Diary of The Travelling Seanchai :-

Just a foot too close to dying for comfort

2007-12-26 to 2007-12-29

Putting the potential job offer to one side, the days that followed Christmas Day took on a similar feel, a lot of festivities, partying and recovering. The altitude, which I had thought I had conquered with aplomb, really came back to bite me, none more so than on St. Stephen´s Day (Boxing Day to the non-Irish) when I took it upon myself to start singing in Ollie´s Bar, following a huge tradition back in Ireland.

Well I can tell you this, singing for an hour at this altitude is enough to leave you weak so I took heed of that and had a relatively quite few days in anticipation of my 62.4km bike ride down the “World´s Most Dangerous Road.”

Maria, my Irish friend and I, set off early after disruptive nights sleeps thanks to worry and snoring roommates respectively. We met our fellow riders in a coffee shop and I can only presume it was a nervous energy which started us on a pointless conversation of the bones that we had all respectively broken. With that cheery thought in mind, we took a bus up to 4,700m , our start off point.

Our guides, Damon and Cesar, got us our bikes and safety gear and gave us an extensive safety lecture. I was somewhat preturbed to see that Damon directed the comment, “the only thing that can kill you on the road is if you mistake ability for testosterone,” to me… Hmmmm

Before we took off, we had to drop some pure alcohol on our bikes, the ground and then down our throats to appease ´Pachamama´, the Mother Earth that was to protect us on our trip. As we set off on the first 20km on tarmacadam road, as I was inhaling desperately, all I could taste was this drink and I was afraid of giving a much more direct `offering´ to Pachamama in the projectile form.

But the stunning views around me took my mind of it. We had really been lucky with the day and cycling around and above these majestic mountains was truly a breathtaking adventure. I was getting to know my bike, learning to lean into bends, accelerating out of them and ducking down to get as much speed as possible. I was loving this…

Then, at one of our breaks, we were told that we were about to go off road, to get on the gravel and to actually travel down what is (or at least was) considered the most dangerous road in the world until a new road was built only 1 year ago.

We had been told to try and stay in formation as much as we could, to find our natural place in the group so that we weren´t holding a stronger cyclist up who might not be able to overtake on the winding corners. I was feeling pretty good after the first 20km, and having been frustrated behind a couple that had annoyingly made it difficult for me to pass them on the higher section, I set off first after Cesar. What a rush… Flying downhill on gravel roads, arms tensed to absorb each shock under the wheel, eyes focused down to see the next rock or dip to avoid, the surroundings whizzing by…

In my defence, I thought I was supposed to keep up with Cesar (the professional guide) and worried that I was holding up people behind (you couldn´t turn around and you certainly couldn´t hear them), I decided to follow his lines around the corners and do my best to fly down the road.

But in a flash I knew that I had made a terrible mistake, having made the fundamental and often fatal mistake of mistaking ability for ambition.

I flew around a corner, following the line Cesar had taken and then I saw that there was no road in front of me. It was a sharp right turn and on the left was a sheer drop into a jungle, over a kilometer down.

And at that moment, I was equally as certain that I was going to die. The physics of the situation presented themselves as clear as anything I have ever seen, my speed divided by the distance that I had left to break just had to mean that I was going over the side.

I would like to confirm for you all that your life flashes before you in these moments, but it doesn´t. Instead, there is a vacuous calm, a distinct release of any pent up emotions, a definitive and comprehensive realisation of all that is truly important to you. I have to say that I do recall in that fraction of a second being ironically happy that I was going to die doing something that I wanted, pushing the envelope, in control of my own destiny, following my dreams. Scant consolation some of you might say, but I do remember a kind of solace in that thought.

But then, as any of you that really knows me would testify is a frustrating part of my character, I decided that ´No,´ I didn´t agree with this outcome and that I was going to fight it.

Every fibre of my being, every experience I had ever gleaned, every ounce of my stubbornness said I would try and defy the odds, confound the physics and survive this. And with a determination that has been cultivated all my life by my reluctance to agree with anything that my bosses, my coaches, anyone in authority and even my parents have told me unless I also agree, I crunched down on the breaks, shifted my body weight and gritted my teeth.

To be honest, I was praying for a massive crash on the gravel, some nasty scars and maybe even a break, all miles ahead in preference to the alternative. But I continued to skid towards the edge and I gripped and turned the handlebars until my wheels were aligned, not an A4 page from the sheer drop. I continued this skid along the edge for probably no more than four or five metres but it seemed to last an eternity…

Even then, I have to concede I thought that my gallant attempt was going to prove futile, but thank God above in Heaven, I started to get purchase with my back wheel and I coaxed myself about a metre from the edge and, although, still going at a reckless speed, I just knew that I was going to be ok….

I cycled on in a state of shock but also with adrenaline off the charts. Cesar couldn´t believe that I was close behind him as I found out afterwards that he had only gone on so fast so that he could take pictures of us as we arrived. So I nearly killed myself trying to avoid a photo opportunity….

I was going to say nothing but the couple behind complained me, telling Damon that they didn´t want anyone that out of control in their group as it might traumatise THEM if I went over in front of them!! Ammm, I think it might have traumatised me more but I wasn´t going to argue. When Damon asked if anyone had had a near death experience, I sheepishly raised my hand and he just said that that wasn´t to happen again.

I took the next few sections relatively easily until my heart rate came back in line but I was soon back at the head of proceedings but this time with a lot more caution. It was a wonderful experience all together and yet another confirmation to me that life is for living, no matter how close you might be to death.

The same could happen on your way home from work in the car, I tried to rationalise to myself, but in saying that, I had to concede that my active pursuit of happiness doesn´t always have to have such a poor consolation prize..

But I was alive and very well and the next 24 hours was to bring a surprise visit and a very successful night at Karaoke!!


Christmas on Earth, New Years on the Moon

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