The Magic of Love, the Miracle of Laughter
Plain red-brown chrysalis
in frangipani tree
A Shimmering flash of brilliant colour
and out emerges the extraordinary,
in sunlit flight.
- from ‘Dreaming The Magic of Life’
The pages of her mother’s leather-bound journal fluttered in the soft breeze and stirred Arnaq Akili Abeni out of her reverie. She carefully smoothed the pages with their bold, distinctive handwriting, settled back against the 1,000 year-old Baobab tree, and continued to read…
“…remember as if it were yesterday. In an exquisite moment of beauty, our hot air balloon slipped from its tethers and rose ever so gently into the air. Absolutely ecstatic at being allowed to go on my own, I gleefully waved goodbye to my parents and quickly turned to enjoy the sights with the rambunctious twins, the only other children in the group. As the balloon floated away gently over the treetops, everyone was in high spirits, chatting happily and getting acquainted with one another. None of us had the slightest inkling that we were embarking on an adventure that would forever change the way we viewed the unfolding of our lives and the extraordinary planet we call home.
A few minutes into the ride, it slowly dawned on me that the balloon was rising quite rapidly. Curious, I turned to see what was going on just in time to hear the words ‘unprecedented triple failure’. Our tour guide, tense and almost apologetic, spoke the unthinkable. He could not shut down the roaring flames ~ the burner had jammed wide open and all safety features had failed. There was only one direction our hot air balloon was going, and that was up, at a meteoric rate. We were headed straight for the powerful air currents that circled the earth with top speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour ~ the jet stream. The others looked as freaked as I felt. I closed my eyes to assimilate the enormity of our situation as the balloon continued to shoot skywards and the winds began to pick up. Holding on tightly, I thought of my parents and wished for the wisdom of my people, the Inuit.
My gaze fell on a sturdy locker near me. Almost simultaneously, in a sudden, quick movement, the tour guide reached down to flip open the locker and gasped with surprise. Instantly I craned my neck to see. Incredibly, there were air breathing masks inside along with full tanks of air! Wasting no time pondering this amazing stroke of luck, our tour guide acted quickly. Since there were not enough masks for everyone, he showed us how to pair up and share breathing through one mask. Somehow, in the melee, I ended up with a mask all to myself.
We hit the band of fast-moving air currents at 24,000 ft. and the sense of speed was tremendous. Everyone huddled down below the rim of the basket and held on for dear life, concentrating only on breathing with the shared masks. As the hours ticked by, I saw everyone around me slowly succumbing to the high altitude temperatures. As Inuit, I was able to stay alert in the extreme cold and I immediately took over breathing for the others. I began carefully, deftly, switching masks between pairs of people. I was completely focussed on this when all of a sudden, I became aware of a new quiet. I quickly realized that the burner had gone out and the basket and balloon had descended well below the jet stream!
Pulling my mask off with relief, I cautiously peeped over the edge of the basket. We were sinking fast, and as the basket fell, the huge balloon above us was collapsing slowly. We were sweeping with breathtaking speed towards a group of mountains and I instinctively cringed, frightened that we would smash into the mountain side, but at the last minute, a gust of wind swept the basket over the ridge and into a strong downdraft. Still peering over the edge of the basket, I saw that we were clear of the ridge and directly over a rocky highland plateau. Sinking steadily, we were now headed for a major crash landing.
Convinced we were done for, I crouched down low, held on tightly and tried to warn the others who were still groggy and somewhat disoriented. But a few hundred feet or so above the desert floor, I was startled to hear two loud clicks in quick succession. I looked up and saw the collapsing balloon being jettisoned from the basket to fall away harmlessly to ground. Simultaneously, there was a sharp jerk as a parachute opened high above the basket, followed by the hiss of air, as bubbles of air bags on the bottom and sides of the basket rapidly inflated. The moment we touched down, the air bags gently deflated, cushioning our fall, but the parachute dragged the basket to the edge of a forested area, spilling contents and people as it went.
Dazed and shaken, we got to our feet and took stock. Us children and three of the adults were OK with just minor cuts and bruises, but the other three adults who were thrown from the basket had pretty bad injuries. They were in a lot of pain and could only hobble. But even in our dazed state, we knew we were incredibly fortunate. For by some lucky coincidence, we had been sent aloft in an experimental hot air balloon whose basket was equipped with NASA-inspired technology!
We looked around. To the west and south was dense forest, and in the southwest corner were what seemed like the ruins of ancient red-earth buildings. To the north were the mountainous, rocky crags we had just skimmed, reaching high above us into the sky. And close to the rocky cliff side were the remains of a single L-shaped red-earth wall. To the east of us, the rocky highland plateau stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see. There seemed no easy way out. We had no food and between us there were just two bottles of water which we immediately began to ration. We had no idea where we were and none of the grown-ups’ cell phones worked. We saw no signs of civilization and could hear nothing but the wind tugging at the fallen basket. We struggled to comprehend. We had begun the day with the expectation of a simple one-hour balloon ride. Now night was approaching, we were alone on a remote mountain peak and, after hours aloft in the fast-moving jet stream, we did not even know what country we were in!
We had to work fast before the waning sun disappeared. With a small pocket knife, we cut up balloon material and draped it over the L-shaped ruined wall to make a tent-like shelter. Nightfall was the darkest we had ever seen. No stars, no moon, no light anywhere. We were truly alone. Weary from the day’s mind numbing experiences, we all fell into an exhausted sleep on the desert floor with the parachute material as our bed and blanket.
When we awoke the next day, the sun was high in the sky and scorching hot. The six of us who could, hiked into the forest in search of water. One of the rambunctious twins, ravenous with hunger, forged ahead and stuffed himself full of wild berries, mistakenly thinking they were raspberries. Within hours he became feverish and delirious, throwing his father into frantic despair and his sister into nail-biting, worried silence.
By our third evening, with the twin getting sicker and weaker and still no fresh water found, things looked quite grim. I could see from the panic in the grown-ups’ eyes that they did not know what to do next. Tempers flared as fear and anxiety rose, and gradually, they disintegrated into a full-scale melt down, hurling bitter accusations at the tour guide, and blaming themselves and each other for the predicament we were in.
Engage the predicament as it is, not as you would wish it to be.
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