As often happens when travelling we had help. The lady we met on the flight from Manila to Iloilo (pronounced ee-lo ee-lo) told us that she had a brother who worked in the airport and he would advise how best to get to the city (we were still smarting from taxi problems in Manila). She was true to her word: the brother, a big man in uniform was soon found. He asked what hotel we were staying at, I said that we did have one and he then pronounced the chilling statement “All hotels are full for Dinagyang”. We discovered that Dinagyang is a big festival to celebrate Santa Niño, an effigy of Jesus found by the Spanish. We didn’t even know that it was on – what great luck. Of course it did mean that we had nowhere to live – but I’m an optimist, something always turns up. A young man was delegated to guide us to someone who could help. We followed him through the airport only to arrive at a hotel booking office which we could easily have found ourselves. There was no one there, the place was deserted. Perhaps there really were no hotel rooms left in Iloilo. I had found a potential place – the City Corporate Inn – in the guide book. I mentioned this to our helper and he whisked us away to a taxi where various people flustered around us to get us into the cab – once again we could have done all of this ourselves but the people of the Philippines are so kind.
The journey into Iloilo city was interesting. After the airport the scenery became quite rural with cows grazing in open fields. The road itself was filled with the famous jeepneys – very colourful long-wheelbased jeeps with a capacity of maybe 16 passengers on the two long bench seats and a loading of upwards of 30 at busy times. Many seemed to be under repair at the roadside. Regular notices appeal to everyone’s innate morality “Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not make promises that you cannot keep.” The traffic thickened as we hit Iloilo. Jeepneys were joined by motorcycle combinations with a capacity for three passengers and a possible loading of 10! And there were trikes and bikes and cars and buses and fumes and jams and hooting and tooting above the constant roar. It was getting dusky as we arrived at the hotel. It had a decent foyer which was encouraging. But it was full. I asked the receptionist if there were other hotels nearby. And so this delightful young woman began making a series of calls to other hotels to find us a room. At the end of each call she said thank you and my heart sank a little lower. By the time she had called five my optimism was beginning to desert me. I thought we would have to move to another city – and time was getting on. I think it was the 11th call that was different. She invited the owner of her hotel to take over to take the call. This lady talked for a while then told me that the Harbor Town Hotel had a room. I smiled. She told me the price – three times her own rate, I stopped smiling. She asked if that was OK then pointed out that I had no choice, I agreed. We were soon whisked off with our two backpacks and other clutter in another taxi to the Harbor Town Hotel. It was not far away and the driver charged us very little. It seemed rather noisy and there was bunting fluttering everywhere. It looked as if we were right in the middle of the festival – great.
It was not easy to talk to the receptionist because the music from the street was so loud. Finally we were shown to our room which at three times the basic rate should be good. As we stepped out of the lift on the third floor the sound of music was even louder. Worse still we turned to the right – in the direction of the music. We struggled up the corridor straining against the booming bass. The porter stopped at the last but one door, then changed his mind and took us to the very last door room, 308, which could easily have been Orwell’s 101. The room itself was not bad. It was a bit worn looking, but had the essential feature of aircon. However, the noise was deafening. I found that it was a little quieter in the bathroom but not much. Maybe we could sleep in the shower cubicle.
Just beyond our room the corner of the hotel was rounded and glazed forming a sort of viewing area. We could look down on the main street with its canopy of densely fluttering bunting and the two corners of the side street that the hotel was actually in. On each corner there was a pyramid of loudspeakers maybe eight high. The biggest array of speakers I have ever seen outside of an auditorium. Fed from some recorded source, these were our immediate neighbours.
I told Margaret that it was possible to drive people mad by prolonged exposure to loud noise. I don’t think she heard me. I went down to the reception to demand a quieter room. They told me I had the last room in the hotel. One young man said that this is the way they like to enjoy themselves during the festival. I asked when the music stopped and was given two times for “the curfew”: 9pm and 10pm. That was good – but I doubted that it was true. I knew already that the Philippinos were never in too much of a hurry. Meanwhile the thumping went on, threatening to crush my skull. We escaped, leaving the hotel to find a quieter spot until curfew time. We had to pass in front of those awful speakers and felt the woofers flapping our clothes as we did so. We blocked our ears with our fingers as we walked by, much to the amusement of some of the early dancers who pranced in front of the ear denting array.
The streets were packed with people and lined with stalls. Everyone seemed happy and many smiled at us or said hello. Things got better and better as we distanced ourselves from the monster speakers. Then we approached more speakers and discovered that many street corners had similar arrays beating out pop music dominated by the bass line. We learned to hurry past them with our ears blocked and at last found a live stage. The crown was massed in front of it but we found an open air bar of sorts at the side and were given star treatment by the owner, a flat-faced large lady with dark brown skin and a ready smile. Beer (San Miguel Pilsner) arrived. It was not bad. Two bottles later all was well. Margaret was a little tipsy; I was enjoying the music of a couple of local kids who were much loved by the crowd.
We roamed around and found another stage. It was 10pm. The group was about to finish. The curfew was real, we thought. Once again seats were vacated so that we could sit and drink beer. The music went on – and on – and on. And it was great. The Philippinos are great performers and the exact opposite of shrinking violets. Finally they said their final, final goodbyes and the music ended. Suddenly there was silence apart from the movement of the crowds and the fluttering of the bunting. We found our hotel with difficulty. And we found that it was silent. Glory be, the monstrous array was curfewed. I studied the wiring for possible direct action later. We went to bed at gone midnight and were rocked awake by the audio monster at 7am. Unbelievable! No lie in for us that day.
Fortunately it was Sunday: the main day of the festival. I saw the tribes assembling when I went running. The main parade of warriors, dancing girls, placards praising the mayor and advertising Coca-Cola, men dressed as lizards but looking like animated bananas, an inflatable Santo Niño, lads disguised as spiders and crickets, and so on and on, filed past. Thankfully those awful speakers were silenced so that we could hear the drums of the tribes as they competed for a big cash prize and an even bigger development award.
We had a great day, even got ourselves tattooed on the street (the arm actually, henna actually). And we survived another night of music and beer. Problem now is that communication between us has become difficult. I say something like, “Look at that jeepney over there, its stuffed to the gunnels.” And Margaret turns to me saying, “Just look at the number of people in that Jeepney.”
Still, we did get the last hotel room in Iloilo! I hear it could have been worse, what?