On most days of the year in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga, you can spot paragliders in the distance sailing along the valley’s edge. Or, if you take a bus up from the city to the mountainside itself, you can sit and watch folks gallop off the grassy slope right in front of your eyes. You’ll see them suspended, swooping and rising, steering their way through sky. You’ll see them rushing forward into what suddenly seems a giant world of open air.
The paraglider in this picture is Dimitry, an ethnic Russian from Latvia with whom I shared a room for three nights at a local hostel. He was nearing the end of a year-long journey around the world and had begun this last leg in South America with a few weeks of language learning in Chile. Quickly mastering basic conversational skills, he found his way north to Colombia, where he was now devoting himself to galloping off mountainsides. Dimitry was the sort of guy who might enjoy a good view from an armchair, but he was not content to be just in an armchair. He wanted to try new things, and meet new people.
Some time ago my mom asked for an enlargement of the above photograph to hang in her living room. She explained that the themes of liberation and transcendence, as well as the contrast between transience (paraglider) and permanence (chairs), drew her to the scene.
For me, those cheap plastic armchairs and the life-filled guy in the air brought to mind something Paul Theroux once wrote. Describing the objective behind his book The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, Theroux explains that he wanted to “take the train that everyone took to work [in Massachusetts], and then to keep going, changing trains, to the end of the line [in South America].” Later he continues:
As you read it, you should be able to see the people and places, to hear them and smell them. Of course, some of it is painful, but travel — its very motion — ought to suggest hope. Despair is the armchair; it is indifference and glazed, incurious eyes. I think travelers are essentially optimists, or else they would never go anywhere.