Maina Kageni is a tortoise. That’s the analogy he chose to chicken out of a sky dive last weekend. He said he’s a tortoise because tortoises live for hundred-plus years. They live for hundred-plus years because they don’t go jumping off planes. Or from cliffs.
He was telling me about tortoises during his Road Trip tour courtesy of Tembea Kenya and Chevrolet’s Trailblazers. We were checking into Turtle Bay Beach Resort in Watamu. Talking of which, Turtle Bay should seriously consider having WiFi in their rooms, only for the sole reason that it’s 2016. Given a choice between a bathtub or Wifi I think I would go for Wifi. Why? Well, because there is no chance you can slip and break your hip bones in a WiFi but you can in a bathtub. In fact, half the things we get in hotel rooms we don’t really need. All we need is the internet.
Let’s see: given the choice between Wifi and a water kettle? Wifi wins. Wifi versus the one extra bed on the side? Wifi wins. Wifi vs the mirror? Wifi. Wifi versus the safe? Of course Wifi wins hands down. Wifi versus the shower curtain? Wifi wins. I’ve always wondered why anyone would need a shower curtain in the hotel bathroom when there is already a door. Who could you be possibly hiding your nakedness from? Who is this who will stick their heads around the door to look at you showering? Your spouse? Your partner? And what’s wrong if they do? What’s wrong with that if it turns them on to see you lathering your scalp? If you can draw the shower curtains on the person you are sharing a room with then perhaps it’s not Wifi you need but an honest/ safe zone conversation about your relationship. I think people who use shower curtains are telling their partners something about the relationship. In fact, I think if your partner got into a hotel bathroom and locked the door with a key or latch, that says something about your relationship.
Wifi vs the landline? Wifi. I’d rather walk 2kms to the reception to order my chicken sandwich than not have Wifi. Wifi versus the blowdryer? Wifi wins, and anyway half the chicks nowadays have weaves and I doubt they wash and blow dry those animals. Wifi versus the door. Wifi. Wifi versus curtain box? Wifi. In fact the only thing more important than wifi in a hotel room is a shower head, the bed and the AC. So, Turtle Bay, how about it?
Next day I’m strapped in by a skydiving instructor called Yanick. I will be jumping with him strapped onto my back; tandem. Yanick has had over 1000 jumps – been jumping for 15 years now. He’s a pilot by profession and a member of Kenya Sky Divers Association. Oh, he’s the guy who also dove with Najib Balala. Yanick is a lean strong guy.
I sign a form that says that should something go awfully wrong and I die, nobody can sue. Then we get into the van with Gregg, the pilot, and two ladies, Richelle and Zaihab. I sit at the very back with Richelle.
If you ask Yanick why he skyjumps he will say “for shits and giggles.” He has a charming boyish grin that is also a bit psycho, like those characters in movies who sit in park benches wearing a fedora watching doves forage. We are driving towards Malindi airport where we will get onto a small plane. Loud House music is playing from the car stereo. Gregg, the mild-mannered pilot with movie-star looks, turns and asks me, “Are you good?” I say I’m not. He laughs and says, “But at least you are seated next to a beautiful blonde, that should help,” and Yanick turns in his seat and says with a wink, “But you will soon be sitting on me when we jump and you will feel something extra.” We all laugh. Yanick is a bit mad. I’m scared of course, a sense of trepidation grips me but I’m trying to control my breathing. All this while they are discussing what pizza they are going to have for lunch! Oh, how sensitive. Ignore the guy shitting his pants back here.
At Malindi Airport we walk through the metal detectors and right out the back. I’m barefoot. Yanick preps me. He talks about the the exit position; hold strap, elbows out, head to his shoulder, knees bent all the way. Jump. He tells me only what I need to know to avoid what he calls “sensory overload.” He talks about “the exit” being the most important and crucial part of the jump. He talks about how the human nature confronted with a situation such as the one I am about to face will either flee or fight. I’m about to fight – my fears. Shit, I’m nerves. “This is the time to go to the bathroom if you want,” he tells me and I walk into the departure lounge bathrooms and although I feel like peeing I stand at the urinal but not a drop comes out. So I give up, splash water on my face at the sink and avoid to look myself in the eye.
Outside, we walk towards the hot tarmac. Yanick holds my harness as if I might run back. He’s saying, “Here we go, Jackson, where is that little bird, oh there she is, isn’t she beautiful? She will take us up in the sky, ah, Gregg is already in and good to go, this is going to be fun, how are you doing there, are we good?”
“I’m doing bad.” I mumble.
The “bird” is a very small Cessna 206. It has no door. It’s white. Together with the two ladies we pile at the back, in a very small space barely enough to swing a cat in. There are no seats. We seat on this soft bench. I sit between Yanick’s legs and he hooks things on me. Gregg kicks the engine and it roars into life, the thunderous sound filling our heads, down the runway we run before leaping into the sky. I look down as Malindi slowly recedes. Malindi from up there looks like a shanty town with its rusted corrugated rooftops. The shoreline curves with whites and blues and greens as Gregg’s little bird punctures the sky. The engine is loud and a wind blows through. We are going to get to 10,000 ft, then we will jump.
At 3,000 ft Yanick leans in my ear and shouts “Do you feel that?” and laughs. Indeed I feel a small prodding in my lower back, and I desperately want to believe it is one of his hooks or something, not his body part. I shout back, “Yeah, but barely, it must be something quite small.” He laughs and says, “ But it’s hard and nice isn’t it?” The ladies smile, obviously used to his brand of madness. We continue to gain altitude. It’s a lovely sun-washed day, the perfect day for your parachute to fail. As we ascend I get more and more tense and perhaps Yanick picks it because he says,
“You are a journalist, you should be fine, I’m sure you have been in trickier situations -” .
“Actually, I haven’t. I’m a lifestyle writer, I write about massage oils -”
“Oh well, then this is definitely a good career move -”
I realise what he’s doing. He’s not giving me room to think about what is about to happen, so he’s talking to me, asking questions, saying silly things. He knows that silence means thought, and thought invites fear. Curiously I’m not as scared as I thought I would be. I can even dare to look down, as the houses become smaller and smaller and we climb over clouds and the roar of the engine gets louder and the wind gets furious.
“So,” he shouts in my ear, “girlfriend or wife?”
“Why can’t I have both?!” I elbow him playfully.
They all laugh. He playfully rubs my head as if to say, “atta boy!”
“Wife..!” I tell him.
“What did she say when you told her you are going to jump?”
“She doesn’t know I’m jumping.”
Hahaha. The ladies cackle and Richelle fist-bumps me with a wide smile. (See? Women are their own worst enemy).
We have now climbed to 6,000ft. The sky is bright. The air smells of wet peach.
“Where’ you from?” I ask Yanick.
“Belgium, but I have been in Kenya for 16 years!”
“So met and married a nice local girl?”
“No, an American!”
“Oh God, no!”
“She’s in Rwanda now, she figured a long distance relationship will make this exciting!”
“Does she jump off planes too?”
“Oh yes, I sometimes jump with her mom as well, she’s over 60.”
“Do you also poke her with your little friend back there?”
“Of course! Nobody gets special treatment here, buddy!”
We all laugh.
At 9,000 ft, planet earth looks like an abstract painting done by a kindergarten kid. The sea dominates to the left, and to the right land spreads out defiantly. A silver necklace of white beach separates the two, looking like an accessory. Yanick pulls and tugs and tightens and secures our suit as the our little bird starts doing a small curve against the azure sky.
“Girls are the best people to jump with!” he shouts as he double checks our suits.
“Why? Because they scream your name?”
“No, they never scream my name. They are always screaming some other guy’s name! You might know this guy, he’s called God.”
I laugh. “Yes, I think I might have heard of him.”
He than imitates a screaming girl, “Ooooh my GOOOOOOOD!” Nooo, it’s “Yaaaaaniiick!”
At 10,000 ft I close my eyes. He holds my shoulder reassuringly and says, “You will be just fine, just take deep breaths.!” Then he runs me through the gamut again, this time more gravely. The Exit is key, he says. Hold strap, elbows out, neck stretched back on his shoulder and knees always bent between my legs. “When we jump, I want you to relax, don’t fight it, just relax your body. When you feel me tap your shoulder, I want you to let go of your harness and raise your hands to your side like this as if in surrender, always fold your legs behind me and your chin thrust behind. Got it?”
I swallow and nod.
As he is speaking one of the girls fist bumps us and casually jumps off the plane without warning, like she’s stepping out to go to the loo and I’m like “WHOA!” The wind quickly sweeps her behind the plane, like a flood. And she’s gone. As I’m trying to mumble, “what the f—”, Zaihab follows her out and I’m like “Oh shit.”
We are next.
Yanick asks me to lift myself up and sit on him. “Put on your goggles, buddy, it’s show time!” And then we move towards the door.
This is when I.really.freak.out.
Yanick then says, “You are not my first, and you will not be my last.” How charming! How freaking charming.
Adrenaline immediately kicks in shaking my body, my breath falls short and I feel my bladder filling up and as I hold my hardness close to my shoulder, elbows out, I start to tremble and my knees get weak and my mind turns to a block of ice. We are now at 10,500ft, and we are hanging from the doorway and the cold wind is whipping at me ferociously and my heart, oh my God, my heart is beating faster than it ever has.
At this moment I realise rather sardonically how we misuse certain adjectives as writers. We write sentences like “…I was terrified at the thought of going to see the dentist,” or “I was horrified at how wide she could open her mouth to take a bite of her burger.” We continue to misuse these adjectives that illustrate shock or surprise and I realise it’s all hyperbolic. When you are 10,000 ft high, half hanging from the doorway of plane, wind lapping your body and the engine screaming in your ear like a banshee, and below awaits a yawning earth, that is terror. You haven’t been terrified until you are in that position.
I thought of telling Yanick that I couldn’t go through with it, that my church doesn’t allow this. He would probably have looked at me cynically and asked,”and what church is that?” and I would say, “SDA. I’m SDA and I’m pretty sure the church doesn’t allow us to jump off planes on Sabbath.” He would probably have rolled his eyes and told me to stop being a precious old lady.
As my feet dangled I realised that I couldn’t just pull out, not when General Motors/ Chevrolet Trailblazers had paid 30K for me to jump. This was about trailblazing. The Trailblazers are about burning the trail. Torching it. Being the chaps who clear the treacherous paths for the lesser and weaker ones to follow. Isn’t that the spirit of the car? Isn’t that what this trip was about? So I’m sure Chevrolet guys would be disappointed and maybe their comms guy, Duncan Muhindi, would sulk at me and refuse to pick my calls.
Most importantly, I didn’t want to be a tortoise. Oh, no. But flying all the way up and refusing to jump would make me an even worse tortoise than Maina. I would be the tortoise that wore breeches that were too big for him. An overly ambitious tortoise. A tortoise who dreamt too big and flew too high. And maybe Maina would probably talk about it in his morning show and some Maasai listening in and chuckling from under a tree would call in from Oloitoktok and say, “Mimi nakubalia sana na huyo mjamaa Sulu alikataa kuruka, unaweza ruka halafu uanguke juu ya ngombe ya mtu…”
Suddenly we are off the plane.
Like, one moment I’m trying to take deep breaths, the next we are off the goddamn plane!
And I’m tumbling down. I’m twisting in the wind like a kite in a storm. You know when they say ‘you had a sinking feeling’, falling into nothingness is a sinking feeling. I feel like my heart is dropping out of my body. Like somehow my heart left me and it’s falling on its own without a chute. I feel the damning emptiness of it all. I feel like I’m falling in this deep abyss of emptiness. I feel the forces of gravity, cruel and hungry, sucking at me as if through a straw. I have no control of what happens to me and it feels me with dread.
I don’t know why they call it “mother nature”, but when you are tumbling down through the sky at over 190km/hr, the wind slapping your face and ears, a scream choked in your throat and you are helpless and scared, you realise that “mother” nature is a cruel cold female dog. That’s no mother, that’s a witch.
Yanick told me some people pass out at this stage. Some start fighting and kicking, trying to clutch at something and since there is nothing but fear to clutch, they start groping at him and he has to control them and control their fall. People scream different things as they fall. Strange things. They scream God’s name. They scream someone’s name. They scream stuff in their mother tongue. (I can just imagine a Kissii screaming here). Everybody screams something at this moment of unclothed fear.
You know what I screamt? There is a scene in Pulp Fiction, towards the end, where a couple with guns is holding up a coffee shop and they ask Samuel L Jackson to hand over his wallet and he removes this battered looking wallet from his pocket. Do you remember what was written on that wallet? I can’t say it here because my 19 year old niece, Candy, reads this blog, but that’s what I kept screaming. Over and over again. I won’t say I screamt like a girl, because I’m told the girl who jumped after – Christine, from Shell/ Vivo – didn’t scream. She might as well have applied her eyeliner while falling if she could.
The best part of the jump for me is when we stabilized. I think we must have dropped for a minute or so, heady adrenaline and then finally we seemed to be floating like you see in movies, the wind, now a song, and there was Richelle, floating towards us and coming so close to me I high-fived her, and she blew a kiss and floated away like an angel in the wind.
Then I hear a whoop sound and I know Yanick has activated the chute. Then I started falling sick, motion sickness. I couldn’t breathe, and I look down and the ground is so so far away, houses are literally little dots, and all that motion and height is making me nauseous, looking at my feet dangling like that, and Yanick is shouting in my ear, “You did excellent!” But I don’t want a plaque, I wanted to land. My hands have lost all sensation and I stare at them like they don’t belong to me. The view is stunning but it’s clouded with adrenaline. And I feel sleepy. Gosh, I could use a pillow. Yanick, do you have a pillow up here?
I have gone scuba diving in the deep seas, I have bungee jumped twice – at Sagana and off the Nile in Jinja, Kampala – but skydiving is like nothing I have ever experienced in terms of fear and thrill.
Suddenly we hit the beach. Bum first, for me. I’m nauseous and my head is swimming. I lie on my back and the sand feels warm. The sky is as blue as I have ever seen it. I close my eyes and focus on not throwing up. I hear children gathering around me, asking each other if I’m alive. Some are giggling. I lie there. I don’t even want that pillow anymore, I just want some cold juice. Someone is pulling me to my feet. Yanick is nowhere to be seen, he has folded his chute and gone to fetch the next client. I remember thinking, Gosh, is his how women feel? I mean a man will poke you and when he’s done he will leave you without goodbye? But then I realise that I’m the one with the problem because he specifically said that I wasn’t his first neither was I going to be his last.
People say they want to go sky diving to feel alive. I went up because I’m alive. And because it was there. I didn’t jump to feel something outwardly after. I’m not a changed man because I jumped. I don’t look at life differently. I’m just happy to learn that the things that look impossible, the things that look so fearful, can actually be done. I have learnt to show fear the middle finger.
Here is the weird thing that happened. When I lay there on the sand feeling nauseous, I realised I was sort of aroused. Sort of. I found it rather strange. I asked Sebastian from BT Concept who jumped after me if he felt aroused after but he just looked at me like I was mad.
I know how this might look but I assure you it’s nothing like that. I suspect free falling at 190kms per hour is what must have aroused me. Or maybe it was the wind, or the fear, I don’t know. But I will tell you what it wasn’t for certain; it wasn’t Yanick. Or his small nudge. But wouldn’t it be hysterical if I lived my life for 38 years only to realise I was gay after jumping off a plane? I think it would be stupefying, the suddenness of it all. Discovering myself on a jump. Goodness. You jump into the plane straight, you jump off gay. It would change the meaning of the phrase “coming out.” It would be more like, “jumping off.”
I know I’m still straight. I’m cock sure. I know because back at the hotel, I used not the hair drier or shower curtain but my data, to Google Toni Braxton and I looked at one picture where she is seated on a stage in a her white dress, half her thigh out and I was happy that I felt slightly dizzy. But I remembered to “breath again.”