Ballooning & I

A person close to me once describe ballooning as ‘the simplest form of aviation’. While others beg to differ, I could not agree more.

Growing up it has become a norm for my siblings and I to accompany our parents at different events where they would organise tethered hot air balloon rides. Balloons have always been amusing to me, but I never considered it as love.

It was only when my late father decided to host the 1st Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta (PIHABF) in 2009 did my passion for ballooning take flight.

I have a thing for organising events and this realisation goes way back from the time I was in high school up to university where I would spearhead and organise events for the Interact club as well as debating tournament after parties and even weddings! I love the high that comes from working under pressure.

So when my late father asked for my help with PIHABF, it was only natural that I would take up the challenge. I did not do much during the 1st instalment as I was in the middle of internship at Ernst & Young. So my sisters and I gathered our close friends to handle the ticketing of balloon rides and merchandise sales at the event.

The crowd turnout was beyond expectation! For an inaugural hot air balloon event in Malaysia (after 20 years) with minimal coverage, we were stunned by the number of people that turned up. We even had our gate crashed at the launch field. Our family was overwhelmed! The event was a success. It managed to draw crowds of multiple races from everywhere for a common purpose. Balloons.

After I graduated in 2010, I decided to come in and work full time for the company (AKA Balloon Sdn Bhd). I was tasked as the Event Assistant Director, but after an internal fall out, I got promoted to Event Director. Not as glamorous as you think. Excited, I would brainstorm ideas with a few friends whenever I hang out and managed to come up with a few profitable ones.

Now an idea is always great but when it comes to execution, I certainly overlooked many things. The technical aspects of the balloons has always been my parents forte while all the other side events and the handling of sponsor were mine. Believing I was able to juggle everything, the 2nd year of PIHABF expanded from 2 to 7 fields. I had to take care of contractors, corporate sponsors, at least 50 bazaar vendors, official merchandising and my side event operators. My phone did not stop ringing and for the first time in my life I had breakouts on my cheeks! (Indicating the level of stress I was in). Talk about throwing me into the deep end!

The following years, I got better at what I did and I really embraced the term ‘DELEGATING’. With both my sisters by my side, we managed to get some of our close friends to work for us, and help us make the event better.

The beauty about having young minds working for you is that they are always open to new methods and ideas and most importantly ever willing to learn. Personally, my biggest achievement is to watch how much the members of my team (Secretariat Team, you know who you are) whether they have left us or still working for us during the event have grown. We were close. The event bonded us together like the family we never had. To witness how this simple event become their career booster and as a way for them to build their character, to be stronger and independent.. it is one of the most satisfying feelings for me.

Since my dad left, I have slowly worked my way into learning the technical side of things. I work closely with my mother and we are lucky to have Sobri (one of my dad’s closest friend, who is also a balloonist) around and stepping in as the Event Chairman. I got familiar with the balloon system and started networking with fellow balloonists from all over the world to select balloons for the event. This is where I realised my relationship with ballooning started to bloom.

The thing about ballooning is, its not just a balloon flight. It goes way beyond big colourful envelopes or the sound of the loud burner as it floats ever so gently above you. It is all about the people. We have had balloonists who have attended the Putrajaya event every single year. Although we live in different parts of the world, you would be amazed by the our chemistry. It really is an extended family.

My sister Eqa went for a Euro trip after she graduated and politely asked a few of our balloonist contacts there if she could come and stay at their place. Each one of them welcomed her like the their own daughter! She breezed through her month-long Euro trip, visiting all their homes. It must have been the trip of her life! It is so wonderful to experience such hospitality from people we only meet once a year in Putrajaya.

It is remarkable that whenever we travel and we post a picture of where we are, there is always someone from the ballooning community who will invite you over for dinner or even offer their place for accommodation. I hope I speak on behalf of most balloonists, that it is a privilege to be a part of this beautiful balloon family. They never look at the colour of your skin or religion or whether we can speak the same language. As long as we understand each other, you are one of them.

We keep our event small, so we can eliminate all the politics that comes with every growing community. It becomes a family day, if not a reunion for most of us. Any new faces we see, they will always be treated like long lost relatives, and by the end of a balloon event, you can feel that your family just got a little bit bigger.

Currently my sister Eqa and I are in Spain, training to get our Private Pilot License (PPL). What a remarkable experience it has been so far. We hope to get our license by the time we leave and be the first two female hot air balloon pilots in Malaysia, following the footsteps of our father who was the first Malaysian balloonist.

The people we have met throughout our journey have been amazing. Just sit with them for 10 minutes and I promise you everyone has their own story to tell, from jaw dropping stories to the ones that will make your stomach churn! It is always fun to listen to these adventure junkies telling their personal experience when it comes to ballooning.

Now I can see why even after so long and after all the hardship, my late father was still as passionate about ballooning as when he first started. It is not about the flight, it is about the people. For this group of people in the ballooning world, it does not matter who you are, whether you are a balloonist, a family member or a crew. You are a part of this big family that shares the same burning passion. Ballooning.

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Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards,

for there you have been, and there you long to return.

– Leonardo Da Vinci

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Sorrow After the Knot

7th of December 2012: I was getting dolled up for my big day, all my close friends and family gathered at my home for the solemnization ceremony that was about to happen. I could still remember everything, how everyone looked and dressed, how nervous and excited my family were, how beautifully decorated my home was. It was indeed the most precious day of my life and how blessed I felt, to be able to share it with my loved ones.

Everything went surprisingly well, considering I had only less than three months to plan for the wedding. My husband proposed on our trip to Cambodia back in September 2012. However, my husband being my husband, he never really thought of the wedding bit. So we went along with our holiday (me trying my best not to show him how really excited I was) without speaking a word about whats to come next (like, when are we getting married? what would the wedding theme be? and etc). When we got back we were told by his mother that she wanted us to tie the knot on the 15th of December!

I told my parents about it, and I remembered my dad asking me bluntly, “Are you sure you want to get married?” to which I replied defensively, “What do you mean am I sure? Of course!”. Secretly I knew my parents were thrilled and they then quickly started planning for the wedding.

The next day, my dad browsed through the Jabatan Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan (JAWI) website and printed all the necessary forms. He even called me into the meeting room holding a shoebox and never would I have thought! He actually kept all the wedding invitations he has received for me to choose from! (That was very funny yet very sweet of him). So we quickly signed up for the wedding course, did our medical check up and prepared all the necessary paper work for the big day.

The wedding hall however became a big issue. Due to the time constraint, it was nearly impossible for us to find an available venue. So when I announced to one of my Whatsapp group that I was getting married, I also asked for their help finding me a wedding hall. I remembered this quote by Napoleon Hill ‘Opportunity often comes disguised in form of misfortune or temporary defeat’. Well, a friend of mine cancelled her wedding and decided to give me her booking which was set a week earlier than what my future mother-in-law proposed. Everyone agreed to the new date, which meant I just lost another week of preparation!

I was lucky when my bestfriend Jun recommended her wedding decorator extraordinaire neighbour who agreed to do both my solemnization and reception on my very limited budget while another childhood friend of mine in Perth gave me a file to ease my wedding preparations because she was not around physically to help me. She gave all her contacts from jewelers to cake suppliers! Apart from the wedding itself, my sisters and my other close friends were also busy planning my ‘over the top’ bachelorette party.

However for me, one of the most exciting aspect of the wedding, was my wedding dress. Aaa yes! My husband was friends with Alia Bastamam and her team, so we managed to get her to design and make all my dresses at a reasonable price. Wedding dress, checked!

Malay weddings are somewhat, elaborate, consisting of one to three, or even four ceremonies for just one couple! My favorite ceremony has got to be the solemnization ceremony. That emotional moment when the father of the bride has to give her daughter away. During my friends or cousins wedding, I would always take a peek of their fathers and tears will stream down my cheek (did I mention I am a softie too?) . It was no exception for me.

Funny how as a parent all you want is for your children to find and marry a decent independent partner they can share their life with and yet when it’s time to finally let them go, it is just heartbreaking. Like most brides, I cried happy tears watching how excited my family & friends were to welcome my husband and his family, but most of all, I was overwhelmed. In someways I felt like I was losing my parents (not literally) to my husband. Alhamdulillah, the ceremony was close to perfect and all the guests were well fed. I remembered, because there was no food left for us (bride & groom).

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My own father-daughter moment

The next day was my wedding reception, it was held in the afternoon but the wedding decorator transformed the hall to an evening wedding with blacked out curtains and candle lights everywhere. It was truly magical! The smile on my dad’s face, the proud father sharing this celebration with over 1000 guest who came to congratulate him. Like any other weddings, it was filled with joy, laughter, and A LOT of photo taking that at the end of it, I had cheek cramps, I swear!

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From the left, my dad, my husband, myself and my mom.

I work with my dad, he owns a hot air balloon business and we organise the Annual Putrajaya Hot Air Balloon Fiesta since 2009. November to March is a crucial time for us to prepare every single detail of the event, it was unbelievable how we manage d to pull off my December wedding. I was still working days before my wedding and knowing my tight schedule in the months to come, I decided to go for our honeymoon in Bali a few days after the reception. Get it over and done with.

Before we left, we were suppose to bring both our parents out for their anniversary dinner because coincidentally their anniversary dates were close to our wedding date, but we had lots of things to settle and we were exhausted, so my husband promised to take them when we get back from Bali. I told my mother, and apparently my dad was really looking forward to the dinner. I guess he was excited to meet my new in laws.

We left for Bali on Wednesday, 11th Dec. It was off season there, heavy rain most of the time, but we did manage to find a few artisan cafes and enjoy the private villa that is so commonly available there. Throughout our time there, I only spoke to my mother via Whatsapp, sending her photos and updates of our trip. On Saturday, 15th Dec, in the early afternoon while we were enjoying lunch by the paddy field, I received a phone call from my sister. I picked up and she said my dad had a heart attack, and she is with him at the hospital. I was surprised but at that moment, it did not occur to me how serious it was. She just told me he played tennis and when he came back he was not feeling well. I prayed for his safety. I was pretty sure he will be okay, heart attack is a common thing among Malaysians.

We went to Seniman Coffee, the last cafe we visited during our trip, where I called my mom because I didn’t hear anything from them since I last spoke to my sister an hour ago. When she answered, she was crying. My mom cries only once a year, (literally, during raya when we ask for forgiveness). Her exact words was “Etty, Mama tak tau nak buat apa dah. Doctor said, call all your children here. I don’t know what to do” she cried frantically. My heart literally sank and with my husband next to me, I just broke down and cried. I was so sure my dad was going to be okay. He is a healthy man, he plays tennis weekly, takes all sorts of vitamins and I have never seen him being admitted to a hospital. He was only 56 years old, full of life with big big dreams for the company and the family.

I immediately got my husband to book us the next flight back to KL. All I wanted was to be with my dad. On our way back from Ubud to Seminyak (which was at least an hour drive) while desperately getting updates from my sister, it came to an end when she texted “Etty, he’s gone”. I think I read it at least twice to properly digest what I just received. To me it was a bloody sick joke, a freaking horrible nightmare. I HATED myself for rushing my honeymoon, I hated that we cancelled their anniversary dinner, I hated that I was not there with my family, I hated that I never got to tell him what a wonderful father he has been to all of us, I hated everything at that moment.

I felt my world was falling apart. Only exactly a week ago, I was on top of the world, marrying the love of my life, making my parents the happiest people and a now, I lost my father. To me, it did not make sense. I couldn’t imagine how my mother, my sisters and brother were handling this loss. I pleaded my mother to wait till I arrived in KL before she send him for the burial ceremony. I wanted to kiss him and hug him one last time.. I wanted to say my goodbyes.

I cried till there were no tears left. I cried the whole way back from Ubud. I was physically and mentally drained, I received phone calls after phone calls from my dad’s friends wanting to confirm his death. How in the world are you suppose to answer that call? How do you, as his daughter tell another person that yes, your father just passed away moments ago and you were not there by his side. I felt helpless. It was the longest trip back to KL. I reached home at 2.00 am, dreading to go in.

You know that feeling when something really bad just happened and all you wish for was for it to be a really bad dream. Well, that was exactly how I felt, only thing is it wasn’t a dream.

The first person I saw was a high school friend who waited for me to come back. All he managed to give me was a sad stare. I entered the living room, where I saw a few men sitting at the corner reciting the Yassin. At the centre, I saw my sister seated next to now, my late father. He was covered in white cloth. I saw my aunties (my dad’s sisters and sister in laws) sitting against the wall and I went straight to them, their faces pale and eyes swollen like they had been crying all night. I think I was just too shocked, and was lost of what to do until one of my aunt said to me, ‘Etty, tak nak tengok ayah ke? Pergi la tengok, Ayah nampak tenang sangat, bersih muka dia’ . (Etty, don’t you want to see Ayah? Go on, he looks so calm and peaceful.)

I was trying hard to hold back my tears and at that moment I just broke down and said “Aunty Ton, Etty tak ready, I can’t accept that he is really gone”. She hugged me and when I looked back at my sister, her eyes filled with tears, she pulled down the cloth covering his face and I saw him for the first time. It felt like it was only yesterday he was all smiles, now he was pale but my aunt was right, he looked so peaceful. I bent down and kiss his cold forehead and hugged him.

Yes, I lost my father exactly a week after my wedding.

From that moment on, I was just numb, filled with great sadness, and every time a thought of him pass by, I cried. Everything I saw and heard for the next few days went by like a time-lapse. My father at 56, left his dedicated wife and his four loving children. I never ever want to see my mom as sad as she was losing him anymore. Looking back, I saw how strong my little brother really was, holding back his tears and sadness while comforting each one of us through that trying time.

Later when we talked about what he said to each one of us weeks and days before he left, it was as if he knew he was going to leave. Apparently he kept telling my 13 year old brother, “Make sure you take care of your Mama, especially when all your sisters get married. She may look okay, but she will be lonely”. He never actually told us, we only heard that from my mom. During one of our ride back from a meeting, just my dad and I in the car (one of the last meeting we attended together), he said “Etty, I think you are ready to take over the company. Ayah dah penat (I’m tired), I want to retire”. I casually answered ‘Oh no Ayah, you are not retiring, you’re still young!’ . He just kept quiet and smiled.

Fast forward, it has been over two years since he left. Our family has gotten closer, going through hell and back together. Getting over such a significant loss in our life has made me a stronger person today. My dad and I may not be on the same page most of the time, but now that I’m in his shoes, I finally understand why he did what he did. Everything he ever wanted was the best for everyone. He was a great man with a bigger heart. He left a dent in my heart, and I shall forever be grateful for having him as a father. I have a big shoe to fill, but like him, no dream is too big for me. We (my family & I) shall continue his life long work and legacy and make sure all his dreams will come true. Insyaallah.

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2013 – Still hosting the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta without him. I hope we made him proud. Dearly missed, my ayah – Capt Khairudin Abd Rani.