Monday, November 22, 2010

Paragliding Western Pakistan - Part Two

I’m what doctors call a stone producer. I have four or five kidney stone attacks a year. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I continually put myself in situations where I experience near fatal dehydration. I usually get through them fine by forcing fluids, jumping rope and eating handfuls of Oxycotin until I hear that satisfying tink in the toilet bowl that lets me know I’ve passed the fucker.

But in this case, with an opium addiction to get over, painkillers were out of the question. So I just laid in bed screaming for three days. Apparently the noise bothered some of the other guests, prompting the uppity desk clerk to look in on me. He almost seemed genuinely concerned when he offered to call a doctor for me. Hell no. Everyone knows all the good Pakistani doctors are driving cabs in America, so I sent him on his way and went back to bed to chew my pillow.

That was one intense weekend. My withdrawal symptoms magnified the agony of the pain and cramping of the kidney stone and vice versa. Anyone passing by my room would have thought someone was being tortured in there. To make that pain stop, I would have told my tormenters anything they wanted to hear. Well, not anything. I wouldn’t lie or make things up. I’m not a liar.

Finally, the screaming and vomiting stopped and I heard the tink. I was finally ready to go paragliding.

I hired a driver to take me and my gear up on a ridge along Highway 25. Throughout the drive he kept asking me if I was CIA. I assured him I was just a tourist, but he wouldn’t be convinced. He kept asking spy questions: How many terrorists had I killed? Where else have I been on assignment? Was I a Jew? Did I know Sean Hannity? Some of the questions confused me, but I just kept firmly denying everything until he finally shut up. It felt a little weird denying my friendship with Sean, but I just didn’t want to get into a long conversation with this rag-head.

When I spotted a good launch site on a high ridge with a good steep cliff, I told the driver to stop. I paid him a fistful of alien cash that seemed to satisfy him, and then I started laying out my canopy and putting on my harness. He stood transfixed, watching my every move. It was pretty breezy up there, so I did the reverse launch technique; walking backward facing the wing as the wind inflated it and then turning at the last second to jump off the cliff. As I sailed away, my driver called out to me, “Good luck on your mission!” At least he’s supportive of our cause. One of the good guys.

First I glided along the ridge to get that updraft while I scouted out my first thermal. Then I spied a section of mountainside illuminated by the hot sun with a small cumulus cloud right above – sure signs of a strong thermal updraft. I steered over and found it, then circled the core to gain some nice altitude just below the clouds.

That brings be back to where I started this tale, gliding over the Mars-like barren landscape of Balochistan. After taking in the breathtaking, awesome, eerie beauty of the mountain range below me, I started to get a little bored.

As an ultra-extreme-sport enthusiast who cheats death nearly every day, it’s hard for me to get amped over anything that doesn’t offer the possibility of a serious injury, at least. Paragliding is about as safe a so-called adventure sport can be. You start out under a fully deployed chute – so you don’t have to worry about falling. About the worst that could happen is that you might float down and land somewhere you didn’t intend, like the alligator pen at Gator World, and what are the chances I’ll ever do that again?

But just as I was considering turning back and cutting my flight short, something happened to break up the monotony. A huge Lammergeier, also known as a Bearded Vulture, sailed up beside me to catch the same thermal I was riding. It was monster, about four feet long with a wingspan of at least nine feet. Its white head feathers made it look like the ugly stepbrother of our own national symbol. This was one badass bird.

He sailed up right beside me and looked me right in the eye, and I swear he nodded at me. I couldn’t help but think it was a nod of recognition, as if he was acknowledging our kinship as fellow masters of the sky. Suddenly he went swooping down to the ground, and in less than a minute he returned with something amazing.

Clutched in his claw was a Black Cobra. I’ve heard that Lammergeiers sometimes pick up turtles and then drop them from high altitudes to break open their shells, so maybe he made a mistake in picking up the cobra. Or maybe he was just showing off for me. But things didn’t go as planned for my new friend. He tried to drop the cobra, but it had wrapped its tail-end around his left leg. Once his head-end was free, it started striking the bird in the crotch while he franticly tried to kick it away. The vulture went into a quick descent, possibly already feeling the effects of the cobra’s lethal venom. Assuming they made it down to the ground without crashing, I’d score this round to the cobra. It was awesome – a midair battle to the death. It almost could be seen as an allegory for something. For what, I don’t know.

Continued next week: danger!

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