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By David Haldane

Sept. 20, 2018

I have always loved parades. Only one, however, has made me cry. I’m speaking of the 34thannual Bonok-Bonok street dancing spectacle held last week in Surigao City.

The disclosure that it brought tears to my eyes, frankly, is a bit embarrassing. I, after all, am supposed to be the cynical hard-bitten former newspaper reporter who’s seen and heard it all; no maudlin sentimentality here! And yet, as I watched the city’s finest youngsters dance their hearts out bathed in colorful costumes from somewhere east of Wonderland, well, it spoke to me in a way that few events ever have, what can I say?

Bonok-Bonok, of course, is the town’s annual fiesta honoring its patron saint, San Nicolas de Tolentino. As anyone who’s spent any time in the Philippines can tell you, every city, town and even the tiniest barangay has one each year. There are so many, in fact, that wherever you are in the country it’s a safe bet that, at any given time, at least one fiesta is raging nearby. And, for many Filipinos, the local fiesta is the most joyful time of the year next to Christmas.

In Surigao, Banok-Banok – referring to a traditional dance of the native Mamanwa tribe thanking the gods for abundance –features the celebrated street-dance parade followed by a huge ethnic dance extravaganza in the provincial sports complex and, of course, the usual lechon feasts citywide. In truth, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen it; several years before, when Ivy and I were still living in California with only vague notions of moving to Surigao, we’d visited the city during its fiesta. Though I’d enjoyed the parade immensely, however, its memory was marred by another one considerably less pleasant; being literally trapped in the overcrowded stadium by security guards who, for reasons not quite fathomable then or now, simply refused to let anyone go.

This time we skipped the big show, contenting ourselves with just the parade. And as the first group made its way down the street with drums banging out a loud cadence and school-age children gyrating in unified splendor, well, a strange kind of chill just took hold.

I think it had something to do with the intensity. “Viva Surigao, maradjao, karadjao!”  the dancing young people chanted, their faces glowing in pleasure with lips streaked by smiles. “Viva Surigao; very good!” And it occurred to me then that I hadn’t seen that kind of gleeful ferocity in ages; certainly not on the faces of children and never about anything other than a winning sports team.

Anyone who’s ever practiced journalism will tell you that it invades your blood and stays there long after you have taken your leave for saner pursuits. And so, without even thinking about it, I found myself standing directly in the path of the parade with a line of actual credentialed journalists snapping pictures as the adrenalin pulsed. That’s when I felt the telltale drop in my eye, an unstoppable surge of emotion sparked, yes, by being part of the action again but, more than that, by the sheer expressions of joy on the faces of those children.

Several times my comrades and I had to be physically shoved to the sidelines by security guards determined to make way for the parade. Later, a reporter for the local radio station grabbed me for a live man-on-the-street interview regarding my reactions to the day’s events. “Spectacular!” I breathed into his proffered microphone. “Splendid! I love the fervor; it uplifts my soul.”

Just another day, I reflected, in my new hometown.






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A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the chronicle of that adventure.






  1. It does look like a grand spectacle. Sadly, in our neck of the woods, the fiestas have become rather homogenized and bland. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Each purock does a program, but it is usually dancing to the latest pop or hip hop music. The local enthusiasm is still there. But for me, they tend to be something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

    It brings me joy to see places where tradition still holds away.

    Take care,

    • That last sentence should read tradition still holds sway.

    • David Haldane says:

      Come visit us in Surigao fir the next fiesta….

    • John Reyes says:

      “It brings me joy to see places where tradition still holds sway” – Cordillera Cowboy

      Well, then, if you have the time, Pete, come with me and I will take you to that place.

      I have this lasting fond remembrance of how barrio Salaza (Palauig, Zambales) of my youth celebrated the yearly fiesta. The day of the main celebration fell on the 15th of May. On the eve of the fiesta, “bisperas”, guests from nearby barrios begin streaming into Salaza on foot and by carabao-drawn wagon in anticipation of festivities that featured musical bands, plenty of food, drinks and entertainment, an evening dance on two successive nights, an evening religious procession from the church to the river and back, stage shows, beauty contest, and the crown jewel of the fiesta – the coronation night for the year’s Miss Salaza.

      Other guests from towns as far south of Salaza as San Narciso and as far north as Sta. Cruz arrive by Try-V-Tran bus. They are let off in front of the only sari-store in the barrio situated beside the yet-unpaved, dusty national road.

      [N.B.: The Try-V-Tran was one of only two bus lines that plied the length of Zambales province in those days. It was owned by Teodoro R. Yangco-Verzosa family. In later years, the other bus line, the Victory Liner, will put the Try-V-Tran out of business. Today, Victory Liner is one of the leading bus companies that serve the island of Luzon. The modern Victory Liner bus has air conditioning, reclining seats, and a TV and VCR placed above the driver. The more exclusive buses has a toilet at the rear.]

      Preparations for the fiesta were a laborious affair that seriously took into consideration the possibility of rain during two days of festivities, since May is the start of the rainy season. Rain or shine, though, barrio folks go all out to celebrate what for them is the most important event of the year outside of Christmas and All Soul’s Day.

      In the days preceding the fiesta, the usually frugal Ilokano folks will retrieve from its hiding place their entire year’s savings wrapped in a handkerchief kept hidden in bamboo tubes that serve as the trusses of their nipa huts. The money, of course, will be gone in one fell swoop, leaving them broke the day after the fiesta. No matter. They’d start saving again for the following year’s fiesta, while subsisting on kamotes and snails harvested from the river banks the rest of the year.

      Somehow, the feeling of euphoria that permeates the entire barrio at fiesta time easily gives rise to the attitude of “bahala na” (come what may). This attitude, in turn, displaces rational thinking. The cycle repeats itself every year.

      The money is used for everything related to the fiesta, mostly on food to feed out-of-town guests, donations to their favorite beauty contestants and various donations to the church, the priest and to the patron saint. My mother was a perennial host for one of the bands. She paid and fed them generously to ensure they returned to her house the following year.

      The dances held on two successive nights at the plaza were as much a beauty contest as who has the most money. Supporters and admirers of a candidate for Miss Salaza shell out plenty of cash during the dance to help their candidate win. This is an area where much of the year’s savings are spent.

      To donate money, supporters walk up while murmuring “bahala na” under their breath to their favorite beauty contestant and her consort in the middle of the dance floor to pin peso bills after peso bills on her gown as the couple, appearing nonchalant to the donation, continues to dance nonstop to the tune of the most popular hit of the era, Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz”.

      Invariably, “lechon” is the main course served at Philippine fiestas, of course with the exception of Muslim Mindanao. There are the usual complements like “suman” wrapped in palm fronds, sticky rice cakes made with brown sugar, and “tinodok” and “patutpat” dipped in a boiling cauldron of sugar cane juice.

      On “bisperas” night (the eve of the fiesta), the first dance is held at the barrio plaza in front of the Aglipay church, but all the festivities and merry-making begin in earnest on the day of the fiesta, May 15.

      Two brass bands from the neighboring towns arrive on “bisperas” night, hosted by families that can afford to hire and feed them, signal the start of festivities on the morning of the fiesta at 5AM by playing martial music, or popular Ilokano medleys like, “O Naraniag nga Bulan” (O Radiant Moon). The music can be heard from one end of the barrio to the other, but, by then, practically the entire barrio is already awake to prepare for the day.

      [On any given day, the ladies of every house begin the day at the crack of dawn in order to finish all household chores before it gets hot. It’s not at all unusual to see housewives puttering around the yard before sunrise, watering hanging orchids and sweeping the yard of dried leaves and other debris with a “walis-tingting”.

      Dried leaves are swept into a pile and burned. In the early morning hours when the air is still fresh from the morning dew, the smoke emanating from the burning dried leaves gives off a distinctive smell unique to a Philippine barrio. This early-morning scene is replicated in every barrio throughout the entire country.]

      On this particular day, the men do not go to work in the fields. They can be seen in their backyard sharpening their bolos in preparation for the slaughter of the fattened pig that would be the main dish of the day, and for chopping the meat in pieces afterwards. While the women chop and slice the “recados” (ingredients) on a long table under a “pala-pala” (temporary shed), the men and their compadres gather around a table drinking “tuba” (fermented coconut juice) while keeping an eye on the succulent lechon slowly turning golden brown.

      The atmosphere is festive. Opulent homes and nipa huts alike are decked out in their best linen and their best china, their dining tables decorated with lace mantilla. Children rush to get into their Sunday best, raring to go to the plaza to participate in various games and contests and merry-making. The main venue for entertainment and activities are centered at the plaza, a square piece of real estate dominated by the Aglipay church, a throwback to Spanish times.

      On this day, the plaza is ringed with newly- constructed vending stalls made of bamboo and palm fronds. There are vending stalls that sell souvenirs, and there are stalls for various games and light gambling, like the “kalo-kalo”. A stage is set up to one side of the Aglipay church, the covered dance area on the other. Smack dab in the middle of the plaza stands a tall bamboo pole thickly coated with grease. It is called the “palasebo”.

      The stalls themselves are interesting. The frame is made of freshly-cut bamboo and the roof and walls are covered with fresh palm fronds. The combination of freshly-cut bamboo and fresh palm fronds along with freshly-dug red earth on which the stalls are anchored give off a unique scent normally associated with a tropical paradise.

      Both the young and the young at heart are entertained by puppet shows like Kiko, the ventriloquist. But, it is the “kalo-kalo” (light gambling) that draws the most crowd, aside from the “palasebo”, that is.

      Perched atop the “palasebo” is a pouch containing the prize in cash. The “palasebo” contest is one of the fiesta’s top attractions. As well, it is both fun to watch and to participate in. Boys and a few men each take turn climbing the very slippery pole, greased with lechon fat, to reach for the prize with plenty of cheering and laughter from the crowd, as one after the other, contestants slide off the pole and fall to the ground without reaching the top. It is a difficult contest, but at the end of the day, the prize is inevitably won by someone determined enough to win it by covering himself with dirt or ashes to provide traction.

      [Amid the festivities at the plaza, out-of-town guests to the Salaza fiesta would invariably gaze at a stately house situated directly across the street from the plaza.

      This house, which I fondly call the mestizo house of Salaza, belongs to the Landa family. It is no longer occupied because of structural deficiencies, but is lovingly preserved today by the heirs as a memento of such bygone days as when an aggrieved Maria Clara, during the days of Jose Rizal, would telegraph a message with her abanico (fan) to her suitor, Crisostomo Ybarra, in classical Tagalog, “Quinapopootan quita, yrog co” (I hate you, my love!).

      No doubt built way before the Philippine Revolution of 1896, the mestizo house exemplified stately homes that exist to this day predominantly in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, a well-preserved Spanish town of the Spanish empire’s far-flung colony in the Far East.

      As seen from across the plaza, the house evokes old-world elegance, Victorian in ambience. Its thatch roof belies the clearly European influence of the house’s architectural lines, though it stresses unequivocally that this is a house of the Orient.

      With the mestizo house in the background, and during the cool evening hours following Angelus, Salaza’s landed gentry promenade around the plaza in spats and high-collared shirts, curtsying and tipping their hats at one another as muted strains of “An der schoenen blauen Donau” and the “La Cumparcita” float from the window of the mestizo house to the enjoyment of the promenaders performing the Old World ritual of the passeggiata around the plaza.]

      On the night before the fiesta, a candle-light procession bearing the image of Salaza’s patron saint winds its way through the darkened streets of the barrio from the Aglipay church at the plaza all the way to the river and back to the church.

      As a kid participating in this religious procession, I endured the hot candle wax dripping in my tiny hands, even stepping on and sinking my bare foot into a still-warm swirl of carabao manure. It was all in good fun, as boys and girls played hide-and-seek in the dark and flirted with one another along the way.

      With the procession back at the church and the statue of the patron Saint safely stowed, the competition for who would be the year’s Miss Salaza is about to get started. The contestants, usually the barrio’s prettiest and their consorts would dance continuously into the night as their supporters pin their money on their favorite contestant’s gown.

      The contestant that garnered the most money is named the winner and would be crowned the Princess of Salaza on coronation night. She will hold the title until the following year’s fiesta.

      For those interested in the performing arts, the Salaza fiesta of yesteryears feature a stage play straight out of Shakespeare. It is called, “Eskrima”. The actors wear period costumes of the Rennaisance and carry wooden swords. On stage, the actors deliver their lines in sing-song verses in a very loud voice. accompanied by heavy foot stomping so violent that the foundation of the “entablado” (stage) vibrate. My grandfather was one of the actors.

      So, Pete, this is the tradition you speak of. This was how fiestas in Salaza were celebrated in my youth, just as they were, without doubt, celebrated in the days of Jose Rizal in Spanish Philippines. Sadly, this cultural tradition is forever gone, but lives eternally in the deep recesses of my mind.

  2. Peter Devlin says:

    I haven’t been to a parade here for ages, but reading your article and seeing the magnificent photographs makes me want to see one for myself again. Those photos are just spectacular, and really capture the joy of the parade. What a magnificent image for anyone visiting the “Live In The Philippines” website. It would make me want to come here at the first opportunity!! Brilliant.

    • David Haldane says:

      Thank you so much, Peter, I’m glad you enjoyed it. The invitation is open to yiu too; come see us in Surigao for next Fiesta…

  3. John Reyes says:

    Trademark David Haldane! I must say that as I read this story, and other works of the same authorship, I find myself hanging to every word, at times reading the sentences twice sometimes thrice for the sheer enjoyment of them. As a result, I couldn’t be too sure if I am enjoying and remembering the story, or the writing style itself. LOL Thanks, David!