Zipline: a reverie in five acts

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“Shit, I muttered in embarrassment, looking down at the cloud forest canopy twisting several hundred feet below me.

I grabbed the high-tension cable with my gloved hand to stop myself from spinning, while my ungloved hand reached up to the pulley to see if I could figure out what had stopped me in my tracks.

“On the plus side it looks like you’ve learned how to hand-break,” one of the guides yelled to me from the platform. “You gripped the line so hard you snapped your momentum.”

“Please don’t use the word ‘snapped’ while I’m dangling like this.”

“Hang on, I’ve got ya.”

The guide had clearly seen hundreds of first-time zipline riders get themselves stuck like this. Almost imperceptibly he attached himself to the line and hauled himself forward, covering the 25-meter distance between us at a brisk pace. I pictured the other tourists in our group on the previous platform getting pissed at me for clogging up the line.

“Let go,” the guide said as he reached for my ungloved hand. I grabbed onto him and followed his lead, moving forward in fits and starts. I could see my kids laughing at me from the platform.

“Dad got stuck,” my son said.

“Dad said shit!” my daughter noted with devilish delight.

And the GoPro on my helmet undoubtedly captured my entire misadventure.

Chastened by the experience, I fiddled with the camera settings to disguise my embarrassment as the rest of the group safely — and more gracefully — traversed the mile-long zipline above the canopy and made it to the platform. We descended the stairwell and jumped over the last couple of steps to the cobblestone below. I could feel the squish of my wet socks in my boots as we joined the long queue like everyone else. Numerous guides stood on each side, two of them kind enough to hold our dogs’ leashes for us.

“Hi Penny, hi Brady,” I said to them in an exaggerated high voice. Brady responded with a dignified woof; Penny just mumbled a lazy growl and stood watch.

The line of tourists zigzagged across the square until reaching the northwest corner of the Duomo, then continued clockwise around the entire perimeter of the cathedral. I could see people at the front of the line looking haggard and hungry. A boy nervously pulled down his shirt to cover up the fact that he’d wet himself during the hours it took to reach the entrance.

“We should’ve stopped to refill our water bottles,” my wife said as the sun beat down on us.

“We might’ve ended up regretting that,” I replied, cocking my head in the direction of the boy, who now was studiously avoiding being photographed by trying to lurk behind the rest of his family.

“Keep moving,” one of the guides said, humorlessly.

“What does it look like we’re doing?!?” I snapped at the guide. This is what you get for purchasing the cheap package, I bitterly thought to myself.

The guide approached me slowly with a flicker of menace in his eyes. “Keep moving,” he repeated. I was too tired to argue.

The four of us stumbled along with the rest of the crowd, knowing we’d likely be queued up for the better part of the afternoon. There was no way we’d get back to the Uffizi in time for our 15-minute entrance window. Maybe if we bolted through the interior and skipped the Campanile we’d be okay. The whole system seemed oppressive and unwelcoming.

Hours passed — might as well have been days, weeks, a ludicrous amount of time. We reached the entrance with whatever adventurous spirit we’d possessed earlier thoroughly drained from us. I didn’t know who was crankier, me or the kids. My wife remained patient as usual.

The inside of the Duomo was much less cavernous than I expected. Beams of light cut through the dust-filled air as we walked in circles around the perimeter of the interior, stained glass windows mounted around us like colorful propaganda posters from some forgotten war. The crowd was so claustrophobic it was impossible to separate ourselves from the tour groups. Guides shouted at us through megaphones, commanding us to proceed forward as they lectured us about whatever saint happened to be buried under our feet. People would crash into each other every time some wise-ass thought it was a good idea to break out their selfie stick. Though it was chilly inside, I felt drenched in sweat, my socks a pair of spongy swamps that engulfed my blisters with each step. We’d never get out of here alive.

Exiting the ancient structure we stepped into darkness. I’d forgotten how quickly dusk turned to night at these latitudes. Our dogs stayed behind with a pair of guides; they’d no doubt become an unwelcome interruption if they proceeded any further. There were 10 of us at this point — a pair of families and a couple who appeared to be on the most miserable honeymoon ever.

Our guide was friendlier than the others we’d met, but commanded respect, insistent we’d end up severely disappointed if we made too much of a ruckus. “Keep your torches aimed downward unless I say otherwise,” she said, making eye contact with each one of us. All of our flashlights were covered with a red fabric that looked like they’d been scrounged from an elementary school classroom art cabinet. There’s no way we’d get the wildlife pictures we were hoping for, but at least the fabric would look like we’d gone bold with our choice of Instagram filters.

“What did I just say?” our guide whispered curtly. I saw my daughter was aiming her flashlight at the trees high above us.

“Come on, honey, you gotta cooperate,” I said softly.

“I wanna signal the airplanes,” she said rather insistently, scanning the sky with her eyes. As best I could tell, there was nothing to spot up there except the occasional fruit bat.

“This is a type of ginger,” our guide said in a low tone as she squatted close to the ground and dug it up. The ginger root glowed as nearly a dozen red flashlight beams shone on it simultaneously. “You can eat it raw but make sure you wipe all the dirt from it beforehand. And the leaves on this tree over here are edible if you cook them in rainwater, though I wouldn’t recommend starting a fire out here unless you want to piss off the rangers.”

“She said piss off,” my daughter said all too loudly to no one in particular. Her younger brother elbowed her and gave her a good shush.

“We’ll have our best chances if we stay off the road,” the guide whispered. “So follow my exact path — and keep those torches downward! I don’t want to hear any of you complaining about getting bit by a viper, because we’ll leave you behind.”

That got a laugh, albeit a nervous one.

We camped out during the scorching hot days in small caves, parallel to a creek where the water was drinkable as long as you used your purification tablets. Most of the group had gotten stomach problems at one point or another, but that’s the price you pay for going on adventures like this. Just bury your shit and get on with it.

Everyone was handling it as well as could be expected but I could see the couple and their honeymoon from hell hadn’t mended their differences from the argument they’d had a couple nights earlier. By the time we were scrounging for breakfast the next morning, one of them had apparently disappeared.

“Never split away from the group,” our guide admonished the wife.

“He’ll be back,” she said, clearly exasperated. “He’s just having a harder time with this.”

He shouldn’t have come along if he couldn’t handle it, I thought to myself. The last thing we needed was having this guy head back to basecamp and make a big stir.

“If he’s not back by 3 o’clock…” the guide began to reply before she was interrupted by one of our dogs. I could hear Brady woofing loudly from several hundred meters away, undoubtedly wondering what’d happened to us. Penny began to growl viciously.

Somewhere in the forest, the husband was now screaming.

Exhausted after trekking for so many days, we moved into the ruins of Mughal-era palace that had once been some aristocrat’s summer home. We settled down deep in the overgrown complex. Our new home wasn’t much to look at, but it could still serve the three of us and the dogs without too much complaint. My daughter was gone by this point; I’d lost track of when she’d left. I could tell my wife and son seemed ready to wrap it up and head back home as well, but we never talked about it. We’d always wanted to travel like this, but I knew from our loose-fitting rags and calloused skin that taking a summer cruise might’ve been the better choice.

The days were getting longer. My son would pass the time carving a notch into the wall each day, quietly counting them and singing the numbers to himself. I guess it’s true what they say about kids and learning a new language.

One day I woke up and they were gone. I kept up my son’s tradition of marking the days; I bet he’d be impressed at my dedication. I tried singing out the numbers like he did, but never made it very far.

Eventually I’d had enough. The dogs decided to stay behind; the ruined palace was probably the only home they remembered at this point. Brady woofed goodbye, loud and deep; Penny just mumbled a harmless growl before drifting back to sleep.

It was a long walk to the airport; I’d almost made it several times prior to this attempt but always turned back. I knew the route in my head, knowing which intersection would be less likely be jammed with hawkers trying to sell me last-minute souvenirs. I just wanted to get home at this point.

Somewhere along the route an autorickshaw pulled over. The driver motioned to me to get inside.

“I’m almost out of rupees at this point,” I said.

“No problem,” he replied, blinking languidly as he rotated his face in a subtle arc. “The road is closed; no foot traffic today.” I was too tired to argue.

Leaning back in the rickshaw seat, the crowded dusty streets passed by like a dream. The ratio of hawkers selling large black umbrellas instead of souvenirs had increased dramatically since my last attempt; with any luck the monsoons were just a few days away.

The rickshaw driver brought me to an unfamiliar structure, its freshly polished rose granite reflecting the sunlight back into my eyes. “New terminal,” he said, unenthusiastically.

Staring at the entrance, I climbed out of his rickshaw and reached behind without looking to hand him whatever rupees were left in my pocket. He drove off without complaint; it must have been enough. Will my roller bag in tow, I passed several police who were distracted by a cricket match playing on a small laptop. The interior of the terminal was an endless hallway, a world’s worth of luggage strewn haphazardly along the floor. Tourists and locals alike sat at ersatz outdoor cafes, the oversized parasols protecting them from the rays pouring through the skylights.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d sat down for a proper meal.

My roller bag got heavier and heavier as I dragged it across the terminal. Not far from check-in, I found myself temporarily blocked by some thuggish looking men of unknown origin, almost caricatures of exotic movie mobsters. One of them let me pass, but gave me a hard check to the shoulder that stung for a moment. I could hear their mocking tone as I passed them, though I was completely unaware of what they were saying.

Halfway down the hall, I realized I was no longer pulling my roller bag.

Frustrated, I turned around and began my search. It was an old, forest green bag that should’ve stood out from all the standard black luggage propped around the terminal, but there was no sign of it. The thuggish men were still there, staring at me contemptuously.

I reached around my shoulder for my backpack. I felt the weight of it, years of travel imprinted heavily on the skin and muscle, the badge of a veteran vagabond. But the backpack was nowhere to be found.

Bordering on panic, I reached into my tattered pockets. My wallet and phone were long gone. All I could find was a patina of dirt and grime that lodged under my nails as I scraped into the fabric.

The men were laughing at me now. One of them made a dismissive gesture at me, slapping his right hand on his chest several times before brushing it away in the air.

I reached into my shirt pocket and found my ticket, folded into a tight square. Delhi to Heathrow to home, flight scheduled for yesterday afternoon. I folded it back up; I could hear Brady woofing steadily in the distance.

I darted past security, waving my folded ticket in their faces as I ran through the metal detector. They just stared at me, repeating the same gesture I’d seen one of the thuggish guys make at me. Luggage blocked me in every direction. I climbed, tripped, kicked, shoved, dragged, smashed everything in my path. My flight was yesterday and I would not allow myself to miss it.

I reached the gate as the departure door slammed shut. I dropped to my knees and began to sob. “It was only yesterday! I need to go back! Let me get back to them!” The man behind the gate was more startled than angry, staring at me like he’d seen a ghost. He tapped his earpiece twice and began to speak urgently to someone. I squeezed the folded ticket so tight I thought my hand might bleed.

Another gate agent soon appeared. She’d clearly dealt with people like me before. She reached down to help me up.

“I hear you missed your flight. Let’s get you sorted out.”

I took her hand as she led me to an airline office, the piles of luggage parting in our wake. So many people, staring, staring. I sat down and slumped in a chair as it rolled across the plastic mat protecting the carpet. There were bottles of cold water and fruit on the table, which I consumed ravenously.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she said pleasantly. “I can tell you’ve been wanting to go home for a long time.”

“I’ve lost everything,” I mumbled while gnawing on my third piece of fruit. “Those men — those men must’ve drugged me! Everything is gone — my luggage, my phone, my money, my family. Where is my family?!?!? Tell me what you’ve done with them!”

“Your family is fine,” she said, motioning for me to grip my fist tightly as she began to draw blood. “They’ve missed you very, very much. There’s so much they want to tell you. You’ll see them soon enough.”

Through the open door of the office, I could see Brady and Penny barking happily. A young girl ran down the hallway to give them a hug as her grandparents held their leashes loosely.

The nurse drew another vial of blood.

“Why are you doing this?” I stammered, confused at my surroundings, time suddenly snapping like a rubber band in my brain.

“It’s all standard and it won’t take much longer,” a woman standing over the nurse explained calmly. “I’m sorry if this feels like this is taking forever. It’s been forever since we’ve had to do this as well. Everyone thought all of you had re-entered the world by this point. It took a lot of convincing for some of you; they just didn’t want to believe it. What can you remember?”

“Everything,” I lied, staring out the door. “We traveled the world… I wanted to show them the world….”

“I can only imagine what you’ve been through. It’ll come back to you — just give it some time. Do you recognize this? We found it in your shirt pocket.”

She removed something from small envelope and handed it to me. It was still folded tightly, caked in blood and mud from long ago. I could see its lamination peeling from the edges.

“I don’t know what that is.”

“You were gripping it when you first came in. Somehow you managed to hang onto to it all this time.”

“That’s not mine! It must be someone else’s!”

“It’s going to be okay. May I show you something else? I think it will help.”

I couldn’t make eye contact with her, but somehow managed to nod my head. She reached over to a tablet-shaped piece of glass on the desk. She swiped the glass, triggering it to project a crisp, life-like video across the width of the office. It was like looking through a window.

I watched the night sky suddenly spinning out of control, the canopy of the jungle closing fast, comets of flame and shrieking metal falling from the heavens, crescents of fire, drifting down, slower, screaming, tracer fire soaring higher, higher, the cold air rushing under my helmet paralyzing my face, panic, struggling to control the panic and regain control, pulling the cord again and again and knowing it would likely be the last thing I would ever do, regretting my mistakes, my choices, my dreams of taking my kids on the adventure they’d never have, a sudden tug upwards, the air slowing down, drifting, peaceful, the fear vanishing, my family returning to my mind, the cloud forest canopy closer, closer, branches stabbing my flight suit and cutting my face, the world suddenly stopping short, the shock of hanging in the air like God himself had thrown me a life line, the sounds of dogs barking as I see dancing red laser light flickering across the jungle below, the fear overtaken by resolve, unshakable resolve, comforted in the knowledge I would somehow make it home.

The video ended, closing a window into my life that I’d long forgotten

I took my laminated service ID from her hand, swallowed hard, and unfolded it.

Written by

Asper visiting professor, UBC School of Journalism. Former Sr Editor-At-Large at NowThis & founder of Author of the book Distant Witness. NPR alum.

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