Hassi Labied and Erg Chebbi

Once again we woke up inside a bus, but the landscape outside is quite different. There seemed to be a seemingly endless nothingness, broken only by small clusters of buildings every once in a while. Slowly, the bus empties, until only half a dozen tourists remain. The driver pulls up to a small town in the middle of nowhere and announces that we have arrived in Merzouga.

Erg Chebbi
Erg Chebbi with dunes reaching up to 150 meters in height.

We were met with a bunch of touts, something that we are already used to in Morocco. Each one was offering to take us to a hotel, and we ignored the calls, except for one: Hassan Ougnir’s of the La Source Inn, where we made reservations for.
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I was jolted awake when the bus made a sudden turn. I looked out the window and was dismayed to see that it was raining. The rain was unrelenting, following us for hours as we journeyed from Meknes to Chefchaouen. It was nearly four o’clock when we glimpsed a sea of blue on the side of the mountain. So Chefchaouen really was blue.

Chefchaouen 10
Chefchaouen square

The rain still hasn’t let up when the bus pulled into the town’s central bus terminal. We dashed through the puddles and up the steps to the station’s offices to book our bus going down to Fes in a couple of days. We were hoping that the rain would have already stopped when we were done with our business, but it still continued to pour. Luckily, when we went down to the waiting area, a taxi drove in to drop a passenger. We asked the driver if he can take us to Pension Suika, and after some (half-hearted) haggling, we agreed on a price.
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Fuerza Bruta in Manila

It was a show like no other, that’s for sure. Prior to last night, I had no idea what Fuerza Bruta was. Watching the preview didn’t really give me much to go on. Still, my friend Ida was excited about it, so I figured it’s something to look forward to.

Fuerza Bruta
What exactly is Fuerza Bruta?

While in discussion about the invites for the opening night’s show, I asked Hoopla.ph’s PR manager if it’s okay to take photos during the show. She said it’s okay, but I can join the media preview the day prior. So off to the Manila Hotel tent I go on February 13th, not knowing what to expect. They led us to a seemingly empty room, and the first thought in my mind was “this is it?”
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Snapshot Pampanga: Watching balloons fly

This is what I miss: making a spur of the moment decision to go somewhere. Two of the raffle winners for the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta weren’t able to claim their prize. When my friend Hazel saw it, she said we should go.

watching balloons fly
Lying down on the grass and watching balloons soar into the air. Can’t do that when you’re working.

I quickly sent a text to Rey and Heinji and got positive responses: we’re going to Clark, and we’re leaving at 3am. It was already 8pm.

That’s what I love about impromptu plans: it leaves you no time to make up excuses to flake. With barely 2 hours pf sleep (some none at all), we drove out of Manila and arrived in Pampanga while it’s still dark out.

Being at the event as one of the invited media is very different from being there as a regular attendee. Though I certainly missed breezing through the gates and having a pass to get to wander around with the balloon crews, it was also quite enjoyable to just lie down on the grass and listen to the announcer explain how hot air balloons fly — something you don’t get to do when your mind is preoccuppied with taking pictures and noting every detail.

It was also great to be out with friends again. Hazel, Rey and Heinji are three of my oldest friends and it’s been a while since we’ve all hanged out, much less go on a road trip together. We actually made the same trip 8 years ago, when I was on assignment for the travel magazine I used to work for. It was the year the balloons didn’t come and we were way behind our scheduled departure time. It was good to know that while things change, whether for the better or worse, you can still count on your friends for a great weekend.

The 17th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

Thursday, very early in the morning, found me stumbling around in an unfamiliar room, getting ready for the day while trying to shake away the last traces of sleep. It was the first day of the 17th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, and it’s one event you wouldn’t want to be late for.

The 17th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

I was lucky that I still managed to get some sleep, as Caltex, our host for this trip, billeted us at the Hotel Vida in Clark, so we can be at the venue before the crack of dawn. It was still dark when we pulled up to the field, but the traffic was starting to build and the parking lot was quickly filling up. Though there are activities almost every hour for the next four days, the highlight was the flight of the hot air balloons.
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