As a naturalist freelance writer in Costa Rica I usually have a wonderfully, as they say, tranquilo lifestyle. I amble through forests checking out birds, monkeys and fascinating insects, or else I get to trek through the peaceful hills in search of the ideal serene and beautiful vacation destination.
Sometimes I break a sweat (such as when tackling Chirrip Mountain or when facing the sizzling midday sun on one of Costa Rica’s magnificent beaches) but that sweat is present due to physical exertion – not from anxiety and gut-wrenching fear. Right now I am sweating profusely, and it is not because of exercise.
I am standing on the edge of a tiny little platform – a metallic gangplank, like that of pirate ships of old. But I am not on boat out at sea; this particular platform is extended out over a valley two-hundred and sixty-five feet deep.
A river rumbles by beyond my feet, a thin ribbon of churning white water that appears to be a mile beneath me. The forests over which I am poised are so far below that the leafy canopy looks like broccoli.
When I wrote to the editor of Traveler magazine with a number of ideas for stories (beach reviews, national park hikes, turtle watching, windsurfing and bungee jumping) guess which one he picked?
And now, here I am, scared half to death, waiting for the ten second countdown that will signify it is time to dive out into the void with a great big elastic band attached to my legs.
” Ten, nine, eight”
The attendant guides for Costa Rica Tropical Bungee Jump begin their synchronized chant. I feel that a mistake has been made – my mistake.
” Seven, six”
I am frightened by heights, always have been. Actually, my dislike of edges and the like can best be summed up by President Bush’s favourite word – “Terror.” That’s normal, isn’t it? Spiders do not upset me. Diving with sharks? Not a problem! Moths, snakes, darkness, airplanes, thunderstorms, the mother in law, and confined spaces – all these things make me smile with contempt. I laugh in their faces.
But high ledges and edges have the most profound effect on my legs. My knees go into spasms, knocking against each other like schoolyard conkers. There should be an audible sound right now, but jelly makes no sound.
Oh jeez, what have I done? I take it all back – the email hastily sent to the editor: “Hey Peter, do you want a story on bungee jumping in Costa Rica?” The invitation to the photographer: “Hey Andres, want some shots of me bouncing off Costa Rica’s tallest bridge?” And the request to my lovely wife: “Sasha, are you OK with me doing a bungee jump?” “Sure dear. Have you paid your insurance premiums lately?”
My bowels feel heavy; I am nearly touching cloth as a friend most elegantly once put it after dining on a dodgy prawn curry in Calcutta.
” Don’t look down,” a voice from behind me shouts, and so, of course, I look down. It all appears so far away: the river, the broccoli and the surrounding hilly countryside, and no doubt will take me at least a year and a half to reach the bottom.
In an instance of complete and utter cowardice I make my decision: I’m not going to do it. The wave of relief which accompanies my change of mind feels magnificent. By the time I turn around in order to depart the ledge of terror I have already come to terms with my spinelessness.
And then I come face to face with my own reflection in Andres’s wide-angle lens and my elation deflates faster than a dingy on a sea urchin.
” Oh no you don’t!” he tells me, with a stern look on his face. “This is an assignment, and besides, I brought my wife and daughter all the way out here to watch the gringo jump of the bridge.”
I look over to the far end of the valley. There they are, his lovely wife and adorable little girl looking over expectantly. The daughter gives me a little wave as if to say “Be brave, I have faith.”
” Three, two”
Turning back towards the abyss I look strait ahead and see blue sky full of pretty little birds flitting this way and that. They seem so free of care out there amongst the deadly open spaces. I wish I could be one of them.
My mind then goes blank. Time slows down and I hear the thudding of my heart within my chest. A catchy little techno tune if ever I heard one.
” By international standards, this is just a small bungee jump,” the instructor had previously informed me, and his words come back to me as I glance at my feet again. This does not look like a small jump to me.
And then they come – that dreaded final number “One” thud, thud, thud (that’s my heart) “JUMP!”
The wind rushes by with a roar like a jet engine. The river and the broccoli hurry up at me at an alarming velocity. My every sense is heightened to the point of breaking, along with my teeth, which are being clenched tighter than a ducks arse.
And then, after what feels like an hour or so, my decent starts to slow, and finally comes to a gentle halt. To my great surprise and relief I find I am not dead. I have not been dashed upon the rocks, and my poor heart has not exploded. I am alive and feeling very good about being so. The sense of peace lasts a further three seconds before the elastic upon my ankles retracts and pulls me upwards like a rocket ship.
I lose my English stiff upper lip at this point and scream out loud like a little girl.
I am glad my drinking buddies didn’t see that.
The bouncing continues, up and down, up and down, until the inertia is lost and I am left swinging gently back and forth, upside down looking once again at the river rapids below.
They pull me back up then and ask me if I want to go again.
No thanks. I couldn’t possibly do that, because I am trembling as if I have just downed a pint of espresso coffee. This time though, it is not from fear and phobias, it is because my body is pumped up with adrenalin. I have never felt anything comparable to this in my life, not even when I got chased across the Serengeti by an enraged elephant. It feels quite wonderful and exhilarating.
I recommend taking a jump to anybody. It really does give you a refreshing outlook on life, if only for a few seconds. However, my fear of heights has not been cured, but I don’t think that was the point anyway. Those who love bungee jumping must surely be scared or else there would little point to the activity.
I bet you are a bit scared as well – that’s what makes bungee jumping such a fun thing to do. So, next year I will return to Costa Rica and will surely jump again, but this time I’m bringing my grandmother with me.