The restless mind of a first time paraglider

Photo of The restless mind of a first time paraglider by Divya Nambiar
Photo of The restless mind of a first time paraglider 1/1 by Divya Nambiar

To be completely honest, I hadn’t even heard of Bir Billing until last year. And I found out about it just like I have found out about a lot of other places – while doing research for another trip. My Spiti trip was a few months away, and I started Googling the life out of Himachal Pradesh. The two-week plan slowly panned out into a month-long one (that it didn’t happen is a different story I won’t bore you with), and that’s when I stumbled upon the names of Bir and Billing, and what significance it holds.

For the uninitiated, Bir and Billing are two little villages in Himachal Pradesh, known for being one of the best spots around the world for paragliding. In fact, India hosted the World Paragliding Championship in 2015. How cool is that! At an elevation of 2430 m, Billing is the ideal take off spot. It literally feels like you are on top of the world. And Bir is a tiny little town teeming with Tibetans, it being a Tibetan settlement.

Photo of Bir Billing Paragliding, Bir, Himachal Pradesh, India by Divya Nambiar

So when I planned my second trip to Himachal, I was determined to make this happen. Come rain or shine, I will fly. Err, ok, maybe not in rain. April is a great time for paragliding, although except for the rainy season, paragliding is an all-weather sport. My pilot informed me that they fly for almost eight months in a year. Billing, the take-off site, is about 17 kms uphill from Bir, the landing site. The ride up to Billing is a delightful experience in itself – quiet, untouched by civilization, with bright red rhododendron flowers peeking out of the foliage all along.

“Oh look! Rhododendron flowers! Ruskin Bond, I can finally see what you’ve been raving about all this while.”

“I have to tell A (a fellow Bond fan) about this. Oh, shoot, no network. Maybe later then.”

“Imagine living up here. No network, no people. Bliss.”

“But how would I Instagram if there is no network?” #thestruggleisreal

And then we reached the take-off spot, with a sign board proudly announcing “Billing – 2430 m”. and I swear to god, my breath caught. I clambered onto the peaks like a mountain goat (who am I kidding? There is video evidence of my heavy panting serving as background score for a sweeping view of the mountains).

Photo of The restless mind of a first time paraglider by Divya Nambiar

Once the initial excitement of seeing the colourful gliders wore off, the butterflies made their presence known in my tummy. I was literally going to jump off the edge of a cliff, and I was putting my life in the hands of a 20-something pahadi boy I had met just over an hour ago.

Yeah, that sounds like a good plan.

Wow! Just… wow!

Ok, I think I have to pee. Or should I wait? I’ll wait. It’s not that urgent.

*after five minutes of thinking only about whether I want to pee or not*

Maybe I should. What if it gets intense during the flight? And it might be cold too up there. Bladders may function differently up in the air. I might as well go.

*after realising that there is nothing in the vicinity except for a small shop selling chai and Maggi which clearly doesn’t have a restroom*

Umm.. maybe I’ll hold it. Or wait, I can go in the open. Why not? When I have mountains around me to give cover, why do I need walls? Ya, I’ll just go behind that peak over there.

See, that wasn’t so hard.

So there I was, bladder emptied, harness fitted, helmet on, heart thumping, trying not to look down. It was a tandem ride, so my pilot was right behind me. It took us a few minutes to get going, since it’s dependant on the wind, but once the wind caught the gliders, we were off. And honest to god, it’s hard to describe what it feels like. There’s panic initially, yes. Lots of panic.

What if my harness falls off?

What if I fall off the harness?

Will my spectacles fall off if I look down? I won’t even be able to enjoy the view then. Not to mention, the rest of my trip (I’m blind as a bat, you see).

What if there is a giant hole in the glider that they did not know about because of which I will be plummeting to my death very soon?!

Would I plummet straight down or crash into these trees? I hope I get a few rhododendron flowers stuck in my hair if I do. At least I would be a pretty corpse.

What if the pilot loses control of the glider and we float all the way up to Dharamshala (which I was told is a good 3-hour glide away)? That wouldn’t be so bad, I suppose.

But then the panic subsides and you settle in. You just need to let go and admire the beauty laid out in front of you. And maybe try to hush the voices inside your head. Yeah, good luck with that.

Damn, I hope my shoes don’t fall off, why did I have to wear these ballerinas, why couldn’t have I worn my sneakers?

What if it falls off? What if just one shoe falls off? Should I let the other one drop too?

I mean, what will I do with just one anyway?

I hope it doesn’t fall on the bald head of a monk. Dear god, no!

Hey, I see a monastery there! I wonder which one that is. So gorgeous.

On top of this, they gave me the Go Pro to hold, attached to a heavy selfie stick. A moment here to pay respects to all those regular selfie-stick wielders. Like, how? How do you do it! So I was supposed to hold on to the stick for the entirety of the flight so that I could get videos, but I was more worried that I would drop it, even though it is attached to my harness by a rope. And the pilot kept telling me to look into the camera and smile. *cue heavy eye rolling here*

Oh god, this selfie stick is so darn heavy. Maybe I’ll switch hands.

Oh wait, what if it falls while I’m switching? Will I have to pay them for the camera?

Damn, how much does a Go Pro cost? No less than 10k, I’m guessing. I could buy one for myself with that money.

And of course, the eternal “What if I die?” question.

To which my mind promptly answered, “Well, not many people get to die with a view like that. What exactly are you complaining about? I mean, just look around. Forget about your shoes, forget about the camera, forget about the trees you might crash into. This is what you came out here for. For the view, and for that whirlpool feeling in your tummy. Try to enjoy that, will you?”

Before I knew it, it was time for me to land. I could see the landing spot come into view, a vast empty field with plenty of onlookers, all with their heads turned skywards. I could hear my pilot giving me instructions for safe landing.

“Madam, as soon you touch the ground, you have to kneel down.” Which I heard as “Madam, as soon as you touch the ground, you have to fall flat on your face and then get up as though it’s all cool.”

Ah, well.

(This piece has also been published on my blog.)