Aug 30, 2011 Ned Campbell Uncategorized
Most people are lucky if they get to go up in a hot air balloon once.
I’ve done it twice now, and in case you were wondering — it hasn’t gotten old.
My first ride was at the Jamesville Balloon Festival in June of 2010. I was fresh out of college, an intern at Eagle Newspapers, and had been given the not-so-bad assignment of accompanying Tami Zimmerman, who at the time was editor of the Eagle Bulletin, on a balloon ride.
She was nervous about the flight — her first one — and wanted me there for moral support. What choice did I have? I had to say yes.
That’s when I met Isabelle Lajoie, a communications agent with the International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, a Canadian city located about 30 miles southeast of Montreal. It was because of both her reaching out to Eagle Newspapers and the Jamesville Balloon Festival’s international reach that we got to ride in a balloon.
More than a year later, Isabelle offered me, as the Bulletin’s new editor, the chance to come see how balloon festivals are done in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu. The week-long festival, known there as Montgolfières, is the largest gathering of balloons in Canada, bringing in 125 balloons, and features big name artists like American pop sensation Ke$ha and Cuban-American rap artist Pitbull.
Again — What choice did I have? I brought my girlfriend, Carolina, with me.
Upon arrival at the festival grounds at around 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, we met up with Isabelle, who told us our 6 p.m. flight might have to wait for tomorrow due to the wind. It hadn’t struck me as a windy day, but there was definitely a breeze and I wasn’t about to argue.
She also told us that the balloon we were scheduled to ride in was in the shape of skunk — yes, a skunk— and its name was “Stinky.” Soon after she introduced us to our pilot, a no-nonsense Brazilian man named Marcos Bonincontro.
We waited for our flight in calm anticipation. I would have been more nervous had Isabelle not already assured me that if our Friday flight was cancelled, we could always try for Saturday.
As we waited, I took some time to get to know our pilot. I was star struck to learn that Marcos himself had designed “Stinky,” and that it was just one of 35 balloons he’s built in the past 12 years. When I asked him, “Why a skunk?” he retrieved a book of his drawings of kid-friendly hot air balloons (with the exception of a couple balloons shaped as beer cans).
“When I sell one balloon, I make another,” he said.
Marcos had recently sold Stinky, which he built in 2009, to an American pilot. His company, RVB Balões, has been around for 10 years.
Marcos left our conversation to check on the wind conditions, and we were left wondering whether we’d fly that night. An hour passed before returned and gave us these words of wisdom, which all but secured my belief that tonight was not the night:
“We have a saying in Brazil: It’s better to stay on the ground wishing you were flying than fly wishing you had stayed on the ground.”
But then, without warning, it was time to fly. Marcos returned again, and before we knew it, the crew had readied the balloon and we were climbing in. Hundreds of spectators lined the roped off viewing area, cheering as we took flight, Marcos egging them on with a bellowing roar. Isabelle later told us, to my surprise, that our take off was incredibly fast. I must have been caught up in the moment.
Other odd-shaped balloons followed our lead, including a butterfly-shaped balloon Marcos had also designed (I recognized it from his picture book) and another shaped like a “spider big.”
“I made the other pilots fly,” Marcos told us with pride and amusement.
Our flight was short and sweet; we landed in the first open space we came across, a grassy park on the other side of the Richelieu River. We were surrounded by French-speaking residents of the area — no strangers to having balloons land in their backyard, but amazed as ever to witness a giant inflatable skunk fall from the sky.
The balloon ride was incredible, and taught me that no two rides in a hot air balloon can ever be the same. I’d recommend it to anyone.
Ned Campbell is editor of the Eagle Bulletin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.