Monday, November 5, 2012

Masskara Festival, Bacolod City

The Assua!
So, the morning after I came down the mountain and stayed up late with chatting it up with my hosts, I was served chicken soup. Really just vegetable greens with a small amount of chicken to flavor the broth. I accepted the soup knowing I was going to eat whatever was served because these people are very poor and generous to offer whatever they had. The local chicken meat here is essentially wild-organic, and after what I had put my body through, this simple, perfectly salted, wild game and greens soup was exactly what my body was craving. It tasted so damn good. That was the beginning of what I didn't know was going to be a week of food compromise.

Jen's first time seeing Masskara live!
Jen and I took the bus from the barrio next door down to the big city of Bacolod. We arrive just in time for an early lunch of seafood, bittermelon, and carrots. In case it's not clear, every single meal here is served with rice. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon snack, always served with white rice cooked perfectly every time. Already aware I was coming to stay with them, the leader and owner of the house welcomed me in the most warm and down-to-Earth manner that one could ever manage. Everyone else did the same on their own accord, excited for the change and interested in this white foreigner to walk into their world. We ate, settled in and rested. I had trouble sleeping because, like most Filipinos, the people of the house have an addiction for terrible action movies that they watch the way a chain smoker smokes. Four hours later, rested but still somewhat deliriously tired from the last few days, dinner is served. My short conversations revealed my choice of food and my hosts had actually prepared a Vegan dish to accommodate for me. Still a little homesick, the combination of the warm welcome and the successful effort to take care of me were so meaningful I held back a tear or two to avoid getting kicked out in case these guys (and gal) turned out to be the stereotypical military types.

Finally, rested enough to pay a little better attention to conversation and interaction, I was thrilled to learn how different from my expectations these people really were. The safehouse is a pre-WWII home of a well-to-do family that somehow fell into the hands of the family of owner/leader of the group, Buyat. The safehouse doesn't house police. They are active and reserve military that are hired for VIP security, trained to protect a bank one day and wage war the next. I expected a little rowdiness, too much testosterone, stiffness or aggression, and a little more money than they maybe should have. What I discovered was sensitivity, caution, a love for nature, a very meager living (just look at the bathroom), relaxation, a love for history, genuine interest in me, my opinions, and my background, and a not-overbearing or neglectful sense of hospitality. After first impressions hashed out in less than 5 minutes with any new (to me) member of the group, I was just another guy coming in or going out. Random people stayed, came or went, maybe 5% of the number of military present at the Festival. Pretty much the only thing that I had expected that came true was that every single person there openly thought of their rifle as their wife (even those who had human wives). For all of them, this was just a convenient way to be with good company and have a more consistent (though minimal) sense of financial security. That's it. What was true for so many other military or police forces I've come in contact with here, stand-offishness, money, and delusions of grandeur, simply wasn't there with these wonderful people. Missing them already.

Unassuming head of the house, Buyat
I connected well with Jen, of course, whose English was better than most, who was my portal into this newfound home, and who I simply connected with on many levels. I also connected well with the leader/owner, Buyat, a 50-something man with a small potbelly, a huge smile, and a love for music. I did get to pull out Josephine a handful of times and even made a depressingly poor audio recording of my cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Songs". Then there was also Joseph, a fellow backpacker in his 30s who was the most warm, kind-hearted, and Earthly of the bunch. Spent some good nights hanging out with the slightly insecure, marshmallowy, fun-loving friend Rodolfo as well. Most everyone spends the night working at the festival from 7pm to 2am or so, sleeping in and waking for lunch at the latest. In different groups they toured me around town, came with me to watch different performances and shows that were part of the Masskara Festival, and then I would wander the area on my own for the night, starting and ending at the coffee-fueled Army Outpost to see if anyone I knew well was there.

Elementary school kids preparing to perform
It's difficult to describe the Masskara Performances. The final weekend of the Festivities revolves around the street dances during the day and Electric Masskara at night. It helps to preface with the knowledge that Filipinos are the seamstresses and tailors, the construction workers, the artists of the world, with ingenuity running through their blood and a seldom-spoken pride that the quality of their work far surpasses pretty much all of Asia. Combine that with the facts that Filipinos live for drama, fiestas and community, and are very poor. Add the incentive of big cash prizes, judges, corporate sponsorship, and a huge stage, and you get a hell of a Festival. I saw from afar the 7-11 year old children perform first. The intricacy of their costumes, the difficulty and precision of the dance performances, and the sheer drama of the whole thing far surpassed any marching band or dance troop I'd ever seen in North America. Every single Barangay (neighborhood) presents a group of children, high schoolers, and 14+ people to dance in their elaborate costumes.

You'd think it was the first Masskara ever the way that chaos was only finally starting to be controlled somewhat by the very last hour of the last day. The first day I saw people standing packed on the risers 3 deep on each step. The last day, there was even a small section dedicated to foreigners. Not as many people in the trees as I expected, and I was pretty tempted to take a perch up there myself if I weren't with company. The last day of the street dances was...  intense. Jen and I were finally getting to hang out just the two of us, and we had found the perfect spot hidden from view of others by bushes but in clear view of the performance arena. After waiting 15 mins for it to start, the first group was filing into the square when she said, "This will be my first time seeing Masskara in real life, not on TV." Seconds later, a security policeman took everyone down from that spot even though we were allowed to stay by the Masskara officials behind which we were standing. Two hours later and motivated to fulfill her wish to see Masskara live, we had maneuvered ourselves through the suffocating mob near the front gate to the area that we'd heard was for foreigners. I did some smooth talking and picked the right timing to ask the right people enabling us to slip in and sit on the floor next to the Red Cross volunteers in front of the other foreigners. Finally we were able to see some performances in their entirety, and from the front row!

A float
After a few performances (another 2 hours or so), Jen had to go back and get ready for work. Reluctant to give up my sweet view, I stayed and watched, eventually getting invited to replace someone who had been sitting in the risers. Turned out that the Red Cross gets a lot of action at these things. You see, the masks are so heavy (especially the ones from Barangays with enough money to be over-ornamented and lavish), they have to be tied on tight, making it near impossible for the dancers to breathe. The song was the same for every single group, and it's really long, maybe 10 minutes or more. Red Cross was constantly making rushes to rescue someone who had passed out or who was having a serious panic attack because they couldn't breathe. The chaos after each performance was finished was terrifying and exciting at the same time. After the performance of the seriously over-dramatic Barangay that took more than 20 minutes to get their props and sets arranged, almost every dancer was on the floor gasping for air. There weren't enough scissors to go around. When I realized it, I jumped up wielding a small pocket knife that I never got to use because each dancer was so swarmed by people desperately trying to untie the masks. There was a First Aid Station right behind the stage, and many a dancer were hauled off on a stretcher or carried by people. No one but the dancers seemed phased though, like it was a regular expectation that you're not dancing hard enough unless you dance to within  your last breath. Kinda twisted, I felt.

Drums behind a float
Electric Masskara was a float competition held at night with no traffic or crowd control on the main boulevard of the city. Hard to capture them on camera, but essentially, there's a lot of neon, and the drum troops ride the bed of a truck behind each float and try to play louder than the troops in front and in back of them. Some of the floats were extremely intricate and beautiful, one of them portraying a local monster legend of a tall hairy creature with a huge cigar in its mouth and red eyes. The music on this main drag as well as several of the minor Festival Strips and the two central locations, the plaza and the Lagoon Park, were bombarded with loud pop music shot through groups of 20-30 concert speakers aimed straight at the souls of innocent passersby. The song of choice was the record-shattering Gangnam Style. If you haven't heard the song in the hearts of Asia and most of the rest of the world right now, check it out here: Passersby, by the way, come from all over Negros and Panay, a short trip across the water from Bacolod. Without mentioning the few foreigners scattered here and there, the streets were still packed wall-to-wall with people. Each day leading up to the last I thought there couldn't possibly be more people the next day. It was like trying to scramble through the jungle, but hotter and more stuffy. It was easier to hang out near the Army Outpost and relax on the last day.

Three rows per... row?
Masskara was amazing, impressive, and intoxicating. I was there to see the city slip slowly back into gray dullness on the day after the end, and I was surprised at how the city had transformed for the Festival. I had been there for 5 days, and was ready to move on. Not after I picked up something special though. Shortly after I had arrived in Bacolod, Joseph brought me to this place where they make custom outdoors gear, mostly packs. I was getting really sick of the weight and size of my over-garnished pack, and realizing that I couldn't find a shop like this one anywhere else in Asia if I tried. Expert tailors too remember? So I decided to make a switch to a much lighter set-up. !!!Gear geek alert!!!: I designed a pack that came out to weigh about 1 pound (the other one was 5.5lbs), frameless, the only pads being the shoulder straps, with a detachable top pouch with a strap and buckle for day trips, loops on the sides and bottom rather than compression straps, a handle between the daisy chains on the front, only one main compartment, and holding up to ~45-50L with a 5L extension of the main compartment. She's a deep blue-teal ripstop nylon and black nylon weave, and on the day after I first picked her up, her name became Zeal. Mailed the extra stuff to Roselynne in Cebu. Now instead of a tent I'm doing the pad, tarp, and hammock set up, I keep the boots tied to the bottom, and I carry Josephine myself, which is much easier than strapping her to the pack. !!!Gear Geed alert rescinded!!! Thank you Joseph, she's awesome! Maybe someone who fits you will get to use you one day, Ozwald (the old bulky pack)! I figure that after Zeal gets worn to bits, the rest of my packs will all be sewn by me. Hopefully I'll have enough practice and a seam-sewing machine before that happens.

Pranksters Rodolfo and Joseph trying to act serious...
By the end of my 6 days at the safehouse in downtown Bacolod, the meals had slowly transitioned from Vegan to plain carnivorous. I did cook twice in between, but I'd had mostly rice and fruit in the last two days of my stay. I did end up trying a bunch of different Filipino meat dishes. I showed my appreciation by not being too picky about the food, but I couldn't touch the local green stalk-and-spam dish. Yuck. At the moment I am resolved to make my diet known when I arrive at the hometown of my grandfather for Christmas, but eat at least some of whatever is put in front of me. I figure that my food choice is half personal health, half activism, both of which require extended diligence to make any sort of difference. A total of maybe four weeks of meat-based meals scattered here and there in the Philippines for the more pressing sake of hospitality and social expectation is hardly going to make a difference in the bigger scheme of things. At least that's how I feel at the moment.

I left the safehouse sad to leave another home but excited for the less stressful, less burdensome, and less tiresome change of equipment, and headed to the ferry where I had full expectations of arriving in Iloilo, Panay that evening. Didn't turn out that way...

1 comment:

  1. Nice article and great knowledge. Thanks for the share. I love this story and enjoy with your words!
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