Adding a little zip

The Virgen de Los Angeles air freshener swung from the rearview mirror as if in unison to the Latino beat coming over the airwaves. The kids’ heads bobbled like dolls while we bumped along the steep, one-lane, dirt road. Beads of sweat pooled as I desperately tried to crack open the tinted window, breathing in a mixture of tropical steam and dust. Truth be told, the sudden onslaught from my pores probably had more to do with nerves than heat. In fact, the temperature outside was quite pleasant, particularly for refugee snowbirds such as ourselves.

After a solid 20-minute slog and a few good jolts to the spine, the van rumbled to a stop, and our two drivers signaled we had reached our destination. The Mo-tel family clambered from the dark recesses of the van marked “turismo,” into the bright, equatorial sunlight. The man riding shotgun, who we would later learn was named Brian, pointed through a break in the dense vegetation.

“Is this it?” I asked the spouse without moving my lips, as if the two men couldn’t hear.

“I guess so,” he responded, similarly tight-lipped.

I hesitated in light of the fact that – like much of our Central American adventure thus far – there was a definitive lack of signage. Up until now, however, the Virgen de Luck had been on our side. But I was worried she was about to leave us stranded.

When we decided on Costa Rica for our big family trip (an ultimatum as I entered my fourth decade, family finances be damned), I envisioned lazy days on the beach, afternoons conquering the foam pile on a long board and foofy cocktails served out of coconut shells. But the country’s popular tourist attraction of zip-lining, in my mind a modern version of bungee jumping, had been ruled out. After all, I was on vacation to relax, not dangle high over the jungle from a cable.

However, the siren call of “X-treme Sky Adventura” and flying like Superman proved too much for the 6-year-old imagination to resist. Finally, after much pestering and the prospect of another trip to the snake zoo, I caved. After some cursory investigation, we decided to forego the Disneylandesque tour options for something a little more off the beaten gringo path, preferably without the words “extreme” – or any derivative thereof – in the title.

A such, we ended up with an outfit touting itself as the “Original Canopy Tour,” which had been in business since 1976 – something I took as a good sign, even if all others seemed lacking.

Our lead guide, Graben, headed down the rugged path through the bushes, and the Mo-tels fell into rank, with Brian and I bringing up the rear.

“Habla Español?” he asked in an effort to make polite conversation.

“Un poco,” I admitted, ashamed that five years of Spanish had rendered me capable of only guttural grunts and a primitive form of tourist charades.

We spent the rest of the walk in respectful silence until reaching a rustic building with dark wood trim and mint green walls, reminiscent of a mess hall at scout camp.

Inside, Brian pointed to a faded photo on the wall. “Jimmy Carter,” he said. I peered closer. Indeed, a harnessed Jimmy Carter circa late 1970s stood there with his trademark toothy grin, obviously happy with his experience.

Figuring if it was good enough for the 39th president of the United States, it was good enough for us, I signed my family members’ lives away. Like a covert secret mission, we were suited up in harness, crash helmet and massive, leather-palmed gloves. As my harness was cinched down tight, I reminded myself, that according to our trusted Fodor’s, there had only been two zip-lining deaths: both women whose harnesses mysteriously “fell apart.” I gulped and looked down at the complicated chastity belt, realizing I didn’t know a locking carabiner from my cabeza.

But there was no time for second-guessing as we were marched out the door and back on the trail. First stop: the “The Tarzan Swing,” aka human slingshot. While not part of the original plan, I suspect it was a ploy by the guides to test our “flail factor.” Needless to say, I passed with flying colors, mostly in the form of cursewords.

Barely recovered from my heart palpitations, it was off to a quick safety talk. I tried to listen, I really did, but somehow couldn’t get past the part about having to put your hand in the right place or risk losing fingers. Nodding like a dummy, I pretended to comprende as we were led to the first of eight platforms from which we would launch, a hundred feet off the ground.

Graben went first so as to signal to the rest of us. It was then decided the youngest, referred to as “La Chiquita,” would go next, followed by me. I wondered if there was a Virgen de Bad Mothers as she zipped out of sight, her 4-year-old legs dangling over the green precipice. I assumed she made it, because before I know it, I was being winched onto the pulley like a side of meat.

“Bye bye,” Brian said as he gave me a gentle but firm push, much like a mother bird does before mercilessly shoving her baby out of the nest. I remember thinking how strange it was that he was wearing casual brown loafers in the middle of the jungle when the bottom dropped out. There was a brief moment of elation quickly followed by panic as I went into the dreaded death spiral. Suddenly, the chasm between me and the ground wasn’t half as terrifying as the fact that I was backwards, no longer able to see my impending doom. I desperately tried to remember the safety talk. Was it hand in front or behind? I just hung on for dear life. The spinning stopped long enough for me to see Graben, a whiter shade of pale, quickly approaching. He was pumping his fist wildly in the air.

“Coming in hot!” I yelled, no time for Spanish verb conjugation, had I remembered.

There was a crash of limbs, followed by a horrible silence.

“Uh, are you OK?” I asked as I peeled myself off my Tico guide, who, with the help of a massive strangler fig, had acted as the human air bag.

Jimmy Carter probably didn’t do it this way, but Billy maybe.

I apologized profusely, impressed with his ability to hold back the tears. “De nada,” he eventually smiled, no doubt through crushing pain.

All in a day’s work when trying to make trapeze artists out of soccer moms, I suppose. But in my book, anyone who would put himself between a runaway trainwreck such as myself and several tons of tree, was a good man. And over the course of the next few hours, I learned to fly – even if it was by the seat of my pants.

– Missy Votel



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