travelers-talesBy MJ Pramik

Seeing the world anew.

When I hit sixty, my eldest daughter said, ‘Sixty is the new forty.’ These words spawned in me a wanderlust the likes of which I couldn’t believe, and weeks after my birthday I challenged myself to go alone to Antarctica. After cavorting with flocks of frenzied penguins and climbing out of a dormant volcano, I returned to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego – and an email bearing the news that my ninety-one-year-old father was fading fast. I rushed from Argentina to Ohio to hold his hand for the last five days of his life. I never did tell him, a great watcher of birds, about my adventure with the penguins he would have so loved.

After witnessing my father’s death, I resolved to live more fully in each moment. My most vivid moments come when I’m somewhere new, moving through uncharted waters or air. Not only did I commit to hitting the road more frequently each year, I pledged to my father’s memory to let go of fears that, at sixty, still held me back.

I have a particular fear of heights. Even Ferris wheels stop me cold. My breath freezes whenever the bucket pauses at the top. I have peered warily at the London Eye, never gathering the gumption to purchase a ticket; similarly, I have always adamantly refused to look down from the Empire State Building, and when flying I automatically select an aisle seat.

However, having watched my father face death with grace and courage, I vowed to face life without the reticence and trepidation that had tugged at me for a lifetime. It was in this spirit of abandon that I pulled a running jump (with some help from a launch crew) off the over 4700‑foot Sarangkot Mountain in Pokhara, Nepal to parahawk with a bird named Kevin.

Before I went to Nepal, the concept of parahawking had never entered my consciousness. The British falconer Scott Mason and his crew created this hybrid of falconry and paragliding in 2001, melding adventure with conservation. The Parahawking Project educates about hawk and vulture flight behaviour and how these birds survive in the wild. Through parahawking tandem rides, the organisation raises funds to restore the nearly decimated vulture population in Nepal.

Vultures have an enduring image problem. People often envision them circling above a nearly dead animal, ready to dive in once it heaves its last breath. On top of humans’ general distaste for these creatures, a crisis occurred in the late 1990s when Nepalese, Indian, and Pakistani farmers, as a compassionate gesture, treated their farm animals with the anti-inflammatory diclofenac to reduce their pain as they aged. These creatures eventually died in the open and, as the many varieties of Asian vultures rid the streets of the carrion, the diclofenac-laced flesh poisoned the birds and their numbers decreased precipitously.

Parahawking consists of tandem paragliding while feeding water buffalo meat to a large raptor. I hung suspended in a bag seat while Scott, a seasoned British paraglider and expert falconer, sat behind me and operated the guide lines and controls. On my maiden flight, I paired with Kevin, a trained white-feathered Egyptian vulture whose black-tipped white wings were a stunning sight to behold, spanning five-and-a-half feet.

Kevin is a rescue bird. The Egyptian vulture, which inhabits southern Europe, northern Africa, and western and southern Asia, is one of ten species nearing extinction. On Phewa Lake, Scott’s base and home to his young family, Kevin demonstrated his species’ expertise at the use of tools by dropping rocks onto an egg to crack the shell. His thin beak and long neck allows him to claim carrion larger birds cannot.

Choosing to fly off a cliff was not my usual modus operandi. I required a slight coaxing. Christina, organiser of my Nepal expedition, encouraged me. ‘They haven’t lost anyone yet,’ she said. But there’s always the first time, I thought.

However, my sixty-year-old new resolve allowed another rather surprising thought: If I must die someday, soaring through the unseen wind currents above the white Annapurnas will be as lovely place as any.

In the days leading up to the my flight I continued trekking the sites around Pokhara, panting my way up to the Shanti Stupa, or Peace Pagoda, the Buddhist shrine on an island in Phewa Lake adjoining Pokhara. The stunning Annapurnas kept me in the present.

My only instructions for parahawking were: leap off the cliff and keep running in case the chute doesn’t open. Right. My mind pressed my legs to move through the huge and powerful gusts of wind. However, matter over mind won and I slammed back into my harness seat. A crewmember had to help our tandem launch by essentially tossing me over the cliff. Then we were off, circling the Sarangkot with two dozen other paragliders.

In flight, we soared eye-to-eye with the enormous birds, following their movements to catch updrafts and keep our chute apparatus aloft. The eyesight of birds betters that of humans by ten to fifteen times. Their keen eyes identified the swirls of dust defining drafts and currents that were invisible to me on this bright, blue-skied day.

Suspended in the air, time stopped. Scott swooped up, whistled for Kevin. The graceful great vulture made his approach to my outstretched, leather-gloved hand that held his treat. He gently retrieved the fresh-cut water buffalo chunk that would fuel his long journeys through the air. We repeated this scene many times. I filled my lungs fully during each of the thirty minutes aloft.

One abrupt updraft did surprise me. I had to close my eyes and trust my pilot during a quick right jolt and ascent. We climbed several hundred feet fast, then turned and the entire snow-capped Annapurna range spread out before us, a heavenly vision.

The sky resplendent with multi-coloured chutes, I found I had no time to even consider my fear. Our half-hour flight ended so gently. Much like Kevin, we glided to a small patch of grass bordering Phewa Lake, smack-dab across the road from the impressive Maya Devi Temple. Enlightenment indeed.

I find myself agreeing more and more with my sometime travelling companion, an Australian septuagenarian whose motto is: ‘Comfort travel doesn’t interest me.’ If anything, I now seek discomfort travel, or travel that offers me opportunities to confront my fears, push my boundaries, expand my worldview, and build trust and connections with my fellow creatures on this earth.

I hear some people speak of bucket lists and thousands of places to see before they leave this earth, as if travel exists as a checklist to complete. I find that each second spent travelling breathes life into the following moment of time and place. I now see the distinct shape of each leaf on the trees lining my street and inhale the scent of cantaloupe in my local market with gratitude. I meditate while watching the birds gliding above my San Francisco home. Travelling deepens one’s senses and sense of self. It lengthens and stretches out the time we have to challenge ourselves to begin anew, each day to rise above this earth.

Mary Jean (MJ) Pramik moonlights as a medical writer, contributes to Travelers’ Tales “Venturing in” series on the Canal du Midi, Southern Greece and Ireland, and anthologies on Costa Rica, Bali, and Cornwall, England. She teaches graduate writing skills at San Francisco State University. MJ Pramik has won Solas Awards for her travel essays, blogs about travel and science at Field Notes: Travel in Times of Catastrophic Change.