Of waving hands and red balloons

sinulogThe day that precedes the world renowned Sinulog Grand Festival Parade which happens every third Sunday of January in Cebu City is actually the day of the grandest yet solemn parade of the festivity, the foot procession of the Holy Image of Cebu’s patron , the SEÑOR STO. NIÑO.

More than a decade ago, I was invited by a couple-friend to join them and their children in the said procession. Although I once lived in Cebu for quite some time during college, it was actually my first experience attending the procession.

I could still remember how we had to endure being pushed, our feet stepped on and being pressed by other members of the moving crowd as we squeezed our way just so we could get inside the pilgrim center for the mass after the procession. The crowd that gathered outside of the Basilica was so huge and so compact that at some point it felt like there was not enough air to breathe in and I thought a stampede could occur at anytime.

At first, I couldn’t understand why we had to go through such an ordeal when there are in fact a  lot other masses scheduled for the festivity where we can comfortably get in to the church. But as soon as the carroza carrying the Holy Image of the Sto. Niño arrived and entered the Basilica premises and the thousands of devotees in attendance started waving their hands while singing the Gozos to welcome the Holy Infant, I then realized why. The site at that particular moment just blew me away. What I have witnessed for the very first time sent shivers up my spine and I thought I had goose bumps all over. The whole experience moved me like nothing else. It was for me the closest one could get to a Divine Presence.

After that expreience, I have made a commitment to participate in the same activity with them at least once every two years if it wouldn’t be possible to do it every year. And since I was able to attend last year and it also seemed like my work schedule would not allow me to do the same this year, I did not make any prior reservations for transportation and accommodation.

Ironically however, it turned out that work related concerns would pave the way for me to be there again. There was an initial problem with transportation since most are fully booked so the trip only became certain a day before my actual departure. I also contacted my nephews who are based in Cebu to try to book a hotel for me although I knew then there’s only a very slim chance for them to get one.

Carrying a cylindrical package of about 4 inches in diameter, more than a meter in length and weighing around 10 kilograms and a backpack weighing about the same, I started my journey to the Queen City of the South at about 9:00 AM on Thursday. Travelled by bus for about 4 hours and waited for another 4 before our ship finally sailed for Cebu. After about 12 hours at sea, at around 8 in the morning the following day, laden mostly with excited pilgrims from Mindanao, MV Filipinas Dapitan finally docked in the port of Cebu.

Hunger and the weight of the load I was carrying made me drag myself out of the port as fast as I could. Once outside, I immediately hailed a taxi and had me taken to the office of the supplier of the water pump I was carrying. After the initial routine check and recording procedure, I was told by the manager that they would contact me as soon as their technicians have identified the pump’s problem and the works to be done.

I felt relieved leaving the supplier’s office with the load I was carrying since the previous day reduced by half. But I was still hungry. I again took a taxi and told the driver to take me to the Basilica de Sto. Nino. The driver dropped me off at the nearest point to an entrance since traffic was already blocked from passing by the actual church entrance. As expected, the church was full and bustling with devotees and pilgrims.

I went inside and proceeded directly to light candles in thanksgiving for my safe arrival. I usually queue for the kiss of the Holy Image after lighting candles but I had to temporarily postpone it after seeing a very long line of the faithful because my empty stomach demanded that I should fill it immediately.

Walking out of the church, I received a text message from one of my nephews informing that he was already on his way to fetch me since they were not able to book me to a hotel as those they have inquired were already full. On my way to our agreed meeting place, I passed by this old hotel which I once stayed years before. I tried my luck and inquired for vacancy. Fortunately, there was one room available as the previous occupant has just checked out a few minutes before my arrival. It was like someone reserved it for me! “Pit Senyor!” I silently shouted.

After taking breakfast I felt I was ready for the long line for the kiss of the Holy Image. So my nephew and I fell in line together with hundred other devotees. Although we have to start queuing outside of the church under the scorching heat of the sun, we were fortunate to have availed of the free use of a limited number of umbrellas provided by the church management.

Early morning on Saturday, my friend texted to make arrangements for the procession. We agreed to meet at the entrance gate of the village he is residing since it is within the route of the procession.

At around 2 PM, I and a nephew who is joining the procession for the very first time were already in the agreed meeting place. Obvious awe and amazement was painted on my nephew’s face as he watched the huge crowd joining the walk pass by. After a while, my friend and his family arrived and we then joined the sea of devotees in the procession.

After walking for more than a hundred meters, just as the procession moves its way to a curve, the crowd of onlookers standing on the sides of the street has formed a bottleneck for the people in the procession, compressing the walkers and pushing them against each other. Then we heard sounds of fireworks activated from behind which made me turn around to take a look in time to witness a sizable number of red balloons being released signaling the arrival of the carroza carrying the Holy Image of the Child Jesus.

It created a stir among the crowd, all of them waving their hands while some were taking pictures. I called out on my nephew who at that moment was already a few meters away from me, so he could also witness what was happening. Later on I realized that my friend and his children were already out of my sight and were nowhere to be found. The current of the moving crowd continued to push us to the sides until I decided that it was safer for us to just take the sidewalk while I contact my friend.

I later learned that they were pushed to the other side of the street and decided to continue walking through the same area. After some hundred meters and after continued exchange of information thru text, we were reunited and rejoined the crowd in the procession.

I have learned that unlike before, all entrances to the basilica are closed once the carroza of the SANTO NIÑO has left for the procession and only the entry gate of the carroza will be opened once it arrives but will be closed again immediately and will be reopened permanently when the concluding mass starts.

While waiting for the carroza to arrive, my friend told me that he had to go back home because he forgot to bring the key of the car which he purposely parked near the church earlier in the morning to be used  supposedly in going  home after the mass. His wife on the other was not keen on going inside the pilgrim center that time because of her aching toes. So, it was agreed that only me and my nephew would try to get inside the Pilgrim Center once the gate will be opened.

As the entrance procession of the mass begun and the gate opened, the huge crowd too started moving towards the entrance of the pilgrim center. The fixed open space at the gate has again formed a bottleneck for the moving crowd which caused others to be pushed aside by the force of the current of moving people. When my nephew and I were already at the entrance, the pushing force grew even stronger and I was alarmed looking at my nephew’s face because I thought it turned pale. I immediately asked if he was alright and I was relieved when he said he was okay. Then someone shouted for the crowd to stop pushing because a toddler was pushed aside in one column of the gate and it was immediately followed by the mother’s plea for the same. Then we heard the toddler’s cry.

The crowd somehow calmed down but still continued moving until it came to a point when there was no more space left to move about and everyone had to stand still. I wished my nephew had a clearer view of the altar as this was his first experience of the event but we were stuck just a few meters from the entrance gate and our view of the altar was partly blocked by the tent used as a makeshift clinic for the medics. Fortunately however, we were also facing at a large tv screen showing the view of the entire altar.

Later on I realized I was standing next to the toddler who cried earlier and her mother and saw too that there actually was another kid, much younger, being carried by the father. I initially resented the idea of them bringing their very young children with them on an event with such a huge crowd in attendance, exposing them to some degree of danger. But then I told myself that I should not question the way in which they show and express their faith to the Holy Child for I know nothing about them except that they are a family who chose to pray together. And I want to believe that it was their faith that brought them there, however the circumstances.

As the mass went on, so did the summons for medics to attend to someone for immediate aid from different corners both in and outside of the pilgrim center. Some could still walk, albeit weakly, to the medic’s tent while some had to be carried in a stretcher. And that happened every now and again throughout the mass. Later on, my nephew too could no longer stand the pain on his feet that he told me he had to leave and look for a place to rest. He may have been overwhelmed by the huge crowd surrounding him and restricting his movement.

Then came the offertory. Hands outstretched and waving to the giant image of the Sto. Nino above the altar, the faithful in attendance sung the Gozos like the largest choir ever assembled. Painted on their faces as they were singing were expressions of total surrender of woes and worries and of joyful praise and gratitude. It was for me the sincerest manifestation of faith.

After the mass came the much awaited part by most devotees, the Religious Sinulog. The mood in the pilgrim center changed from solemn to festive as the faithful danced to the beat of the Sinulog while raising the image of the Sto. Nino they brought along , expressing loudly their prayer intentions, and chanting “ PIT SENYOR!”  The faithful of all ages and gender danced the Sinulog with all their heart.

After dancing for quite a while, I begun to feel  exhaustion and thirst and I remembered my nephew was waiting for me somewhere. When I saw a group of people squeezing their way out of the pilgrim center, I decided to go along with them because it would be much easier for me to go out with them than squeezing my way out through the dancing crowd alone.

It was a great relief to be finally out of the huge crowd which a while ago almost constricted me. For a few minutes I just allowed my body to breathe and savor the coolness of a wider free space. Then I headed to where my nephew said he was resting.

Some would ask why many of the faithful subject themselves to different ordeals and even to extreme sacrifices just to express their faith in GOD when HE does not explicitly require the same. But only the concerned member of faithful can answer that question.

On my part, joining the procession and trying to get inside the pilgrim center for the concluding mass the way I did like many others is not actually an ordeal or a sacrifice but just a temporary discomfort. It is one way of expressing my gratitude and it is nothing compared to the joy of experiencing being part of a multitude of faithfuls collectively expressing their supplications, praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty. What I did is nothing compared to that family I stood next to inside the Pilgrim Center, whose very young children they brought with them, most certainly with the intention of showing GOD of their faith in HIM as a family.

But whatever your prayers are, be it for strength to withstand your fears and worries or thanksgiving for your triumphs and successes, I am most certain that the ALMIGHTY would hear and listen to it if it is done with sincerity and humility regardless of how you express it.

And as for me, I would always grab every opportunity to participate in the procession and join the multitude of faithfuls, wave my hands in supplication and witness the release of red balloons as the STO. NIÑO passes by.

Until the next Sinulog.





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