Masskara 2011: A Sea of Smiles

Natashya Gutierrez

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Masks on the streets of Bacolod City during the famous Masskara festival.

BACOLOD, Philippines — For the first time in a long time, I felt completely carefree.

I stood smack in the middle of a throng of people, who were coming and going, walking and moving. Men, women, children, dressed in various wardrobes: from the simplest of day clothes – tsinelas and a sando – to the most intricate of costumes topped with bright, colorful headdresses. In the distance, drums roared, and from where I was, I could see gigantic puppet heads dancing to loud, ethnic beats. Dancers moved in precise rhythm, synchronized, bold, sharp movements, its appeal aided by enormous props and set pieces. Stalls lined the streets selling everything from corn on the cob to masks, trinkets of watches, magnets, and even booths offering henna tattoos and face paint. There were streetdancers, vendors, tourists like me, commoners and churchgoers, who were trying to wrestle their way to the looming San Sebastian Church amidst the craziness in the Bacolod Public Plaza.

Masskara Festival, you are something else.

The daytime street dancing moved to clubs at night. Places like Mushu and L’Fisher Chalet’s rooftop around Lacson St. were busy until sunrise, with people who acted like they had not a single care in the world. But the streets themselves were bustling as well, closed off to cars and hoarded with people. Bands performed on makeshift stages all night long, barbecue grills peppered the sidewalks selling chicken intestines, liver, and yes, chicken meat too, while bars and restaurants stayed open to feed the hungry. Everyone was friendly, fun. The mood festive, frivolous. 

Did you know that you can hop from island to island down in the Visayas with ease?

Transportation is cheap and affordable around Bacolod. Or should I say around the Visayas? I traveled around the city in a cab, a jeep, a rented car and a tricycle as I visited churches, markets and restaurants. And then I rode an impromptu ferry to Iloilo.

It took me a mere hour.

Let me give you a piece of advice: never ever take the Super Ferry. I thought it would be a great adventure to take the ferry from Bacolod to Manila. Not only was it cheaper, but how fun it would be, I thought, to sail the seas on a 20-hour relaxing trip back? Boy, was I wrong. 

First of all, I never got on the Super Ferry because it never left. Let me rephrase: it never even got to Bacolod in time for it to leave. When Super Ferry notified me that its estimated time of departure was delayed for more than 10 hours, I decided to book a plane to Manila. Flights from Bacolod to Manila were expensive, but flights from Iloilo to Manila were half the Bacolod price. And that is how I ended up on a cheap local ferry from Bacolod to Iloilo. When I got to Manila after a 50-minute flight, I discovered that the Super Ferry I was originally going to take had not yet even left Bacolod!

My ferry failure taught me another lesson aside from avoiding the Super Ferry. It made me realize how easy it is to discover the islands down in the Visayas. Local transportation and ferries are readily available and there is much to be seen (as I pleasantly discovered in Bacolod)! A couple of my friends even bussed their way to Boracay after Masskara, via Bacolod and Iloilo for a laughable price. 

I fell in love with Bacolod. 

Among my favorite cities in the world are New York, Manila, Barcelona – busy, busy cities that are home to millions of people. I am most definitely a city girl, and so it surprised me to have fallen in love with yes, highly urbanized but mid-sized Bacolod.

But it is difficult not to. Bacolod is food heaven. The taste of cheesecake tiramisu from Calea’s still lingers in my mouth. The smell of chicken inasal  from Aida’s at Manukan Country is stamped in my memory, as is the 40-peso plate of fresh oysters that I devoured in 5 minutes. I still dream of the batchoy from 21.

And the sights! The vast greenery of the haciendas made me feel like I was in a teleseryeand the waterfalls and landscape of Mambukal Resort confused me into thinking I was in a different country – its cleanliness and peacefulness, uncharacteristically Filipino. The Ruins, an Italian-style mansion built by a man for his deceased wife to commemorate their love affair, transported me to Europe and back. 

I was blessed to have had phenomenal weather throughout my 3-day stay, but above all, my favorite part of Bacolod were the people. They were always smiling, always polite. I remember walking through a busy, less developed part of town and my own feeling of complete comfort and safety surprised me. Wow, I thought, I would be far from feeling secure walking in my denim shorts in Manila! No catcalls, no rude remarks, just friendly faces, and even language lessons from the locals. My cab driver taught me my new favorite word: palangga.

It means “love” in Ilonggo.

Street dancers in colorful attire performed during the Masskara festival.

 I have always adored festivals and huge celebrations. 

While crowds and noise may not appeal to many, I am drawn to such events because there is something about the joy and ecstatic energy of a bunch of people that I personally find both beautiful and contagious, and ironically relaxing. To me, it is a reminder that one is never too old or too busy to drop work, problems, or daily routine and that in itself, soothes me. And beauty? I think the beauty lies in the ability of spirited gatherings to bring together people from all walks of life. It is beautiful because it is so connective, so emotionally contagious, so human.

It is this idea that has driven me to prance through Bourbon St. in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, or to galavant the streets of Paris to the sounds of Fete de la Musique. And always, I feel the same, strong connection to those around me, and a sense of vanished worries brought about by the laughter and joy exuded by my surroundings.

But even more so at Masskara. 

Perhaps because it was my first time to be in a festival among Filipinos, among my own blood and people. Or perhaps because the essential cause of the festival is not to celebrate music or food, but to celebrate life itself. Masskara festival was born 32 years ago after unfortunate events befell Negros, precisely to make the people smile, to pull residents out of their gloom, and to remind them that no matter what troubles life may bring, Bacolod City will fight on.

Whatever the cause was, I’d aggressively argue that amidst the festival of smiles, in the City of Smiles, the biggest smile was plastered on my face. 

Follow the reporter on Twitter: natashya_g

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.