Just hanging around in magical Mexico
WITH my knees shaking, my heart pounding and my mind racing to the multitude of ways I could die in the next few minutes, I was seriously rethinking my definition of “holiday.” I had just climbed a 21-metre rappelling tower about a half-hour outside of Playa del Carmen and was preparing to voluntarily step off the edge, while wearing a harness, of course, and rappel down. All of the equipment looked to be in working order during the on-the-ground demonstrations, but I kept replaying the opening scene from
in my head. You know, the one where Sylvester Stallone races out on a cable thousands of feet above the ground to try to save his coworker’s girlfriend, whose clips and straps had failed? He gets to her in time, but as he struggles to hold onto her, her hand slips out of her glove and she plummets to her death. Having never compared myself to Stallone before, the rational side of my brain thought I was being absurd. The irrational side, however, was doing the TV version of my obituary, complete with baritone announcer voice. “A Winnipeg journalist plummeted to his death today when the ancient rappelling tower he was standing in was blown to smithereens by a light breeze. Film at 11.” Not known for my love of heights, I had noticed every crooked step and creaking beam as I made my ascent, on the heels (sort of) of my daughter, Mia, 17, and son, Alex, 14. I was not in the slightest reassured by the fish netting wrapped around the entire structure. Just a few minutes before, our tour guide at Mayan Adventures, Horacio Dominguez, had given a demonstration on a mini-platform at the tower’s base. “Oh, good,” I thought, as Horatio demonstrated stepping backwards, standing with your heels hanging over the edge. “We’ll get to practice on the beginner run.” But as soon as he was finished, he hopped down and said, “Let’s go, rappellers!” and headed for the stairs. Before I could blurt out anything about practice making perfect, he was halfway up the tower, closely followed by several children who wouldn’t be allowed on a single ride at the Red River Exhibition or Disneyland. Once I reached the platform, I realized I had two choices — suck it up and do what thousands of people do at this site without incident every year or take the walk of shame and go back down the stairs. One by one, people made their way to the front of the line, and one by one, they rappelled down to great cheers from Horacio and his fellow instructor. Finally, it was Mia and Alex’s turn. At this point, any good parent would have done everything in their power to protect them and save them from certain death. Also at this point, it’s every man for himself. “Ready?” Horatio asked me. “I guess so,” I gulped, as I stepped forward and then turned my back just a few inches from the tower’s edge. (I was strapped into a safety harness while my equipment was readied, so it wasn’t as scary as my brain was telling me it was.) But when he told me to back up so my heels were over the edge and then lean back into my harness so I was perpendicular to the floor, well, that’s another story. Everything you do in your life, in some manner or another, involves trying not to get hurt, whether it’s not driving in the left-hand lane on the way to work or not bringing a toaster into the shower with you. Why would you lean out 21 metres above the ground with nothing below you except — what you’ve been frantically praying for the last few minutes — the Hand of God? But inch by inch, I did what he told me and trusted in both him and the equipment, and a few seconds later, he was telling me to go down the wall’s first step, then the second, and finally the third. While I was busy trying to be petrified, the Mayan Adventures photographer was convincing me to mug for her camera. A second later, I was hanging in mid-air, 20 metres above the ground, with nothing but Mexican jungle all around me. I released some of my cable slowly, taking in as much of the scenery and revelling in not having died (yet) when the silence was broken by Alex on the ground. “Geez, Dad, could you go any SLOWER?” Horacio says there’s usually one person in every group who gets to the top of the tower but opts for the walk of shame instead. There are even people who get so freaked out by they pass out as they’re halfway down the rappel! Luckily, because every rappeller is equipped with a safety line. They simply stop and dangle until the instructors are able to hop on another line and bring them down to safety. Our entire group was helped out immensely by Horacio, who used the right amount of humour coupled with a reassuring ledge-side manner to help us fully enjoy the experience. “You have to be part psychologist,” he said. “My job is to be patient, always, and help people become confident. Everybody is very nervous for the activities. We have many people who are afraid of heights. I don’t like to make too many jokes when people are nervous. They don’t care about jokes or anything, they’re focused on (not dying). I talk very slowly, explain everything again and watch their eyes.” That didn’t stop him from getting everybody to pose for what he described as the “Just in case” picture before we climbed up the first tower. Ha, ha! Thanks, Horacio! I think I WILL try the veal! Once I was on the ground, it was off almost immediately to the first of three zip-line towers, a structure eerily similar to the rappelling one. I’d already cheated death once today, so what the hell, right? Zip-lining is a different kind of crazy. You get strapped onto the line, stick your feet out in front of you, and with a push from one of the guides, you’re suddenly doing your best Superman impersonation above the trees (if the Man of Steel flew feet-first in a seated position and probably should have been wearing an adult diaper). It’s all so surreal, you don’t have time to realize all that’s keeping you from plummeting to your death, or at least a disfiguring injury, is a couple of clips, pulleys and ropes. (This is also the time when you should have a GoPro camera strapped to your helmet.) Each zip-line is longer and faster than the one before, and there’s no other way to describe it except, well, it’s a total rush. Horacio also assures me the towers were built a few years ago and weren’t, as I suspected, constructed by the Mayans hundreds of years ago. The harnessing equipment is also safetied every year from a team of experts in France. During our day together, Horacio demonstrated an uncanny ability to remember everybody’s names, as in, “Way to go, Alex! You’re rappelling!” and “Way to go, Geoff! See, I told you that you wouldn’t die!” “It’s just practice. I eat a lot of apples for good memory,” he said. Some memories, I suspect, won’t need any apples.
Wildlife lives and thrives among the tourist population.