Sunday, September 16, 2007

Take a Balloon to Mars (Turkey)

The peaceful darkness of the cave hotel was broken by the harsh sounds of the alarm, beckoning me to rise from my deep slumber. My eyes opened but were unable to see anything until I stumbled to the lights in the bathroom. At 5:00am, I waited in the coolness of the early morning when the first call to prayer began at a nearby mosque. The echoed tune had an eerie tone as it bounced off the rock faces around me. I arrived at the lift off area and noticed the blackness towards the east starting to transform into pinks and purples. Multicolored balloons quickly followed the path from infancy to full-blown adulthood as their bellies filled with hot air. Our balloon floated just above our heads, yet lacked the strength to lift all 14 passengers. The pilot unleashed six-foot flames from the nozzles in the center of the balloon in order to heat the air and yet the sphere seemed determined to stay earthbound. Finally, the balloon relented and we traveled mere inches above the dewed-covered soil. Inches turned into feet and feet turned into yards and yards compounded so much so that the cars below turned into the Hot Wheels of my childhood.

We were airborne over 2,000 feet above the Martian landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey. Below I could see the Fairy Houses with their teepees casting strange shadows in the early morning light. Our pilot descended deep into a canyon and we passed numerous Pigeon houses that had been hollowed out long ago to facilitate the collection of
“natural fertilizer.” Thousands of years ago, a huge volcanic explosion endowed the area of Cappadocia with the necessary volcanic ash required to form the most unique rock formations I have ever witnessed. The shapes seemed to have been a gift from God, immune from the forces of nature. How could erosion create such masterpieces?

After an hour and a half of exploring the bizarre Turkish landscape, our pilot initiated the balloon landing procedure, which simply consisted of gliding along in the wind until a suitable flat area was found. Unfortunately, the wind did not want to cooperate and our gliding turned to crawling. Now that it was airborne, the balloon no longer wanted to return to Earth. Finally, we found a suitable spot in a farmer’s field just outside of Göreme. The pilot dropped a line and several workers from the tour company dragged us to an open area. We slowly descended, yards turning into feet and feet turning into inches. I was selected to join the crew and help tame the balloon. We lifted it unto a trailer and joined the passengers in the basket as they tried to force one particularly stubborn corner into place. With the basket secured, our next step was to pull down the proud balloon. We grabbed a rope that connected to the top of the balloon and pulled. The balloon fought back but without the continued supply of hot air that formed its lifeblood, the sphere could only postpone the inevitable. With all passengers on firm ground, we toasted our flight over the Martian land with glasses of champagne.

Joel Montgomery

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