Monday, April 29, 2013

Happy Holi 2013!

March 27th, 2013

The Hindu “Festival of Colours” is back again.  I thoroughly enjoyed this holiday last year with my Swedish neighbour Martin.  This year I was flying solo but it didn't take long for me to find the action, actually it was a bit early, I wasn't ready yet!  I had planned to buy a nice white shirt, write “Happy Holi” in Hindi on the back and front and then venture out for the colour revelry.  Before I even got down to the path from my place, I was plastered with bright green, yellow and blue colours on my face, in my hair and on my shirt.  I had encountered a group comprised of the local shop keepers and the restaurant and guesthouse workers.  They were all smiling from ear to ear and fully into the celebration and it was not yet 11am.  It’s like Christmas for them.

I purchased a long sleeved, V neck shirt (for 200 rupees...under $4) and stealthily made my way back home to prepare my shirt.  As I wrote out the Hindi on my shirt I could see the group of partiers making their way from guesthouse to guesthouse along the cliff, working their way towards my room.  I hastily finished my shirt and was a bit surprised when they didn't actually come by my place.  No biggie, it was very easy to find them thanks to the banging drums.

This is the damage just coming home from buying the shirt:

Okay, now I'm ready to go:

My shirt was a hit and I had many Indians laughing and yelling out “Happy Holi!” as they pointed at it.  Needless to say, it didn’t stay white for long, but that was the whole intention.  Some of the guys who know me gave me some green coloured powder so that I could join in the action as the group slowly meandered along the path throwing powder and squirting water guns (with coloured water of course) at anyone and everyone, well almost everyone, there were a few scrooges.

This guy was the rock star.  He's a baba with a small stall with chess sets, incense and various smoking paraphernalia   I think this is his favourite day of the year!

On the right is Raul, one of the managers of where I'm staying (and the one who bought me beer):

I loved this kids colours:

Commando Raul firing his salvo:

The now "Blue Baba":

The crew:

After an hour or so we eventually made it around to the main beach, did a little dancing in the sand to the bongos and then I headed back to my place, grabbed some money which I had forgotten (thanks Raul for buying me a few beers over the last hour since I was rupeeless) and then headed to Sweet Lake to celebrate with the guys I know over there.  Then back to my place and on to the Olive Garden restaurant for the late afternoon before returning home for a quiet evening (I was “Holied” out but additionally most festivities had ceased).

I look like some evil superhero I think...

This is Dasme, a good friend in the Dolphin's View restaurant on Sweet Lake Beach:

Mid afternoon status:

With Sanju, the best tandoori cook on the beach, at the Olive Garden:

Ramesh, Juan and Ram...what can I say?

Even Gizmo got into the act:

Just like last year, I was amazed by how happy and friendly everyone is on’s just too bad we’re not all like that every day!  Happy Holi!!!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Back Again?!?

January 23rd, 2012

Terribly of the longest breaks between posts...but here’s why...

The tandem flying was progressing along smoothly with me having flown about 100 tandem flights.  I had hoped to have more passengers on a daily basis but once the season reached its peak there were 13-14 other pilots with not enough paying customers to keep everyone busy all the time.  At the start of the season I was receiving some flights from the waiters of the restaurants who tended to the sun beds that line the beach.  It’s a good gig for them.  They simply ask all of their customers whether they want to paraglide and cash in on a 200 rupee commission which is a larger source of income than their actual job.  Why we pay them 200 out of 1500 rupees I don’t know.  I tried to explain to pilots that we’re flying for peanuts and we can dictate the prices but like a little capitalistic market, there were some Indian pilots who were happy to fly cheaply and they drove the profits down for everyone.  During the peak part of the season however, it was obvious that the Indian waiters were feeding flights almost exclusively to Indian pilots.  Fair enough.  It just meant I needed to do some more marketing so I put up posters around Arambol and on some other beaches.

Another factor that was hindering the amount of money I was earning with the flying was this seemingly inherent yet intangible tandem flying law:  whenever there were many people wanting to fly, the conditions were bad, and when the conditions were perfect, there were no customers to be found.  Uncanny.

On this day, it was the former.  Quite a few tourists desired to fly but the wind was just a bit too light for tandems yet it was enough for solo pilots.  So for a change, I grabbed my solo wing and hiked up the hill with a couple of French pilots, Jacques and Manu.  There were 3-4 tandem pilots with 3-4 passengers each hanging out at the west launch hoping for conditions to improve.  A few tandems attempted take-offs but then soon sank down to the beach after only a couple of minutes.

I took off and enjoyed the sensation of being back in my solo wing.  It’s kinda like being a bus driver during the week and hopping in your sports car on the weekend.  The flight was decent although I couldn’t climb too much higher than the ridge.  Most times when I passed by the takeoff I would be questioned by the crowd below as to my latest evaluation of the wind conditions.  Suffice it to say, it never improved so it looked like I had made the right decision in grabbing my solo wing.  I was the “sky pig” of the day with an hour and a half flight.

Near the end of the flight, I crossed Sweet Lake Beach to the small ridge on the south end.  I played around there for a bit but wasn’t climbing much as the wind was diminishing.  With each pass I lost a meter or two of height but that was okay, I was ready to land and have a nice late afternoon, post flight beer.  I decided not to land on the large strip of sand behind the sun beds as I always do with my tandem, but instead opted for the patch of sand in front of the three restaurants.  Why?  I don’t know exactly.  Feeling a bit cocky, not wanting to walk an extra 50 meters, or just trying something different...   Well, that was a mistake.  I was cruising just in front of the top of some coconut trees that were near the base of the hill and I turned back towards the restaurants for my last downwind leg before turning into the wind and landing.

Everything seemed normal yet suddenly I felt a loss in pressure from the wing as it fell back and I immediately began to fall backwards towards the ground when I was about 5 to 6 meters above the beach.  My paraglider had entered a parachutal stall meaning it was still open but it was no longer acting like a wing providing me lift.  It all happened in a blink of an eye.  I had no time to react.  I felt the sickening thud as I slammed into the sand with my butt leading the charge.  “Damn! Not again!”  I thought as my mind recoiled from the idea of yet another back injury from paragliding.  Wait, I’ve got other things to think about first, like breathing.  The impact had knocked the wind out of me.

I was immediately surrounded by tourists, other pilots and locals.  Thankfully there were some foreigners who knew how to control the situation, first checking on me, keeping people back, not moving me, getting water and talking reassuringly to me.  I knew I’d done some damage but I could also surmise that it was not as severe as the disk compression I sustained in Panchgani back in March of 2011.

I gingerly removed my helmet while still lying on my side in the sand.  I was staring at some rocks at the base of the hill just three meters away.  “Wow that could have been a lot worse.”  Some pilots packed up my gear as I eventually sat up and then into a chair someone brought out from one of the restaurants.  Eventually most of the onlookers dissipated but one Austrian woman named Sonja stuck around and mentioned that she was studying kinesiology and if I liked she could perform some simple tests on me to assess my condition.  Sure, why not.  I had just met Sonja and her German boyfriend Francesco, both solo pilots, on the launch before taking off.  I recognized them as they were staying in a guesthouse near mine.  Sonja had me hold my right arm up as she asked me a question in German (which I could hardly understand) like “Do you want to be healed?” and then she’d push down on my arm.  If my arm resisted it was a positive answer.  Then she would pinch my shoulder to “turn off the muscle” and test again and my arm would always drop after the pinch...interesting.  At one point she had me stare at a guy’s black t-shirt (oh, the guy happened to be Bagtoo from Himachal Pradesh from whom I bought my tandem wing) and do the same test.  I was still in the post traumatic stress adrenaline fuelled stage so I wasn’t really following but it kept my mind a bit busy.

Sonja and Francesco offered to escort me home.  In retrospect, I know I should have gone to the hospital immediately to get checked out but I was quite sure the doctor would just tell me to lie prone for the next few weeks and it seemed like a long distance to get to medical help, at least an eight hundred meter walk and then a taxi or ambulance to a hospital half an hour away.  I made it home and into bed and thanked Sonja and Francesco for their help. 

My next door neighbour and good friend Martin came home a few hours later and I told him of my accident.  Martin or Nurse Martin as I called him was fantastic.  Over the next few weeks he brought me many meals and helped me in whatever manner he could.  Sonja visited regularly and did some “balancing” of my muscles and energy lines with similar techniques as on the beach.  I have to admit that I didn’t follow or necessarily believe in the treatment but I happily went along with it as it kept me distracted and hey, there are only so many movies to watch and books to read before cabin fever sets in.

By the fourth day after the crash, I realized I needed to get my back checked out to see what I had done.  It was a Saturday and the hospital would be open but I tried to sit up and the pain was overwhelming and I quickly lied down again.  Okay, let’s go Monday morning.  Sonja, with the help of a fellow Austrian Andy, organized an ambulance, borrowed a stretcher from the life guards and gathered some friends to haul me down from my guesthouse.  Did I mention that my guesthouse is 120 stairs up from a path that links Sweet Lake Beach to Arambol Beach?  And after the descent, they still had to carry me about 600 meters to the nearest road!  Amazing.

The ambulance was very posh, a new vehicle with a super comfortable stretcher and air conditioning.  Sonja escorted me and we joked at the fact that they blared the siren the entire way to the hospital.  “C’mon guys, the accident happened 5 days ago, I don’t think it’s a real emergency.”

We spent only an hour at a fancy new hospital near the city of Mapsa.  Unlike western hospitals, I hardly had to wait for the doctor to perform a cursory diagnosis and send me off for X-rays.  I was immediately wheeled into the X-ray room and discovered an annoying and painful kink in the Indian medical system.  The X-ray table was about 8 inches lower than the gurney I was on and neither could be adjusted.  Getting to and fro proved to be quite excruciating.

On examining the X-rays, the doctor told me that I had sustained compression fractures on my T9 and T11 vertebrae.  Damn, I’m really screwing up my back.  Those are the third and fourth vertebrae I’ve damaged along with a compressed disk in between.  He prescribed some calcium pills, vitamins and this expensive nasal spray to promote bone healing and told me to rest in bed for the next few weeks at least, let my body dictate that.  I also purchased a back brace.  The whole medical visit only cost about $100.  Twenty five dollars each for the ambulance, X-rays and diagnosis, medicine and the back brace.  Pretty good deal I thought, especially since the ambulance even took Sonja and me back to Arambol!

Then came the tricky part, how to get me back up to my guesthouse.  We eventually located enough people we knew to help carry me back up the 8 storeys or so to my room, right in the heat of the day.  Thanks everyone!  My hat is off to you.

I spent the next three weeks confined to the Magic Villa (Martin’s name for our guesthouse).  I received many visitors and I have to say that it was wonderful to feel the love in this country, half way around the world from my home.  By the time Martin left back to Sweden in mid February I thankfully could at least fend for myself with the nearby restaurant delivering me food.

I spoke with a few pilots just after the accident and in the ensuing weeks.  No one seemed to think I did anything wrong.  I had my hands up with next to no brake applied.  So what caused the parachutal stall?  Well my wing is old, in paragliding standards.  I purchased it in 2005 and have about 350 hours on it.  By this time a combination of the lines stretching or shrinking coupled with the sun causing the material of the wing to become more porous makes the wing to be more susceptible to stalling at low speeds.  So unlike my first two paragliding crashes where pilot error was the main factor, perhaps this time it was an equipment failure.  Well, actually I can chalk this one up to pilot error as well.  Why was I flying such an old and potentially dangerous wing?  Ironically I was planning to buy a new solo wing before leaving India so this Synergy 2 was not leaving the country with me.  But it had just taken me on an epic 84 kilometre cross country flight last year in Himachal Pradesh so I naively thought it was still flyable. 

Some lessons in life are painful to learn...