Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Egypt, part 6, Luxor(part 4): what's in the basket

Last Wednesday, our alarm went off at 3:30am. It took me an entire five minutes to slide my body from the bed to the floor, next to my suitcase. Mission: get up. Get dressed. Get out the door. Somehow we accomplished it in record time.

J and I climbed into a van and we drove to a second location, where we picked up more people. After that, it was onto a row of fallucas waiting for us on the edge of the Nile. More people started to arrive and pile into the boats. Hani, the main man in charge, offered each of us coffee or tea. We were all pretty sleepy around the edges. I sipped my coffee as the motors started up and one by one our fallucas pulled away from the bank and further into the Nile.

Light was just beginning to trick the edges of the sky above us. The waters of the Nile were dark, and I concentrated on the murmur of our boat mates to try to get my mind off of what was ahead. One man, an American now living in Kuwait, slowly read the safety contract out loud. "We've gotta practice the landing position," He told the woman sitting next to him. They were part of a group of five Americans--there was also a couple from Cambridge to my right. To my left were two women from Argentina, impressively fancy in their attire for 4am. This would be our group for the journey upward.

Once at the location, things moved pretty quickly. The fabric of balloons were being stretched out. Giant fans blew into them and trucks were connected to the baskets by thick rope--a method of uprighting them. We were actually doing this.

As a kid, I loved that moment of discovering a hot air balloon in the sky, random and unexpected. In my hometown, they used to have a yearly hot air balloon race. I was never clear on what the racing part entailed, but I loved to see all of the balloons taking off simultaneously. One year I remember losing my mind over the launch of a Mr. Peanut shaped balloon(it was gorgeous). Sometimes they offered little mini-trips up into the air, balloon still tethered to the ground but effective nonetheless. I never did it. But I was always a bit fascinated. What was up there, in the basket anyway? Special weights? A cooler packed with snacks? The mysteries of life?

And then there I was on the West Bank of the Nile, very close to finding out.

When I get scared, and by scared I mean petrified...my knees shake uncontrollably. It's a deep shake, an actual knocking, just like the expression. I've only felt this exceptional tremble a handful of times in my life thus far. Once was on that hellish flight from Paris to New York in big ol winter storms, another time was in the hospital with a migraine, scared and alone and connected to an I.V.

What I'm saying is this: my knees were knocking. The adrenaline was coursing. J tried to put a comforting arm around me and I half turned out of it, staring at the rush of flame inflating the balloon in front of us. My brain was teetering between two things: I can do this/I can't do this/I can do this/I cannot cannot cannot.

It takes a village to raise a balloon. Here is what the scene became in front of us:

There were easily 20 Egyptians working hard to keep the basket steady--this basket full of people. Hani screamed at the truck driver to back up, pull close, back up again. The basket was twice as large as ours would be, and swayed in the arms of the holders before finally skidding up and off the dirt, into the air.

Annnnnd there they go.

Holy craaaaaaaap.

And under my crazy-blooming fear, this childlike need to know: what was on the other side of that wicker? How awesome would it feel to be in a basket in the sky?

The company's name = Sindbad. In all my adrenaline pumping existence, I furiously image searched a picture of Sinbad the comedian on my phone. He, I decided, would be my spirit guide. This is the picture:

I walked up to one of the guys that would be in our balloon. "This is my spirit animal." I said it in one run-on flurry of syllables and he gave me a hell yeah and chuckled. Until take off, I distracted myself between my picture of Sinbad and taking pictures of the process of take off in front of me.

Our driver introduced himself as Kareem("that means joy--that must be a good sign, right RIGHT?!" I whispered to J). We stood in a circle as he gave us directions--position to take on landing, how to climb into the basket. This was happening. Soon we were walking to the balloon. This. Was. Happening. And then we were climbing in, and there I was, in the basket. The big mystery of what-was-in-the-basket solved. Here is the answer:

Nothing. There is nothing in the basket. Those two bags belong to two of our passengers(Argentinian women that, I think, were skyping/calling someone from the air at one point).

It was surprisingly/not surprisingly hot once we were in the basket. There was a giant flame shooting up into a balloon right above our heads, and it was hard to escape the heat despite the metal plates arranged above our heads. Kareem, our pilot, had removed his fancy pilot's button up and was pulling the flame release in a tshirt. Things happened pretty quickly once the 11 of us were in. So quickly that I didn't even realize we had left the ground. This is the first picture my shaking hands could manage once I did realize it:

I'll be honest. I spent the first few minutes being very, very quiet--a voice in my head was screaming YOU NEED TO GET DOWN YOU NEED TO GET DOWN NOW PLEASE but there was nothing to be done. I was in a basket, in the air, and there was nothing to do but be there. The camera helped. I looked through it to balance myself. Every time someone in the basket moved, the basket creaked and swayed with them. I couldn't wrap my head around it: in the air, in a basket, in the air.

I realized that if I was going to get through this, I needed to be there. I needed to feel both the fear and the utter exhilaration of doing something I might very well never, ever do again. I needed to enjoy it. To do that, I needed to let go.

And once I did, my goodness.

Of all that I know and have been and will be...my goodness. Such greatness.

I couldn't get over how exceptionally quiet it was up there. It makes sense--no real sound of motor or engine, other than the shot of flame above our heads every other moment. We were all talking amongst ourselves, snapping photos, but still keeping our voices to murmurs. I think we all felt a bit sacred about the moment.

The balloon slowing rotated, replacing green with mountain and then to ruins. With each shift the light changed a bit, but it wasn't difficult to shoot an amazing picture.

I've been fortunate to experience a lot of wonderful and amazing, inspiring things in my life thus far. I've fallen in love. I became an aunt. I danced in some awesome spaces(like First Avenue, where Purple Rain was filmed). I've been lucky to read my work, my passion, in many venues. But a hot air balloon ride over the Nile at sunrise? I think I may have found one of my ultimates with this one.

Landing happened fairly quickly, similar to take off. We were approaching an area of farmland. The house nearby had a bed on the roof, where a little boy was just waking up.

They waved and we waved back.
Just before landing we all assumed the landing position. You grab hold of a handle in the basket, crouch down in a squat, and lean back to balance the weight and shock of hitting the ground. As we approached, we could see one of Hani's truck hauling ass up the nearby road to receive us. As we hit, the Egyptian balloon workers were waiting to grab us and keep us from dragging. The balloon was deflated and dismantled all by hand--one man pulled open the vent at the top of the balloon by pulling and pulling a rope on the side. Ten other men pushed the air out of the balloon while twisting and gathering the material tightly. It was an impressively smooth operation. As we climbed out, I noticed a handful of children surrounding us, fists full of necklaces and things to hopefully sell. They must be used to balloons landing in their backyards.

J snapped some extraordinary pics--maybe I can convince him to share some in this space in a future entry. For now, I leave you with a video I shot from way up high. That gorgeous, gorgeous quiet. Along with a picture of my certificate upon completion, handed out in the van afterwards. So stoked:

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