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Falling Out of Kyrgyz Skies

September 26, 2010

I was having lunch Friday at the school cantina with Kurt and Aaro, a fellow student, when they mentioned that they were going skydiving. Did I want to go?, they asked. Seriously? Jumping out of  an airplane in Kyrgyzstan? I mean, jumping out of a tube of metal from hundreds of feet off the ground is absurd enough as it is. Doing anything in Kyrgyzstan, though, doubles its ridiculosity. Example. Meeting somebody who has been to Antarctica – interesting, I suppose. Meeting somebody from Kyrgyzstan who has been to Antarctica – hilarious. But more on that later, maybe next week.

So obviously jumping out of a Kyrgyz tube of metal over Kyrgyzstan is about as silly as it gets. And, it would only cost forty dollars, compared to something like two hundred in the states. I couldn’t pass up a good deal! Sure, I may be risking death or the loss of a limb or two. But it would be a good story, in purgatory or the hospital or wherever I’d end up.

I told them I was interested, and they told me they were meeting near our school at seven in the morning the next day. I got up at six, and thought about just falling back asleep and having the convenient excuse of being too tired at an ungodly hour. Truth be told, I was terrified. This is not the kind of thing I’d ever do. Something about being in this new chapter of my life, though, seems to call for a reappraisal of my lamest tendencies and a concerted effort to conquer my fears. I forced myself out of bed and walked through the barely brightened streets to our meeting place.

My friends showed up a little late and we hopped on a marshrutka. Marshrutkas are these little vans that want to be buses – you get in, pay about fifteen cents, and then squeeze yourself into the bus-capacity crowd trying desperately to fit into an area the size of a prison cell. They are rolling disorientation machines – when you’re standing up, you can’t see out the windows, so you start out on your local street corner and get out not knowing whether you’re a block away or in Kazakhstan.  You get to intimately know the local populace, armpits and all. My contact lens somehow leapt out of my eye onto the filthy floor, and everybody watched as I picked up the scrap of plastic, washed it in a pool of spit and stuck it back in. I worried I might succumb to marshrutka-eye before I even got to throw my life away doing Kyrgyz extreme sports.

We took the van to its final destination, some sort of military base at the outskirts of town. There we were ushered into three mysterious cars and escorted through the gates of steel guarding the complex, over a bridge studded with leftover Soviet stars, to a small building with parachutes stamped on the door. We met our instructor. He was squat, serious, and seriously mustachioed. He showed us how to properly land without snapping a leg off – “Knees and feet together!” Or at least that’s what I think he said, because our whole instructional safety session was in Russian, which I still don’t adequately understand. At this point I realized my language skills were woefully subpar and my decision-making skills equally underdeveloped.

In a little room inside the parachutist headquarters we were treated to a wall of stenciled Cyrillic and informational displays, pictures of parachutes ripped in half, people falling into power lines and bouncing off buildings and falling to their preventable deaths. My stomach hurt. I tried not to look dreadfully pale as I followed everybody outside, got suited up, and thought about how my life was in the hands of a canvas bag strapped to my back. At least it was a fairly foolproof setup: there was a yellow cord hanging from the back which would be clipped onto the plane; when I jumped out, it would automatically yank out my chute and I’d freefall for only a few seconds. Or quite a bit longer, if it didn’t work.

Once everybody had their get-up on and their helmets secure (actually, there weren’t enough helmets…), we got one last Russian pep-talk from chain-smoking army men and trekked off to our plane. I tried not to feel like I was marching to my death. As our plane began to hum and we scooted off into the air, I alternated between self-imposed optimism and uncontrollable dread. I’d think “Holy shit, this is going to be craaaaazy!” and yell woo-hoo, and then look out the window and my stomach would turn. Luckily I would not be going first. At the desired altitude, moustache man yanked open the door and one by one shoved my friends out the hole in the plane. A couple tried desperately to grip onto the frame before being whisked into the airstream with a shove to their back. I felt better when I saw their green parachutes against the sky, floating them safely to the ground.

Before I knew it, it was my turn. I stepped forward, looked out the door, and in an instant I was flying through the air at a height not meant for humans. I curled up into a ball like we were taught and felt myself shoot through space. During the freefall my eyes had closed on their own. When I opened them I saw the plane and the mountains and the field below and screamed a few unmentionables. I looked up and my parachute was billowing beautifully, looked around and saw no power lines. Everything would be okay. So what was the next thing I did? I took out my camera and with trembling hands took some pictures as I floated back to earth.

For the last ten seconds I kept my legs and knees together and thought of nothing else. I hit the ground or the ground hit me and I fell backwards onto my ass. It was kind of boring down there. I already wanted to go back up and do it again.

Bonus KeenonKyrgyzstan Video: We get the parachuting safety rundown from an unenthusiastic armyman – don’t worry, he said, just avoid the powerlines.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Colin Peterson permalink
    October 14, 2010 5:48 pm

    Dennis!!! This is the most sketch skydiving operation I’ve ever heard. Wow. You are a real ballsy man for getting into a parachute like the airborne in world war 2 and landing on the ground via a circular canopy. However… you have my very, very intrigued.

    I am looking at flights today! Talk to you soon man.


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