An Adventure in Leon

Most of my time in Mexico has been to cruise destinations like Costa Maya and Cozumel.  Which I certainly enjoyed, but there is a lot of country left for me to see.  All of the balloon festivals I had attended had been on US soil….and only in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.  The largest number of balloons I had seen at a festival was 100, and that had been a big deal to me.  So when the chance came to go to the Festivel Internacional del Globo (FIG)  in Leon, Mexico (a place I had never been) with 200 balloons expected from all over the world, and a new culture to experience, how could I say no to such an adventure?

I went as the crew chief for pilot Jim Falls, who had never been there himself.  (In fact, this was Jim’s first trip out of the country.)  We had few details about what we would actually experience once we got there, so we just fumbled through.  Fortunately much had been planned, even if we weren’t aware of it.   Someone met us at the airport….well, us and about 18 or so other people, and luggage, and just one (albeit large) van.  Not large enough, really, but it got us to our destination, even if we were packed like sardines.  I sat in the back seat, with a suitcase gouging into my side, another from the back jabbing in my head, and my backpack and purse in my lap.

We saw ballooning friends from NC almost as soon as we walked in the door of the hotel.   Some of them don’t remember seeing us that night (OK, just one of them, despite the 5 hugs he gave me) but they really did welcome us very warmly and make us feel at home.  (The earlier arrivals found the tequila and margaritas very welcoming.)  

We arrived on Wednesday night, and Thursday morning we went out to the field for our initial pilot’s briefing, to meet our crew, and to unpack the balloon (which had been shipped by truck with about 20 others from Spartanburg, SC.)  Pilot briefing went well, but I looked and looked and I never could find our crew.  Everyone else seemed to have theirs.  I finally went back to check with the folks in charge of the volunteer crews, and found out that for some reason one had not been assigned to us (it was said in Spanish to the person I has asked….but easily translated.  Was it because we were #13?)  Fortunately Alejandro, Ariel and Isaac were standing by and they were assigned to us on the spot.  Once we got their truck back to our area (a feat in itself…I finally had to turn traffic cop and people actually listened to me!) we were finally unable to unpack the balloon (starting at least an hour later than everyone else!)  They then went and found the very long line for propane (first day, all tanks empty….it took a while!)  I opted to hang in our “nook” and keep an eye on our remaining stuff.  I hear it was the correct decision…..much cooler and relaxing than sitting in the truck waiting for our turn at fueling.  (But if only I had taken my Kindle or my MP3!) Still, I was able to talk to a few of the other pilots and crew chiefs, so made a few friends that gave helpful advice during the week.  Other than that, I just laid back on the envelope and enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere.

Friday morning was a typical day….we caught the bus at our hotel at 5:30 for the pilot’s briefing at 6.  Burger King was a sponsor of the event, and they provided breakfast every day.  Always apple pies and fruit and some sort of sandwich.  On Friday it was chicken sandwiches.  And there was coffee….and it was good.  My necessity.  (One day both the hotel and the festival ran out of coffee before I got mine, and coincidentally that was the day I kept losing things….like my walkie talkie…..and noone did what they were supposed to do without me having to raise my voice.  No coffee leads to the world gone awry.)  We shared a launch pad with another balloon.  Our “launchmate” was a pilot who had been to every one of the 11 Leon festivals, and had never missed a flight.  One year he said only a few balloons took off before they closed the field….he was one of them.  His record continued this year.  (Note to non-balloonists….it is rare for a festival to have this kind of record where balloons are launched whenever scheduled.  Wind or rain, our enemies, usually get in the way at least occasionally.)  

Our crew changed slightly on Friday…..Isaac was replaced by Miguel, brother of Alejandro.  Our guys were all college students and Miguel had a biochemistry exam on Thursday, so Isaac had stood in for him.  We had no passengers assigned to us that day, so Ariel was able to go up with Jim.  That required a very long walk the length of the field, so he could get the required bracelet (no bracelet, no insurance….so you know I was a stickler for that!) and sign the waiver.   But we made it back in time to get our balloon inflated and launched.  Balloons only fly in the morning in Leon, unlike morning and evening here.  We were able to launch until about 9 a.m.  A lot of the balloons stay close to the field….in fact, a lot of them rode the “box effect” provided by the winds and landed back on the field.  While I hear this happens in Albuquerque, we don’t see it around here.

Chasing was interesting.  It was easiest to get out of the field on Friday since there were fewer people.  Jim ended up landing in a new housing development.  We had to clear the guard at the development, then find our way to where they landed.  We could see the balloon pretty well since the area was hilly, but the roads were like a maze.  “Turn here, now here, now go there…..”  But we found them!  The wind had come up pretty quickly, so we needed to get it down fast.  We took down in the road to avoid the prickly terrain.  That soon gained us the help of another crew, trying to get by to get to their balloon.  Their help meant we wrapped it all up pretty quickly.  In future days Jim landed closer to us, but the crowds made getting to him more difficult.  There are no routes that are reserved for chase crews and very limited security to help us get to where we need to be.  You have to patiently wait and go with the flow.  Not my forte, but it seemed fine in context.  And since they landed so close to the field, the crowds come up close and want pictures taken with the balloon and pilot.  I think Jim, and all the pilots, felt like a celebrity.  We crew chiefs got a bit of attention ourselves.  I couldn’t figure out why people wanted their picture with me, but I was willing to pose!

When we were out in the streets of the community, we tried to have candy on hand to throw to the children.  Yes, most kids know the English word for candy!   You had to be careful, because they would run out in the street for it.  I refused to give it to them until they went back to the sidewalk.  OK, so my aim was off a few times….but it was at least in the gutter and safer for them to reach!  We always ran out of candy before kids and it always broke my heart.  They got such pleasure from it….and we got such pleasure getting to do it.  I loved the kids and wish I could have spent some time down on the ground hanging out with them.

I entertained Miguel and Ariel on the very last day when I threw my very last piece of candy for the whole festival.  I had been lecturing them all day about making sure they threw safely, and they say (I did not see this happen, so cannot confirm or deny….though I prefer to deny) I hit the kid in the eye with the candy.  The guys laughed and laughed as they told me about it….so I have to assume it was true.  It makes me cringe to think about it!  Next year I guess I will have to look for the kid with the eye patch…..and give him a whole bag of candy.  I will jump down from the truck to hand it to him, though.  And then I will run so he can’t beat up on me.  Or maybe Miguel or Ariel should do it for me….they should be more easily able to identify him since they saw it.  And they laughed at the poor kid!  (They’d probably say they were laughing at me, but that is not what I will tell the kid.  Though they may have a communication advantage, darn it!)

At night they had balloon glows.  Entering the field was pretty cool…..most pilots burned from the basket in the bed of the truck as they drove into the field.  A bit tricky because of all of the power lines and trees, but doable and no accidents occurred.  I got to see this entrance from the field on Saturday night, and I was as excited as everyone else in the crowd.  I love parades….I love to see controlled fire…I loved it.

A German guy had the whole glow choreographed to music.  I never saw it as it was supposed to be…..both nights I was there it was windy and the balloons were not able to stay up.  He had it all staged with some burners on the ground, some burners on the truck, and then some balloons set to inflate like a typical glow.  The glow was all set to music.  There were lights on the stage that were to give you direction as to what to do (red-do nothing; green-burn; white-twinkle.)  We never could see the lights from where we were and/or got distracted by the other lights flashing around the stage.  We were not alone.  There was just a lot of burning going on during the night we glowed….which was still pretty cool, even though the balloons glowing would have been even more magnificent.  At the end of the glow they set off fireworks and released lanterns to float all over the place.  On Friday there were a few, on Saturday night there seemed to be thousands of them.  It was like being in a fairy land.

Communication was easy throughout the festival…..our crew all spoke English well and were great when we needed interpreters.  I wish I could say my Spanish improved….but not one lick!  One of those things I need to work on….I can read a bit, but my ear and my tongue don’t do other languages well!   Time for more movies with subtitles! (Note to Adrienne….just not French ones with Jean-Luc Godard as the director.)

While in Leon we were able to see our fellow North Carolinian Jonathan Trappe do two cluster balloon stunts (think flying using a big bunch of helium balloons)….one a trial in a boat he plans to use when he tries to cross the Atlantic, the other a house reminiscent of the one in the movie Up.  I hate that I was not able to help with the helium fills….and that I was so busy during his launches I only got some quick glances of him in action.  But it was fun to be there, cheer him on by name, and see it even briefly.  I love how Jonathan  adds such imagination and adventure to ballooning and I enjoy being a fan.

Left to right – Alejandro, Ariel, me, and Miguel

My favorite part of the festival?  Hanging out with my ballooning friends, meeting new ballooning friends, and spending time with the wonderful guys in our crew.   Let me tell you a bit about each of them.  First there is Alejandro, who is studying International Business and hopes to work in the leather industry when he graduates.  (He’s got that James Dean look, don’t you think?)  He was our driver for the week and tolerated us all giving him directions (usually at one time), as well as having to get his truck in and out of some really tight spaces.  He was the most serious of the three, and took most of what I said at face value.  (Yes, I enjoyed pulling his leg.  But I suspect he would not have allowed it for long.)  I loved his big heart….he gave up his balloon ride on Monday morning so that his 16-year old cousin Fernanda could reach her dream of riding in a balloon.  She loved it and was in her element!  (I loved Fernanda.  But Alejandro must ride next year!)   I suspect it is very good to have Alejandro in your family.

Next is Ariel….he had an easy and relaxing personality and such a genuine smile.  He was the most hesitant with his English, though there was no need for him to be…..he spoke and understood it well.  I enjoyed watching him in his element though, speaking Spanish, where he had a boldness and confidence that came out and seems to be a large part of who he is in everyday life.  He is someone who can and will get things done.  He plans to be a physical therapist.  I don’t know….I saw some twinges of politician as I watched him.  He seemed to figure out how to make things work and always seemed to know who to call for answers (and have their number!)  A good person to have around when dealing with people. 

Miguel, Alejandro’s brother, probably had the easiest time conversing in English for long periods of time.  He told me he learned English because he loved American music – he would listen to it and try to learn the lyrics so that he could sing along, and when he didn’t know a word, he would look it up.  Obviously a successful strategy. He said he had never spoken with a native English speaker, so was curious as to how well he was doing.  He definitely passed with flying colors.  He was my continuous translator and I was his and we both questioned each other non-stop.  Miguel planned to be a dentist, but now is thinking about becoming a psychologist.  He said he wants to be happy and he wants to help people and thinks that will do it.  I suspect that will be the case with whatever he ends up doing.  It is who he is….a happy person who helps people.

I adored all of them (and our short-timer Isaac and our adopted crew Fernanda), and I hope to be able to keep up with each of them in the future and see what they become.  And I’d love them all to visit NC sometime so they can experience our life here.  (Their favorite foods are pizza and hamburgers…..I know we could make them happy there!)  I would enjoy showing them around and planning their entertainment.

I do have some personal regrets post-festival.  I didn’t get to explore enough of the city or visit the leather district for more than a few minutes (for example, explore the shoes!)  I didn’t get to eat any of the street food.  I didn’t get around to see everything at the festival.  I didn’t get to ride the ferris wheel at night.  I found no balloon souvenirs (except a t-shirt….which I love, but I wanted to find something more unique.  Or balloon earrings, which I always need to keep replenishing because I am forever losing them!)  And I wanted to tear down one of the awesome posters from the light posts around town or one of the banners from the fence, but didn’t (I loved the black and bright colored graphics for this festival and thought they would look good in my office.)  I figured creating an international incident would not be good for the reputation of ballooning!  (I’d be OK if it was just my own reputation  If I waited until the festival was over, that would just be helping them clean up, right?)    

Those are silly minor things, and incredibly overshadowed by the privilege of being able to visit Leon and attend this tremendous festival and spend time with a whole lot of good and fun people.  The staff at the festival was friendly, worked tirelessly, and made us all feel welcome and comfortable.  The people in the crowds there were passionate about ballooning, and it was a pleasure to share that love with them.  As someone who lives for adventure, this was another one for the books.  I feel like pinching myself.  Who gets to do these fun things?  I do!   I recognize the blessing, I recognize the privilege and I am grateful.  It definitely was a reminder that during this month of thanksgiving, I have been given more than my portion of fun.  And I selfishly hope it keeps on coming!!!

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