Photo by Joe Darams / Unsplash

When you and I change the way we understand riches, we may well understand that we are far better off than any Bezos

The rocky beach below my feet was lathered with foam, a boat of scuba divers unloading onto the rocks. The group was unaware of our presence, two people suspended about a thousand feet overhead, held aloft by the updrafts creating lift across a broad crescent of parachute silk.

I was doing a tandem with Geoff, a pilot in his early fifties, about as broke as you can be by typical terms, but truly, a very rich man. Here's his outfit:

Fly Koh Larn - Tandem Paraglding
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As I narrated into the Go Pro for our flight, I asked Geoff to comment. At first, he joked.Then I pointed out the scenery below, the rising winds, the vast ocean in the distance, his girlfriend practicing her skills on the beach, all of it: he was indeed rich.

He was doing what he loved, he had love, and he had loved himself enough to give up what got in the way to do what he loved. No easy task. And to be fair, it cost him a lot to get here.

Often does.

Geoff is, like me, a military veteran. His service was for the British Royal Air Force. Like me he had dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. My dreams, too soon as they were being female and in the military during the Vietnam War, meant that such a hope was hopeless. It didn't work out for either of us for different reasons.

We both did our time. Then we found ourselves enmeshed in corporate work, doing what everyone else was doing; chasing the Almighty Dollar, working ourselves to death, living in less-than-excellent conditions, all of it.

For what, pray tell?

For so many of us the definition of success looks very much like the photos at the top of this story. Both of them put me off big time. Not only do I find high rises ugly, the cost to build them, the land that they eat up and all the amenities that have to be built to accommodate those inside them take up vastly more. As a Florida-born child, all I had to do was drive to the coast, south to Miami to see what happens when a pretty coastline calls to developers.

High rise under construction
Photo by Nico Smit / Unsplash

Australia's sunny Gold Coast coastline has the same problem.Most of the population of Australia lives in the cities, given that the climate can be brutal and difficult. Not in all places, but many.  But Australia's greatest beauty lies not in the condo-encrusted shorelines which face out to her storied surfing beaches, but in the Outback. And, in her farthest-flung places where it's very hard to reach by any means.

As such places get harder to find, that makes them, by definition, very desirable, and those who can enjoy them, rich. And not necessarily rich financially. But willing to sacrifice a great deal of comfort to be able to immerse themselves in the richness of Nature. Consider the ski bum who is willing to forfeit all comfort to live in or near a resort, no matter what, to get in slope time.

Which leads me to the larger point here.

Geoff's been in Thailand for eight years. Also spent time in Germany. Somewhere along the way he made a decision to return to what he loved: flying. He'd been paragliding for some time, remaining in that world which so entranced him as a young military man.  

By the way, if you want a clue to what your passion really is, watch what you will not forsake. Watch what you can't leave behind. Watch what you will forfeit anything to be able to do, and by this I do NOT mean addictions or compulsions. Joys. Just pure joy. The kinds of feelings which allow you to be so damned grateful to be alive that you really are one big walking dopamine hit.

For me, animals, and adventure sports. For Geoff, well hell. Look at the man's face in the photo on his website. For you it could be restoring vintage cars. Doesn't matter.

Again, I can relate. I was living in Melbourne, Australia in the 1980s. I used to take the train down to a rather remote town called Geelong. There, an entrepreneurial chicken farmer had carved out a runway of sorts where those of us who wanted to learn how to fly ultralights could practice.

The biggest advantage, of course, was that if you lost visual contact with the runway, all you had to do was follow the smell. Our local loo left something to be desired, however, given that the rather dangerous funnel web spiders took up residence just under the lip of the toilet seat. That'll ensure an air drop for sure.

But I digress.

Learning to fly is expensive, no matter when you started or what discipline you choose. I've flown ultralights, small airplanes, my body (skydiving), been in balloons,  thrown myself off bridges. I have paraglided, hanglided and learned aerial silks. Done my time in wind tunnels. In other words, I really enjoy being airborne.

But it is bloody expensive.

Enough so that I called off my pilot's training, since I was at the time also learning to skydive. Back then I qualified for the GI Bill to pay for everything right up to Airline Transport Pilot (ATP). That's the rating you have when you fly left seat (captain) for a major airline. I got happily distracted by the badass imagery of being one of those air jockeys, taking what I had learned in pilot ground to my body's maneuverability in the sky at terminal velocity and faster.

Then I had a come-home-to-mama landing back around 1990, so that too came to an end for a while. All air sports involve that additional element of up and down. The kind that can kill, or at least maim.

That, of course, is part of the attraction.

While that put in a crimp in my free fall career, I still have my A-license and I still do tandems.

Geoff had never let go of his paragliding Jones. Good thing, too, for eventually he would find himself here in Pattaya, a jam-packed, overcrowded tourist haven with a perfectly lovely little island off shore: Koh-Larn.

The island was graced with just the right winds, just the right beaches, just the right kinds of reachable cliffs where an intrepid and determined entrepreneur could set up launch pads for a paragliding outfit.

Image from Geoff's website Julia Hubbel

However, this is not a business where you should expect to make a mint. You will, however be filthy rich. Stay with me here.

Yesterday as we climbed up the cliff to launch, we were joined by veteran pilot Steve from California. Steve's been flying since the Seventies, when hang gliding was terribly dangerous. He shifted to paragliding, still a hobby. Over the course of time, like many, he became an instructor. Like nearly everyone with expertise in this kind of business, buying and selling gear, doing repairs and instructing are all veiled excuses to stay in the air.

Much of what we do, we do so that we can fly.

In America, however, liability insurance doesn't protect you from stupid. In the world of adventure air sports, as with all other things USA, lawyers rule. Even when you sign a waiver, which is the gold standard to protect an operator, it doesn't seem to make any difference. The lawsuits and bad behavior of students and pilots drove Steve overseas.

As Geoff and I circled above the headlands while I narrated into the Go-Pro, Steve's neon paraglider swooped and looped nearby. Steve's within shouting distance of my age, doing what he most loves.

That's what makes him rich.

I have shifted overseas for most of my air sports, too, finding them not only far more reasonably-priced but free of the idiot lawyers who enable poorly-behaved folks incapable of taking responsibility. It's often such lawyers who make air sports so prohibitively expensive in the first place, but that's my opinion only.

Geoff initially scoffed at that idea that he was wealthy.

Geoff's girlfriend practicing on the beach where we land. Julia Hubbel

The life of someone who operates such a concession is dependent entirely on factors over which he has little control. Weather, for one thing. You can't fly in the rain. Tourist activity and interest for another. Geoff took a guy up with a guitar one time, and the resulting uber-cool YouTube video should have, in a fair world, garnered him millions of likes and eyeballs.

He barely got over three hundred views. It's not a fair world.

Why? Look. If you want a twenty-minute flight, in California that will set you back between $250-300. Here, you pay $150. Add a video to record the wonders of feeling like Superman and that's another $15 or so. There is no comparison.  And here, there are no ambulance-chasing lawyers.

So you will excuse my enthusiasm for what Geoff offers, even if you only do it once. Once for many is enough, being so terrified as many are to leave terra firma. But that's just me.

Do you feel rich? Here's an interesting piece on that question:

How To Tell If You’re Rich Even If You Think You Aren’t
Congratulations everyone! With the stock market, real estate market, and many other assets doing so well, many of us are rich! In fact, there are are record number of millionaires in the world. However, some people still don’t think they are rich. Let’s see how to tell if you’re rich even if you thi…

From that article, Nirvana is defined (pardon me while I chortle): Spending time eating takeout with family, in one's own home, while watching Netflix, scheduling a mani/pedi while using a new smartphone.

It's just me but that made me wanna toss my lunch. How we have been so conditioned to feel rich by having vs. being, it's disheartening. What is joyful, however is meeting people like Geoff, and bundling my aging butt into the tandem seat, and then spend the rest of my day on the beach talking to like-minded folks.

Around here there are lots of things competing for the tourist dollar. Cheap beer, pretty beaches, pretty girls and a bright hot sun. However, for my vacay dollar, as someone who seriously Joneses for air time, an outfit like Geoff's is perfect. He allows me to indulge my love of being airborne just enough to keep me at least partially satisfied.

As for the future? Look. A very dear friend of mine, my age, just got her Instrument Flight Rules license. There is no reason not to go for something like this once the house is sold and I really do have options. Meanwhile, I am happy to employ the Geoffs of the world who, in living his dream, allows others to taste theirs.

But there aren't quite enough people like me.

So Geoff trains pilots. Traveling pilots like Steve, and a Aussie retired policeman show up to further their certifications and keep themselves current. As with any and all air sports, you have to keep training. Gear changes, and no matter where you go you have to prove you are up-to-date. Otherwise you're a liability to yourself and others in the most unforgiving sky. Which, like the ocean, doesn't take kindly to a lack of respect for its power. Geoff's outfit provides those opportunities.

All that updating takes money and time. If you've got a demanding full-time job, like Geoff and I both did, as the policeman did, at some point you just have to ask, whether or not all that unrelenting hard work is really worth it.

The answer for all of us is a resounding YES.

In conversations yesterday with these three men, a very clear thread emerges. Yes, particularly in our youth we buy into what success looks like. HAVING HAVING HAVING. Acquiring for acquiring's sake, that relentless and ultimately world-killing hunger that drives consumption of everything worthy of our protection.  Two of the three men had jobs which had allowed them to set aside funds which now allow them to travel and fly. That also takes sacrifice.

In my case, I nearly killed myself to make $125k a year. Most times I couldn't pay myself a dime. All I could do was pay in more time, with nothing on the horizon. At 58 I threw it in, after working 90-hour weeks to write a book in 2010.

Even so, it has taken me far longer- eleven years- than I might have hoped to divest myself of most of what I have so that I can fly, both in the literal and metaphysical sense. What these men have is the complete lack of any kind of mortgage or other kinds of typical burdens our society expects us to carry.

Productive members of society, kindly, my aging ass.

All three of us, at some point, forfeited the chase in order to have a different kind of life. But to be alive is to have burdens and responsibilities. The art is choosing the ones which serve you best.

In order to do what he loves, Geoff has to scramble. When I told him how hard it was to find his website and also that it wasn't terribly functional when I wanted to book, well, DAMN.

If he wants to stay aloft, he still has to invest in his own infrastructure. But still. Would you rather be irreparably tied to a huge mortgage, kids' college tuition and a thousand other things, or the comparatively mild annoyance of working on your website so that you can show others the immense joy of being airborne?

For some, heaven is defined by family, work, raising great kids. Who on earth am I to judge that? For others like Geoff, it is to let go of so many worldly restraints and to redefine life from several thousand feet up, and let others do it too.

So that you yourself can see the world from the albatross' eye.

One is a comparatively "safe," predictable choice. The other is, well.

How you measure your wealth?

Increasingly, for me it's by how I can serve, how I can spend the last of my years doing what I love where I love, how many animals I can soothe and massage, wonderful people I can meet, horses I can ride and people whose lives I might move to take a bloody chance once in a while.

In one of my favorite movies, Out of Africa, writer Karen Blixen, as played by Meryl Streep, climbs into a new-fangled plane with Denys Finch-Hatton, played by Robert Redford:

Unless you have ever flown, none of this means much. This experience transformed Blixen. A friend of hers at the time, Beryl Markham, would not only become Africa's first female bush pilot but would go on to fly from Europe to North America, against the wind, in  an  astounding feat of skill never undertaken by anyone before her.

I don't care if you fly, skydive, paraglide. I DO care if you expose yourself to something so utterly thrilling that you are willing to work incredibly hard to loose the bounds that tie you down. It doesn't really matter what it is, as long as you truly feel untethered, others are not harmed, and you end up immensely grateful for being born. That, in my estimation, is being rich.

In that most wonderful of senses, the sky really and truly is the limit.

You're invited.

Image from Geoff's website. Julia Hubbel

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