EASTER IN CEBU

April 2001

Cebu City doesn't sleep much: you can go out anytime of day or night and find lots of people on the streets eating, drinking, talking, smoking, and hanging out; and even when the big stores are closed, then street stalls and mom and pops are open and you can get barbecued chicken or smokes or a jeepney ride. This town is ALIVE 24/7.

So I was a little shocked on Holy Thursday (Huebes Santo), when Cebu really shut down. Schools and businesses were closed, stores and restaurants shuttered, and even the roasted peanut lady down on Urgello Street had packed up for the weekend. I had plans to go out of town to Moalboal for the four-day holiday, but that fell through and I didn't have much else planned. I pretty much relaxed, slept for most of the day. Too dang hot.

Holy Friday (Patayginoo: "Lord is dead") my friend Lorna invited me to the Good Shepherd Center in Banawa with her family. Sure, why not. I went to her house at eleven am. She took me out into the alley and introduced me to some male neighbors while she got herself and her family ready for the outing. In the alley, the boys were getting an early start with a big pitcher of "65 mix": Tanduay Rhum 65 proof mixed with Red Horse Beer, San Miguel's earthy cousin. In a sacred male tradition, they were celebrating the holy day by getting tanked before noon. Tempted as I was to join in, I politely declined the offer of a brimming glassful.
An hour later everybody was ready and we started: Lorna, her mom Rosal (dad at mandatory work), sister Rose with her husband, her brother Melvin, her niece Rodalyn, and Lorna's best friend Fe. We hopped a jeep right in Sawang Calero that took us up to Banawa, a Cebu City suburb, starting point for the trek into the hills. Our destination was Tanchan Celestial Gardens, the Good Shepherd Center, a large pastoral estate up in the foothills above town. As soon as we got out of the jeepney we were immersed in a big crowd of pilgrims. We bought a few bottles of water and started up the road. It was damned hot, and the road was unpaved, dusty, and packed with thousands of adults, kids, babies, grammas and grampas, vendors, and nuns and monks. There were also vehicles rattling up through the walking crowds, carrying those who didn't want to or couldn't walk the two miles to the center. As we got higher and higher, more roads and trails fed into ours and we were joined by thousands more people. Pretty soon the road was a solid sea of humanity and there was no room for anything with an engine, thankfully. Finally we reached the top hot, tired, dusty and relieved, and passed under the huge arch at the entrance to the estate which contains life-size sculptures of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Our human river passed by each station, stopping at each for prayers, singing of hymns and crying. In about an hour we got to the 14th station and here joined a crowd of probably ten thousand people. Spread out all over, eating, smoking and of course; chatting. I was kinda relieved that it was a solemn occasion, as I was imagining how exuberant a crowd of 10,000 excited Filipinos might be. We hung out eating (rice and fish, of course) until 3pm, the time when Christ was crucified, and then headed back down the hill. Much easier than coming up, and I think most of us were euphoric from the combination of hot sun, exhaustion, dehydration, and relief at having survived the whole experience. I hung out with Lorna and her family at their house and then went home to my pension house. Followed by 12 wonderful hours of deep snoozing. But our sacrifice was small indeed, compared to that of Gilbert Bargayo, who allowed himself to be nailed to a huge cross in a spectacle witnessed by 3,000 people in the town plaza in Carcar, Cebu. This is the twelfth year in a row he has done this (I saved the illustrated newspaper article, you can see it next year when I get home.)

Saturday (Sabado Santo) Stores were starting to open again, and I went to the mall with a friend and saw "Miss Congeniality."

Easter Sunday (Pagkabanhaw: Resurrection) I hung out for most of the morning, chatting with the pension staff. Late afternoon, I walked downtown and started visiting Catholic churches. At dusk I arrived at the magnificent Basilica Minore del Santo Nino, built in 1565 and since burned down and rebuilt three times. Beneath a broad early evening sky filled with billowing pink clouds, I joined a huge outdoor mass that had just begun (the Basilica itself is only large enough for a few hundred worshippers, but the open plaza held several thousand.) I climbed the steps and found a little spot up above the crowd where I had a view and could even hear the priest leading the mass. He spoke in English, and was really belting it out, so if you don't mind I'll quote from him: "The Resurrection is the central event of our faith, but we don't understand it. Our everyday lives are filled with normal events, but this is a meta-event; it represents a new way of being alive. Jesus died, yes, but he Resurrected. Life is victorious over death. When we rise above our difficulties of life, we are experiencing resurrection. We are rising above our human nature. When we go beyond what the world offers. The challenge of Easter is to rise with Jesus, through this we have the power to become new persons. The opportunity for us to live a transformed life."
Pretty cool stuff huh? Even though I was drinking in his passionate sermon, I was feeling pretty ambivalent throughout. On the one hand, the Catholic Church is one of the forces of darkness in the world. Who can deny that it's one of the most powerful and regressive of all institutions? The Philippines is about 80% Catholic, and has a 4% birthrate, one of the highest in the world. The high birthrate is certainly one of the biggest problems here, a huge factor in the tremendous poverty of the majority of Filipinos; and perhaps the biggest reason for the high birthrate is the harsh papal opposition to birth control: obscenely cruel. And the Church here is certainly a handmaiden to the few rich families keeping this country from the real social revolution that it needs so desperately!

Yet, at the same time, that priest was talking about precisely the thing that Filipinos do so magnificently: in spite of continuously being dealt 3's and 4's by the big guy up above (the aces and face cards go the oligarchic families running the country, a miniscule fraction of the population), it's my observation that most Filipinos DO rise above the difficulties of everyday life.
Tuesday morning I went to the Immigration Office, to get my visa renewed. The office was filled mostly with foreigners like myself, and you shoulda heard the bitching: "Christ, this f***'n place!" I heard more that one white guy mumble, "I been here for 2 hours already and I ain't got my visa yet!" This was really the first time I've heard any complaining since I arrived in Cebu six weeks ago. Filipinos typically wait MONTHS to get a visa to go work overseas, and yet I've never heard a single one complain about the process. They seem to just accept it and get on with what they need to do to survive. I won't give the Catholic Church credit for that accomplishment, but I think that priest hit on the cultural behavior which to me is a stunning achievement: rising above the shit sandwich with a smile, dignity and optimism intact. How do they do it?

I'm not sure what it all means, but I had a great time celebrating Easter here in Cebu, hope you get the chance to share it sometime.

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