Under normal circumstances, I would only hop from my bed at 2 AM for two sound reasons: One, if somebody I know needs to go to the hospital, and two, if the house itself caught on fire. But when it comes to a family holiday like this, I would always give an exception.
It’s a family tradition to go to Clark for the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta which runs from Feb. 21-24. We usually go on the last day because of fireworks. I expected a large crowd because the past few days had been a rainy one.
The car ride along NLEX was uneventful, but I enjoyed the cool serenity of being the only one awake in the car that moment. The chill of dawn dozed off almost everyone in the car but I was too excited and anxious to sleep. I'm worried we won’t make it to see the first balloons to rise up. In an act of consolation, the large yellow moon hung low above the darkened sky, bathed in splendour mellow light, making it the first hot air balloon I saw for that day.
Along the way through Bocaue, Bulacan, I saw a huge incomplete structure looming besides the highway. It was the Philippine Arena, set to be complete for this year. It will replace all mega structures in the country and claim the title as the largest arena there is.
The first break of the dawn sees us in the fringes of Clark. Traffic to the Freeport Zone is already heavy with so many cars anxious to find a space before the first wave of balloons rise up. Weather was cool and good. I’m no balloon pilot but I think it’s a remarkable time to cut off anchor from the ground and float into the sky. Last year, the strong winds and slight drizzle of rain prevented many cool balloons to rise up. Still, the sight of them ballooning up on the ground can fill anyone, from kids to adult, a child-like exhilaration
And when the first balloon ascends easily into the purple-streaked sky, I can only stand there and watch, transfixed. My only regret is that I forgot to take some pictures. You will run out of words to describe how you feel when a hot air balloon hovers you, feel the strong winds hitting against its rubbery surface and a slight murmuring of the extinguishing flames. In one instance, the sun balloon dipped in a low point that it almost careens down to the highway, eliciting cries and shouts from the excited crowd. Nothing is more thrilling than seeing a balloon land down in their midst.
We settled ourselves in the green parchment in the outskirts of the zone. Since the line was pretty long, we decided to stay around and watch until the last balloon is up in the sky. We noticed that there haven’t been any skydiving exhibitions compared to last year. Apparently, the aircraft broke down just before the jumps started. I was pretty disappointed because of that. I was hoping to take a picture of the skydiver who bears down the Philippine flag behind him. One of the remarkable sights I witnessed last year is having to see the first light of dawn shine through the flag whipping against the strong winds. It almost moved me into tears.
But the lack of exhibitions didn’t stop us from enjoying the whole day. At 8 AM, we trooped in to the main highlight of our visit. Clark made it sure that the people who came late and missed the hot air balloon flight have something spectacular to watch for. After this show, the 2-hour trip was very much worth the hassle.
The Breitling Jet Team is the largest civilian jet team in the world. They flew off from France, and have stunned the world for their aerobatic shows ever since. And the Philippines hasn’t been spared of their wild invasion of the sky.
The Breitling Jet Team is composed of seven jets/ At the beginning of the show, they appeared in the sky as tiny black dots shaped in V formation, like birds in migration. At first, I thought they would perform their shows from that distance, but they flew closer and closer, until they appear like RC planes, only you know that these planes aren’t toys and there are living, breathing pilots in there twisting and turning and performing summersaults up in the air, leaving symmetrical white streams behind them.
The whole crowd is brimming with energy and cheers, and the jet team haven’t done anything yet but pass across the sky in a diamond-like pattern, precise and sharp in their movements.
When the team performed their first stunt of flying up in a steep arc and disappeared into the sky, only to nose-dive in the same direction like riding an imaginary roller coaster, all of us become one person. We gasped and applauded in unison. We cried and cheered at the same time until our voice became hoarse, especially that time when two jet planes careened from two opposite directions to meet at a certain point, almost colliding with each other until they tilted and turned away precisely at the same moment. Another favourite stunt of mine is when the pack veers closer to the crowd arranged in a stacks, when suddenly a lone plane sneaks up behind them, and instead of joining the line, it circles over the pack again and again until they disappear from our view. I know I should avoid flat, bankrupt phrases but damn, it was breath-taking.
During the show, an announcer was introducing the name of every stunt performed but I doubt the crowd registered what he’s saying. We are far too absorbed to the sky to listen.
At one point during the show, my 5-year-old brother, Miggy decides he doesn’t want to be a LRT driver anymore; piloting jet planes is his new dream now, and I’m sure every kid in the area thinks the same thing.
For their last show, the team flew off the Final Break. Each jet broke away from the pattern to different directions at the same time, and as if the manoeuvre isn’t enough, they released small balls of flares which slowly disappeared as they fall. The crowd’s reaction was priceless. Every kid and adult were cheering and waving wildly at the planes like those in movies when Superman made an appearance to save the day. With that kind of reaction to a foreign performance, what more if it’s our local Air Force who will perform such stunt? I wish that day would come, impossible as it may sound now.
While we were touring the area and exploring the tents, my tita, who’s a Kapampangan herself, stumbled upon a highschool friend, a Marine soldier based in Clark. Turns out he’s supposed to be one of the skydivers who will jump today, if it weren’t for the malfunctioned aircraft.
Major Espinosa, is a soldier formerly based in Mindanao before he was transferred here in Clark. He started jumping for the Hot Air Balloon Festival back in 2006, and also conducts skydiving trainings at Iba, Zambales. For this March, he would teach many students to skydive on a 2-day workshop and invites us to come along. Of course, being lover of everything thrilling, I readily accepted provided my mom and dad would allow their child to jump 3,000 feet away from the ground (which is highly unlikely)
Espinosa guarantees that skydiving is pretty safe though. “There’s risk in everything. There’s risk in driving your car. It’s no different in skydiving,”
For a man who already made 96 jumps and escaped a broken neck or crushed bones, the experience of flying with nothing but your arms as your wings, and performing stunts for the visitors of Hot Air ballon Fiesta is happiness at its best. “I’m happy to be able to make a good show for the people. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience,”
“For those people who wanted to try skydiving, we will provide strict procedure and military training to guarantee their safety in the activity. One day is allotted for the workshop and then the second day is for the jump.
For the duration of the day, we enjoyed car-drifting and kite demonstrations dancing in the tune of J-Lo and Adele.
And of course there’s the Night Glow where the Hot Air Balloons lit up like Christmas lights in the dark sky. The night ended with a bang, with enough fireworks to light up the whole sky.
On the ride home, I slept like a log. I missed my ritual of introspective ride along the SCTEX. I woke up late the next morning, fresh with aching joints and a sore back from hours of lying in my back to gaze at the sky yesterday. I have a slight stiff neck for hours of gazing upward. But I never felt more alive after that, as I do after every trip outside Manila. There’s no better hung-over than a travel hung-over.
I can't wait for the next Fiesta.