Monday, 16 July 2012

Face Fear: JHU vs. World's Highest Bungee Jump

I remember the first time I went on a rollercoaster. I was in sixth grade, and my family was on vacation in Las Vegas with several other family friends. In typical tourist fashion, we were exploring all the hotels on the strip. Our last stop was at New York New York, the hotel inspired by the Big Apple. While it was not an extraordinary hotel (I can vaguely remember the décor), the kids were all excited because of the rollercoaster at the top. Being a naïve middle schooler, I had no idea or concept of what riding a rollercoaster would be like, except that it would be “fun” and “exhilarating”. So, following my big brother and all of my friends, I sat in the plastic seat. The climb to the first drop was terrifying. I remember taking one look at my surroundings (tiny buildings, the Vegas strip a thin line, and endless sky) and closing my eyes shut. I didn’t open my eyes for the entire ride. I didn’t even scream. I simply hunched down in my seat, with my heart pounding a million beats per minute, my teeth biting the inside of my cheek so hard I tasted blood after. When the ride was over and everyone was ecstatically saying how fun the ride was, I smiled and pretended like I enjoyed it too. Except, I didn’t. I hated it.

I’m not sure why heights scare me so much. I have this theory that it is biologically based, as my mother has a similar fear. Even standing by the railing of the second floor in a mall freaks me out. And it’s not as if I haven’t gone on a rollercoaster since; I have. But it’s not something I would ever willingly do myself. But there is something about one’s greatest fear that is also fascinating; it’s actually very masochistic. On flights, I always sit by the window seat with very morbid thoughts running through my mind: What if the plane malfunctions? What if we just…drop? So when everyone talked about bungee jumping and skydiving at the very first study abroad meeting, I smiled to myself and thought, “Absolutely not”. There was no way I was going to throw myself off a bridge or plane. Not a chance. Even when we were planning our road trip to Jeffrey’s Bay and the stop at the Bloukrans Bridge to bungee jump, I didn’t budge. The game plan was that everyone else was going to jump, and I was going to take pictures. End of story.

During the drive to Bloukrans Bridge, everyone was nervous (even all of you who said you weren’t… I KNOW you were). When we drove over the bridge, our jaws dropped; the bridge was a LOT higher than we thought it would be. As we drove into the parking lot, we blasted music to pump ourselves up. Everyone kept saying to me, “You must be so relaxed, you’re not jumping”. Except I wasn’t calm, I was freaking out inside; just being so close to edge and seeing the bridge from afar was scary. I couldn’t even begin to imagine jumping off. After we parked and went to the bathroom (necessary), everyone went to sign their lives away and to get weighed and harnessed. Getting weighed is really important because your weight determines the rope that you get attached to. Since I didn’t want to be left behind, I decided to go with everyone onto the bridge and to watch from there. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Bloukrans Bridge.
They mark your hand with your weight in kg (top) and jump number (bottom).
The time slowly counted down… and then it was time. We all walked over to the side and met with our guide, who would be taking us across the bridge. Everyone had a huge smile plastered on their face, whether from excitement or fear, I don’t know. In order to get to the jump off point, we had to walk through the woods and across an underpass. Walking across was terrifying; you realize how high up you actually are. Matt had to hold my hand as we walked (thanks Matt!). The underpass didn’t seem very stable, and all I could think was “It’s going to break, it’s going to break”. But it didn’t, and we got to the jump off point safely. There was music blasting, so everyone started to dance in order to prepare mentally and physically for what was going to happen.
Bridge to jump off point.
It's a longgggg way down.
There were a few other people with us, but the order that our group was going to jump was Audrey, Fatu, Ling, Allen, Matt, Emily, Ndu, and Tyler. Before Audrey jumped, we came together in a pre-game huddle. Except this wasn’t football, this was a 216m high bridge. Who in their right minds would willingly do such a thing? The 8 people that I was with, that’s who. When Audrey jumped off, I remember screaming—one second she was standing on the edge, and the next, she was gone. But when she came back, she was full of adrenalin and yelling, “Oh my god, that was the best experience ever! I want to do it again!!!”

I don’t think anyone else realized, but it was equally as terrifying watching everyone jump off. Even though they each came back safe and elated, I couldn’t help but think of Agatha Christie the whole time: “And then there were …” When it was Tyler’s turn, one of the workers came up to me and said “Are you sure you don’t want to go? I can tell you want to. You don’t want to regret it, you know”. Before I knew it, I started to cry. I’m not sure why, but I think it was because I was being confronted with the one question that I was dreading the whole time: Did I want to jump or not? Because on one hand, my entire body was resisting the idea of jumping off, but what other chance would I have to be back in South Africa? Would I regret this later? I didn’t want to leave South Africa with any regrets, but I was truly terrified. While everyone else comforted me, the worker kept saying to me, “You don’t want to regret it”. I’m sure that if I was any other person, I would have been really annoyed that he was so persistent. But I am so glad that he was. Because it was at that moment, I decided to jump. This was my only chance. There was no way I could go back home and tell everyone that I went to the highest bungee jump in the world and didn’t jump.

So I signed the consent form and got harnessed. I was literally shaking.. and I couldn’t stop crying. When the workers were attaching the ropes to my ankles, I took deep breaths and told myself over and over, “Don’t be such a wimp. You can do this.” I hopped over to the edge, the two workers supporting my arms on their shoulders. It was in that moment that I almost screamed out that I changed my mind—because standing on the edge, I could finally see how high up the bridge was. But the workers were adamant and told me to put my toes to the edge, and so I did. They told me to hold up my arms and to look straight out at the mountains. I’m pretty sure I mentally blacked out for a couple seconds because the next thing I knew, I was in the air… I was flying. The trees and the brook at the bottom got closer and closer, and then I was flying back up. It was incredibly peaceful—all I could hear was the sound of the water flowing in brook. I distinctly remember saying out loud “Wowww” because it was so beautiful and so serene, not at all like the scary experience I had envisioned previously. Eventually, I stopped bouncing up and down and was just hanging upside down by my ankles. This was when I started getting scared because it felt like I was going to slip out of the ankle support any second. I remember thinking, “If I fall, I’m going to die”. But I didn’t, and after a few seconds, one of the workers came to fetch me. During the ride up, he was making small talk but I couldn’t do anything but giggle like a maniac. I was so full of adrenalin, I felt like I could’ve run for five miles without stop. 

There was something in my eye, I swear.
Preparing for jump off.

I'm a bird!
I still can't believe I did this.
On the way back up.
Looking back on it now, I am so glad that I jumped. Though, I’m not convinced that I am fully cured of my fear of heights and of free fall... I’m pretty sure that if I had to do it again, I would still cry. But, jumping off proved that I am capable of overcoming my fear. And that is exactly the kind of thing I came to South Africa for. But I really couldn’t have done it without everyone’s support. Like The Beatles said, “ I get by with a little help from my friends”. 

Christina Li

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