"Everybody wants to fly. Everybody," says Alejandro (Cha Cha) Diez. "To fly, I guess, is human instinct."
Human instinct? Flying? He's got to be kidding. But then Diez, 29, is the former president of Guatemala's Asociación de Vuelo Libre—the national hang gliders' organization—and I'm a 42-year-old Jewish lady from New York who gets the willies just peering over the edge of the roof of my five-story apartment building. So I figure that maybe Cha Cha knows something I don't.
It is April and I have come to Panajachel, Guatemala, on the shores of Lake Atitlán, to taste some of life's simple pleasures after a month of working in Nicaragua. I am luxuriating at a private home by the lake when I notice several of the colorful hang gliders circling noiselessly above me. They fascinate me, and when my host offers to take me into Panajachel to meet the men who fly them, I eagerly accept.
As it turns out, it is the weekend of the Central American Hang Gliding competition, and there are contestants from Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador in town. When we find them, the pilots are gathered around a long table in the lobby of a lakeside hotel owned by Juan Jose Del Carmen, 45, who also happens to be guru to Guatemala's handful of hang glider pilots.
The immediate job at hand is for the contestants to "set the task"—prescribe the maneuvers—for the final event of the three-day competition. The pilots are all talking at once, loudly, about "the task," describing great sweeps and loops with their hands. Every so often one or another punctuates a statement by getting up from the table and walking to the back of the room to get a beer from the cooler. "Hang glider pilots can never agree on anything," Del Carmen says to me. "It's a sport that attracts leaders, not followers. With 25 leaders, you naturally have 25 different opinions."
"Deadly butterflies" these kites have been called, and in the air they do look like gaudily colored insects; there also is no shortage of evidence that they can be dangerous. Del Carmen has lost both arms at the elbow. He "misjudged" and flew his glider into high-tension wires in December 1979. By May 1980, fitted with prostheses, he was flying again. "If I can't fly," he says, "I'm not a whole man."
Fernando Linares-Beltranena, 40, a lawyer and one of Guatemala's first generation of hang glider pilots, has a wide scar that runs down the back of one arm. "An unfortunate experience doesn't necessarily mean you're not going to try again," Linares-Beltranena says. "It is irrational to say that because you've been hurt, you'll never fall in love again. It is just as irrational to say that because you have had an accident, you will never fly again."
After all the commotion among the contestants, it is decided to repeat the task of the previous day—to circle each of five pylons set up in the mountains surrounding the lake's northern side. Circling each pylon will be worth a given number of points, as will each takeoff and landing, highest point total wins. Up to now in the competition, the Guatemalans have been dominant. Mario Palacios holds first place, Diez is second and Byron Soto is third. Diez announces that parachutes will not be mandatory, but that anybody flying without a helmet will be disqualified. This rule is aimed specifically at Palacios, 32, a tightly wound bundle of energy considered by many to be the best flyer in Guatemala. Palacios used to race motorcycles and he still rides one pretty fast on the streets. His scars are not from hang gliding.
As the final day's competition begins, the police block off one lane of the road approaching the takeoff ramp in order to give the pilots room to set up. This is a far cry from the early '80s, when, in the thick of the political conflict that grew so violent that it spawned coups in both 1982 and '83, the Guatemalan army often temporarily confiscated hang gliding components in the belief that the instrumentation the pilots occasionally mounted on their craft—variometers, anemometers, altimeters, compasses, etc.—was actually sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment.
The gliders are unzipped from their carrying cases. The battens, or struts, are inserted into channels sewn into the rip-stop fabric, giving shape to the wings. I watch in fascination as the multicolored birds materialize. They sit like a flock of Dacron-and-aluminum condors on the edge of the cliff, perched to take off.