FlyEcuador offered more or less the same training as Colombia Paragliding, and at the much lower price of 400 dollars too. I was ecstatic.

I emailed Jorge again when I was about to leave Colombia and he emailed me back that the course was now 450 dollars, and I could start the following day. Woah! That is a bit fast! Jorge also informed me that his brother Santiago, who also teaches paragliding in Ibarra here, has a place for me to stay at only 7 dollars a night for the duration of the course, but when I had asked Jorge for the address, he told me to just give Jorge a call when I arrived in Ibarra.

On Wed 23rd April I arrived in Ibarra, but somehow I had some doubts. The organisation did not seem clear or calm so far, but I ignored my intuition because I was still so very excited about the opportunity to finally learn paragliding.

I gave Jorge a call as he had asked, and he still didn’t give me Santiago’s address; instead he sent his wife and Jorge Jr to come pick me up, and take me to his place.

When I arrived at his place, I could see that Jorge is a nice guy, and that calmed me. He explained that I would be joining a course with a Spanish couple, and after filling in the paperwork for the course, he drove me to his brother, Santiago, or Santi.

Santi’s place is a nice house a little way out from the centre but with internet, kitchen, warm water and a bed in a 4-bed dorm. The Spanish couple had their own room so I basically also had my own room too. Again, it seemed that my initial intuition that something was not calm or clear here had been wrong.

But my spiritual journey has taught me time and time again how we should all listen to, trust and follow our intuitive spirit, that feeling inside that really lets us know who we are and what is good for us – and equally let’s us know when something is not good for us! Why should this time be any different?!

I should have known better!

The next day, on Thur 24th April, it soon became apparent that my intuition had been right. Things were not clear and were not calm.

Jorge had said a 10am start, but he didn’t come to pick us up until closer to 11am. And by the time the Spanish couple, Guillermo and Myriam, Jorge, Santi and I had made it to the mountain to practise inflating the glider for take off, there was a strong thermal wind.

Jorge told us the weather was not suitable for us to practise, and that he would give me my first of the two tandem flights, and then we would go back.

The wind was so strong that we didn’t need a running start for my first tandem flight – up we went. But Jorge only flew me around the mountain edge for about 5 minutes before we suddenly landed with a bump and he called out for help. When I asked him what the problem was, he said nothing. But a few days later he slipped in conversation that a beginner should never fly in a turbulent thermal wind, but he did it with me, errr (he then stumbled for a good reason) because “he likes it”.

You put a lot of confidence into your instructor when you try something new because you don’t know any better, so even though now as I write this down I can see that such things are not professional, at that moment I assumed that all this was normal. For example, I didn’t know at the time that beginners go paragliding early in the morning or sometimes in the evening because in the middle of the day the sun is heating up the ground and that creates the thermal wind and turbulence that beginners should avoid; I didn’t know that a 5 minute tandem ride is absolutely not sufficient for training - and I didn’t know that the wing (glider) that I was training with was too old and worn to work efficiently for training.

It wasn’t Jorge or Santi, my instructors, who told me these things, it was the Spanish guy Guillermo. Not only had Guillermo already completed paragliding training previously in Spain, but also he had studied aeronautics, and knew what he was talking about.

He and his wife, Myriam, had flown all the way from Switzerland, where they currently live, so that Myriam could do this course for one week out of their 5 weeks of holiday a year, and already on my first day of the course (and Myriam’s second) he was not happy with what he was seeing.

On Fri 25th April, Myriam and I had our first full day of practising to inflate our gliders, and my wing repeatedly continued to collapse. I am not saying that this had nothing to do with me. When you pull the wing up behind you, you have to run and manoeuvre at the same time; then you do your ‘control’ to keep the wing above you, and run faster until you take off. Like learning to ride a bike or drive a car, it is a lot to take in at first.

But my glider just kept falling down behind me, my arms and inner legs were getting seriously bruised from repeated tries, and each time the glider fell, I heard another reason from Jorge or Santi why. I began to become seriously disheartened and wanted to just give up.

Jorge called Myriam and me into his car to show us a video on correct inflation, and then he gave me a different wing and told me to give it another go. Wow! I suddenly became so happy! Watching the video, it had finally sunk in! My wing went straight up behind me and I could inflate!

When the day was over, and I happily told Guillermo that I was getting so frustrated but finally got it after seeing the video Jorge had shown us, Guillermo showed me his own videos. He had been recording my and Myriam’s attempts at inflation so we could watch them back. “It was not your fault”, he said. “The wing should fill up with air in the middle first, and I don’t like this wing; it should never just collapse like that.”

Sat 26th April and it was throwing it down with rain, which is not the suitable weather condition for paragliding. Jorge said he would phone us at 3pm to let us know if we would be paragliding, so Myriam, Guillermo and I went to the beautiful indigenous market in Obavalo where I bought a new belt and a knitted smurf hat (yes I know, not very indigenous. I left those purchases to Myriam who bought a beautifully made scarf and bracelet).

At 3pm, Jorge phoned to say that the weather is still too unpredictable back in Ibarra, and we should leave it until tomorrow. Guillermo was fuming. He said that he was starting to become really angry with how easily people can just lie here instead of saying what the real situation is. As Myriam calmed Guillermo down, I assumed at this point that Guillermo was overreacting – he wasn’t.

As Guillermo explained to me later, when he was learning to paraglide in Spain, the instructors were really enthusiastic, so they would take their students out when the conditions were not good enough to fly just in case the weather improved and a few hours paragliding could be squeezed in.

Jorge and Santi, on the other hand, only consider paragliding if the conditions are almost certain, and then at a very slow and disorganised pace. On Sun 27th April the weather was bad again, so we did about 4 attempts at inflating and then packed up. Instead of attempting again in the afternoon, we went to ‘Pueblo de Toros’ – the village bull fighting festival.

It shouldn’t be allowed of course, but it was not as bad as it sounds. Unlike in Spain, bulls (and cows) were put into the ring for a while but not injured. Instead, the guys in the village showed their manliness by jumping over the bulls and running around the bulls until the bull lost interest and was shown back to the starting pen. I watched two bulls. The first seemed to have fun, with its tail wagging rather like a dog playing, but the second was clearly getting confused, annoyed and agitated. A couple of guys got smashed about. I was on the bulls’ side.

 It was on Mon 28th April, on our second full day, that everything that Guillermo had been complaining about finally sank in, as I realised just how much this course was negatively affecting me mentally – and physically.

I woke up to the shout of Santi at 8.50am saying it was time to leave. I was feeling very unwell – achy bones and properly bunged up – and I got annoyed. Jorge had told me twice the day before that we would start at 10am, and then he had said once to Guillermo that we would start between 9am and 10am, but every day so far, Jorge’s time had meant about an hour later. Today, suddenly, it meant that we should be ready earlier! I called down to Santi that I was told 10am and I am not ready. Santi called back that I was told 9am.

I got ready as fast as I could and Myriam and I practised inflating again. Guillermo was happy this morning because while Myriam and I had had a non-eventful day paraglide training with Jorge the day before, Guillermo had gone with Santi and some of his friends high up in the mountains and got a couple flights in.

But my wing was collapsing again, and this time Jorge started shouting at me. He shouted “Run man! You are doing so bad!” I was shocked. My instructor is telling me that I suck?

At this point I realised just how disheartened I had become. I no longer wanted to be here, and instead of concentrating on flying I started to think how I should just leave. This time Myriam came over and suggested I ask if I can use the wing that worked for me last time. I asked Jorge as we sat down for a snack, and he told me that the wing I was using is easier to manoeuvre, and the other wing is older and faster, but if I want to, I can try with it. I said that I don’t know what is best; he is the instructor; but we unpacked it – and once again I could inflate. Now I was convinced that this was not a coincidence.

We then went up into the mountains and Myriam did her first faultless flight while I did my second tandem flight. I went first, and I was told I would fly with one of Santi’s friends, Franklin. Again, I was surprised. Why am I doing a tandem with someone other than my instructor? I had had no briefing and had no idea what Franklin’s experience was.

As it turned out, Franklin is an adventure sports guide and does tandem flights in Baños where he lives. He is also the nicest most empathetic person! I wish he had been my instructor instead.

The tandem went great until the landing in which I felt that my arms were being restricted by the tandem harness and that I couldn’t pull sufficiently down on the breaks to slow down, so I gave them back to Franklin, and he did the landing. It turned out that this was not the best idea, and Santi told me that I was not ready to fly on my own and needed some more training with turning and breaking.

Myriam came down next and landed like an angel. It was her birthday and the perfect finish, so we sang her happy birthday and then all went for dinner together. At the dinner table, Jorge told me that it was a crime for me to let go of the breaks. Franklin jumped in to support me, and then Jorge started telling Franklin that if I was not comfortable in my harness, then it was because Franklin had set it up wrong. You could see the sadness in this big friendly giant’s eyes as he was told off in front of everyone.

My turn for the real bullying was to come tomorrow!

Tues 29th April, and Jorge had made a point of telling me that we can leave at 8am and do two flights, or later and do one, the choice is ours.

At 7.50am I was finishing my breakfast when Santi came down and asked me jovially “What time will you be ready this morning Robito?” This was fighting talk. I answered steadily “I will be ready by 8 o’clock.”

At 8am, I was ready and Santi was still eating breakfast. Smiling, I said to Santi (probably childishly on my part) “It is 8 o’clock, shall we go?”

Suddenly Santi jumped up and said “OK Let’s go.” but then finished his breakfast saying that I hadn’t washed my dishes. It hadn’t mattered until now if we washed the dishes when we got back. This was now getting petty.

Santi then dashed off to the car on a mission to prove he could be the first ready, but! – by leaving the rest of us to take out his dog, lock his doors, secure his house and carry the paragliding equipment.

We arrived at Jorge’s in good time for our two flights, and of course things were not organised. I told Jorge that I was still unwell and couldn’t hear out of one ear, and he said that it was not a problem. It turned out that a few other people would be joining us for this morning’s jump, we needed to wait for them, and one of them was a doctor. Santi then told me that I would not be jumping on my own. I needed another tandem flight first. I felt a little stupid since Myriam was now having her second solo flight of five, but also felt that another practice tandem flight would not go amiss under the circumstances.

Eventually we made it up on the mountain by 11am and, as Guillermo had pointed out to me before, the sun had had time to create some turbulence once again. Suddenly Myriam and I were getting rushed into position by Jorge, and I was told that I was actually going to fly on my own – no time for any psychological preparation there then - because “students always jump first and the other people with us are also waiting to jump”. One of those people was the doctor, who had not shown any interest in my illness at all. He just wanted to fly.

Jorge had said that I would have a reserve parachute for peace of mind. I didn’t. He had said that I would practise the movements in a fixed harness on the ground before flying on my own. I hadn’t. Guillermo told me that usually the wing you fly with is a different newer wing than the one you practise with because the one you practise with gets dragged around a lot and can get damaged. I had the same wing and my tandem harness (which apparently is also not the best harness to learn in, or fly in solo - period).

I was too nervous to make the first run off the mountain, but the second time, I could choose to just not do it or just literally ‘run for my life’ and off I went. Immediately I hit a thermal wind and shot up into the sky (you can see that in the video).

When you enter a thermal wind, you hit some turbulence, and your seat is shaking. I looked up and my glider was penduluming to the right. ‘Is this normal or am I going to die?’ I thought, and then I pulled with my left arm to correct it. The glider pendulumed to the left (it turns out this is normal but how was I to know if no one tells me!?).

I made it down to the bottom but I was so nervous that the instructions that were coming to me through the radio from Santi on the ground were only half sinking in. I also was nervous about leaning heavily to one side in my seat, and pulling down too much on my breaks in order to make the turns, so my turns were not happening sharp enough. Suddenly it was clear that I was coming in from an angle.

I needed to fly over some power lines (sorry to worry you mum if you are reading this, but it happened) and I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to make it, but it is hard to judge the distance between you and things below you without experience, and Santi wasn’t worried about me making it over (which I did), he was worrying about the tree and the 3 cars that I had to land in between.

I landed in this gap without any problems, but when I went over to Santi, he just started telling me off. I understand that I made mistakes, but while my head was registering how terrible I was, my heart was telling me to be proud that I had just run off a mountain. I had done it!

I wanted to just enjoy that moment – that feeling. I had faced a childhood fear and leapt off a friggin mountain! But my instructors were not going to let me enjoy that fact.

After me, the doctor came in on completely the wrong side (with rather than against the wind) and Santi was literally screaming out for him to pay attention to his instructions for fear of the doctor’s life; a 72-year-old super positive paraglider landed right in the middle of a wheat field; a German woman got pulled right up high into the sky by the thermal wind, and Guillermo’s glider had half collapsed due to turbulence. Myriam was the only one to fly down smoothly, and even she said that she found it much more uncomfortable than her first flight. These were not the best conditions for a beginner’s first flight – we had taken off too late!

After the flight, we all went back to the same place as the day before for dinner, and Jorge began to give feedback. He briefly said that the 72-year-old’s flight was worse than mine and the doctor’s flight was suicidal, but then proceeded in great detail to explain in front of everyone why my flight was absolutely terrible, everything past the take off had been completely wrong, and I only survived because God was with me.

Any little bit of joy still felt after that flight had been crushed. When he said that one should only jump when 100% healthy and mentally prepared, I snapped out and told him that that is absolutely not fair. He knew that I was not well, and also nervous - but this reaction was just coming from a need to defend myself because I felt I was being humiliated, belittled and bullied.

At 3pm, Guillermo was furious with Jorge because he phoned to say that the weather was not good enough for a second flight that day when we all knew that the real problem was that Santi and Franklin had gone off for the day, and Jorge had no one else to help him. It was the ‘mentiras’ (the lying, the plan changing, and bending of the truth) that was most upsetting Guillermo. It was the added humiliating, belittling and bullying that was affecting me. That evening Guillermo and I let it all out in one big rant together.

The next day, Wed 30th April, was Guillermo and Myriam’s last day, and they set off with Santi and Jorge early in the morning to get Myriam’s last 3 flights done so that Myriam could get her APPI certification.

Still with a headache and blocked sinuses, I did not join them. Instead, I packed a bag and headed to a place called Chachimbiro for a break to clear my head both physically and mentally.

Chachimbiro lies within the ecotourism area of Imbabura. Known to Ecuadorians and the Colombians who border the country, but unvisited by the ‘gringo’ foreigners who head directly to Quito from the border. All of this region is naturally beautiful, but I was headed specifically to the thermal baths from the inactive volcano Yanaurku - the main attraction in Chachimbiro.

Yesterday I had the thermal baths almost to myself (see the video), but as I write this now on the evening of my second day here, which is International Workers' Day – the 1st May - the area was packed full with tourists. Of course I was still the only gringo (non-South American).

Here in this area, people do not charge you more because you are a gringo foreigner, they offer you discounts! You are a fascination. By day people want to look at you and maybe also talk to you, and by night they want to get you drunk with them!

Today I paid extra to also use the medicinal spa area, but the manager came over and told me that tomorrow I can come again for free, and the guy who runs the hostal where I am staying (I have my own room very cheap) has a finca up in the mountains close to where the thermal water begins and has invited me to go check out his land.

So I will stay one more day here (tomorrow) and go back to the thermal baths for a third time, and then on Saturday morning I will go check out the finca before heading back to Ibarra again.

This gives me two more days to clear my head, get well, and ultimately decide if I want to finish this paragliding course and do my final four flights with these guys, or not.

Be inspired ♥


1 comment:

  1. now you know why the course was so cheap - not a good idea to put your life in the hands of these amatures ! Mum X