These hats are full of fun

Charlie Eckert and Addi Somekh can get almost anyone to wear their colorful balloon hats.

Vietnamese and American veterans donned them while rebuilding an orphanage together in Vietnam. So did Israeli and Palestinian children on the West Bank and Irish Catholics and Protestants.

The Balloon Hat Project, as they call it, began in 1996. At that time, Mr. Eckert was designing closets and loved taking photos. Mr. Somekh, who had earned money by making balloon hats since college, was finishing graduate school.

So, they wondered, why not go around the world taking pictures of different people wearing balloon hats?

"We set out to prove that, at this point in time, people are more similar than different," says Eckert. "We share a common language, and that language is laughter."

In the five years since, they've visited 34 countries during six trips. They've traveled through Central America, Europe (from England to Russia via the Arctic), Africa, Asia, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

On city corners and remote rural fields, Somekh twisted balloons together into coils or circles that often extend a foot or two into the air. Unlike the motorcycles and dogs he first blew up as a beginner, every hat Somekh makes these days is unique.

"It almost has a life of its own once it's started," he says.

Almost everyone around the world - including camels and cows that wore these balloons around their necks - was receptive to the creations. But there were some variations in how they were received.

German pedestrians on their way to work were simply too busy to stop. Men in India would push children out of the way to get their hats done first, while the women wouldn't put them on their heads at all.

In Africa, where ceremonial headdress is still prominent, everyone wanted to wear one. Driving through Mongolia, the duo's jeep was surrounded by a pack of men on horses who eagerly donned the hats, too.

On their last trip, they drove in Somekh's station wagon through 22 states in the USA. They made stops in New York City and at Indian reservations, and ended up in Amarillo, Texas, the largest supplier of helium in the world. Kids in inner-city Chicago who were fearful of regular gun battles flinched or ducked when a balloon popped, as did kids in Sarajevo.

"It seems to communicate like nothing else I've ever seen," Eckert says. Part of the success, Eckert says, is they shared a moment of joy with their subjects, instead of just snapping their picture.

The duo paid for it all by working between trips and becoming perpetual house guests, staying with friends sprinkled around the world.

Originally, they hoped a coffee- table book of photos would result. But when publishers responded tepidly, they instead designed a book combining photos of their subjects with directions on building balloon hats. It was published this fall by Chronicle Books as "The Inflatable Crown Balloon Hat Kit."

And as they wrap up a nationwide book tour, they're already thinking about their three remaining continents - Australia, South America, and Antarctica - and one dream destination: Iran.

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