in between islands Travel

IN BETWEEN ISLANDS: Two-day street party at the Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo City

Eat, drink, be merry and watch tribes dancing on the streets.

I am playing patty cake with a four-year old at Nancy’s store, under a huge banyan tree. Nancy’s granddaughter Sukaina lets out huge bellyfuls of hiccupy laughter with our songless game. I teach her high fives and low fives, and we name our game as we go. “Clap, left high five, clap, right high five.” Giggle.

It’s the Sunday of Dinagyang this year, and after a long two days of walking the streets chasing after images, I’m unwinding with a Red Horse beer at Nancy’s.

Sukaina’s mother calls and tells Nancy the little girl has to go home. It’s getting dark. Sukaina starts to cry and shake her head, saying over and over, “I don’t want to go home.” She adds in between sobs, “There’s Dinagyang here.”

Even for someone older than four, Dinagyang is a lot of fun.

I’ve been anticipating Dinagyang for a couple weeks after my mother suggested that I visit Iloilo to see how it’s changed and to witness the festival, which I have only heard about. As a child, while my parents did some research at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center on Panay Island, I had spent a little bit of time in Iloilo. I don’t remember much of the city, being very young then. So when my mom suggested that I visit for the festival, I thought it was a great idea.

Held in Iloilo at the end of January each year, Dinagyang is a festival  commemorating cultural and ethnic origins. The narrative is blended with Catholic reverence for the Senior Santo Nino, a small statue of child Jesus which apparently was unharmed in a fire consuming the house it was in, giving it significant power in the Catholic faith in the Philippines and then governing country Spain.

Locals celebrate Dinagyang by holding street dancing, a sort of mardi gras, with floats, a beauty pageant, and choreographed dancing of groups that come from all over Region VI of the archipelago, to which Panay Island belongs, to vie for the prizes. “There used to be up to 21 groups some years,” says a bystander as we wait for the parade to begin on Sunday. “This year there’s only eight entries.”

But the few entries this year, to the newbie spectator, are fantastic to behold. The magnitude of the project is amazing involving hundreds of people for each tribe entry and thousands of people to organize the city to host it.

Sponsored by companies in the region, the costuming and hiring of choreographers, makeup artists, musicians who can play street percussion instruments including the drums made from old oil barrels, and other presumably substantial expenses for each entry, are borne by sponsors, who in turn get exposure during the parades through banner based advertising, especially if they champion the winning teams.


From Nancy’s store near the Marriot where I’ve had two cups of coffee, I take a taxi to the Provincial Capitol building. Some roads in downtown Iloilo are blocked for the parades and traffic rerouted, adding to the anticipation.

The taxi driver drops me off at the Iloilo River behind the Capitol building. I have no idea where I am, really, knowing only Mulle Loney Street from the day before. I know only that I am downtown and I need to get to where everything seems to happen during Dinagyang, near the Provincial Capitol building.

Luckily as I walk down the street beside the river, I spy a truck of people with costumes hanging on poles raised on bamboo poles in their truck bed. They are getting down from the truck and unloading the costume items.

Whole families who are here for the parade are moving on the street. I follow the throngs of people for a couple blocks until I see a street that is not cordoned off, and I turn into it, walking toward the direction of the Capitol. At the end of the street I see a truck unloading dancers. I head toward them, quickening my pace, excited about what I’ll see.

I arrive at the side street leading to the grandstand where the Tribal Dance Competition will be held. It’s cordoned off. To be part of the front row to Dinagyang, you have to buy tickets. It can be a little expensive as there are only a few seats available, so most people just watch the show from the judging stations at two locations in the parade route. At these judging stations, the group converges, forms into performance configuration including backdrops and musicians, and then dances their number while the judges watch.

I decide to photograph the ‘backstage’ preparations. The dancers are relaxed, and they kindly allow people to take selfies with them.

Dancers before performance.

A few dancers, seeing the camera, pose patiently while I take their photo. “Do you have a site? Facebook?” one of them asks. I say, “No Facebook, but check out my site. Lightchaser dot life.”

He gives me a thumbs up and I thank him for the photo.

The dancers limber up with their choreographer and I feel fortunate to be at this place, making photos.

Posing for the shot.

Dance = Fun

The fun of Dinagyang encapsulates the fun in the Philippines. It’s basically a street party with people dressing up in dramatic ways. Filipinos are a fun-loving bunch, and when there’s loud music and an opportunity for merry making, Filipinos give it all they have.

I walk down the street after taking some photographs; I’m searching for breakfast. A pickup truck which has been converted to the world’s biggest speaker system blares out music. Yeah, it’s a party in the Philippines and we want you to hear it, baby!

When the street dancing starts in the cordoned off area, I prepare to move to Quezon Street, where there is a judging station. The previous day during Kasadyahan, which is a regional street dancing competition the day before the Tribe Dance Competition, I had enjoyed the vantage point from beside the road on Quezon Street.

Dancer stretches before the performance.

On Tribes day, Quezon Street is more packed than the day before. Crowds five people deep are kept from swarming the streets (and risk getting trampled by musical instruments on wheels, costume trucks and floats) by soldiers and ROTC uniformed youth holding on to ropes to separate the crowds from the street area where the tribe groups dance.

There is a lot of pushing for vantage points, but it’s not rude. No elbows in your ribs, no shoving from behind. A little jostling, and everyone shifts to accommodate the ebb and flow of the crowd depending on whether there is action on the street. It is difficult to get a sharp image with the movement of the crowd behind the ropes, so I am grateful that I spent the earlier part of the morning documenting some of the backstage action.

Eating = Fun

After the parade starts at the Provincial Capitol and passes the Chinatown friendship arch, I cut across from the backstage area through Delgado Street and find the designated restaurant street, where the whole street is taken over by Iloilo establishments setting up street side stalls to serve the crowds.

Barbecue is everywhere.

There is a lot of barbecue. Barbecue chicken, barbecue pork, and even grilled calamari stuffed with tomatoes and onions, which I choose for my meal. I would have preferred a vegetable dish; but it’s actually quite difficult to order a vegetarian dish, or a dish that is all vegetables in Iloilo during Dinagyan. (I recall the one time I did order the Adobo Kangkong, or stir-fried morning glory, at a restaurant in Makati and it came with fried pork belly even though it said nothing in the menu about it including meat in the dish, and it was under the heading of “Vegetables” in the menu listing.)

A familiar bell rings from behind me, and excited chatter from kids and adults starts up. It’s the ice cream man! Filipinos like their foods sweet, and sugar based treats like ice cream. At the Dinagyang celebration, an ice cream man on Quezon Street means droves of people, children and adults alike, flocking to his cart and coming away with PHP 20 or 30 worth of waffle cones of ube, mango, coconut ice creams.

Drinking = Fun?

Although it is a street party, there is surprisingly very little drinking going on. At the food stalls during the lunch hours, a few guys have cold beers, and on Quezon Street I glimpse three guys with a few bottles on their table. But that’s about it. Compared to New Orleans or perhaps Brazil, the mardi gras known as Dinagyang in Iloilo has little by way of drunkenness and seems peaceful. (I recall with a chuckle being in NO during mardi gras in my twenties, and a drunken guy calls down to me, “Show us your tits!” Yeah.)

There is a lot of consumption of soft drinks and energy drinks. I am startled when a little girl thrusts a can called HELL in bright red letters in front of me, until she smiles and says, “Cold drink ma’am?” I shake my head, and watch her sell the drink called HELL to someone else.

Be Merry = Fun

Every street sells souvenirs. And many of the locals buy Dinagyang shirts to wear during the festivities and colorful headdresses. At the stall where I’m brunching on grilled squid and rice, a couple of middle aged dudes park their mountain cycles inside the shack and order chicken barbecue, and eat wearing their own neon-colored feather headdresses.

While a live-and-let-live spirit infuses Dinagyang in Iloilo, there’s all sorts of law-and-order-keeping people around so things don’t get too out of hand at the street party. Barangay or neighborhood watch folks, police, army and other uniformed folks patrol the streets and keep people safe when they cross the street.

At some point during a lull in the parade, a whole troop of black-uniformed neighborhood watch guys follow a man who had been arrested by a policeman. He is taken away after the report is filed quickly at a stall announcing Iloilo Police, and the small contingent of police holding the arrested guy passes by where I stand. The man who is in handcuffs comments cheerfully on the headdresses and I suspect he’s not quite right today. Police take him away.

The party continues.

The party is mostly, for me, like an anticipation of entertainment. People stand around, walk around, buy souvenirs, drink fizzy drinks, eat barbecue or corn on the cob or any manner of snacks being sold by the army of vendors situated at every stretch of street.

There’s a long wait between groups parading on the Dinagyang route, around 20-30 minutes each time. The anticipation comes in tides. When there is a lull in music or drumming, the crowd takes selfies and does any manner of activities named in the previous paragraph. Then, there’s the sound of the Dinagyang song being played coming around the corner, and suddenly the crowd tenses up in anticipation. People press in toward the street, the ROTC and Army folks holding the cordons start getting people to back off behind the shoulder of the street, and the crowd exclaims as the next tribe comes to view.

By 12.00 noon I’ve only seen three groups, and the heat and the harsh light directly overhead create deep shadows on the faces of people in the images. I decide that that’s it for me, and I’m craving some water. (There is only one portable toilet on the whole stretch of Quezon street, and I did not want to venture to that with the barbecue eating population, so I did not drink water, only sipped to wet my lips, the whole morning.)

The two days of crowds leave me pumped up from the festival, but I am also looking forward to some quiet time. The hotel is almost half-full, and there’s politicians and movie stars staying in it for Dinagyang, so even the people hanging out in the lobby are all anticipating some kind of entertaining encounter.

Just outside the entrance, there’s drums, and intermittently, there are teens banging on them while scrolling through their cell phones. Inside, there are teens in Dinagyang constume who charge people some couple hundred to take photos with them. Unexplainably, there is also a whole family that has decided to dress up as Spiderman, the character from that really violent film and a few other cartoon characters. I went to get some cash for the trip to Guimaras at the ATM and meet Spiderman in the hallway heading into the men’s toilet. A weird question about Spiderman and going to the bathroom pops into my head, but that’s not going to make it to this post.

Later I stroll down the street to a batchoy place to have a bowl of noodles. Batchoy is a local favorite, and the neighborhood in Iloilo famous for it is called Lapaz. The dish is a soup with egg noodles, topped with bits of lechon meat and crackling sprinkled over the soup. There are onions that have been sweated to release flavor, and fresh, chopped spring onion as garnishing. Batchoy is a wonderful snack or a light lunch.

I savor my bowl of batchoy, sitting alone in a quiet nameless place that only serves noodles, at the end of the street from the Marriot. After the noodles, I know I’ll walk to Nancy’s for the goodbye drink before I go away for some quiet time after the street party.

Thumping music in the night jolts me awake several times in the night, piercing its way to eardrums through the windows of the Marriot. The last party of Dinagyang, until the clichéd wee hours of the morning.

The anticipation is building again, and this time, it’s for some time in between islands, near the sea, where the sound of waves is the only break in the silence.

7 comments

  1. I really loved your writing of this post. And the photos are beautiful. The Philippines are a place I’ve always wanted to see and this post makes me want to see it more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, Thank you for stopping by and taking time to share your thoughts. I hope you do travel to the Philippines. There is much kindness in the people, if you know where to go. Safe travels to you, Light Chaser

      Like

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