Thursday, November 11, 2010


I got a bit of advice this morning. And it was well timed. It was not anything I had never heard before. Nothing that I don’t already know and most of the time try to adhere to. But sometimes we forget what we know and have to be reminded occasionally. I guess my friend could tell I was pushing the edge as he calmly and quietly, as is his nature, gently suggested to me to simply…. relax. A simple single word spoken sincerely by a concerned friend changed my whole attitude at that very moment. My entire body began to unwind and I could almost feel the ice in my veins start to thaw a bit. Instead of being faced with a day of tension, anger, and stress, I could now see that this day could be saved. All I had to do is, relax. Apparently the power of suggestion took an immediate hold on me and suddenly the day seemed a little brighter. He did not change the circumstances of my stress. He did not “fix” anything at all. But what he did was give me permission to take control and make a choice. And I chose to relax. Simple. My friend also reminded me that most things in life will pretty much work themselves out. And whatever the outcome, all the worry and stress you may throw at any problem usually ends up being wasted.

The source of my stress has been like a bee buzzing around my head for the last few months, never knowing if or when I would get stung. But if you have ever had a bee chasing you, you know the more you swat and run, the more aggressive the bee gets. Sometimes if you just stand still and be quiet, the pesky little varmint will just fly away and go find someone else that is a lot more fun. Easier said than done when you think at any moment you are gonna get popped a time or two by the bee. But in reality, for most of us, the thought of the bee sting is multiplied in our heads so much that sometimes the actual sting is a relief. We can hurt ourselves far more by trying to get away from the bee than taking the hit.

I will spare you the ugly details of what exactly has had me so riled up and ready to throw a bonifide conniption fit. In a few short days it will all be behind me and I will be headed to Louisiana, home, and family. When I leave this place, I hope to take just the good memories with me and there are a ton of them. I’ll take what I learned from the lessons, but not dwell on the lessons themselves. They were just instruments to get my attention and help me learn what I needed to know….for now. I suspect and certainly hope there are many more lessons out there for me to struggle through and eventually learn. I hope I can do myself a really big favor when the new lessons begin. It sure makes them a lot easier to learn when you slow your head down a bit and remember the advice of a good friend and simply….relax.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


What a wonderful gift we have been given in the form of the four seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. Can you imagine if there were only one season all year round? Well if that were the case, then I don’t suppose it would really be a “season” at all would it? It would just be what we have all the time with no other climate to look forward too. Lucky for us that is not the case. I like them all and each has it own effect on me. But it is Fall that I look forward to each year with great anticipation.

There is something about how Fall arrives that captures the imagination. For some it has arrived when the green leaves begin to turn to every shade of browns and reds and yellows that marks it’s arrival. For others, it is the cool morning air that is a welcomed relief from Summer’s miserable heat. For me, Fall has arrived when it is properly announced by the honking gaggling sounds of the first flock of wild geese winging their way to escape the bitter cold of Winter that chases them southward. I’m never really convinced that Fall is among us until I hear the sweet, soft, distant music made by a couple of hundred wild snows, blues, or even Canadian geese as they navigate through the night. For me, it is reassurance that all is right with the world. I find great comfort that these sky travelers have once again navigated their way toward the promise of warmer climate and bountiful food. It is a great reminder that change is a good thing in our lives and it is not only natural, but inevitable.

Unlike Spring that gives us hope for new beginnings, Fall is a time for reflection. It is a time to shed the old leaves of doubt, despair, and uncertainty. As we rid ourselves of these distractions in our lives, Fall allows us to rake them up into a big pile and set fire to them. As the smoke lazily journeys into the sky, it takes with it some of our burdens that have accumulated over the year. As the pile is consumed, we can then happily make room for new dreams and hopes and anticipation of another year. We can choose if we burn a big pile or just a small one, for there is no shortage of these leaves. But we know from our past, if we don’t get them raked, piled, and burned, we will soon be up to our knees in life’s leaves, making it really difficult for us to move forward.

Enjoy this time of year. Take a walk in the woods and quietly observe nature at work. Every living creature is undergoing change and is going about the tasks of preparing for these coming changes. Old burrows are being cleaned of empty shells and unneeded clutter to make room for new stock to insure survival of tougher times ahead. I too, as nature has intended, will take stock of my burrow, clean out the clutter and make room for those things that will help me make it through whatever challenges the next season of my life will bring. I suggest that you pick up your rake and do some cleaning of your own. When you are satisfied you have done all you can do, I encourage you to sit down, relax by the fire, and enjoy this gift called Fall.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Food for Thought...

There is an old saying that states something along the lines of “ being in a foreign country will make you appreciate home”. Whoever said it first knew what they were talking about. I have been in quite a few foreign countries before and have experienced that renewed appreciation every time. But being in Turkey for the last 5 months has redefined the essence of appreciation for the good ole United States of America. I am not saying that Turkey is not a wonderful place to visit, because it certainly is. I have had the privilege of meeting some wonderful people with whom I hope to remain friends with for as long as I live. I have seen and done things here that will remain among the memories that I pull up in my later years when I want to smile and maybe even laugh out loud. But there are some things, that are totally missing or different here that most of us take for granted at home.

Wal-Mart. How many times have you griped and moaned about having to go to the big box store when all you wanted was just a small item like, let’s say shoelaces. My fellow pilot Manie from South Africa and I spent several hours one afternoon looking for new laces for his flying boots. I think he is still looking and in the meantime is relying on the old ones being held together by several small knots. Just little things. Like a spare key for his apartment. You would think that the local hardware store would be just the place….and you would be wrong. Everybody here in the little town of Avanos knows that if you need a spare key, you go to the pharmacy and they will fix you right up. You would also think that a pair of leather gloves, much needed to reduce the calloused pinky epidemic among balloon pilots here in Turkey, would be an easy find at the hardware store. Not only are they not found at the hardware store, they are not found anywhere! As far as I know, along with the other 50 or 60 balloon pilots working here, there is only one place within 50 miles to find a good pair of leather gloves. That would be in the city of Kayseri, but even then that is not a sure thing. Manie and Andy took the time to make the drive one day to pick up some gloves and came back with just some nice memories of a ride to the big city because the gloves were out of stock. If I didn’t say it before, I will mention it now…..a local Wal-Mart would sure come in handy around here.

Back in the summer it was so hot even the critters were looking for some cool place to get out of the heat. Unfortunately, among those looking were some nasty and vicious scorpions. Paco, my upstairs neighbor, like right above my place, can provide the best evidence of this. At last count he has found 6 of the little devils in his apartment. Manie, who lives next to Paco, has only found one, but it was under his pillow! I on the other hand have found none in my place, but I assure you it has not been from lack of trying. It is a complete and very thorough, before bed ritual that I have developed and follow religiously. I may forget to brush my teeth before bed, but I promise you, I will not forget to take my little flashlight and check under the bed, under the pillow, between the sheets, and all adjoining walls before I lay my head down to sleep. You’d think that the hardware store would have just the thing to keep the little buggers outside. Nope, but the pharmacy does. And just for your information, avoiding a sting from the scorpions here is a worthwhile endeavor. My friend Mehmet was not so lucky and was stung on the side of his foot. He missed a few days of work, endured excruciating pain, and his whole foot looked like it was going to fall off from the infection. I’m not saying we don’t have our share of critters that will hurt you back home, because we surely do. But we don’t normally have to do a bed check to make sure they are all still outside.

Living here for the most part by myself has forced me to cook for myself. That in itself is not a problem for me because I kind of enjoy cooking….certain things. I like to make up a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo on a cool Fall day. Well it is very cool here now, (just got the first snow on the mountain this past weekend), no problem finding a chicken, I could pluck one of those right outside my door. But finding pork sausage is an exercise in futility. They do have something here that looks like sausage and I’m sure after an acquired taste, it is probably just fine, but I don’t think it will work in a good Cajun gumbo.

Thanks to a couple of kind souls back home, I have had a good supply of southern grits to give me good nourishment and great comfort. Did you know that a big bowl of grits with lots of butter can be enjoyed at any meal? I know this because I’ve had them for every meal and sometimes just for a “I miss home” snack. I was also sent some really good pancake mix. However, there is a severe shortage of maple syrup around here. There is something the locals call syrup but it is made from grapes and just does not have the right texture, taste or effect. And what I would not have given for a can of Rotel when I made a pot of chili the other night. Again, where is that Wally World when you really need it?

Everybody complains about traffic cops at home right? I would love to have a good ole boy Louisiana State Trooper follow me around for a couple of days over here. He would have writer’s cramp for sure. I love these Turkish people, I really do. But they are responsible for me breaking out in some terrible fits of road rage. Traffic signs, speed limits, and road markings are obviously just suggestions that are almost always ignored. Driving here has given me a whole new appreciation for the folks I use to fuss at back home for driving too slow…God bless ‘em.

Personal space. I know we all just pretty much take that little space between us and a perfect stranger for granted. We all know that it is just common courtesy to give folks a little breathing room. For example, at home when you go to the bank, there is a line, sometimes defined by a nice colorful rope, chain, ribbon, or such. There is a line which one does not cross until the person in front of you has completed their business at the window and moved on. The window at the counter is narrow and just big enough for one person to interact with the nice teller. Pretty simple, right? Not here it isn’t. There is no rope and no line. There is a number system. Walk in the bank. Take a number, have a seat, which is provided, and wait for your number to light up above the teller’s head therefore indicating it is now your turn to go to the window. Somehow that last part has gotten lost in translation. Maybe it is because the teller window is three feet wide and will fit four grown up people. I suppose folks think if four can stand there, then that is where they should be. Can you imagine doing your private banking business and having three total strangers standing next to you vying for the teller’s attention? And sometimes getting it as the teller will stop helping you and help them? And it is the same at the market check out counter. I have never been a patient person as some members of my chase crew back home can attest, but living here in this country has given me a chance to work on that a bit.

These are just a few of the little things I have encounter here that I find a bit different from home. I am in no way ridiculing or making fun of the Turkish way of doing things. I am a visitor here and should adapt to how things work and I am really trying my best to do so. For them, it all seems to be perfectly fine and logical. I’m the one out of sync. So as I wait for my departure I will do my best to fit in with the locals as they have been so gracious to allow me to at least try. I hate to say it, but having had this experience I believe I have definitely garnered a newborn appreciation for some to the little things that we all take for granted in our everyday lives. And I am glad to say, I have learned much about some things that I previously did not have a clue. In a whole lot of ways, people are pretty much the same all over the world. It is often merely our own perception of what is normal that makes them appear to be different.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Great Escape

Note: Some portions of the following story may or may not be true, depending on who reads it and what kind of questions arise. Anything construed as illegal will definitely be denied and was most likely just made up to facilitate the story. Or, maybe, it actually happened just like this….
I have always tried my best to stay on the right side of the law. When it comes to any possibility of paying huge fines or spending time in jail, I am very diligent about making sure I don’t break any laws. So when I found myself deep in the heart of a foreign country, traveling at breakneck speed in a four wheel drive pick up, across some of the roughest terrain you can imagine, with the Jandarma (Turkish military), hot on my tail, you can only imagine my disbelief that this was really happening to me. With my heart about to fly out of my chest, and the truck about to fly off the road, I had visions of spending a very long time in a Turkish prison if these guys were able to catch me…and at that moment, their chances looked pretty good. My chances of ever flying very big balloons in Turkey again were looking very slim. In fact, my prospects for just staying alive weren’t real good at the moment. My only hope was that the guy driving my truck was faster and better than the guys with guns that were chasing us…
It had been a perfectly lovely morning. Although I am still waiting for my “re-validation” before I can start flying again, I decided to go out and watch the Turkish rent-a-pilot fly my balloon. Before daylight at our launch site it was cold. In fact, the coldest day since I’ve been here, 3 degrees Celsius or about 37 degrees Fahrenheit. Driving from Avanos to Goreme in the little jeep with the top off, I could clearly see my breath as I made my way the 6 kilometers down the dark black top road with no lines. I remember looking up as I drove and seeing at least a million stars sparkling in the endless Turkey sky. There was just a sliver of a moon and I remember thinking to myself that it reminded me of the quarter moon depicted on the Turkish flag. It was indeed a beautiful morning with the promise of becoming a beautiful day. I knew that in just a little while, the sun would come over the mountain and start it’s daily ritual of filling the Goreme Valley with brilliant colors of yellow and gold, painting the ancient geological rock formations that has made this place so popular with visitors from all over the world.
The two Alaaddin balloons were already cold packed when I arrived and were about to be heated by the giant burners. After my ride in the jeep, my plan was to stand as close to those burners as I could to try and warm up a bit. As I warmed myself and watched the Turkish pilot do “my” work, I could not help but feel a touch of resentment toward him, although I know it is not his fault that I can not fly. But still, I guess I just could not help myself. The big 210,000 cubic foot balloon stood up tall in response to the huge flames that had been directed through the mouth and into the belly of the envelope. Yokon completed his post inflation checks and motioned for the 12 passengers to climb aboard which they eagerly did with assistance from members of the ground crew. Once on board, Yokon began his standard safety briefing, which in most cases is a bit of a problem. He has very limited usage of the English language. Although there are people that come to fly from all over the world with many different nationalities and languages, most, but not all, can understand at least a little English. But none of them can understand Turkish. That’s one of the reasons the balloon operators like to have English speaking pilots. So, Yokon has a canned speech and really does his best. It goes something like this…”We have rules. Rule number one, no smoking in basket, please. Rule number two, no sit on edge of basket. (Duh!) Most important…landing position…I say landing position, you must face back of balloon, sit little, and hold two hands. All times..landing position….understand”? We can only hope that they do.
I watched as the two Alaaddin balloons slowly lifted off and claimed their place in the early morning Cappadocian sky that would be shared with at least 50 other balloons on this day. And it was a typical day here, which means, that close to 1,000 people would be flying in the balloons to see this spectacular landscape. Fifty balloons, 1,000 people, all sharing one small piece of sky for the next hour. Quite beautiful, but fairly nerve racking for the pilots who are charged with the safety of all 1,000 of them.
As the ground crews scrambled about loading up the fans and readying to begin the chase, Mehmet came over to me and said hello. Mehmet is a nice guy, he has become a good friend. He is just as upset as I am about me not flying for the last 5 weeks. For him, as owner of the company, every day I don’t fly, he loses money, so naturally he would be upset. But I think it is more than that. He knows I came here to fly and understands that for me, it is not about the money. I just want to fly the very big balloons. He explained that there was a second sortie for the 210 this morning. Which means after the first flight, the passengers would be unloaded, new fuel placed on board, and new passengers loaded up for another flight. This is kinda tricky sometimes, due to wind conditions, location of the first landing and just the logistics of getting everything and everybody in the same place in a timely manner. He explained that although there was a second sortie, there were only 5 people scheduled to fly. This meant there was room on board and he asked me if I would go along as a passenger, just some extra needed weight, so to speak. I have say, his request did not make me feel good at all. In my mind, I have gone from being in charge, piloting the very big balloon, to just being some dead weight. I know he didn’t mean it that way , but it did cross my mind. I told him sure because, after all, I did not have anything else to do.
The first sortie went well and Yokon managed to land the 210 in a fairly accessible location to facilitate the passenger transfer. During the chase of the first sortie, I had all but decided that I was not going to ride along. There is something about more than one pilot on board that makes me uncomfortable. I suppose part of it is pride, and the other part is all the stories about accidents occurring while there are two or more pilots in the balloon. Why is that? It is a simple matter of communication. The key is making sure that everybody knows who is pilot in command at all times. It may sound very elementary, but more than one fatality has occurred because each pilot thought the other was flying the aircraft.
But once the new passengers and fuel were on board, it was obvious that a little more weight was needed. The big 210 is hard to land when under loaded, so I jumped in. Much to my surprise, Mehmet also climbed on board, along with a brand new German pilot. My God, now there were four pilots on this aircraft, almost more pilots than passengers! I decided to try and put that thought out of my mind and just relax and enjoy the flight. And low and behold, I did enjoy it very much. The wind was kind to us, Yokon did a good job and, the passengers were happy, even the three extra pilots managed to enjoy to ride. We managed to fly over Love Valley, which was a real treat for everybody. It is one of the most sought after places to fly because of it’s natural beauty and rather unique towering pinnacles of rock formations. It does not take the first time viewer long to guess why it is called “love” valley. When I am flying, if they don’t quite get it, I just tell them. “think Viagra”. “Oooh yeah”, is the usual response.
We passed over the valley on onto the large open flat land that I call the farm. There are lots of places to land among the many small farms that populate the area. One of the issues when flying a second sortie is time. The passengers pay for a one hour flight and that is what they expect, and rightly so. However, most of them are on a tight schedule to complete the ride and get on to the next event which is usually a bus tour somewhere. There is a lot of pressure from the tour operators to be on time and they want their customers back and ready to go by 9 a. m. This is sometime hard to do, like I said, depending on landing location of the first sortie, wind conditions, etc. More often than not, the second sortie gets shortened by 10-15 minutes and the passengers get slighted out of their after flight champagne ceremony. Such was the case today. We were running a little late and the tour operator was already calling to find out where his passengers were. It looked like again the champagne ceremony would not happen. We would either have to cut the flight short to do the champagne, or fly the hour and skip the after flight ceremony. But then I saw something so cool that it just made me laugh out loud. Yokon was setting up an approach that was taking us to an open area downwind. Mehmet got on the radio and began talking to the crew chief who was waiting there with the rest of the crew. Almost immediately the crew was rushing around and looked like little ants swarming around the chase truck. Before long, two of them were running toward the balloon carrying a bottle of champagne and the wooden box that contains the champagne glasses. Yokon flew the balloon perfectly down to within two feet of the ground below and held it there. We were contour flying like a magic carpet right above the grape vineyards headed straight for the crew. As the balloon drifted slowly toward them, I realized what was happening. Without the balloon ever touching the ground, the crew handed Mehmet and I the champagne and glasses as we silently passed by. We now had the makings of an in flight champagne party! Mehmet popped the cork and I got the glasses ready and Yokon got us a little altitude. With glasses full, as we continued to fly the full allotted hour, we toasted our guests and to there wonderful balloon ride. It was awesome. I was truly glad that I had gone along for the ride.
After a nice gentle landing and getting the passengers onto their waiting bus, on time, I got into the little jeep and headed for Avanos where I planned to cook a little breakfast and have a short nap. I was feeling good about the morning and had for at least a short while, all but forgotten about how miserable I was because of not being able to fly the big balloons. I was enjoying the nice leisurely jeep ride, after all, half the route between Goreme and Avanos is within the boundaries of the Goreme National Historic Park. The stars I had seen on the drive earlier in the morning had given way to clear blue sky and bright warm sunshine. Not to waste such an opportunity, I took a side road that traveled through one of the more scenic areas of the park to take advantage of the morning sun reflecting on the numerous fairy chimneys along the way. This spur of the moment decision could have been a fatal one. The drive itself was nice and uneventful. But the twenty minutes it took to get back on the main road to Avanos was just enough time to be a main ingredient in a recipe for disaster.
That twenty minutes gave Mehmet and crew enough time to get back to the hangar located in Avanos. As I approached the hangar, I saw they had already returned and were busy getting the balloons ready for the next day. I pulled in with intentions of just saying hello for a few minutes and then get on home to breakfast and the nap. I pulled the jeep into the graveled, barbed wire enclosed compound and parked in the one place where a green tarp was making some shade. Even though the morning had been cold, the sun was now heating things up very rapidly. I no sooner got out of the jeep, when Mehmet came from the other end of the compound driving the four wheel drive Mitsubishi pick up truck. A quick glance inside the truck revealed three other people who will remain nameless, but all were Turkish. Barely slowing down, Mehmet says, “come, go with us!” Now I have been around him long enough to know to ask questions, like, where are you going?
“Fishing” he replied with the excitement of a little boy. And in anticipation of my next question, he said “only 30 minutes, come on let’s go!” I also know that Mehmet does nothing in 30 minutes and accepted the fact that breakfast and nap would have to wait.
We drove past town and onto a dirt road that follows the Kizilirmak River. Translated to English it means Red River, which I continue to find quite a coincidence. It is the longest river in Turkey and mysteriously enough has its’ origin and ending at the Black Sea. It runs right through the middle of Avanos and is the main reason for the famous pottery industry in the little town. It seems the mud from the river is ideal for use in making top quality ceramics of all shapes and sizes.
We followed the shallow river for nearly a mile before turning off the dirt road and taking a small trail to the river’s edge. Two other people, who will also remain nameless, were already standing near the water. Strangely enough I did not see another vehicle. Now there are 7 people gathered at the river. I am the only one who can not speak or understand Turkish, so naturally the conversation that ensued was lost on my ears. I was just there because I was invited and was just along for the ride, so to speak. I did notice there was no fishing gear in sight. On closer inspection I did see a net stretched out into the river. Hmm, I thought to myself, but before I could even complete that thought, things began to happen fast. The casual conversation from a few moments earlier had suddenly turned more serious…and louder. There was a lot of pointing, first from the direction we had just traveled, then the opposite direction and back again. I could tell something was amiss, but had no clue. Mehmet made a motion for everyone to get back in the truck, which we all did without any delay. He drove the truck back out onto the main road and turned in the direction of town. After traveling on a couple of hundred yards he again turned off the main road and down toward the river. Again, we stopped and all got out. Things seemed a little calmer for the moment. Mehmet was on the phone and the rest of us throwing rocks at a can floating by in the river. After a few moments, the two people that were on the river bank came walking down the to the river where we were now parked. I asked Mehmet if there was a problem. “Big problem”, he says. I then remembered the net I had seen in the river. “Mehmet”, I said. “is that net illegal”? He nodded yes as his phone rang again. After a short exchange, Mehmet excitedly started yelling in Turkish and everybody ran to get in the truck. All I could think of is “oh crap” as I found me a place in the back seat of the four door truck. Two of the other folks were not so lucky and had to find a place in the bed of the truck. Mehmet quickly turned the truck in the direction away from town and took off like a shot. I did not want to, but I had to ask the question, “are the police chasing us”? Mehmet’s said “yes..yes”!! And I said, “well drive faster dammit!” (Please remember I have been asking him to slow down ever since I got to Turkey!) At this point I am in total disbelief. Just a few short minutes ago, all was right with the world, well, maybe not ALL, but close enough. Now I was in a truck careening down a dirt road, full of rocks and big holes, and to top it all off, very slick. It had rained the day before for the first time in two months. Oh, and did I mention there were guys in uniforms, with guns, in hot pursuit?
No one in the truck said a word. Mehmet was driving like there was no tomorrow, and maybe that’s what he was afraid of. He was going so fast the truck was all but out of control. The road pretty much followed the river’s every twist and turn. At times, the road rose above the river and became even more narrow. At one point, the road looked to be at least a hundred feet above the river, straight down. The truck bounced and slid, and jumped but Mehmet was not letting up at all. I wanted desperately to put on my seatbelt but I did not dare let go of the side handle that I had a death grip on with both hands. It was so crowded in the back seat of the truck I could not even turn around and see if the good guys were gaining on us.
At one point, the truck suddenly slowed and came to a stop. Dead ahead was a small stream, where yesterday would have been just a dusty ditch. It took Mehmet about 5 seconds to put the truck in 4 wheel drive and back up enough to get a running start. I don’t know much about how the human brain works, but for some reason, right there, at that moment, the scene from “Romancing The Stone” flashed through my head. Yeah, the one where they are in a 4WD truck and are being chased by the bad guys. Except this time, I was pretty sure that there was no ramp that would magically appear to launch our truck over the stream. Mehmet gave it all the little truck had and we went barreling toward the stream like a runaway train. I was thinking, this could be the end. We will either die, or at best get stuck and then caught by the Jandarma. Neither one of those possible outcomes was very appealing to me. It did not look good. But in the face of adversity, they say humor sometimes works, so I yelled as loud as I could, knowing it was the one thing I could say that my Turkish friends would understand…”LANDING POSITION NOW!!!” as the little truck left solid ground and sailed across the water, almost to the other side. The back wheels hit the water and mud and rocks and water exploded under the spinning tires. For the next fifty yards the road was covered in water and suddenly we are mud hogging for real in the middle of a dad-gum desert. About this time, I remembered the two guys in the back of the truck….I managed to get my head turned around to see both of them still there, but just barely. They were truly hanging on for dear life with arms and legs flailing in every direction. I can’t not imagine how they even stayed inside the truck.
We continued down the road for another 10 minutes or so and all the while the road getting rougher and then began to smooth out and get wider. Eventually we came to a hard surfaced road, hung a quick left and in just a few moments were in the middle of downtown Nevshire. With no sign of our would be captors, there was a collective sigh of relief that could be understood in any language.
Not sure how we did it, maybe it was the little stream we jumped or the muddy road, or maybe the Jandarma just have a short attention span. I really don’t care. All I know is I’m very happy to be alive and that I am not going to wake up in a Turkish prison tomorrow. Not sure about Mehmet however. With “Alaaddin Balloons” written all over the Mitsubishi, the Jandarma just might be waiting for him when he gets home.
Mehmet and I will have a little talk about this later, about putting me in that situation. I will scold him good for sure. And then I will compliment him on his driving skills and tell him that I forgive him for all those times he was speeding like a madman on the highway. I now know that it was just practice for the day he would really need to go fast in order to execute “the great escape.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tomorrow Never Comes....Part 2

Today is a very sad day for those who knew and loved Mr. J. D. Phillips. He is being laid to rest today after 77 years of making this old world a better place to be in. It can never be counted accurately the number of people that JD touched and influenced while he was here among us. He did many things but his passion was flying and that is what he did for most of his adult life. And he shared that passion with a lot of us who were fortunate enough to spend some time with him in the sky. There are several entries in my log book with his signature, the first one in 1981 and the last one in March, 2010. He not only taught us, but he also encouraged, inspired, and just plain ole made us smile. He will be missed.
JD’s passing has made me do a little rethinking about the last few weeks and the frustrations I expressed in “Tomorrow Never Comes.” It occurs to me today that maybe we spend way too much time thinking about tomorrow or yesterday. There is a whole lot of stuff that we anticipate will happen tomorrow or some other time in the future. And it seems we just can’t wait for that future time to get here that will somehow magically make our lives better and happier. I know we have to plan for the future and all that. But maybe, at least in my case, we should pay a little more attention to “today”. What a wonderful gift we have been given, today, not tomorrow, not yesterday, but today. I think I’m gonna try a little harder to enjoy and appreciate today.
There is a lot of time spent thinking about what happened to us in our past, yesterday or 10 years ago. Time does not seem to matter, especially to a heavy heart. The pain from many years past can be as real as something that happened to us just yesterday. Time does not heal all wounds, it only treats the symptoms that help ease the pain a little… that old wound can be opened up at any time to deal us misery all over again just like it happened yesterday. We spend a lot of time in the past, we can’t help it, it is part of us and always will be. We try to deal with it as best we can. The gift of today can help us do that if we will just allow it.
For most of us, tomorrow will come in due time. It may or may not bring us that better job or better house or car or whatever is in our head at the moment that we are waiting for. But it will come. Be patient. And while waiting…..let’s celebrate today! How do we do that? For me, I think it is a simple matter of trying to live more in the moment. I have those old wounds like everyone else and I have anticipations, hope, and worries for tomorrow and the future. But I think, just maybe, if I consume myself with today, it will leave little of my precious time for thinking about what happened in the past or what may or may not happen tomorrow. There is a good reason to do this. For JD and lots of other good folks, the worry of tomorrow is over. There is truly no tomorrow for them, at least not in this time and space we live in. That is why today is so important for those of us who have been given the gift of it.
Today is a good day to be happy, even among the sadness of present or past heartaches. Today is a good day to tell those close to you how much you love and cherish them. Today is a good day to tell a stranger hello or extend a helping hand to someone in need of it. Today is a good day to smile, just because. Today is a good day to be thankful, for all the moments in your life, and especially those that are unfolding right now that are contained in the little box of today. Today is a good day to be happy for all the days you have had so far, good or not so good.
For those who have lost loved ones, this is not easy and I am sorry for your loss. The pain you are feeling is real and in no way do I mean to diminish that. But just try for a moment, just today, celebrate their life and their love. Let their overwhelming legacy be the happiness their lives brought into your life, not to be overshadowed by the pain of their loss. Do this just for today, because you have been given of it. If in fact “Tomorrow Never Comes” we will have at least earned all of our “todays”.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tomorrow Never Comes

As long as I can remember, I have always tried to avoid the word “never”. I guess I learned early on that once you say never, it won’t be long before it comes around to bite you in the butt. So, like most people I know, we use the word never, not for something that we know will not ever happen, but for things that we think could possibly happen, but probably won’t. Stay with me here. For instance, as a young male in high school, in my mind there were certain things I knew would “never” happen. Things like going on a date with the prettiest, smartest, and most popular girl in the school, which in my school, happened to be three different girls. I knew that would never happen, but somewhere in that part of my teenage hormone infested brain I still hoped that it would. Never happened. Or I knew I would never be the star football player, but again, somewhere in another part of my also ego infested brain, I hoped. That too never happened.
Today I am sitting in a part of the world that is far from my home and realizing that maybe I should change my attitude about “never”. I know I have mentioned before that things happen very slowly here, at least in this part of Turkey. Even the Turkish people make jokes about “tomorrow”. Nothing seems to happen today, but always tomorrow. The latest and current situation now is that I have been waiting on “tomorrow” for the last three agonizing weeks to begin flying again. I waited six weeks when I got here for all the formalities to be dealt with, processed, scanned over, faxed, couriered, slept on and whatever else they do to “validate” a foreign pilot. It finally happened and I began flying the very big balloon in this beautiful place. Life was good. For 30 days. And then all of a sudden, because the company I work for changed it’s name, myself and the other foreign pilot, have to be re-validated by the Civil Aviation Authority. Which means we can not fly again until, once again a piece of paper has to be processed, scanned over, faxed, couriered, and slept on. And I think, but not quite sure, that it is now in the sleeping on it stage. And whoever is doing that has settled in for a long winter’s nap. I have been told almost every day for the last three weeks that it will be completed “tomorrow”.
Yesterday I was assured, without a doubt, that I would fly today. I guess nobody told the guy sleeping on my paper work, because this morning I was not flying the very big balloon, again. There is a “rented” Turkish pilot flying my Green Goblin while we are waiting for tomorrow to come. I have tried to be patient and understanding and have even gone out to help and support the team every morning while I am waiting. I am not a patient person, but have been working on that while living here, out of necessity mostly. Either that or end up in a Turkish prison for a very long time, so I’m really trying.
So here I am, waiting for tomorrow. And I don’t want to think that it will never come. I could get a call today with the news that everything is complete and I am cleared to do what I came here to do. Fly very big balloons in Turkey. I am not holding my breath, but remain hopeful. Maybe tomorrow.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Secrets and Mysteries of Cappadocia

The longer I am here, the more questions I have. But the answers, like everything else in this part of Turkey, come very slowly, or sometimes not at all. There are things about this ancient place that have been a mystery for a very long time. Some will remain so until, well, forever, or the end of time, which ever comes first. But some can and have been solved, maybe only momentarily, and then fall right back into the secret category.
One such secret was revealed to me today as I was assuming the role of “accidental tourist”. I have gotten into a pattern of not planning too far ahead around here. The only given is that every day I will hopefully fly the very big balloon, have breakfast, take a short nap, spend the rest of the day doing whatever, find something to eat for supper, and go to bed. And then repeat the next day. It’s that span of time called “doing whatever” that is usually taken up by spur of the moment whimsy. This morning for some reason I decided to drive the jeep to Cavusin, park it under some nice shade, and walk a part of Rose Valley I have not seen except from the air. The days are getting nicer now and it is possible to actually go trekking in the middle of the day. A week ago you would run the risk of heat stroke by venturing out between the hours of 10 am and 6pm. But now it is quite pleasant most all day, still a little hot in the direct sun, but find a little shade and it is automatically 10 degrees cooler. So off I go, camera, gps, and water bottle in tow.
After being here for three months, one of the mysteries is getting a little clearer. Rose Valley is really one of the five “fingers” of Red Valley. Red Valley, or Kiliclar Valley, is quite large and runs from the town of Goreme like a giant hand to the village of Cavusin. But within its’ boundaries there are at least five smaller valleys, or canyons really, that spread out like fingers from the palm end at Goreme, to the finger tip end at Cavusin. There are hundreds of hiking or trekking trails as they prefer to call it here, throughout the entire complex. And for the most part, all but a couple are not marked. Maybe a dab of red paint on a rock here and there, and sometimes an arrow pointing a particular direction, sometimes straight up. So it makes for a very confusing and mysterious place. Adding to the misery is the fact that no complete or comprehensive map exist of this wonderful place. Another secret I guess. Between you and me and the fence post, I think the reason is simple. The tour guide people want to take you on a trek and having a nice map available for individual trekking pleasure would be way too easy and cut into their booming business. But that’s just me talking.
While Joy was visiting we were on a quest to find as many cave churches as possible. Sounds simple enough. Not so. First there are the written “tourist guide books”. They do a very good job of telling you there are beautiful and exotic stuff to see just about everywhere. But the directions to get to these sites are horrendous! For example. We made no less than three attempts to find the “Madonna” Church. The book says, “If you follow the pathway split from the Tokali Church you can reach the Madonna Church. It is far from the main road around 250 meters. It is located to see the whole Kiliclar Valley. The Church is entered through a 5 meter long narrow passage.” No problem finding the Tokali Church because it is on the main road and, what a novel idea, it has a SIGN on it that tells you it is indeed the Tokali Church!!!! Not so for the lady Madonna. It is one of Cappadocia’s best kept secrets. No signs, no paint, no arrows and about a dozen “pathways split” in the vicinity of the Tokali. But I swear….I will find it before I leave here.
Today, I was not even looking for cave churches. I just wanted to take a nice long walk and enjoy the peace and quiet and solitude of the winding trail that found it’s way through the various shapes and sizes of unique rock formations. Just a simple walk….but I’ll be danged if I didn’t find not one, not two, but three cave churches!
The trail leading into Rose Valley canyon is very dusty. So dusty that at times it is like trying to walk on a very sandy beach. But it soon becomes more and more narrow and the dust gives way to rock which makes for a lot easier walking. The sun was shining in a blue cloudless sky, but the tall rock walls of the canyon shielded me from any direct sunlight. When I looked up, all I could see was blue, blue sky stretching from the top of one side of the canyon to the other like a tightly fitted veil. I could almost see the “tracks” left by the dozens of hot air balloons that had flown gently over and through the canyon that very morning just a few hours before. I knew they had been there, and of course it was just my imagination that made the tracts appear. For they had come and gone just like they do every day, invading the space between the rock walls of the canyon, leaving not a trace or clue they had been there. My imagination kicked in again and I could almost hear the silence of the little valley being abruptly awakened by the roar of the powerful burners bouncing off the rocks. But now the valley was silent. The birds, that had been frightened by the huge balloons, had now forgotten all about the monsters, and were settled into their daily routines. I watched them many times scatter as my very big balloon would sometimes slip silently into the valley, before a deafening blast from the burner was needed to break the descent and send them into a flurry in all directions. I tried vigilantly to see a fox on the trail or sunning on the high rocks. I’ve seen them many times from the balloon, but now without the advantage of height, they are nowhere to be found. But probably really close, very still, just waiting for me to pass on by.

After walking for about a half an hour the little trail split off in two different directions, one straight ahead, and the other a hard left and going almost straight up. Much to my surprise, there was not one, but two signs directing the way to continue the Rose Valley route and the way to the Hacli Kilise, or Hacli Church. I could hardly believe it. An actual navigation aid directing me to one of the hundreds of cave churches in Cappadocia. Another mystery…why this one? Of course the trail that went left and up was the one to follow to get to the church. Up and left I went, almost giggling that I had found the way to go. The “up” was not too bad, but I had to be very careful while on these trails when there is any kind of incline or decline. The rock is very soft and tends to crumble very easily and all the crumbled rock pool together and it is like trying to walk on ball bearings! You can lose you footing in the blink of an eye. Which reminds me of something I have been wanting to mention since I got here. There is no OSHA here in Turkey. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not exist here. You are on your own my friend. No handrails, no warning signs, no nice steps, no nothing. You can kill yourself here in a heartbeat by taking one wrong step and nobody will give a flip. You should have been watching where you were going buddy boy!!!. Just thought I’d warn you.
Not far up the trail I found the Hacli Church. I know that’s what it was because it had two big signs that said so. I also found a Turkish man selling souvenirs and freshly squeezed orange juice. Go figure. I was in no need of any souvenirs but the orange juice was pretty good. The church was much like a lot of the others I have visited. Domed ceiling, a couple of little side room cubby holes and some fairly nice frescoes or paintings. The paintings were done by monks in the 10th and 11th century time frame and depict various scenes from the life of Jesus. Some are somewhat crude, while others are just spectacular with detail. All are amazing. Looking at them conjures up all kinds of emotions of different sorts for different people. For me it is just overwhelming to be standing in such an ancient and sacred place.
I was pleased to have found the church, and I wasn’t even looking for it. I still wonder why this one as so well marked? Secrets and mysteries abound here. I left the Hacli Kilise and headed on down the trail while trying to figure out just how I could make it back to the jeep without doubling back. I had left the main trail when I turned left and started climbing up and so now I was above the valley floor. Just needed to find a way down to hopefully hit the main trail that would take me back to the jeep.
I continued to follow the trail and eventually I could see the main trail down below. I slowly began to pick my way down when low and behold, another church appeared. It was very recognizable as being a church, but alas, no name, no sign, nothing. I stepped inside and was treated to a much smaller version of the Halci Church. Fewer frescoes, and not as well preserved. Bonus, two churches in one day. Now I could go home and write about my good fortune. Little did I know, the best was yet to come.
I worked my way on down and finally made it to the valley floor and the main trail without the ball bearings having their way with my backside. Quite an accomplishment in itself. The trail was a little wider now and led to a small stand of what looked like very tall aspen trees. I stopped under the trees to take a break and have some water and enjoy the slight breeze that was sneaking through the leaves. As I rested, I saw three people coming up the trail from the opposite direction. As they approached I greeted them with a “hello”. That’s my super sneaky way of finding out if folks can speak English or not. Sure enough, I got three hellos back. I then engaged them further and found out the couple were from Australia and they were being guided by a Turkish man. (They couldn’t find a map either.) The guide’s name was Necip. Out to the blue he asked me, “did you see the church just down the trail?”. Hmm, I thought to myself. Was this a trick? I did not see any church just down the trail. If there had been one I would have seen it, because today I have been very lucky with church finding. I relented and said no I had not. He replied, with, “please come with us, and I will show you the best church in all of Cappadocia”. Just like that. Not even a blink. Now I was very suspicious, but even more curious and fell in behind the three of them, heading back up the trail from where I had just come.
We only walked 25 yards before Necip stopped and pointing to his left, exclaimed quite calmly, “there it is.” I quickly looked in the direction he was pointing and what I saw was nothing. Well, not nothing, but it sure was not a dang cave church. What I saw was a solid flat rock wall 100 ft across and just as high with a few pigeon holes in it and one small opening on the far end. No signs, or any thing else to indicate that this was anything at all, let alone the “best church in all of Cappadocia!” What has this guy been smoking? I could see him smiling at my distrust as he motioned us to follow him. My God, where is OSHA when you need ‘em. We shimmed on our butts down a ravine and then climbed up the ravine on the other side using steps, more like handholds, carved out of the rock. This put us on a ledge that varied in width from 6 to 12 inches wide. On one side of the ledge, solid rock wall. On the other side, nothing but air. No handrails, no handholds, no nothing. We followed him along the ledge to the far end until we finally reached the little opening we had seen from across the ravine. Necip disappeared inside the hole and we followed. Halleluiah and revelations! Another Cappadocia secret revealed! What we saw was breathtaking. No, really…simply breathtaking. Like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie, the small hole we crawled through opened up into a huge cathedral style room with an arched ceiling 30 feet high and 30 feet wide with giant columns going from the floor to the ceiling. Nobody said a word. I couldn’t if I had wanted to. It was truly unlike anything I had seen or visited before. The columns were massive. There were cross pieces spanning the width carved from the solid rock. The arched ceiling had a column running the length of the room at the top center. There were side rooms. There were grave sites. It was the biggest cave church I had seen in all of Cappadocia. And apparently, a secret to all but a few. Why? Why keep this a secret? Why not let folks know it’s there and God forbid, tell them how to get to it. No signs, No arrows pointing the way. So obscure a rat would have trouble finding it if it was full of cheese. But here we were, standing in a place built in the tenth century that rivals any modern day architectual feat.
I finally found my voice and thanked Necip for his kindness. He did not have to invite me along. He wasn’t going to get paid any more. But out of pure human kindness, he said “come, let me show you”. Maybe it was Turkish pride. Maybe he is just one more example of the kind of people I have met in Turkey. There are many more secrets and mysteries we can talk about, maybe later. But for today I discovered a few answers to just a few of the mysteries. I have lots more questions about the secrets and mysteries of Cappadocia. However, thanks to my new friend Necip, there is no question or mystery remaining in my mind about the pride, compassion, and kindness that can be found in the hearts of the people of Cappadocia.