Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Potter's Wife....or Not

The Potter’s Wife…..or Not

Everything I know about making pottery, I learned in one day. This day. Before today, I had never seen a potter’s wheel or other such things that potters use in their trade. Mehmet and I were right in the middle of going from one official office to another in the pursuit of trying to get me a Turkish social security number, so that I could in turn open up a Turkish checking account, which will allow Alaaddin Balloons to pay me my due on a regular basis. Don’t let the travel brochures fool you. Life may be simple here, but getting things done is anything but simple. But that is a different story. After running into several dead ends, Mehmet suggested we pop in and see a friend of his. His shop is right on the main road in town and I have passed it by, and a dozen more just like it at least a hundred times since I have been living in Avanos. Apparently, Avanos is the pottery capital of Cappadocia, and maybe all of Turkey. One of the reasons it is a prime spot for such is the presence of the Kizlirimak (Red) River which runs right through the middle of town. Over the last few thousand years, the river has been kind enough to deposit the perfect kind of clay that potters need to ply their trade. I have purposely not gone into any of these places in fear that I would readily expose myself as a common tourist instead of a seasoned adventurer and traveler. It’s been all in vain because I think I have blown that cover several times over.
Mehmet’s friend is Saban, in Turkish pronounced Shabonne. He is a young man, looking to be about the same age as Mehmet, probably in his early 30’s. He greeted us at the door, more like an entry way into the stone building that was built right into the side of a hill. Four steps into the place and the temperature dropped 10 degrees. There were pots, plates, bowls, and other crafted pieces everywhere. They were on shelves, tables, hanging from the ceiling and the walls. They were all sizes, shapes and colors. Some were plain as opposed to some that looked like they belonged in a museum. Like most buildings I have seen here, this one was long and narrow, with the ceiling making a wide arch above our heads that gave the appearance we were entering some kind of church or other religious place. As I gawked, I clumsily tripped and nearly and fell into a large stack of what appeared to be the “good stuff’, before realizing that the floor was just natural rock and dirt that was no where near being level. We passed through one room into another and it was there I got my first peak at a potter’s wheel.
I could not help thinking to myself that the object before me was nothing less than a piece of history itself, handed down from generations of craftsmen who not only passed on the most simple of tools, but a way of life to their sons and their son’s sons. To look at Saban, he could be anything or anybody. A handsome man, as it seems the lot of Turkish men tend to be, he stood humbly there as a proud maker of beautiful and useful things fashioned from nothing more than his potter’s wheel, his hands, and the red river clay.
The wheel was exactly that, a wheel, but instead of standing up vertically as most wheels do, this one, made of wood, was recessed into the stone and dirt floor so that the flat surface of the wheel and the floor were on an even plain. The center of the wheel supported a spindle that rose up to a height of about two feet or so, and also through the wheel itself and into the dirt. This allowed the wheel to spin freely. It is on the top of the spindle that the raw shapeless blobs of clay are placed and carefully molded by the potter’s hands. Saban sat down on a simple bench and straddled the spindle. He reached into a dirty looking bag and pulled out a handful of clay and sharply planted it on the top of the spindle. He began to speak, again in a language that is both beautiful and impossible to understand. But there was a familiar tone to his voice, a rhythm as if he were singing a song that had been taught to him many years ago. It reminded me a great deal of Solomon and his telling of the history and his love for his wine. As Saban began to sing his song, his feet went to work on the wheel. Slowly at first and then faster, as he appeared to be running in place, his feet touching the wheel so lightly it made no sound. The sound of his voice and the motion of the wheel became one. As the wheel turned, so did the spindle holding the yet to be created piece of work, which at this point only existed in the imagination of the potter, Saban. He continued to speak as he dipped his hands into some very muddy looking water and then began to caress the clay with the finesse of a lover’s touch. Suddenly, as if by pure magic, the shapeless blob of clay disappeared and was instantly replaced by what was obvious even to me, to be the top to some kind of container. The lid was perfectly shaped and with the turn of Saban’s skilled little finger, a small knob appeared on top forming a handle. Still the feet were running, the wheel was turning, and the clay blob was no more. A couple of quick adjustments, and the skillful application of a very thin string to the spinning lid, and it separated itself from the spindle. Saban gently set the lid to the side and continued his song. He added a little more clay to the spindle and stuck his two thumbs into the top of the spinning blob. Again, like a slight of hand trick, there appeared a perfectly shaped bowl. I was fairly amazed and more than a little impressed, but I thought to myself, “how does he know the lid will fit the bowl”? There was no measuring, no checking on any kind. He just knew it would fit. But here’s where things get a little tricky. Remember, I told you that Saban was quietly telling a story as he worked. And Mehmet was listening and now began to relay to me the details. Many years ago, it seems people were a lot more practical than we are now. There was a lot less waste and everything had a purpose. And according to Saban, the skill of a craftsman was very important in determining the acceptance of any marriage proposal by the potter. Upon requesting his lady’s hand in marriage, the man had to sit before his perspective bride’s entire family and make a sugar bowl with his potter’s wheel. Only one chance at making a good impression and there was only one way to do it. The potter had to make a sugar bowl for his bride to be. Sounds simple enough, right? Not so. According to Saban, many a young man’s heart was broken, because he failed the test. The bowl did not have to be elaborate, it did not have to be made of the finest clay. It did not have to be of certain size or color. But, you guessed it, that lid had to fit perfectly to the matching bowl. No second chances, just one shot at securing the hand of his love, and determined solely by the geometry of a blob of clay at the hand’s of the potter and his wheel.
Imagine, if people today had to pass such a test. Or any test for that matter. I think there might be a lot less misery, heartache, and disappointment in our lives if we just took a little time to see if the person we are promising to spend the rest of our lives with, is indeed a perfect fit for the sugar bowl that we call life.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Wrath of Grapes

The Wrath of Grapes

Did I mention that I don’t like check rides? I know they are necessary, for there has to be some way to prove one’s proficiency in flight before being turned lose in the sky. The next worse thing to the check ride itself is waiting to have it. You can think it and rethink it, fly it in your head, review emergency procedures, and just plain work yourself into a tailspin, (sorry), worrying about it. At least I always do. Except this time. I can not count on all my fingers and toes how many check rides I have had to endure in my flying career. For some reason, this one was different. Make no mistake, I had my concerns, but for some reason I just didn’t agonize over it like in the past. Maybe it was because I was just tired of waiting. I had waited two months to get to Turkey in anticipation of flying the very big balloons. I had spent one whole month in country waiting to take my first basket full of passengers from all over the world for their great hot air balloon adventure in Cappadocia. And I had waited all my life for this adventure of mine, this one, here in Turkey, the one I had all but given up on. I was just ready.
The flight check itself is preceeded by about fours hours of “orientation” in a class room. These four hours were spent one on one with a Turkish flight instructor named Murat. By the way if you forget someone’s name here in Turkey, just call them Murat or Mehmet and you’ll have about an 80% chance of getting it right. Murat is what you would expect from someone in his position. A rugged looking man of medium height, (standard Turkish), very short dark hair, and a full beard, but cut very short. He looks like an experienced , no nonsense, all business, professional pilot…that could swallow you whole if you ever gave him a wrong answer. The kind of face that looked like it would crack if there had been anything other than seriousness projected on it. But I was determined not to be intimidated by him or anyone else at this point. Turns out, he is a very nice gentleman that just wanted to make sure that I got the information I needed to safely fly the very big balloons in Cappadocia. There was one minor problem. His English was just a tad bit better than my Turkish. But because of his patience and my determination we managed to get through the 4 hours with me getting the information he wanted me to have and I surely needed.
He told me to come back the next day and be prepared for a written exam covering what we had just discussed, plus everything possible in the Cameron flight manual from loading charts, aircraft limitations, normal and emergency procedures. The next day I showed up at the appointed time, but as usual I ended up waiting an hour for Murat to arrive. (Those of you who know me, will know there is only one thing I can not stand more than someone being late…me being late!) This was no standard, out the can exam with multiple choice or true/false answers. No sir, not even close. This was 10 questions, dictated by a person who was certain of what he wanted to ask, but not sure he was asking it so that I would understand. Questions that required some thought, not just memorized statistics. Discussion was required. A half hour and four scribbled pages later, I laid my pencil down and let out a silent sigh of relief. I was pretty sure that if I had understood the question correctly, then I was pretty sure I knew the answers. I found Murat in the next room looking at his laptop. I stood there for what seemed like several minutes before he looked up. I told him I was finished, and was hoping he would check my answers right then and there and confirm my suspected knowledge. But instead, he said, “flight check tomorrow morning, 5:15.” I could not stand it. I asked him if he was going to check my test. I think I saw a brief hint of a smile underneath all that formality as he just said, “later”, and turned his attention back to his laptop. I just picked up my hat and eased on out the door.
The next morning, Mehmet dropped me off at 5:10 at the THK launch area where I would take my check flight. I was thankful that I had managed to get there on time because Mehmet usually runs anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes late, for everything. He dropped me off because our Spanish pilot, Sancho had a flight and was launching from a different location. I waited for 20 minutes before anyone from THK showed up. But when they came, it was like an invasion. Three large trucks carrying crew and pulling trailers, followed by several cars carrying pilots. They all began to disembark and started unloading and setting up. I spotted Murat and walked over to get started. I did not know which balloon I was suppose to be using so I asked Murat. He pointed to one and said, “you will be flying the 105 and here is your check pilot….(can you guess?), Murat!
This Murat was even more stoic than the first, but without the facial hair. He was larger, but of course, about the same height. And I swear when I first laid eyes on him I said to myself, “Oh my God, it’s SHREK!” He just had that look, the only thing missing was those shreky ears. Otherwise, a spitting image, with the absence of the green skin, of course. Thank goodness.
I set about helping the crew ready the balloon for flight. As best I could. I had never flown a Lindstrum 105. I had never flown a balloon with three burners. I had never flown a balloon with turning vents. I had never flown with Shrek. OK, I was getting a little intimidated now. I managed to get thorough the preparation with some gentle help from the Turkish crew. The whole while, under the big watchful eyes of Murat #2. He watched from a few feet distant, smoking the whole time. As far as I can tell, every male above the age of 15 in Turkey smokes. A lot. The American tobacco companies need not worry. If every single American quit smoking today, it would be a very small blip on their profits. The Turks will keep them in business. After a good cold pack, I put the heat to the big 105 and watched it come to life. This was the moment I had been waiting for, burner time. It felt good. I wasn’t nervous, For some reason at that moment, something clicked in my head. I did not do it on purpose, it just happened. Instead of that old familiar case of check ride nerves flooding my mind and body, a strange sense of calm came over me. I realized that I knew what I was doing, it’s what I wanted to do, it’s what I have been waiting to do, and by God I’m just gonna do it and enjoy the ride! And I did. It was one of the most relaxed and fun flights I have ever flown. Simply amazing. I’m not saying it was uneventful by any means.
My check pilot put out his cigarette and climbed in the basket with me. He indicated he was ready to go not by words but by merely pointing one finger in an upward direction. I had already had a discussion with the crew chief about communications during the flight. Again a problem. But we managed to agree on the importance of “upside clear” so that I knew it was safe to climb. As the 105 gently left the ground, Murat turned to me, put his big finger in his chest, and said in near perfect English, “No English”. I just could not resist. I jammed my thumb into my chest, smiled the biggest smile I could and said, “that’s OK, no Turkish!” All the while I am taking in the fact that I am finally flying a balloon over the magnificent landscape in the Goreme Valley of south central Turkey. I had watched the videos dozens of times. I even rode with Sancho a couple of times. But now it was my turn. It felt good. The giant rock formations glided silently underneath the basket as we drifted slowly down the valley. Murat held up three fingers, and then pointed them toward the ground below. I knew he wanted me to land three times as part of the requirements of the flight. I picked out a spot down wind and pointed it out to Murat. He shook his head, yes, and I set up an approach and set the basket gently onto the little trail I was aiming for. He pointed up and off we went again in search of landing #2. In just a few minutes I saw Murat pointing toward something on the ground and heard him say, “fox!” I could not have been more happy. Sure enough right below us was a silver fox making his way around a pile of rocks and into some tall grass. I knew then I had it made, for Mehmet had told me early on that seeing a fox during flight meant good luck and a good landing. On the other hand, seeing a rabbit would produce the opposite result.
I nailed the second landing dead on. This was getting ridicously easy. Then I saw the dang rabbit. Looking up at me, and I’m sure smiling a dirty little rabbit smile. He knew he had me, as he turned his big white tail and hopped away, leaving me to my “unlucky” fate. I tried not to think about it, I really did. But if your going to believe the fox side of the luck, then you pretty much have to go along with the rabbit side too.
Murat pointed his bilingual finger upwards, moving it continuously in that direction meaning he wanted to go high. Up to this point we had pretty much been contour flying around the rock formations. I climbed to about 900 feet above the valley, (the further away from that pesky rabbit the better), leveled off and took in the view. And it was spectacular. From altitude you can see that there is not just one valley, but a series of valleys or fingers within the larger one. The rock formations define the distinct walls that confine Rose Valley, Red Valley, Pigeon Valley, Love Valley, Zelve Valley, and Kilicar Valley. Each one of them spitting out hot air balloons like a pin ball machine in slow motion. It was so breathtaking that I almost forgot about the sinister hare. After all, what possible effect could a silly rabbit have on the outcome of my wonderful balloon flight? The answer slowly unfolded right in front of me. Murat had indicated earlier that we would do a final landing on the other side of Love Valley, along with a dozen or so other balloons, including the one Sancho was flying. I was maintaining the high altitude because it was taking us right where we wanted to go. Then with no indication why, the finger pointed straight down and was accompanied by, “Now!” OK..I can do this from 900 feet. I vented the big balloon, and started a rate of decent that was comfortable. I also reached up and grabbed the green turning vent line for the first time, and thus began a gentle turn to the right, and at the same time, my slow journey toward the coveted membership into the Royal Order of the Calloused Pinky Society. Life is good and I am living it. Except, the rabbit had other plans. It started to become obvious that I would not make the small intended landing area as planned. The wind mysteriously picked up as I approached the field and rushed me past any hope of gracefully and safely landing there. So I prepared to abort the approach. But when Murat saw that I intended to abort, he suddenly became very animated, (remember…Shrek?) He became visibly agitated and mustered a very loud, “no, no, no….land now!”
One of the things that Murat #1 had to tell me during our little visit was the importance of landowner relations in the valley. There are no big farms in the valley, but it is literally dotted with hundreds of small individual plots of cultivated crops. All kinds of crops. There are squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, beans, peas, greens, and most important all, of course grapes. All the other stuff is seasonal and is replanted every year. Not so grapes. Grape vines have a ancestry all their own and can be passed down through generations of growers. These plants, therefore, have great sentimental value as well as the money factor. A great deal of the grapes grown in this valley are harvested and turned into some of the finest wine in all of Turkey….(Solomon’s Wine Hause). Therefore, Murat #1 was especially emphatic…”do NOT damage the grape vines! He went out of his way to make me understand that nothing could get me in trouble quicker than messing with the grapes. Well, thanks to my friend the rabbit, I was on a sure fire collision course headed straight for trouble. Just downwind from my intended landing spot was a nice little vineyard. It did not appear to be that old, maybe the vines were only 10-15 years old. But they had been well cared for, loved and nurtured into strong healthy plants. In years to come, these very grape vines would be capable of producing world class wine. If they survived my aerial attack, that is. I was headed straight into the plants, all the while Shrek insisting I continue to land, and now! So I did the best I could. I skimmed the top of one hearty vine, that thankfully did not break. I sat the basket down hard just beyond the vine but the finely cultivated soil between the plants was no match for the 105,000 cubic foot balloon. The heavy basket cut through the soil like butter and slid right up to and jammed up against the next plant in line, where it came to a stop. The base of the vine was skinned up and the whole plant itself was listing to the west. My heart sank as I continued to try and keep the balloon stabilized to avoid further damage from the basket trying to rotate in the wind. My once in a lifetime adventure of flying very big balloons in Turkey flashed before my eyes. I could now see the small clumps of tiny green grapes hanging on for their very lives as they remained precariously attached to the damaged vine. Out of nowhere my Turkish crew were swarming the basket like hungry bees. Thank goodness, I thought. At least they can walk us out of here with no further damage. Wrong again. As four of them held onto the basket, one of them jumped inside with me and my now surely enraged check pilot. The one who held my adventure in his non-green hands. I waited for his wrath to reign down on me in buckets. Instead, without saying a word, or even gesturing with his talented talking fingers, he climbed out the basket, slowing walked only a dangerously close few steps away, and lit up an American cigarette. I was speechless. As we sat there, I looked over at the grapevine that we had just tried to destroy. It was still leaning and the churned up soil leading up to it created a telltale trail of evidence of what had happened. I would be lucky if I did not end up in Turkish prison over this. By now the balloon had settled and a couple of the crew had let go and were just standing there. I had an idea. I rubbed my hands together, as if to generate some creativity. I got the attention of one of the crew and pointed to the poor leaning plant. I put the palms of my hands together, fingers pointing upward, slightly leaning. I looked at the plant, then I looked at him. I slowly and gently brought my hands up to vertical, not taking my eyes off the Turkish man. He started to smile as he walked over to the grapevine and gently brought it back to it’s normal healthy position as prior to the crash. I gave him a big thumbs up which he quickly returned. By now, Murat is on cigarette #2. Looking at the ground around the plant, I could tell there was work yet to be done. I held up my hands, palms facing out in a halting position. That got my man’s attention again. I then pointed to the ground where the soil was torn up. I held both hands out, palms down, and began a rapid sweeping circular motion. He caught on and copied my motions with his hands in the soil. One of the other crew jumped in a did the same. In no time, it was impossible to detect that anything unusual or destructive had occurred on the site. When I looked up, every man was smiling almost to the point of laughter, even the smoker.
Murat climbed back into the basket, and the other man stayed in. Again the talking fingers directed me to take back to the sky and leave this place. Which I did gladly.
We flew over a power line an on to the field where some of the other balloons had started to land. I cruised past a couple of the downed balloons saying hello the crews working below. Our final landing was uneventful, almost. As soon as we touched down, I began to stabilize the balloon and shutting down burners and venting the lines. The next thing I knew, the two other folks in my basket decided they wanted to leave, without telling me. Of course when they departed the big balloon wanted to fly again. It took all the crew and pulling vent line like crazy not to go airborne again. Was that some kind of test? What were they thinking?
Once deflated the crew set about packing up the balloon. I set about trying to figure out what just happened and if I was going to pass my check flight. The man who was going to decide if I was in fact going to get to fly very big balloons, was quietly standing a few feet away, having another American cigarette. I walked over to where he was standing so I could try to thank him for his time. Maybe he could see the question written all over my face. Before I could say anything, He kinda halfway smiled and raised his fist into a “thumbs up” sign, and said in perfectly clear English, “Goot….very goot”.
I start flying the very big balloons and passengers from all over the world on Friday.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Royal Order
The Calloused Pinky Society

I met Graham and his lovely wife Alceia quite by accident last week. Sancho who is from Spain is one of the three pilots working for Aladdin Balloons here in Cappadocia. Sinon, a Turkish man is the second, and I am number three. It was Sancho who introduced me to the couple. He and I had just left the office of the THK who conducts validation of pilots who come here to fly. In other words, it is there job to determine if a new pilot has the experience, knowledge and skill to fly very big balloons in this environment. It seems to be a process that is only understood by few, but it is in fact something that all new pilots have to go through. THK’s part in this process consist of a flight check with one of their pilots and an oral and written exam. But the friendly folks at THK will not even talk to you until all of the required paperwork has been documented, looked at, reviewed, sent to various agencies, sat on someone’s desk for a week, (maybe two), and eventually signed off on. But only at 5pm on a Friday afternoon so that nothing else can be done until the “next” week. Do I sound a little frustrated here? I am now into my fourth “next week” and hoping I get validated very soon.
Graham and Alceia were sitting outside under a big umbrella that shielded them from the afternoon sun. It was a quaint little café looking place, much like you would expect to run across in a tourist town here in Turkey. What you would not expect is to see a rustic but festive sign above the entrance that said “Fat Boy’s Café and Bar”. It is one of the only, and maybe the only sign that is in English in the whole town. Maybe it’s because “Fat Boy’s in Turkish could be a whole other meaning and lose it’s punch in the translation. Sancho introduced us as best he could in his gallant effort at speaking English. He really thinks he is speaking English, but it’s pretty much hit and miss, with only an occasional word or phrase that is recognizable. But he tries.
I was more than thrilled when Graham spoke because it was obvious that he was well versed in the king’s English. I was elated when Alceia broke out in a variation of the same but in obviously good ole American dialect. Finally, somebody I could talk to. I asked them, “where ya’ll from?” They both kinda looked at one another, like they each were searching for the right answer and needing help from the other. And I was thinking to myself…that was not that hard a question! Finally Graham explained. He is originally from the United Kingdom and she is from Colorado. They are married, so he is an American citizen also. ( He and I already have plans for BBQ and fireworks on the 4th of July). But they only live in Colorado part of the time, and the rest is spent somewhere in the world, flying very big balloons.
Sancho and I sat down at their table under the big umbrella at their insistence. Graham was nursing an “Efess” beer, which is a dang good Turkish impersonation of Budweiser! She was finishing up what looked like the last of a frozen daiquiri. My God, there is hope for this place. We spoke for a few minutes but unfortunately they were just leaving when we got there. Before they left, Graham explained to me that Fat Boy’s was the hang out for most of the balloon pilots that are working in Cappadocia and that on Sunday afternoon at two o’clock, was the unofficial meeting place and time for the Royal Order of The Calloused Pinky Society. And if I wanted to be a member, I should show up on Sunday. Well at this point I am desperate for some kind of social contact, but am wondering what the heck kind of initiation I would have to endure to be a member in good standing in this suspicious group.
I showed up at Fat Boy’s the following Sunday right on time. Sancho has already agreed to meet me there and was on his way. I spotted the British/American couple sitting in a traditional Turkish booth with two other gentlemen that I did not know. The booth had a square table in the middle but it was only a few inches tall. There were cushions for seats and it is required that you take off your shoes to sit there. Graham and Alceia appeared genuinely pleased that I had shown up and that made me feel pretty good. I could not, not show up. First I was having a real need to be around someone that I could communicate with and not wonder if I had just told some poor soul in Turkish to go wash themselves instead of the intended “good morning”. And, I was pretty much at my wits end trying to figure out what the Royal Order of the Calloused Pinky Society could possibly be all about and how and if I would even qualify.
They introduced me to David and John, two Brits who were also pilots. David has been here for several months and John had only arrived two days earlier. Thank goodness, at least I am no longer the newest guy in town. David is one of those guys. The kind that likes to talk and be heard. But the good news is, he does it in such a way that it is not at all irritating and really down right entertaining. I used to think and have been proud of the fact that I speak pretty good English. I was wrong. David speaks “English” and obviously, I just manage to get by with a variation of red neck American. He and John are also from the UK. John currently calls Japan “home” and will go back there once his tour of duty is finished in Turkey, flying very big balloons. Apparently David has no permanent address. He has spent the last few years hiring out to fly balloons in places like, Kenya, Australia, Spain, Netherlands, India and of course Turkey. I have later discovered that is the case with a lot of the pilots here. Flying balloons for a living and going wherever the wind takes them, so to speak.
I ordered and Efess and just listened while the men told tales of flying tourist here in very big balloons. We are talking balloons that will hold 15 to 25 people. As Mehmet would say, “a lot of”! I won’t tell you all of the tales here and now, but do you know what happens to botoxed lips at altitude? Well I did not either, but Graham was gracious enough in the most formal Brit accent he could muster, to explain it in vivid detail. It was not a pretty picture. The telling of it had to be one of the funniest accounts I have heard in a while. It was the first time since I have been in Turkey, that I just laughed out loud until the tears were flowing down my cheeks. And he just went on and on and about it and said the only thing he could think of at the time was, “I wonder if I go high enough, will they actually explode and make a mess in my basket? Or will they just fall off and get trampled by tourist that are crammed in like sardines”?
When I finally gained my composure and could not stand it any more I had to ask Graham the question that had been on my mind since our first meeting a few days earlier. Would he please explain about the R.O. C. P. S? He laughed out loud and did proceed to tell me. And I could have kicked myself for not knowing, but you have to remember, I have led a fairly sheltered life compared to these guys. “It’s very simple really”, he said. We fly very big balloons here and these balloons carry a lot of passengers. These balloons are fitted with turning vents, so that the balloon can be turned in flight, left or right, to give all the passengers a good view, and most importantly, to position those bus sized baskets full of tourist for a proper and safe landing. It does not change the direction of flight, just the orientation of the basket. Crap, I knew that. I think. Since I have never had or flown a balloon equipped with a turning vent, I did not know that after “venting” every day to turn the very big balloon, one’s pinky finger will become calloused very quickly from pulling on the small rope that operates the vent.
Now I know, and I am so anxious to have my very own duly seasoned pinky. I can hardly wait to be a member of this elite club, here in Turkey, flying very big balloons.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Adventure of a Lifetime"

I think I have mentioned before that things move pretty slowly here in Turkey. (Except for all moving vehicles that is). I have been here for two weeks now and I am still waiting to be cleared by the Civilian Aviation Authority of Turkey so I can start flying the very big balloons. I have had a seven hour aviation medical exam. I have registered with the local police who verified my visa and work permit, and my place of residence here in Turkey. I have done everything they have asked and I am still waiting. I have been told, that all is in order, that the only thing left is for the CAA to schedule my check flight. For that I will fly with a Turkish check pilot and 10 very brave volunteer passengers. During the flight I have to demonstrate that I can safely fly the 210,000 cubic foot balloon among the 40 + other balloons flying in very close proximity over the tricky Cappadocia terrain. The flight must also include 3 full stop landings, which means I have to find not one decent place to land this monster, but 3 separate ones. No problem. I am a bit nervous about the check ride, just because it is a “check” ride. But that is normal, at least for me. In my 39 years of flying small single engine airplanes, high performance jets in the U. S. Air Force, and hot air balloons, I have never liked “check” rides. I know they are necessary, but I just don’t like ‘em. I just want to get it over with so I can start the job I came here to do, flying very big balloons.
I can’t believe that I am actually here and getting to do this. Ever since I started ballooning over 20 years ago, I always thought about flying tourist in some exotic place. It doesn’t get much more exotic than the beautiful mountains and valleys of south central Turkey. Just another classic case of “be careful what you wish for”. You might get it. I am thankful that I did.

Everybody who knows where I am and what I am doing just goes on and on about how exciting it is, “an adventure of a lifetime”. I agree. But be assured, it does not come without sacrifice. I will be here for about five months, which in the big scheme of things, as we all know, is nothing. It will go by in a blink. But during that blink there are a few things I cherish that I will miss and never get back. I will miss our annual trip out west to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Joy and I just live for those times. I will miss getting the faithful Skybird crew together for an early morning flight out in the country so that some couple, young or not so young, can experience the once in a lifetime adventure on their first and probably only hot air balloon ride ever. I will miss breakfast at Lea’s with the girls who have taken more than their share of hard times from me and the crew. There’s some pretty good talk that goes on around that table while we wait for our breakfast. My favorite thing to tell folks that have never been there, about Lea’s is …there is no menu, you just order what you want, and they bring you what they got. But it is always good.
I will miss whatever it is that the grandkids are into, baseball games, birthday parties, or just hanging out at Papa’s house in the woods. Those times are precious and go by way too quickly to miss even a minute of it. I will miss hanging out at the river. It’s kinda like Forest Gump said, “life, (the river) is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”! You just never know who is there or who will show up. Like one day when the guy walked up out of nowhere with a chicken perched on his shoulder. But that’s a whole other story.
I will miss being there for my kids. They are all grown ups, but sometime ole Dad just might have the solution for whatever catastrophe is presenting itself on any given day. I will miss my log house in the woods. It’s not fancy, but it is home and it gives me peace and comfort when I am there.
And I will miss Joy. Time lost with my wife at this stage of our lives is tragic. We can’t get it back, and we just don’t know how much of it we still have left. None of us do. Every day, every moment is a gift. I have wasted some of that gift in my life and I regret it. That is why it is hard to be away now. But for this, which we will share once she makes the trip to Turkey, we agreed to sacrifice the gift, for a few moments, to get to share the “adventure of a lifetime”, here, together.
It is not just my sacrifice. It is shared by my family and friends whose lives have been altered, greatly or slightly, so that I could be here in Turkey flying very big balloons. And I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Girls With No Shoes

I had my first official site seeing trip in Cappadocia yesterday. It was suppose to be me and Mehmet, him picking me up at 10am. At 10:20 he called to say that he was not able to go, but his partner, Ersin was going to let me use his vehicle for the day, and I could go where ever I wanted. Sure enough, 10 minutes later Ersin showed up. The vehicle turned out to be a 1987 jeep with no top, which I thought would be pretty cool driving around. Except I was more than a little concerned because I had driven this vehicle the day before. Just a short distance between the “hangar” and my apartment. It performed miserably. It coughed and sputtered and jerked and stalled and just completely died six times in the two mile trip. I reminded Ersin about that and he smiled real big and said in very broken English, “yes it is a beautiful day!” Once I did get him to understand my worry, he in turn ,through hand motions, and very deliberate short phrases, explained that the electronic control device attached to the dash that meters and regulates the flow of natural gas to the engine was the culprit and had been replaced. Yep, natural gas. Right there in the back of the little jeep is a 20 liter tank. It seems that gasoline is very expensive here and a lot of the vehicles have converted either to total use of natural gas or a combination of that and gasoline. I noticed that gasoline is only about 2.80 Turkish lira or about 2.25 dollars. But that is for a liter and not a good ole U.S. gallon. So it comes out to be about twice what we pay for it.
Once I dropped him off, I was on my own for the day, which felt pretty good. I have been on someone else’s schedule for the last two weeks. My goal was to see the Goreme Open Air Museum. The site is the center of the Cappadocia tourist attractions. It contains numerous sandstone caves that were carved out centuries ago and in this particular area were used as churches by monks somewhere around 1000-1200AD. These people had a load of talent and showed it in their paintings on the ceilings and walls of the cave churches. These paintings are called frescoes. Don’t ask me why, but they are amazingly and hauntingly beautiful. Please go to one of the many web sites for more.

It is only 10 kilometers (6 miles)from Avanos but I took my time to enjoy the ride. Top down on the jeep, 80 degrees, sun shining, life is good. And by the way, I was wearing my LG T-shirt. I did discover something on the drive that has had me puzzled since I arrived in Turkey. Sure enough, it is possible to drive on this side of the world and stay on the right side of the road. I was beginning to think there was some kind of magnetic field affecting the vehicles around here. Mehmet has not stayed on his side of the road for more than 30 seconds at a time without crossing over, and I don’t mean just a little bit. All the way over. I have mentioned it to him a couple of times and his reply is always, “yes, it is a beautiful day”. I’m going to keep trying though.
I drove into the town of Goreme and there was a sign pointing to the left and up the hill. I was in tourist heaven. The street was lined with souvenir shops, outside cafes, and tour guide services. The jeep is perfect for negotiating the narrow, curvy, and hilly, brick streets so I made the turn and in short order found myself at the entrance to the museum. I pulled into one of several parking lots that was too small for the 20-30 tour buses that had arrived before me. Parked the jeep and proceeded to the entrance gate. I was met by a young man with tiny wire rim glasses, wearing a ball cap and short pants. You don’t see short pants here, except on tourist. Don’t know why this guy was different. He was polite and asked me was this my first time here. (How did he know?) When I said yes, his eyes lit up, in fact I think I saw little Turkish liras reflecting in them. He spoke very good English but had a very different accent, not Turkish. He said he noticed I had a jeep and that, although the museum was very nice, that now would not be a good time to go. Too many tourist and way too hot. I could see his point. He said he could show me some very nice places that were only accessible by the type vehicle I had and their would be “magnificent and fabulous” views. And he would be happy to take me and let me experience that with him. All for only 30TL. I quickly thought of three reasons not to do this. 1. My mission today was to see the Open Air Museum. 2. I’m gonna be here for several months and I can go exploring new territory any time I want. 3. I’m a little short of Turkish lira, or dollars, or any other kind of negotiable legal tender. I politely thanked him but told him I had a limited amount of time today, but I would consider his offer another day, please give me a card. He did and went on to the next guy that looked green.
It cost 15TL to get into the museum. Money well spent. It was all I had imagined and more. The towering sandstone formations, deep ravines, and spectacular cave churches, all lived up to the hype. Those were all things I had expected. It is the unexpected, that always gets your attention. I lost my wallet and didn’t even know it…had it not been for the girls with no shoes, I could have been in a real fix.
You can’t help but watch and listen to the “other tourist”. I was fascinated that I could be around so many people that looked just like me, for the most part and not understand a word being said. I am not an expert, but I’m sure I recognized French, German, Turkish, and several variations of Asian dialect. So when I heard someone behind me say, “lets go this way”, it got my attention. I was excited at the notion that I might get to talk to someone in my own language. I turned and asked in the best southern English I could muster, “where ya’ll from?”. The two young ladies were from California, but considering I was desperate to have a conversation with someone, I let that go. They had been in Cappadocia for a couple of days and this was the last day before they were to catch a plane that evening to Istanbul. Yes, they had taken the a balloon tour the morning before and it was just wonderful. About then, out of nowhere, the weather changed. The now 85 degree sunny day turned to solid grey accompanied by pouring rain. The winding trail that moments before was just dust, now was rapidly becoming a little river of water flowing rapidly down the hill. The three of us found ourselves seeking shelter and as luck would have it, no caves close by. The only refuge from the downpour was a entrance to a cave but it had been blocked by a glass door. There was just enough room for us and two other folks who were trying to escape the elements. They were from Australia. There were no signs or explanations for the glass door being there. (We later learned the glass door was there to allow you to see the unearthed graves of some poor souls, bones and all.) So for the next 20 minutes, we waited. The five of us strangers, trapped by something as simple as falling water. Christiana was of Filipino decent. Natalya was born in Columbia. They both lived and worked in California and were just having a “girls getaway” holiday. Natalya was going to a wedding in Spain and invited her friend Christina to go along. They had already been to the wedding, then to Istanbul for a few days, now Turkey and were traveling on to Jordan before returning home. I was curious. Did they book a package deal all planned out for them? I was pleased that no, they booked the flight to Spain and just “figured out the rest as we went along”. How wonderful that people can have the gumption to take off on that kind of adventure. They were having a grand time. After a little time had passed I got up enough nerve to ask, “Where are your shoes? What were you thinking going on a two hour hiking tour, up and down these hills, climbing ladders, over rocks?” They were wearing sandals, for crying out loud! Very fashionable, tiny little things with one small leather string between the toes. But not even close to functional in the terrain we were in. I had noticed even before the rain came and thought to myself…what were they thinking?
Of course they had no logical explanation. Just a “girl wants to look good priority thing, I guess. I can appreciate it, kinda like high heels, but I sure don’t understand it.
They ask me the usual questions. Where was I from, what are you doing here, how long are you staying? I answered all that smartly enough, and added that I had a small balloon company and specialized in private flights for two people back in Louisiana. Christiana had been to Louisiana but was thinking of going back and do a food tour. Not sure what that is have to eat no matter where you go. She asked me for a contact number just in case she and her boy friend might want to go on a ride. That was when my world took a nose dive. I said to her, “let me give you a card that has all my contact information,” as I reached around to my blue jeans back pocket for my wallet. And then the other back pocket, and both front pockets, then the back again, and the front again as if I kept looking in the same place that my wallet would magically appear. I can not tell you the panic that passed through every inch of my body at that moment. A hundred scenarios raced through my head and what was in that wallet. Everything. A few Turkish lira, driver’s license, bank card, pilot’s license, SS card, the coveted work permit/ get out of jail free card, my life. Pardon the expression, but it took everything in me to stay calm and not just start screaming like a girl. The girls with no shoes could tell there was a problem. As calmly as I could manage, I proclaimed that I had lost my wallet. There faces mirrored my desperate look. I imagined in my head what kind of problem this could be for me, here in the middle of Turkey. What misery would be bestowed on me because I was so careless! Where could it be? I had taken it out two times since paying admission at the gate. Once, to purchase a bottle of drinking water, back when it was 85 degrees and hot. (The weather change dropped the temperature to 65 degrees now and the girls with no shoes were getting cold) I also used it to pay an extra 8TL for access into the Dark Church along the trail. I couldn’t remember which came first. I had the bottle of water in my back pocket, the same pocket as my wallet. Could my wallet have fallen out along the way as I pulled out the bottle for a drink? It could be anywhere at this point. Along the trail, maybe picked up by a tourist and now on it’s way back to whatever country they came from. Or in one of the several dark caves or narrow passage ways that I had been crawling around in. A feeling of hopelessness totally engulfed my body. I am doomed. I will never find it. But I have to try. It was still raining, but now that didn’t matter. That was the least of my worries. I told the girls with no shoes goodbye and wished them a safe journey and then slipped out into the rain to try to get my life back.
I worked my way down the muddy trail, water running fast seeking a resting place.
All the while my eyes searching the ground for my precious peace of mind, looking left and right, up and down. I searched a small passage way that led to a dark cave. There was no one in the cave and it was cold, dark, and not strangely, lonely. I could hardly see the ground so I pulled out my new Turkish cell phone and fumbled until I got the built in flashlight to come on. Little more than a small candle considering the vast darkness that surrounded me. No wallet. Leaving the cave and back on the trail, I continued to search to no avail. Shortly I reached the cave/tea house where I had purchased the bottle of water. I was relieved to see the same young girl at the counter. When I approached she smiled and I thought I had hit the jackpot. She remembers me and has my wallet!!, I say to myself. But instead she proceeded to ask by way of moving her hands across the counter, what would I like…water, soda, tea, cookies? Oh my God she does not have it! Not able to vocally make her understand, I began to play charades with her, hoping she would get the idea. I put my hands together flat then opened and closed trying to make them look something like a wallet. She pointed to the water bottles lined up on the counter. No, I screamed in my own head. I don’t want water, I want my wallet back. I tried again. This time with a little more emotion and desperation. She proclaimed. “Ahhh”, held up one finger vertically in the universal sign for “wait here”, as she walked around the corner and out the door. In less that 10 seconds she returned followed by a young Turkish man who held my life in his hands. The first thing I did was give the girl, now smiling, a great big traditional Turkish hug, executed by hugging and kissing one cheek and then the other…twice. Then I followed that by just a good ole tight squeeze. The man handed me my wallet and I tried very hard to say thank you in his native language. I was so happy and excited I could not remember “tesekur ederim”!! I just kept saying “thank you, thank you’!!! He replied with a proud grin on his face, “no problem in Turkey”. And that’s the way it is here in this country with the Turkish people. Modest, proud, friendly, and most of all, lucky for me, totally honest.
It was like I had been born again, resurrected from the dead. My identity restored. Right here in this ancient place, the very cross roads of modern religion, where the apostles and saints lived and traveled. And I owe it all to the girls with no shoes. If I had not asked, “where ya’ll from”, had we not got stuck in the rain, had they not asked for my card, had I not reached for my wallet to retrieve a card… would have, could have been hours and miles down the road before I even noticed my wallet was gone. I am thankful.
I will most likely never see or hear from them again. But if I do, I’m going to buy them some shoes.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Solomon’s Wine House
May 26, 2010

Mehmet, my host and employer in Turkey and I were having a casual discussion about alcohol. We both agreed that neither of us are really big drinkers. But when he asked me if I liked wine, I said yes. To appreciate what happened next I have to tell you what we had been doing, this my first full day after arriving in Avanos, Turkey.

We had agreed that Mehmet would pick me up at my little stone house apartment at 10am. The clock in my head, not nearly adjusted to the 8 hour time difference, told me I should be still sleeping, after all it was 2am at home. But I was up at 5am for some ungodly reason. My main objective at least first hand was to unpack my suitcase. That took 15 minutes if you count the extra 5 I killed re-arranging my stuff in the small accommodation. I then went about the task of trying to get online so I could start communicating with the world again. Just like the night before, no luck. The wireless seemed to be working, I was getting the “you are connected message” but could not log on for love or money. Next, I decided to step outside and see what this little piece of Turkey looked like in the daylight. (It was late and dark when I arrived the night before.) You might remember the reason I came to Turkey in the first place, to fly very big balloons. I stepped out my door way, took a few steps to my right toward what looked like would be a reasonable vantage point to take a look around. The 30 or so hot air balloons that filled the sky in the near distant valley literally took my breath away. (Sorry if that sounds un-masculine.) They were just hanging as if someone had placed them there like ornaments on a Christmas tree. After the initial shock, I began to take in what else was in this picture. Imagine….a valley divided by a beautiful clean flowing river, the Red River, actually as coincidence would have it. The side of the river nearest me is filled with red tile roofed houses and business’ that make up half the small town of Avanos. The other half of the town is on the other side of the river followed by rolling green hills that dump into the valley floor that is hosting the gathering of balloons and their tourist passengers from all over the world. Directly below the hovering chariots are what they all came to see. A geographical site millions of years in the making by nature and altered slightly over the last 8,000 years by man. Volcanic action on three sides gave the landscape it’s definition, the people gave it it’s character. The sandstone over countless years formed a one of a kind geography that includes castle looking structures and “towers” that are now called fairy chimneys. Then as people began to inhabit the area, they carved the sandstone structures into houses, churches, and whole underground cities. If you would like a lot more detail about the area, just go online and search for “Cappadocia”….it’s worth doing.

Anyway, after taking in as much of that view as I could stand I was off on another mission. Mehmet had been very thorough in furnishing the apartment with everything I needed to just move in. Furniture, linens, vacuum cleaner, iron, TV, high speed internet,(well, eventually), fully equipped kitchen with new appliances. Just everything a person would possibly need….almost…note to Mehmet….next time don’t forget the toilet paper! So, I went on a quest to find that which was at this point desperately needed to make the living accommodations complete. I made a list of a few other items that I could use and struck out to town. OK, I am already in town….out the door, down a very steep cobble stone street, with a bunch of cobles missing, take a right and I am on the main street of Avanos. It’s just like you would imagine. Small shops, markets, with fresh fruits and veggies and stuff I had never seen before. This was gonna be easy. Oh, wait…sure enough, these folks do not speak or understand English, or at least the way I attempt to speak it. The first place I went into was a market that had all of the above stuff…fresh stuff. I suspect it came from the green part of the valley across the river. After walking around the small place a couple of rounds I came face to face with I guess, the owner. Not having a clue what else to say, I asked, “do you speak English?” He looked at me like I had said nothing at all….blank. I tried again. This time real slow and louder hoping these changes would make a difference. It worked, sorta. He smiled and shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in a manner that even I could understand..he had no idea what I said. Not to be deterred I just kept on talking, explaining that I was from the USA, just got in last night, was staying around the corner, and would be here for the summer, flying very big balloons. The amount of talking did not seem to help, but it did produce some smiling and affirmative head shaking indicating that he understood which led him to trying to give me what looked like goat cheese cause maybe I looked hungry? I tried to be graceful, but ended up just smiling real big and slowly backed out of this man’s world.

After entering a couple of more places, I finally found a shop that had what I was looking for. Toilet paper, no problem. Fairly recognizable. I also needed some shampoo. For those of you who are visually impaired, you can appreciate this. It reminded me strangely of being in the shower, without my glasses and trying to determine, which bottle is shampoo and which one is conditioner? Same problem here, except I had my glasses on and I wasn’t naked. But although the bottles on the shelf had some familiar looking brand names, the details of what was inside, of course, was in Turkish. After spending way too much time at that location, I finally settled on a good old fashioned bottle of “ClearTech Mukemmel Dolgunluk. I’m kinda hoping it works with no lasting side effects.

After returning to my little stone house, Mehmet, picked me up right on time. Mehmet is not your normal Turk. Most of the people here are of medium height and keep their hair cut very short. Mehmet literally stands out in a crowd. He is at least 6’ 1” tall and has coal black hair that is long and combed back over the top of his head ending up in what looks like a Steven Segal flip. In fact he looks very similar to Mr. Segal. He is very friendly and outgoing. Everybody knows him and it seems every where we go, people just want to talk to him. About what, I have no idea.

After a couple of stops, he took me to a café for lunch. We had what must be the favorite thing around here, which is kebob…it is sold everywhere….a lot of variations, but still kebob….pretty much some kind of meat with some grilled veggies. Not too bad really. Hot tea is the drink of choice. Served in what looks like a small clear juice glass. I think I am developing a taste for it.

We then proceeded to go to the “hangar” where he keeps all his ballooning equipment. He calls it a hangar but it is really a fenced in gravel parking lot with a little building. The balloons are kept outside covered on their trailers. It is new and in the process of getting all the essentials like water and electricity. On this day the task was burying wire. So on my first full day in Turkey, instead of flying very big balloons, I found myself attached to the end of a shovel filling in the ditch containing the wire. Which brings me to the actual subject of this installment. As we were finishing the task at hand, somehow alcohol was mentioned and as I said in the beginning, we both agreed it was not a big deal. But when I told him that I did enjoy a little wine, it was like a switch went off in his head. He dropped his shovel and in his broken English, said , “come, let us go”. And go we went. And fast. Everything in turkey moves very slowly. Except traffic. The narrow, stone streets may as well be Talladega. Between the little screaming scooters, the tour buses and Mehmet’s quest to break some kind of speed record, I thought I had traveled half way around the world just to die on a Turkish street…without even flying not one very big balloon.

We went through the little town like a mouse on steroids looking for cheese. Around this corner, up that hill, down and around and up and down until we came to a stop with Mehmet proclaiming, “ good..he’s open.” He was Solomon. We stepped off the street into a small courtyard filled with flowers and green grass and grapevines hanging over head. The sun was almost gone and the air was as clean and cool as one could have imagined. We were met by a small man with graying short hair and wearing modest western looking clothes with the exception of a wool sweater vest looking garment that seems to be the must have attire among the Turkish men. He invited us to sit on a small bench, verbally to Mehmet and through hand motions to me. And we just sat for a few minutes enjoying the evening before Solomon and Mehmet began exchanging some rapid fire conversation that left me bug eyed. Mehmet explained that Solomon had just invited us into his wine cellar. It was not a cellar. It was a fricking cave. The entrance was large, big enough that Mehmet did not have to bend to enter. And it was dark. I kept expecting a light to come on somewhere but it remained dark. As we entered, I could feel the air get cooler. There is something about being in the middle of a rock that is unnerving, at least to me. As we continued we made a sharp left turn into a narrow, low passage that then opened up into a small room. In here there was some light coming from somewhere, but it was very soft. The room was half surrounded by rock benches carved out of the wall, which is where we were invited to sit. In front of us was a long narrow table that held an array of wine bottles and small wine glasses. Solomon stood on the other side of the table, put his hands together and began to speak. It looked like class was about to begin. He seemed to be talking directly to me, even though he knew I could not understand a word. But it was easy to understand, that this man was telling me a story, his story, and it was filled with such enthusiasm and passion, that the words did not matter. I was mesmorized. To me the words he spoke were like background music, and only secondary to the story being told. His eyes sparkled and danced as his hands kept time to the music. I somehow broke free of my trance and realized that Mehmet was quietly translating the story to me. I won’t tell you the whole story, wouldn’t want to spoil your own trip to the Wine Hause. But you should know that, according to our host, people have been making wine in that cave for over 1,000 years! In the dark stillness of that ancient place, you can almost sense the past, and for a brief moment, become a part of that history.

We sampled wine as the story unfolded, each small glass followed by a few moments of silence, and time to let the taste and aroma of the last fade before the next one was served. Each one was just a little different, progressing from sweet, sweet, to sweet, tangy. They were all good as I listened. When we were done, he gently guided us out of the dark place where the story was told. (I needed more than a little guiding after the story and the wine, to keep from stumbling in the dark).
No money was exchanged that evening at Solomon’s Wine House. But there was something given to me that I will not forget. A welcome to Turkey that will last me every day that I am here, and then some.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Balloning in Cappacocia is unlike anywhere else in the world. It is truely breath taking.

Cappadocia: The Land Of Beautiful Horses

I am not sure why this place is called "the land of beautiful horses". I guess the only reason that it is not named the land of beautiful balloons is because, 8,000 years ago when people first inhabited the area, hot air balloons were a bit scarce. That is not the case now. On any given day as the sun begins it's journey here, weather permitting, and it does permit about 300 days a year, you can see anywhere from 40 to 60 balloons gathered peacfully hovering above some of the most interesting terrain in the world. It all started nearly 20 years ago with one balloon and now there are 15 ride operators working here. And apparently it is the easist marketing sell ever. There is no shortage of passengers that are standing in line to pay 150 euros, (about $190) each to experience the "ride and veiw of a lifetime". They come in tour groups on buses that have come from trains, planes, and automobiles from around the world to lay eyes on this ancient place. And they are not disappointed. I am here for the season, which will last into November, to fly these monsters that carry the willing and fortunate, up to 8, 15, or 25 at a time. I hope to become more adapt at composing and editing on this site and provide anyone interested, thoughts and observations about life in Cappacocia. Stay tuned. By the way, so far, I have only seen a few horses, and I have to say, not really that beautiful.