Holy Week in the Land of the Faithful

i think it pointless to travel the world and not immerse in the different cultures. This is one of the benefits of cruising vs more mundane travel options. If you really want to experience a culture, take part in its religious celebrations, really take part. This is the way to know the hearts of those we visit. i always try to learn all i can then jump right in.

In Mexico it was the Virgin of Guadalupe Day procession. i bought a small statue, read all i could, donned the traditional garb and walked along with the ladies in long colorful skirts and men i big hats. In Tahiti we went to Catholic Mass often and heard the voice of angels in those choirs. In Fiji we visited a church that had its roots in the Old South and gladly accepted the Pastors offer to come out and bless the boat.

Then we left the somewhat familiar world of Christian faiths and entered Indonesia, one of the largest Islamic countries in the world. Although i was intrigued the traditions are more private. Ramadan is not for the tourist, so i respectfully watched but did not partake. Then we hit the celebrating capital of the world, Thailand. I did the two seasonal changing holidays. Loy Krathon where is set adrift ornately decorated and candle lit tiny boats into the sea. i was accompanied by mini skirted high heel wearing bar girls who had spent days building the tiny vessels. Watching them drift to see by the hundreds was quite a sight. The other end of the year, the beginning of the rainy season is celebrated as not other. I can honestly say i have never had so much fun as a day of Sangran. In this celebration the entire country enthusiastically participates in the world’s largest squirt gun fight. Everyone throws water on everyone for twelve belly laughing hours. Thailand also hosts the most bizarre commemoration, Vegetarian Week. Wild parades with havoc raising fireworks blasting in all directions, ear piercing drums, and the nightly parade of the those who mutilate themselves as a demonstration of their faith. One must see this to believe it.

Now in the Philippines and back in a Christian dominated culture but not like i have ever seen. The Philippines still show the evidence of 400 years of Spanish rule and is 81% Catholic and i mean really Catholic, not the watered down kind we see in the US. It is common for even the meager tricycle driver to cross himself when we pass a church, these people live the faith.

Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, is the most significant week of the year. All week long we saw celebrations and ceremonies of all kinds. Maudry Thursday, the day of the Last Super, is observed with a Mass and the reenactment of the event complete with “the Washing of the Feet” where Christ washed the feet of the disciples. I went to the Church to see this but could not get in due to the huge crowd.

Unlike the West, Good Friday or Black Friday as it is called here is the most significant day. All business stops, hospitals, banks even the girly bars close. Many that work in the cities return to the providences to join their families for this holy day.

We returned to the oldest Catholic Church in town for the Good Friday Procession. Doing a little research i found this church had stood through a great deal. it was used for prisoners by the Japanese in WWII.

Today it was brightly decorated and well attended. We joined about 500 local people as we lit our candles and followed the ornately decorated floats. Each float depicted a significant character from the original event: Saint Peter, Mary Madelyn, the Holy Mother and of course the suffering Jesus. The solemn marches recited prayers, Hail Mary Full of Grace was heard repeatedly and with bone chilly resolve that made me take note, one could feel the sincerity and deep deep faith of the walkers, it was powerful.

In some parts of the country they take the reenactment to a higher level but actually nailing people to the cross as in the crucifixion. This demonstrates a level of faith unseen elsewhere, the Thai Buddhist self mutilators of Vegetarian Week came to mind. We might condemn such action but one cannot deny the magnitude of faith it requires.

In my quest to grasp the soul of the Filipinos, I have also been studying the history of the Philippines, especially the recent move to close the huge US military bases. After centuries of colonization, Chinese, Spanish, American, for the first time in 1992 they were truly independent. The vote to not renew the treaty was taken seriously and not without conflict. Subic Bay alone provided 20,000 good paying jobs not to mention a level of security.

i recently visited a monument to the twelve senators who voted against the treaty, at the monument you can read the speeches, they are honored still today. This was not an anti American move, the sincere desire was to maintain a strong bond with the US and be an ally, but not a colony. i had read about the vote but not until i stood under the monument did i feel the essence of the Filipino heart

My travels have taught me many wonderful things, but the most important is to know the people. Immerse in the religious ceremonies, read the history and visit the historical monuments and play with the children. Then and only then will you know the hearts of the people you visit.