Fear and Flying in Costa Rica
By Ken Magill
Parenting is full of teachable moments, sometimes more teachable than we know.
“Daddy, why are you afraid of ﬂying?” my son Max asked me last week as he my wife, and I prepared for a trip to Costa Rica.
“Dunno, buddy. I just am. The bumps scare the kapoopy out of me,” I said. I paused for a moment and said: “But thereʼs something I want to explain. Some people have irrational fears. Do you know what irrational means?”
“No,” he said.
“Irrational means it doesnʼt make sense. Thereʼs no reason for it,” I said. “My fear of ﬂying is irrational. Planes are by far the safest way to travel anywhere. Thereʼs no reason for me to be afraid of ﬂying. But I canʼt help it. I just am. So you know what’s important?”
“No. What?” he asked.
“I donʼt let my fear of ﬂying control me,” I said. “I get on that plane and deal with it. I confront my fear and overcome it. Itʼs very important I donʼt let my fear of ﬂying in an airplane control what I do. Otherwise, I lose.”
Little did I know how important this discussion would become in three days.
We stayed at a resort called the Lost Iguana at the foot of the Arenal Volcano. At 7,000 years old, Arenal is the youngest active volcano in the world, according to one of our guides.
We have a fairly simple, stress-relieving traveling philosophy: We pick one thing to do a day and no more.
We also usually do nothing more strenuous on the first day than lay around the hotel pool.
We would be in Costa Rica for four full days, which meant we would pick three things to do.
We picked a guided hike up the side of the volcano for the ﬁrst dayʼs activity, zip-lining over the jungle for the second and a hanging-bridge hike through the rainforest for the third.
The two hikes were both strenuous and spectacular. We saw howler monkeys, a three-toed sloth, a toucan, giant nests of leaf-cutter ants at work carrying their leaf bits on seemingly endless trails, and much more.
The biggest day of the trip, however, was zip-line day. This particular tour involved seven zip lines.
To reach the ﬁrst platform, we were taken up the side of a jungle-covered mountain in cable gondolas.
Attached to the top platform was one bunny-hill-like training zip line and then a second just-as-mild training zip line, each about 25 meters long.
The guides explained that we could decide to chicken out up to after taking the second zip line, but after the third, there was no turning back.
There were two guides for the trip. At each platform, one guide would go ahead to the next platform to play catcher and the other would stay on the current one to launch us.
On the ﬁrst platform, as our launcher hooked me up to the cable, he said in a Spanish accent: “Mi Amigo, a concern of mine is the life of my friend, so Iʼm going to teach you how to break.”
Yes, the fat guy got special instructions. But they were important. It turned out my weight would get me going so fast that I would have to break hard to avoid crashing into the guide at breakneck speed.
Everyone in or group did the ﬁrst two zip lines with ease. Then came the third.
As we landed one-by-one on the second platform, got unhooked and looked toward the third platform, we each did some internal version of “Oh. My. God.”
The next zip line was thousands of yards long and easily as thousand yards off the jungle ﬂoor.
A French Canadian kid who looked to be about 12—and who was also the ﬁrst down the ﬁrst two zip lines—began to cry as he was being hooked up to the third.
The guide let him off the line and we all watched as he decided what to do. Actually, he had already decided: The answer was: “no, frigging, way.” His father quietly urged him to go forward—in French, of course, but it was clear what was going on.
His mother then told dad to back off and took the boy away.
Then I looked down and saw Max was crying, as well.
I bent down and spoke to him quietly.
“Are you afraid, buddy?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking down, lips quivering.
“I understand, buddy,” I said. “Thatʼs one scary zip line. Thereʼs nothing wrong with being afraid of it. Itʼs huge. But you know what else?”
“Youʼre my big, strong, brave boy and I know you can do this. Itʼs all about overcoming your fear and not letting it get the best of you, remember? And you know what else?”
“I can promise you nothing bad will happen to you on this ride. You will be with the guide the whole time and heʼll keep you safe. I swear it. You know I never make promises I donʼt know I can keep, right?”
“Yes,” he said.
“So hereʼs the deal,” I said. “I know you can do this. I promise you wonʼt get hurt and my guess is youʼre going to love it.”
About that time, my wife came over, said she was going, got hooked onto the line and zipped irrevocably away.
I learned later she did this to avoid doing what the French Canadian kid’s mom did. “I knew it was time for a little tough love from dad and could feel myself mushing up,” she said.
Pretty soon all that were left on the second platform were me, Max and the guide. I had to go next because the guide would be taking Max with him.
I held my hand out to Max to shake. As he grasped it, I said: “I know you can do this buddy. I’ll see you on the other side.”
And with that, the guide hooked me up, gave me a launch shove and off I went leaving Max to face his fear of the zip line alone with the guide.
The term “zip-lining over the jungle” doesnʼt begin to describe what we experienced. We were a thousand feet off the ground reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.
After I was unhooked from the first long zip line, a couple asked me to take their picture. As I took my gloves off and grabbed their camera, the three of us laughed at the fact that my hands were shaking.
Theirs were, too. In fact everyone’s hands were shaking from the adrenalin rush of what we just did—all except for the French Canadian kidʼs little sister, who didn’t chicken out.
She was ice.
“Boy is her brother screwed,” I thought. “Heʼs going to regret this for the rest of his life.”
Then came Max ﬂying onto the platform.
As the guide unhooked him, the group gave him a collective: “Well?”
“That was awesome!” he said. “Did you hear me yell?”
As our group one-by-one began queuing up for the next zip line, I bent down to speak to Max.
“I am so proud of you,” I said. “You faced your fear and you didnʼt run away. You overcame it. No one can ever take that away from you.”
As he breathed slightly harder than normal, a ﬂush-faced Max beamed with pride.
Next up was a zip line the guides had dubbed Speedy Gonzales. It was the fastest of the zip lines.
Sure enough, it lived up to its name. Before the adventure, I worried I might lose my glasses. As the trip progressed, I worried they’d have to be surgically removed from my face.
Max came ﬂying in on Speedy Gonzales grinning from ear to ear.
The guides then informed us the next two zip lines were the second longest and longest of the attraction, respectively.
“Big Mamma ,” as they called the next one, was 700 meters long and “Big Daddy” was 750 meters long, one of the guides said.
“I canʼt wait for Big Daddy!” Max announced to the group.
At each platform, Max and I would shake hands and Iʼd say: “Ready?”
“Ready,” heʼd answer.
“See you on the other side,” Iʼd say.
“Yep. See you on the other side,” heʼd answer.
Max became increasingly exhilarated after each zip line, as did the rest of us—except for the French Canadian kidʼs little sister. She showed absolutely no emotion.
“Sheʼll make a good bomb-squad cop one day,” I thought.
After the zip-line tour was over, I repeatedly told Max how proud I was of him.
“You faced your fear and beat it, buddy,” I said. “That took real guts.”
And the effects of his bravery were not over.
The next day, I met an older couple—Tom and Carol—in the hotel pool who had zip lines in their plans for that afternoon.
Carol said she wasnʼt sure she was up for it. I told her about how all of us were scared, especially Max who was terrified, but we all overcame it and were glad we did.
“Thereʼs money in our group that says she’s not going to do it,” said Tom.
A short while later, I ran into Tom and Carol again, this time with my wife and Max.
“Max,” I said. “This is Carol. Tell her about the zip lines.”
“They were awesome!” said Max.
“Were you scared? asked Carol.
“Yes,” he said. “I was very scared. But then I did it and Iʼm glad I did. Big Mama is 700 meters long. Big Daddy is 750 meters long. Big Daddy was my favorite.”
That evening after my wife and Max had gone to bed, I sat on the balcony smoking a Cuban Cohiba—the most overrated cigar in the world, with the possible exception of the Arturo Feunte OpusX—drinking some Stolichnaya vodka on the rocks, and reading “Marley and Me, life and love with the worldʼs worst dog”—an emergency book purchase in a store of limited choices because I had run out of reading material.
As I sat there reading, smoking, and drinking while listening to the hooting, chirping, and warbling sounds of the night jungle, I began to realize that I did not find the predictable misadventures of the precious yuppies in the book remotely entertaining.
I set the book down. Moments later, I heard the balcony doors above our room open and two men began speaking.
As I sat there trying not to eavesdrop, but eavesdropping nonetheless, I heard one of them say: “All I know is I could have talked to her for two months and couldnʼt have gotten her to budge. Max talked to her for two minutes and damned if she didnʼt do it.”
It was Tom.
I poked my head out, got their attention and Tom gave me the news that Carol had screwed up her courage and did the zip lines because of Maxʼs pep talk.
Carol then came out on the deck beaming with pride and said that , yes, it was one of the more exhilarating experiences of her life and, yes, she was glad she did it.
The next morning, our last in Costa Rica, I told my wife and my wife told Max how not only had he overcome his own fear, he had helped someone else overcome hers.
As we were finishing our last breakfast before heading out on the three-hour ride over the mountains to the San Jose airport, Tom and Carol came up to the table. Carol and Max swapped stories of their zip line experiences and high-ﬁved one another.
“I did it, Max,” she said. “I did it because of you.”