Angeles City, Pampanga, the Philippines
February 10, 2012
My friend Ki surprised my mom with party balloons on her 79th birthday in January. A month later, he had a bigger surprise in mind. He invited my mom and me to the annual Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, now on its 17th year. Held in the plains of Pampanga, a couple of hours north of Manila, the festival was also an excuse for a road trip. The party eventually ballooned from three to five when my brother and Nichel, my niece, tagged along.
It was still dark when we arrived at Clark Field, but a bottleneck had already formed at the parking entrance of Omni Aviation Complex. After lining up for tickets (which cost P200 a pop), we still had two hours to spare before the hot air balloon flights began. We spent the time exploring the place, an erstwhile US Air Force base. Military jeeps, abandoned by the Americans when they withdrew in the early 90s, had been dusted off to provide fodder for photo ops. Nichel could barely contain her inner camwhore. She accessorized her femme fatale poses with artillery propped up on the jeeps. Still not feeling camera shy, she later draped herself on several race cars parked in tents. The landing runway of the aviation school based here also doubles as a racing strip. Ki and I found an appropriate photo backdrop for our Formula One tees.
The break of dawn signaled the start of the rather ponderous process of inflating the balloons. With repeated gusts of fiery gas, balloons started sprouting like giant mushrooms on the open field, set to Up, Up and Away by The 5th Dimension blaring from loudspeakers on repeat mode.
A balloon in the form of a multi-tiered birthday cake led the skyward exodus. In no time, balloons of all shapes and sizes and sponsors eclipsed the rising sun. The crowd was in a tizzy, digitally documenting the mass flight from all directions. We heard that a man proposed to his girl aboard one of the balloons. We didn’t even bother getting on one as it cost an arm and a leg (P2,500 if I remember correctly); and if some mishap happened, it might literally cost us that arm and leg – or worse, more.
We settled for the spectacle of this spectator sport. Towards the end of the show, the balloons became quirkier. We saw an ice cream cone and a sunflower take to the sky. Angry Bird also made an appearance, threatening to topple over before it righted itself and flew away.
Paragliders floated down as the last of the hot air balloons was ascending. One unfurled the Philippine flag mid-air. There would still be more action lined up that morning – the aerobatic air show and the skydiving exhibition among others – but we had already seen what we came for. We decided to leave before the morning got warmer and the crowd bigger.
My mother, who had not seen a hot air balloon before, was beaming until the show drew to a close. She may not have been the only one. Exactly seven years before, Ki’s mother had joined her Creator. She must have been smiling down on us as the birthday cake balloon soared to the sky on her heavenly birthday, bearing Ki’s wish of a “Happy 7th year in Heaven!”
Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti!
(Video Taken by Ki)