By Marilyn Diggs
May 8, 2007

One morning while strolling to Praia do Pepino in Rio de Janeiro, I looked up to see colorful wings circling in the sky. Under the two delta-shaped wings, two people strapped side-by-side, drifted down, down and then their feet hit the grass running. Within a few meters, they slowed to a fast walk coming to a stop as the kite tilted, stopping on the ground.

The two 20-something men shook hands. One, dressed in jeans and an I love Rio” t-shirt, removed his helmet and still smiling waved goodbye. The instructor proceeded to wrap the kite around its metal frame. After strapping it atop the bed of a pickup truck, he sauntered my way. “Want to go up?” he asked. “The clouds have lifted and the wind is perfect today.”

Talk about a dream come true. I’d first seen hang gliding in Rio over fifteen years ago. Fascinated, yet feeling that participating in radical sports was not compatible with my role as a “responsible” mother, it had remained on my list of “Things I want to Do,” along with “visit Machu Picchu” and “swim with dolphins.”
It’s now or never, a voice said in my head. I scurried to the flight association headquarters – a small house near the landing field – paid a $100 fee and signed a release.

Together with Alex driving, we began the twisting climb through the chic, forested residential neighborhood at the base of Pedra da Gvea. The higher we drove, the steeper and more deserted the road became; the engine moaning as the gears shifted.

“How young was your youngest tandem passenger?” I asked.
“Four, but he went with his mom.”
“And the oldest?”

No sweat, I thought, I can do this.

The road ended at an open air parking lot. We scrambled up steps to a small patch of level ground just big enough to assemble two hang-gliders. The sweet smelling flora of the Atlantic rainforest filled my nose, the sea breeze cooled my face, and the sun beat down on my back. A half dozen curious onlookers had gathered to watch. A small crowd peered over the low stone fence 520 meters above the ocean, gasping at the view below. Despite the crowded space, the crew assembled the kites in record time.

My body tensed. Was I really going to put my life at risk for a 15-minute thrill? What if something happened? Who would give the speech at the BRITE Tourist Convention this afternoon? Come to think of it, no one even knew I was here. I wished my daughters could be here to see… no, they wouldn’t approve.

I strapped on my helmet and I watched one team after another run off the ramp into the sky. Alex and I practiced running together, a skill I would need at take off and landing. His instructions were in Portuguese, my adopted language of twenty years. It may as well have been Russian. I was petrified, my mind blank. He tried again in English. As he tightened the last straps on my fly belt, I regained my wits. OK, Got it (pictured left: Take-off platform indicated by arrow. Ipanema Beach in the foreground).

Latched together, I held a rope in my right hand and rested my other hand on his left shoulder blade.

“When I say, ‘run,’ run and don’t stop until I tell you.”

Once on the platform there was no turning back. I’d heard about a German tourist who panicked and stalled when he got to the edge. Both he and his instructor plummeted to their deaths. Urban legend? Maybe, but I wasn’t going to test it.

“Run!” Alex said. I heard the scrambling of our Nikes on wood and then silence as the wind hoisted us up from the earth. Within a matter of seconds the ramp and spectators looked like a scene through the wrong end of binoculars.

We drifted through the moist, cool, veil-like mist that plays hide and seek with Rio’s mountain peaks. Alex pulled on a rope to suspend my legs, making me horizontal. I was an eagle, an angel floating between ash-green peaks and solid granite.

“This is even better than I’d expected!” I gushed.
“Heh, loosen the grip on my back!” teased Alex.

We soared on the current, the spell interrupted only by the occasional blinking light of a camera on the tip of a wing. “Look that way and smile,” said Alex pointing to the camera (pictured right: Tandem flight over São Conrado Beach and Atlantic Ocean in Rio).

Smile? I couldn’t have stopped if I’d tried. Picture taken I resumed watching the scene below. To our left lay the sparkling Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain backed by a pink tinged sky. The white Christ statue with its arms outstretched over Rio looked like a dashboard replica. The beaches were strung out like pearls between the emerald Tijuca forest and the turquoise sea: Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, São Conrado… I mentally noted each one.

Below on the busy highway, toy cars chased. Layed out ahead was the endless cobalt Atlantic Ocean with satin white ribbons rippling its surface and dissolving on the shore. To my right, the magnificent Gvea Mountain and then the chic barrio of Barra de Tijuca, its buildings shimmering in the morning sun.

Floating, gliding, hovering, the beach and the grassy field grew closer. ” I’m going to release your legs,” Alex said. “Hang until I say, ‘run.'”

He did. And I did. Smoothly we ran together until the glider came to a rest on the grass. Alex loosened the straps that had kept us connected to our wings. His assistant Carlos appeared and dismantled the kite for the next trip.

“Wait, I’ll be back,” Alex said. He sauntered over to the flight association headquarters with the photo memory card in hand.

In a daze, I watched as other fliers touched down, unbuckled and waited with me for their instructors. No one spoke a word. We read each others’ thoughts through smiles.

Alex returned with the photo CD of my flight. I vaguely heard him say something about tomorrow and another hang-glide, but I wasn’t listening. I was soaring.

Associaão de Vo Livre do Rio de janeiro
Av. Prefeito Mendes de Morais s/n
Praia do Pepino ( Pepino Beach)
São Conrado
Tel: (21) 3322-0266
Instructor: Alex Resende (21) 9983-1413. email

Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International , a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges.

Previous articles by Marilyn:

Around Brazil: Sailing in Paraty
Santiago: Gateway to the Chilean Experience
The Enchanting Easter Island
Nature and Nurturing in Chile’s Lake Region
Chilean Patagonia: Going to the Ends of the Earth
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 2
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 1
Spending the Night in the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu
Brazil: Happy Moonlit Trails To You
Brazil: Paradise Found – Fernando de Noronha

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