It was March Break, 1977 when I last visited Cuba. Having traveled and lived all over the world since then, I was somewhat reluctant, as Cuba was not at the top of my list of destinations for adventure. Nonetheless, I decided to join some friends and give it a go for the second time.
With the exception of resorts shooting up everywhere and countless tourists escaping for some R&R weekly, Cuba really hadn’t changed much over the years. Having said that, it has become world renowned for its teaching hospital.
Making our way through the countryside, Cuba, in my opinion ran a close second to Asia for the oldest modes of transportation still functioning. Farm equipment seemed so primitive I had to wonder if we were traveling through some mysterious time warp. Roads, when present, remained in desperate need of attention. The locals, for the most part, are still poverty-stricken, begging for anything foreigners could spare them, especially money, school supplies and clothes.
One particular day, while sipping cappuccino poolside, my friend Brian and I were in search of adventure and happened to observe a skydiving plane pass overhead. Although Cuban history is quite fascinating at best, jumping from a perfectly good airplane somehow seemed more alluring at that moment. Within an hour, my friend Brian and I were on our way to the most extraordinary quest of a lifetime – A tandem jump from 10,000 feet. Appreciating the audacity behind such behavior - 14,000 feet is perhaps the highest anyone should jump before requiring oxygen.
Whisked off in a van to the nearby skydiving club, we signed our life away in one of two 8 x 10 rooms separated by an elongated roof. While our Cuban instructors outfitted us with life jackets and harnesses, they spoke little English; reassuring us they had ten years experience. The only requirements - follow some basic instructions and “Relax”. Explaining the simplicity of dropping from a plane at 10,000 feet with nothing more than a few ropes, some flimsy fabric, and a strange man affixed securely to one’s torso was not cause to relax in my opinion. Conversely, drinking Spanish Coffee by the pool seemed a little more appealing.
Before being scanned and led through a tunnel to a grass/gravel airstrip to board what appeared to be an old 1970’s Russian cargo plane, our Passports were confiscated. Upon ignition, the dilapidated old wreck billowed huge puffs of black smoke from its engines. Perhaps fuel limitations = destination limitations, thus minimizing an escape from this Fantasy Island.
“Hey Brian,” I yelled, as he boarded the plane, “It’s a good thing this is a skydiving plane because if this baby falls out of the sky, we should be good for a quick get away.”
From the window, the shear vastness of the landscape consuming two neighboring resorts was absolutely breathtaking as we climbed toward the clouds. While hues from the coral reef below resembled a stunning mural canvas, the lush green forests and mountains in the background paled in comparison as a mix mash of greens stretched out for miles.
The plane door was opened. Adrenalin began pumping through my veins as our tandem partners secured us tightly to their body before proceeding to the door. Now was the time of truth. Mind over matter – or was it? Several instinctual thoughts suddenly pierced my mind - Chute malfunction prior to crashing into the massive coral reef below; the probability of choking on some foreign species of bird or bug at such an altitude was quite realistic; was bringing a spare pair of underwear a requirement?
As my instructor leaned backward out the door with a firm grip on the outside frame, I leaned my head on his shoulder, clutched my straps, giving Brian one last glance before pulling my legs up between the instructors. Grinning from ear to ear, he simply waived and mouthed the words, “Bye, bye.”
At that instant the plane sloped and we plummeted into the empty nothingness below. I imagined dropping fifty stories in an elevator shaft to be nothing in comparison to watching a magnified close up of my demise closing in while falling. My heart felt like it was jumping out of my chest as my mind rewound a video of my entire life. 15-seconds to freefall 5,000 feet, about 3 feet per second, seemed to take forever. “Whoosh!” Suddenly, we were swiftly yanked upward, soaring over the magnificent splendor of the expanding landscape below. What an incredible rush, a masterful performance as my partner maneuvered us to our beach below, gracefully setting us down. Though unlike any experienced I’ve ever had or probably every will again, without a doubt it was the most phenomenal experience ever and definitely made Cuba worth revisiting the second time around.