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.