Under Skies Without End: Hot Air Ballooning Over Vilnius, Lithuania
The fields glow in the late evening sun, bathed in Northern latitude light, buzzing with energy as small groups find their places near large baskets that look far too heavy to be lifted into the air, especially laden with a half dozen passengers each. Fires ignite noisily, unexpectedly, around us, in random bursts. The popping sounds are alarming. They make us jump and giggle with anticipation as we prepare to be lifted over the Vilnius skyline.
It feels almost as if we are congregating for some tribal ritual connected to Lithuania’s ancient past, gathering around bonfires in honor of Midsummer’s Eve to sing medieval folk songs. Lithuanians still root themselves deeply in their traditions, despite a drawn-out Soviet occupation which threatened to wipe them out.
We board the basket enthusiastically, helping each other over the edge. I am the only American in our small group, welcomed heartily into the fold after the Lithuanian sightseers learn that I speak their language, though far from perfectly. I was brought up in a family which emigrated from Lithuania just before the entire nation was annexed, literally wiped off the map for half a century. Since then, through sheer determination, Lithuania has endured painful transitions, boldly reasserted its independence, and evolved into a charming, picturesque nation of just under three million citizens that still lies well off the beaten path of many travelers.
Perhaps because of my foreign status, the other five passengers take an extra protective role with me, reassuring me to be calm, even though I am the least nervous in the group, with the exception of the pilot and a friendly, elderly gentleman who I learn is taking this balloon ride to celebrate his seventieth birthday. He is traveling with his son, who is about my age.
This far north, the summer sun lingers, casting a magical glow over the landscape. As we ascend, first over tall grass, then over bushes and treetops, and finally, over buildings, city blocks, entire hives of human activity, we become quiet and reverent. Vast swaths of green surround the city. The Neris river slices it in two. Baroque churches line winding, cobblestone streets in Old Town Vilnius. We can hear the echo of their bells tolling from our perch in the wide blue sky far above their belfries.
I think about how much had to change in the world for this to be possible. When I was a kid, a teenager even, the Iron Curtain was an impenetrable barrier. This entire nation was occupied territory, closed off from the rest of the world and impossible to visit. No one got in or out. I couldn’t just come and go as I pleased, couldn’t come see relatives, couldn’t sit with them and pore through photo albums, eat hearty Lithuanian food, rich with potato dough and dumplings and mushrooms. Now things are different. Sometimes it almost feels like that time in our past is a bad dream. But we don’t forget. And we are grateful for the now.
The two hour ride passes far too fast. The treetops grow closer and closer as we descend. The elderly man touches my shoulder. He tells me how much he enjoyed his birthday gift. I can’t tell if it’s the still bright sun causing his eyes to water of if he is tearing up.
I just never thought I would see it, he says.
He turns and admires the view as we near the fields.
His son makes sure his father’s back is turned, then says to me in a low voice.
He’s glad to see that you’ve come back to Lithuania, to see your relatives, to see where you come from.
I don’t know what to say so I just nod.
My father doesn’t like to talk about it, but he went to Siberia during the war.
I understand what this means. This kind, elderly man, with the sun on his face, smiling as we land safely on the ground, was likely sent to a labor camp, where he spent years simply struggling to stay alive, to keep his spirit from withering. His return to Lithuania is miraculous. His survival something he never would have believed possible. And now Lithuania is free again. He can fly above this city and know that when he lands, he’s safe.
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