Living on the Edge – Switzerland, Part 1

We left for our second weekend trip on our first night train. Our compartment door didn’t lock, and we had heard that the creeps come out to steal unsuspecting passengers’ stuff in the middle of the night on trains; so needless to say, it wasn’t my best night of sleep. I ended up waking up before the sun the next morning, which was completely worth it. I was awake to see the pink sunrise peek over the Alps, which seemed to be rising themselves out of pristine lake waters. Almost glistening in the light of the early morning sun, the air was so fresh and pure it looked almost white, blending into the hues of the waters below and the mountains towering above, all to form a crystal-like canvas no painter could ever hope to capture with a brush and ordinary pigments. Across the waters, the sun was reflecting its rays in long orange and red strips of magnificence. It looked as if by simply touching the lake, one would surely be burned by the smoldering brilliance. With this inexplicable beauty, I was welcomed to Lucerne, Switzerland.

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March 7th

From the train station, we walked along a street that runs parallel to the banks of beautiful Lake Lucerne to our hostel. The air was crisp and cool, and there was not one single cloud in the sky. I don’t think I had ever seen a more beautiful morning in a more beautiful place.

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After freshening up at the hostel, we explored the town, walked through parks, kicked sand around (and fought off some angry swans) on the lake shores, and took lots of pictures while we were at it. We even walked across the famous Kapellbruke, or “Chapel Bridge,” the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe, named after the nearby St. Peter’s Chapel. The Kapellbruke was originally built in 1333 as a part of the town’s fortifications, along with the famous Wasserturm, or “water tower,” which isn’t called such because it functions as an actual water tower, but actually for the simple fact that it is a tower literally rising out of the water. The interior of the bridge originally contained 158 paintings by local Catholic painter Hans Heinrich Wagmann that dated back to the 17th Century and depicted events from Lucerne’s history. However, after a devastating fire that almost burned down the Kapellbruke in 1993, only 30 of the paintings were able to be restored and put back on display.

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Our group of ten then split up for breakfast (it is nearly impossible to get into a restaurant for breakfast with such a large group). Four of us, including myself, had reserved a flight with a tandem-paragliding company for that afternoon, so we stopped in a café to get a quick breakfast before we had to meet our ride at the train station. We grabbed some coffee, pastries, and sandwiches and sat down outside to eat on the steps of an old building overlooking Lake Lucerne. Sitting near us was a young lady who looked to be by herself waiting for someone or something. The four of us wanted a picture together, so we asked her if she could take one for us, after which we found out she spoke perfect English. We were able to have an interesting conversation with her afterwards.

She told us that she was actually from Austria (small world, right?) but ended up in Switzerland because she followed a Swiss man here. She made it a point to tell us not to fall in love with any Swiss men because, according to her, they don’t know how to treat women. They are apparently selfish and usually don’t like to settle down. She told us that if we want to find a man, we should stick to Austrians or Germans who are much more caring and charming. Switzerland can sweep you off your feet, she said, and show you amazing adventures, but the problem with living life on the edge is that eventually you are bound to fall off.

She seemed to be equating her experience with Swiss men with her experience with SwitzerLAND. She went on to explain that, while Switzerland (and its men) is beautiful and adventurous, its hard free-market capitalism makes it quite corrupt (imagine that?). People are selfish, she repeated. They care about their money and their Swiss bank accounts, and they are very closed-minded because of their stark culture of individualism. (Somehow, I couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu…). We were, of course, surprised to hear that about the beautiful country we had discovered this morning. Personally, I had heard that Swiss people, while proud of their capitalism, were more like the rest of Europe in a less-individualistic, more cooperative way. And from what we had experienced so far that morning, everyone seemed so nice and helpful. The lady agreed that the Swiss brand of individualism probably isn’t as bad as it can get “other places,” but it is more prominent here than anywhere else in Europe. She said that as tourists, we wouldn’t notice the closed-mindedness because everyone always tries to make newcomers feel welcome. Before we parted, we asked her what became of her Swiss lover. It didn’t work out, she told us, and she is now happily in love with a German.

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We went back to the hostel, changed, and got ready to meet Zacharias, one of the paraglide instructors, at the train station. We were waiting in front of the main doors, not sure who or what to look for, when a man drove up in a black minivan, rolled down his window, and said “Paraglide?” I’ll admit, the black van did seem pretty sketchy, but we took the risk, got in, and buckled up. Zacharias left us in the van while he went inside the train station to meet the fifth member of our flight group, Sarah, a Canadian girl who was backpacking across Europe for a few months. While we were waiting for them, we were contemplating how best to break out of the van if this thing didn’t end up being legitimate. Our over-skeptical, under-trusting American imaginations were spinning their wheels fast, but it ended up being okay, and we made it to the base of Mount Engelberg without a hitch, where we met Urs, the owner of the company we were flying with, Free Minds Paragliding.

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Urs was awesome! He gave us all gear and paid for our cable car ride up the mountain. On the way up, we were all extremely nervous. Were we really about to jump off this mountain and fly around with nothing but a parachute (and a tandem instructor of course) strapped to our backs? The nerves did make for some great bonding with Sarah, however. We even exchanged Facebook information so that if she is ever in Vienna, or in our neck of the woods in the United States, we can all get back together. We realized that nothing brings strangers together like life-threatening action sports.

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I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of being hundreds of meters above the ground looking out at the world below. The moment I was strapped into my harness and began running off the edge of the mountain (a part of me still worried that the parachute may not catch me), I realized something. I am as tall as these peaks right now. But, if I were to be grounded, I would be nothing but an indistinguishable speck upon the earth. Flying over villages and lakes below, it is a sort of spiritual experience. Regardless of what one believes, the vastness of Earth’s beauty in that moment is undeniable, and it is impossible not to become ever more aware of how miniscule each human really is.

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For a large part of the journey, I simply sat in contemplation of this and in complete awe of beauty in a way I had never before experienced. And for another large part of it, I screamed my lungs out, completely absorbed by the realization that, “HEY, I’M FREAKING FLYING IN THE SWISS ALPS!” In the final descent to the ground, Zacharias took me on a wild ride of flips and turns. I was a little bit dizzy, but that adrenaline was pumping through my veins like never before, and I totally stuck the landing! I purchased the whole documented ride in pictures and videos, but they will never be able to do justice to the actual experience.

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Once our four had made it down, Zacharias had to go back up the mountain one more time to bring Sarah down, but while we waited, we had an amazing conversation with Urs. He started by asking us how we liked Switzerland, to which we could only respond with high praise after what we had just experienced. We asked him how he came to do this as a career, to which he had quite an interesting response. He told us that he had reached a point in his life where he knew that he couldn’t be happy sitting at a desk in an office every day. He wanted his life to be a constant adventure, and he didn’t care about the traditional view of what success looked like anymore. He then went on to say that people in Switzerland don’t usually think like him and his wife, who is from Brazil and owns a fair trade goods store in downtown Lucerne called “Mamapacha.” People in Switzerland work really hard and care a lot about their money. They have all this beauty surrounding them, but they often forget to enjoy it because they’re too wrapped up with their jobs and their money, and they’re very closed minded because of it. It was the second time that day that we had heard a separate stranger say exactly the same thing. Urs didn’t want to live like that, he told us. He wanted a life that was more fulfilling, so he chose to jump off of mountains for a living. He, of course, worries about his family. He has a new baby boy named Luis, and he and his wife live paycheck to paycheck. But, he said, he would rather do that any day than forget what it really means to live.

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I don’t know if I will ever be able to adequately thank Urs for that day, because it was such a game changer for me. I do have a plan for my future. I want to get a master’s degree and then go to law school so that I can work in some field of international law. Is it worth the time and the work? I still think so because I don’t see myself going into law for the money. I want to work in international human rights law or environmental law. I want to travel the world and see things change for people for the better, but maybe I can afford to take a year or two off in between my degrees to really get to know the world that I want to save, so that I can experience learning outside the confines of a classroom, outside an established set of rules and expectations.

I was sad to have to have to say goodbye to Urs, Zacharias, and Sarah. But, overall, I couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling experience any day of my life.

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