Dinagyang Festival Iloilo: Dinagyang Hala Bira

Unlike leisurely vacations, chasing after festivals all over the country will most probably leave you more tired after than you had been when you arrived.

But being toasted under the hot sun, getting your feet swollen from all the walking, and snaking through thick crowds to have a good view have their unique ways of gratifying anyone who wishes to see the country in a different— albeit adrenaline-filled — light.

Having seen not too many festivals, I was hungry for more; taking photos of the annual Panagbenga at home, promising though it is, simply could not satisfy me. I knew I had to pack my bags and dust my camera for the rest of the country’s drum-beating offerings. I had therefore made it this year’s goal to attend as many festivals as I could, believing it would give my hungry—but otherwise healthy—body the rush of adrenaline it seeks.

So off we went to the Visayas—home to the country’s biggest and most colorful fiestas—all the way from Baguio City at the end of January for one of the three biggest celebrations in honor of the Sto. Niño (Infant Jesus)—the Dinagyang.

But as it turned out, festival-hopping wasn’t as easy as hopping on a plane with my camera. Government accreditations, club memberships, festival schedules, and photographers’ IDs were just some of the things I had to settle before finally boarding a Manila-bound bus from Baguio for an early-morning Iloilo flight.

With all paperwork miraculously in order a mere hour before our departure, all thanks to people we had bothered for their signatures, everything else took off as planned. Dinagyang was waiting for us.

Iloilo on foot

Getting lost is part of being a stranger. Unfortunately, even pedestrian friendly Baguio didn’t prepare us for all the walking we had to do in this Western Visayan city. But we couldn’t complain; bursting with life that suddenly reminded me of Quiapo, the area cordoned off from public transport—a 3- to 4-km stretch by my estimates—kept our cameras busy.

Plying this familiar route, as well as other roads leading to and from it, had been our routine in the three days we had been there.

Vendors peddling all kinds of edible and inedible fare and wares greeted us at random as we walked under the scorching heat—colorful, intricate handmade souvenir masks side by side with mangoes from Guimaras; the overlarge Ilonggo concept of kebab—catfish, their signature chicken inasal, and pork barbecue in firing squad position; and the most number of drinking tables I had seen yet in any food fiesta. Large black speakers, around 70 of them piled on top of one another, produced such blaring music along the streets, walking past them felt like passing by a wall of pounding sound, the hairs on my arms and legs protesting against its contact. It had been like this on almost every major intersection, waking us up every morning and putting us to bed at night.

This scene—the backdrop for the two main events Kasadyahan and Ati contest—embodied everything Dinagyang, which came from the Ilonggo word dagyang, meaning merrymaking.

A taste of Iloilo, literally

We touched down in Iloilo on an early Friday morning, which allowed us to explore the city a bit before the Saturday and Sunday events.

One of the rather more interesting side trips we were eager to make was the gastronomic part. Outside Dinagyang, after all, Iloilo’s food takes the yearlong helm.

You would never go hungry in Iloilo, so I’m told. My voracious appetite was ecstatic to find out.

We never knew we would come to terms with this at the ungodly hour of 6 am, minutes after touching down and getting dropped off at the still-sleepy town of Mandurriao. Hungry from the instant cup noodles we had consumed a full five hours earlier, we began our search for food—on foot, no less. What of our hunger Mandurriao’s posh malls couldn’t yet satisfy, the eateries on the other side of the road gladly did: a piece each of chorizo, sunny side-up, and hotdog; as well as two cups of rice; and a bowl of freshly steamed mussels, all for P52. Even by Baguio’s cheaper city standards, this meal was manna from heaven.

Whatever our breakfast lacked, our lunch more than made up for: dining at the seaside Stanley Talabahan in Arevalo district had been nothing short of a feast. Huge, freshly caught crabs, bowls of oysters, and a huge plate of Iloilo’s chicken inasal were enough to wash away all the weariness from our hours-long travel all the way from Baguio.

Stanley’s seaside location was the perfect backdrop for our midday delight: thatched huts, a panoramic view of the sea and nearby Guimaras Island, and a generous share of the sea breeze courtesy of its large open windows. Fresh sea catch always makes my day, especially when devoured sans our stainless steel best friends. And what of the famous La Paz Batchoy and biscocho? Of course, we would never miss them for the world. We had batchoy at Deco’s, as recommended by a friendly shop cashier we had asked for directions. It didn’t taste like the instant noodle flavor I had been used to eating. The taste of the chicharon was stronger, and I would not have asked for a more filling serving. Now that I come to think about it, the sweet, crispy biscocho will make an excellent pair with a steaming hot bowl of batchoy, with their contrasting flavors and texture invariably permitting anyone second helpings of both. Biscocho Haus is the household name for Iloilo’s most popular pastry—and for good reason. Oven-fresh and generously sprinkled with sugar, Biscocho Haus’s specialty will leave you hungry for more. Not to miss, of course, is its equally popular butterscotch, a fat piece of sweet heaven you will trade your overpriced café brownies for.

The countless raves about Ilonggo fare are indeed true: Iloilo will always be a diner’s haven. And food-tripping had truly been a fun side trip to what we flew there for in the first place: the action.

Dancing warriors and crabs

We could not have asked for a better place from which to take photographs: less than a meter from the performers themselves at the judging area near the provincial capitol. Inevitably, we were under the mercy of the scorching heat two hours into the performances, but I wasn’t about to complain, for what was unfolding before me had been nothing like I saw before. The two-day performances could easily be any photographer’s dream-come-true:

Dancers in the most colorful, intricate garb I had ever seen were smilingly leaping, jumping, swaying, and turning around to the hair-raising beat of 50 or so drums playing in the background.

The Kasadyahan and Ati contests, the two highlights of the Dinagyang, were cultural dance presentations by Ilonggo students. They allcarried a holistic theme: the saving grace of the Sto. Niño to the people of Iloilo. The dance routines of the 70 or so dancers in each competing tribe were nowhere near the pop I have been used to hearing in other festivals.

The Ati contest, the crème de la crème of Dinagyang, didn’t fail to meet expectations: the electrifying dance moves of the hundreds of warrior-dancers were nothing short of spectacular, infectiously energetic, and wondrously bursting in color.

The costumes were enough to embolden anyone’s respect for the amount of time and effort that went into them. From multicolored feather headdresses to larger-than-life lizard or crab overalls, this particular aspect of Dinagyang is testament to the intricate craftsmanship of the Ilonggos. And I wasn’t even talking about their dance routines—how every turn, thump, and wave of the hand perfectly went in sync with the drumbeats, with that ever-present smile I still find diffi cult to forget.

Down the streets of Iloilo, I had met and seen beauty that remains relatively untainted by cultural and lifestyle diversions that come in abundance elsewhere in the country. I had experienced a culture that has been painstakingly kept alive by its people, treasured for sure because of the identity it has been giving them all these years.

I went to Iloilo to take pictures, and take pictures I did. I had, in fact, taken perhaps some of my best so far. As a photographer, it was more than I could have hoped for. As a Filipino who had sought for reasons to love her country more, I had found it in the infectious smiles and graceful moves of Dinagyang.

I would surely be back for more.