The Philippines’ love affair with fireworks reached its summit in late 2005 when the La Mancha group organized the first World Pyro Olympics at the then-unfinished Mall of Asia. Five days of evening performances from each of the eight participating countries, showcasing some of the fanciest fireworks you’ll likely ever see in these parts – how could you go wrong? And indeed the WPO has proven to be a popular diversion in its four iterations since. This year saw the debut of its very own spinoff: the International Pyromusical Competition, which was essentially the same thing, but with loud music accompanying the loud explosions.
And so it was that I found myself facing the sea on a breezy Sunday evening, waiting for a solitary barge floating in the middle of the bay to light up the darkened sky. The event seemed well-organized and quite comfortable, although perhaps this initial impression was colored slightly by the fact that we were in the VIP section, and they were serving us dinner.
We arrived about an hour before the competition was scheduled to start, and sat ourselves down as close to the bayside as possible. The VIP section was a long rectangular strip of pavement along the outermost edge of the baywalk, with about 2 dozen large round dinner tables and a modest dinner buffet. The size of each table was such that you were most likely going to share with someone, unless you happened to bring a whole van full of friends along with you. For awhile, I allowed myself the small fantasy of actually having the table to ourselves – perhaps the VIP section wasn’t running at capacity? – but alas, this was not to be.
Half an hour before the United Kingdom performance began, a young man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me in Tagalog whether there were other people sharing the table with us. I admitted, “No,” and when he turned to wave his companions over, I wished I had lied. Their group consisted of three ladies suffering from varying degrees of obesity and looking like they sold hair elastics in Philcoa, and three squealing 5-year-olds that they were dragging along by the pigtails. They fell into their chairs, making the silverware dance and the wine glasses shudder. They chattered at each other while trying to get their respective bundles-of-joy to sit still for more than two seconds at a stretch. Behind us, a string quartet was playing, and I imagined the sinking Titanic.
One bundle-of-joy in particular was quite memorable. She didn’t like the sound of violins and so decided to play Paramore over her cellphone’s loud speaker. She placed the cellphone, of course, right beside me. Thus energized, she began to explore the subterranean world under our dinner table, crawling over our feet and seriously destroying my calm. Resurfacing from her excursions, she proceeded to smash her head against the underside of the table, and our glasses spilled their contents out on to the tablecloth in fright. I half-stood to see if she was alright, but her mother, mistaking my reaction for concern, waved me back down. “OK lang sya, OK lang sya,” she said. I was hoping she had knocked herself unconscious, and would have to be taken to the hospital.
Thankfully, the performance soon began, and apart from the occasional non-sequitur interjections of “Nasan yung dede nya? Yung dede nya?” from our tablemates, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The Brits were good, but the Chinese were better, and unfortunately there’s no way to properly describe the experience of either performance to someone who hadn’t been there, at that distance. We watched the spiraling, cascading fireworks cast triumphant reflections on the water, and I have to admit – for all my complaints about the mediocre food, and the presence of other people – I was enthralled.