When I first saw the words, “Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sunrise”, I crossed them off of our proposed itinerary. Having taken several customized private tours over the years, I’ve learned to take a red pen to any itinerary and eliminate experiences that are either too touristy or will make me uncomfortable. Whenever I see“balloon ride”, or “tour a silk factory”, or “visit the hill people”, I cross it out.
But our tour operator implored us, “Trust me, you’ll love it. Everybody goes on a balloon ride in Cappadocia.”
My partner Brian and I were planning a two-week trip to Turkey, and Cappadocia was on our list. I did my research and found that, indeed, almost everybody does go on a balloon ride in Cappadocia, partly because there isn’t that much else to do in Cappadocia.
So there we were, at zero dark thirty, with our shivering, convertible pant-wearing cadre of fellow American tourists, ready to board our gondolas in the dark. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the excursion partly because of the hour and partly because I’m anti-crashing into things.
Brian and I met the six other people who would be in the gondola with us and I was pleased to learn that one woman, Linda, was a doctor from Boston whose specialty was pain management. I pictured Linda slipping OxyContin capsules into my mouth amidst the burning wreckage of our balloon as we waited for the International Red Cross to arrive.
There were already dozens of balloons in the sky, but many more were yet to be inflated. Most of the balloons had corporate logos on them, which was a bit disappointing, because I abhor labels. “I hope we get a blank balloon”, I told Brian. “Or at least one with a logo for a company that’s socially responsible.”
Then I began to worry, what if the logo is for Cialis? Or Viagra? Would that be totally embarrassing? At least in that case you know your balloon would go up. But what if the balloon ride lasted for more than four hours?
That would violate one of my guiding principles: few things are worth doing for more than thirty minutes at a time. Maybe it’s because I grew up a child of television, but thirty minutes of anything is all I need. Go up, take pictures, come down. Done.
As the balloon began to inflate, our Australian pilot instructed us on how to brace ourselves against the padding inside of the gondola in case we had to make a “hard landing” – i.e., crash into the side of a mountain. (This was a bit of a refresher course for me because I had already researched surviving a hot air balloon crash before we left the States.)
“So how do we decide where to go?” Brian asked our pilot.
“It’s where the wind decides to take us, mate,” he said.
The balloon began to lift off the ground.
“But what if the wind decides to take us to Syria?” I queried.
It was a bit disconcerting to climb into a wicker basket, like a piece of easily-bruised fruit, and rely on the Turkish winds to determine our destiny.
“Syria’s 800 kilometers away,” he chuckled. “We’ll run out of fuel long before we’ll make it to Syria.”
Not what I wanted to hear, either.
As we drifted upward and downward into the red canyons, I continued to evaluate our survival chances should the balloon catch fire and the basket plummet back to earth. I could survive this, I thought, as we were close to the ground. Or, There’s no way I could survive this, I thought, at 6000 feet above sea level. Or, If I thrust my body in that direction, mid-air, and land in those bushes, I might be able to escape with some broken legs. I clutched Linda’s hand, and Brian rolled his eyes.
Admittedly, the viewswere spectacular. We floated into valleys that would otherwise be inaccessible, and wecruised alongside umber lunar-like rock formations. (We also flew over an empty farmer’s market, an abandoned hotel swimming pool filled with green murky water, and a wine bottling plant.)
All told, the ride took about an hour and forty-five minutes. Like “Avatar”, it was about an hour too long. The pilot eventually – and gracefully – landed us on the back of a parked pickup truck owned by the balloon company, and we climbed out of the gondola to waiting glasses of champagne and, of course, a tip jar.Linda and I hugged goodbye.
As Brian and I headed back to our hotel for breakfast, I reflected on the ride. Was I glad I did it? Yes, and I was especially glad we didn’t crash. But there’s still no way I’m going to visit the hill people.
About the Author: Larry Mathews lives in San Francisco, California.