I felt like the Wizard of Oz.
We'd just spent a half hour flying in a hot air balloon several hundred feet above verdant farms, barking dogs and the occasional waving villager in Haryana, several miles south of Gurgaon. Our balloon cast a shadow on the square green grids beneath us, and we watched from above as animals that looked like deer but weren't seemed to swim through the farms below.
"It looks like Ohio," Aliyah said.
And OK, I admit it. Flying 500 hundred feet above the ground in a delicate basket carrying two meter-high metal cannisters full of liquefied natural gas just below a nylon balloon entrapping 77,000 cubic feet of 212-degree air -- it might not have been the smartest thing we've ever done. But it sure was fun.
The private balloon ride was part of what seems to be a never-ending series of birthday gifts to me from Aliyah. The balloon trip was operated by a company called Exciting Lives that also traffics in chocolate spa treatments in Bangalore.
The balloon ride was fantastic, but the best was our Oz moment at the end. Our pilot, Captain Jack, had just put us down in a barren brown field that was a little too close to a string of giant power lines (Don't worry -- this being India, it's unlikely electricity was running through them).
Our basket hit the ground and tipped forward, though not steeply enough to toss us out. We threw our weight to the other side, and the basket was evenly grounded.
"Wow," Aliyah said.
I looked across the field and saw two villagers hurrying toward our balloon. One had a colorful scarf wrapped around his head. We smiled and waved.
Then we turned around. Eight more villagers were coming from the opposite direction. I turned a bit to the right and saw a third group moving toward us. Aliyah tapped my shoulder. I turned around and she pointed to a half dozen Indians emerging Field of Dreams-style from a tight wall of brown stalks about 50 feet away.
"They're coming out of the weeds!" I said.
Within seconds there were 40 villagers huddled tightly around our balloon. Captain Jack wouldn't let us get out of the basket because he said our weight was holding it on the ground, so we stayed inside. The villagers stared at us in awe. I think they thought Aliyah was God, and I might have agreed with them, were it not for the indisputable fact that Aliyah exists. But the farmers sure were impressed. I felt like I was the main attraction in a zoo exhibit of some strange future. The villagers were all incredibly nice, but they were also quite stare-y.
As the crowd closed in tighter, Captain Jack pulled a metal lever and a 15-foot jet of flame exploded into the balloon. At least a half dozen villagers literally ran for their lives.
I pulled my camera from my pocket and started taking photos. I showed each photo to the villagers using the screen on the back of my camera. They were duly amazed. And rightly so! I had just dropped out of the sky and had a magic silver box that perfectly captured their likeness. I am Ben, the Wonderful Wizard of India.
After about ten minutes of gawking, the car that had trailed the balloon finally caught up with us, and the Exciting Lives guy pushed through the crowd to get to our balloon.
"So sorry we took so long," he said. "We usually try to beat you here so the villagers don't crowd like this."
"Are you kidding?" Aliyah said. "This was the best part."