Explosive Culture Shock: New Year’s Eve in the Philippines

Last night was my first New Year’s Eve here in my new country. Compared to the last 49 in the USA, it was a bit more, well, explosive.
In the USA, fireworks are often a key highlight of the New Year’s Eve experience. Although some years I did not see fireworks. Frankly alcohol, especially champagne, seems more essential in the USA than fireworks for New Year’s. And the fireworks, those years I saw them, were massive displays that reached very high into the sky, viewed by thousands or millions, staged and executed by professionals, paid for usually by the city or perhaps some corporate sponsors.
Here in the Philippines, alcohol is optional. Fireworks are not. And the fireworks are much more democratic or participatory. Yes, there are some laws regarding fireworks here. But, like alcohol on New Year’s, complying with law is generally optional in the Philippines. Everyone sets off fireworks on New Year’s Eve, even children as young as 7.
The result is that you don’t have to be on top of a tall building or on the shore of a body of water to see fireworks. Just go outside. And to hear them, well you don’t really have a choice about that part. The fireworks here are much more about sound than light.
Last year I was here for Christmas but not New Year’s. I had an injured hand at the time and I was afraid of it being hit by stray fireworks. Although I was not injured this year, in hindsight I think that was a good decision.
The booms and cracks started the morning of New Year’s Eve day. The noise gradually accelerated throughout the day. Not only booms and cracks, but very loud music, car horns, and handheld paper horns that produced an amazing level of sound.
At 1 pm we moved my new car underneath the neighbor’s carport, to protect it from falling fireworks.
Between 11 pm and 1 am the noise was intermittently almost deafening.
We all went out to the road in front of the house. Luckily I was with my family, who were familiar with the various types of explosives. Whenever the neighbors set one of the short fiery things in the middle of the road that produce a sonic boom, I would be warned to cover my ears. I think if I had not I might now be deaf. Each time I did, after a wait I experienced what I call the sonic boom. I felt the wind from the explosion on my legs, worried if I had lost something down there, that’s how loud it was.
By about 11:30 pm there was not only lots of sound but lots of light. Beautiful displays similar to what I’ve seen in the USA, but not just from one direction. All over the area various neighbors who had sprung for some of the more expensive fireworks saved their best for last. Of course, it was all a bit less innocent than in the USA. In addition to trying to see the best displays, you had to be concerned with protecting yourself from the fallout, the smoke, the noise. and any misdirected firings. It was kind of like being in a war zone, except with less casualties.
While I’m not aware of any casualties in our immediate vicinity, by the morning of New Year’s Eve the newspapers were reporting about 100 injuries already.
There were people in the street, groups setting off fireworks, others walking, and also vehicles. The vehicles, whether cars, jeepneys (small buses), motorized tricycles, motorcycles, ambulances, or trucks, all went very fast, flashing lights and blaring horns. At first I thought this was to warn pedestrians not to set off fireworks as they went past, or to stay out of the road. Fear probably explained their speed. But the noise and lights may have just been part of the celebration.
And of course, my family participated too. At first I was not very participatory. The Philippines is in general too noisy a country for me, and I was trying to reduce the noise, not add to it. I was handed a bag of a dozen little boxes of explosive caps. You throw one on the ground and it cracks. I thought initially I was given them to prevent their use. But eventually I gave in and handed them out to the kids, even using some myself. When they started burning little sticks I yelled, “Don’t do that near me! Go away!” Little roman candles soon followed. I was given a hat to protect my head from fallout.
It was a strange mixture of excitement, celebration, fear, shock, and love. The best part, of course, was being with my family here and experiencing it together.
A few minutes after midnight we all went inside for the traditional midnight buffet.
The noise of course continued for a few more hours.

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  • Ivan  On January 1, 2011 at 3:50 am

    I am so glad that you are happy.

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