It was definitely a dream come true! But this I have to say and be completely honest about, it was a dream I never even thought I had.
After knowing of the Hot Air Balloon Festival at around this time last year, I was set into making an appearance the next time around, not because I had longed to see a hot air balloon up close for the most part of my life, but solely with the thought that these experiences only come rarely in anyone’s life. And on February 24, 2013, after conflict of schedules, a slight transportation problem, and two buddies not being able to make it to the trip, I finally made it to the much anticipated 18th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta held in the Omni Aviation Complex located at Clark Freeport Zone, Pampanga.
“The best time to catch the hot air balloons is very early in the morning or relatively late in the afternoon,” Caitlin, my close friend and one of my key informants, related to me when we met a couple of days prior to the event. According to her and most of the blogs that I’ve read, the hot air balloons are most wonderful at around 5:30am, as the balloons are being blown up and released like white doves into the clear blue, cloudless skies, and at about 6:00pm, when the balloons fly-in and are positioned to glow like gigantic fireflies under the starlit night.
Since travelling from Manila to Clark at 3:00am was too irrational of a sacrifice for me to make, Gie, my best bud, and I decided to leave for Clark at noon. We noticed that gray clouds were starting to cover the, what was once, clear sky throughout the car ride, which made us fear that the rain would spoil our, supposedly, amazing day. Once we arrived at the Omni Aviation Complex, however, the sky started clearing up as if it was just waiting for us to arrive – much to our delight, of course! It was a long walk from the Entrance to the Fiesta Grounds, but once we got there, we both automatically knew that we were in for a treat.
Although Caitlin had pretty much described to me what the grounds would be like, I still found myself deeply overwhelmed by the infinite activities that were occurring simultaneously. All around us were aircrafts of various makes, sizes, shapes, and colours, most of which were parked at different areas of the field with pilots from all over the world managing them. A few of the aircrafts, on the other hand, were up in the air in the hands of professional pilots doing tricks through the clouds. And to start making things exciting, Gie and I were given permission to hop onto the pilot seats of a small aircraft. It gave me, by far, the most empowering feeling that I have ever experienced. Just by sitting in the pilot’s seat, pretending to make use of all the complicated buttons, made me feel like I could be a legitimate pilot!
After taking, what seemed like, a million photos, we made our way to the sea of booths. Wherever we turned, we saw stalls of great variety. I noticed that most of the stalls involved selling food, as is fitting because of the incredible number of attendees, while only a handful of stalls were selling merchandises that can be found in boutiques or shopping malls. There were also a couple of recreational booths, such as photo, henna tattoos and face painting booths, that were definitely a big hit. At one point, in fact, we happened to pass by a stall with wildlife creatures that were normally seen in zoos. Amazed, we decided to approach the stall and discovered that it was actually a photo booth. We decided to take a snapshot with the owl and eagle anyway, since we were already there, as a souvenir. I also enjoyed shopping for souvenirs. Gie and I spent a whole lot of our time walking among the souvenir stalls and interacting with the vendors, canvassing for the best and cheapest mini hot air balloon and pinwheel that we could take home. The vendors were genuinely accommodating, showing us how each of the products work, preparing new stocks for us, and even giving us big discounts. It was also remarkable to see a number of information booths on aeronautics, in general, since, according to Caitlin and was verified in the festival’s website, the entire purpose of the festival was to fuel the passion of flying to the young and old to help move the aviation industry forward.
My favourite time in the festival, perhaps, was when we bought our own kites to fly. Before even reaching the Fiesta Grounds, Gie had already mentioned wanting to fly a kite. I was hesitant, for the most part, because I had never tried flying one and didn’t want to embarrass myself. “But since today is a day to try and experience new things, I might as well try,” I told myself. We approached one of the booths that was selling all sorts of kites and asked the vendors to point out the easiest kite for us to fly. The friendly vendors showed us a small, rainbow-coloured kite and assured us that even with 0% knowledge of how to fly a kite, it was still possible. As a guarantee of their assurance, as a matter of fact, the stall owners gave us another kite free of charge.
The kite flying endeavour started off slow for both me and Gie as we were having difficulty in getting our kites off the ground. But with a little encouragement from the roaming security guards, we managed to get our kites up to about a 100m, and within 15 minutes time, our kites were about as high as everyone else’s. It was indeed great to feel like I was part of the hundreds of people flying their own kites at the same time. Everyone was out and about their own business – some were struggling to keep their kites in the air, some were very chill and some were even texting while flying their kites. But up in the air, the kites moved harmoniously with one another as if all were controlled by a single person.
As the sun began to set, we sat on the grass among thousands of people waiting for the night glow of the hot air balloons and as they were slowly being blown up, I felt teary-eyed and excited at the same time. I always knew what hot air balloons looked like, but to see it face to face was an unexplainable feeling. It was a reminder of how small my position is in this world; it was an assurance of the existence of something larger than life.
I left the 18th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta happily floating deep inside. Indeed, it was a weekend of everything that flies!
1. What insights were gained from the participation compared to just observing?
Come to think of it, observing the Hot Air Balloon Festival and actually participating in it are two completely different notions because in reality, observing only deals with our sense of sight. We are limited to the things that we are able to see with our naked eye and take those mental pictures as the accurate depiction of a certain situation. Participating, on the other hand, allows us to feel and be in the experience, enabling us to use more than just our eyes to see.
Take the kite flying, for example. If I had just stood there, watching hundreds of people fly their own kites, I would have seen it as a boring activity and might even say that it was easy. Flying a kite allowed me to feel the sense of joy and fulfilment that I could not get by merely observing. Had I not tried it myself, I would not have realized the patience that was necessary to fly a kite.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
As my main informant, Caitlin, was unable to accompany me to the event, she made sure to share all of the tips and reminders that she learned from her experiences. These points for consideration were essential to my adventure because it gave me an idea of what to expect and what to watch out for. Also, with Caitlin, I wouldn’t have known that the Hot Air Balloon Festival was actually a commemoration for the pilots and the aviation industry, as a whole, and miss the whole point of the event. I would have just simply focused on the hot air balloons. The vendors that we were able to interact with also served as key informants because, through their stories and modes of interaction, they gave me, at least, a grasp of the festival environment.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Participant observation allowed me to feel how it is to be a part of something that was larger than life itself. Airplanes, kites, and basically anything that flies always reminded me of existence of something big and had I just observed the event, I would not probably feel, as cliché as it may sound, that I am part of that big picture. If I merely conducted an interview, I would not get to feel the emotions, satisfaction, and fulfilment of being a part of the festival. Also, questionnaires only amount to technical answers, such as yes or no. Detailed explanations are mostly out of the question.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
A questionnaire or an interview is better than participant observation when a person is after objective answers. Since these modes of gathering information are uniformed, generalized and more concrete information can be extracted. It also attacks a larger pool of people than a participant observation would produce.
Zoe Anne Denise M. Ocampo