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.