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Hang-Gliding Lessons

I think it was the fact that I’d already spent so much time above the clouds in Rio de Janeiro, from gawking at the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado to watching the sun set from Pão de Açúcar’s peak, that led me to decide that I just couldn’t leave the city without hang-gliding from Pedro Bonita. Whether I was high on bird’s-eye beauty or just suffering from altitude-induced delirium, I’m not sure. Either way, on my last morning in town, I found myself running at full speed off a ramp in tandem with a hang-gliding instructor I’d met 10 minutes before. This was about 45 minutes after paying $10 for my “pilot’s license” and 5 minutes after practicing my liftoff run (one time).

At any one of those steps, I probably should have been tipped off that this may not be the best idea I ever had. Or when one of the men issuing us our pilots’ licenses was wearing a neck brace. But as Holly wrote here in September, travel has a way of masking our fears and making us abandon any usual sense of caution.

Before I knew it, I was running off the ramp and soaring above the city—the sea, beaches, mountains, mansions, and favela slums grew more detailed as I flew closer to the ground, a gentle wind the only thing between me and Rio. But the considerable thrill of flying was nothing compared to the shock I got upon landing.

Just after I touched down on the beach and began to free myself from my glider and my instructor, I turned around to see the hang-glider directly behind me crash. The emergency parachute deployed, the glider twisted awkwardly and just cleared a cliff before landing hard on the sand.

It turned out that it wasn’t either of my friends waiting to take off, but there were several tense minutes until this was confirmed. A rescue helicopter landed next to the beach, and the professional hang-glider and his tourist client were examined and transported to the hospital. They were moving and conscious, but, if nothing else, suffered serious abrasions from pieces of the broken glider.

If I had to do it over again, I’d probably still go hang-gliding. And I don’t believe that, in general, this or any other adventure activities are inherently unsafe. But my close call was a reminder of the unpredictability of life, which is especially true when traveling. And that’s probably something it wouldn’t hurt to recall once in a while.

What surprises have others faced while traveling that caused you to pause and reconsider your decisions?


My name: Michelle Doucette

How I earn my keep: I'm an editor at

Favorite way to get around: Some of my favorite trips involved renting cars in foreign countries and driving through the countryside, stopping on whims. You get a feel for the culture away from the big cities and meet interesting people on the road, including, I must admit, an embarrassingly high number of local policemen. I suppose it would be prudent to learn all of the traffic laws ahead of time.

Best meal I've had while traveling: Since a succession of gelato cones probably doesn't count as a meal, my favorite must have been a fresh crabmeat lunch prepared by a St. John sailboat captain while we took a break from snorkeling in the Caribbean. Sharing baklava as the sun came up over Paros, Greece, (while, once again, not technically a meal) was also memorable.

Travel ambitions: Since climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I've figured out that I'd like to keep trekking while traveling. I've got my eyes on epic hikes in Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru.

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