I’m sure that Bacalod is a lovely town. In fact, if we had managed to see any of it in our three days there we probably would have liked it. However, the annual MassKara festival was not quite what we expected, and overshadowed every aspect of the city.
Every year Bacalod throws a four day bender that centers around dance troupes from the various barangays (neighborhoods) competing for prizes and prestige. Born of desperate times when Bacolod was on the verge of ruin, MassKara was meant to be a way of laughing in the face of despair and rising up despite having nothing to stand on. Really, its existence is remarkable and typifies the spirit of the Philippines we had so quickly come to love, so it seemed like the perfect festival for us to be a part of. Celebration, spectacle, and food in the Philippines. The costumes are elaborate, the floats are ornate and the party is amazing.
Or so we had heard.
Our introduction to Bacalod was less than glamorous. We were dropped at a nondescript bus station on the fringes of the city and left to fend for ourselves. We found a willing (willing to try and gouge us, that is) trike driver and headed for our pre-booked hotel a few kilometers away. After getting settled in, we walked the short distance to the epicenter of MassKara, Lacson street, Bacolod’s de-facto tourist strip and main drag. Things were still pretty quiet as preparations for the first night were still underway. Men yelled and hammers clanged as tents went up and sidewalks were closed. We looked for some lunch and tried to see a little of the city as we walked. While Bacalod is not nearly so run down as other Filipino cities we had been to, the ubiquitous drone of motorcycles and the chugging of jeepneys never let us doubt what country we were in. We decided to go back to our room until nightfall to prepare ourselves for what MassKara would bring.
After some much-needed air-con, we stepped back out a little after 6 and ran face first into a festival in full swing.
The street was seething with people and the heat was oppressive. Not only do dancers come to the festival, but it would appear about 100,000 Filipinos do as well. Lacson street was a wall of people as far as the eye could see, and many times we were shoulder-to-shoulder, unable to do much but shuffle in one direction. It seemed that Mass Kara was more of an epic street bender than a cultural festival. This was not our scene, and we spent the next few hours wondering just what we had gotten ourselves into.
Along both sides of the road at irregular intervals were stages pumping techno music, inviting the spectators to do their best to dance in the sea of humanity all around them. Everywhere we looked meat on sticks was grilling away and the only thing more numerous than the people was the supply of Red Horse beer. At times the thump of the techno was so overwhelming I would swear it was altering my heartbeat.
We walked around in a daze, unsure of what to do next. We aren’t party people. Neither of us is the type to dance and drink until we puke, and after only 10 days in the Philippines we were getting pretty tired of grilled chicken. The only consolation was that we were surrounded by 100,000 Filipinos, so while the crowd was claustrophobic it was also generally polite and orderly. How 100,000 drunk people crammed into 10 blocks of a narrow street stayed civil is beyond me, but it is a testament to the Filipino disposition.
We decided to stay out long enough for the floats to appear because we had heard they were one of the highlights of the night. After a few hours of pushing our way from one end of the street to the other, the floats did appear, threading their way through the crowd. Far from being blown away, we stood on the sideline and watched rolling ads for mosquito repellent, motor oil and some sort of dubious health pill creep by. Of the ten floats we saw, seven of them were corporate. The barangay floats were nice enough, but after the disappointment of the sponsored floats we were well and truly done for the night.
The party raged on well into the wee hours, and even though our hotel was two blocks from the nearest stage we could hear the music until well after 3 a.m., and pitied anyone trying to sleep any closer to the fray.
The next day was filled mostly with diversions. We spent the better part of the day making travel arrangements, but our afternoon was a special treat for us: dog agility! One of the MassKara featured events was the Philippine National Dog Agility Championship, and contestants had come from all over the islands with their loyal friends in tow to compete. Seeing the adorable dogs and their devoted owners was a nice departure from the endless parade of neglected strays so common in the Philippines, and the “free style” trick portion of the contest was particularly entertaining.
The day was filled with torrential rains, punctuated by brief moments of clear skies, so our walk back up the strip was much easier as many people had clearly opted to sleep a little more of their inevitable hangovers off rather than get wet. On our way we ate some street food, and decided to reward ourselves with a trip to Bacolod’s most famous bakery, Calea. While the cakes were fairly good, the service was absolutely maddening. Nothing was labeled, either with a price or a name, and every customer had to track down one of the few very harried waitresses who would explain what each cake was and take their order. Perhaps the worst system for a restaurant we have EVER seen. We thought that perhaps the restaurant could function, albeit poorly, if there were only three or four customers in the store, but with the crowds of MassKara at their door Calea quickly lost any meager organization it may have had.
Despite a nice day and a quieter night, we felt little better about the festival, as we knew the crowds would be back with a vengeance the next day, rain or shine, to see the main event: the MassKara dancers.
We spent the next morning wandering near the plaza where we knew the dancers would compete, eating street food (with mixed success) and finding new ways to sweat through our clothes. About an hour before the dancers were slated to appear we moved towards the arena where the judging takes place. Perhaps “arena” is too generous a term, as the bleachers surrounding the plaza only seated about 400 people in an area little bigger than a baseball diamond. We wondered what the other 99,600 people were doing, since getting there an hour earlier got us a standing position near an entrance with a bad view. We briefly listened to the quite possibly drunk emcee welcome everyone to MassKara by complaining about how he had to speak English because of all the western tourists, at least until he switched back to Tagalog and spoke no more English. We tried in vain to find a justification for his complaint, as we had spotted barely a handful of non-Filipinos anywhere in the crowd. After his rambling, nearly incoherent, introduction we were treated to the invocation and national anthem. The Philippine national anthem is as you would expect, upbeat, choral and about preserving nature. The invocation, on the other hand, was Celine Dion’s “The Prayer.” Naturally.
Finally, after we were jostled around by various official and non-official personnel, the dancers began to arrive — an hour late. By some stroke of pure luck our position was mere feet from the staging area, allowing us to actually see the performers quite well before they entered the competition area. The costumes were strikingly colorful and crazily embellished. Everything was clearly individually made by hand, and it was obvious how much time each performer had put into their costume and ensuing performance. Unfortunately, we really couldn’t see the dancing very well, though we could hear the music. However, every group was dancing to the same song, one that got old quick.
After an hour we packed up and decided to head back to our room. On our way back we learned that the dance groups had been performing along various routes all the way to the final area, though we never saw anything or talked to anyone that gave us any clue to this before-hand. How we would have known where the routes were was absolutely beyond us and we conceded that, however much we had wanted to enjoy this festival, it hadn’t been that great.
It’s clear that MassKara didn’t start out this way; its roots were far more humble. In the beginning it was just a city deciding to celebrate rather than give up, and that infectious spirit grew into something far larger than anyone anticipated. The MassKara of today is a sprawling mess of merry making and debauchery. At its core it is a festival that makes a lot of sense in the Philippines, but like anything else, sometimes too much of a good thing is simply too much to handle.
If you’re the type of person who loves a crowd, cheap beer and endless grilled meat you would probably really enjoy MassKara. It is a street festival in the purest sense, and for anyone who wants to party themselves into ruin, there may be no better place to do so. However, if you’re like us, and are more interested in a slice of culture and want to be able to walk down the street without touching thousands strangers, then you can safely pass on this festival. Come to Bacolod some other time and enjoy what is, I’m sure, a very nice city.
As for us? Well, at least we now know to never go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras!