MANILA, February 4, 2004 (STAR) RENDEVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - Our beautiful country – all 7,107 of it – is blessed with a treasure of various dances. National Artist for Dance Leonor Orosa Goquingco observed that for Filipinos, dance is inescapable because we "are among the danciest peoples of this wondrous earth." The Filipino dances at the least provocation or excuse. He dances his joys, sorrows, loves, labors, feasts, weddings, funerals, harvests, his combats, prayers, illusions.

With this in mind, pure excitement enveloped me when I received my invitation to attend the Ati-atihan – "the mother of all fiestas" – in Kalibo, Aklan where numerous miracles have been received by many who took to the streets in prayerful dance. A first time Ati-atihan reveler, I could only imagine the soot-painted faces of the gyrating crowd to the rambunctious beating of gongs and drums.

Taking a Philippine Airlines flight that day, a vision of grace in flowery pantsuit and lacey shawl draped over her head walked in front of me. Under the billowing hat that matched her get-up, I inquired: "Beautiful Sonya?" Of course, I knew only the effervescent Sonya Garcia of Sonya’s Garden fame could own such an ensemble. We vowed to get together as the crowd of locals and foreigners jampacked the flight to the land of dance and merrymaking. As we got off the plane, I finally experienced the Ati-atihan beat but this time playing to the tune of Viva Hot Babes’ Bulaklak song.

The Bonamine Tribe, representing WOW Philippines Biyahe Tayo!, the anti-motion sickness medication’s travel advocacy campaign with the Department of Tourism and the Philippine Convention and Visitors Corp., welcomed Kalibo’s guests at the airport and took part in the town’s festivities as well.

I couldn’t help but notice the fabulous costumes that stood at the entrance of La Esperanza Hotel in Osmeña Ave. where our media group checked in. My suite was grand, what with its jacuzzi, two well-appointed bathrooms, king size bed, TV, two airconditioning units, refrigerator, indoor plants and would you believe, even a waterbed! I felt like a queen.

Noel Nieva of Perceptions and his gracious wife Cindy treated us to lunch at Mix and Match where we sampled the local delicacies of kare kare, kinilaw na tanguingue, blue marlin, crispy pata... the works. Over lunch, we had some trivia about Kalibo. Besides being the provincial capital of the oldest town in Aklan, it is famous for being a jump-off point to the world-class beaches of Boracay, one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

Kalibo’s Ati-atihan festival, held on the third week of January, is the Philippines’ most famous fiesta. Ati-atihan means "making like Ati" and refers to the dark Negrito aborigines, the original inhabitants of Panay. Legend has it that in 1212, 10 Bornean datus came to Panay to escape religious tyranny in their homeland. They made a pact with the locals which was reinforced by a harvest feast prepared by the new arrivals for their Ati neighbors. The Bornean hosts made a merry welcome with gongs and cymbals, smeared soot on their faces and started dancing in the streets in merry imitation of their Ati guests. The Christ-child figure of Sto. Niño was only introduced in later years when the Spanish friars combined the Ati-atihan and local harvest rites with the Feast of the Sto Niño which is now on its 792nd year.

The Ati-atihan festival undoubtedly has religious overtones. Two traditional features of the festival are the paeapak or patapak (rub-on) of the Image of the Santo Niño on revelers’ bodies and the kaadlawan (feast day). In the paeapak, done in four days, devotees go to the church and kneel in front of the altar. Lay volunteers apply soot on them in the belief that the Holy Child will protect them from bodily pains, illnesses, over-fatigue, tensions and accidents. By doing so, they also believe that the Infant Jesus will grant children to childless couples.

Kaadlawan, the second feature, is the religious procession dance in the afternoon of Sunday. Native devotees as well as local and foreign tourists join the procession carrying the church’s ceriales that starts from the cathedral and makes its way around the main streets of Kalibo. Many devotees whisper silent prayers while the majority shout "Viva kay Señor Santo Niño, viva!" Of course, apart from the merrymakers dressed in colorful and very imaginative costumes, the image of 18th century Santo Niño de Kalibo is the toast of the procession.

The sun was beginning to set when I visited the sprawling Vega compound in Old Busuanggo. Neatly lined trees and colorful flowers adorned the driveway of the charming rustic estate where I was warmly welcomed by my beautiful titas – Sonya Garcia, May Soliven, Alma Jocson, Melinda de Leon, Nonie Adea and Josie Cruz. In this paradise, under a moonlit night, there was a sumptuous buffet of Sonya Garcia’s salad and pasta, as well as homecooked delights by gracious couple Jackie Cancio-Vega and Dr. Boy Vega. We also feasted on roast cow, Korean barbecue, cheeses, salami, smoked ham, as red wine was incessantly poured into our glasses. In the countryside setting replete with billowing white lace kulambo, we shrieked in delight as we shared our travels and experiences. I ended up sleeping over and was treated to a country breakfast of white cheese with honey and rosemary, honey-cured ham, French bread, mangoes, fresh salad, barako coffee and freshly squeezed dalandan juice. After an early morning yoga and meditation with Tita Sonya and company, we thanked the good Lord for His many blessings before proceeding to the plaza to watch the judging for the best tribes under the Balik-Ati, Tribal and Modern Tribal categories.

Apart from the Ati-atihan festival, we also discovered other treasures of Kalibo. One sojourn led us to the Piña Village where we witnessed how piña cloth weaving, which began eight centuries ago, is painstakingly done. We witnessed how the piña fiber is extracted from the plant using a broken plate, washed with soap, water and vinegar, separated into fine threads, spun into a loom and finally woven. Today, the piña cloth of Kalibo, the "Queen of Philippine Fabrics," is gaining worldwide attention.

At the Bakwahan Village, on the other hand, we were privy to the 70-hectare mangrove reforestation rated as the best in Asia and a recipient of the Golden Eagle Award granted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It is teeming with wild ducks, sea shells, crabs and other swamplife.

Early Sunday morning, Tita Sonya, Tita Melinda and I trooped to the Kalibo Cathedral at the Pastrana Park for the concelebrated High Mass at 7 a.m. Joining us that day were Austria’s Deputy Ambassador to the Ukraine Nicolaus Keller and my long-time amigo, Edwin Vergel de Dios, a physical therapist from Texas whose prayers included gratitude for his safe homecoming as a US Navy veteran of Operation Noble Eagle/Enduring Freedom. Both were joined by revelers from UST Medicine Class ’61 and new-found Ilonggo friend Mikhael Menez.

At the foot of the altar, everyone genuflected to conclude the eucharistic celebration, and upon rising from this reverent act, cymbals and drums echoed from every angle of the plaza. The triumphant beat and gleeful screams of "Viva Sto. Niño!" were a stark yet welcome contrast to the solemnity of the preceding liturgy. Everyone was filled with unbridled joy brought by the nearly relentless merrymaking of the varied tribes. To the Ati-atihan, I vow to return each year. Biyahe na! Hala bira!

* * * For more information about Kalibo, Aklan, call the Office of Mayor Raymar Rebaldo, tourism promotion and development services at (036) 262-1020 or 268-4110. La Esperanza Hotel is located on Osmeña Ave. in Kalibo with tel. no. (036)262-3989.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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