Whenever I introduce myself as an Akeanon (or Aklanon for us guys who can’t pronounce the trademark “ea” syllable of the province), it’s either one of two things: Someone goes “that’s where Boracay is, right?” or they genuinely have no idea where Aklan is. That’s fine by me. Not everyone has a good grasp of geography, especially not of their own country, apparently. I myself have no idea whether Bicol and Naga are two different places (sorry, Bernice!) or if Tarlac is still a part of Pampanga (sorry, Trix!). Often, however, I’d get a more uplifting reaction: “You mean, like, the Ati-atihan?”
Think of the Ati-atihan as the Mardi Gras of the Philippines, just as flamboyant and lively, with the exception that the Ati-atihan is held in honor of Sto. Niño, which is Spanish for Infant Jesus. Basically Jesus Christ when he was still a kid. It also celebrates the native, indigenous people of the region, the Aetas or the Atis (no relation to the fruit or your provocative girlfriend). The Ati-atihan has been dubbed the Mother of all Festivals for having inspired Cebu’s Sinulog and Iloilo’s Dinagyang, among many other things.
Having grown up in Aklan, the festival was both something I dreaded (as a student and then as an employee, getting forced or pressured into joining the festivities, especially with people I can’t jive with, has never been my thing) and something I looked forward to (who’d want to complain about an extended vacation past Christmas and New Year, with friends losing it and hilariously looking like complete goofs?), so you’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now. I have not.
Every year, the KASAFI (Kalibo Sto. Niño Ati-Atihan Foundation, Inc.), the organization in-charge of promoting and making sure the Ati-atihan is THE Ati-atihan, thinks of something new or at least something interesting to make the festival stand-out, be better than the year before, and of course, be something people will never forget. There’s always something stirring about that catches even veteran Ati-atihan attendees like yours truly off-guard. That’s definitely a good thing, coming from the worst Akeanon to ask about the Ati-atihan.
Despite having lived most of my life in Aklan, I haven’t been the biggest fan of the Ati-atihan. Don’t get me wrong: It’s fun and colorful and truly vibrant, a spectacle not only for the eyes but also for the heart and soul. It’s just that I’m a little bit of an introvert and the loud banging of drums and the constant yelling of catchy chants doesn’t always appeal to people like me.
By people like me, I mean people whose attempts at street dancing is basically walking about and occasionally jumping on their heels if they start to feel like someone’s suddenly watching them, which in my case is whenever I feel as if my Akeanon-hood is getting judged. I’m also terrible at drinking while walking—I’m terrible at drinking beer most of the time—and I subconsciously like stepping on other people’s toes or heels or both! Have I mentioned that I hate getting lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces? Because drowning in a crowd of drunk people is not the first thing that pops to my mind when I’m thinking of ways to spend my weekend.
Most of the festivities happen around the plaza, the town park in front of the massive and beautiful St. John the Baptist Cathedral. Though the street dancing can extend further. A lot of the roads will be closed too, so there will always be a lot of walking and a lot of strangers involved. Especially if you’re not staying within the town proper. Because I live outside the town proper, I always end up having to walk from where things are going down to where the car is parked. That’s usually around five to six, maybe even nine, blocks away. Walking that much is only fun when it involves nature and when no one is drunkenly yelling at you to “hail a bra.” (I’m kidding. I know it’s “hala bira.”)
So how does an introvert like myself survive the Ati-atihan? What advice can I give fellow introverts who find themselves smack-dab in the middle of all the loud, deafening music and uninhibited dancing in packed streets?
Find out on the next page. (Dun dun dun!)