"Everybody wants to fly. Everybody," says Alejandro (Cha Cha) Diez. "To fly, I guess, is human instinct."
Human instinct? Flying? He's got to be kidding. But then Diez, 29, is the former president of Guatemala's Asociación de Vuelo Libre—the national hang gliders' organization—and I'm a 42-year-old Jewish lady from New York who gets the willies just peering over the edge of the roof of my five-story apartment building. So I figure that maybe Cha Cha knows something I don't.
It is April and I have come to Panajachel, Guatemala, on the shores of Lake Atitlàn, to taste some of life's simple pleasures after a month of working in Nicaragua. I am luxuriating at a private home by the lake when I notice several of the colorful hang gliders circling noiselessly above me. They fascinate me, and when my host offers to take me into Panajachel to meet the men who fly them, I eagerly accept.
As it turns out, it is the weekend of the Central American Hang Gliding competition, and there are contestants from Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador in town. When we find them, the pilots are gathered around a long table in the lobby of a lakeside hotel owned by Juan Jose Del Carmen, 45, who also happens to be guru to Guatemala's handful of hang glider pilots.
The immediate job at hand is for the contestants to "set the task"—prescribe the maneuvers—for the final event of the three-day competition. The pilots are all talking at once, loudly, about "the task," describing great sweeps and loops with their hands. Every so often one or another punctuates a statement by getting up from the table and walking to the back of the room to get a beer from the cooler. "Hang glider pilots can never agree on anything," Del Carmen says to me. "It's a sport that attracts leaders, not followers. With 25 leaders, you naturally have 25 different opinions."
"Deadly butterflies" these kites have been called, and in the air they do look like gaudily colored insects; there also is no shortage of evidence that they can be dangerous. Del Carmen has lost both arms at the elbow. He "misjudged" and flew his glider into high-tension wires in December 1979. By May 1980, fitted with prostheses, he was flying again. "If I can't fly," he says, "I'm not a whole man."
Fernando Linares-Beltranena, 40, a lawyer and one of Guatemala's first generation of hang glider pilots, has a wide scar that runs down the back of one arm. "An unfortunate experience doesn't necessarily mean you're not going to try again," Linares-Beltranena says. "It is irrational to say that because you've been hurt, you'll never fall in love again. It is just as irrational to say that because you have had an accident, you will never fly again."
After all the commotion among the contestants, it is decided to repeat the task of the previous day—to circle each of five pylons set up in the mountains surrounding the lake's northern side. Circling each pylon will be worth a given number of points, as will each takeoff and landing, highest point total wins. Up to now in the competition, the Guatemalans have been dominant. Mario Palacios holds first place, Diez is second and Byron Soto is third. Diez announces that parachutes will not be mandatory, but that anybody flying without a helmet will be disqualified. This rule is aimed specifically at Palacios, 32, a tightly wound bundle of energy considered by many to be the best flyer in Guatemala. Palacios used to race motorcycles and he still rides one pretty fast on the streets. His scars are not from hang gliding.
As the final day's competition begins, the police block off one lane of the road approaching the takeoff ramp in order to give the pilots room to set up. This is a far cry from the early '80s, when, in the thick of the political conflict that grew so violent that it spawned coups in both 1982 and '83, the Guatemalan army often temporarily confiscated hang gliding components in the belief that the instrumentation the pilots occasionally mounted on their craft—variometers, anemometers, altimeters, compasses, etc.—was actually sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment.
The gliders are unzipped from their carrying cases. The battens, or struts, are inserted into channels sewn into the rip-stop fabric, giving shape to the wings. I watch in fascination as the multicolored birds materialize. They sit like a flock of Dacron-and-aluminum condors on the edge of the cliff, perched to take off.
Guatemala has some of the most exotic takeoff sites in the world. Linares-Beltranena says. "Where else can you jump from the sides of a steaming volcano, fly over a lake and then over tribes of Indians in traditional dress dotting the mountainsides?" I have no idea where else. Lake Atitlàn is ringed by volcanic cliffs 12,000 feet high, and every day at noon the wind—known to the Indians as the Xocomil—sweeps across the water and into the mountains, where it creates the updrafts that are necessary to keep the hang gliders aloft for hours at a time.
Well, almost every day: Today the air is calm, one of those rare days that occur shortly before rainy season when the wind shifts from a strong southerly blow and dies before changing to northerly gusts. Nobody is eager to fly. The announcer calls the competitors' names, and one after another the pilots say they will pass. The announcer goes through the list again, and this time Palacios, visibly impatient, decides to try his wings. He launches himself in what seems to me a totally reckless manner, jumping off the cliff without waiting for the security of the breeze. It is his trademark. Then he descends sickeningly toward the lake until, at last, he finds a thermal and begins to gain altitude. It is a frightening sight.
After seeing the first few hang gliders off, I hop into a car to drive down the mountain to watch some landings. A "perfect" landing is to stop on the cross hairs of the target—in this case, a 10-yard cross formed of fabric that has been laid out on a lakefront beach—standing on one's feet with the glider's wings off the ground. Amazingly, a few of the pilots manage this difficult maneuver. We gather on the beach, awaiting the announcement of the outcome, a gaggle of hippies, Indians, Guatemalan yuppies and the ubiquitous men in uniform. The results: three gliders unaccounted for (no big deal; it is assumed, correctly, that they simply lost the thermal they were riding and have landed elsewhere, and will eventually turn up). The winner of the Central American title is Soto. Diez, the points leader, has been disqualified for flying without a helmet.
It has been a marvelous experience to view all this close up, but now I am filled with longing and apprehension. I don't exactly want to try this perilous sport myself, but I would like to know what it feels like to be free and unencumbered. I ask several of the pilots to describe the sensation to me in a way that I can better understand.
"You get a rush the first few times you take off," says Palacios, "but after that it's pretty much like driving a car."
"To me it's always exciting," says Linares-Beltranena. "There's always that feeling of apprehension. But there's also a tremendous feeling of freedom."
"You move in three dimensions at once," says Diez. "Flying is freedom."
I feel my common sense losing the battle with my desire to see how it really feels. I begin to realize that I will have to fly if I am going to understand this.
After leaving word on the disposal of all my earthly goods, I set off with Palacios, who is to be the pilot on my maiden voyage—a tandem flight. A mutual friend has pleaded with him on my behalf not to fly too high and to play no tricks.
The first stop is Mario's house to pick up a glider or two. Individually shrouded, the papalotes (butterflies) hang from brackets on the garage wall, one under the other from ceiling to floor. No serious pilot is satisfied with only one craft. Two is the absolute minimum; some pilots have half a dozen. The people I have met are clearly from the privileged class because the cost of a single glider is $2,800—and that is more than twice the average per capita annual income ($1,250) for this nation.
We head for the hills to the California-style A-frame house of Diez and his wife, Hilda. Not a pilot herself, Hilda has flown tandem with her husband several times. I ask her what it was like. She giggles and says, "You have to try it."
Seven of us and gear are packed into a single car. The papalotes are lashed to the top. It is already late afternoon and getting chilly as we drive up the twisting mountain road.
A hawk flies overhead. Diez stops the car and gets out. The others follow and stand with Cha Cha in the middle of the road, transfixed, gazing skyward. When the bird makes a particularly fancy maneuver, they cheer and say, "Què lindo [How beautiful]." They urge the bird on, their bodies straining upward like spectators who can't stay in their seats during a sports event. When the hawk disappears, we drive on to our own time in the air.
The takeoff site is cold and the wind is blustery and the sky darkening. The others casually stride to the edge of the cliff and look out to gauge conditions. I imitate them as bravely as I can. Everyone agrees that it is not a good day for flying. My safety has been granted a reprieve from my curiosity.
But only a temporary one. A few days later Soto calls. "A couple of us are going flying tomorrow and we need a driver," he says. "Interested?" The driver is the land-bound assistant who must move the car from the takeoff point to the landing site to pick up pilots and their cumbersome gear. I agree to do it.
The other pilots are Soto's cousin, Giovanni Vítola, 21, and Palacios. During the ride to the mountain, Soto tells stories of people who had gotten airsick while flying tandem. Big, macho guys, too—guys who had been skydiving and piloted small planes. I am glad I'm not going up. There is a fierce wind at the takeoff site. A year earlier at this very spot, with similar weather conditions, Soto had a bad accident: His hang glider flipped over on takeoff and did a 180 into the side of the mountain. Someone down below had seen the papalote smash against the rocks and had called for help. Soto was lucky: He shows his scars. One is an inch wide running the length of his stomach. Another is on his right thigh. "Hey, don't write about the accidents," he says. "It'll give the sport a bad name. It was my fault. To quote Lilienthal, 'Sacrifices must be made.' "
Soto is almost reverential as he speaks of Otto Lilienthal, the German pilot who has been called the father of gliding for his early experiments with curved-wing aircraft. It was on his deathbed in 1896, following a crash, that Lilienthal said those words.
We set up the papalotes. Soto is jumpy. The memory of last year's accident is suddenly fresh. Nevertheless, he walks to the edge of the dirt ramp. The wind lashes at his face. If he is going to fly, this is it. It is getting late. He wants to be the first to launch. The others must help him balance the wings in these gusts. He puts on his helmet, goggles and the padded harness that is, appropriately, called a cocoon.
As Soto stands ready for takeoff at the back of the ramp, Palacios and Vítola help steady the craft's 20-foot wings as it is whipped by the wind. They fight to hold on as the papalote struggles to lift off. Suddenly, in one quick motion the glider flips off the edge of the ramp. The big wing flaps impotently, but Soto is all right. The glider is righted with the aid of a couple of the Indians who live on the mountain in a style not much changed from that of their ancestors. Shaken but determined, Soto grips the control bar. Now it takes four men to hold the wings. Then with a short, quick run he is off. He rises and circles back over the ramp. "It's beautiful," he yells down to me. "Come on in."
Unexpectedly, Palacios throws me a harness. "Here, put this on," he says. I do as I am told. The harness resembles a catcher's chest protector, attached to a giant stirrup. Palacios hooks me to a hang glider, and there I swing, ready to fly. Rather than feeling terror at what is about to happen, I am comforted by a bewildering sense of security brought on by all the fabric and tubes. After giving the plane one quick final inspection, Palacios slips into his cocoon and moves beside me. "Stay by my side," he says. "As close to me as possible. Put your left hand around my back. When I say run, run. When I say jump, jump."
He tells me that we will wait for the thermal even "if it takes half an hour." I hope it won't take so long. I don't need all that time to think about what I am about to do.
We stand at the back of the ramp, far enough away from the edge that I can't see straight down, so I don't get that giddy feeling I associate with heights. Then the order comes: "Run!" And I run, one arm around Palacios, the other hand covering my eyes—or so I am later told. "Jump!" And that is it.
I look down. My feet are still pedaling furiously. I manage to maneuver them onto the bar, rather gracefully, I think, under the circumstances. I extend my legs until my body rides horizontal to the earth. I ease my death grip on Mario as we soar above the takeoff site. Suddenly I haven't a care in the world. I feel completely at peace, yet totally exhilarated.
I have been in small planes before. I have even taken the controls of a two-seater helicopter. But those experiences did nothing to prepare me for this sheer joy of flying free with nothing between me and the elements. I can reach out and touch the clouds. They are wet, cold, too thick to see through. When the pilots lose sight of one another as they fly through the clouds, they communicate by whistling. It is the only sound up here besides the wind.
As thrilling as it is to watch the airborne waltz of the planeadores (pilots) from the ground, it is more so from the vantage point of an eagle. Vítola has also launched himself. We are three birds, thousands of feet above the ground. The sky is our playground. Soto dips and sways as Vítola goes for speed. For almost two hours I watch the antics of the other two while Palacios calmly circles our tandem glider above Lake Atitlàn. He must be bored out of his mind, but I am in heaven, literally.
Cha Cha was right, after all, I think: To fly is human instinct.
Two planeadores search for thermals above Lake Atitlàn.
Watching the silent butterflies inspired the author to try it herself.