Kalibo, Panay Island, The Visayas, The Philippines
In the sixteenth century, a pious Spanish friar noted that among the Visayan people of the Philippines it was not quite proper to drink alone or to appear drunk in public. Drinking was always done in small groups or in “gatherings where men as well as women sat on opposite sides of the room”. The good friar would have revised his opinion if he had been to Ati-Atihan, a quasi-religious Mardi Gras where much of the fervour is fuelled by free-flowing locally brewed grog. Throw in the unending beat of massed drums and the average Filipino’s predisposition for a good party, and the result is a flamboyant al fresco rave that claims – with some justification – to be the biggest and most prolonged in the Philippines. And this, remember, in a country where fiestas are as common as sunny days.
Ati-Atihan’s origins can be traced to 1210, when refugees from Borneo smeared their faces with soot in affectionate imitation of the Filipino natives – political correctness was evidently not an issue in the thirteenth-century Philippines. The Borneans, ten ruling families and their followers, had fled to escape the tyranny of an enemy and found themselves on Panay Island, in the heart of the Philippine archipelago. Panay’s Negrito natives, known as Atis, were quick to capitalize on the refugees’ arrival, selling them land in exchange for a solid gold hat and a basin. In addition, the Ati chief’s wife wanted an ankle-length necklace, for which the natives gave a bushel of live crabs, a long-tusked boar, and a full-antlered white deer. The Purchase of Panay wasn’t the most lucrative real estate deal ever done, but both parties were satisfied and held a feast that same night to celebrate, the Atis slaughtering livestock and the Borneans blackening their faces. The Ati-Atihan’s religious element is in honour of the ubiquitous Santo Nino (the Holy Child), whose image appears throughout the archipelago, in churches and homes, and on the dashboards of taxis, tricycles and pedicabs. In the Filipino saintly hierarchy, Santo Nino has few rivals, and people carry reminders of him as anting-anting (talismans), to ward off the unholy.
Santo Nino was introduced by Spanish friars to the Philippines – and, in turn, to Ati-Atihan – through a deliberate act of cunning. The unprotected northern coast of Aklan province, of which Kalibo is the capital, had always made it vulnerable to Muslim invasions and, in 1813 and 1835, Muslim vinta (ships) carrying a thousand pirates attacked the seashore town of Buswang, taking away with them slaves and loot. Following another raid, this one unsuccessful, the opportunist friars spread word among the islanders that the baby Jesus had appeared and had driven off the attack. It was a cynical move to hasten the propagation of Catholicism throughout the Philippines, and it worked, giving rise to the ritual of patapak in local churches, during which revellers hold aloft images of the baby Jesus on their shoulders shouting, “Viva el Senor Santo Nino!” (“Long Live the Holy Child”). You’ll find all the elements for a spectacular carnival parade – extravagant costumes, lavishly decorated floats and a legion of up- for-it participants – but absolutely none of the organization. Nor will you find that sometimes welcome distinction between spectators and parading dancers as you would in, say, Rio. In Kalibo, wherever you are, you’ll be in the thick of it. You’ll be hauled onto a float by a bunch of mermaids, made to dance with a group of schoolgirls dressed as nuns, and forced to drink ludicrous quantities of rum until you can barely stand. The whole shindig rages until sunrise, by which time you will be totally disoriented, sky- high and probably in the clutches of a beautiful, if somewhat sexually ambivalent, Filipino. But hell, what better way to start the year? The Ati-Atihan mantra Hala Bira, Puera Pasma translates as “Keep on going, no tiring”, and you’ll need all the energy you’ve got if you want to take in the whole fortnight. However, it’s the final three days that are the most important, with the costumed locals taking to Kalibo’s streets in a riot of spontaneous partying, music and street dancing. Ati-Atihan is still partly a religious festival, but it’s also the one time of the year when Catholic Filipinos aren’t afraid to poke fun at a few of their treasured icons. Transvestites – accepted in the Philippines as a legitimate “third sex” – get out their best frocks, and schoolgirls with hats made of coconuts join aborigines, national heroes, drag queens and spacemen in the final Sunday’s spectacular fancy-dress procession. Some of the costumes are so big they almost block the street.