Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Approximately 15,000 feet above New Zealand`s caldera-housed Lake Taupo, my behind is firmly planted on the cold metal floor of the plane, while my feet dangle outside, being whipped around like a flag in the breeze. With both hands, I hold onto the shoulder straps of my harness, which is attached to my tandem skydiving guide, Brad. I briefly glance past my feet at the Google-Earth-like view below and realize the moment has come: I am jumping out of a plane.

“Are you ready?” screams Brad over the roar of the plane’s engine.

“Yes!” I yell back with a tone of assuredness that sounds foreign.

Just before we begin hurling towards the earth’s surface at terminal velocity, a thought crosses my mind: “Shouldn’t I be more frightened?”

As we slip out of the plane in nearly upright posture, I experience the stomach-in-throat sensation of a steep roller coaster descent. Within seconds, Brad manoeuvres his body so that we are falling in a belly-to-earth orientation, creating greater drag and prolonging our free fall.

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

The overall sensation of falling through the air is so foreign that only bits and pieces of the experience register in my consciousness. I can hear the gentle whistle of air flowing past my ears. My face, hands and ankles feel cold. The air resistance pushing against my palms reminds me of holding my hand out of the window of a moving car. I notice a cloud to my right and wonder what it would be like to fly directly through it. I see that the camera lens of the skydiving photographer to my left is focused on me and I wave in his direction. Below me I see the shore of Lake Taupo quickly coming into increasing focus. I realize I have yet to make a sound since exiting the plane – scream or otherwise – but decide it is too late for a hearty woo-hoo!!

Instead, I turn my head back towards Brad and yell: “This is amazing!”

As someone who has struggled with anxiety for the better part of their adult life, I am surprised by my present calmness. I have experienced significantly greater anxiety during much more innocuous activities. In the minutes preceding every one of my conference research presentations, my palms would get cold and sweaty, my heart would race uncontrollably, as thoughts of potential catastrophe swirled in my mind; “What if my research has flaws?”, “What if someone asks me a question I am unable to answer?”, I would worry.

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

And yet, here I am, free falling at 200km/hr from a distance exceeding eight stacked CN towers, and I am feeling merely a fraction of the jitters that usually accompany my conference presentations. Somehow the potential for slamming into the earth evokes less fear than being grilled about my research by some nitpicky senior scientists at a conference.

After what feels like only a few seconds, Brad instructs: “Hold onto your harness!” Apparently, our 60 seconds of free fall are coming to an end.

A moment later, I feel like a marionette whose slack string have been abruptly tightened, as our parachute opens, quickly decelerating our momentum.

Over the next 5 minutes, Brad and I glide in the breeze, descending ever so gently towards the ground. We briefly discuss our respective careers and other mundane matters as though we’re seated in a coffee shop. I’m surprised and yet relieved to hear that this was Brad’s twelfth jump of the day.

“Just another day at the office!” he jokes.

As we approach the ground and Brad begins working the parachute in preparation for our landing my mind again drifts to question that arose just before exiting the plane: shouldn’t I have been more scared?

Maybe it was the last-minute planning that robbed my mind of the time necessary to wind itself up into a knot of worst-case scenarios. Only three hours ago, my partner Marina, and our friend Emily were half-way between Auckland and our destination of Rotorua, in the middle of New Zealand`s north island, with no intention of skydiving that day in nearby Taupo.

Maybe it was the near-complete lack of control over the experience. Once you’re up in the plane, there’s really only one way to return to terra firma with your ego intact. And it’s not as though I jumped out of the plane, as much as I was strapped to someone who did.

Whatever the reason, those 60 seconds of freefall definitely placed my earthly anxieties in stark perspective.

Back on the ground, as I’m being unclipped from my parachute, Marina asks: “How was that?”

“Fantastic!” I respond, as we exchange hugs in our skydiving gear.

And a hell of a lot easier than a conference presentation, I think to myself.

Peter

NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

Here’s the full-length video of our skydive (email subscribers need to head over to PhDNomads to view):

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From crickets to tarantulas: sampling Southeast Asia’s culinary oddities

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NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

As I swiftly pick a cricket from a paper bag and deliver it to my mouth, my brain, hard-wired to protect me from mistakenly poisoning myself, revolts. But it’s too late. Sensing the cricket’s prickly legs on my tongue, I quickly transfer the crispy insect to the back of my mouth and begin to gnash it to bits with my molars. The only perceptible flavour is soy sauce, while the texture vaguely reminds me of a deep fried shrimp tail. Before I can reflect any further on the qualities of the bolus of mashed cricket in my mouth, I swallow.

“You’re right – it’s not that bad!” I exclaim, forcing a smile.

My partner, Marina doesn’t seem convinced. With a look of disgust she retorts, “You have a leg stuck in your teeth.”

As is typical of decisions you later regret, it all started with a healthy dose of peer pressure as we perused a night market in Chiang Mai’s walled city, in northern Thailand.

“You’ve got to try one”, encouraged Tim, a British friend of ours with a peculiar appetite for weird foods. As nonchalantly as if it were freshly popped kettle corn, he had been happily munching away on barbecued crickets he had purchased from a street vendor.

As we continued down the dimly-lit street flanked by vendors on either side, squeezing past the flow of sweaty, sunburnt tourists, the satisfaction of having overcome such a gross feat began to sink in. Sadly, that first momentary lapse in judgement – the result of which I was picking out of my teeth for some time after – was only the beginning of my reluctant adventures through Asia’s culinary oddities.

I dined on frog which had the consistency of tough lobster, but disappointingly, tasted like chicken.

I avoided gagging on bone-riddled water snake by imagining I was consuming an overcooked haddock.

I slurped up raw clams that had been left to roast in the sun, which, unsurprisingly, tasted like raw clams that had been roasting in the sun.

I actually enjoyed a nice beef stir fry that happened to include a healthy dose of red ants, which despite being visually unnerving, were largely imperceptible in both texture and flavour.

The most psychologically challenging dining experience of the trip, and frankly, of my entire life, involved a deep-fried tarantula – hairy legs and all.

As a group of us sat checking the drink menu at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our Cambodian friend, Long, emptied the contents of a brown paper bag onto a large plate.

“They’re just spiders”, Long reassured us, as he broke a leg off of one palm-sized arachnid and popped it into his mouth.

According to Long, the consumption of tarantulas in Cambodia began as a means to survive the dramatic food scarcity throughout the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, many years after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, tarantulas remain a delicacy among locals and a curiosity for tourists.

Shortly following the historical explanation, the plate of tarantulas appeared under my nose. My heart immediately started racing as everyone at the table chimed in with the usual coaxing. Using my fork, I removed one of the spider’s eight legs and fighting my gag reflex, I began chewing what might be described as a crunchy straw.

But this was the easy part.

Despite my prior triumphs over crickets and snakes, I was frankly petrified of biting into the tarantula’s meaty body. I imagined the crisp outer layer cracking, and the tarantula’s inner contents exploding in my mouth like an over-ripened cherry tomato.

Dining on tarantula in Cambodia.

Instead, as I bit into the spider’s body I encountered white meat that had a softer texture than chicken and tasted only like the garlic, MSG, and salt in which it was cooked.

To be perfectly honest, despite the visual appearance of these bizarre local delicacies, none actually tasted that foul.

The most violent assault on my gustatory sense was committed by neither insect nor arachnid, but a fruit offered by a vendor in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. Referred to by the locals as the “king of fruit”, durian fruit grows in trees and looks like bowling-ball sized lychee. The most obvious characteristic of durian fruit is its highly pungent odour, which has led to the prohibition of its consumption and possession in numerous public places throughout Southeast Asia. If you can get past the smell, you’ll be rewarded by a flavour somewhere between week-old chopped onions and freshly soiled hockey equipment, and the texture of lumpy mashed potatoes.

In truth, I’d choose tarantula over durian any day.

Peter

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