“Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.” Voltaire
For the open-minded traveler, Earth provides a diverse pool of beliefs to dip into and test the water. While sightseeing can be the carrot on the traveler’s stick, immersing yourself in a festival or two can give a better feel for a country’s core values and traditions. With this in mind, I headed to Pampanga, in the Philippines, one of the most staunchly Catholic areas in the archipelago, where i’d read you can bear witness to a live crucifixion every Easter.
Contrary to a continent following the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim disciplines , Filipinos found their faith through their Spanish colonial roots. You don’t grasp the full extent of this until you arrive. In Angeles city, Biblical messages are as omnipresent as Lord Himself. Whether splashed across Jeepneys or worn as a necklace – the intense display of devotion is inescapable.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Pampanga, where every year over the Easter holidays, thousands of people make the sacrifice of carrying large, heavy crosses whilst others whip their backs into a bloody pulp.The Easter Bunny, it seems, didn’t make it to these shores.
The culmination of these displays falls on the ultimate reenactment of Jesus’s fateful day – from being flogged and beaten to getting nailed to the cross, there are people that go all the way shy of having nails through their feet and left for dead.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I ended up where I intended to be.” Douglas Adams
Clearing the Go-Go bars and sex tourists the city is famous for, I was killing time on my day of arrival when I happened upon a gang of cross bearers and self-flagellants preparing for a long march down a traffic-heavy main road. After snapping a few pics, they asked if I wanted to join them. Obliging, I hopped into their van, stopping at consecutive neighborhoods as the rest of the group sauntered along . In the scorching burn of the midday heat, they arrived in progressive states of exhaustion and pain.
At each stop there were small, shrine-like chapels where the participants knelt or lay down, whipping their backs or holding up the heavy weight of their crosses.
The pain increased for the flagellates as razor blades were used to cut small incisions into their backs, which, after a few hours of flogging, transformed into bloody sore-soaked wounds aptly resembling angel wings.
To cover up from April’s punishing solar assault, they wore jeans, gowns and neckerchiefs on top of their heads and around their face. Along the way we’d seen other groups from various barrios doing the same thing; all exhausted, all blood-splattered. We decided to drive to the group’s barangay and wait for them. A barangay, or barrio, is a small neighborhood with its own sociopolitical system. One of the biggest topics of conversations in the Philippines at this time are local and national politics. I arrived just before the elections and there were more posters plastered around for politicians than there were about God.
We waited in the center of the barrio, a basketball court-come-chapel, where we listened to local girls take turns singing the complete Bible from beginning to end, which takes approximately seventy-two hours.
Later that evening we got to know each other with brandy and a concoction of creamy pig’s face, a local delicacy. My new friends championed a backstreet crucifixion the next day, one where you could witness the action close up, rather than the distanced view of the tourist-driven event I’d planned to attend. We could rent their friend’s Jeepney, they said, make a day of it. I was a little concerned that a member of the group who’d gone home early texted me saying ‘Be careful Simon, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.’ Ultimately it was too ambiguous to worry about, They’d already given me hospitality, and thus a reason to trust in them.
A crisis of faith
“Fear can keep us up all night long,but faith makes one fine pillow.”
On my return to the city center, I found two expectant faces at my hotel entrance. They’d stopped by the house I was drinking at earlier. I must have mentioned where I was staying in conversation. They asked me if i had enough money to pay for their motorbike taxi after they’d come into town for a night out and not bought enough to cover their fare. A scam – and I wasn’t buying it. One of two, a transexual, whose transition merely entailed donning a wig, offered a massage in return for the cash. It wasn’t the deal breaker she may have hoped for, and they eventually left.
Upon entering my hotel I was told they had even tried to enter my room. The Wonky Pensioner Hotel had no security, but at least the doors had locks. Frustrated by these late night developments, I sat at hotel bar and pondered my options. Were those thieving scammers sent by the same group I’d just been drinking with? Would there be another, more grandiose scheme in store for me tomorrow? I had heard a tale about a girl and her grandmother sweet-talking a foreigner into their house, drugging him up and robbing him in Manilla.
At the same time, i didn’t want to jump to conclusions: I had the chance of witnessing something truly unique. It was a crisis of faith. The family and their friends had all been so generous by letting me into their lives for the day whilst the scammers had only been at the house for a short while and I hadn’t planned on meeting those two the next day. I stopped typing a declining text message and slept on it.
“Faith is not trying to believe something regardless of the evidence; faith is daring something regardless of the consequences.” – Sherwood Eddy
A phone call woke me the next morning. I agreed to meet the guys in town, as arranged. I left behind my newly purchased DLSR camera and took my compact camera, my phone, enough cash for the day and a refreshed sense of optimism. Meeting under the golden arches of McDonalds, I immediately asked the Barangay boss, Mark, what the deal was with the previous night’s antics. He seemed genuinely surprised and concerned, explaining that the pair were drug fiends, and although they lived in close quarters to them, they weren’t to be trusted.
Relieved and feeling assured of my saftey, I duly hopped in their car. Traveling along the main road, the streets were awash with rag-wearing believers wielding bloody whips, lugging crosses over their backs and striding towards their respective chapels. Stopping at last night’s barangay, the first order of the day was a visit from what seemed like hundreds of faithful marchers supporting crucifixes on their backs. This was merely a fraction of the thousand that’d been erected en masse earlier that morning whilst I was sleeping off a hangover.
It was a sight of biblical proportions. After the proceedings, i met the crew sharing the Jeepney we’d hired and rode out to the song of the chapel girls, still going strong on their 3rd day.
The streets were awash with families and crimson-stained backs. Street vendors sold much needed coconut milk and halo halo amidst the blood, sweat and cheery smiles. Three focal participants led the procession to the final stages as they took a heavy beating from their friends, thus reenacting the Passion of Christ.
They would carry their crosses down the roads and through neighborhoods being routinely kicked, pushed and beaten with a belt until they staggered uncontrollably onto dusty ground. A brutal ritual, but never to the point where they couldn’t rise to their feet for renewed punishment.
We piled out of the jeepney and headed down a backstreet alley, where a large crowd had gathered, buzzing with anticipation for what was to come. Kids back in England were wiping chocolate from their mouths; here, blood from brow. I was introduced to the man who was to perform the nailing. He held them in a container filled with alcohol to avoid infection. I was told I would get to see the nails enter close-up along with an Australian, who had also met a family that could pull some strings. The fact that he had bought his DSLR camera, and I hadn’t, annoyed me less than the fact that I was no longer the only foreigner around. What was he doing here? Shouldn’t he be with the rest of the tourists?
The more tourist-driven ceremony draws about twenty-five participants for full crucifixion, yet it seems viewers are far too distant to witness the act and the participants are adorned in fancy dress, theatrical in appearance. This, however, was raw. When the three men arrived they looked ready to die: dripping with sweat, tortured expressions, and being hoisted along mercilessly by rope attached to their waist. There was only one man getting crucified today. As he assumed the position, he was the calm center of the universe compared to the surrounding chaos and fervor. I bargained my way to the front, exclaiming i would never see this again in my life. Luckily, everyone obliged.
Plucked from the container, the first nail was pressed into the alcohol-dowsed palm. He screamed in pain. With a swift repetition of the scream upon entrance of the second nail, via human flesh and into the wooden cross, it was time for stage two. The wooden cross was quickly hoisted skywards by four ropes which then proceeded to rotate for all to see.
Considering the hastiness of his erection (no pun intended), he was on parade for quite a while. Not that he seemed to mind – there was a distinct look of peaceful focus in his eyes. If the act of redemption gets you a free pass to heaven, this guy’s lobbying for a golden ticket.
Perhaps his demeanor changed when the nails came out. We didn’t wait to find out. Returning to the truck, my group headed back to the barangay and we swapped Facebook contacts before i jumped on a bus back to town. The trust I felt toward the group was the same as when I first met them. Although i’m not a follower of traditional religions like Catholicism, there’s something to be said for not letting reason cloud belief.
Infusing confidence into a doubtful outlook and placing faith in your gut instinct can be a strong guide when making difficult decisions. A leap of faith is a gamble, for sure, but big bets can reap bigger rewards, whether you’re on the road or any other walk of life.
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