Our pick-up at our hotel in central Turkey, living a Travelife, was scheduled for 4:50 AM the following morning.
We were set to go on a sunrise hot air balloon ride across the rugged, mountainous plains of Capadoccia.
Going to bed at midnight, I was suddenly contemplating passing up this flying opportunity.
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AN INCOMPATIBILITY WITH HEIGHTS
AND SMALL SPACES
I’m not very good with heights, as it is, and the prospect of a balloon ride across a landscape of sharp rocks and pointed crags was making me very nervous.
Think about it: it’s quite daunting to be hundreds of feet up in the air, in a large basket held by strings to an inflatable nylon bag, with only hot air and the wind to determine your safe flight and landing.
A CASE OF NERVES
That morning, it took 20 minutes from Urgup, where we were staying, to the outskirts of the picturesque town of Goreme.
Here, Captain Erdal Yaris and the staff of Goreme Balloons were waiting to literally take us up, up and away.
Until the very last minute before lift-off, when all the tourists who had reserved places in the balloons were already inside the baskets, I was still of half a mind to get out and watch my companions from the ground instead.
THE SAFETY QUESTION
“Balloon rides are safe, aren’t they?” I called out to Captain Yaris, who was about to wave goodbye.
He looked like he’d been asked this question a million times by his customers.
“Well, at least so far,” he replied, with a twinkle in his eye.
WHAT A LITTLE EMPATHY CAN DO
Fortunately, an Australian lawyer, traveling solo, was in my section of the basket.
Seeing my agitated state, he looked at me kindly and said, “Don’t worry. I’m nervous too, but it’ll be all right.”
And that little empathy was all it took for me to calm down enough to weather the lift-off into the clear blue skies above Capadoccia.
Surprisingly, amidst the roar of the balloon heaters, we felt barely a nudge, and within a minute we were airborne.
By the time we were way up in the sky, my fears had been overtaken by wonder at the experience and the beauty of the nature below.
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SURREAL AND SPECTACULAR
There were about 20 balloons up in the air simultaneously, viewing the same spectacle.
From afar, I thought they looked like balloons that had escaped from a child’s birthday party. Up-close, it just seemed surreal to have all these colorful balloons hovering around the stark landscape.
Interestingly, in spite of the crowded skies, you never feel the proximity of other balloons -- or that so many tourists have paid a small fortune for a pretty commercial venture.
YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN, EVEN WITH COMPANY
The experience itself is so solitary and spiritual that you’ll find yourself contemplating life and forgetting you had companions on the trip.
In the sky, it’s just you and nature and whatever god you happen to believe in.
Perhaps because we were all in awe over what we were seeing, no one talked for a while.
It was peaceful, even eerily quiet, save for the sound of the wind and the occasional roaring of the heaters to keep the balloon buoyant.
NATURE BEFORE YOU, AND ALL AROUND YOU
Below is a view whose wondrousness can only be partially captured by photos. Words simply cannot do justice.
It’s best experienced first-hand. I've been on other hot air balloon rides in other parts of the world, but nothing -- absolutely nothing so far -- has trumped the beauty of Capadoccia.
Capadoccia’s incredible rock formations, already amazing when seen from the ground, acquire a new dimension when their massiveness is seen from the air.
GOD'S WORK ALL AROUND,
STRAIGHT OUT OF HARRY POTTER
Picture an endless vista of desert colors amidst an orange and purple sunrise and a deep azure sky just starting to lighten.
In the distance, there's a long valley full of structures of all shapes rising from the ground and protruding from walls.
Now imagine looking at these from an unencumbered position in the air. It’s a view straight out of Harry Potter.
Some of us recovered somewhat from this most unusual commune to indulge in sporadic conversation.
“This is probably as close as we’ll ever get to what flying feels like,” someone said.
We all agreed.
There were no external noises and no engines. We felt as light as birds gliding aimlessly around.
OPTIONS FOR LANDING
The pilot announced we were going down, and there were not a few disappointed faces around.
It had been so enjoyable that I’d even briefly considered tipping him for a couple more extra minutes of flight.
But the pilot seemed set on reaching home in time for breakfast.
LUXE OR BUDGET LANDING?
“Do you want the US$10 landing or the US$100 landing?” A German guy joked as we slowly made our way down.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“The US$10 landing gets you within jumping distance of the ground,” he replied. “The US$100 one lands you on the back of that flatbed truck.”
We could see the vehicle waiting for us on the ground below but none of us considered even for a moment that we would actually land on top of it.
“We’d better start passing the hat around then,” someone else piped up. “I certainly don’t want to have to jump that high.”
We’d joked about landing the balloon on the back of the truck, but that is exactly what our pilot did.
CHAMPAGNE TO CELEBRATE
Back on ground, a bottle of champagne awaited us on a table with flutes and flowers.
The captain did the honors and served the first glasses himself.
As we toasted to a truly beautiful, magical morning and a safe flight, he said: “I didn’t want to tell you earlier because I thought you wouldn’t want to hear it, but I’m actually the youngest balloon pilot in Turkey.”
We congratulated him on this achievement and complimented him on his skill.
He was right. I’m glad he didn’t tell me that before the flight.
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