To travel is to live and one need not have a passport or even a plane ticket to take off. In fact, the best and most used travel document I have is my library card. With anywhere from 1-8 books on perpetual rotation, I’m in a constant state of exploration from deep caves in South Korea where mammoths were so well preserved that a blood sample was available for the de-extinction project at Harvard’s Church Genetic Lab (Woolly by Ben Mezrich) to the strange world of consciousness in a cephalopod (The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery) to the familiar and well traveled halls of Hogwarts (Harry Potter by JK Rowling). The majority of the time my travels take place during the rather mundane and scheduled day-to-day of my life, but occasionally actual travel coincides with metaphorical travel.
This past October I went to Mexico while simultaneously exploring the pyramids of a Camel cigarette pack a la Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker. Mexico was fabulous, and we’ll get to it in just a minuto, but first – the cigarettes.
It’s not very often that I’m floored by a book, but when it happens the deep corners of my soul reverberate and hum with an energy akin to sticking your finger in a socket. Still Life with Woodpecker was one such book – or to be more precise, the last 4 pages of the author’s note at the very end of Still Life with Woodpecker are what floored me. How dare he (Robbins) flaunt and drag me through an utterly absurd story, through the image on the front of a pack of Camel cigarettes no less, only to leave me with a profound note on the meaning of life! I was not prepared in the slightest, and felt as if Robbins, through mere words printed on a page, was able to steal a little of the lime-light from Mexico City. Not cool man!
Thankfully, I was with a friend who was willing to have some pretty deep conversations about the meaning of life, and how we’re meant to go about our time on this planet, so I felt some consolation there, BUT STILL! That book! That note! I’m tempted to share it with you, but I’m not going to – in the hopes that you go and get a copy of it to read for yourself, or at the very least skip to the back and read the author’s note. It’ll make more sense if you read the full book, but you do you. What I will tell you is this – life is full of these moments of extreme… ecstasy. You know, that feeling of being so alive, like each and every one of your cells is bursting with energy. Being in love. Exploring a new place. Eating the perfect taco – you get the idea. So the question then becomes – how do you make that feeling stay? Some use drugs, alcohol, sex, money or keep a menagerie of cats. Others seek out extreme adventure, gamble or take similarly intense risks. There really is no one answer, but to acknowledge that the feeling, the mystery of a LIFE LIVED IN ALL CAPS, exists perhaps is the first step to figuring out how to make it stay. This is what was rattling around in my mind while I strolled through the parks, museums and skies of Mexico.
Okay, now that I’ve set the internal stage, let’s get to setting the literal one. Mexico City. Sitting at roughly 7,000 feet above sea level, with it’s highest point around 12,000 feet, this is one of the highest, largest and most densely populated places on the planet. Tucked in a valley atop the Sierra Nevada, CDMX sprawls out like an ornate quilt that was dropped from the gods – the gods that were once worshipped with pyramids of divine scope and size.
It was to such pyramids that we headed with one long uber ride at 4:30 in the morning. As I mentioned in a previous post, the best experiences tend to start with the signing of a liability waiver, so keeping true to form I sniffed out the an activity that involved some serious risk and required a signature. **I’m starting to realize that I fall into the “takes unnecessary risks” category when it comes to making that feeling of “the mystery” – stay**
Neither of us had been in a hot air balloon before, and after a short self-assessment we determined that we weren’t afraid of heights and were up for the adventure. Due to wind patterns, all balloons have to take off at the literal crack of dawn to assure a smooth and successful flight, so at 5:45AM on a cold morning we prepared to board what is most certainly one of the most high-risk and ludicrous aircrafts ever designed.
The basket and balloon both start out hungover and passed-out, laying on their sides and sprawled out on the ground (these balloons are MASSIVE). Two fans are used to coax some life into the sleeping giants, and once the balloon is full enough to sit upright it’s a race against the clock to board before it becomes airborne. Two men wrangled and held down the balloon as if it were an oversized and gravity-defying bull at the rodeo, while we hurriedly hoisted ourselves up and into the basket (of course there wasn’t a door, that would be too easy).
We were assigned one of the smaller balloons and shimmied our way into the basket which held 5 passengers, the pilot and four large tanks of propane. I hardly noticed that we had taken-off as it was so incredibly smooth, and the heat from the 20 foot flame above our heads was a welcome relief to the shivery chill of the early morning air. Aside from the boom of the intermittent blast of fire above us, we silently floated up and over to what was once the thriving metropolis of Teotihuacan (which will get a post of its own). Now a tourist attraction, these pyramids stand as giant relics to a world lost to time. The Pyramid of the Sun (pictured below, closest to the camera) is the third largest pyramid in the world, dwarfed only by the Great Pyramids of Giza. Before I get too hot and heavy into Teotihuacan, let’s carry on with the balloon ride…
After gliding over the pyramids, the pilot laid on the gas (or, pulled on it is more like it) taking us up, up and away! We began climbing at what seemed to be a fairly rapid pace and once we were up above the cloud line, trouble hit. The angle at which we were looking down on the earth was such that the clouds erased the horizon, thus wiping out my point of reference and kicking my equilibrium to the curb. I was instantly dizzy and felt light-headed, part of which was due to the lack of air at the altitude we were flying at (close to 10,000′ – but remember we started out at 7,000′ so we were only about 3,000′ off of the ground). Nevertheless, 10,000′ is nothing to scoff at, especially if you’re a lowlander like myself and you can’t absorb enough oxygen to scoff!
Do you see the balloons that are itty-bitty and up so high? That was us. Each of the smaller balloons that took flight that morning had their turn up on orbit’s ass (not really, but that’s what it felt like). We were only up at that height for a few minutes before we began our gentle descent and lazy flight over the neighboring town of San Juan Teotihuacan. Our pilot kept asking if we were all okay because our lack of talk seemed to unnerve him, but we were simply in awe and reveling in silence of hot air balloon travel.
As we came within a few hundred feet of the ground the pilot told us to grab onto the sides of the basket, to bend our knees and to prepare for impact. It was then that I realized I had never seen a hot air balloon land. I’ve seen loads take-off and fly high above me, but never seen one come back down. This could be ugly.
As we inched closer and closer to the ground the pilot began yelling instructions at a pick-up truck traveling below us that looked to belong to the same company.
“Derecha! Derecha!” Right! Right!
“Atras! Atras!” Back! Back!
Confused, I watched as the truck driver plowed over bushes, curbs and finally came to a stop. The roof of the cab was painted in a red and white checkered pattern, which led me to believe that we would be landing on top of the truck cab, and then driven – while still in the basket – back to our starting point all the while the balloon is billowing out behind us. For obvious reasons, that would not work and it did not happen. What did happen though, was even more unbelievable.
Our pilot, without ANY steering capabilities, landed our wee basket in the bed of the pick-up truck with about 2 inches of wiggle room on either side. I’m not sure what impact the pilot was warning us about, for the landing was just as smooth as the take-off. Perhaps Lady Luck doesn’t always run on his side and more often than not he hits the truck and crashes the basket, but I’ll be damned, for the day of our flight it could not have been more perfect if the gods orchestrated it themselves! I was gobsmacked. I have trouble parallel parking my toy-sized mini cooper in a reasonable space and this guy can land a balloon controlled by a 20 foot pillar of fire from 3,000′ feet in the air without any steering capabilities IN THE BED OF A TRUCK?! Impressive. Muy impresionante.
Getting back to Robbins’ “mystery.” During the time it took me to write this post I have come to understand that while I like to think that I travel to learn so that I can teach and write curriculums based on the places I go and the peoples I meet, if I’m being totally honest, I also use travel and experiences that require a liability form to stay close to the mystery. Even looking back over my “about” page on this blog shows how much of a mystery junkie I am. I seek out the thrill of being alive, and it’s easy to do when traveling and constantly brushing shoulders with death – be it via an invisible Fur de Lance viper or floating 3,000 feet above ancient pyramids with a pillar of fire inside of a giant balloon. I have a feeling that one day I’ll be able to see and feel the mystery a little closer to home, and closer to the ground for that matter, but until then, I’ll continue clinging to the sides of mountains, tromping through jungles in the dead of night and taking to the skies!