[I'm the first traveler-in-residence to participate in a new partnership between Matador
Oh yeah, Cappadocia’s all dreamy and magical with its cave dwellings and fairy chimneys and shit, but right this second I can’t see a single thing other than the backs of the heels of the person walking in front of me. That person happens to be Robyn, one of the women in our group, and her easy gait and the fact that she’s not raggedly panting indicate to me that’s she’s just fine. Carefree even, no doubt recklessly craning her head around to take in the panorama. Ancient stone hermit holes be damned — I know that if I so much as flick a glance to the left I’ll end up on the valley floor. Damn Robyn, and damn Iskender too.
“Are you OK?” The question comes from behind me and for a minute I wonder if I’ve been damning in my outside voice, but more likely my tour-mate has noticed the stiffness in my posture and the sour pong rising from my armpits.
“Not really,” I gasp, desperately focusing on Robyn’s feet in front of me on the pebbly path.
It’s not heights per se, but precipices that do me in. The CN Tower pre-2011 was bad enough (ask my dad to show you the pictures), but their new “extreme attraction”, EdgeWalk, must be a hoax. It must be, and if it’s not then I know their design team had to PhotoShop the streams of fright-pee out of their brochure images.
“It’s a bit steep,” Iskender had conceded prior to embarking on our hike around the cliffs of Göreme. “But it’s not too bad, and it’s not for long.” He’s a goat-footed liar, I steam. I’ve been out on this ledge all my life.
Predictably, I don’t fall off the mountain, but it’s cold comfort in light of our scheduled activity tomorrow: hot air ballooning.
That evening I duck out of the group activities and go to the roof to write. I feel like I have to take advantage of the opportunity, for tomorrow we fly.
4:45 a.m. Chk-a-chk-a-chk-a-chk-a… I’ve got my own “Midnight Express” in roomie South African Kate but it’s not her snoring that’s woken me. I’m wondering about the relative sturdiness of wicker. Surely there’s a more appropriate material for balloon baskets, like Kevlar or steel.
4:57 a.m. I wake up with a start, delivered back to real life from a dream about falling. As I unclench my jaw I feel the mouth guard between my teeth relaxing into its original shape.
5:15 a.m. South African Kate’s in the shower. It’s time to get up.
At 5:45 a.m. we pile into our minibuses and at 5:55 a.m. we pull into the parking lot of Kapadokya Balloons. Despite the early hour, no fewer than 200 tourists mill about looking for their names on the long ballooning call sheets. One of our group locates someone in charge and we’re herded into a room and offered tea and pastries.
“Your pilot is Andrew,” an organizer announces, and passes around a safety handout printed on stiff paper. It’s like the card you find in the seat back on an airplane: a page torn from a terrifying graphic novel about your last living moments.
I pee, and then pee again (along with precipices, not having access to a bathroom is one of my greatest fears), and then someone says, “OK, it’s time.” We get into a nearby van and I take the front seat for the short ride out to our launch site.
We drive past several clusters of balloonists prepping their airships in the pre-dawn light. They’re alien, the half-inflated envelopes heaving as the crews warm the air with jets of naked flame.
On the ground, there’s lots of shouting and pointing. It’s freezing, but that doesn’t stop me from sweating as I watch one, then another, then a handful of ships lift into the sky like balloons released from a child’s fist.
The pilot and crew are working the balloon, readying it for flight by firing the burner directly into the mouth of its nylon envelope. Did you get that? They’re shooting open flames into a nylon bag.
Did you get that? They’re shooting open flames into a nylon bag.
“When they get the basket upright, be ready to jump in!” The crewman says this with such urgency that I imagine a boarding procedure similar to hopping a locomotive. I put my camera away and crouch, ready for his signal. “Now! Now! Now!” he shouts, singling us out one at a time. When he trains his finger on me I run to the basket, and launch myself over the side like a soldier up and over a fortress wall. I take my place at the edge (every “seat” is at the edge) and with shaking hands I retrieve my camera.
“How’s Keph?” I hear someone whisper and when I turn the faces of my tour-mates are frozen in sympathetic worry. And then we’re up. The balloon lifts and hovers a metre above ground. Nobody speaks. The pilot triggers the burner and we rise.
Here’s the thing: it’s so smooth (and once we hit 50 metres, so quiet) that it doesn’t even seem like flight. Everyone is speaking in reverent whispers, and even the burner has transformed from a frenzied, unpredictable inferno to the glow of a living room hearth.
As the sun finally breaks over the horizon, I see the shadow of our balloon writ on Cappadocia’s unusual landscape, bringing with it a long-forgotten memory.
Sure enough, lit by the long rays of a mountain afternoon, I could just make out its stubby shadow on the opposite peak. It was as good an idea of immortality as any.
Looking at the shadow of our balloon, I feel the fist in my chest unclench. I want to say it out loud: I am here. And to point: There I am.
Later, back on the ground, our group is happy and bright-eyed. Did you see? we ask, and assure each other that we did. The ground crew pops a bottle of champagne and makes a big deal of issuing us flight certificates.
“So, were you scared?” Robyn asks, smiling like she knows the answer.