“Please let me fly from the beginner spot,” I say on the radio to Ferdi. “You can either fly off that 1200 meter mountain or get out of my class,” Ferdi says back to me on the radio. He’s my cowboy paragliding teacher. He’s got dark curly clown hair, and he’s a bull-headed speed freak, and he rules the Turkish sky.
Yes, I am in Turkey, doing dangerous things, and luxurious things too thanks to the Turks love for bathing. In the house where we are staying there is a bathtub in every bedroom right next to the bed. Behind the bathtub there is jungle wallpaper and it’s so green and real that you’d half expect a hippo to come crawling out of it. And all of the rooms have starscapes on the ceilings, and in the basement there is a sauna, and an indoor pool, and an outdoor pool. Last night, I spent hours swimming and sauna-ing and bubble-bathing in order to mentally prepare myself for this very moment.
At this very moment I am on top of Babadag mountain with a wing on my back and mountain turtles at my feet. I’m looking down at Ölüdeniz- a beach resort town filled with bikinis and burkas and pomegranates and pirate ships and grape vines and pargliders. So many paragliders- old, young, male, female, tandem, solo, acrobatic, cross country, unlucky.
I tell you the truth when I tell you that there are more paragliders than birds in the skies above Ölüdeniz. And they’re all dropping to the ground like a hazard of rain. And when you walk around town you cannot look down, lest one of the paragliders lands upon your head- just last year a grandma got smashed to bones. And if the pargliders are not landing on grandmas, then they are landing in trees, or pools, or getting caught on the neon letters of restaurant signs, or falling into the Mediterranean Sea. As for me, I’ll probably land across the sea in Cairo. And I’ll be in a thousand wet pieces when I do. If this happens, will you piece me back together, mummify me, and stick me in a pyramid or megalithic tomb? Please. Pretty please please! If you don’t, I will be forced to haunt you.
Many people probably haunt Turkey because it’s a lawless place and safety is not a priority. In the past two weeks, six people have died after running off Babadag mountain with wicked wings. Most were speed winging and either their gear malfunctioned or the conditions were too strong. One pilot flew right into the side of the mountain and was gone like a moth to the light.
I don’t want to go off this haunted death mountain, but Ferdi insists that I do it because he’s lawless too. Any paragliding teacher will tell you that beginner students are supposed to do 30 or so flights from 500 meters before they can fly from 1200 meters, but Ferdi says, “The beginner spot is too far away” so he just takes folks straight off the deep end.
So anyway, I’m about to fly off this monster and I’m trying to hype up the samurai warrior inside of me, but I’m afraid. And when I’m afraid I have to pee a lot and I don’t want to wet myself in the air. Does your body respond to fear like that? Would you be afraid too? If everybody else told you it wasn’t the right way? If fools were dying? If all you could think about was how liquid you’d be if you fell and smashed and cracked with your own pee all over you? I can’t even see the beach from up this high here. All the people down there are microscopic blobs blobbing. Bugs in a sea of bright man-birds.
Diarm is one of those bright man-birds in the sky. He is in some advanced paragliding class where they deliberately mess up their wings and do tricks all the way down. The other day his wing lines got wrapped around his neck like a noose! It looked like his head was going to pop off his neck like a flower from it’s stem. This was not supposed to happen. Afterwards, I heard him say to his teacher, “Congratulations, you have officially frightened me!”
I’ve been in my basic beginner class for three days and I can’t even tell that I’m in a class. Ferdi’s teaching methods remind me of Mr. Miyagi. I’ve spent most of my days sitting under a tree, in cigarette-littered grass, waiting for something to happen, while listening to Ferdi radio his advanced sky students. I can tell you how much Ferdi smokes, and how much coffee he drinks, and the name of his dog, and who all of the friends in his entourage are. He’s like the king of Ölüdeniz because he does wild things well, like jump off the highest points of earth in a squirrel suit and infinity loop until he almost passes out. I say he’s addicted to adrenaline. He says “This is not an addiction, addictions are bad for you, this is a passion.”
Like all of my teachers in life, Ferdi says that I over-analyze and over-think, “don’t think, do!” He says that I don’t trust him enough, “trust me, I am the best, I do this everyday!” He says that I have to, “look to the sun, not the darkness.” It’s all so deep and poetic and true.
I’m not alone in this beginner paragliding “class.” It’s me, a young doctor from Australia, and a gal from China. So far, we sort of know how to ground handle the wing, which prepares us for take off. Other than ground handling we also did one tandem flight. My tandem pilot was a Turkish acrobatic paragliding champion with a winged foot tattooed on his left arm and a winged foot earring dancing down his left ear. He is thin, always wears a baby blue hoodie, and speaks in small spurts of English. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to communicate, but as soon as we got in the air he started talking to me like a southern Auntie, “Ok honey, turn left. Look left. Pull left. Shift your body left.” I’d do it and he’d say “Good job honey. Very good. See, easy peasy!” So that’s how I leaned to steer the glider, but I have learned nothing about the theory of flight. I can’t tell you about thermals, or all the colored lines on the glider, or the beauty of a G-string harness, or how to descend rapidly if you need to, or even how to land!
The doctor just took off the mountain. It’s my turn now. S***!
The wind stings my face. I zip up my purple Patagonia puff jacket and kick my boots into the mountain gravel. The gondola is traveling up and down the mountain behind me. The prayers of a Mosque blast into a megaphone, it’s the same prayer I hear five times a day starting at 4 AM. Devotion. My heart beats heavier, harder. A yellow butterfly floats by. That means something. A sign from God. A greenlight.
I put the breaks on my wrists and the A risers in my hand. Ferdi’s friend Artoosh- who is a total dreamboat- grabs my harness. He says, “run” and I run like hell as he pulls my body forward. I feel the glider above my head. He says, “drop the risers and keep running.” I drop them and run like hell some more. I run until there is no more mountain beneath me and I am floating. Flying. Cruising. Surfing sky. Air sailing. It feels like I’m on a magic carpet ride, or like I’m a birthday balloon, or a cloud.
I can’t figure out how to sit down in my harness, so I am still standing up in it and it’s giving me a wedgie. Artoosh talks to me on the radio, “You are doing good….Turn towards the sea…..You are alone in the sky. Everything is beautiful, just enjoy the view.”
I have a view of the Blue Lagoon, Dragon’s Back, Lick Your World, and Butterfly Valley. I can see the shape of things on earth- lounge chairs and swimming pools and sailboats. I feel like I’m from outer space.
Artoosh no longer sees me from the mountain. Ferdi, who is on the ground, takes over on the radio. He plays the song “Don’t worry be happy” for me. I be-bop my head and kick my legs. That song was my favorite song as a kid.
I descend slow. Dancing. Twenty minutes pass, maybe more. I’m getting close to the ground. I’m worried that I won’t land on my feet. The main landing strip is a narrow boardwalk flooded with red-bodied beach bunnies. I see Ferdi. He is a little thing waving. I wave back. He tells me turn in the shape of an “S” then travel straight. I get closer. “Oli, pull your hands all the way down.” I pull my hands down. I hit the ground. I run into Ferdi’s arms and scream, “I want to go again!” My wing falls on top of us. I pick it up, pack it up, and go straight back up the mountain and fly again and again and again and again and again. I’m hooked like a junkie.