2016 — I step off the plan in Costa Rica, smiling as the heat hits my skin. Even though I’m not at my final destination, a yoga retreat center on a little island off the mainland, I’ve successfully escaped the frigid January hellscape that is my life in New York. Work is crazy and all-consuming and I'm trying very hard not to listen to all the little voices in my head saying, “you’re wasting your life.”
I’m ready for this vacation.
My friend, Misty, and I scramble through the chaotic airport and meet up with 3 other women who will be on our next flight. Together, we find the pilot, and he immediately offers us cold drinks.
I consider a beer, but opt for water. I’ve been doing Dry January and only have a few days left. I want to keep my perfect record! Dry January is that thing where you don’t drink booze for the whole month. It seems miserable, but it's actually pretty easy. That is, until I get to February and I drink like I’m going to the chair.
I think some of the women in the group take the beer once they see the plane. It’s small. Like, I’ve been in SUVs that are bigger than this plane. I’m not even sure our luggage will fit. I peek in the back and see only 4 seats - one of us will have to ride shotgun.
I hop into the front seat. I’m not afraid of small planes. This is weird, because I’m a little claustrophobic and I don’t love heights. But I think traveling through Africa desensitized me to this particular fear. This plane feel spacious compared with the one that flew us into Namibia. We were in such close quarters that the pilot of that bird offered to share her lunch with us — carrot sticks out of a Tupperware container.
But now, I’m in the co-pilot seat and I can really see call the knobs, dials, and lights on the instrument panel in the small cockpit. There’s a steering column with a control wheel in front of me, and it has indentations where my fingers could hypothetically go. I have the mad urge to start pressing buttons and flipping switches but I listen to my better angels and settle for barraging the pilot with questions. He’s good-natured, joking that he doesn’t know what half the dials mean. But, he briefly answers every “what’s this one for?!” as we taxi to the runway.
Once we’re airborne, he checks to see if the ladies in the back are paying attention. They’re busy chatting, getting to know each other and enjoying the views. He looks at me slyly and says, “Go ahead. You try.”
He gestures for me to put my hands on the steering wheel in front of me.
I gently place my hands on the wheel then pull them away, fast. The wheel is thrumming and I feel immediately nervous. He laughs and says, “Try again!” I put my hands back on the wheel, fitting them into the handprints on either side.
He demonstrates how to steer, his voiced raised so I can hear him over the sound of the roaring engines. “Left. Right. See how I pull the nose up just a little? Watch the horizon. OK, now you.”
Oh, Jesus. I nod and he takes his hands off the wheel.
I’m glad it’s so loud inside the plane so he can’t hear how fast my heart is beating. My eyes are wide and my hands are gripping the wheel for dear life. I stay as still as I can, worried that any sudden movement will cause the plane to dip and fall.
"Don’t be afraid - it’s ok - move the wheel. See, like this.” He takes over, moving his control wheel just enough to the left that we can feel the plane respond. “OK, now you.” I move the wheel a little to the right - and feel the plane move with me. I glance over at the pilot and he’s no longer got his hands on his steering wheel. He’s sitting back in his seat, watching me and smiling broadly.
Holy shit. I’m flying the plane.
The pilot grabs my phone from the seat next to me to snap a few photos. At first, I’m unwilling to take my eyes off the road but the horizon is completely open in front of us, so I flash him my signature “holy shit I’m flying the plane” look.
The pilot is so relaxed that I relax, too, and take it all in. The sky, the clouds, the water below and the island ahead. The plane is loud, but my heartbeat is back to normal and, for once, there are no little voices in my head. I’m just up here flying this plane.
Finally, he calls over his shoulder to the other women - and throws his arms in the air as if to say, “Look ma, no hands!”
They are not as amused as I am. In fact, they look scandalized, which somehow makes me feel even better about my current situation.
The pilot finally lets me know that it's time to land, so I sit back in the seat and watch him maneuver us safely to the ground.
Over the next week, I'll do my first real forearm stand in yoga class, paddle board on the ocean, soar through the rain forrest on a zipline, meet a bunch of cool people and dogs, and have an accident that will change my life.
But, that story is for another day.
Today, it’s just clear skies.
Have you ever done something that scared you? Something you were absolutely unqualified to do, but did it anyway? Leave me a comment below!