Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

Maybe you never should have trusted a hot air balloon company whose name translates as Balloon Balloons. Maybe you should have backed out when the sunrise tour became the brunch tour. “Everybody in the basket,” the moustached Turk claps his hands. You and your friend beeline for the balloon, trying to get a “window” seat. You didn’t pay all that money to peer over the entire tour group put with you. No you did not. You congratulate yourselves on a successful balloon basket mission and then the wind punches the balloon in the gut and your side of the basket starts to tip towards Earth. All the available Turkish men grab on, trying to right the ship, but there is no stopping it. “Everybody out,” claps the moustache again, “Out, out, get out!”

In one swoop, you and your friend jump out of the basket and out of harm’s way. The balloon collapses on the sand, knocking over the basket and spreading primary colours across the pink landscape. The Turks work tirelessly, igniting the enormous rocket flame into the balloon, begging it to inflate. Men walk inside the balloon, pushing up the nylon canvas, trying to help it catch the hot air. Others walk along outside, spreading out kinks and making sure the nylon isn’t getting snagged. You talk to a very attractive Australian tourist and his face helps pass the time and ease the nervousness as you watch the other companies have successful lift offs, balloon after balloon.

The Lonely Planet tells you that ancient volcanic eruptions are responsible for Cappadocia’s landscape: layers and layers of ash mud and lava formed soft rocks and centuries of rain and wind erosion carved those rocks into isolated pillars with a hard tops and soft bottoms. These formations, called “fairy chimneys,” are phallic wonders of geology (vindicated by the UNESCO World Heritage List) that brought you, and thousands of others, to Göreme National Park in the first place.  Finally, the hot air fills enough of your balloon that the basket starts to right itself again. It’s almost full and the mustache claps his hands, “Everybody in.”

You learned from the last attempt that only two people fit in the corner pocket, while four are expected to fit in the central ones. So you sprint for the corner and you win. Another successful mission. And you are right next to the cute Australian! Double win. You peer up into the balloon, watching the flame blast upward, feeling the heat on your scalp. You inspect the carabiners attaching the balloon to the basket and you wonder what kind of safety regulations the Middle East has. Before you have time to ask your friend, another gust of wind repositions the basket and everyone lets out a little scream. “Is this safe?” you ask in the direction of the moustache, and the tour group repeats the question. “Is this safe?” you ask again, even though it’s too late to call your mum and tell her you love her. More wind and the balloon dives towards the Earth. The moustache screams, “Everybody out!” again and you jump to safety, again.

The Turks decide to try a new launch point and you figure third time’s a charm, so what the hell. You eat an energy bar, take off some layers, and continue to flirt with the Australian while they drag the basket down the hill. You are on vacation, why are you worried about whether or not you signed a waiver and whether or not death and dismemberment is part of your lousy university health insurance plan? You decide death won’t be so bad in such an implausible landscape next to a dashing hunk with an accent and your best friend. Besides, the new launch zone seems to be working and the balloon is righting itself again, the only soft curve against a horizon of jagged edges.

You don’t even wait for the Turk to clap his hands. You claim the corner pocket and once the basket is full you start to feel magical. You know this is it. You can feel it. The basket lifts off the earth and you decide that no, this probably isn’t safe. It is far smoother than you expected, however. The pilot introduces herself and tells you what you assume is safety advice, but you can’t hear her above the blasting of the flame. It’s funny, sort of, until you wonder if you missed where the emergency exits are located. At last, as the balloon swiftly rises into the sky, soaring above the absurdly phenomenal landscape, you hear the pilot say, “Don’t worry, I’ve been doing this for 15 years.” And you certainly hope she is telling the truth because the wind is strong and you are leaving the valley in a hurry.

You snap a few pictures of other hot air balloons as they soar over the Bryce-Canyon-like hoodoos, rising out of the red and white canyon like quills on a sun burnt porcupine.  You capture what you can to memory but before you know it you are over green farmland. It doesn’t matter though, because you are floating in a big wicker basket under a giant rainbow balloon and you think that is awesome. You also haven’t died yet, which is pretty awesome too. You hear the pilot radio your location to the ground crew and soon you spot a pickup truck with a trailer racing across the green palate.

The balloon descends with ease, but after a few minutes of back-and-forth radio traffic you realise the pilot and her ground crew are up to something. Indeed, you are correct. The pilot plans to land the balloon on the trailer attached to the moving pickup truck. You appreciate Turkish efficiency, but you start to worry you have jinxed yourself about not having died yet and there is too much left to explore. However, that is a silly way to spend your last moments. So you pull out your camera and document the impressive feat, because, no matter the outcome, you hope someone else can witness this: this moment, these few seconds, when you are both floating in a balloon and riding in a trailer, when your basket hovers while the truck scoots under, when you feel like you are between worlds.

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Cover photo by Rob Kroenert, inset by Tom Levin

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