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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

entry arrow11:24 PM | A Field Guide to Burning the Town Red

Part 1 of a Series on Night Life in Dumaguete

It is not difficult to map the geography of Dumaguete’s night life.

The simple answer is: there’s nothing.

Nothing resembling the sophisticated rough and tumble of metropolises, anyway—say Manila’s Embassy and Greenbelt and The Fort, or Cebu’s Vudu and Doce, or Baguio’s Vocas and Rumours, or the whole sandy stretch of Boracay. There are no sights of night creatures in the city all bedecked in the signature wardrobe of painting the town red as they descend on the enviable hot spots of the moment, to party all night to the latest musical concoctions of the deejay du jour, and to emerge only in the near morning light smelling of sweet smoke and an amalgam of alcohol, cigarette, sweat, recreational mind-warpers, and perhaps somebody’s saliva.

Dumaguete is never a city that “never sleeps.”

It’s too small, some people say, and knows no variety. Everybody goes to the same places all the time, and everybody dances to the same music again and again. A “night life” is worth its reputation only in way it provides escape from boredom of the every day. You can’t have that when tedium becomes the escape itself.

But there’s also this indefinable something—or perhaps a clustery kaleidoscope of everything: a scattered constellation of bright (and not-so-bright) nocturnal buzzing that follows a strict schedule lasting more than half a week, creating a social swirl that is governed, by and large, by a strange Negrense sense of social class.

One always starts with coffee and dinner and light talk at Gabby’s Bistro, in the enclaves of Bantayan, where the bright lights and the cheerful colors always seem to beautifully kick in the start of a good evening. Some choose to spend nighttime in the old tagay tradition, not on anonymous sidewalks outside residences, but in places like Garahe along Noblefranca, or Qyosko along Santa Rosa, or Sted’s near that. (But this is not an essay on beer circles.)

Everything really begins on Wednesdays, when the B and C crowd—mostly college students but also a generous smattering of young professionals—all ache to get over the hump day, looking forward to the looming weekend ahead. They flock to the Pinoy/Jamaican sounds of Hayahay’s Reggae Wednesday, where Sande Fuentes, often with Mickey Ybañez and the rest of the Hayahay regulars in tow, hold court. The beer in their hands will be ice-cold.

Hayahay attracts a loyal customer base—has always been since it opened in 2000. Its charms are rustic and simple: just a hodge-podge of mini-bars and tables, mostly in the open air, in an arrangement of managed chaos gelled together by a bohemian spirit. This is true Dumaguete night life at its purest form.

Its two observation decks will be in full capacity, and so will be Chez Andre’s pizza corner to the left-most side of the entire compound, where three large round tables accommodate a plethora of barkadas, with a vantage sight of the amused observer staring down the rest of the lion’s den. The band for the night—a mix of Boyan’s Law, Stand Out, Souljah, Front Page, or Silent Vibe—will start playing around nine, perhaps even earlier, and by the time midnight comes along, a throng—bodies rubbing and hopping to the quirky reggae sound—can be found on the tiny dance floor in front of the band.

Everywhere, everybody is uniformed in careless shirts over shorts pants, feet clad in sandals and espadrilles. Wednesday is when you let your hair down but still party. Wednesdays are sweaty. Wednesdays are dread locks nights.

On Thursdays, a taste of the weekend finally begins, but nothing too ostentatious—Hayahay still mostly closes by midnight, and its neighbor El Camino Blanco may blare out dance music but the place is often near empty.

Nobody goes to Camino on Thursdays. That is taken as an unspoken breach of night-life logic.

And so the only recourse, perfectly acceptable to many, is to park one’s car or van along the beachfront stretch of Escaño Boulevard, then take out the plastic shopping bags containing junk food and assorted pulutan, Tanduay rhum, and endless beer—and then party till the wee hours with the music blaring from the car’s stereo.

The spot that tops the T-shape of the stretch is ground zero for grill parties. It’s the choice spot to be in Escaño, which has since replaced San Moritz (along Agan-an) as the nighttime beach side hangout of Dumaguete. There is a certain headiness to being Escaño—perhaps the effect of the collision of the orange tungsten lights running smack against the black horizon of the sea, the twinkling lights of Cebu towns in the distance.

On Thursdays, the scene is small—only a few cars and a scattering of motorcycles dot the Escaño landscape—but already, the oldish couple manning the small stall at the corner of Piapi Beach and E.J. Blanco Drive is making good business selling packs of cigarettes, soft drinks, bottles of Tanduay (with a choice of long neck or flats), and packs and packs of ice. Business for them (and for the peanut vendors that now ply the long “runway” walk of Escaño, which ends at a sari-sari store/beer garden rightly named Tambayan sa Escaño) will pick up some more intensity in the next two days.

On Fridays, Payag sa Likod, nestled in the bowels of unassuming bodegas fronting the provincial hospital, unleashes what it calls Reggae Friday, and students (mostly from nearby Silliman University) descend on cheap beer, wallowing in the strange bamboo-hut-intimacy of Payag’s open door ambience. Here, the charming Christine Torres reigns, ready to pour you a swig of Pagay Sling, its pinkish concoction subtle but ravishingly deadly. Admittedly, there is a roughness and an earthy aroma to the place that may confuse the uninitiated—but this is where the kids hang out, a cocoonish respite from the vastness of sea sky of Piapi Beach. And the beer is cheap. And the place is the only spot in town where the maddening crowds—all distinguished by the pecking order of schools around town—are allowed, somewhat, to mingle. The NORSU crowd are here hobnobbing with the Sillimanians, the Foundation people with the Paulinians who are careful to keep a low profile lest the nuns know.

In Gimmick, things are not the same: the Sillimanians with their airs have left the scene, and the NORSUnians have taken over. In Maychen, right across the road from Gimmick, a kind of social black hole—awashed in Beer na Beer—exists amidst the heaps of trash, the slaking rivers of urine across the dirt floor, and the monobloc tables and chairs jammed against jagged cement edges of what used to be a house. It is a different kind of party in Maychen.

But the main party still remains in Escaño, which, on Friday nights, is now beginning to pick up steam. The stretch—which starts right in front of Hayahay and goes all the way to the dark beyond, would now be filled to capacity, crammed with all manners of cars and motorcycles creating a drunken patchwork of parking. Nobody cares.

In one corner, near Barefoot Bistro, the policemen keep watch. Many moons ago, this was dangerous ground—I have friends who have been stabbed or mauled here—but the atmosphere has arguably since changed. It has become the place where the kids can “safely” party. There is a kind of harmony in the orchestrated chaos—everybody knows everybody—and people dance, flirt, drink, and make speeches to the moon and the stars.

Still, only the desperate goes to Camino on Friday nights, and most will probably end up in Hayahay, to binge on sisig and sinuglaw, and rhum and vodka.

On Saturday nights, the party in Escaño comes to full blast—and the well-heeled crowd now finally descends on Camino, with full intentions to gyrate to house and R&B. The ladies are in their best small black dresses, hair and makeup perfectly done—but with full expectations to be fully undone by the time the night comes to a close. These days, it is local designer Josip Tumapa who comes in with his posse to start the night right. (In olden days, that role would have been Al de las Armas’s.) And the deejay plays his selection of dance tunes—mostly R&B, because the Dumaguete crowd simply does not get house or trance music—but nobody dances until Mitz Meliton dances. It always begins with Paper Kisses doing contemporary covers. On some (bad) nights, a deejay’s sidekick would bark into the microphone, shouting, “Aw! Aw! Aw!” or “Seleman! Seleman! Jump! Jump, jump, jump your hands!” Some would, of course, jump. Some would curse back, telling him to go shut himself. DJ Joeren is the local deejay for the days—but sometimes, a Manila-based one, such as DJ Ace from Embassy, would be flown in, ready to give Dumaguete a taste of edgier stuff.

In Music Box, the dance hall of the entertainment and dining compound generally known as Why Not?—an alternate universe exists—where the garishly made-up and the truly crazy hobnob with the white trash to the sound of 90s dance music, creating the grand spectacle unique to the place: people dancing, not with each other, but to their reflection on the mirrored panels surrounding the squarish dance floor as everybody looks on in strange fascination. It is a different kind of fun, something to subscribe to when you’re already too drunk to care.

The Rizal Boulevard—previously the center of Dumaguete’s night life universe—is a ghost of its former self, crippled by pious but misplaced city regulations, and done to death by the spectacle of Japayuki-style entertainment on a makeshift stage outside CocoAmigos. “Nobody I know has been to CocoAmigos in months,” says a friend. “Too many boorish foreigners and their brown women.”

“That’s a bad thing to say,” I told him.

“But isn’t that how it goes? The moment they come, the locals disappear.”

And then the party stops at three o’clock on a Sunday morning—and slowly, the crowd dissipates for an after-midnight chow at Connie’s or Qyosko or Chowking. They will look tired and happy, like the very picture of merry stupor and delirium.

(To be continued…)

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[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich