My student stabbed her pen in my direction and said “The people in Egypt are crazy!”
This wasn’t a racist jibe, it was the preamble to a story. I had asked Francisca to describe the most terrifying travel experience she’d ever had, and I found her answer quite perplexing. We were on the sixth floor of her apartment. I could see the neighbouring building, where a woman was hanging out laundry on a balcony. Francisca folded one leg underneath her on her living room couch and gazed out through the sliding door, recalling the day.
“I was in Luxor, in Egypt” she said, “and I had signed up to take a hot air balloon ride.”
Francisca was well-travelled, and she mentioned Egypt a lot, almost never favorably. On this occasion, she had been obliged to wake up at 03.00 in the morning in order to take a van out into the plains of Luxor. The van ride had been three hours. Waiting for the aeronaut to appear had taken an additional two. She and the other tourists couldn’t even get out of the van to walk around because of the mosquitoes that swarmed the area.
“Oh wonderful!” I said, determined to keep positive. “So the tour guides let you take refuge indoors. Such luxury!”
But that was the least of her problems. For starters, the basket of the hot air balloon was flimsy and overburdened with tourists.
“In Luxor,” she said, “there are only five air balloons! Five!” She showed me the back of her splayed hand, indicating the number as if she were about to deliver a backhanded slap. “And they never receive maintenance!” Eyes bulging with remembered rage, my student pulled out her phone and looked up a photo on Google Images:
My student continued, “And do you know how the aeronaut kept track of where we were going?” Here, Francisca clasped her right wrist in her left hand, as if miming being handcuffed. “A digital watch! My cousin used to wear that exact same watch more than twenty years ago.”
I pounced on the moment. “You have such remarkable deductive skills, Francisca! Obviously, since the man’s navigational tool was so old, it was a clear sign that you were in the hands of a man who knew his work – who’d been doing this job for decades. You couldn’t have been safer!”
But Francisca was not to be dissuaded. “The trip was so expensive! Do you know that they charged one hundred dollars?”
“And how long was the trip?” I enquired.
“It was only an hour, but, believe me, it felt more like ten!”
“Fabulous!” I said, “Such value for money! Ten dollars for every perceived hour!”
Francisca shook her head incredulously. Speaking in conspiratorial tones, she leaned forward and said, “Have you ever been to Cappadocia?”
“Cappadocia. It’s in Turkey.”
“I have not,” I confessed, “been to Cappadocia in Turkey.”
My student’s faced cleared, as if she’d suddenly remembered an actor’s name. “Now that is a place that knows how to do hot air balloon rides. Mira…” She produced her phone once more and showed me this picture:
Francisca grew animated now. Or, more animated than she had been. Or, animated, but in a happier way.
“In Cappadocia,” she said, “you don’t have to wait two hours in a van.”
“It leaves you scorching in the sun?” I asked. “That sounds awful!”
“In Cappadocia, the aeronauts have state-of-the-art GPS equiment!”
I nodded knowingly, “Incompetent, are they? I should have known.”
“There you at least get value for money. It’s one hundred dollars and they also give you champagne. Everything is beautiful, and you can truly appreciate that hour in the sky.”
I let out a low whistle. “One hundred dollars for one perceived hour? That’s a bit expensive, don’t you think?”
Francisca pointed at the picture of her phone again. “But look how many there are? Hundreds! These balloons at least have time to be repaired. They don’t all have to be in the air at the same time. These balloons are far safer than the ones in Luxor.”
I thought about this. “I don’t think the balloons in Luxor are that dangerous. If any of them had ever caught fire and killed any tourists, I’m sure it would have made international news.”
Francisca, who was more knowledgeable about these things than I was, shook her head. “A few years ago, a balloon caught fire in Cappadocia, and six tourists died. Did you hear about that?”
I had to admit that I had not heard that story.
“But that was in Cappadocia?” I asked.
“Cappadocia,” said she, nodding sympathetically.
We sat for a few seconds in silence, Francisca thinking about the poor souls who had lost their lives, and me thinking about what she had just said. Eventually, she understood my point, and explained: “Well, with all those balloons, there’s a higher probability that there will be an accident.”
I allowed myself some time to process this. Outside, the woman across the way had finished hanging her laundry, and was retiring back inside.
“So, statistically speaking,” I said, “Luxor is safer than Cappadocia?”
Francisca wasn’t listening to me anymore. Her mind was back in Egypt, reliving a terrifyingly wonderful moment she would never forget.
“The people in Egypt are crazy,” she whispered.