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Ballooning Runs Afoul in Brazil

June 27, 2000

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ As dawn breaks through the hilltop palms, dozens of sleepy-eyed ``baloeiros″ use a welding torch to ignite the wad of wax-soaked-cotton that will propel their hot air balloon skyward and keep it flying for up to 10 hours.

Then they gingerly raise the 30-foot orb, with its three baskets of fireworks trailing below, out of the volcano-shaped hill _ a hidden patch of jungle on Rio’s otherwise drab westside. As the balloon climbs higher, the fireworks begin firing a rat-a-tat-tat of white sparks and smoke.

A burst of applause follows the final explosion, then everyone rushes to their cars: Some hoping to recover the balloon, others to catch a second launch whispered through the baloeiro grapevine and others, still, home to sleep. No matter where they are headed, they go quickly to avoid the police.

To the baloeiros, setting off balloons during Brazil’s annual June festivities honoring Saints Peter, Paul, Anthony and John is a 300-year-old tradition, brought over by the Portuguese, that needs to be preserved.

Authorities don’t share that vision. The 1998 ``environmental crimes″ law made the launch, transport and storage of unmanned balloons a crime punishable by fines and even prison.

``These balloons are just like stray bullets because they are unguided and can fall anywhere, on top of houses, on electric wires, wherever. They present a hazard to aviation and every year they destroy hundreds of hectares of forest,″ said Major Fabio Jose Meirelles, commander of Rio’s forest fire fighting brigade.

Meirelles said balloons started about 43 percent of the forest fires that claimed some 1,720 hectares _ 4,250 acres _ around Rio in 1997. Fires burned only about a third of that acreage in 1999, a year after balloons were banned.

Veteran baloeiro Humberto Pinto, a retired police colonel, concedes the fires are a problem but says the answer lies in better regulation, not a total ban.

Pinto was arrested in May while handing out fliers defending the legalization of ballooning. He was charged under a Brazilian law that makes it illegal to advocate criminal activity.

``It’s ridiculous; there’s no such thing as free speech here,″ he said.

Baloeiros say the crackdown won’t deter them and claim that hundreds of crews working independently launched some 5,000 balloons this past Mother’s Day alone.

Like graffiti artists who spend entire nights covering subway cars with murals just to see them buffed clean the next day, there’s more than a touch of the fanatic among baloeiros. The ban only adds to the mystique.

Many of them sport a T-shirts bearing the slogan ``Arte Prohibido,″ or prohibited art, accompanied by an elegantly rendered drawing of a balloon.

``The police are cracking down more and more these days. Last weekend, I was at a launch where they even fired three shots before we could get away,″ brags 29-year-old baloeiro Emiliano Martinelli with a broad grin.

Like Rio’s samba groups during carnival, baloeiros often spend thousands of dollars and several months on elaborate creations that will be glimpsed only briefly during seasonal celebrations. The main difference being the baloeiros’ parade floats really float.

Towering as high as 72 feet, the balloons often carry enormous banners or, if launched at night, panels made up of hundreds of tiny candles arranged to make a picture, usually honoring soccer teams or saints.

At Neneh’s bar, a popular baloeiro hangout on Rio’s poor northside, enthusiasts trade stories and photographs of balloons honoring Jesus, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, the late Brazilian entertainer Chacrinha and Lady Diana.

There’s even one in the shape of the Eiffel Tower whose wide base and pointy top would seem to defy basic balloon design sense.

Every so often, Jandir Oliveira da Silva, 42, and his friends take time off from their drinking to go across the street and launch three-foot-high balloons using cigarette lighters.

``I will die, but ballooning will never die,″ he said. ``My father made balloons in the dining room. This is a tradition that passes from father to son, like music.″

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