Tribal costumed dancers at the Ati-Atihan Festival, Kalibo

Philippines - Kalibo and the Ati-Atihan Festival - South East Asia 10

Author: Sue
Date: 23rd January 2001
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EDSA

I’m planning to go to Kalibo for the weekend with Elaine. The biggest festival in the Philippines is held there annually - the Ati-Atihan. Just about to sneak out of school at noon to go to the airport in Manila, when we are told the anti Estrada riots are blocking the route (see Manila Envelope).

Kalibo

Eventually, to the airport. Arrive there to a phone call from Lyn. Karsten from Bohol has arrived at school to see me. What timing – he is only in town for one night on his way to Puerto Gallera.

From one demonstration/festival to another. “Erap Resign” signs all over Kalibo, a city on Panay Island. Only tricycle taxis here and Hugo, the drunk Swiss hotel owner meets us with one and takes us back to our bungalow style room. The Hibiscus, pretty, but well out of town. Well at least we’ll be away from all the noise.

The Ati-Atihan Festival

The Kalibo Ati-Atihan Festival, is held every January in honour of the Santo Niño (Holy Child ). As the Fiesta de Santo Niño, the event goes back a long way, to at least the seventeenth century, when the Spanish sought to strengthen ties to the local church. However, it's thought that its origins trace back to animist celebrations. The tourist board have promoted the festival (and others) over the years, so that they have come more to emulate the Rio Carnival and tribal gatherings, like Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Exotic costumes, body paint, music and dancing have been incorporated.

They also changed the name to Ati-Atihan, which means "to imitate the Ati people". This reflects another belief, that the celebration is to thank the indigenous people of Panay, for their care and welcome, to settlers. Just to make things even more complicated, part of the festival re-enacts the handing over of Panay to the Spanish by the local tribes.

The Ati-Atihan Festival is also known as the "Mother of All Philippine Festivals.". I have high expectations.

The Ati-Atihan Festival - Friday

On Friday evening, there is dancing, in a big arena covered in flags and banners. Roll out the Barrel and The Birdie Song at least a dozen times. Without a drop of alcohol, I end up leading snake dances all round, hordes of Filipinos tagging behind. Every time I make an escape they drag me back in. Elaine hides and builds up a file of evidence on her camera.

The Ati-Atihan Festival - Sadsad Saturday

Then, to the carnival proper. The programme says the main parade is at 7.30 a.m. We take a tricycle to the main square at 8.30. Nothing happening. I ask a stallholder, who peers through balloons and feathered tribal masks at me. He says it starts at nine. I say “It is nine”. He says " Maybe 10 then". About 9.30 we hear faint sounds of drumming and the tinkling of percussion and the parades begin. This seems to be a time for massing in the Plaza and we perch, on a wall there for really good views of the parade known as Sadsad., which is also what the locals call their way of dancing where the foot is momentarily dragged along the ground in tune to the beat played by the marching bands.

Endless costumed revellers, marching bands, tribal dancers, snake charmers, grotesque papier mache animals, decorated floats (Mary and Jesus statues in various forms, but usually a plastic modern doll) and hundreds of other outfits – witches/ skeletons/lion fish/a bright pink paunch in a nappy. These groups process round and round the square all morning - absolutely fascinating -though we hear the birdie song rather too many times again. There are very few foreigners here. I am definitely a novelty, as I am interviewed for TV four different times, by different channels. It's a shame that I can’t watch it. Or maybe not.

Lunch in a restaurant, facing the Plaza. ‘Sorry chicken’s off Ma’am. Sorry the last coconut’s just gone Ma’am”.

Too Much Rain and Too Much Alcohol

Then it begins to rain, pouring down, through the plastic roof in buckets and into buckets. The street outside is like a lagoon. The parade begins again, while it is still teeming. This procession includes all the previous tribal groups and more besides, businesses, banks, all marching along, jigging to The Birdie Song.

Another text message. ‘We are at the gates of the palace – face to face with pro Erap police”. Erap has finally given in and left the palace. Half naked men cavort, with Erap Resigns in white paint, all over their backs. Gloria Arroyo is being sworn in as the new president, even as he leaves. Celebrations in Manila, and even bigger ones here.

We watch, our hair becoming progressively more sodden and a veritable river running down my back. This march goes on for three hours. Fantastic, though the revellers are also becoming progressively drunk, carrying large bottles of phosphorescently gleaming green spirits, strapped to their waists, as well as the large metal drums. As they drink, they lose their inhibitions and keep approaching, making thumbs up signs, smacking palms and trying to persuade us to join their groups. One man, who said he was “a sailor”, sweeps me way and won’t let go of me. Every time I try to slip away, he grabs me again and says not to worry, he is a good man. Eventually, I hide in the cathedral alongside the main plaza.

Exhausted by now. Back to the hotel for a nap and then out to a Chinese meal and visits to the night market. Finally, to last night’s dance arena, but too packed to move tonight – very sad. A spectacular firework display. Roman candles that split up like pools of wiggling sperm, as they shoot away. Home to bed and our peaceful area. It is unfortunate that Elaine snores.

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