Wednesday, July 28: It’s 4:40 a.m. and someone is pounding on my door. Startled, I jump up, have the fleeting thought that it might be Hakan. But it’s another guy at the hotel now wearing the bright green Brazil World Cup shirt that Cammilla gave to Selim. This shirt is making the rounds. I have 20 minutes to get ready for my balloon ride; I am foggy from being out late the night before, but I’m excited about this. I originally didn’t want to spend the 110 euros; it really isn’t in my budget… 😦 Yet. Too many of my fellow travelers have highly recommended this experience and I cannot ignore the thrill in their eyes. I have never flown in a hot air balloon, and if a person is ever to take one, this is the place to do it. With the lunar landscape of Cappadocia, it will be like flying over the moon.
We arrive at the site and I meet Sylvia from yesterday’s tour and a family from Brunei. These will be my fellow balloon compartment-mates. Sylvia, me, the mother, father and two girls. There are supposed to be 4 people in each of 4 compartments. The middle compartment is for the balloon operator. Because the girls are small, we will have 5. Around 20 people altogether in this wicker basket.
When we arrive, the balloons are lying everywhere, like bloated beached whales that have been painted in rainbow colors. They lie on their sides, bellies up. Men are inside of the balloons, pushing them outwards from within. The fires begin to roar. Fires, blasting and flaming into these balloons, huffing & puffing like dragons. It’s an amazing sight. There are too many of them to count, but we’re told there are nearly 40 balloons altogether.
Finally, the balloons lift off. The hot air is working its magic. They rise slowly and the men turn the wicker baskets from their sides to upright positions. They lift all of us into the baskets as there are no doors. The fire roars over our heads. I instinctively duck and cringe with the sound and heat of the flames. We are airborne. Right away, the operator demonstrates how we need to brace ourselves if we are in for a rough landing. He will tell us if we need to do this when the time is right.
Everyone is silent. The experience of rising, feeling the land pull away, seeing the multitudes of other balloons in the sky, all at different heights, of different colors – it takes my breath away. It takes everyone’s breath away. We are awed into silence. The only sound is the blast of the fire overhead, the rustle of people moving around in the basket to search out the best view.
As we relax into the ride, we make noises, exclamations of wonder. We love the other balloons floating in the sky with us; they’re our companions. Seeing them is the only way we can see ourselves. Below are the white pinnacles of Cappadocia, the fairy chimneys, the pointed volcanic rocks, tufts of greenery.
Sylvia and I have a heart-to-heart as we float for the allotted one hour. Her friend is in another compartment on the balloon. They are keeping distance between them. Sylvia says she can’t wait to return to Brazil just to get away from her friend. Her friend is high maintenance, moody, irritable, difficult to be with. Sylvia says there is always competition between them. I know this from my own women friends of the past. Not so much with my current friends, but with women who are now no longer my friends. Women with whom there is always some kind of tension, some competition. I cannot maintain friendships with these kinds of women, for whom everything is defined by who can one-up the other. I like Sylvia very much and I have met her friend; I can see the difficulty. Sylvia is fun and easy-going. Her friend is uptight and insecure. I can see this and I feel bad that Sylvia’s vacation has been ruined by this relationship. I am relieved once again to be traveling alone.
The balloon operator, who I find out later is Hakan’s cousin, says that in 9 years of operating balloons, he has only landed in the same place 3 times. We will go where the wind carries us and we will land when the air in the balloon is cooled purposefully by him. We dip down into valleys and we rise up to 1000 meters. I never feel afraid of the height, surprisingly, as I am always afraid of heights. For some reason it doesn’t bother me. The only fear I have is of the fire. I keep thinking of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. I think of going up in flames. It’s the fire that scares me. I keep forcing the thought out of my mind, but when the fire roars each time, I cringe with the thought.
We float for a full hour and I take a million pictures, but none of them capture the experience. They don’t even capture the actual view. I wish I had a better camera, maybe with a wide-angle lens. Maybe, I think, it is just impossible to capture these moments with a camera. Any camera. I finally give up and just enjoy.
We watch the sun rise. We watch the other balloons rise and fall, like buoys bobbing in a transparent ocean. One balloon seems to be pinned against one of the pinnacles. Its operator is firing it up; it finally peels away from the rock. In some moments, we feel we can reach down and touch the earth, other times earth is a distant planet. After the full hour, we descend; the Ürgüp guys are below us with their flatbed trailer. The operator tosses over ropes, we float right over a lamppost. The ground crew pulls the ropes, guides the balloon directly onto the flatbed trailer. We don’t even feel a bump as we land. Smoothly done!
They have set up a table with glasses of champagne. We toast each other and the Ürgüp guys. They award us balloon certificates. As we leave, I say, “Thank you so much for giving us that amazing memory!” The operator thanks me for that comment; he says it is really a nice thing to hear.
goodbye to hakan
Back at the hotel, Hakan pulls up in his car with an older woman wearing a headscarf. I am surprised to see him here as I thought he was taking his brother to Istanbul today. I realize then he must be taking him on the overnight bus. I wonder if it will be awkward with him. I become a little nervous wondering how it will be with him this morning.
Immediately, I go to my room and take a long hot bath. After, I sit on the terrace alone; Hakan serves me breakfast. It’s quiet and peaceful and when he’s done, he sits down with me. I show him my balloon pictures. I’m sure he’s seen these same pictures countless times before. But I bore him with them nonetheless and he sweetly and patiently looks through them. Another couple comes up to the terrace and he serves them breakfast. Then he sits down with me again. He tells me again that he hopes I won’t forget him. He wants me to take him to America. He asks when I will come back to Turkey. I say, if I can get a teaching job, it won’t be until August, 2011.
Another couple comes up and I tell them about the balloon ride. I subject them to my pictures. Selim comes up and he and Hakan talk. I realized I’ve exhausted my welcome with this new couple. I can no longer think of a reason to linger on the terrace.
I walk down the stairs. Hakan is suddenly behind me. What will you do now? he asks. I say, I don’t know, go to my room maybe. He follows me inside. Promptly, we immerse ourselves in rearranging everything that belongs to me, to him and to this hotel, and then he carries my belongings, by this time packed tightly into my suitcase, out into the courtyard. I follow behind with my little heart inside of me. He carries my belongings right out the gate and into the waiting shuttle bus, and I climb in and look at him out the window as we drive away. He smiles, but it’s a sad smile, and my smile is sad as well, as we wave and watch and vanish from each other’s sight.
the third day tour ~ ihlara canyon
Today is my 3rd day tour in Cappadocia and since Turista Travel doesn’t really do a third day tour (even though I bought the 3-day tour through them!) I am added to a larger group that Turista contracts with. Our guide for the day is named Sarcun. There are 27 people on this tour and I’m not happy. When I arranged this tour with Turista, I was told each group would be 12-15 people. In addition, the entire morning of this 3rd day involves going back to the same underground city I went to on the first day. We stop at the same Pigeon Valley overlook I went to yesterday. I have no desire to go back to the underground city again, so I sit at a cafe table under an umbrella, where I write frenetically in my journal to capture all the stuff that happened in the last two days. I sip tea and enjoy the time away from the group.
We then go on a 4 km trek through Ihlara Canyon. The cliffs are sheer on either side of us. It is hot, hot, hot, but a stream runs though and every once in a while we can cool our feet. We climb partially up cliff sides to check out countless rock-cut churches, their inner walls covered in faded frescoes. A couple of times, I sit out on a rock while the group explores the cave churches. Sarcun asks if everything is ok, and I say I’m a little churched-out. It is finally starting to wear me down, this tour packed with its many sights and hikes and climbs.
This is the longest and hottest of all the treks, but the scenery is breathtaking. Through most of the day, I talk with a Chinese couple from Toronto, Canada and their college-age daughter. In our group also is a bedraggled gray-haired father with his 12-year-old son. The son keeps whining, Daddy this, Daddy that.
At one point, we come to an area in the stream where there is a small waterfall and flat rocks. People stop to wade in the stream and cool off. The 12-year-old boy slips into the water and gets his shoes wet; immediately he throws a fit, wailing and screaming. A young couple says, Someone is having a meltdown! I reply, I think I’d kill myself if I had a kid like that…. I have three kids and they had meltdowns too, but when they were 2 years old!
We end up in Belisirma Village where we have lunch at an outdoor restaurant. We are packed, those of us who didn’t get lost, around long tables; the air is steamy and close. I order a vegetarian/mushroom casserole that is bubbling hot. It is too hot to eat on a sweltering day such as this. Bees and flies are swarming around and I’m so uncomfortable that I am having a slight panic attack. I eat as quickly as I can and leave the table. Across the stream from the outdoor restaurant is a little cave with some Adirondack chairs. It’s refreshingly cool, so I sit there and look through the pictures on my camera.
After lunch we go to the Selime Cathedrale, the biggest rock-cut monastery of Cappadocia, carved in the 13th century. It sits on an elevated site and is quite overwhelming. After wandering around here for a while, poking into the caves and climbing up steep inclines, we leave and make another stop at a valley like Pigeon Valley (they are all starting to look alike by now!). I am getting really worried as I’m supposed to take another overnight bus tonight to Pamukkale, and we are running late on the tour. Sarcun knows I’m worried so he calls another van to pick me up and take me to the bus station in Goreme. I don’t want to spend another day in Cappadocia because I think I would be bored with nothing to do. Especially since I know Hakan is leaving tonight also on an overnight bus to Istanbul.
another dreaded overnight bus
I hope that maybe, if Hakan arrives early for his 8:00 overnight bus, I might see him at the bus station. My bus leaves at 7:00, but at that time, Hakan is nowhere in sight. I realize it would be difficult to run into anyone here, as it is not a centrally located terminal, but a sprawling array of different bus company offices outdoors. I don’t even know which bus company he will use, and the chances are slim that I would see him anyway. Oh well. I realize I’m sad and disappointed to be leaving him behind. I would have loved to get to know him better.
On the bus, my seatmate is Songul, a Turkish girl who lives and works in Stuttgart, Germany. Songul, she tells me, means “last rose,” but she goes by “Gul.” She’s the youngest in her family, thus the Songul. She really wants to teach in a poor area where good teachers are desperately needed, possibly in eastern Turkey or in other villages throughout her home country. She’s very passionate about her dream, that’s clear.
Her parents also live in Germany but have a home in Cappadocia where they live 4 months out of the year. After we talk and I tell her how much I love Turkey and especially Cappadocia, she says I should come back and stay in her family’s home. She gives me her email address.
The overnight buses are wearing me down, as is the constant touring. I sleep on this bus, which is from 7 pm to 6 am. But, religiously, at every rest area stop, I wake myself up, bleary eyed, and take myself to the bathroom. I never have any idea when we will stop again, so I avail myself of every opportunity. The rest areas are all wall-to-wall buses, people eating at shabby outdoor cafes under fluorescent lights, women in headscarves crowding the bathrooms and wash basins, burly dark Turkish men smoking. Surreal, especially when you wake up, foggy and dim-witted in the dark of the night.