The pilot placed his palms together and raised his hands to the side of his cheek, mimicking a sleeping motion like you might to a child. He pointed to me and then to the basket lying on its side on the ground. The language barrier was getting the best of us.
Perplexed, I looked around at my friends in case one of them had an idea about what exactly was going on. The pilot could not possibly be telling me to climb into the basket to “sleep.”
Quicker on the uptake than I was, one of my companions glanced from the pilot to me and back to the basket. “I think he wants us in the basket on the ground,” she said. Without missing a beat, she crouched down to maneuver herself into the space not much wider than a grade school locker.
I had been on hot air balloon rides twice before, but this was a first. Dutifully, my companions and I climbed sideways into the basket, separated from the morning dew by the layer of wicker.
Slowly, the balloon began to right itself and we were tilted slightly upward. We laughed — at the odd situation, at our growing weightlessness, and with anticipation for the ride we were about to take.
In less than a minute, the rest of our group and the pilot jumped in the now rising balloon and we began to inch upward over the foggy Lithuanian countryside.
Unlike previous flights I had been on in Egypt – and particularly in Cappadocia, Turkey, where the sky was packed with fellow adventurers – we were almost alone as we sailed over the misty fields and lakes of Lithuania. Our only company on this bright morning was one other balloon.
Within a few minutes of liftoff, we passed over the star of our flight. Trakai Island Castle in Lake Galve, which was once home to Grand Dukes of Lithuania, is now one of the country’s primary tourist attractions. Nearly 700 years old, the castle’s red roof shone in the early morning sun as we floated above.
For over an hour, we flew across the landscape of southern Lithuania. We passed seemingly endless lakes and forests, as the fog clung to the treetops, making the morning even more dramatic. We flew over homes and farms, waking up sleeping dogs in yards along the way. We watched the morning traffic mount on the roadways below as we sailed breezily above.
After a while, we saw the other balloon land beyond some trees and knew our time was coming. Following an easy touch-down in an open field, we waited to be collected by the crew. After a few minutes, the balloon deflated, and we found ourselves ending the ride as we’d started – lying on our sides, laughing in the horizontal wicker basket.
As we waited for the occupants of the other balloon to arrive with the crew, our thoughts turned toward breakfast and returning to our hotels for a late-morning nap (we had had a 4:30am wake up, after all). But first, the traditional champagne toast to celebrate a successful flight.
Our companions arrived, and we dutifully gathered around for the celebration. The pilot pulled the champagne bottles and flutes from a nearby vehicle and began his congratulatory speech while we waited for the bubbles to flow. On the periphery, an assistant bent down to grab a handful of dirt from the field. A few feet away, a tiny flame seemed to flicker from the hand of another crew member. Mildly confused, we continued to listen to the compliments of the pilot.
“Today, we are here not only to celebrate a successful flight. We are here to baptize you with earth, fire, and wine.”
A further explanation followed, but the words swirled in my ears as I tried to understand their meaning. Surely they were not saying they were going to set our hair on fire.
Suddenly, one of my companions was kneeling by the pilot, a tiny amount of hair in his hand and the fire starter outstretched. The smell of singed hair hanging in the morning air was quickly replaced by the mildly acidic whiff of champagne as it dripped down. Then there was dirt on her forehead. We were sure this was a one-time example. We were wrong.
One-by-one, each of us made our way to the spot at the front of the group for the unusual ritual. A couple of centimeters of hair lightly torched. A drizzle of champagne. A dot of dirt, followed by a glass of bubbly. We were all in this together, laughing, baptized in Lithuania.
We explored the Baltics as guests of JayWay Travel. As always, opinions of the picturesque and adventurous are our own.