[Bir Tibetan Colony, Himachal Pradesh, India]
Another week in paradise has come and gone, and all you’ve got to show for it is this meager, suggestive, implicitly taunting blog post.
As you’ve come to expect, my flying options here have been downright terrible. I mean, like, seriously, like, tragically horrific, y’know? I.e. out of the last seven days, I have only been able to fly for a paltry…seven days.
I feel robbed. Cheated.
The truth is it’s been an incredible week in the air. Incredible, and very humbling. Bir is known world-wide for providing serious and bountiful cross-country (XC) options. Hoping to take advantage of these, I started my week with big plans: explore the neighboring valleys, reliably stay aloft for two hour flights, navigate to Dharamshala and back (over 80 kilometers), find and conquer some of the booming thermals in the area (this time of year 5-10 meters per second), and so on. These plans didn’t work out so well, at least initially.
My first couple of flights ended up with me “bombing out,” or sinking below the altitude where reliable thermal lift can be found and exploited.
[For my skydiving friends: bombing out is the paragliding version of going low on a formation–due to poor flying skills, incorrect reading of weather and terrain, fading attention, bad luck, or some combination thereof, one ends up unable to enter, continue, or complete one’s intended flight.]
Instead of two-hour flights, I felt lucky to get 30 minutes. I scratched around 50 – 100 feet above the treetops looking for lift, and freaking myself out by maintaining such proximity to terrain (a major no-no in the world of skydiving, but standard fare for the XC pilot). Two days in a row my nervousness got the better of me-I abandoned my plans and escaped into the security of open fields in the valley below. On day three, though, I steeled myself for the inevitable pucker factor and just went for it. Suppressing years’ worth of skydiving reflexes and habit, I was able to walk ridge after ridge, bombing out three times and each time finding my way back to cloudbase (about a 1200 meter difference on that day).
Two hours and seven minutes later I landed happily back in Bir, bladder full, hungry, sunburned and brimming with piss ‘n vinegar.
This pattern held for the next two days; I successfully found thermals, rode them to cloudbase, and flew to the next interesting ridge in order to repeat the process. It was a fantastic experience and a serious breakthrough in my XC learning process.
Not everyone was so lucky. This week we had at least 5 people throw their reserves, three of whom ended up with broken bones. Two of these tosses were due to a canopy collision (people here don’t always follow the right-of-way rules inside a thermal–VERY bad juju); the others due to unexpected turbulence close to terrain. Another friend broke his wrist just today, during an attempted off-landing. Yet another friend upset everyone yesterday by accidentally sending out an automated “I Need a RESCUE!” message instead of the intended “I landed off and will make my own way home” message. Not cool.
The upshot of all this is that I worked my way through a number of aerodynamic inadequacies and into the first vestiges of improvement. I learned. I paid attention. I got measurably better. I learned where my limits are and started methodically to push them. I flew well, I flew daily, and have finally–almost seven months into my trip–begun to develop a feeling of comfort with my wing.
Still…flying isn’t the only thing I’ve been up to. I’ve also done a little bit of eating and drinking. Y’know…just to keep up my strength for all the rigorous, exhausting non-flying I’ve been doing every single day. To take one simple example, I’ve had at least 7 dozen (!!) momos this past week: 3 dozen chicken, 2 dozen mutton, and 2 dozen vegetarian momos. Flippin’ dee-lish–and with a handful of noteworthy purveyors here in Bir Tibetan Colony, momos are always a reliable, go-to choice for the sport- or charas-enhanced appetite. (This latter enhancement holding, perhaps, a not-so-vaguely causal relationship with an inordinate quantity of Snickers bars ingested over the same period. Not by me of course, I would never….) Though Indian beer isn’t really my thing (or anyone else’s for that matter), I have also
been force-fed enjoyed a bit of Kingfisher Strong and a few bottles of everyone’s perennial favorite, Dare Devil 10000. And naturally I found the single place in this tiny village that serves real, Italian espresso (though I will skip for the moment the effect said espresso had on my no-longer-accustomed-to-espresso intestinal tract).
Let’s see…what else?
I have befriended the town donkey, a friendly, crippled fellow I have affectionately named “Ted.” Ted is a wonderful beast whom the local Tibetans have outfitted with a homemade, rubberized hoofguard which protects his accident-twisted forelimb from the unforgiving terrain and pavement while allowing it to bear weight. Most days Ted wanders happily up and down BTC’s main street–rummaging for food, making friends, ignoring the scores of honking taxi drivers in town, and just generally–if a bit stubbornly–spreading his equine good-naturedness. Most places would’ve just given ol’ Ted the axe, but here he’s well-fed and has full run of the town.
On the other end of the attitude spectrum lies Bill–Pokhara Bob‘s moody, aggro cousin from Bir. Of the many exemplars of South Asian bovinity I’ve encountered during my travels, Bill is easily the bitchiest; even the locals steer clear of him–often walking behind parked vehicles or into the nearest storefront when Bill approaches.
Aside from donkey and cow, I have been quietly surveilled by a mongoose, attacked bloodily by mosquitoes, kissed randomly by a stray dog, and observed with curiosity by denizens of the largest hornet’s nest I have ever seen–easily twice the size of an average, US store-bought pumpkin.
Dr. Doolittle, eat your heart out.
Until next week,
Your Faithful Thermic Explorer,