“Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.” Voltaire
For the open-minded traveler, this planet 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 within the archipelago, where i’d heard you can bear witness to a real-life crucifixion every Easter.
Contrary to a continent predominantly following 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, Pampanga, biblical messages are as omnipresent as the Lord Himself. Whether splashed across Jeepneys or worn as a necklace, the intense display of devotion is inescapable.
Over the the Easter holidays here, thousands of people make the sacrifice of carrying heavy crosses as others whip their backs into a bloody pulp.
The Easter Bunny and his delicious eggs, 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 through to getting nailed to the cross, there are devotees that go all the way shy of having nails through their feet and left for dead. Nonetheless, these people offer themselves up, year upon year, to be crucified.
“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 exploring Angeles 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 trudged along, increasingly bloody and out of breath.
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. In the scorching burn of the midday heat, they arrived in progressive states of exhaustion and pain.
The pain increased for the flagellates as razor blades were used to cut small incisions into their backs, which, after a few hours of casual flogging, transformed into bloody, sore-soaked wounds aptly resembling angel wings.
The participants wore jeans, gowns and neckerchiefs to cover up from April’s punishing solar assault.
Along the way we’d seen other groups from various barrios doing the same thing; all exhausted, all blood-splattered. We decided to drive our group’s home 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 in April are local and national politics. I arrived just before the elections and there were more posters plastered around for politicians than for the man upstairs Himself.
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 over 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-orientated 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, These people I’d spent the day, and a substantial cultural exchange with, had already given me their time and plenty of hospitality, and thus a reason to place my 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 group’s house where 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 transsexual lady, whose transition merely seemed to entail donning a wig, offered a massage in return for cash. It wasn’t the deal breaker she may have hoped for, and after much persistence, they eventually left.
Upon entering my hotel I was told they had even tried to enter my room when I was away. The Wonky Pensioner Hotel had no security, but at least the doors had locks.
Frustrated by these late-night developments, I sat at the 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’d 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 individuals the following day.
I stopped myself short of declining via 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 awoke 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 he lived in close quarters to them, they weren’t to be trusted.
Relieved and assured of my safety, I duly hopped into their car.
Traveling along the main road, the streets were awash with rag-wearing believers wielding bloody whips, shouldering crosses and striding towards their respective chapels. Stopping at Marc’s barangay, the first order of the day was a visiting congregation of 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 I’d share the Jeepney we’d hired and rode out to the song of the chapel girls, who were rotating singing from the Bible and still going strong on their third day in a row.
The streets were awash with families and participants with crimson-stained backs. Street vendors sold much-needed refreshments like 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 carried 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 astonished brow.
I was introduced by a member of my group to the man who was to perform the nailing. He held the nails in a container filled with alcohol to avoid infection. I was told I would get to see the nails enter up close along with an Australian, who had also met a family who 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 at the more commercial event? I tried to not let his presence detract me from diluting my unique cultural experience.
The more tourist-driven ceremony draws about twenty-five participants for full crucifixion, yet it seems viewers are too distant to actually witness the act and the participants are adorned in fancy, theatrical costumes.
This, however, was raw.
The three sacrificial devotes were dripping with sweat, and with tortured expressions, were hoisted along mercilessly by ropes attached to their waists. When they arrived at their final destination, they looked ready to meet their maker.
There was only one man actually getting crucified today. As he assumed the position, he was the calm center of the universe compared to the chaos and fervor surrounding him.
I bargained my way to the front, pleading to people in front of me that I would never see this again in my life. Fortunately, and generously, everyone I asked duly obliged.
The first nail was plucked from the container and pierced firmly into the alcohol-dowsed palm.
The Jesus-surrogate screamed with pain.
With a swift second scream upon the pushing-through of nail number two, it was time for stage two. The wooden cross was quickly hoisted skywards levered by four ropes, which then proceeded to rotate said cross and Jesus-for-day for all to see.
Considering the hastiness of his erection, ahem, 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 annual sacrificial antics has him lobbying for a golden ticket.
Perhaps his placid demeanor changed when the nails came out. We didn’t wait to find out.
Returning to the truck, my group headed back to their barangay after we swapped Facebook contacts and 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 personally not a follower of traditional religions such as Catholicism, there’s something to be said for not letting logic or reason sometimes cloud a heartfelt, trusting sense of belief.
Putting confidence into a doubtful set of circumstances, such as when I decided to go along with these guys this day, and placing your faith in your gut instinct can be a weighted guide when making difficult decisions.
Taking a leap of faith can be a wild gamble, for sure, but sometimes big bets can reap even bigger rewards, whether you’re on the road or any other walk of life.
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