Sheila Kumar goes hot-air-ballooning in Cappadocia with a question on her lips.
It had rained, the night before. And so, some of us go to bed with a silent plea in our hearts. Those pleas are heard; at 4.30 the next morning, the pre-dawn sky is a clear one.
I have signed up for a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey. This is a weak giving-in to people who'd been there, done that and raved about the experience. But, and this is a big but, there was a question uppermost in my mind. Was it safe?
I am determined to ask this pertinent Q before I set foot in the balloon. Well, we are picked up at our hotel by a brisk-mannered outdoors type who has little English beyond “Ready? Good. Come.” So I don't ask him.
Rendezvous point is at the site and it made for a sight indeed: Many large, limp balloons lying in silken piles on their sides, a mass of beige, yellow, red, blue, silver. While we sip strong Turkish coffee (talk about wake-up java!) and the ones with stronger stomachs than mine swallow down scones and rolls without a qualm, I walk up to one of the company's reps. “Is it er, safe?” I ask, in a carefully casual tone. “Ne,” he replies. I flinch. At which point, in a noisy whoosh, most of the balloons become fully inflated and slowly, gracefully, rise to an upright position. “Ne means ‘what' in Turkish,” says a man standing by. The “Ne-man” then gives me full passenger liability insurance papers to sign. He also lets loose a torrent of Turkish at me. My translation: This is just for form's sake, you know. I smile weakly.
Filling the basket
Coffee break over, we are helped in batches into the four-ft-high baskets. This is quite like slotting spoons and forks and knives into a compartmentalised cutlery basket, a pair to one slot, three in another, and so on. Two crew members (pilots?) clamber into their compartment, wish us a cheery morning and start to prepare for lift-off.
The ascension is gradual, smooth as silk. Cappadocia's handful of hot-air-balloon companies go about their business in the most efficiently brisk manner possible. More than 30 balloons are sent up at the same time. As dawn breaks over the not-so-distant mountain range, the sky fills with beautiful colour, the many shades and hues of the hot air balloons. It is a curiously silent drift; there is no real sense that we are moving. As the air inside the balloon heats up with the help of the powerful burners, the balloon ascends, descends, moves in the airstream. But I have not forgotten. Even as I catch one pilot's eye, he smiles affably and asks me: “Do you know what this balloon is called?” I shake my head and he continues, “Titanic.”
Cappadocia lies in the central part of Turkey, in the Anatolian district. Three million years ago, when Mt. Erciyes and Mt. Hassan erupted, the plateaus in the vicinity were covered with a soft porous stone known as “tufa”. The elements then eroded and shaped the rock into dusty pink, dull yellow and deep brown “fairy chimneys”, most of them shaped like an elf's hat.
The early Christians, fleeing their Roman persecutors, carved out troglodyte dwellings in these rock formations; their fascinating underground cities have rooms cut out for granary, stable, sleeping chamber, kitchen. Today, many cave chapels and monasteries dot the region, some with the remnants of beautiful paintings done on ceiling and walls. In some of these churches, the frescoes done in later years have fallen off, revealing the earlier paintings beneath.
Up in the air, we drift over the Dervent valley, the Open Air Museum at Goreme, over deep canyons, down low over the cone formations at Cavusin. Then we swoop low over apricot orchards, where one of the pilots exhorts us to try our hand at apricot-picking. Not at all interested in any activity that involves bending or leaning too far from my designated spot in the basket, I turn to ask The Q. “Safe?” The man grins. “As safe as anything without a steering device can be.” I'm not sure I have my answer but decide to seek refuge in silence.
Now we are at our highest altitude: 2,000 ft. The conical formations far below really do look like something out of an Enid Blyton fairy tale. Then we drop, slowly, lightly, down to where we can see the flat, lava-covered tables that make up the plateau peaks of these hills.
Perhaps to test my fortitude, the pilots decide to indulge in some daredevilry. We come up dangerously close to the side of a hill and then soar over the crest at the very last minute. We swoop very low over a copse of trees, so low the branches brush the underside of the sturdy basket. All this is done deftly and rewarded by claps every time the balloon clears the “hurdle”.
And then, it's over even before we know it. Trailers are parked across widespread fields and our balloon, as do many other descending balloons, makes an adept landing onto the trailer. We cheer, we are helped off, handed certificates that testify to… what, our intrepid natures? It's time for champagne and cake. All's well that ends well.
But I'm nothing if not persistent. As I leave, I ask the pilot of our now subsided-in-a-sad heap balloon, the Q. “Well,” he says, in faltering English. “If it's in the hands of inexperienced pilots, mishaps can occur.” He talks of punctured hot air balloons, snagged hot air balloons and suchlike. I back off, suddenly glad I did not have this conversation before I climbed aboard.
Then I catch my fellow traveller M's eye. “What a thrill,” she says fervently. I whole-heartedly concur. What a thrill, indeed.