Viva Pit Señor!

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As I stood in the baking sunshine with only a small circular fan to block out the rays of the sun and as sweat dripped uncomfortably out of every pore of my body, I felt completely unfazed as I stood transfixed at the colourful, exuberant sights of the marching bands and traditional dancers that paraded down the street. People of all ages, from many different islands of the Philippines, had turned up to show off their well choreographed, well costumed routines to the beat of the drum and the striking of the glockenspiel all in honour of an image of Jesus as an infant.

This is, of course, Cebu’s famous Sinulog festival: the annual celebration which marks the commemoration of Ferdinand Magellan bringing Christianity to the shores of the Philippines and the devotion to the image of the Child Jesus which was brought along with him 450 years ago. Filipino Catholics believe firmly in the miraculous nature of the image of the Santo Niño and will pray to it with their own personal intentions. Cries of “Viva Señor Santo Niño!” and “Pit Señor!” (a cry of help to the Sto Niño) can be heard on every street during the fiesta and it is unusual if you don’t carry a little (or sometimes big!) statue of the Child Jesus around with you for the duration of the feast.

Sailing at dawn.

Sailing at dawn: so many came out to see the Fluvial Procession; you can just make out the silhouettes of the crowds on the bridge.

A highlight of the weekend was the Fluvial Procession which took place the day before the Sinulog. Waking up at 3am (it hurt!) we took ourselves down to Pasil, one of the main communities Don Bosco work in, and joined the rest of the Salesian contingent for the boarding of one of three Don Bosco boats. Hundreds of boats in total, both big and small, took their place in the procession as they took sail along the coast of Cebu. Flags of red and yellow adorned the decks and musicians took to their drums to craft the unique beat of the festival soundtrack. We were led by the image of the Santo Niño (although a replica as the original is too fragile) for over three hours, finally returning to the port in Pasil at 8:30am.

During the boat ride, I truly saw the joy of the festival. People stood on the front-sections of their boat holding their Santo Niño high, dancing to the music as on-lookers from the shore watched on as the boats passed them. Crowds gathered along every bridge we passed and whole villages turned out to watch from the riverbank, where their homes stand precariously on the water’s edge. Having this Holy statue, which means so much to the people of Cebu, pass your home by boat must feel like a dream come true as there is no tall person, concrete pillar or obnoxious umbrella to block your view.

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Carrying a statue of the Santo Niño is a must throughout the whole of the Sinulog celebrations.

After alighting our boat, we joined the community in their gymnasium to watch the many groups from Pasil in their musical interpretations of the Sinulog story. The acts were being judged on their costumes, their choreography and their uniqueness. Joining the community for the Fluvial Procession and their dance competition, was a very special moment, as this authentic experience of Sinulog is not how I would experience it if I just arrived to Cebu as a regular tourist. Of course the performances were not as polished as those on the grand stage — I’m sure the budgets were far less, and the monetary prizes definitely were — however, the insight into a smaller version of the grander festival showed just how devoted the Cebuano citizens in the poorest barangays (a Filipino word for a village or local community) are to their faith and love of Jesus. In spite of the fact their performances were slightly rough-around-the-edges, there was great enthusiasm and devotion poured into their routines; real moments of jubilation and celebration!

Although the Papal Mass in Manila netted a crowd of 6 million, some 2.5 million still turned out to watch the street dancing on the streets of Cebu.

Although the Papal Mass in Manila netted a crowd of 6 million, some 2.5 million still turned out to watch the street dancing on the streets of Cebu.

The next day, the official day of the Sinulog, a truly captivating carnival atmosphere gripped the city. Everywhere you looked there were crowds: market vendors selling all-sorts of street food, festival-goers standing still whilst a henna tattoo is painted onto their body, children smiling as they received a helium balloon… all the while the official music of the festival was blasting out of every shop window, restaurant and home. We then joined the grand parade for an afternoon of street dancing where groups from all over the Philippines came to showcase their dancing and musical interpretations of the classic Sinulog routines.

Children dressed in colourful gowns and exotic headdresses danced their way down the 4-mile long parade route in the blazing sunshine. I found it difficult to stay standing at some points, so I have no idea how they felt under so many layers of make-up and sequins. Some wore more traditionally Filipino outfits: pretty dresses or formal Filipino shirts. One group decided to make all their outfits out of rice sacks and another decided simply to wear grey and yellow onesies. It was a feast for the eyes, and if it weren’t for the stifling heat and the busy crowds, I could have stayed there all day.

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The theme of this year’s festival was “Santo Niño: Hope of the People” and this hope for answered prayers and miracles, for Catholics in the Philippines, is the cornerstone of this celebration. Although I have to admit, even as a Catholic myself, this kind of worship left me feeling confused at times. In Europe, we are not so used to chanting Christ’s name in a way that sounds almost like we’re at a rally, nor are we in the habit of waving hello to statues. Yet, in a lot of ways, the diversity of the Catholic faith is what makes it so beautiful to me.

As I have learnt over the last five months, the culture and customs of this place are so radically different to what I am so used to and getting under the skin of the culture, and trying to discover the meaning and history behind practices, is so important in my own learning and personal growth. I can’t simply say, “This is stupid.” and walk away; I need to know more.

So, I guess, for Filipinos this representation of Christ has brought so much hope to the citizens of the Philippines for centuries. Whether you are rich or poor, there really is something for everyone and everybody has a chance to celebrate, party and be merry. It’s clear to see how happy this festival makes people, and infectious enthusiasm rubs off on all. And it is within this enthusiasm, I think, that people find their hope. A hope that once a year, in spite of tragedy after tragedy, there will always be an opportunity to praise God in a lively, dramatic and highly fabulous way. Perhaps this festival is just what people need after a year of typhoons, earthquakes and other such depressing matters. Sinulog gives a chance for people to celebrate the gift of life and offers people a hope, through Jesus (infant or otherwise), that all will be well.

Have you ever experienced a festival or carnival that still carries its religious history and significance into modern day? I’d love to hear about others’ experiences.

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Typhoon Ruby: Raging winds and an overnight community (Part 2)

Typhoon Ruby

As the winds swept in and the darkness somehow darkened, there were many thoughts that were flowing through my head that night. How were the people outside of the evacuation centre? What were my family back in the UK feeling? Was everything going to be okay? The stories of those who had been affected by Typhoon Haiyan were etched on my brain like dark scratchings and it left me wondering if we would be victims or survivors.

By around 10 pm on the night of Saturday, December 6th, 2014, the winds of Typhoon Ruby blustered their way into our communities, finally making landfall in Eastern Samar, the place I had called home for the three months prior to this monumental moment. We had been worried for the whole week what was going to happen, and where the storm would land and a town named Delores, some 70 km away from Borongan City, eventually revealed itself to be the target of Ruby.

The storm was made worse by the fact that it happened overnight. Having no electricity, and only one emergency light bulb to light up our small office room in the evacuation centre, it was easy to build up exaggerated pictures of what was happening outside. I remember re-assuring a friend that the sounds we were hearing weren’t waves or floods, but the sound of the heavy rain hitting the walls of the building sounding worse only because of the extreme winds. Every so often there would be a deafening bang: the sound of a tree being uprooted or a roof blown off a house, but what was going through the minds of all of us was (hopefully) far worse than the reality.

Sustained winds of up to 130 mph and gusts of up to 180 mph thrashed the land that I had come to love and the heavy rain and rising tide threatened the coastal places (such as the house in which we lived) with a serious risk of flooding. There was so much to think about, so many people to pray for, and so much to hope. Yet, for what turned out to be around six hours of extreme winds, what happened inside the room turned out to be far more powerful than what was happening outside.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My "spot" was by the pillow just below the plywood.

The room where around 50 of us lay overnight. My “spot” was by the pillow just below the plywood.

At the start of the evening, our room began with only around ten of us inside. We had pillows for the ground, and torches to see each other with; before the winds it was like we were camping – we told jokes, shared biscuits and chatted about Taylor Swift. However, once the storm took hold, we soon discovered that our spot was prime real estate because the winds of Typhoon Ruby were approaching from the west and our room had no westerly facing windows. So whilst the other classrooms and offices were becoming wet and hazardous as window panes were blowing in, our room (sheltered by a toilet on the other side of our westerly facing wall) stayed relatively dry and safe.

As the hours slowly and painfully passed, people began to gravitate towards our room. When the storm was at its worst, there were probably around 50 of us tightly squished together like the tinned sardines I had been so used to eating in the mornings. After several decades of the rosary, the noise and the bustle of the inside of the room began to quieten. Of course it was impossible to sleep because of the noise outside, but somehow a peace descended on the room and whilst we all were carried away with our own thoughts, there was a silent connection, a silent support, between all of us together.

For those hours, we became a community. It no longer mattered where we were from, or what our culture was, how old we were or what our first language was. We spent the night shifting our bodies so that the next person could take their turn to be comfortable, moving like our own complex weather system spread out on the floor of the middle office. There was an old lady of a considerable age, and a young baby who was barely 18 months old. Faces I recognised, those of my friends, and faces I didn’t.

And in the deepest moments of Typhoon Hagupit I felt strong. Strong, not just because of the optimism and prayer of those around me, but strong because we shared in that moment together. If I witnessed before the typhoon a raw emotion seen in the eyes of families for their children, I now experienced a different kind of emotion that oozed out of all of us, an emotion that expressed itself, definitely in fear and vulnerability, but also in confidence and solidarity. A feeling that we wouldn’t just get through this because we were with our individual families, friends and colleagues, but that we would get through this because all of us were family together.

As the winds began to subside, many began to drift off to catch a moment’s sleep before sunrise. I probably managed an hour or two. When I woke up, people had begun to move back outside to see the damage that had been caused and although the winds were still howling through the gaps in the building, it was no longer dangerous to go outside. As expected, most of the landscape and agriculture of the village surrounding us had been flattened. I saw buildings that I had never seen before because they were previously obscured by trees.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

The office which was destroyed after winds blew unexpectedly from the west. The door of the office, which blew off its hinges, lies on the ground.

None of us were sure what had happened farther than what our eyes could see and in a lot of ways, I could never have been prepared for what I was to see in the following hours and days. But one thing that was not destroyed throughout the destructive typhoon, was the spirit and faith of the people I had shared one of the most memorable nights of my life with. We bonded in ways I had never expected, and whilst it’s probably true I will never see or meet 95% of the people I shared that room with again in my life, I won’t ever forget what they did for me and for each other. It was truly a moving and special experience amidst the terror and anxiety of what could have been a night a lot more terrifying if we had been alone.

This is the second part of my Typhoon Ruby story. You can catch up with part one by clicking here and you can find out what happened next by following this link.

Typhoon Ruby: A week of waiting (Part 1)

“Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” was a common question I was asked in the first week of December at the end of last year. Living in the United Kingdom affords us an amnesty when in comes to extreme weather systems and people were shocked when I explained that there are no typhoons, no tsunamis nor any major earthquakes within the British Isles.

News of an approaching typhoon heading towards Eastern Samar had begun filtering out in the media from Monday, December 1st and in spite of the fact that most people living in Samar have experienced many, many typhoons in the past people were a little anxious about Typhoon Ruby (internationally known as ‘Hagupit’) heading our way.

Following the national news the morning we evacuated - headline reads, "Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby"

Following the national news the morning we evacuated – headline reads, “Borongan Residents Brace For Ruby”

At first I was a little frustrated by this. The little I know about mathematical weather forecasting (not much, I used to snooze in my stochastic modelling classes) is enough to know that medium to long-term weather forecasts aren’t always reliable. We were speculating on a weather system that was almost a week away and the news was even reporting there was a possibility it could veer off entirely and head towards Japan. But the more I spent reflecting on this the more I began to understand that everywhere and everyone was still recovering after Typhoon Yolanda (‘Haiyan’) which completely devastated the country at the end of 2013.

And so I learnt my first lesson of the Typhoon. In order for me to appreciate the circumstances of the people I was surrounded by, I had to forget about what I had learnt at university, leave behind my own arrogance and walk together on the path of those around me. Although I never once felt I knew better than those who had faced storms before, I felt like people were overreacting. But after at least 6,000 were killed during Yolanda, could I really blame anybody for wanting to take this possible storm seriously?

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

Boarding up the windows at the Training Centre

As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and Wednesday into Thursday the news reports began to become more concrete. It was now out of the question it would head towards Japan; Borongan City looked like a good shout to be the place the storm would first make landfall. I had begun to feel scared. It had already been decided after Yolanda that in the event of another typhoon, our training centre would be used as an evacuation base. So we went that afternoon to board up some windows, prune the trees and prepare the place where I normally teach maths to turn it into a place where who-knows-how-many people would take refuge and shelter.

On Friday morning the storm had become stronger, it was slowing down to a snail’s pace (only moving around 7 mph) and was heading straight for Eastern Samar. By that afternoon, I had packed up all my things, moved them upstairs in case of flooding, and we evacuated from our home. In the beginning there were around 300 people there: men, women, children, religious, and of course one volunteer from a small British seaside town named Whitley Bay. More and more people joined us and by the time the storm was due to hit there were around 500 people sheltering in the classrooms, offices and workshops of Don Bosco Training Centre. We even had some furry friends keep us company as some brought dogs, cats, chickens and even their piglets (protecting their livelihoods at all costs!) to shelter from the rain and winds that were approaching.

All packed - preparing to leave!

All packed – preparing to leave!

I was officially an evacuee along with so many others and over the course of the proceeding 24 hours, the same question kept coming up, “Is this your first experience of a typhoon?” Of course I answered with a firm “Yes” followed by an addendum of “…and I’m feeling a little nervous”. What took me most by surprise, however, was just how many were admitting to me that it was actually their first time to evacuate during a storm, explaining that normally everybody just sits at home waiting for the winds to pass. But once again, because of the previous mistakes of those who did not survive Typhoon Yolanda, people were keen not to commit the same ones themselves heeding all warnings to evacuate. I had to admire the humility of those who had been staying in less-than-secure homes during typhoons for decades and all of a sudden listening to advice to evacuate. Perhaps we had all learned a similar lesson throughout all of this.

As I looked around the centre on that Friday night (the night before the storm finally hit) all I could see was an increased sense of vulnerability in all who were there. I recognised a real raw emotion, a kind of survival instinct, that I had never witnessed in people before. All around me mothers were tending to their children and grandparents were sorting out the food for the family. Kids ran around playing, not appreciating what was coming, whilst onlooking parents smiled as the innocence of their children provided light relief for all those who were feeling a bit anxious (myself included).

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Waiting.

It was a week of waiting. For six days nobody know how this storm would pan out. Would it be as strong as the news was reporting? Or were the media outlets also being overcautious about their interpretation of the forecasts? With each passing day, I became more worried especially when I was left alone at night with just my thoughts and dreams swirling inside my head. Yet, by the time we evacuated I received a gift that made a lot of this worry disappear.

In spite of the obvious restlessness that swept through the evacuation centre on that dark December evening, people were still very confident about what was to come, and I was massively inspired by that. People would have had every right to roll their eyes at my fear and trepidation; after all, my house, my family and friends, my livelihood weren’t the ones at risk. Everyone and everything I know and love is sitting firmly over 6,000 miles away. Yet people whose homes and livelihoods were in danger still took the time and effort to comfort and re-assure me that all will be well. And in those moments, in the moments that I felt so vulnerable and so sensitive, I felt cared for. It was a gift. And it made me feel strong.

My Typhoon Ruby story is made up of three parts: this one, part two and part three. Thanks for reading!