Thursday, April 28, 2011

Crucifixion Carnival

A modern day crucifixion?

Surely not something at the top of any traveler's to-do list. Alas, it was something I wanted to witness first-hand. Real nails, real hammers, but worst of all - real hands and feet! A thousand times owch.

The crazy thing is, people are volunteering for this. I must constantly remind myself that nobody is being punished, but rather, something they look forward to each year. I spoke with Ruben Enaje, shortly after coming down from the cross for the twenty-fifth time in as many years.

"Why put yourself through all this pain?" I ask, unable to stifle my most obvious question.
"Why take a bath at the end of each day?" he retorts quickly, grimacing each time he touches his heavily hobbled hands.
"Do you want to see?" he suggests, catching me looking at his bloodied bandages.
"No, that's OK" I try to say, but it's of no use. He thrusts forward his battle scars, and I find myself looking at a gaping wound in his left palm. There is little blood, but a bouquet of bone and muscle on display. He catches my look of terror and laughs proudly.

Once the volunteers come off the cross, they are treated like rock stars. Everyone wants their picture taken with these brave souls, but shaking hands is strictly frowned upon.

Close by to the crucifixions, a man walks blindly, with a black sheet over his head and a crown of thorns upon his brow. His back is bare, dripping with blood that spurts and splatters with each crack of his whip. A passerby, riding in a pedi-cab, curses herself for wearing white as he stomps past her.

The man's pants have begun the day as the color white. Hours of searing heat, dust and constant whipping have created a backlash of blood. The sweat pants are now blood-red, and their owner winces with each step he takes.

Suddenly, I find myself in a meditative trance. The whip-slap soundtrack provided by the masked madman, combined with the intense heat and humidity has taken me to an astral realm. All of a sudden though, reality shifts back into focus with a loud bang. Everyone begins to rush in the same direction - there is to be one more crucifixion for the day!

As I reach the mound where the crosses are stationed, I look around at my surroundings and notice the similarities to the real deal, two-thousand odd years ago. The weather is steamy, but with desert like temperatures to boot! The landscape is somewhat baron and ultimately, it is rural. There's a viewing platform, and vendors selling everything from San Miguel Pilsen to Buko juice.

The final volunteer has the look of unease in his eyes, eyes which bulge with fear as several coils of rope fasten him to the cross. His hands are washed with alcohol, with just one step left in the process.

A soft thud from the hammer, is all it takes to force out a blood-curdling scream as his body writhes in agony. His body is writhing, like a snake being skinned, and his howls of pain could wake the dead. A similar result occurs when the right palm is nailed to the cross, and he's sobbing as they stand the cross up straight. He's not out of the woods just yet though, as each foot must be nailed in place too.

Perhaps only in The Philippines would a vendor of helium-inflated animal balloon animals stand just meters away from a man being crucified. He looks on with interest as the nails disappear in flesh, before looking around the crowd to see if anyone needs a refreshment.

There's a long list of events that fall under the category of 'only in the Philippines...' - but for me, this stands out!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Walk to Antipolo

"There are more people on the roads than cars!" I think to myself. There's music and marching madness all around and the air is fever-pitch. One thing's for certain, the excitement is contagious. It's not long before I'm swept up in the encompassing enthusiasm and brush up on my marching skills.

If it weren't for the tens of thousands of other people ascending past me, I'd think to ask a few questions. I'd want to know where exactly everyone was heading to, but with this many people bustling past - it was inevitably something worth seeing.

Along the busy stretch of Ortigas Avenue, we hear the steady beat of marching drums and murmured prayer. The jeepneys and tricycles that jostle for position with the swarm of pilgrims, are careful not to honk their horns and upset the religious reverence that's ever present. For once it is us pedestrians who aren't the minority, rejoice!

Starting in Pasig City, we leave the hustle and bustle of Manila after about two hours. It is then that we begin to scale the mountains of Antipolo. Once you begin the winding path up the hills, all fourteen stations of the cross must be crossed before reaching the famous church. At each station, there are a collection of stalls selling food and beverages. There's also musical performers and dramatic re-enactments of the final hours of Jesus Christ.

Post midnight, the atmosphere is akin to that of a carnival, and rather than complain about a long night of walking, families are roaring with laughter and people are dancing in the streets, all the while chanting prayers directed at the heavens above.

We had been walking for more than four hours, and feeling worse for wear, began to see how those around us were holding up.
"Since Taguig," says Anne, a student from Taguig City University. "We are now walking for our seventh hour. We started at 9pm, it is now 3am. I'm so very tired."

After such a tiring walk, many people opt to sleep outside the church, on nothing more than newspapers. Understandably so for some, who have walked as far as 50 kilometers! Spread out upon their favorite tabloid, many people sit down with friends for a late-night picnic of beer and snacks.

Antipolo is roughly 25 kilometers from Metro Manila, and is home to the most stunning and sweeping views of the seventeen cities that make up our world-class city. The view at sunrise is awe-inspiring, and well worth the trek. Watch as it basks in gentle orange ambiance of early morning sunshine that knows not yet of traffic.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dumaguete City

To many people, Dumaguete is nothing more than a ferry-point to the nearby islands of Cebu and Bohol. To those who dig a little deeper, it's a charming seaside city with a lot to offer visitors. Known as the 'city of gentle people,' it's an easy place to make friends, all while soaking up the sun in this laid-back town.

The capital of Negros Oriental prides itself on a relaxed vibe and friendly outlook. As you watch the palm trees swaying to and fro with the evening breeze, you might just find yourself doing the same. This is the kind of place where alarm clocks seem foreign, so leave yours at home!

The centuries old Dumaguete Belfry, adjacent to the city plaza, offers visitors with a fascinating glimpse into local history. Back in the day (1760's), it was used to warn the townspeople of incoming pirates. Legends of buried gold circulate the town, so you never know your luck!

As it's located right next to the cathedral, the exterior of the bell tower is adorned with religious sculptures like the virgin mary. The dome a top the building is lit up at night, as if to warn any would-be pirates, centuries later.

Rizal Boulevard, also known as 'the boardwalk,' is lined with clusters of coconut trees - the calling card of the tropics. A lot of bars and restaurants can be found along this strip, while cuisines as far-flung as Indian and Indonesian can be found and feasted on. Live bands play most nights in open-air venues that surround the boardwalk. Like elsewhere in The Philippines, the bands are usually full of energy, and delight in entertaining the crowds.

WHERE TO STAY - Hotel Nicanor is your best bet as for where to bunker down while in town. The building is kept immaculately clean, and right from the moment you step through the doors - the staff make you feel right at home. Situated right in the heart of the provincial capital, you're within walking distance of all the city sights. With rates starting at just 850 PHP, it really can't be beat.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bacolod City

They call it the 'city of smiles,' and with good reason too. Wherever you wander in town, you're sure to be greeted with a grin. Market vendors and taxi drivers alike will engage you in conversation, no idle chit-chat either, with topics involving anything from the crisis in Libya to your marital status.

The city itself is laid out much in the manner of those in Latin America, with a town plaza and public parks galore. The streets are full of Spanish-era buildings, and some of the churches date back as far as the 1800's. Many visitors opt to soak up the atmosphere inside, which you're more than welcome to do at mass time. I decided I would put my agnosticism aside and have a peek. I had barely taken a step into San Sebastian Cathedral, when I heard a madman condemning contraceptives, labeling them as part of a 'cycle of death.'

Shaking off the madness, I decided it was time for a beer. Preferably San Miguel. Lacson Street, is home to the largest amount of bars and restaurants in the city, with Korean and Japanese being the most sought after cuisine. Golden Fields is the entertainment district, with karaoke bars and acoustic bands galore, not to mention more than a few go-go bars.

Bacolod City is a highly urbanized one, and HQ of the sugar bowl (Negros) with 500,000 residents. Visits can be arranged to nearby sugar mills, where you can witness the process of transforming sugar cane into the granulated form used daily around the world.

"It's the Filipino equivalent of the deep south in the USA," says Imelda, local resident. "It's very laid-back, church and family play the biggest role in our daily lives." The relaxed atmosphere makes for a perfect escape from the stresses of Manila. The Provincial Lagoon is the Bacolod equivalent of NYC's central park, with a man-made lake, statues and green growth abundant. It acts as a mecca for jogging and fitness enthusiasts in the early hours of the morning, with musical groups practicing in the afternoon.

The Ruins are as the name suggests, the remnants of a Spanish-era mansion. About 10 kms outside of town, it appears on the horizon out of absolutely nowhere. The building was torched by Filipino guerrilla fighters during WW2, to avoid the Japanese using it as their headquarters. The surrounding farmland of sugar cane plantations has been unchanged for centuries.What's left of a once great mansion, now plays host to a charming restaurant, with a mini-golf course to keep the kids entertained.


SPLURGE - L'Fisher Hotel is the perfect place to lap up a little luxury, with 180 rooms and right in the middle of Lacson street. Go on, opt for the royal treatment. All rooms come with air-con and a private bathroom, and the hotel is home to not one, but three separate restaurants. Try the wood-fired pizzas from Chalet Rooftop Bar, they're the best in Bacolod! Room rates start at 3,500 PHP, while the Royal Suite will set you back a whopping 12,200 PHP.

BUDGET - Sea Breeze Hotel (San Juan street) has to be one of the nicest budget hotels I have come across in the whole country. Room rates start at 850 PHP, and all come equipped with air-con, cable television and a private bathroom. The hotel is said to be one of the oldest in the entire city, and the building itself is very grand and a throwback to the Spanish era.