Sunday, November 2, 2008

Flying at the Farm.

Multi-culturalism defined: last weekend I met an American with a heavy Latvian accent (if there is such a thing) who told us that there is a local paragliding club in Almaty. He told me to wait on a particular corner any Saturday, at 10am, and look around for jumpers. These kind of people are an easy breed to identify in the wild: chain smokers, fidgety, poorly dressed in ratty, but previously expensive gear. My Latvian contact wasn’t there. And it turns out he’s Lithuanian. And his name isn’t Jag, it’s Ginn. But the group took me in and we drove 25km out of town. It didn’t seem to faze them that I couldn’t speak much Russian: the language of gear, equipment, meteorology, and curse words has been anglicized anyway, so we had a good trip on our way to the hills.

Upon arrival, we unloaded 4 hang-gliders, and a half dozen 50lb bags filled with paragliders. More hung-over jumpers trickled in as we were getting set-up. Dimitri, an excellent (and licensed) instructor asked me to assemble one glider while he worked on the other. I hesitated a little. His English was pretty good. He said “I thought you said you were a pilot and a jumper.” To which I responded “Yeah, a hundred years ago, and I wasn’t really good at either task.” He said “Don’t worry. That glider is a hundred years old.” Upon closer inspection, I think the Wright brothers may have borrowed some of the technology on this old bird.

But I went to work, and within an hour we had two workable gliders and about 500lbs of paragliding gear to haul up the hill, the old fashioned way. Dimitri and Denise are two excellent instructors. Very friendly and very willing to help share the excitement of flying.
The glider practise was great fun. I hardly got it two feet off of the ground. But it was heavy and awkward to carry back up the hill, as the one photo shows. My arms, shoulders, ribs, lower back, and legs, are in agony today. We took quite a beating running down the hill, falling and jumping, willing these crates to get airborn.

But the paragliding work was the highlight of the day. It’s surprisingly hard work to get them in the air as well. I’m used to just falling out of a plane while the canopy opens it itself. But these needed to be pulled up behind you at the right time while you start running like someone just lit a match in a meth-lab. And you have to pump your arms up and down to inflate all of the air cells in the canopy. Then hopefully, it steers straight and you get a bit of a glide as you untangle the brake lines from the risers. A few minutes later, start looking for a place to land. Or in my case, slide to a stop in the field full of sheep shit. The Almaty Paragliding Club leases a couple hundred acres off of a local sheep ranch. The picture with the Kazak kid looking at us in our gear is a local shepherd taking a break.

It was a great way to spend the morning and I am going to become a member of their little club. But I need a helmet, some padding, and a scarf because these savages jump in the winter as well. A cup wouldn’t hurt either--their harnesses aren’t, how can I say, ergonomically comfortable.

As I started hitch-hiking home, I looked behind me and noticed how picturesquely and idyllically situated the Muslim graveyard was at the bottom of the gliding hill. Look closely at the exact centre of the photo and you will see my new Kazak friends ready to start running down the hill. Kind of like one-stop-shopping.

Pax, Dave

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