One Life

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

Prelude

In the middle of June 2019, I happened to be chatting online with my buddy Luka. We were catching up on family happenings when he mentioned that he was going to do a skydive the following weekend and jokingly suggested that I should join him.


In Turkey, this is summertime and for me a very quiet period of the year in terms of work. Conversely, it’s also the noisiest time around the house as all the children are off school - screaming at the top of their lungs, attempting to kick our cats, ringing our doorbell...


Thus, the only hurdle was a mental one. I did a bungee jump many years ago and at the time said to myself that it felt less crazy as I was connected to mother Earth the entire time. Post jump I contemplated a skydive and wrote it off as a possibility due to the fact that one has to willingly throw oneself from a plane and that was more than I could manage.


Despite all this, and largely due to Luka’s very persuasive words about only living once, I agreed. At this stage however, it wasn’t certain that I would jump as it was such short notice and I didn’t have a reservation.


Even though it wasn’t clear if I would be able to jump or not, this didn’t stop my anxiety from kicking in. Throughout the days and nights leading up to the flight to Slovenia I tried to picture myself complete the fundamental step of actually stepping out of a flying aircraft at 4000 metres.


Mentally, I was trying to visualise actually doing it and at the same time being aware of my body’s reaction and making sure that I was breathing.


Nothing felt remotely comfortable about the whole exercise. And so, I found myself packing my bags and heading off into the unknown…

Day 1

Part-and-parcel of dealing with anxiety is that you do things that others might not. Rather than accept a ride from Hanife, my wife, to the airport, I preferred to take the airport bus. This meant that I had to learn where the bus stop was and how long it might take.


Long-story-short about living in Turkey – nothing is predictable. The website said the bus stop was at point A – it wasn’t. The travel time according to the website was 90 minutes – it wasn’t. The latter is a ridiculous idea anyway, as with the long distance to the new Istanbul airport, reportedly 3rd largest in the world, the travel time could be anywhere from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours or more should there be any kind of traffic issue.


As I had so much free time on my hands, I did a little recce to our local station and was lucky to find an airport bus waiting there. I rechecked the timetable, having already checked it on the internet. I’d figured that as the airport was new and massive it could take a huge amount of time to clear security and customs and had banked on needing 3 hours.


The 3 hours wasn’t just to clear everything, but also ensured that I wasn’t panicking about being late.


In the end, it was perhaps a record 40 minutes from our stop to the airport. Arriving so early, I feared that I wouldn’t yet be able to check-in, but despite my concerns, check-in was open and a lovely assistant helped me do it electronically as I was only carrying a small backpack.


I had ummed and erred about taking a big bag and had decided to challenge myself to packing light. Isn’t it funny how these days 30% of the weight / space seems to come from electronic equipment? In the old days it was just clothes and a toothbrush.


As I’m sure you are aware, it’s pot-luck with customs and security at airports. My entry was surprisingly bright though. I have to admit that due to the nature of my journey – potentially doing something normally reserved for the mentally insane – I was in a much lighter “can-do” mood than usual. As such, I conversed with the first security guard who happened to be male.


“Su geçmez değil mi?” I asked as I waved my bottle of water in the air. (“No water, right?”) With minimal effort he nodded his head as his attention was on the passengers in front of me.


“Kemer?” I pressed (“Belt?”). Which grammatically should have been “Kemer mi?” – I find it hard to break the habit of asking questions using an inflection of my voice as I would in English.


Again, he nodded his head. When it actually came to my turn, he surprisingly engaged me in conversation which revolved around my “wonderful” Turkish.


Reflecting more on it now, it would be better to describe my state as hyperactive rather than merely “lighter”. This is why I animatedly answered all his questions with a more confident voice than normal. This in turn, pulled the two female security guards, who were much further away, into our conversation.


The banter continued, until another passenger needed attention and I said to the male in a mockingly sad tone, “Ah. You have work to do.” Immediately one of the two ladies said, “We don’t. Come and talk to us!”


If you’ve travelled at all, you’ll be aware of just how surly airport staff can be. All-in-all we had quite a lengthy and enjoyable chat. I can’t say whether it was me giving off good vibes, or if they were simply very chirpy people, but either way, this was a wonderful way to start a journey into the unknown.


Customs, on the other hand, wasn’t so simple. Custom (or maybe the law) in Turkey is to keep every passport you’ve ever had and carry them with you when the need arises. As such, upon presenting only my current one, after flicking perplexedly through all the 50 pages a few times, the customs guy asked me where my first entry stamp into Turkey was (8 years and one passport earlier). “At home” I replied as my anxiety levels instantly shot to the roof. Imagine not being able to pass?! I was mentally calculating how much time it would take to return home, get my passport and come back. Potentially viable as I was so early, but clearly not a pleasant thought.


Much to my relief, it wasn’t as necessary as he had indicated (apparently) as he bashed my passport with that wonderful stamp.


Again, it’s really hard to explain what effect these situations have on my mind. For an anxiety sufferer, Turkey is potentially the worst location on Earth, because despite there being rules, the application of them totally depends on the individual you face and their mood at the time.


Anyway, after killing an eon of time munching away on 3 small burgers, priced to burn a whole in your wallet, the journey truly began.



Although it was evening when I arrived into Ljubljana, the sun had not yet gone down. Being one hour behind Istanbul helped. So, first panic was that Luka wasn’t there to welcome me into his huge arms as planned (another anxiety precaution). Flustering around with my phone, trying to work out how to get it active in a foreign country for the first time was stressful.


Luckily, he was only 5 minutes away.



My first introduction was stressful too. This was when Oli was completely unhappy to see me. Well to be completely accurate, based on his body language, he was madly overjoyed and fiercely aggressive at the same time. How did I know this? Well the clear signs were his wagging tail and throaty growls.


It took Luka quite a while to quieten him down and even then, he was highly suspicious about the new entrant into his house. I think for Oli, I was too happy and relaxed and it would have been much better if I’d shown more respect to the “king-of-the-household”.


Being an animal lover, I usually win them over. Towards the end of the four days I managed to be able to play with Oli, but there was always a little tension in the air and I had to occasionally stop and look away to calm him down and at the same time allay my own fears of losing a hand.


Shortly after meeting Oli we got the lovely news that Luka’s sister Eva had given birth to her first child – a baby boy. The one real disappointment of the tour was not having the chance to meet her and of course him. We were equally as curious about each other I think.

Naturally, their parents, Sonja and Bojan were elated at becoming grandparents for the first time.


Luckily for me, Sonja was extremely adept at English having stayed with an English family at least six times in her youth. Bojan despite his lack of English, tried to jump into conversations and at times directly engaged me. I found this a wonderful thing as so often is the case that those not knowing the common tongue feel excluded. He bore the foreign tongue very well.


On this first night I only met the cat, dog and father. I had to wait till the following day to meet Luka’s mother. We instantly connected and had many a delightful chat, both serious and hilarious, over the short time I was there.



Day 2

Returning to the notion of madly jumping out of a plane, a New Zealand friend had laughingly told me that his instructors sole request was “Please do not throw up as I’ll get it directly in my face.” Adding to this particular fear I had added having my own personal bowel malfunction.


With these two worries in mind, I was very concerned about what I ate prior to the big day.


As it happened, I had little choice as the evening prior was a celebration party for Luka’s brother-in-law just having become a father for the first time.


Four different varieties of alcohol were consumed together with a huge platter of barbequed meat. Bojan, Luka’s father, commented that he was pleased that I was enjoying the meat so much. For sure this was the influences of Turkish life where meat is almost treated with the same reverence as money.



All the wines sampled were Slovenian. One was particularly different for me having never seen this kind of thing before. Cviček is made from both red and white grapes which gives it a much lighter colour.





Nothing to be done on the consumption front then – yet I still worried of course and took a full set of extra clothes.


Another thing that was preoccupying my mind was still trying to mentally picture myself actually jump out of the plane. Despite many attempts, I simply couldn’t visualise achieving this feat.


Distracting me from my fears, our first adventure for the day was driving to a nearby nature spot and taking a short walk with Oli through the forest.


I was surprised at how the walk looked almost exactly like one you might find in New Zealand. This was particularly so as there were ferns everywhere. This prompted a discussion that, in my ignorance, I believed ferns were native to New Zealand. I was perhaps mixing up the ferns with the koru.


Over the days I spent there, I came to realise that Slovenia outdid New Zealand in terms of something that it (NZ) was famous for throughout the world – its nature.


Alongside the beautifully clean path amongst the tall pine trees was a stream running at full speed. Thus, as well as the lovely sound of crunching of leaves underfoot, we could also hear the racing water down below us.


Even though I’d been exercising almost daily, I was quickly out of breath due to the climb. All my exercising had been on flat ground. Much easier for Luka with his long legs belonging to his almost two metre frame. Oli whilst initially feverishly enthusiastic and having to be restrained, soon joined me in a more ambling sort of pace.


After walking up to a waterfall, we took a few pictures and returned home to meet Luka’s mother for the first time.






As we’d gotten up (read: I’d gotten up) so late, this pretty much was the full day. In between there was a lot of chatting and laughter to be had. I love Luka as he is one of the few people in the world who truly listens and is attentive.


We love listening to each other’s stories.








Day 3

Today was the potential jump day. We still didn’t know if I would be joining Luka. During the night I had woken at least 5 times and been disappointed when looking at the time to discover that only a few minutes had passed since the last time I had checked. Additionally, we had to get up early as it was a 3.5 hour drive to the airstrip from Luka’s home. Thus, all in all little sleep was had. Interestingly, I found out later that our trip took us almost from one side of Slovenia to the other.



The scenery on the route was mesmerising. One of the parts that I love the most in nature is anything alpine and as we moved from east to west there were more and more mountains coming into view.







We drove through many valleys, villages passing farms and houses that were all immaculately kept. Not one piece of rubbish could be seen anywhere and everything was a lush shade of green. There were very few people out too as the temperature was over 30°.


Being the first day of the holiday period, it meant that many people were crossing into Croatia to head for the coastline and sea. Except for a seemingly unpopular 20km of coastline, Slovenia is landlocked.


We learnt about the crossings from the frequent traffic reports that came across the radio. In total we heard three different types of reports:


  • “There is a 90-minute delay crossing the border into Croatia…”

  • “Be careful travelling through Vrhnika as there’s an animal on the road…”

  • “An accident has occurred at Godovič creating a 2km backlog of traffic resulting in 30-minute delays…”


A few statistics to give you some idea of the locations before we move on:


In Istanbul, where I live, it’s not unusual for 4-6 lanes of traffic to be full throughout the day. Delays are common and can make a 30-minute journey become 2 hours or more.


Thus, I couldn’t help but laugh at the delay times.


Another feature of the journey, as well as the grand mountains, green scenery and comparatively empty roads, was the lack of straight roads. We’d taken the “Tiki tour” where the roads were extremely windy and narrow - more so than back home (New Zealand). Sleeping for 3.5 hours wasn’t an option.



Istanbul compared with Slovenia

Slovenia compared with New Zealand

One thing we saw huge numbers of was both motorcyclists and bicycle riders. They were everywhere in great numbers. It must have been heaven for the bikers particularly.

I stopped counting licence plates from different countries after I reached seven. Seems Slovenia is the destination of choice for many – no surprises there.


Our constant travel companion was the supremely aquamarine Soča River [video]. You could literally stop anywhere along the roadside, get out and find a wonderful vantage point from which to watch the pristine alpine water flow down the river. Sometimes gently, sometimes with a purpose.


Finally, we arrived in Bovec. The airstrip was lodged in the centre of a huge valley, completed surrounded by towering omnipresent grey mountains. Just coming to see this valley would have been highlight enough for me.


Some 30 minutes earlier we had stopped by the Soča to have a quick snack, not having stopped for the whole journey. As you might imagine, I nervously ate half a sandwich albeit having totally given in to the idea of making a complete mess of myself (referencing earlier potential posterior explosion).


In the valley, we parked within site of the airstrip and marvelled at the view as we had arrived early. While lunching earlier, I thought I had heard the sound of a light aircraft, which was confirmed as we soon spotted skydivers in bright red and yellow parachutes gently gliding down from the heavens. It had suddenly become real.


And yet, we still didn’t know if I was going to be able to jump.


The airstrip had a real summer feeling to it as directly outside the hangar was a small hut selling food and drink (read: beer) and a few small tables scattered around with big sun umbrellas.


In time, we made our way to the hanger where our first view was of the “packing ceremony”.

Compared with the picture I had had of young thrill seekers happily jumping out of planes and laughing with the adrenalin rush, it was an extremely sombre performance.


There was a mix of jumpers and instructors totalling no more than 20. The small hanger also housed two light aircraft (both two seaters), one of which had two mechanics underneath tinkering away. This added to the feeling that everyone was 100% fully occupied.


No one came to greet us – we were largely ignored by all-and-sundry. Trying to find someone in charge thus became our first mission.


Although the offices were fairly obvious, I think the view that had met us stunned us for a while. It took us, well me anyway, a while to get my bearings and be able to look beyond the instructors packing with ultimate concentration and the nervous first-time jumpers trying to deal with their emotions. There were, of course, also “real” jumpers who were just there for their own personal buzz. In fact, it was the first time I got to see a wingsuit in real life. (Click here to see a full parachute packing instruction video).


Wingsuit

We were due to arrive at 12.00, but had arrived around 11.30. Once we managed to track down someone official looking, we finally learnt that I would be able to jump, but that it wasn’t clear if we could jump together. Initially, we were disappointed as it was key that we went together. However, after a little time to ourselves, we decided that something must be able to be worked out to ensure we could jump together. We might have to wait a little longer is all.

Around 13.30, an instructor, that we had earlier spoken to and noted his brilliant manner when talking to us, came and let us know that we could jump at the same time. Thus, everything was set. Luka simply needed to relax and wait, and I just needed to visit the toilet frequently and panic a lot. Okay, so Luka isn’t superman, but whereas my level of anxiety was like a wrecking ball, his was like a pea.


Thus, for another hour or so, I paced up and down the hangar, went outside to take photos, sat and chatted with Luka, visited the you-know-what and generally tried to burn nervous energy.


Nejc - the Slovenian instructor who had been helping us - came to let us know that we would be on the next jump run. Also, that the other tandem instructor would be a woman. Whilst this might normally cause some childish banter (well, to confess, it did for a short while), it was really of no importance to me when compared with the looming task ahead.


Sometime later, we met Fernanda who was from Mexico and a full time jump instructor based in Bovec. For Nejc this was a weekend gig to (we assumed) earn some extra money. We guessed his share of the €220 price tag was at least €150 and at 10 jumps per day was a nice side-earner. €220 is roughly 1,400TL, US$250, or NZ$370 which whilst perhaps not seeming to be a lot in euros or dollars, for lira earners it’s a small fortune – the monthly basic wage, earned by (I surmise) the vast majority is around 2,000TL.


Each instructor took their jumper aside and explained the process, dos and don’ts and critical points. We learned later that Nejc’s approach was far more relaxed than Fernanda’s perhaps as they had cleverly sussed-out the anxiety levels of their jumpers and acted accordingly. Or perhaps, as Fernanda was a dancer by trade she was used to choreographing and leading others in minute detail. Who knows? Either way, it suited both of us well.


Funnily enough, the choice of who would partner whom was left to Fernanda to decide. Both of them were shorter and lighter than us. Also, as both Luka and I could compete in the heavyweight division (greater than 91kg or 200lbs), there was only perhaps our good-looks to choose from. Needless to say - Fernanda chose me.





After such a long wait, the process from getting instructions, suiting up, and walking to the plane was incredibly short. I couldn’t imagine this aircraft ever having had seats. There we just two short plank type seats which were shared by most with the floor also being used. In total, there were 8 of us squashed in. 4 pros, some with wingsuits, all with head cameras and big smiles with the other 4 being: Luka, Nejc, Fernanda and myself.








I was happy that Luka had “drawn the short straw” and had to sit on the floor right next to the door. He seemed not to care at all and in fact, spent almost the entire 15-minute flight chatting with Nejc. In terms of painting a picture of the scene, as well as there being absolutely no space for any more jumpers, Luka and I were already attached at the hip to our instructors i.e. we couldn’t move at all and nor could we turn around to talk to them. So, when I say that Luka was chatting, this means that his head was half-turned to Nejc and he was yelling at him due to the noise of the single propeller driven plane.


Fernanda very kindly tried to calm my nerves by point out the sites as we ascended. “Over there is the tallest waterfall in Slovenia,” she remarked pointing with her finger. I quickly glanced at it and thought that under other circumstances I might have thought it beautiful.

However, I cared as much as if she had said, “Oh look, there’s a flying pig!”


I spent most of the flight mentally recalling her instructions against the fear of blindly panicking on exit and forgetting everything. To be sure, the exit from the plane is easily the most critical part of the whole deal. Screw-up there and it’s gonna be a pretty unpleasant journey for all.


My instructions were to bend like a banana: tilt my head back as far as it would go, arch my back, and bend my legs up between hers. I was repeating these over-and-over in my mind when it occurred to me that adding “breathe” would be a top addition to the list. At first, I put it at the end, and then I realised that without said breath, the rest was pretty pointless and hence put it first.


I did try to admire the views, but after a while, sitting rigid in such a tight place started to feel uncomfortable. Also, the plane lurched at one point which certainly didn’t help.


It became clear that the action was about to start when Fernanda set the top buckles of the harness joining us together. Pulling all the restraints tighter, she put my goggles on for me. To be honest, it felt a little like mother and child. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, at that point, I felt completely helpless.


Then came the one-minute warning. Upon receiving the news from the pilot, Fernanda waved one finger at the others. This awakened my co-passengers and prompted a full round of “bro/homie” handshakes and the shouting of “Good jump!”s – all except Luka who was still merrily chatting away.


In the basket of “it’s the small things that matter”, one of the pros at the back raised his eye brows at me, perhaps recalling his first jump and realising just how frightened I was. I responded with a “What can I do?” expression and in this way, he helped me to relax in the final moments.


Luka of course was first. After disappearing without a hitch, it was my turn. I was completely powerless at this point. Firmly tied to my partner, she had full control and was waddling me slowly to the open doorway with the clouds zooming by and the wind rushing in like a devil.

One of the instructions I forgot to mention was that I had to hold onto my harness from before we started shuffling until she patted me on the shoulder (outside) and it was okay to “fly” as she described it.


Try to imagine someone literally pushing you to the precipice.


Herein lies the key to what I believe is probably almost everyone succeeding in their virgin jump – the instructors give you exact and simple instructions and command authority. Maybe for another personality type this wouldn’t work, but for me it was perfect. It was much the same with my bungee jump. At the jump part, where it was 100% up to me whether I jumped or not, the instructor’s words were: “You will.. You will .. and then you will…” There was never any doubt in his mind.


Which connects beautifully with the massive difference between a bungee jump and a skydive. With the bungee you make the decision to jump – with the dive they make the decision to jump.


And the little trick up their sleeve that I wasn’t aware of was that tilting my head back on exit meant that I was never looking at the ground. Sure, I’d been picturing the distance between terra firma and us ever expanding for 15 minutes while climbing higher and higher into the sky, but at the critical exit point I wasn’t.





Big breath and … whoosh…!






{take some time to let it sink in}








{no really}













When chatting to Fernanda prior to the jump, she told me that one of the things that made it more enjoyable for her was if the jumper enjoyed it. In this vein, I hope that screaming at the top of my lungs like my life depended on it (haha) made the trip more fun for her.


The fall is in two parts, well three if you count the landing itself. Terminal velocity is around 200kph or 120mph. The first part is of course freefall. For the entire duration I screamed.

Cried a little too, to be honest.


Then without any warning at all, you feel like some “power above” grabs a firm hold of you and says “Enough of this!” and wretches you back up into the sky. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Fernanda had just released the chute.


Again, Luka and I were opposites. He enjoyed the open parachute part – probably as he was allowed to turn it left and right, whereas I preferred the freefall.


Although the views were magnificent during freefall, I don’t think my brain was processing any of them. At one point, even Fernanda raised my head as if to say, “Look. It’s wonderful.”


Then as we descended with the chute open, it seemed all too short. Before we knew it, we were crash landing. I say “crash” but it was fully under the control of Fernanda’s capable hands. We landed on our bottoms simply because I was taller than her and trying to land on our feet i.e. my feet, would have been a disaster.


My overwhelming inclination was to cry once back on Earth.





Rather than leave immediately, Luka and I decided to have a well earnt beer and enjoyed watching the other jumpers landing with our newly acquired knowledge of what it felt like.


We chatted a bit with our new friends during their breaks and then headed off with the feeling that we’d achieved something monumental and done it together.


To finish off the day, we went on a truly meandering drive through the windiest roads I have encountered in my life. Calling it the Slovenian Pyrenees wouldn’t do these roads justice.


If you care to look it up, the location was the Vršič Pass. We climbed from the 400m elevation on the valley floor to just about 1500m, all the time navigating our way around cyclists and bikers. Not so easy on such narrow roads.


Returning eventually to the lowland, we found a very popular picnic area surrounding an opening in the Soča that looked like a mini lake. As it was late in the day, there were very few swimmers - it was extremely cold. The large bulk of water adventurers were young people jumping from a 3-tier tower into the “lake”.


Having just jumped from 4000m, I fancied myself as being able to do the high dive from the upper most platform, but decided to simply enjoy the swim instead of face another challenge. Time and place.

Day 4

We initially had plans to visit Luka’s sister and new nephew on the last day, but unfortunately, due to an issue with the little one, we weren’t able to.


Instead, we had a late breakfast at 12 o’clock where a debate ensued about me having a hot drink. In the end, to appease the natives, I succumbed and partook of some “weed” tea.


Lively enjoyable chats followed breakfast, followed by the surprise that lunch was going to be eaten at 14.00. These days, I never eat two meals so close together, so I was shocked.



However, the meal was a sumptuous piece of filet mignon (tenderloin) which is used in the preparation of Beef Wellington.


Potentially the most delicious meat I have ever eaten in my life - cooked to perfection by Sonja.





Following the meal, we chilled until it was time to go and then tried to avoid crying during the inevitable farewells.


My last moment of anxiety was at airport customs where a burly man took an inordinate amount of time checking and rechecking my passport against the details on his computer. He asked no questions, and what seems like an age later, finally let me through.


Turkish customs on the other side was a breeze. I was yet again surprised by the chirpy nature of the staff at the new airport.


All-in-all a perfect adventure. Every day was a joy with its own combination of “firsts” and highlights.


Many thanks and love to Luka, Sonja, and Bojan.


#efinahonline #skydiving #extreme #living #inspiration

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