"Sailed not as a seaman, but as a traveler..."

"Sailed not as a seaman, but as a traveler..."- Sir Thomas More's Utopia

Friday, July 15, 2011

Semana Santa en las Islas Filipinas

Yes, I do know that it's July and that Holy Week was way back in April. I have no excuses for the tardiness.

Also, it must said that I might post things about places and events but this is not journalism by any stretch of the imagination. This is just me, a guy who takes a lot of pictures and has a lot of accompanying opinions. If you want to know more about Semana Santa in the Philippines, here's a Wiki article on it. I didn't actually read the entire article because its pictures-to-words ratio really leaves a lot to be desired.

Caveats aside, everything included in this is true to the best of my knowledge.

Every year, during Holy Week, the Philippines goes crazy. Not Girls Gone Wild crazy, because that would be sinfully blasphemous, but clinically crazy. Insane, if you would. Regular people walk the streets, whipping themselves into bloody pulps, only to literally bathe in gin once night falls to disinfect the self-inflicted wounds. Of course, some of that gin, if not most, also makes it into the bellies of the penitents.

Once Semana Santa (Holy Week) starts with Lunes Santo (Holy Monday), Filipinos are all abuzz with Catholic rituals. You can see penitents walking the streets, whipping themselves, dragging huge crosses, lying face down in front of churches, kissing the dusty earth while being whipped by the crowd. These practices are clear vestiges left by Spanish rule in the Philippines. We got rid of the whole colonialism thing, but we kept the die hard Catholicism.

If you ever make it to the islands during Semana Santa, try to keep your distance from the penitents unless you want blood splattering all over you. I'm pretty sure you can get STDs that way. Or at the very least, Mono, which is totally lame.

The whole bloodily gruesome week takes a pause on Thursday, because that's when Jesus was praying under some olive tree, or having his last supper, or something. Then it's Biyernes Santo (Good Friday). The fateful day of the crucifixion. On this day, there's a huge reenactment of the Passion in San Fernando, Pampanga (among other places). In a little, unassuming neighborhood tucked into the interiors of the Philippine city is a clearing made specifically for this day.

It's hot. It's hot as hell. There are people everywhere, which makes it more hot. The trees have been cleared away, making it even hotter.

In the center of the clearing is a raised plot of land with three crosses standing and casting eerie shadows Ben Hur style. There are vendors everywhere selling cold bottles of water from makeshift coolers of styrofoam and duct tape. Media crews from all over the world are everywhere, interviewing on-lookers, trying to find the most politically correct way to ask why Filipinos do this crazy shit. Why whip and bleed? Why nail yourselves to the cross? Why all this crazy?

The usual response? Panata. The Tagalog word roughly translates to vow or faith. Carabou dung and endangered tarsier piss. Tell the camera crews the truth. You get paid. I hate to dispel the miracles of religion, or whatever, but let me lay down some truth. I met a guy who used to participate in the Holy Week "festivities," and he gave me the low down. If you need money, you "volunteer" and if you get "chosen," you agree to a "contract" where you whip yourselves for a few years in exchange for a small stipend for your "faith."

P.S. - they cut themselves with razorblades before they start whipping so that more blood comes out. Some people use cow blood diluted in water to make it look more gory. I'm sure the whole self-flagellation thing hurts anyway, but the blood is mostly theatrics. My new buddy showed me the scars on his back, which he has since covered up in some pretty dope tattoos.

Anywho, before I go further down that tangent, back to my story.

Everyone waits. All morning long, into the afternoon. People take turns reading the Passion in a sing-song voice blasting through speakerphones that mangle syllables. It's hot, the sun burns, you can't understand anything being said. A few of the penitents whipping themselves faint in the ungodly heat(I mean seriously, who wouldn't?) and are carried off in stretchers. Then, 3:00PM arrives. Allegedly, about the time that Jesus is pronounced dead on the cross.

Men arrive, dressed in gaudy red capes and plastic armor, escorting a long line of Jesuses and thieves ready to be crucified. There's even a mourning Mary Magdalene. Three by three the Jesuses and thieves are tied to the crosses, nailed to the wood, and hoisted. There, they are on display to the gasping audience as they grimace in the unbearable heat, and probably the pain of being nailed to splintery wood. Probably.

When all the Jesuses are done redeeming mankind, about 15 or so, we all go home. Sweaty and dusty, but all a little less sinful. At least, that's the idea. Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday) is quiet, because Jesus is dead, and we all somberly reflect. Most people sit and reflect with a few bottles of brandy. Then Easter Sunday comes along, Christ rises, and we all rejoice. Again, usually with a few bottles of brandy.

In the States we just dye eggs and throw parties Martha Stewert style. Oh yeah, there are also those weird things called Peeps. Boy, do we have it easy.

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