Saturday, February 28, 2015

“Fear is the condom of life...

“Fear is the condom of life...

...It doesn’t allow you to enjoy things!”

Before you already train your guns on me for my not merely touching upon a taboo word from any Indian’s dictionary but also for my audacity to ridicule its very purpose I wish to make clear that for all my penchant to be ‘ORIGINAL’ while indulgently playing with my words I have found it quite challenging to come up with a catchy phrase worthy to qualify as a fitting title for the subject matter of this text. Last Sunday’s Academy Awards serendipitously gave me the much needed impetus as an unsuspecting audience heard Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s now (in)famous back stage assertion while attending to media queries after having won the best director & the best film award for his absolutely engaging comedy drama of 2014 ‘Birdman’. When asked, “Did the Oscar validate what he’s been doing and how his ambitious ideas have resulted in these wins?” he cheekily (and possibly without realizing that his every utterance would be cut to swords later) answered “It’s a good question, because I haven’t figured out why I did what I did. I think fear is the condom of life. It doesn’t allow you to enjoy things. This was real. It was making love, for sure!

I do not want to ruffle any restively flipping feathers or attract the ire of NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation) which could find this quite ‘Western’ sound bite too uncouth to its mission of making India AIDS free by propagating the cause of safe sex (among others) while encouraging all and sundry to use the most effective deterrent (against AIDS), easily available in the form of an innocuous condom! Contrary to what Inarritu’s hasty (and for its widespread global dissemination, irresponsible as well) metaphor, uttered in a zest might suggest, for all their incontestable life saving potential “Condoms reduce fear, not promote it as the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection causes anxiety, so condoms can help you relax and enjoy your relationship more!

While most of the rational and socially conscientious individuals wouldn’t acknowledge any creative brilliance in the impromptu popcorn burst in Inarritu’s head it would be insane to take away from the fact that Birdmen did indeed win on its cinematic virtues having won plaudits for its long, complex, unbroken shots -- looking like one continuous take. I found a real life parallel of its soothing effect while indulging in one of the most anticipated activity I was looking forward to doing for a long time, Ballooning.

For all its notoriety the only indisputable (and in all fairness I reckon the actually intended) message from the titillating quote is that fear is undeniably the most decisive impediment while one strives to enjoy the life to the fullest, especially when one fancies seeking thrill from various forms of adventure activities but develops a cold feet the moment fear factor assumes precedence over other aspects of such indulgences like the cost involved, etc. Consider the case of such a pleasant experience one could have while gently gliding at a respectable height standing in the comfortable compartment of a hot air balloon! One tends to invariably, selectively browse through the statistically miniscule number of accidents involving this fun activity! Of course, just a couple of days ago the world mourned the second anniversary of the deadliest balloon accident in history when on 26 February 2013, a hot air balloon carrying foreign tourists ignited and crashed near the ancient city of Luxor, Egypt, killing 19 of the 21 people on board! Considering the fact that thousands of balloons ascend every day across various global locations (I was informed that around 1,200 registered balloons ply in the ballooning capital of the world i.e., Cappadocia in Turkey alone) and annually millions of adventure junkies get their quota of fun satiated by riding one of them the probability of a ‘’balloon’ accident is no significantly higher than any other event including and not limited to the omnipresent road accidents taking place everywhere! Not for nothing are accidents called ‘mishaps’ also.

As Wikipedia would confirm the hot air balloon is the oldest successful human-carrying flight technology with the first untethered manned hot air balloon flight being operated over 230 years ago! Modern day hot air balloons are able to fly to extremely high altitudes. Almost a decade ago, Vijaypat Singhania made all the Indians proud by setting the world altitude record for highest hot air balloon flight, reaching 21,027 m (68,986 ft)! Still earlier, almost a quarter century ago, the 'Virgin Pacific Flyer' balloon completed the longest flight in a hot air balloon when Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson flew 7,672 km (4,767 miles) from Japan to Northern Canada! With a volume of 74 thousand cubic meters (2.6 million cubic feet), the balloon envelope was the largest ever built for a hot air craft. Designed to fly in the trans-oceanic jet streams, the Pacific Flyer recorded the fastest ground speed for a manned balloon at 245 mph (394 km/h)! Phew! That’s far more than what Lewis Hamilton in control of any formula one beauty could ever dream of and still significantly higher than what the India’s proposed bullet train at 350 km/h would be restricted to offer to its stunned Indian Railways patrons who have never experienced even half of this speed!

Looking for some more of trivia? The longest duration (for a balloon ride) record was set by Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard & Briton Brian Jones, flying in the Breitling Orbiter 3. It was the first nonstop trip around the world by balloon. The balloon left Château-d'Oex, Switzerland, on 1st March 1999 and landed on 21st March in the Egyptian desert 300 miles (480 km) south of Cairo. The two men exceeded distance, endurance, and time records, travelling 19 days, 21 hours, and 55 minutes! Steve Fossett exceeded the record for briefest time travelling around the world on 3rd July 2002. The new record is 320 h 33 min. If that’s not good enough a motivator for one to shed his or her inhibitions arising out of any insipid fear and look for a hot air balloon around then what else could?

Ballooning is very weather dependent. All the professional agencies organizing balloon safaris would unquestionably inform all those booked with them if the weather is unsuitable. If so be the case, they won’t simply allow any monetary considerations to control their decision making and would ideally allow re-booking for another convenient day. Standing in a hot air balloon doesn't feel the same as standing on the edge of a cliff or being in an aircraft - you float gently along with the breeze so there's no sensation of movement. As they rightly say, “The balloon does not so much as leave the ground as the ground leaves the balloon!” One doesn’t feel any acceleration or movement as one does in a lift or an aircraft. We float gently along with the wind; ballooning is a calm experience, even calmer than swimming with a Dolphin which I did in Pattaya and covered in one of my write-ups in the third week of June 2013 (!

If one were to evaluate the underlying ‘realistic’ fear across different forms of rides then one can’t even compare ballooning with some of the other activities like sky diving & bungee jumping. They are for extreme thrill seekers and would certainly warrant one to have more than average appetite for soaking in the sudden inrush of emotions while over powering the inherent fear psychosis. If one were to start somewhere before enrolling in one’s full course of thrill through his or her life there is no better activity to do but ballooning. If you are not in a hurry to go to a far off place like Cappadocia than look no further. It’s right close to Mumbai, in Kamshet which is around a couple of hours of drive away. Just book your tickets with all of your family members and friends with SkyWaltz (India’s first fully licensed & Government approved commercial Hot Air Balloon operation) and sleep early on the night preceding the day of your flight for you would have to hit the ground running from Mumbai no later than 4:00 AM to be able to reach Kamshet in time well before the sunrise. The tickets could be bought on BookMyShow as well as on SkyWaltz’s own website

In a standard flight around 4 to 8 people could stand in two compartments depending upon the type of balloon. There is no upper age limit but you must be able to stand for around an hour. For all our fascination to take our young guns along to ensure they don’t miss out on their quota of fun there is no point in inconveniencing them if they are too young as the intermittent overhead blast of hot air with a loud thud would scare them off or if they are too short as they won’t be able to see over the sides of basket.

A balloon flies at different heights up to 4,000 feet (which is what the regulatory restrictions put it to by the Air Traffic Controllers as the commercial flights routinely fly just above this height near the ballooning locations which are not so far off from the nearby city airports). In the flight that we took the highly skilled pilot had several years of experience behind him as he so skilfully skimmed the treetops and kept controlling the altitude of the balloon for the best visual experience. He varied the altitude during the flight, flying low (once he almost touched the river flowing just below the balloon’s basket) to offer an exclusive sneak-peak into daily village life and its hidden treasures and then climbed high to witness the amazing patchwork of colours and contours. It was an absorbing experience to say the least which also allowed us to capture the captivating moments from our cameras (just don’t forget to take your selfie-sticks along for allowing you to click your happy moments from several acute angles where you won’t otherwise be able to take your smart phones to for your biological limitation).

The real fun lies in the fact that each flight is spectacularly different from the other (and that’s precisely why I am all geared up for my next flight, in Cappadocia in couple of months from now). Depending upon the day’s weather condition, whilst one knows from where s/he will take-off, nobody would genuinely know where you will be landing as the balloon drifts where the wind decides to take it! Alas, on the day I flew in my maiden flight with my family it was probably the calmest day of the year and that effectively meant there were no surprises in store. I have kept my fingers crossed to get to experience some real thrill in Cappadocia.

Apart from Kamshet I understand that in India other ballooning locations are Jaipur, Pushkar, Neemrana, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Ranthambhore and Hampi. Since most of the Indians who are senior citizens don’t generally feel excited about other adventure activities for all the doting sons and daughters here is what you could do to make for a memorable gift for your parents. On any special day in their calendar just book them & you on a nearby hot air balloon safari and then get to see their happiness for the rest of their life! Easy, isn’t it?

I started this piece from a borrowed quote from the Academy Awards and that’s why it is fitting that I shamelessly borrow another before I warp up. J. K. Simmons who won the best supporting actor award for his awe inspiring (and scary) performance in Whiplash gave a shout-out to his wife and “above average” children before advising viewers to call their mothers and fathers. “Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you,” he said. Who are we to argue?

(C) Rits Original