Tuesday, January 31, 2006


So I tried snowboarding for the first time last week. As one raised in a sunny clime with access to warm friendly waters 365 days a year, I've had little experience with snow and the sports that take place in it. I do recall one happy New Years when I was eight, I think, spent in the snow in Tahoe. We kids would get bundled up and go out and play for hours, making snow angels, hurling rocky snowballs at each other, and constructing elaborate forts. We'd only come inside the cabin when we couldn't feel our fingers and feet. The mothers would unwrap us, warm us, pour hot chocolate down our throats, then wrap us back up and shake their heads as we ran back out into the cold for more. At one point we surreptitiously hiked onto private land and found a long, gradual hill just perfect for sledding. I sat on a plastic saucer, cross-legged, and barrelled down that thing like a bullet through a rifle, screaming with delight until I bashed into a tree and went tumbling. But who cared? What a rush!

Since then I've gotten pretty good in the water, thanks to my near constant access to it and a father who let me hang onto his neck as he caught the waves at Bellows (my favorite beach -- see previous posts for pictures). Skiing looked like fun, but without snow in the vicinity I contented myself with waves. Six poverty-stricken years at college and grad school in Chicago offered no opportunity for snowplay, though I did force my roommates to join me in an impromptu snowball fight the first time snow fell my freshman year at the University of Chicago. When I spotted those initial flakes, my heart sang, and I rushed out, pulling my friends with me, calling "Snow, snow - yay!" More experienced Chicagoans were, of course, more sensibly thinking "Winter, winter -- oy!" Four months later, during the longest February ever recorded, I began to see their point.

Now that I live in Southern California, with easy access to snow at Big Bear about two hours away, I've got the opportunity to give the snow a try. I haven't rushed out there because of previous experiences with altitude sickness. I did venture to Mammoth one winter with friends, and after a glorious morning at ski school, I had to pole myself down the hill in slushy snow, nearly fainted, and ended up being taken down the mountain in a first aid toboggan by a cute but scornful ski patrol guy.

But now, in better shape than before, and with a group of friends determined to drag my ass to Big Bear, I went to snowboard classes at Snow Summit. It's good to stretch your limits, to try new things, to be uncomfortable for a while as you head into new territory. I coasted down the bunny slope with one foot in the bindings with relative ease. Sebastian, our instructor with a rubbery French accent, viewed me with approval as I turned and stopped both heelside and toeside without falling. Sure, I fell a few other times, but I was beginning to see how this could be fun. It wasn't that hard! I could do this! Tired, but satisfied, I boarded down the little hill, then walked back up it many times, dragging the snowboard with my left, weaker foot, breathing hard, feeling good.

Then Sebastian told us it was time to get on the chair lift. Uh -- what? You mean, now that I'm tired and cold and am just getting the hang of this thing, you want me to go up to the top of a more difficult slope and learn a new way of getting down the hill? My instincts told me no. Time to rest now, Nina. Time for hot chocolate and getting out of these wet things and then maybe a nap.

But I caved to the peer pressure and went. The chair lift wasn't too difficult to manage, fortunately. I have no fear of heights, and I coasted off it relatively unscathed to enjoy a breathtaking view of Big Bear Lake.

It was, literally, all downhill from there.

A hundred yards of groomed snow stretch down toward the bunny slope. Children as young as two zoomed past us, their parents shushing in front of them yelling out "Pizza, pizza!" The parents probably thought they were helping their kids keep their skis in the proper pizza slice form for beginners. But I know in my heart that this really worked as a sort of carrot dangling before the face of the donkey -- an incentive to get down the hill in one piece so that you can enjoy your pizza later, preferably while wearing jammie pants and sipping single malt scotch before a roaring fire.

Sebastian decided now was the time to show us a new way to go down the hill. Put both feet in the bindings and then face downhill in a sort of falling leaf back and forth motion. For me, alas, the phrase "falling leaf" was all to apt. I proceeded to fall all the way down the mountain. Not all at once in some long, glorious tumble, of course. No. I'd almost stand and coast for five feet, then I'd fall. Then halfway up, slip, slide -- woah! Smack! Grab snowboard with one hand, push up with the other, keep knees bent, don't lean, back straight, look up, push up, harder, I've got it! Slip, slide, lean -- woah -- smack.

And so on. Sebastian tried to encourage me. But I think he secretly despised me. How could he not? He of the easy swooshing motion, like a snow-dolphin, cresting hills and crevasses with ease born of long practice and powerful quads. I was more of a snow-flounder. My arms began to tremble. Not from cold, but from weariness at pushing myself up from prone over and over and over again. Snowboarding, I realized, was a very expensive way to fall down a lot. I had become the female Sisyphus. Instead of pushing the rock eternally up the hill, I was falling eternally down one. Just call me Sisypha -- emphasis on the sissy. I encouraged Sebastian to abandon me, and eventually he did. Sisypha had to face her burden alone, where no one could see her tears as she fell, once again, on her unhappy tailbone.

I took my feet out of the bindings and walked the rest of the way down to greet my friends. They all assured me this was a typical first day of snowboarding. I rallied, assured them I would try again -- that I had gotten too tired and that the beginning had been fun. But as I got colder and later viewed the deep black bruises on my knees and elbows, I had trouble remembering my early success.

We drove down the mountain as the sun set spectacularly into the clouds. I had tried something new. I had endured. I'd eaten delicious Porto's Cuban pastries on the way up, listening to Ricky Gervais' hilarious podcasts on Frank's Ipod. I'd watched Frank, Rod, and Maritza shush happily down the hill and had shushed, sort of, myself for awhile. The day itself was a success. But should I spend the money to try snowboarding again? Still I am not sure. Let me put on my jammie pants, sip my scotch and ponder. I'll get back to you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Size Does Matter

From Yahoo News: A research team lead by Syracuse University biologist Scot Pitnick, pictured in Syracuse, NY, Monday, Jan. 9, 2006, found that in bat species where the females are promiscuous, the males boasting the largest testicles also had the smallest brains. Conversely, where the females were faithful, the males had smaller testes and larger brains. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli).

According to William Saletan on www. Slate.com: "Reason for big testicles: If a female is taking sperm from you and another guy, the best way to pass on your genes instead of his is to deliver more sperm. (This is why chimps have testicles "many times larger than those of gorillas.") Reason for small brains: Male bats that spent their energy making sperm beat out the ones that spent their energy thinking. Researchers' conclusion: "Size does matter."

My personal take on this news: How empowering is it for those female bats knowing that their level of promiscuity can affect the size of the male brain and balls? They really have got them by the 'nads, don't they?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Glamorous Life

Those who only know me as somewhat decorous (*cough*) may be shocked by this post. But I feel the need to rant. I will reveal here that for a time I considered starting up a magazine entitled Squalor as an antidote to women's magazines like Glamour. I read these magazines regularly, and yet after I'm done I feel empty, as if I shall never have the right make-up, be fashionable, thin enough, or have slept with the proper number of men.

Squalor would contain articles on what it's really like to be a woman in this world -- instead of "Ten Ways to Please Him in Bed," the lead article might be entitled "Ten Ways to Make him Wear a Condom" or "Best Sex Positions for When Your Bladder is Full." (Keep in mind that freelance writers would be employed for some of these articles -- contrary to popular opinion, my knowledge does not extend in every direction.) Fashion articles would address the ridiculousness of gaucho pants, the color yellow, and plastic surgery while showcasing size-14 models in the comfiest of 'jammie pants. Instead of featuring the latest bridal wear or instructions on how to find "couple" time with your man, we'd show tips on hosting a "Yay -- I'm Divorced!" party (Hallmark take note -- this is an unexplored area for greeting cards) and how to send the right "kiss-off" email to that creepy guy you met on Match.com who won't stop wooing.

Yes, this is how my brain works. I'm not proud of it. Get used to it.

Come to think of it, we could expand Squalor to include the real lives that men lead in America. Look out Maxim! Surely not all men obsess about breast size, Armani suits, and "How to Persuade Your Girlfriend to Get a Brazilian Bikini Wax." Got an idea for Squalor? Post a comment or email it my way.

Lions and Tigers and...

I couldn't resist one more image from the cave in Chauvet, France. Spectacular, isn't it? As you may recall from previous my ramblings, this image was drawn on a cave wall using red ochre about 32,000 years ago. That subtle shading at the neck, snout, and forehead -- it's all deliberately done, folks.
Da Vinci would have been proud to have produced such a drawing. The cave itself was occupied by many generations of cave bears -- creatures much larger than the grizzlies of today. The floor of the cave is littered with their bones, and the cave explorers found one bear skull placed on top of a rock. Nobody knows why.

I'm also using this post to announce that I'm going to try to use a LARGER font from now on for this blog, due to special request from a devoted reader. I love Blogger, the free service which allows for this blog, but I can't figure out how to get the font to default to a larger typeface, so I'm going to have to manually do it for each post. Feel free to remind me if I forget!

I also have yet to figure out how to get photos to post in the middle of a posting. That's why the photos are all at the beginning of each post. One day I'll master this thingummy -- and then I shall rule the world!

Intelligently Designed Hilarity

That Jesus, he was a pretty cool guy. Not convinced? Listen to Rowan Atkinson reading from the Bible:


Monday, January 23, 2006

The Feline Helmet of Death

A simple orange becomes a noble helmet for Boone. Check out the genesis of this creation at: http://penguinx.org/?p=31

Don't you wish oranges were bigger so you could have one too?

The Dawn of Humanity

What makes us human?

Anatomically modern humans evolved some 130,000 years ago, but it wasn't until about 32,000 years ago that an explosion of art and culture appears in the archaeological record. Take a look at the images above -- they were inscribed on the walls of a cave in Chauvet, France 32,000 BP (Before Present). Can anyone look at these astonishing images and not feel an immediate connection -- not only to the humans that drew them in ancient times, but to all of humanity?

The hand, at top, is the product of one of the first spray-painters. Red paint was held in the mouth, the hand placed on the rock, and then the paint spat in a spray all around the hand to leave an unmistakably personal image. Given the various sizes and shapes of the hands depicted at Chauvet, anthropologists have concluded that women and adolescents probably participated in this as well. But why? Looking at this, we recognize the impulse to draw as one we all share. Was the hand a personal statement by an individual, what we would consider an artist, implanting his individual stamp on the cave? Or did it have some greater metaphorical meaning? Was it part of a ritual, a magical invocation, a shamanistic tradition? The latter explanation is lately the most popular amongst experts in cave art, but part of the allure of these images is their mystery. Sometimes the cave artists put red paint on the palms of their hands, then stamped multiple red dots in a pattern we can now recognize as a rhinoceros, or an antelope. These pointilists predate Seurat by over 30,000 years.

The second image is of a horse. Yes, it's probably just one horse. Our modern eyes see this superposition as an attempt to depict depth, but anthropolists have begun to think that this is in fact the movement of a horse through time. The image at lower right is the horse as youngster, growing older with each successive depiction. A similar idea occurs in the third photo with the rhinocerous on the middle right. It looks as if the artist may have drawn him and his horn many times, perhaps trying to get it right. But in fact, this is no drawn-over sketch. The artist decided to show the rhino's movement of his horn, perhaps scraping it against a tree or battling some other, undrawn beast.

Also remarkable is the plentiful depiction of predators like the lions shown in the third picture. Before the discovery of the Chauvet Cave in 1994, few dangerous animals like this were known to have been inscribed. From archaeological evidence, we know that early humans did not hunt lions (no feline bones found amongst their hearths or used for tools or artifacts), so this panel of huge cats came as quite a surprise to the experts who first viewed it. These lions have helped trample the popular notion that these cave paintings were intended for use as some sort of magical invocation for the hunt. In fact, few hunting scenes are shown in cave paintings all over the world. And in prehistoric Europe, from 32,000BP to 12,000BP, few human figures of any kind have been found. The closest we get to them are a handful of so-called "Venus" figurines (women, often pregnant), depictions of male and female genitalia, and the hands, as in the first photo here.

So why were these paintings made? Did the painters of that era have a concept of "art" such as we understand it? Studies of more so-called primitive peoples, like the Inuit in Alaska and the aborigines of Australia, suggest that we cannot impose our own modern reasons for image-making upon these ancient drawings. The Inuit, for example, can recognize an image no matter how it's oriented -- they have no concept of it being "right side up." When they draw, they often depict events happening all at once -- events that, in real life, occur in succession. Space and time, as they see it, are not compartmentalized, linear, or separate. How different, then must've been the thinking of the artists of Chauvet and more recent caves like Lascaux and Altamira (around 15,000 BP) even from the Inuit and aborigines.

And yet -- how human these paintings are. Whatever their pupose, we can recognize in them immediately our common heritage. The desire for image, story, and metaphor is one we all know. Although homo sapiens were anatomically modern long before Chauvet, it is here, I think, that true humanity begins.

Visit the cave at http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/chauvet/en/

Friday, January 20, 2006

Every Day

Tom Judd is an artist who decided to draw a page every day for a whole year. The results are on his website, http://www.tomjuddseveryday.com/, and they are pretty spectacular. A quote from him:

"365 PAGES AGO I HAD A VERY SILLY IDEA. Draw a page everyday for one year. Each day I spent around 1 hour on the page, sometimes more, sometimes less. There was never any planning or preparation, I would just go at it whenever I had a spare moment in my day and had something I needed to write or draw. Some of the drawings are observational and some are just plain weird. Monsters and things seem to crop up a lot (robots too). I have no explanation for this and don't really care because its my book and I drew what ever I wanted on that particular day. Anyway, all 365 pages are on this site so feel free to have a good poke around. Let me know what you think and feel free to ask any questions. I'm going to sleep for a bit. Bye now - Tom Judd"

Excellent inpiration for artists looking to get their creative juices flowing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Avian Calligraphy

From the Dept. of Isn't Nature Wonderful - a flock of starlings swirls in the sky above Algiers.

--Photo from A.P.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Trapped in the Closet

I had the most hilarious Saturday night in a long time, thanks to my friend Valerie. It's difficult to explain, but I'm gonna give it a try.

It seems that R. Kelly, the rapper whom I think is still charged with having sex with a minor, is in the process of making his magnum opus, a multi-chapter "hip-hopera." You can buy the first twelve chapters on DVD on Amazon.com, and word is that Mr. Kelly has agreed to make at least 30 more! Here's the cover of the DVD to inspire you...

Two comedians, Aziz Ansari and Paul Scheer (from VH1's "Best Week Ever"), hosted a theatrical event at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood. They held a deeply ironic symposium during which they and several other "experts" deconstructed and celebrated Mr. Kelly's video achievement. Symbolism was discussed, names such as Austen, Shakespeare, and Rosa Parks were bandied about. Two actors from the video showed up, and the producer spoke to us from the audience. All of this helped us understand and appreciate a saga in which a Midget named Big Man shits his pants. And that's just for starters. You haven't seen acting until you've witnessed R. Kelly wrinkling his nose, gun in hand, looking for the source of the stink after Big Man lets loose. We only hear Mr. Kelly's voice throughout, rapping the story, in a singsongy, repetitive "melody," but the actors on screen lipsync their dialogue.

And such dialogue! Memorable lines such as "I'm gonna heat up this chicken" and "I am that ho" still ring in my ears and give me food for thought. The plot involves R, in his persona of "Sylvester" waking up in the bed of a woman not his wife. Her husband comes home, and Sylvester must hide in the titular closet. But the real shocks are yet to come! The husband turns out to have a male lover, and when Sylvester returns to his own home, he uncovers his woman's infidelity with a cop -- the very cop that just pulled him over to give him a ticket! Heated arguments and injured feelings lead to much pulling out of guns and brandishing of spatulas. The cop, played by the gifted actor Michael Kenneth Williams of HBO's "The Wire" (what the hell is he doing in this thing? Can't he get a better job??) returns home to find his wife Bridget preparing a cherry pie. There's a piece of pie missing -- but Bridget is allergic to cherries! The cop furiously searches every drawer and cupboard, only to find the aforementioned midget (note how that rhymes with Bridget!) whom Bridget has apparently hired to service her in his absence.

We the audience got to watch chapters 6 - 12 on a big screen. After each chapter, the DVD was paused to allow scholarly discussion and questions from the audience. "Experts" (really actors, including the guy who plays Jim on "The Office") discussed their experiences behind the scenes, waxed poetic on the symbolism of shitting oneself, and found deep political implications in the cherry pie, which is clearly a comment on abortion.

I urge you all to take a look at "Trapped in the Closet" if you need a good, hard laugh. It's a seminal work of American genius!

Friday, January 13, 2006

You've got Great Expectations!

Okay, so the title of this post is a quote from a KISS song, "Great Expectations." My guess is that Gene Simmons got the idea from Charles Dickens' wonderful novel, but his conception of "expectations" is a tad different from the author's.

I'm finally reading this entire book, and I love it. Maybe I'm identifying too much with the protagonist, Pip, a young insecure man who finds himself in love with a cold woman who makes him miserable. Hmm. Pip grows up poor, raised by his grim older sister, Mrs. Joe, and her loving, underappreciated husband, Joe. In the justly famous first chapter, Pip visits the graves of his parents, only to be violently threatened by a convict, who has escaped from a prison ship in the bay nearby despite the leg irons that bind his feet. The convict, whom we learn later is named Magwitch, literally shakes Pip into promising to bring him food and a file. Dickens really knows how to start things off with a bang.

Pip helps Magwitch with a stolen pie and a file from Joe's smithy, only to see the man recaptured and taken back to the prison ship. That, he supposes, is that last he'll ever see of the man, and he tells no one how he took pity on a convict.

The wealthy neighborhood eccentric, Miss Havisham, asks to have Pip come visit her every week, and here we meet one of the craziest women ever to inhabit a book. Many who have never read Dickens still nod in recognition when you describe Miss Havisham. Miss H was abandoned by her fiance on the day of her wedding, so she has kept her house exactly as it was at the very moment of her humiliation. She wears nothing but her yellowed wedding dress, and gets her exercise only by walking around her drawing room, arm in arm with Pip, or by training her young ward Estella to break men's hearts. Thus she hopes she will gain revenge on all men. Poor Pip is the young man Miss H uses as a subject for Estella's tutelage. From the first he is entranced by Estella, who, although beautiful, is a consummate snob. When she insults his big, dirty boots, Pip conceives a sudden and almost debilitating hatred for himself and his poor upbringing.

Years pass, and Pip's obsession with Estella only grows with her beauty and her disdain. Mrs. Joe suffers a mysterious attack and needs constant care, bringing the warm-hearted Biddy into Pip's life. Biddy may love Pip. I'm not sure yet. Dickens excels at subtext, even as the text itself gives you an almost cinematic feel for the setting and characters. But Biddy also knows Pip better than Pip himself. She sees his yearning for a life above his station, and she knows she can never fit into his life so long as he wants the unobtainable Estella.

Then the bombshell falls -- Pip inherits a huge sum of money from a benefactor who insists on remaining anonymous. Famous attorney Mr. Jaggers is to administrate, and Jaggers and his assistant, Wemmick, are intricate characters who, along with Biddy and Joe, are also deeply good at heart. Part of my fascination for this book lies in how Dickens makes the good characters so complex and fascinating. Wemmick, for example, so scrupulously divides his life between business and personal such that he will offer Pip only the most pragmatic advice while in his office, but once at home with his deaf father, affectionately referred to as the Aged, he helps Pip as only the best of friends could.

Pip begins a rich life without real purpose once the money rolls in. His obsession with Estella grows all the more pronounced when she reappears all grown up and more beautiful than ever. Yet he remains forever miserable in her company. She treats him with nothing but coolness and distance, and yet his greatest wish is to marry her and forever subject himself to her. When I saw the movie version of this book, directed by David Lean, this was the part of the story I found most unbelievable -- and this in a book full of strange twists of fate! But reading brings a quite different perspective, as do life lessons, and I can see now just how a person like Pip could hang onto the very thing that makes him miserable as if it were the most important thing in the world. Dickens demonstrates an extraordinary understanding of psychology -- how insecurity and self hatred can lead to co-dependence. If we feel worthless enough we will go to any lengths to help and hang onto the person whose terrible treatment cripples us even further.

On top of all this, Dickens is downright funny. His sense of the absurd is acute. Here's a quote about Pip's sister and abusive caretaker:

"Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and some people do the same by their religion."

Notice Dickens does not condemn all relgious folks -- just those whose grim obsession make their beliefs untenable to the rest of us.

I'm about to hit a major plot twist in this saga, wherein, I believe, Pip discovers that it wasn't Miss Havisham who gave him his "great expectations" at all. His benefactor is instead... Magwitch, the convict he helped when he was a lad, the very sort of man the now snobby Pip would be most ashamed of associating with. It's a delicious turn of events. I wish I didn't have plans tonight so I could really dig in as soon as possible.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Painting Egypt by the Numbers

Last Saturday, with much help and encouragement from my intrepid friend Valerie, I pulled up the ratty old carpet in my bedroom to reveal the lovely hardwood floors beneath. And now I want to make my bedroom even prettier, so I'm pretty set on painting it. Maybe even new curtains!

The problem with paint, of course, is -- what color? I like warm colors and greens, with occasional bits of blue. But which exact shade? After trips to Home Depot and OSH to look at gajillions of paint chips, I felt a bit overwhelmed. I'm scared of dark colors -- I've seen some walls done in darker colors that I just hated, and I didn't want to inflict that on myself. But all the pale, pastel colors just weren't cutting it -- too timid, too "almost there." Why not just go with off-white at that rate and be done with it?

So I went back to look at a place I've long been obsessed with -- Egypt. I loved the colors there. My photos of the Nile during our cruise are all of dark green river, brighter green fields, orangey gold clifffs, and blue sky, with the occasional fishing boat, irrigation ditch or water bird to break the monotony. The cliffs there are the same color as the temples. Makes sense. The temple stones were quarried from them thousands of years ago. That rosy limestone color just might be perfect for my walls.

I was worried that it might seem too girly. Then a male friend pointed out that I am indeed a girl and that this is my bedroom. What better place to be girly? It's a lesson in trusting yourself, this whole paint selection process.

So, thanks to the Sherwin-Williams paint selector online, I've started to narrow it down to a skin toned orange-gold. Should I go as dark as Autumnal, or be a tad lighter with Chivalry Copper? More yellow with Viva Gold? Darker with Bakelite Gold? Is it terrible of me to say that the names of the colors are part of their appeal? I'm so awfully word-oriented. (Is there a word for "word-oriented"?) I'm more likely to want to paint my walls a color called Autumnal than Blonde, for example. Unless Blonde was perfect. Which it isn't.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Saleh saleh!

Floating in a balloon is the closest I've ever come to what it must be like to be a bird relaxing on an updraft. To float above the Nile at dawn like an ibis was one of the highlights of my life.

I began this story two posts ago, so scroll down if you haven't read the beginning yet. Just getting to the balloon was an adventure in itself. And then, there we were, wafting gently over foggy fields, headed east and south -- toward the Nile and, eventually, Aswan. The sun rose over Luxor, beginning to banish the morning mist, pushing the color of the cliffs from rose to sunbaked yelllow.

We didn't quite go as far as Aswan, thank goodness. But after we crossed the river, the wind continued to take us south, away from where we had boarded the balloon, and quite far from where we were supposed to meet out tour group -- at the Colossi of Memnon (aka Amenhotep III) in little more than half an hour. Below us lay nothing but fields, sprinkled with the occasional donkey, farmer, hut, or child. It was in intimate way to fly, pressed butt to butt with your fellow passengers, and close enough to the earth to smell the cookfires where women were baking bread for the morning meal. No one spoke, and you could hear a donkey below stamp his foot, or a son call to his father in high pitched Arabic.

Twice our barrel chested Captain asked in stentorian tones: "Everybody having a good time?"

We all nodded reverently, murmuring, "Yes, yes."

He nodded in return, said: "Anybody not having a good time can get out!" After a moment to make sure we'd heard correctly, we all laughed. Then silence fell again, and a hawk drifted past. If the balloon dipped down, the captain would tug on a metal pulley and flames would shoot up with a ferocious whoosh, toward the center of the balloon, heating the air and my hair enough to lift us again.

Eventually the peace and quiet gave way to a smidge of concern. We drifted for 45 minutes in seeming random directions. Where were we going? Weren't we supposed to be heading toward a landing field or something? How would we get back to our tour? Would anyone ever find us in this maze of fields and ditches?

The captain also spoke in Arabic occasionally, and I finally saw that he was talking into a handheld radio of some kind. We floated downward, and he did not bother to heat the balloon's air. I looked where we were heading, a road, a field, a hut, another field. Um, was that where we were going to cra--land? More furious commands from the captain into the radio, and then I saw a white van racing along a road toward us. We were dipping quite low now. We barely skirted some trees, and then a dwelling loomed. The captain quickly let loose with the flames, and we drifted lazily upward. The dwelling got closer, and still we didn't have the height to pass over it. Another spurt of fire, more silent wafting up, and we made it over the hut, only to then slope preciptously down, toward the field. We were still skating along at a good pace, the ground less than a man's height below us.

"Crash positions! Down!" commanded the Captain.

But if I obeyed and crouched I'd have to stop looking at the ground. Some part of me reasoned that I had to keep an eye on the earth, or it might rush up too fast and kill me. "DOWN!" shouted the Captain with finality, and down we all went.

Bam! We hit the ground and dragged along for a few yards. A sudden sharp smell of onions announced the type of field we'd encountered. Another bump, then up again. Then down, and lots of dragging. The two balloon men in the basket next to me were up and out on the ground even as I tried to get up. "Down!" insisted the captain. Down I squatted as more anonymous bumping and dragging occurred beneath my feet.

And there we were, safely down in an onion field south of Luxor. The white van was pulling up on a nearby road, and six or seven men in white shirts ran out of it, yelling instructions at each other. Several of them helped us out of the basket while the rest gathered below the fabric of the balloon, which now streamed out behind the basket, lowering itself toward the onions. Several Egyptian men in long white galabiyah ran up, smiling and waving. Boys came over at speed from another house, jumping up and down with excitement as the big green and yellow balloon collapsed and all its hot air finally escaped to join the Egyptian day.

The men in white shirts were all smiling and shouting with joy. They took our hands and began singing and clapping. "It is a song of thankfulness to Allah for a safe landing," said one of them to me. "We have always sung it, and we have always had safe landings." We did our best to join in, and the boys sang too. A man in western dress with a big frown on his face picked his way over the onions to yell at the captain. Wendy and I speculated that he was the owner of the field, unhappy at the balloon-damaged furrows in his crop. The captain just waved at him and said a few choice words (in Arabic, alas) and the man subsided, quashed but still unhappy.

In just a few moments the huge expanse of fabric that made up our balloon was laid out, folded, and gathered, and we were ushered toward the (very small) white van, which would take us back to our tour. We waved our thanks to the men in white shirts, and the captain ordered us "Inside, inside!" We sat on hard wood benches, facing each other, while he took up the back fender and the van lurched forward.

"Now, we sing," said the Captain in a tone that brooked no contradiction. "I will sing (insert Arabic phrase here) and then you sing: Saleh, saleh! Right! Ready?"

We exchanged looks, dipped our heads uncertainly. And the captain began to sing. He shouted out his phrase, then looked daggers at us. I sort of mouthed "Saleh, saleh" along with maybe one other person, and the Captain's brows drew together in fearsome disappointment.

"You sing!" He ordered. Again, he chanted his phrase.

"Saleh, saleh," we sang back obediantly, a little louder this time.

"More!" He belowed. "Sing!" He sang out his phrase. Oh, I wish I could remember it. And this time we all sang out in response, full and unashamed -- "Saleh saleh!"

"Good!" he said. He sang another phrase. "Saleh, saleh!" we chanted back, as the white van wended its way along a dirt road. The captain sat on the back fender and sang at the top of his lungs to the villagers as we passed their shacks. We sang back as chickens scurried from the dust-spitting wheels, and children leading oxen looked back at us, puzzled.

Apparently the Captain had chosen a song that can go on as long as you like, because he kept coming up with new phrases, and our response of "Saleh saleh" was always appropriate. The white van came to a halt as we finished the final "saleh," and I saw the Colossi of Memnon, familiar from so many photographs and even "Ozymandias" standing alone in front of an empty field where once a mighty temple had stood.

The Captain vacated the back fender of the van, and we piled out into the parking lot near the Colossi. The sun was now at a mid-morning height. The fog had dispersed.

The Captain lit a cigarette and stared out at the as-yet unexcavated remains of Amenhotep III's vast temple. Little of it is visible these days except for the eroded giant statues, which are said to whistle strangely sometimes in the desert wind. I wondered what the Captain was thinking. Did he long to see the ancient treasures no doubt still buried there? Or did the ruins, familiar from years of airborne viewing, hold no mystery? From his balloon had he spotted many such likely sites, too many perhaps to ever be thoroughly explored?

Wendy and I and all the others nodded to him as we began to head toward our tour bus, which loitered nearby. I think it was Wendy who said "Thank you, that was wonderful," in a polite and slightly awestruck tone.

"In'shallah," he said, breathing smoke and gesturing, I fancied, toward the Colossi and the golden hills beyond. It was the traditional Egyptian greeting/farewell/welcome/comment on life, meaning "if god wills."

Then he sat back down on the back fender of the van, shouted something to the driver, and they disappeared in a cloud of dust.

The Basket

Here's the basket beneath our beautiful, our beautiful ballooooooon!

Note the red balloon invading some other lucky farmer's field in the background. Also note the man in the dark blue jacket sliding into the basket with his left hand holding the upper frame. That was our captain.

This inital group of passengers got out here, then it was our turn.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Bouyant New Year

I just had to include a shot from that hot air balloon ride over the Nile. An incredible highlight of our trip to Egypt.

We got up at the crack of dawn and took a boat from Luxor across the river to the West Bank. Tea and biscuits (Brit for cookies) waited there for us. Winter in Egypt, so it was just a tad nippy with the promise of heat to come, and as the sun rose behind us the gray fog that hovered over the green fields began to turn rosy. Above us flew two, three, four brightly colored hot air balloons. Off the boat, full of warm tea, and an Egyptian man hustled us into a white van. Through the windows we spotted a green and yellow floating bauble headed back to earth. Our van screeched through dirt road villages, dodging goats and donkeys, turning first one way then backing up and trying another. We rode past irrigation ditches, families huddled around open air breakfast fires, children waving or herding geese toward murky ponds. In the distance loomed the pink cliffs of the Valley of the Kings. Our driver spoke vehemently into a radio, arguing in Arabic, and we began to wonder -- were we lost?

At last the houses opened up to show the green and yellow balloon just alighting at the edge of a field. About ten dark-haired men in white shirts were hauling on the wicker basket that held about 15 people, dragging it back to earth. The basket disgorged its passengers, and the balloon men (apologies to ee cummings) hauled us over the high wicker ledge and into the container, still bouncing slightly beneath the billowing striped canvas above.

"We show you the crash positions!" Shouted our captain, a tall mustachioed man of deep chest and commanding air. "When we land -- you get down..." he crouched, his hands clutching the edge of the basket. "Practice now. When I say -- Down!"

We crouched. My head went below the edge of the basket and I stared at the thick brown weave of wicker. Behind me, Wendy did the same. "Crash positions?" I whispered to her.

"You do this when we land, or if we crash, whichever happen first!" said our Captain vigorously. Then he let loose a stream of Arabic, aimed at the men in white shirts who surrounded the basket, holding onto its ropes to keep it grounded. Above us, the balloon tugged upward. Just above my head a large metal container 'whooshed' and a sudden jet of flame warmed the top of my hair. The men on the ground strained up on their tippy toes like gymnasts about to dismount. Two of them leapt into the basket, and then the rest -- let go.

There was no sensation of lifting off. Instead, as I looked down, the ground just dropped away. In utter silence we rose above the rosy mist. The family, in whose field we had been, waved up at us, and we drifted south.

To be continued -- wherein I describe how we crash. And we sing.

Hello 2006!

I looked for a positive image to start off the New Year, and I came up with quite a few. I have all these great shots of me with friends, me with family, me actually on a surfboard (instead of falling off), me with cats, me at my favorite beach, and on and on. I thought about a generic shot without me in it to symbolically sum up my hopes for the coming year. But I chose these because going to Egypt has always been a dream of mine. And inspite of many difficulties just before and during the trip, including illness and emotional crises, I made that dream come true.

I've been inside a pyramid! I wandered through a pharoah's rock cut tomb and I floated over the Nile in a hot air balloon. With help from my generous travel companion Wendy, I made my dream happen. I truly hope that in 2006 I can make a few more lifelong ambitions come to pass.