The Mother of all Festivals

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January 20th 2012
Published: January 20th 2012
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Bloody hell. After running out of superlatives in the last blog, I find myself sitting here again wondering exactly how to put the past few days into words. I mean I’m having an absolutely amazing time, but it’s getting seriously hard to convey it.

Having finally bid a fond farewell to paradise, I soon faced a torturous day of travel that included my first flight being delayed by an hour and which meant that upon arriving in Manila, I literally had seven minutes to make my connecting one before the gate shut. In my haste, I took a wrong turn, ended up outside and then bolted back in, paid the terminal fee again and scampered through the other passengers who were standing around sipping coffees, chatting and generally getting in my way. I did finally manage to make it to the gate, absolutely drenched in sweat, just a few minutes late and after everyone else had boarded, but some very persuasive sweet talking allowed me to scramble aboard. And then that flight was delayed for an hour. I sat there sweating and stinking to high heaven (I really felt for the poor old Filipino lady next to me) until we finally took off. An hour later we arrived in Kalibo on the island of Panay and as I stood waiting for my backpack, I could already hear the festival drums banging away outside. I was standing there by the carousel, grinning inanely, when I noticed that all of the other bags were gone and there was still no sign of mine. Which happened to be sitting in Manila still. So perspiring profusely with only the tatty, reeking, sweat-stained shirt on my back, I trudged out, hailed a tricycle and made my way into the city proper. No matter what anyone says, and that includes my darling wife who was born on this auspicious day, don’t travel on Friday, the 13th.

The reason for coming to Kalibo is the Ati Atihan Festival, an 800 year old fiesta that is celebrated on the third January of every year and is labelled by Filipinos as The Mother of All Festivals. Its origins lie in a meeting all those centuries ago when a collection of Malays, the unfortunate vanquished in some inter-tribal clashes in Borneo (for further info on this, see the previous blogs on Borneo, in particular the one where I unknowingly proposed to Jane on the path of countless massacres – sorry, let me clarify, I didn’t unknowingly propose, I did so quite happily and willingly, but without prior knowledge of the trail’s infamous headhunting history). Anyway, they arrived on the island of Panay seeking refuge and were warmly welcomed by the locals (the Atis) who fed them and provided them with lands to live on. The newcomers responded by collecting ash from their fires and smothering their bodies in it, as a sign of respect for the much darker skinned Atis (and I guess the original instance of black-facing). A big celebration was held and it was called Ati Atihan, or to be like the Atis.

Then of course the Spanish rocked up in the 16th century and introduced the locals to Catholicism, which they enthusiastically adopted and the fiesta took on a more religious tone. The catch cry now, and seen absolutely everywhere throughout town, is Viva pay Senor Santo Nino (or loosely translated as Hooray for Mister Baby Jesus.) Similar festivals are held in cities throughout the Philippines during January, but these are highly choreographed and closed to public involvement and the consumption of alcohol is generally frowned upon. However Kalibo is the original and open to local and tourist alike and the festival is a hodge-podge of tribal drumming, raucous dancing and religious celebration. And drinking. Lots and lots and lots of drinking. Welcome to the Mother of All Festivals.

The fiesta goes for a full week but culminates on the weekend. And I’ve never seen anything like it. For these final two days I arose at dawn and wandered into the central part of town where there is a large plaza and the local Catholic cathedral. Here in the plaza, the men, women and children of two dozen or so tribes from the local region gather and start preparing. This involves donning their amazing costumes and headdresses (some more traditional woven out of pandanus leaves and bamboo while others are more flashy and consist of bright, outrageous and garish colours and depict a certain type of animal important to the tribe) and smearing themselves all over with ash. And then the drumming begins, traditional bamboo drums as well as more modern ones, one by one the groups begin bashing out a steady beat until the entire plaza is a deafening cacophony of noise. And just when it reaches a crescendo they begin filing out tribe by tribe to parade and dance and drum through the streets. There’s no set route, although there are judging stations scattered around town to ascertain the biggest and best group of the festival, and they basically just peel off down side streets and dance and drum away until they run into another group and there’s sort of a game of chicken as they head right towards each other and somehow manage to wrangle their tribe past the other. Leading the tribe is a leader carrying a large sort of banner signifying which tribe it is and he is generally flanked by a couple of cohorts bearing statues of baby Jesus and grinning wildly. Behind them come the tribespeople and I had to feel for some of the little ones (who were literally the age of our preps at school) who danced and jiggled and boogied for hours on end in the sweltering heat. (Maybe an idea for some insane form of detention next year?) This carries on for a few hours until they are understandably knackered (remember, the temperature is hovering in the mid-30s and the humidity is off the charts and they finally crawl off to a shady spot to quaff a few hard-earned beers and bottles of rum. But then the festivities are taken up by various local groups (university classes, badminton clubs, choirs, scouts and even sponsored groups representing local hotels, mobile phone companies and skin cream specialists) who hire sets of drummers who smash away on cymbals, cowbells, military drums, bass drums and a myriad of others, as well as guys bearing some sort of strange xylophone contraptions, to continue bashing out the beats. So now these groups take to the streets and this is where the locals and tourists alike are all dragged into the mix. The locals seem to have a fetish for dressing up in fancy dress so you are soon mingling with various superheroes, guys body-painted as Dalmatians, fellas in nappies and oversized baby bottles and of course the obligatory lady-boy in full prom dress and Miss Philippines sash. (I almost caused a riot when I stopped to take his/her photo and gave my thanks by elaborately bowing and kissing his/her hand). Soon the streets are heaving and everyone is having their faces smeared with soot and is drinking and dancing and just having great, clean (well, not so clean as we’re all covered in ash) exuberant fun. And just when you’re starting to wane, when the heat and the beer and the general noisiness and absolute chaos of the party is peaking and you’re wondering if maybe a cold shower and really quick nap might be quite a nice idea, the tribes reappear and the crowds grow yet further to the point that you really can’t leave (I mean it is a struggle to physically get from one side of the road to the other due to the masses) and the city is literally a sea of people all going off. So of course, you swig down a bottle of water, buy another beer, apply another smear of soot and carry on with the party. I even had the honour of being interviewed by a local radio station about my impressions of the fiesta by someone who must have been a celebrity as he kept being mobbed and screamed at by passers-by. I did my best to not sound like a total idiot (anyone who knows me will agree that public speaking is not my strong point – yet alone to tens of thousands of people in a foreign country) but I iterated that yes, it was a truly amazing festival, yes, I would be sharing my impressions with my fellow Australians, and yes, I would be imbibing one or two beers with the locals during the day.

As more and more bottles of beer and rum appeared, I then bumped into and had a chat to a local copper and asked him if there were ever arrests, because in Australia, such public drinking in the streets was bound to lead to fighting and consequent incarceration. He just laughed and said no because (a) it’s tradition, we’ve been doing this for 800-odd years, (b) if they arrested everyone for drinking in the streets then it really wouldn’t be much of a fiesta now would it and (c) everyone’s just having too much fun. And I’ve got to say that although everyone did drink a helluva lot and there were a few fellas who were looking a bit worse for wear by this stage (and indeed even by mid-morning), there was not a hint of violence or any sort of trouble and the role of the police was to stand around and look bemused.

The final act on the Sunday was a massive procession of tribes, locals and tourists alike (as well as these hilarious little floats all adorned with statues of sweet baby Jesus) along a set circuitous route through the town. I really don’t know how long it went for but seven hours and countless beers later, I still couldn’t see the end in sight. At around midnight the party finally began to wind down and exuberant locals slowly began to wander home, cradling their statues of baby Jesus and their empty bottles of rum.

So that was that. It really was an incredible experience and although my ears are still ringing and my head is slightly worse for wear this afternoon, I am just so chuffed that I had the opportunity to be a part of this. Another heart-felt salamat and tagai to the wonderful locals of Kalibo and Viva pay Senor Santo Nino…

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20th January 2012

The Mother of all Festivals
Great to see you made the trek to an exotic festival...and got right into it...way to go...looks & sounds like a blast..!
20th January 2012

The question is...
Did you make your way to Boracay island to recover? And did you get your backpack? Think you should submit an article to Lonely Planet magazine.
22nd January 2012

Hey Vince - yeah the backpack arrived safe and sound the next day. Didn't head to Boracay as the last time I was there was 1986 when it housed three small places to stay and didn't have electricity. Didn't want to ruin the memories. And I used to work for LP a few years ago. Thanks again for the nice comments. Cheers Simon
23rd January 2012

Who wrote this entry, Michael Palin? Great work fella, teaching kids to write more than a paragraph is a waste to the travel world....
25th January 2012

Hey fella - cheers mate - having an absolute ball as you may have gathered. Just got back from another day of beautiful snorkelling with amazing corals and a few graceful turtles. Sweet. And how was your trip to Vietnam? Hope ya had a great one. And I guess I'll be seeing you in a weeks time. Shit. Better get used to wearing shoes again I suppose. See ya then mate.
23rd January 2012

Should have known...
That you have been to Boracay. I was there back in the early 90s but did manage to go back a couple more times after, the last time was two years ago. Gone is the lone dirty road which has been replaced by concrete with a lot of tricycles/tuk-tuks, with a mini outdoor mall in center of the island, and a few beach bars that goes on until early in the morning (not that I've been to one). And a grotto with the Virgin is now part of Willy's Rock. But fret not, Boracay still, to me at least, maintains a good island feel. The beach is still clean compared to Kuta or Seminyak; and less crowded than Koh Phi Phi, not as hectic has Phuket or crazy as Koh Phangan. Either way, great to see someone enjoying Phils. Seen a video and read an article on The Guardian about a town in Cebu called Oslob where whale sharks have become somewhat 'domesticated' or 'friendly' to humans. Sounds bizarre and sad, but at least snorkeling with them would be much easier. There's a couple of videos on YouTube...

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