We started our New Year at 4:30 AM, when the east coast of the US still had 6 hours left in the Old Year. Alex took the call reporting favorable winds for flying, and an hour later we were in a pitch-black jungle clearing, filled by a huge ballon laying on its side and the white noise of hot air being pumped into it.
Ten minutes later the balloon and its basket were standing upright, the pilot had switched from the electric to the propane version of white noise, and we were loaded into that basket.
Several time-tested cliches apply to cruising along in a hot-air balloon over the jungle canopy of Sri Lanka, but the one that came to my mind was “pictures don’t do it justice.” Pictures don’t do it justice, esp the ones we can take on our cell phones (our camera met its end a few weeks ago). This is a blessing and a curse. It lets you relax, live in the moment, harness the power of now, all that good stuff. At the same time, it raises the question of how we will remember moments like this. We have taken thousands of photos on this trip, forced the kids to write occasionally in the journals, and done a terrible job of finding and sending home meaningful items to remind us of these places. I often wonder how we, especially the kids, will remember this trip in the years to come, and moments like this put a fine point on that question.
Back in the balloon, we flew up and over misty hills and villages. Maybe it was the landscape, maybe the time of day, but there was a lot of quiet in that basket. We looked in vain for elephants, and the few words spoken were to point out eagles and peacocks and buffalo (buffalos?) below us. Eventually, we wondered how one lands a balloon gracefully in the jungle. Our captain answered by quietly (of course) lowering us into what could be generously called a meadow. He broke the silence, along with a few mediumish trees, as he barked out orders to the ground crew that somehow had figured we’d be landing at that spot, behind a chicken farm. In Sri Lanka. A place that wasn’t much on my radar twelve months ago. Pretty wild.
This adventure was echoed the following morning as we once again set our alarms, 4:15 AM this time, for 14 hours of flight to New Zealand. I’ll take this opportunity to make a point: People, if your driver says to get to the airport three hours early, he just might know something you don’t. In this case, Anura said there was construction on the airport access road. We were unjustifiably skeptical, and I never saw any construction, but when we pulled up to the airport we saw hordes of people and lines (a.k.a. queues) that all of a sudden made our two hours of lead time look puny by comparison.
We’ve all got nightmarish airport stories and I’ll spare you the details of this one, but it will suffice to say this was one of countless episodes where Alex’s skills of confrontation and sharp elbows won the day. I promise there have been others where my expertise in finessing our way through an awkward situation proved equally useful. At least that’s what I told myself as she got us past a line of about 300 other travellers in the Emigration department in about ninety seconds. I was already having a hard time recalling the serenity of the hot-air balloon.
So we made it onto the plane and off to Kuala Lumpur, where an eight-hour layover provided the opportunity for further reflection. Instead of reflection, however, Alex and I used the computers in the American Express lounge to conduct business that had been ignored over the past few weeks, and the kids drank a million Sprites and watched TV.
After ten event-free hours on our second flight, the captain just announced that we are landing in Auckland in 15 minutes, so I am signing off. More adventures to come, most immediately as I drive into the city on the wrong side of the road in our new (to us) minivan. That’s right, we now own minivans on both sides of the equator. Pretty wild, indeed.