I am standing at the edge of a steep precipice with wobbly legs and knees knocking together like the prongs of a tuning fork. Never before has vertigo seemed so real! Never before has my comfortable chair at home seemed less boring! Strapped into various harnesses and helmets and things, I am beginning to fully appreciate the “gravity” of the situation. I scarcely have time to further contemplate what is starting to look like a foolishly hasty decision, before I am being instructed on what to do and how to do it. I am busy concentrating on being able to breathe properly. I take one look at the pitifully inadequate piece of fibre and shudder, hoping it can hold my not inconsiderable weight. Eventually belts are tightened, buckles are clasped, ropes are tugged, a feeble voice calls out from the distance to start running…
“Mix a little French high brow with a little German stiff upper lip with a little Italian style and get a heady whiff of fantastic Switzerland!”
The promotional pitch jumps out from the center-spread advertisement of a famous travel agency in bright bold inviting letters. My boyfriend peeps out from behind the poster. ‘So, what do you think?’ I blink and gaze at the photographs. Tall stately mountain peaks tower over a city twinkling with night lights. Pristine white slopes reflect sunlight like polished mirrors as happy families cavort on skis making designer tracks in the virgin snow. Freshly mowed, nature-defying green gardens drip dew while children pose at picnic tables and couples sit under secluded overhanging palm fronds whispering romantic sweet nothings to each other. Everything, right down to the artistically placed pebbles on cobbled roads, appears to be tempting the poor excluded reader to hurry on over and share a piece of the pie.
‘I think,’ I say slowly, ‘that it’s all air-brushed to give a good effect. The children look scruffy and I am pretty sure the mountains are painted on. And I can’t tell if the people are smiling or grimacing. Especially those couples.’ Running a critical eye over it, I shake my head, glance at my boyfriend, and return to reading my book.
A wistful sigh escapes his lips. ‘Um, I was hoping...’
‘That we could, maybe, go on a brief vacation…’
I give a cynical sniff. My boyfriend knows that sniff. It can mean anything from “Nothing” (usually in answer to his “What’s the matter?”) to “You are being completely unreasonable” to “I want an ice cream and I want it right now” to “Go away, I have a headache”. This time, however, it meant “Don’t be absurd. I have no time for your jokes”. Which pretty much silenced him on the subject for the rest of the day. I’ll say this for my boyfriend, he knows when he is beaten.
As a computer programmer, I normally lead a sedentary life and outdoor activity is limited to the weekly run from home to the supermarket.And that is how I like it. I am perfectly at home with my books, my computer and my broadband connection, which does all the traveling for me from the convenience of my couch. I like my creature comforts and being placid to the point of boring, I am not one of those people who go looking for adventure. However, on this occasion the lure of the broadsheet proves to be too strong. Besides, I love my boyfriend and am aware that I won’t be able to rest in peace having seen that disappointed look on his face. The next morning, feeling just that bit of reckless intrepidness that lends itself to such things, I have summoned courage enough to take the plunge. I make all the arrangements in secret and that night, over an elaborate candlelight dinner, I take his hand, ask him to close his eyes and place a thick bundle of tickets on his palm. His expression of surprise changing to dawning comprehension, changing to utter delight, is worth all the effort and more than compensates for my nervousness that has already begun to lurk in the background.
Our destination is Interlaken, that panoramic city of kaleidoscopic hues. With the majestic Alps at its doorstep, Interlaken specializes in adventure sports: Canyon-ing, White water rafting, Bungee jumping, there is something for everyone. Trembling with excitement (or is it fear?) we find ourselves embarking a week later upon an adventure that promises to give us a high – Tandem Paragliding!
At the appointed hour, we reach the foot of the hill where introductions are in progress. While my boyfriend wanders off to check out all the cool gear, I ask the instructor-pilots how long they have been paragliding. Michelle replies, ‘I’ve been doing this for sixteen years.’ I hide my relief at this assurance and pretend not to get alarmed when we’re asked to fill out a battery of forms, all of which want to know our next of kin. As our little convoy proceeds up the incline, my boyfriend saunters along easily, while I huff and puff like a steam engine, then progress to sounding like a herd of steam engines, and then a herd of steam engines with labor pains. Eventually we come upon the savior of all mankind – the pickup van. Within minutes we have loaded all our gear into it and are off to the summit.
Before long, I find myself high atop a mountain perched like an eagle with its wings clipped, trying not to move around too much lest I fall off the edge. I try to keep up with the take-off and landing instructions but am unable to grasp more than the rudimentary principles involved. I am also dismayed to note that my boyfriend and I will be flying separately. A quick peck on the lips and an encouraging smile and he is off, strong sure legs pounding on the ground, a final crouch, a powerful spring and the paraglider mushrooms open gracefully like a slow-motion blooming flower.
I barely have time to register this when a hop, skip and jump later, I am away too – flying gloriously like a bird, a tiny speck in the sky. Astonished at having taken off so smoothly, for a few minutes I can’t stop gaping. Then I come to my senses and snap my mouth shut. Any lower and my jaw would have gotten a literal taste of “ground reality”.
The wind picks up and throws us higher, and the glider buffets around for a moment like a twig in a tornado. Gak! I should’ve called my solicitor to make my will. I squeeze my eyes shut and hoarsely croak a small prayer. When I open my eyes, there are cool white swirling mists all around.
Is this Heaven?
From somewhere above my right ear a voice sounding like Michelle’s booms, ‘There is so much fog here.’
When we eventually break clear of the cloud cover we find ourselves flying high above Lake Thun, with the city spread out below us like a map. I can see a train snaking its way into the railway station. Oh the thrill! Oh the glorious excitement! Oh the, groan, nausea that threatens to engulf me like a tidal wave…!
Emitting enough shrieks to be mistaken for a mobile aviary, I forget my initial nervousness and revel in the sensation of floating. The fibre of the paraglider rustles sharply and the thermals lift us higher. To my left I can see the distinctive colors of my boyfriend’s paraglider doing audacious stunts like spiraling and weaving. Just seeing them makes me dizzy. Michelle notices my anxious glances and reassures me. ‘It’s absolutely safe. Do you want to try it?’‘No, thank you,’ I squeak.
Down below, I see Lake Brienz resembling a blot of spilt pale blue ink. A great fear suddenly seizes me – what if we fall into the water? ‘Help, I can’t swim!’ I think. No, of course not. All we can do is to jump into things we haven’t a clue about, admonishes a nasty little voice inside my head. We eventually pass onto land once more without mishap.
A bright streak of color zooms into my thoughts as a bird flies by. It is difficult to say who is the more startled of the two.
Suddenly my boyfriend is in front of me, having persuaded his pilot to maneuver his glider directly onto our path. ‘What are you doing? Are you out of your mind?’ I yell, afraid that our gliders may get entangled and we’ll both plummet to our deaths.
He grins and opens his mouth and out pop the last words I would have expected to here. ‘Devyani, will you marry me?’
Time seems to stop. A moment ago the wind was rushing around me, now it has gone pin-drop quiet. Indeed, the wind seems to have been knocked out of me. I can’t believe what I’ve heard, yet I have never been so certain of anything. The pilots are forgotten, the paragliders are forgotten, the fact that we are about five miles straight up in the air hanging in open empty space is forgotten. All that I am aware of is this man in front of me who loves me enough to want to spend the rest of his life with me. My throat is choked. I can only whisper, ‘Yes.’ It is enough. There is no need to shout. He knows, and I know he knows. The moment passes as Michelle congratulates me and my boyfriend (soon to be my husband) smiles and flamboyantly whirls away.
We are airborne for twelve incredible minutes. Still, when the time comes for us to descend, neither of us is too unwilling. Not for me a tame landing.
‘We will have to land in the wrong direction of the air current. Can you run fast?’ yells Michelle over the roar of the wind. Gulp. I know I like to do things with style and substance. But this is rather too much substance!
As the earth rushes up to meet our feet, we are unable to keep up with the momentum of the paraglider at touch-down and in a most undignified conclusion, my pilot and I fall over backwards. We are dragged several feet on the grassy lawn, no doubt irreparably marring the grass beds, but having enough layers of clothing on to give competition to a rhinoceros, I am unhurt – shaken, but not freaking any more than usual. Michelle emerges unscathed, too, having had the good sense to keep me below her at all times. My boyfriend, who has already landed comfortably, rushes over as soon as he can shrug free of his glider. His face is pale with concern and his eyes sick with worry. ‘Thought you had… I had… ’ He can’t bring himself to complete the sentence and is looking daggers at the pilots and thinking murderous thoughts even though it isn’t exactly their fault. After I reaffirm again and again that I am alright, he helps me out of the various contraptions and we help the pilots roll up the paragliders. ‘Real sorry about that, folks,’ says Michelle in a genuinely apologetic voice. ‘Usually it is a cakewalk, but, hey, Mother Nature, you know. So unpredictable!’ We console ourselves with shrugging, grinning proudly for the cameras and parting ways, having made “firm” friends with the ground. unpredictable!’
On the flight back, one last look at the Alps standing tall and proud – a symbol of life and unfettered enjoyment – and I know my life has gotten a new lease of freshness. I look into the loving eyes of my better half, give him an affectionate smile and lay my head down on his capable shoulders. He gives me an absent-minded pat and observing the far-away look in his eyes, I’m sure that he is already busy planning our next trip. But as far as I am concerned, we are both about to set out on the biggest adventure of our lives – together.