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.

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