Upon arriving at my wife's uncle's house in Tarlac City, she went inside to visit and take a nap before the New Year's Eve show really got cooking and I helped out outside by preparing food (enough for an army) for the upcoming feast in their open air kitchen. My job was to skewer about fifteen pounds of marinated pork onto bamboo sticks to later be grilled over the barbeque grill. By the time I had finished this task, my hands were cramped from repeatedly dipping them in the ice-cold marinade to grab strips of pork and tired from shoving them onto the sticks. For once, rather than ask if there was something else I could do, I snuck out into the courtyard to check out the evening.
Fireworks were continually bursting overhead, down the street and some of our relatives were returning fire from the courtyard. I watched them shoot one rocket that was a dud and instead of soaring into the heavens, it barely even cleared the fence out front and disappeared into the alley. I heard a few quick exclamations of surprise, the scurrying of sandaled clad feet over pavement followed by a loud bang. Laughter filled the air almost as much as the smell of burnt sulfur. What a contradiction between the ears and the nose.
The grill was fired up and soon the smell of sizzling meat added to the sulfur. A pot of rice was bubbling in the kitchen along with a few other pots. The older members of the family were now sitting at a table in the courtyard sipping Coca-cola and talking in their native language. The younger children were out in the roadway, which was more like an alley to me, being children. I was somewhere in between listening, observing and taking pictures. Two of the younger ones, Rap and John would come back to check on me and tease me. Rap, whose mother is a cousin of my wife and had been staying in the same house as me most of the time, had formed a special bond to me. He could read and speak English as well as Tagalog but he wasn't yet proficient enough to converse in English. Never the less, he loved my blue eyes and all during my stay in the Philippines he would refer to me as "Blue Eyes" or once even as "Blue Jesus Eyes." Last trip it had been "hey Joe" and this trip "blue Jesus eyes." I could live with that.
About a half hour until midnight, the members of my host family began setting off fireworks at a steady pace using lighters and burning twigs or bamboo shoots that were lit from the barbeque grill. Burnt sulfur now hung so thick in the air that breathing was difficult. Some members of the party put on bandanas to filter it out. Having no such thing, I just breathed through my mouth and tried not to think about my lungs. The roar of the fireworks had grown for a low continuous roar to a more intense roar. In fact, since flash photography no longer worked due to the heavy sulfur fog hanging everywhere, I found that the light from the shelling going on overhead was more than sufficient to take adequate pictures.
I felt like a war correspondent as I ducked this way and that snapping pictures and videos at a furious pace. Stray rockets were shooting this way and that overhead and multitudes of cherry bombs, larger sonic boom bombs, roman candles, flares, and plenty of black cats were exploding everywhere on the ground. Several of the larger fireworks went off near enough to me to slam me with the concussion wave. I was wishing I had brought some earplugs. Right at the start of this new onslaught we suffered our first and only casualty that night. A piece of mortar shell from an exploded firework fell from the night sky and slammed into the hand of young John gashing it shallowly but enough to draw blood. After my wife bandaged him up, I return to covering the event but kept under nearby palm trees hoping that the leaves would slow any more fragments down before plowing into me.
At a quarter until midnight, there was a slight perceptible lull in the fireworks and at first I didn't know what it meant. My hosts took it as a cue to carry out this metal stand of sorts that would hold about two dozen rockets at the same time pointing in all directions and set it up in the middle of the street along with some large flares. I knew the cause of the pause. Everybody was bringing out the big guns for the final showdown..., which started five minutes later. Now Filipinos are late to every thing in their lives. I had determined that early on during my first trip to the country but tonight I learned one exception to the rule. New Year's Eve. For that they were ten minutes early.
The neighbors in every direction fired up every automobile, jeepney, motorcycle and even a police car, anything with a horn or siren, and proceeded to blare them in a continuous chorus. My hosts passed out noise makers to those not working sirens or horns and we all proceeded to blow them until we were literally blue in the face. Have you ever seen someone blowing on a horn while setting off fireworks as fast as the lighter could be worked with the other hand? I have and it can be done quite efficiently. The only thing slowing them down was that the neighbors who had been chased in the street by our stray rocket were now exacting their revenge by throwing one sonic boom firecracker after another from behind their fence into the street where we stood. As I took pictures with one eye, I kept the other eye trained towards their darkened driveway looking for the flash of sparks from a lighter signifying another incoming bomb. At the point, I would dive back behind the safety of the fence and plug my ears until the concussion wave had passed.
Imagine a neighborhood of a hundred thousand families packed into small houses with small yards close together. Imagine that all these families had a large arsenal of fireworks and were all setting them off at the same time. Imagine yourself in the middle of all this. Imagine yourself in the middle of the firework display that is shot off at the largest firework display in the country for the 4th of July. This was about four times more intense. Flashes of hot white light would illuminate the alley making all shadows as sharp as razor blades and as black as ink. Through the heavy smoke I could barely make out figures up the street running this way and that trying to stay out of the line of fire. The machine gun litany of explosions overhead was so quick it was almost impossible to discern even the slightest of pauses of silence.
I found myself wanting to hide in a bunker somewhere until it was over but couldn't. I was drawn forward into the street by the rush of all the citizens the Philippines who in one mass of unity from the youngest to the eldest, ran and jumped, yelled and screamed, laughed and gyrated around wildly in the street among the explosions lost in their joy. I couldn't help myself. I pocketed my camera and with arms waving above my head and a sulfur induced gravelly scream coming from deep within my chest, I ran out and joined them. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was welcoming in a New Year... Filipino style!