The mini-bus cruised through desert-like terrain, outside the window the place looked wildly unfamiliar, jutting hollow rocks seemingly housing mystical creatures were scattered across hills. ‘Fairy Chimneys’ they were sometimes called. Zigzagging up the hills we came to a higher point in the valley and all of a sudden the bus screeched to a halt and we were ushered out to take in the vista.
Endless rock formations looked almost like sand dunes as they blended into one another in the distance. As I gazed into the valley at the rolling hills the hot sun warmed my cheeks while bursts of cool air made the surface of my skin quiver.
Despite resembling residential structures these formations were formed naturally, millions of years ago. The development of this strange and magnificent landscape was explained as the result of three volcanoes at the edges of the region erupting frequently. Erosion then gave way to the usual rock formations, and lava passing through the valley formed isolation pinnacles jutting out of the ground.
It was only after nature had taken its course that ancient communities began to inhabit them and use them as churches. If I didn’t know any better I would have guessed that we had landed on some foreign planet, amidst dusty craters and a village of alien abodes. A thought that remained clear in my head was that I needed to get up higher.
My eyelids flickered open at half past four in the morning. In pitch black I got dressed in a hurry and made my way out into the desert cold. In silence we rode a bus to the sight of take off, the fairy chimneys undistinguishable in the morning darkness. freezing cold we approached our flight vessel, a billowing and partially deflated balloon, its basket laying on its side.
Shoulder-to-shoulder we huddled together in the basket in silent disbelief. Short, very loud, bursts of liquid propane inflated the balloon, causing the basket to shuffle clumsily across the dusty ground, until a swirl of nausea in my stomach signaled that we were in fact hovering.
Unable to process what was happening I began to laugh. I quickly realized we were not alone, the sun had begun to rise, and with it, an entire fleet of hot air balloons now surrounded us (we later found out that over 100 balloons were in the sky that morning). The magical rock formations looked even more surreal than they had from the ground, cruising over a mythical city in our brightly colored whimsical vessels, I felt like we belonged in a painting by Salvador Dali.
As we floated higher, so high that the rocks now resembled ripples in a sand dune, I was overcome by a euphoric haze, like the feeling you get deep in a dream when you are facing danger but feel calmly invincible. The song '40-day-dream' by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes played in a loop in my head. Around me my fellow passengers were silhouetted by the brightening sun. My friend squeezed my hand tightly, her eyes brimming with tears despite her expression of pure joy.
Coming in for landing I felt fearless and at peace. Our bearded captain mumbled careful instructions into his walkie-talkie as he guided the base of the basket towards the back of a vehicle. We cheered in unison, bursting into laughter as if high off the first few puffs of a joint. Walking away from the balloon I awoke from my dreamlike state, but the magical mystery feeling lingers with me still.