After the thunderstorm that hit hard the night before, the Hilton Fly Rio Hang Gliding Center would undoubtedly shelve our excursion. At least, that’s what the concierge at our Rio de Janeiro hotel had explained. So I devoured bacon and yogurt and piece after piece of candy-sweet pineapple until I slumped over in my seat.
When your parents are as openly acrophobic as mine, you grow up convinced that you’re also acrophobic. Together my husband Jeff and I had surfed, biked around volcanoes, and been Scuba diving with sharks as big as sofas. But it was no accident that I’d never agreed to adventures involving heights. That’s why I was puzzled to overhear him telling some new friends he wanted to impress that, sure, we’d love to try hang-gliding. Huh?
I knew hang-gliding was a tourist tradition in Rio—since the mid-1970s, I’d later learn—with nearly 10,000 tandem flights each year. I’ve never been one to decline a challenge, and this felt like a triple-dog dare. Jeff took me aside to coax me, and I ultimately conceded. My anxiety, however, was unjustified, I thought. After all, this storm would be my savior.
The sliding glass doors of the hotel entryway brushed open and closed as we waited. And then, to my dismay, it coasted into the scene: the black secret-service-like SUV that would transport us to a 1,700-foot-high hilltop in the depths of Floresta da Tijuca, the world’s largest urban forest. I felt the Ipanema tan drain from my face.
“Too much breeze for you?” Jeff asked our friends in the back row of seats. “Though then again, given what we’re about to do!” We both crack jokes when we’re nervous, and they were rolling off his tongue. Thud. The vehicle swerved as our driver’s eyes left the road while he introduced himself. “Did you really just say ‘Mosquito’?” Jeff asked. “Not Eagle or Hawk?”
“We make dreams come true,” Mosquito said, ignoring Jeff. “We help you fly like a bird!” He told us the story of an 84-year-old client: “See? Anyone can do it!” I asked for some music to drown out his transparent “you haven’t paid yet, don’t back out now” sales pitch.
We disembarked on a dusty plateau with a makeshift snack bar. A crowd was gathered on bleachers built into the cliff, and their roof was a 15-foot-long ramp of two-by-four floorboards. Staff members yanked each member of our group in different directions.
Rony, a tandem pilot with a bright orange shirt and spiky black hair, stepped me into the armless cloth straitjacket that would attach me to the oversized kite. He and I sprinted back and forth together simulate takeoff, as if we were competing in a three-legged race.
“You will run as fast as you can, yes?” he insisted. I nodded. The breakfast in my stomach churned. The remaining saliva in my mouth tasted metallic.
In my peripheral vision, I saw Jeff in ready position at the top of the wooden runway. “I love you!” I shouted as if it would be the last time. He glared back at me as if this had been my idea, not his. I watched my husband disappear into the clouds.
I realized that the helmet strap didn’t hug my chin. “Is this safe?” I asked Rony, as I showed him the gap between strap and skin.
He responded only with a laugh, led me to the ledge and instructed me to keep my left hand on his spine and my right hand on a noose hanging from the steering bar at all times. His back was sweaty on my left hand. The frayed khaki rope splintered my right.
My legs sloshed like water balloons. They weren’t my own. But when we reached the edge, there was no drop of stomach or limp, freefalling body. We were flying, as promised, like an eagle, a hawk, a mosquito. Besides my pilot’s breathing and my own, all I heard was the wind echoing in my ears. I noticed details in the Brazilian landscape that I couldn’t possibly have seen from sea level. I wished I could swap out my smelly pilot and swap in Jeff, or better yet, enjoy my flight in solitude.
Then the realization hit me: more than 1,000 feet between me and the ground. That’s all. Rony grinned into a camera at the front right edge of our kite and clicked the button with his thumb.
Are the clips holding me to the glider made of steel or plastic? What if they forgot to fasten some of them altogether? What if I hear the sound of splitting fabric or tearing Velcro? Could I hold my full body weight from this thin rope and, if I could, what would happen during landing… landing! We never discussed landing!
I remembered reading once that bird bones are hollow; human bodies aren’t built to fly. As we circled, I didn’t feel weightless; I felt every ounce of my mass, multiplied.
Would it be better if I were to plummet into that mass of trees over there? Into the pool behind that house? The ocean? Is it true that your body goes into shock during free fall—that you don’t feel the pain of impact?
Without warning, Rony ripped off my leg straps. My limbs dangled with awkward freedom.
“Again, run. Stand up very straight,” he coached. And, as our speed slowed, we hovered over the shoreline.
Jeff, also grateful for solid ground, proudly waved to me from the shade of a nearby palm tree. I wobbled over, feeling a manic rush of adrenaline, and we swapped stories. His pilot had taken four cell phone calls—in flight—and their out-of-control beach landing had involved a gritty tumble. But he loved it. I told him I was really proud of the bragging rights, but couldn’t imagine doing it again.
“Come on, you wouldn’t?” he prodded.
I thought back to the sight of Rio de Janeiro from above—mountains, mansions, ocean, favelas—and I couldn’t come up with a better way to take in the sweeping view. In my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse the next aircraft approaching the sand.
That was me. I wasn’t acrophobic after all.
I reconsidered with a nod. “Just call me Mosquito.”