Sunday, December 27, 2009

Packing it all into 2009!

For Christmas Eve we decided to partake in this regions most famous export - the wine! With Gill and her sister Ruth finally joining up with Pete, Aafke and I, we booked a winery tour through our hostel. The most common way to do it is via bicycle, there is a 14km stretch just outside of Mendoza that has 10 wineries lining it.

When we arrived at the bike rental location we were very disappointed to learn that of the 10 wineries on the strip, only 2 were open for the day, whereas our hostel had assured us that all would be open even though it was Christmas Eve (later, when complaining to our hostel, we received the option of a 50% discount or the chance to do it again for free....hmmmm....more free wine, please!) Slightly grouchy but still excited for the experience (and of course, the wine!), we picked up our bikes and were on our way.

This tour was not at all what I expected. I had visions of riding our bikes down quaint dirt roads, with olive trees hanging over one side and grape vines over the other. I expected soft Italian classical music to be playing in the background and cartoon birds flying just in front of us to guide us along. Not surprisingly, this perception of mine was shattered within the first few minutes.

We started out on a very busy open road through the town of Maipu. Large delivery trucks barreled past us, honking repeatedly to let us know they were coming (like we couldn't hear them). The traffic weakened a bit as we got further out of town, and we finally became able to escape the heat of the sun as we cycled under large trees that provided some shade on the road. Of course, 1 of the only 2 wineries open was the last one on the map, and so 45 minutes later we arrived at the Carinae bodega.

It was a quaint little family run winery, and after a quick tour we dove into the tasting. This area is known largely for their Malbecs, so we were surprised that we all fell in love with the only white on the menu - the Torrentes. We each loaded a bottle of it into our bike baskets and made our way to the second winery.

Pete, Aafke and Ruth taste testing!

Vina El Cerno
was much bigger and also served an optional lunch. We decided as a group to skip the tour and while our steaks were grilling we again dove right into the tasting! This time, even though the Malbec was tastier, we all also loved the sparkling white and Pete and I picked up another bottle. Finishing lunch at just after 3pm, we headed back to drop off the bikes and get back into Mendoza for the Christmas Eve dinner.

Lining them up at Vina El Cerno

Our wine tasting entourage

In Latin America (and I believe in most parts of Europe), Christmas Eve is a bigger deal then the actual Christmas Day - complete with the big family dinner, gift opening, and even fireworks! Our hostel combined forces with another to offer up a big family style dinner to all of their guests. It was an incredible array of food, all served up on the other hostel's large, beautiful outdoor patio. Cider was provided to cheers at midnight, and we took to the streets to try to see the fireworks that we could hear overhead. In our little group we talked about all the different traditions we would be partaking in if we were all at home, as well as several other topics of conversation that will remain unnamed for your sake (trust me on that one!)

Being the busy day that it was for Christmas Eve, we kept Christmas Day pretty low key. We spent the afternoon enjoying some similar traditions from home - baileys in our coffee and watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation! After a marathon Skype session with our families, we got ready for another dinner out with our adopted traveling family. While you all consumed turkey with all the trimmings, we downed enormous steaks, lamb, and even some shrimp. All with copious amounts of wine, of course!

Perhaps a smarter strategy would have been to save the copious amounts of wine for what came next....jumping off the side of a mountain on boxing day!

I have never considered myself a thrill-seeker. I know my limits, I don't even like going on rides at the fair. However, during our four months of travels, Pete and I have become harder to impress. Sights need to be bigger and more spectacular, and our activities need to push our limits just a little more. I felt pretty at ease with the zip-lining that I did just a few days before, so I thought I was ready to step it up one more notch. Pete, Aafke and I signed up for paragliding!

After we committed to booking it, I didn't want us to speak of it until we went. If I thought about it too much, I was sure that I would chicken out. I just wanted to get through the day, show up on the mountain late in the afternoon, and just ...jump!

At 3pm we were picked up from our hostel and taken to the jumping point. The drive was up a very windy and bumpy road on the side of the mountain and Pete and I rode in the open back of the truck. We clutched to the sides of the truck pretty intensely, wondering if it was possible for the actual jump to be as scary as the drive up there. We hoped not!

At the top there were at least a couple of dozen people waiting to jump with their guides. Wings (the parachute thingy that you glide with) were spread out all over the slope, and our driver told us that we would be going after the first round of people. What he didn't tell us was that we would be going after everyone went once, and then three of the guides would have to come back up the mountain to take us.
The gear

This added to the agony of the anticipation! One by one, everyone jumped off around us, as well as some single jumpers that had their own gear. We watched as one guy totally chickened out and refused to jump. We saw one girl get stopped at the edge with her guide as they didn't get the wing up high enough for take off. We waited, and waited.

Also during our wait, we saw one of the single jumpers falling from the sky. She had ridden some thermals so she was up quite high above us, and something must have gone wrong. Her emergency chute had deployed but it was on a weird angle with her wing, so she was falling. It was hard to tell from where we were how fast she was descending, but she was going straight down. Some of the guides that were still left on the mountain were trying to contact her via radio to no avail. Then, she disappeared behind a mountain and we never saw or heard what happened to her. It was a very disturbing thing to see, and of course added to the anxiety of our own impending jumps. But, the jumping continued as a few more people went off ahead of us and finally our three guides arrived to get us ready.

After a brief bit of instruction, Pete, Aafke and I were all geared up and ready for take-off. Again we had to wait a bit, the wind has to be coming in just the right way in order to make the jump. As we knew the time was getting close, the weirdest feeling came over me, I felt completely at peace. I was no longer scared, I just stared down at the edge and was ready to go. Pete and Aafke later said they had the exact same feeling. None of us really ever expected to feel that.

Aafke and Pete all geared up!

Pete went first, and I wish I would have been close enough to him that I could have videoed or even gotten a picture of him taking off. Immediately after taking off, the wing dipped down below the mountain and my heart skipped a little until the wind caught and I saw him lift back up above the mountain. Then Aafke went, and she immediately was caught by the thermals and ended up floating above all of us for most of the time.
Aafke after take-off

Then, it was my turn. "Run, run, run!" shouted the guide and all I could do was put my head down and start running towards the edge of the mountain. He ran behind me pulling at the strings of the wing to make it inflate, and when he turned around and ran with me, I knew that this was it. I ran until the land disappeared from underneath my feet, and we were off! I'm sure that my heart stopped for a few seconds and I was just overcome with what an amazing feeling it was. All I could hear was the rush of the wind, and it was actually very peaceful for the first minute or so.

We had taken off at a different edge then Pete and Aafke, so we turned around to join them. As we circled around the side of the mountain and among the 6 or so total jumpers out there, my nerves started to kick in. We at times got a little too close for comfort with the other jumpers, and a digital tool that the guide used was incessantly beeping. The intensity of the beeps would rise and fall randomly and repeatedly - I wanted to ask what the beeping was for, but I was too scared of the answer. After doing some research afterward I found out that it has to do with the strength of the wind, and nothing to do with the multitude of scary things that were running through my head - like the beeps being a warning that we were too close to the others or that we were too slanted and in danger of losing the air in the wing. I started to let these thoughts get the better of me, and with the memory of seeing that single jumper fall out of the sky, I started to get very nervous.

I also should have never looked directly down. Seeing my feet in perspective of the earth far below me was unnerving! Condors and eagles were also circling far below, which reminded me of how high we were.
That is a loooooong way down!

As nervous and scared as I was, I did manage to keep it together and get some pretty cool pictures as we went (don't forget to check out this link for more pictures: CLICK HERE )

Even though I was one of the last ones to take off, I was the first one on the ground about 20 minutes later. It felt pretty good to have ground under my feet again, and I got to watch (and video!) Aafke and Pete's landings.

I am pretty proud and happy to have done this, but that was IT FOR ME! I'm glad I did it, I did mostly enjoy it, but I won't ever do it again. I have found my extreme sporting limit, (which I am sure will make Mom and Dad very happy). Pete and Aafke however, are now addicted, and are making plans to go skydiving at our next location. I will happily watch from the ground...I am done my little bit of thrill-seeking for 2009 (and perhaps EVER!)

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