Here are some stories of fascinating people we met on the road
I feel as if I have gone a thousand years back in time as I watch the two Mongol horsemen race past our Russian jeep. They stand in the stirrups of their wooden saddles, the setting sun shining off their silk dels, their squat horses with thick coats kicking up snow as they pass us. It is easy to imagine these horsemen following Ghengis Khan all the way to Europe 700 years ago.
“Hold back the dogs!” is how the Mongolian greeting translates into English. By the look of them, “Hold back the wolves” seems more appropriate. It is tradition in Mongolia to take in strangers-a good policy when the average winter night is 30 below.
As guests we learn about Mongolian etiquette: When entering a ger, the tent-like structure of these nomadic people, men must go to the left, women to the right. You must immediately shake hands with anyone if you step on his foot. You show respect to your host’s shrine by not turning your back towards it. And most importantly, since they do not have much, you learn to accept everything your host offers you.
After a couple days of fatty mutton, fermented mare’s milk, and horse ribs, this becomes a difficult thing to do.
Out of the Nicaraguan port of Bluefields, traveling by small motorboat along the Caribbean coast, we came upon a remote community of Mosquito Indians. As Addi began to make balloon hats for some of the children, one of the elders came up and said: “You don’t know how important it is for the children to see these hats and to wear them. These hats are very similar to the hats that our ancestors wore- hats made from the feathers of birds that are not longer here.”
Our goal had simply been to make people laugh and be happy. It really took us by surprise to see that a balloon hat from out of the blue could help a community connect with its own history.
When we made it to East LA, we wanted to find the dudes with the cars that bounce and make balloon hats for them. That was not such a crazy idea. What was crazy was thinking we could actually pull it off with no contact, limited time, and only average LA driving skills.
We drove around the likely neighborhoods, cruising slowly with our heads out the windows, in a kind of improvised urban fishing expedition. We raised plenty of suspicion but had little success, and after three days began to feel that maybe we were hoping for a little too much this time. We pulled over in frustration, only to realize we had stopped in front of an auto body repair shop. When we went inside and told the guy behind the counter that we wanted to give balloons to the guys who make their cars bounce, he looked at us as if we had escaped from a mental hospital. Then, pointing to a flyer on the wall, announcing a car club’s family barbeque at a nearby park the next day, he said, “Ask for Juan.”
As we sat on the side of the road under a hot sub-Saharan sun, we knew we were entering the area that most scientists agree was the origin of human life. Had we also known we were entering the home of the Marburg virus, a cousin of Ebola, as well as a tribal war and a food shortage, I would have suggested to Charlie that we turn around and head in the opposite direction. But in this case ignorance was confidence, and after three hours of waiting and baking in the high noon sun, a pick-up truck came out of the desert and offered us a ride north into the Turkana District of Northwest Kenya.
The Turkana people are a tribe nearly 200,000 strong living in the region between Uganda and Kenya. The Turkana are pastoral nomads who depend on domesticated livestock and move from time to time to find pasture for their animals. They live in tents made from the body parts of cattle, and their main source of food is cow or camel milk mixed with blood. The Turkana women wear an amazing amount of beaded necklaces which symbolize status and beauty, while the men wear an awkward yet compelling combination of traditional Turkana dress and British sport coats.
In the pick-up, I sat in the cab trying to explain to our driver about our work with balloons, while Charlie sat in the bed, transfixed by the vast Kenyan sky, the enormous cloud formations, and the general chaos that is Africa. About an hour into our journey we stopped to pick up a soldier who was also heading north. "It is a very dangerous time to be here now," said our driver. "The tribes have been fighting very badly and the police don't want foreigners here." Just as he said this, I looked into the back of the truck to find Charlie and the soldier both lying on their backs, completely horizontal, upon the soldier's insistence. It turns out that while driving past large tracts of bushes, one must hide from potential snipers hiding in the foliage. Oh man, I thought, We're heading into a potential African war-zone. Who's going to be in the mood for balloon hats?
Bob, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
We were walking down a quite street outside a small town in northern India when we spotted this man, sitting by himself by the side of the road. He was covered in ashes and wore only a loincloth. Occasionally he would smoke his chillum.
The man was a sadhu, a mendicant ascetic Hindu. Sadhus focus entirely on the spiritual realm beyond material existence. They abstain from sex, renounce family ties, and shed most possessions. Usually they live on the edges of society and spend their days meditating on their chosen deity. Some practice yoga and mediation to heighten their spiritual powers and acquire mystical knowledge.
We exchanged very few words with the sadhu. We showed him some photos of people around the world with balloon hats, and he seemed to understand what we were doing. He offered us the chillum, and we accepted. We offered him a balloon hat and he accepted. A few photos were taken and few rupees were donated to his ashram. Then we just sat there mellowing out for a little while and finally got up, said good-by, and continued on our way.
It takes both fate and will to form a friendship. Fortune brings people together, and it is their energy and desire that makes them bond. And that is how we met the Norwegian soldiers.
We had just gotten off a 12-hour bus ride to Trømso, Norway. Charlie was coming down with the flu and needed to get horizontal in order not to get even more sick. But every place in town was booked, and it seemed there was no place for us to sleep.
As we walked into one of the last motels in town, we were followed through the door by five soldiers. Turns out we got the last room, and now it was the soldiers who were out of luck, Charlie and I looked at each other and then turned to the soldiers: “You can share the room with us… if you wear balloon hats.” They had no idea what we were talking about, but agreed anyway.
Outside the motel we started twisting and found out that the soldiers had just finished basic training and it was their first weekend off. Balloon hats seemed to be the perfect way to celebrate their return to the “real world.” These guys were so hilarious that Charlie even forgot he had the flu.
After our brief party on the street, the manager filled the room up with cots, and all seven of us piled into one room and crashed out.
Throughout Wyoming there is plenty of prairie land. Homesteaders staked this territory at the end of the 1800s. James Curachett is a descendent of one of these homesteaders. We met James after we passed his "house" along I-80. Actually what we passed was a house literally split in two pieces, a dozen or so vehicles in various states of disrepair and some assorted farm animals. He lived up there with his mother, Winnona, and his son, Jamie.
At first James refused our offer to wear balloon hat, but instead offered to take us on a tour of his property.
The first thing I noticed as we climbed into his pick-up was the rifle rack. "No big deal," I thought, trying to stay calm. Then that I noticed the revolver on the dashboard. Addi and I had traveled the world safely and never had I been this scared.
As we drove further away from the highway and deeper into his property, panic began to set in. The entire drive James talked about all his different types of guns. Much to his disbelief, Addi and I had never fired a weapon. "You boys are from New York and you don't know how to shoot?!" That was when we struck the deal. He would wear a balloon hat and we would fire his guns. All my fear subsided as I thought, A shot for a shot - what a great compromise.
BRUNO’S AFRICAN SCHOOL
Balloon Hat interviews Bruno Bambara, who lives in the small West African country of Burkina Faso. Bruno spends his own money creating a free public school for the local kids, evening building the school house with his own hands. One of the most amazing people we ever met on our travels, Bruno’s work is an inspiring story of goodwill and will power.
Download the full 3-page interview
Bob, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The upper Amazon’s history is full of examples of the movement of various peoples – collectivization of the region’s Indians, mass migrations of workers from, and back to, the drier Northeast in search of jobs for survival.
Here, along the Rio Acre, whole villages have been moved to safer sites with better access to the few surfaced roads in the area. When the government asked the people of this girl’s village to move to a different river, her family was the only one to stay and struggle with nature, tapping a few rubber trees and growing small plots of crops to trade along the river for their livelihood. Watching her pound the family’s laundry in a nearby stream, we asked why they had decided to stay here after everyone else had left. “Because this is our home,” she said.
The History of the Balloon
By Noah Thomas
with research by Addi Somekh
This brief essay will try to piece together the very strange evolution and history of the balloon... Though often ignored, the balloon has left clues to its development and significance through many periods of world history. By looking at these clues and how they fit within the larger framework of the development of the modern world, we may be able to get a glimpse of how the balloon originated and developed into the common object that we know of as the toy balloon, and of the significance of that development to understanding the origins of our way of life...
Bob, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
on the Emotional History of the Headdress
Mary Holmes (1910-2002) was Professor Emerita of Art at the University of California at Santa Cruz. We spent many afternoons at Mary's home talking to her about the significance of the headdress to human beings, and of the emotional meaning that they have carried in different cultures over different times.
Download the 4 page interview as a PDF
For more about Mary, check out the book Addi and Charlie made with/about her titled Mary Holmes: Paintings and Ideas.
State of Louisiana
Department of Health and Hospitals
January 25, 1999
Mr. Addi Somekh
P.O. Box 2059
Los Altos, California 94023-2059
The Balloon Hat Experience was absolutely wonderful. We really appreciate you sharing your talents with us.
I was very impressed with you and your interaction with our patients. You gave them an extremely enjoyable afternoon. You also made each and everyone feel important and special. It was impressive seeing you work with the patients. You certainly brought a smile to their faces and joy to their hearts.
Again, thank you for sharing with the patients at Villa Felciana.
Hayden F. Ellis