Off the Edge in Cusco

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Cusco, Peru
By Conor Grennan

Growing up in the United States, I am not sure it ever occurred to me that we Americans didn’t own the world. I knew people in different countries spoke other languages and whatnot, but it was still kind of ours, right? This idea was only further strengthened spent the summer after college graduation backpacking around Europe; I continuously ran into college friends. Now, the odds against one wandering around continental Europe and bumping into friends, not once, but many times, should be astronomical, but it never struck me as such. To me, these countries existed purely for our backpacking pleasure, and I was as likely to run into friends there as down at the local bar.

In reality, it makes sense that we would run into each other: everybody is on the same trail and everybody is completely dependent on the Let’s Go Europe guide to tell us where to go and what to do. Let’s Go had instructed us to go to Balmer’s Hostel in Interlaken, a place that specialized in activities designed to either get your heart racing, cause you to puke, or land you in the hospital, depending on your luck. The activity my friend Larry was recommending above all else was the bungee jump. “It will blow your mind, man,” he was saying. “It’s the highest one in the world, you know that?”

“No kidding? How high is it?”

“One hundred and eighty meters, amigo,” Larry said slowly and deliberately, and waited for my awed response.

“Whoa! That’s pretty high,” I said, but in all honestly, that meant nothing to me. As an American, I needed my measurements in yards, football fields, or household items laid end-to-end. But Highest in the World certainly sounded like something we would be foolish to pass up.

We piled onto the gondola, and it began to rise quickly over the gorgeous landscape. We stopped at a height one hundred meters, where some people would jump from, those that hadn’t paid for the privilege of going up an additional four-fifths of a football field. “My god,” I distinctly remember my friend Charlie saying. “We’re already up way too high.”

The cord was attached to our back – it was thought that if it was only attached to our legs, our knees would dislocate from that height. It meant we could get a running start in the gondola and swan dive out.

I was scared, but my ignorance was keeping my emotions in check – I imagined the experience would be similar that wonderful feeling you get when jumping off a high dive (three meters), except last for four whole seconds instead of less than one. And that would be a great feeling.

My friends, it was nothing like that at all. Or rather, only the first fraction of a second was like that. After that all similarities between it and a high dive, or even anything resembling fun, ended. When you jump from that kind of height, you actually feel yourself speeding up, and this is a sickening feeling. You watch helpless as the ground rushes up at you, and soon you are going so fast that you do not believe that there is anything in the known universe that can stop you, let alone that little white cord they tied to you up in the safety of the gondola. That same gondola, you will now be noting, that you willingly threw yourself out of, even though you were only 21 years old and had your whole life ahead of you.

Let me say that that was the first and one of the only times in my entire life that I actually thought that I was going to die. I know how that sounds ridiculous and over-dramatic, but I am telling you this was the case. I can still remember that sensation as if it happened an hour ago.

Well, of course I didn’t die. My friends and I celebrated this fact after the jump with several bottles of beer and talked about the experience for about two hours straight – it was that traumatic. You know how lots of things seem scary before you do them, then afterwards you want to go back and do it again? This was nothing like that. It was, in fact, the exact opposite: I never wanted to do it again.

That’s why I was surprised, nine years later, to find myself agreeing to go bungee jumping with my friend Olly in the town of Cusco in south western Peru.

We had arrived in Cusco that afternoon, early enough that we were able to arrange the bungee jump for the following day. In an interesting twist that would dominate the dinner conversation that evening, I had been informed by the tour operator that it was possible to do the jump for free (and thus save $60) if one did it naked. As I was traveling around the world for a year and was accustomed to bargaining over mere pennies, this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

“Great – so now I have to worry about that as well as a hundred and twenty meter freefall?” groaned Olly.

“We’re saving sixty bucks, man,” I said, stating the obvious, and only, argument.

It launched an anatomical discussion of which I will not repeat the specifics here, but rather jump ahead a few minutes to the crux of the argument.

“I understand that, but surely the jerk at the end would effectively put an end to any chance of producing viable seed?” asked Olly.

“Doubtful,” I said. “Anyway, how would you possibly know?”

“How would you possibly know?” he fired back. “You’ve done fucking exit interviews or something?”

“Sixty bucks!”

“Yeah, I know,” he said, shaking his head in resignation. “Jesus.”

By the following morning, Olly had the night to contemplate all of this and probably visualize it pretty effectively, and had decided there was just no way he was going to fling himself out of a cage suspending 120 meters above the ground with no clothes on.

I, on the other hand, had psyched myself up for it – sixty dollars is a lot of cash to us unemployed folks.

Now, before you get too many images seared into your mind, let me jump ahead to getting out to Action Valley, 11 km from Cusco, where we discovered that it was a moot point – only women could jump for free naked. (“Oh thank Christ,” breathed Olly.) I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also utterly relieved. I could almost handle the leaping naked – the real problem came after the fact, when you were just dangling there like a spider from a thread, wearing nothing but a harness. That is the kind of image that powers the internet. And yet I was still willing. It’s not often one can put a price on one’s dignity, but now I know to the very dollar.

Now that that issue was resolved, it was time to get it over with. We flipped a coin to see who would go first, as we both wanted to. Olly won. They strapped him around the legs and around the chest (as a redundancy), and took him up in a cage that was pulled straight up, supported by a cable running across the valley. I was lying on a mattress directly underneath the cage having things strapped to my ankles in preparation for my jump, when the cage stopped. There was a minute of absolute silence as I watched the red cage sway gently against the bright blue sky, then our man Olly came flying out.

It is a strange thing to see a body falling like that. It appears completely out of control in a way that you seldom see human beings. He was being propelled by an invisible force – there was nothing but Olly up there, and yet he was moving at an alarming pace. Right towards me, in fact, which automatically made two of us praying that cord held.

It did. Olly bounced, then bounced again, and was finally lowered down yelling in that ecstatic way that I have only heard from a person hanging from bungee cord.

I went up next. To be honest, I was not really all that nervous. The cage door was closed, the view was nice, and sure I was up high, but I knew the key: I wasn’t going to think about it. It seemed like a strange thing to actually pay $60 to do something that you couldn’t possibly get up the nerve to do unless you didn’t even think about it, but it was the only way. It was not at all uncommon to be on the ground watching the cage, hearing a loud “One, Two, Three!” and see nothing happen. That’s because the person was thinking about it. And if you thought about it, you were not going to fling yourself out of cage suspended at that bone-shattering height. So I wasn’t thinking about it, and I was pretty calm about the whole thing.

Then the guy slid the cage door opened, gave me some last instructions about gripping the harness as you jump before letting go, and then I had to step out onto an absurdly tiny metal platform just large enough for my feet, and looked down. And that feeling, folks, is a feeling that stays with you. I am writing these words with that moment in my mind, and I swear, my heart is racing right now. It is not possible to take something like this calmly. It is aggressively terrifying, simply because you are almost never in this position, and your eyes are reporting what’s going on out here, and your brain is asking for reconfirmation.

“Hey, listen – there’s nothing out here, and we are up really high,” Eyes tell Brain in a failed attempt to sound calm and reasonable. “Like, really high, and I would recommend taking a step back, because there is a good chance that we are going to die here. Over.”

“I hear you, man,” says Brain, starting to hyperventilate, “Not even sure how we got up here in the first place – can somebody check that this is what was on the itinerary for today? Leaping out of some goddamn cage way up in the air? Because this doesn’t seem right at all, and I’m about to totally lose my shit. Over.”

“Hi – sorry to bother, but I’m getting a weird feeling,” Feet call up on the emergency channel. “Can somebody tell me exactly what we’re looking at here? You sure it’s ok to step forward? Because I think we’re on some kind of big step here, and suggest we check for an easier way down, because I reckon we might twist an ankle or something. Just a hunch, sorry for the bother. Over.”

It’s moment like this that Hands take over. First shaking themselves down at your sides, then clapping a few times, and finally clenching into fists and shaking themselves in a way that makes you yell “Woooo!” and “Alright!” and “Oh My Fuck!” and other such nonsense. It is the Hands that seem to override the concerns of the Brain and the rest of your being that is united in screaming to take a step backwards into the cage. They are the frat boys of the body, the ones yelling “Ok Let’s Go Go Go Go!!” and you are suddenly a mere observer in your own body. You discover your right foot planting itself, your knees bending, your upper body leaning slightly forward so that it is past the point of turning back, and you spring off into that clean horrifying empty space where you don’t have a friend in the world.

The next few seconds are occupied with simply trying to hold yourself together in a way that you have never had to do before in your life. Your mind is probably as blank as it is ever going to get, and yet you are hyper-aware of the fact that you are completely and utterly out of control. There is nothing to think about except trying to survive it, which you do by instinctively whirling your arms about madly, which is about as effective as the brace position in a doomed aircraft. Your body has no idea what in Christ’s name is going on or why you are moving at this kind of speed without touching anything. It goes into emergency mode that I have to believe is reserved for these brush-with-death types of experiences, because I have never felt it before except during bungee jumping. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you must know that you will be ok, but I only remember, with incredible lucidity, the absolutely unique feeling that something is terribly wrong and that you have, to put it gently, made a rather horrible decision.

But then you are caught, and the world around catches up to you. Thoughts come rushing back into your head, mostly of the relief variety. You feel the cord stretch, then suddenly it does something that you did not account for – it flings you back up into the air, and you have to fall again. This second fall doesn’t have the same feeling of abject terror attached to it – rather it is a feeling of confusion that you suddenly have to go through this all again, and where exactly did you sign up for that?

It is over quickly. And those few seconds are likely to make as large an impression as anything else you do in your life, believe me. I would only recommend trying it because you will certainly survive it and there is no other feeling quite like it in the world – new sensations are hard to come by and even harder to hold on to, but bungee jumping from a serious height is one of those things you will be able to conjure up whenever you want, though you may not want to. Just try not to think about it too much beforehand.

And honest to god, you’re not going to want to do it naked – there are better ways to save sixty bucks.

Read all of Conor’s adventures at: How Conor is Spending All His Money.

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