Bungee Jumping, Skydiving, and Race car Driving

Jumping from a cage hoisted 50 meters (that’s 165 feet) in the air, plunging from an airplane at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), and piloting an Aston Martin GT3 car around the Yas Island F1 circuit–all things I’ve done this year. So far 2015 has been pretty memorable. Jenia tells me I should write about these things because there aren’t many reviews online about them. So here you are; I hope you’re interested because I’m offering my .02 cents worth.

A thrilling moment (or rather split-second)!

A thrilling moment (or rather split-second)!

First, let’s talk about bungee jumping. There’s a place called the Gravity Zone in Dubai that’ll take your money and let you scare yourself. This past Friday was the last day of the season before they knock off because of the extreme heat, and I went with a friend to celebrate his birthday in style. He jumped first, doing a fine impression of Superman, and seemed totally unfazed by the whole thing, but I found myself suddenly suffering from fear of heights when I stepped to the edge of that metal cage and stuck my toes over. 165 feet doesn’t sound low, but man, it looks high when you’re up there with nothing surrounding you. I confess that I had to resist every natural instinct to grab ahold of the cage and stay in there. The instructor counted to three, and off I went. It only took a couple of seconds to bounce a couple times and then I was rapidly lowered onto an air mattress and unharnessed as the next thrill-seeker bunny-hopped to the cage (the bunny hopping is necessary as the ol’ feet are shackled together with the cuffs that will keep you alive).

About to bounce!

About to bounce!

As for the way Gravity Zone worked, I found it professional enough, with repeated checks of the safety harnesses and your weight. It’s not an amusement-park like facility, though, so don’t expect anything particularly glamorous. The facility is a little tricky to locate, off from 311 in the Motor City area of Dubai. But if you follow the signs to Motor City, which is on Hessa Street (61) it’s not too bad. Then head for the Kart Drome, which is where it gets a bit more complicated. Only a bit–look for the “Outdoor Kart Drome” and go there–you’ll see a yellow crane (unless this changes, of course) parked in the parking lot, with an airbag set up underneath to reassure jumpers.

Shon and his instructor, Leigh, ready to board the plane at the Palm Drop Zone.

Shon and his instructor, Leigh, ready to board the plane at the Palm Drop Zone.

Man, is that drop fast! Suddenly everything is fierce wind and racket.

Man, is that drop fast! Suddenly everything is fierce wind and racket.

What about Skydiving? Lots of folks know about Skydive Dubai, which makes splashy videos part of the package for first-time jumpers and also includes excellent photographs of people over the Palm. The long and short of it is the whole package, which has recently gone up to 1,999 AED, following the general trend of inflation around here, is well worth doing if you’ve ever wanted to try parachuting. Jenia bought me a gift certificate for a skydive package as a killer Christmas present, and I booked my jump for the end of April. The folks at Skydive Dubai were all very friendly and they did a good job setting me at ease with a bit of instruction about how to go out of the plane. That more or less erased whatever worries might have flitted through my mind when I signed six pages of waivers saying I’d never dream of holding Skydive Dubai accountable should anything go wrong and I perish or be horrifically handicapped. My instructor was a woman named Leigh who hails from New Zealand, though she’s been making six or seven jumps a day in Dubai for more than two years. My “paparazzi,” as he introduced himself, was a guy called Vova who came from Belarus. He asked me some stupid questions on camera (“What’s your Facebook password?”), and I didn’t know whether I should look at him or the lens (in retrospect, with the clarity of a video to watch, I should have gone with one or the other), so I definitely ended up looking nervous, which I guess was the case. Regardless, those two were fun to be around, and they did a great job helping this newbie have a good time.

Hurtling through the air at 125 miles per hour!

Hurtling through the air at 125 miles per hour!

I’ve seen skydiving described for the first-timer as sensory overload, and that does sum it up pretty well. It’s fast, loud, and overwhelming. Every bit of skin or flesh that can blow in the wind (at approximately 120 miles per hour) does. When the parachute deploys, there are crazy g-forces, and the same when making a hard turn. But once the ‘chute is out, it’s also an amazingly relaxing experience. It’s serene. That’s when I could drink in the scenery and marvel at what man has made of Dubai. From the time we left the ground to the time we landed on the grass, only about 15 minutes elapsed. It was all over very fast. Then it was back to life as usual–grabbing a bite to eat with the fam, going to the beach for a swim, etcetera. The transition from WOW! to normal was odd.

The guy at the rear hatch was putting a new memory stick in the on-board video recorder.

The guy at the rear hatch was putting a new memory stick in the on-board video recorder.

So what about driving a race car? Once again, thanks to the wife’s gift-giving (this one was for my birthday), I got behind the wheel of an Aston-Martin GT3 car on the Yas Island track. I can’t say it was the F1 circuit, because since there’s a stretch of very slow, technical corners on one part of the circuit, it was closed off and we were using only a portion of the track. Upon arrival, the folks behind the counter tried to up-sell me to full coverage insurance for my 20-minute drive. I declined, deciding not to wreck the car and settle instead for the basic coverage provided at the regular price. Then there was a briefing about how to drive–“Keep your hands gripping the wheel at 10 and 2 all the time,” stuff like that, as well as, “Entry points at each corner are marked with an orange cone and exit points with green ones.” The laps aren’t officially timed because that would bump the driving experience into a differently regulated category. My friends timed my laps unofficially as I drove past. I didn’t perform that well, honestly, and having not been on a track before (other than a brief stint behind the wheel of a sweet, Rotax-powered go-kart at Al Ain Raceway, and that’s not quite the same), I had to learn a thing or two about “using your whole line,” as my co-pilot told me. Yes, I’ve played video games like Forza Racing, and I should have been able to carry that knowledge–entering from the outside, exiting wide, etc.–over into real life, but it’s hard to break 20 years worth of on-road driving habits and move all over the track, rather than staying on one side of the road. It sounds silly, but that’s the way it was for me.

The little one had a blast just sitting beside the track and watching all the cars go past.

The little one had a blast just sitting beside the track and watching all the cars go past.

What was the drive like? The car was hard to squeeze in and out of, due to its full roll cage, a little slow to start, sounded great (ah, great, yes, a ripping, roaring, rumbling V8), and had lots of power, as you’d expect. But it didn’t flatten my eyeballs when I nailed it; it wasn’t a magical beast that put me in a whole different dimension of performance. Maybe I was expecting it to be like hopping on a Yamaha YZF-R1 and blasting to 150 miles per hour in about the time it takes to write this sentence. But I digress. To return to describing the drive: there was also no air conditioning (it’s a race car, come on, what’d you expect?!), it was very loud which made communication with my copilot/nanny a challenge (hand signals and shouting), and the rearview mirror was angled for the copilot to see out of, not me, so I had no idea when any of the other 7 cars on the track were on my 6, which irked me a bit. The highest speed I managed to reach on the straight was around 135mph, then I had to scrub speed like crazy and go through a couple of tight curves. The brakes were effective but felt sort of agricultural–not what I’d anticipated. Get on the gas too vigorously and the rear end squirmed around and started to go sideways. Nothing surprising there. To be honest, I was expecting more out of the car. To drive it like a pro, I’d need a lot more than 20 minutes to learn what I was doing, of course. The time in the car was really just adequate for me to get comfortable with it and feel like I could start to use it decently. Would I rate the Yas Island Aston-Martin Racing Experience worthwhile? Yes, sure, because when else would I get behind the wheel of a legitimate race car, never mind an Aston? But it wasn’t that great. Maybe it was the nanny beside me; maybe it was simply the nature of the experience as a beginner on a racetrack. Honestly, standing beside the track and listening to the cars, watching them go, that was almost as much fun as actually being behind the wheel.

For something really memorable, of the three experiences I’ve written about, I’d pick skydiving if I had to do only one of them, or do one again. That’s something that’s truly singular, and it’s something that challenged and rearranged my perceptions of what it’s possible to do.

Drop Everything and Go.

Maybe you don’t know the names Ted Simon or Charley Boorman. That’s okay. I’ll tell you who the two men are. Simon rode his Triumph around the world on an incredible 4-year journey, and Boorman rode a BMW around the globe in 2004 in less than 4 months. They’re dyed in the wool motorcyclists and dedicated adventurers. They love to explore the world and both authors have made livings based on their travels.

I must admit my only exposure to Ted Simon was through the TV mini-series “The Long Way Round,” which chronicled Boorman’s trip from London to New York City with his friend Ewan McGregor. The show is, by the way, worth your time–it’s fun, funny, and will appeal to the adventurer in you, even if you don’t ride a motorcycle or understand why some of us do. Take a minute and look it up, then set some time aside to enjoy a fascinating look at the world from the point of view of a couple of motorcyclists. That said, Simon is, as it turns out, the very model of adventurousness.

But I get ahead of myself. See, I attended the Emirates Literature Festival today in Dubai, and went to a session called “Around the Globe with Charley and Ted,” during which the authors discussed some of their commonalities: how wanderlust struck, how they started their travels, managed to fund them, and so forth. Held in a ballroom at the Intercontinental hotel in Festival City, the event was pretty full. I found an open seat at the front, and enjoyed an hour of the men’s musings.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

The Intercontinental at Festival City.

Simon’s big journey included run-ins with the law (arrested as a suspected spy, for example), romance, and the momentous discovery that people all over the world are generally nice, welcoming, and helpful. Boorman didn’t get arrested, but found much the same thing–people everywhere, and I mean everywhere, are kind and helpful.

Speaking of countries that are deemed dangerous, Boorman said, “When anything bad happens, the news makes a big deal out of it.” He mentioned 24 hour news networks and the need for them to fill up space and time. “You never see a news reporter saying, ‘I’m here, and there’s nothing happening.'” To illustrate the point, Boorman mentioned looking over rice paddies in northern Iran, in a scene that might have been Thailand, with people working and wonderful agriculture everywhere. This seems a far cry from the image that Fox and the other news networks paint of Iran, doesn’t it?

Many of us don’t realize how much what we see and hear on the news shapes our perceptions. Simon elaborated on the idea, to much the same effect. Don’t forget there are millions of people living absolutely normal lives in most of the countries that are deemed “dangerous” by those selling newspapers. In essence, the world is a safer place than it is made out to be.

Indeed, there were plenty of people who advised me against moving to the UAE–it could be unsafe, it would be hard on Jenia as a woman, and so forth–but most of these people, though meaning well, hadn’t lived here, or even been here. They were all wrong; it’s been a great place for us to live.

Simon said that many people approach him and tell him they’d love to go on a similar adventure, but they can’t, because they have a mortgage, a job, etc. His response was profound: “Drop it all and leave it because you’ll be a much more valuable person when you come back.”

In 2003, I was talking to a friend named Gwen, a woman who was practically a surrogate mom for a while there. “I’d love to go to England,” I told her. “Well, why don’t you go?” She said. I blinked my eyes a few times, processing that. It really was that simple. I could save up some money, quit my meager little job, and go see more of the world. A moment before I hadn’t considered it that clearly. It had seemed like I had shackles holding me back–commitments and stuff–but they didn’t make an ounce of difference. That was more or less the beginning of my serious international explorations.

You’ve seen my posts on here about how living and teaching abroad have changed Jenia and me for the better. At this point, I couldn’t agree more with Simon’s advice. I may not travel the world in as extreme a manner as Simon did, and I may not host a TV show or manage to ride my bike as much as Boorman does his, but in the same manner as these two men, I’ve found a way to fund my globe trotting, to indulge the travel bug and discover that the basic desires of every person on the planet are the same.

If you want to explore, you should. Don’t worry about your place in the pecking order, don’t fret over what you’ll leave behind, just go, because it will change you fundamentally. Fear of leaving the familiar behind and exchanging it for the unfamiliar, fear of dangerous countries, or fear of talking to new people may prevent us leaving our comfort zones. Don’t be afraid. Go.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today's book signing.

Charley Boorman, happy to pose for a picture with me at today’s book signing.