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  • About that Time I Bungee Jumped Victoria Falls

    I love a good adrenaline rush. Growing up in Ohio, 45 minutes from Cedar Point – a roller coaster park that consistently had the highest roller coasters in the world – ensured that I wouldn’t shy away from thrill seeking when the opportunity presented itself. So when I was 26 and doing some traveling in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, I couldn’t miss the chance to bungee jump Victoria Falls.

    Victoria Falls is one of the few remaining Seven Wonders of the World and at the time, was the fourth highest jump globally at a 364 foot free fall over the Zambezi River. If that number doesn’t seem absurd enough, as I was researching the trip, I learned that the bungee rope had snapped the year before and the jumper plunged into the depths of the Zambezi barely surviving as she had to be pulled out by a rescue team. Somehow, I paid that no mind: I watched her interview afterwards – she was fine – perky even. Plus, I figured I paid for the extra risk protection on my travel insurance, so what the heck?

    Three months later, I’m standing on a tiny platform on the side of a bridge with the expanse of Victoria Falls roaring almost 400 feet below. The din of the water was crushing. My stomach bobbed up and down in my throat, threatening to make a public appearance.

    I’d just watched my travel companion jump. I nervously looked on as she faded into the swirling rainbow of rising mist, continuously consulting the slack in the bungee rope as proof that she was still falling. I saw it tighten and retract, yanking her back, and heaved a relieved sigh as she whipped back above the mist, thankful that the rope hadn’t snapped. But before I could talk to her, to learn all the things, to prepare, I was beckoned to the ledge.

    I watched from outside my body as the workers fit me into a harness, wrapped towels around my ankles, did a fancy figure eight thing with some nylon lines around the ankle towels, and then clipped me to my fate. They shuffled me over to a video camera to conjure some witty ‘last words’ with my tongue sticky and thick in my mouth and palpable fear ringing in my ears, and then they hustled me over to the ledge. Looking down, I couldn’t see the river: I could only hear the angry crush of the falls and see the prismatic mist through which I’d fall to face head on the rocks below and the deadly Zambezi River. My body quaked at the predictable, yet unknown outcome of my fate – and I cursed my hubris of three months prior. There was a worker standing behind me to ensure I jumped and kept everyone on schedule. If I didn’t take the leap myself, I had no doubt that he’d happily give me a shove in the right direction. And so, he began the countdown.

    Four…

    Three…

    Two…

    Picture

    Action-oriented decisions can be like that: you, frozen in terror, ears pounding, heart galloping, brain spinning so fast that it’s thrown you outside of yourself and you’re watching from afar – or you black out -.and yet, despite the fear, you somehow believe there will be a positive consequence for this decision. This action will, in theory, benefit you in some way. And so, the part of you that runs intuitively deeper than rationality trusts the tenuous tether to which you are clipped, and you JUMP.

    That jump is not always a 400 foot free fall. Sometimes it’s ordering a pizza when you hate making phone calls. Or going to the gym for the first time in months. Or reaching out to a friend when you’re in a dark place. Maybe it’s filling out a school application when all you’ve heard your entire life that you’re not the ‘college type.’ And maybe it’s being 40 and getting your first driver’s license for the first time. Jumps and their impacts are different for everyone, and all of us make them all the time.

    That’s not to say deciding to jump is easy. In fact, I’d say it’s often terrifying. Terrifying because despite no matter how hard we try, we cannot with one hundred percent accuracy predict the landing.

    We can make mini jumps to practice. We can visualize the outcome. We can wear the right shoes with the extra sticky tread and do 30 minutes of yoga to limber up and lion breathe through all the deep breathing techniques to anchor ourselves. We can get a running start and spot the landing, and still none of that preparation guarantees that we will land how, where, and with whom we want.

    A jump also is isolated. Usually, we are the only person doing it. It’s our decision, our action, and our responsibility to nail the landing. At least, that’s how it feels. The reality is that there are people who have come before and who are willing to support us during because they remember the difficulty. These survivors can validate our fear and are living proof of attaining possibility.

    We may fall as a consequence of jumping, and I think that knowledge is what prevents us from taking risks and jumping more often. A jump is measured. It is planned. We have a desired outcome in mind, and the means to achieve it – even if we are jumping over or through uncharted, unpredictable territory.

    A fall is uncontrolled. It is unplanned and unexpected. A fall is disorienting. A fall feels dangerous. We do not know if we can survive a fall because there’s no way to know how bad the potential damage will be.

    I jumped off a ledge at Victoria Falls, but if the rope snapped, I would have fallen into the Zambezi River.

    And so, how do continue to live our lives, making jumps and taking calculated risks while also knowing we may fall? How do master our nerves and quiet our brains? How do we stay within ourselves when it feels safer to observe from a distance?

    However tenuous, we make sure we have a tether. A mooring. A relationship.  A connection to a point more stable than ourselves.

    Sometimes, it’s easy to forget our points of connection. The fear of the fall is so daunting that we forget or underestimate those parts of ourselves and others that help cushion the landing or prevent a major spill. The more points of connection we remember and rely upon, the more confident we will be in taking the risk, and the more balanced we will be in the landing.

    Even with a tether or with connections, we might stumble; we might scrape our hands and knees or limp away, shaken. But we landed, we survived, and after some time to settle and reflect, we learned.

    So what did I learn after bungee jumping Victoria Falls? Mostly that, aside from being able to say ‘I bungee jumped Victoria Falls,’ it wasn’t worth it. All the whiplash and nausea from spinning around as I hung there waiting for them to hoist me up, worrying my feet would slip through the ties and I’d STILL fall into the Zambezi River was pretty terrible. And yet, I learned something: I learned how to focus and master my fear. I pushed past my limits, and since that moment, I’ve been more reassured as I’ve made other life jumps. Because if I didn’t fall into the Zambezi River tied to a fraying rope and with no one beside me and no reassurance they’d pluck me out, I’ll be okay knowing I’ve got people on my side to help me find balance if I don’t stick the landing.