Iloilo Festival - the Philippines: - colorful festival is only a preview to this multicultural country
If you need clear air and clean streets, handicap accessibility, timeliness, precise arrivals and departures and immediacy in action -- then the Philippines are not for you.
But if you enjoy exploration, intriguing history, plentiful fresh fruits and good food and white-sand beaches, you'll like these islands. Add the warm, caring, friendly people in this English-speaking country, and you will have a rewarding experience.
Between Jan. 19 and Feb. 7, 1999, I joined 40 other members of the Sister City Association of Stockton, California, on an official visit to one of our allied cities.
We flew Asiana Airlines for economical reasons. The only disadvantage was the routing through Seoul, Korea: after leaving San Francisco at 12:30 a.m., and with layovers in Seoul and Manila, we reached our destination of Iloilo City 27 hours later! But we arrived to a warm welcome at the Iloilo Airport -- and a dinner reception was yet to follow!
Iloilo City, in the Western Visayas, takes its name from the Visayan word meaning "noselike" (because of two rivers surrounding Iloilo, the city forms an angle in the shape of a nose). Small towns like Molo, Jaro and Arevalo (with churches and plazas) became part of the greater city. The port, in need of development, has had world trade since 1855 when agricultural products needed export.
After World War II, missionaries emphasized the importance of education, evidenced by four universities, two medical schools and more than 14 colleges in Iloilo alone.
We timed our visit to coincide with Dinagyang (which means "merry making"), a celebration honoring the image of Santo Nino, the child Jesus. This annual event, held the fourth week of January, celebrates the Christianization of the natives who sealed the peace pact between the Negrito Ati tribe and the Malays.
The event and competitive dances retell the story of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and their encounter with the Malays. Roughly, this story is about good over evil, from paganism to Christianity and a journey to the Lord.
The Mardi Gras-style festival was wild and dazzling, with outlandish and riotous costumes. The participating "tribes" reflected the cultural heritage, creative artistry, craftsmanship and ingenuity of the Ilonggos. It was a spectacle -- a pageant beyond anything I'd ever seen before.
The Saturday competition was performed by local high school dancers and was called Kasadyshan, or "happiness." Every dance troupe, or tribe, had a different cultural theme or story, but all with the same result: how good conquered evil. We saw six of the seven dances. Each imitated a way of life, from planting rice or catching fish to overcoming storms, winds or disease.
The Sunday parade featured 11 districts and provinces. Both tribes or groups dramatized dances consisting of 100 or more dancers with 50 to 100 drummers.
Performances were highly choreographed. Dancers' painted bodies -- mostly in black but some gold, silver or green -- were decorated with vibrantly colored feathers, beads, fabric, shells, grasses or other ornaments to tell their story. Most were young men, with only a few women.
Each tribe carried a small baby Jesus dressed in the same costume as the dancers. Judging was based 35% on performance, 35% choreography, 20% costume and 10% music.
The theme in 1999 was Ipadayon ang Pangla katon sa Gino-o Padulang, meaning "Move Toward Christ," which carried out the religious theme of Asia's only Christian country.
The week-long event turned the city of more than a million people into one giant party -- including a film festival, beauty pageant, marathon run and a religious Mass broadcast on radio over loudspeakers from San Jose Parish Church. Streets were closed for food festivals. Entertainment and dancing lasted all day and all night, culminating with the parades and contests.
While the procession lasted all day on major thoroughfares of the city, the viewing and judging area was Freedom Grandstand. This is where the parade began and where we were official guests of the city government and Mayor Mansueto Malabor. A Lions Club from Taiwan and a group from South Korea also had delegations. I was even interviewed by a cable news station, one of many official media.
Amid rhythmic drumbeats and chanting of "Viva Sto. Nino! Viva Sto. Nino!" the very city, streets and buildings reverberated as the festivities commenced. Large amplifiers, maybe four or six feet high by 10 or 12 feet wide, on all four corners of major streets carried the same vibrating hypnotic beat. People waited on the streets all night, which were packed by 10 p.m. the night before, and driving conditions were chaotic.
While Dinagyang was perhaps the most dramatic event of our trip, our hosts in Iloilo planned every minute so we would not miss a thing. Every couple, or roommate, had a host to care for every need -- and care for us they did!
My hosts, Jeffrey and Girlie Ganzon, are both enterprising businesspeople. Jeffrey grows mangoes on a nearby island and is a land developer. Girlie brought bottled water daily, T-shirts, clothes and purses from her boutique. We had haircuts, manicures and pedicures from her beauty shop, but most of all they shared their gracious and warm hospitality.
Almost half our group were Filipinos returning to their homeland after many years' absence. Their knowledge was important. Every day was a history lesson for me, as my roommate, Elna Gimotea, lived and attended school in Iloilo. The Central Philippine University, her alma mater, hosted us for lunch one day. It was a double treat, as the entertainment was provided by the Bahandi Singers, a choral group that performed in Stockton the previous summer. From folk songs to "America the Beautiful," we renewed old friendships.
We also made a visit to the mayor's office for the official gift exchange. We were entertained royally one evening at a dinner, followed by ballroom dancing (very popular now in the Philippines), hosted by the mayor and the city government.
All events overflowed with gourmet food to please any connoisseur. Most were held in private residences, but one lunch was held at The Breakthru, an open-air restaurant offering shrimp, crab, scallops, oysters, shellfish, clams, mahi mahi, native dishes of chicken and pork, and green mango and sweet mango. At many dinners they served fresh lumpia (spring rolls) and whole roasted pig, the crisp rind being a delicacy.
Iloilo, the "hospitality" city of the Philippines, offers many tourist attractions, all available by jeepney. In Musco Iloilo, you can view the cultural heritage of the island through dated fossils, shells, rocks and native pottery. Recent archaeological findings seem to indicate that the islands were inhabited thousands of years before the birth of Christ.
There are neoclassical, Gothic Renaissance, Byzantine and Baroque churches. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Miagao Church (some 20 miles out of town) was both a place of worship and a fortress. The walls are nearly three meters thick in some sections. Colonial houses, golf courses and Japanese fortifications will keep you intrigued. Plazas, parks, flower gardens and beaches are also numerous.
Iloilo is noted for magnificent mangoes, melons, fish exquisite handiwork, handicraft items, antiques and cottage industries. We visited Asilo de Malo, an orphanage that designs and sells items handmade by the orphan girls.
There are no first-class hotels, although one is under construction. We stayed at the Amigo Terrace, classified as standard but very adequate. Close to shopping and business, it had a pool and was right on the parade route. I was glad I had brought earplugs!
The weather was warm, but I'm told the island has a diverse climate. We kept hearing that "El Nino" had affected much of the Philippines, as we discovered on the rest of our journey.
Getting to Boracay
The journey to Boracay was an adventure in itself. We were up before 4 a.m. to leave by 5, accompanied by the owner of our destination, the Sea Wind, one of 150 resorts on the island. Located off the northwestern tip of Panay Island, it is only seven kilometers long -- about five miles -- and one kilometer wide at its narrowest point. With 6,000 inhabitants, it's the number-one tourist location in the Philippines.
The road to "paradise" was very interesting, though long. The 5-hour bus ride from Iloilo passed many small towns and villages, and we saw a cleaner environment.
The rural area really showed the contrasts of the county. The region is mostly agricultural; there was planting, cutting, drying and packaging of rice, and growing of sugarcane, coconuts, mangoes, jack-fruit, papayas, bananas and even coffee. Many rice fields had signs that read "Insecticide crop," and I saw a few comical scarecrows. Until the mid-1990s sugarcane was the island's number-one crop, but that industry has suffered huge losses because of land reform.
I saw more flowers and orchids, but there were always the pigs, chickens, goats and dogs. The carabao is their "work animal." Even small A-frame structures for the fighting cocks were abundant.
The road was paved but very narrow, and seldom would we see a street sign. All towns throughout the Philippines had large archway structures that stretched across the road, welcoming everyone in the name of the local mayor. Houses were built of bamboo, wood, stucco, cement blocks and tin, with many houses of reed on stilts.
It was touching to see the children -- some no more than three or four -- on their way to school, carrying backpacks almost as large as their small bodies. For many, it was still dark as they walked to the nearest school. There are no school zones, so no vehicles slow down; they just honk their horns.
The Caticlan Jetty Port is the point of embarkation for Boracay. After wading up to my knees, then walking a very narrow, about 8-inch, plank into the outrigger pump boat, it was an hour-long ride across the Sulu Sea and the Tablas Strait to the Sea Wind. To disembark, I repeated this exercise but in reverse order.
The "paradise island"
The beach on Boracay was sugar-white and powder-fine coral sand. White Beach runs about 2 1/2 miles on the west coast. The Sea Wind Resort has the widest beachfront on the island. The sand is created from white corals and pounded by the currents of the China and Suluseas. While the sun may be hot, coral sand is always cool to the touch.
This is really the place to kick back and do nothing -- just be a sun-worshiper -- or participate in a variety of watersports. Swimming, or wading in my case, was available just by walking a few steps. But you can rent windsurfing equipment, jet skis, outriggers or speed-boats. Or, you can go sailing with the locals. There is also a diving school. You can even get an hour-long massage right on the beach for about $5.
Another option is taking a tricycle -- a motorized bike with a sidecar -- to the shopping mall. A narrow dirt street, or path, with open stalls, the "mall" is naturally air-conditioned. One in our group found the post office, although they didn't have the correct stamps for mailing to the U.S.
I enjoyed a visit to the Heritage Center on the grounds of the Sea Wind. It honors Roberto and Gloria Tirol, the parents of Ruth Tirol-Jarantilla. She is a congresswoman and, with her husband, Federico, owns the resort. Federico accompanied us to the island and acted as our personal guide. It was truly an honor.
The museum was built only recently for a visit from the First Lady; however, there was a typhoon and she was unable to reach the island. It houses artifacts found on the island from the ninth and 10th Chinese dynasties (13th and 14th centuries). There are examples of the evolution of boats: log, dugout canoe, raft, reed and caravel ships of Magellan's time.
Another room showcases products from the island: shoes, place mats, purses and bags of nito vines, abaca fiber, raffia fiber grass and fans from rice paper.
Ruth's grandfather owned the island -- 1,000 hectares of coconuts -- which he obtained as a Spanish Title Grant in the late 1800s. Much of the island is now owned by second and third generations of the family.
Electricity and transportation are relatively scarce, except for the major resorts. The dirt roads, with large chuckholes, are even difficult for the tricycles to maneuver. Bicycles and motorcycles are for rent, as are horses from stables near White Beach. But the best is walking, preferably barefoot on the sand.
It doesn't get much better
During the afternoon, the staff made preparations for dinner, which was held on the beach. Table covers were made by weaving reed mats from nearby palms. Fresh fish was served along with another roast pig and prawns so large I could hardly get it all on my yamleaf plate. Dinner was served by lantern light after a crimson sunset.
Outside my cottage, in the early morning breeze, the sand was covered with plumeria (kaluchuchi) blossoms which had fallen overnight. Young men were raking leaves and even the sand to make it picture perfect.
While I didn't venture out at night, I understand there are discos on the island and restaurants with diverse menus. I was content to hear the waves and the stillness of the evening.
After a large buffet breakfast, served in the open-air reception area, we rode tricycles to a golf course time-share development. Unlike the Sea Wind, which brought all supplies by outrigger when they were under construction, the Fairways & Bluewater development transported equipment and provisions by air. Bong Carnacete, my guide and the course activity coordinator, told me the biggest problems at the course are dogs and chickens. They have installed a desalinization plant as there is a definite dry season.
It was one of the best golf course views I've ever seen. They have planted almost 10,000 trees and are still surrounded by coconut plantations. Three years ago when the project began, you could purchase a time-share for P900,000. Today's going rate is 2.7 or 2.8 million pesos (the exchange rate at the time of my visit was P38 = $1).
This world-class course is dubbed the "Golfing Jewel of the Pacific," but I have to wonder what all this development will do to this tiny island, as they are planning to build a complete town. We toured a model condominium and it was first-rate. But I guess I'd rather be on the beach instead of looking down on one.
We departed Boracay by the same route as our arrival. Our trip to "paradise" was much too short.
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