January 9th is an auspicious day. It is the birthday for many well
known people: Richard Nixon, Gypsy Rose Lee, Pope Gregory XV, Joan
Baez, and some guy named Paul working in Manila...it also happens to be
the day that they have a procession of the Blackened Nazarene which is
housed in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila,
Black Nazarene is actually a misnomer. The more proper term would be
�Blackened Nazarene�. This particular statue suffered from a fire on
board the ship from Mexico that sailed in the 1600's. He was singed
and charred, but they went on and he arrived to lie in Quiapo. Every
year they bring the statue out on a float and it travels through the
city street for about 9 hours. People come from far and wide to be a
part of it, whether to stand and watch the passing of the statue, or to
throw a towel at the statue and have one of the watchers rub it on the
statue for good luck (it is said to have curative powers), or to
participate and carry the rope or push the cart.
I decided that I wanted to take part in this procession, as I only live
once, it happens only here, and ...the Jeepney Journal needed a story.
Quiapo is a part of Manila that is filled with the hustle and bustle of
the daily market, with stalls all around, and sidewalk stalls which are
not exactly legal, but people have to work, and it seems to benefit
most people (although later in this story you will see that I don't
always agree with this...) There are Chinese, Moslems, Catholics all
around, living in perfect harmony.
My main guide was Libret, the brother of the pastor of St. Joseph The
Worker Parish in Palanan. You may recall reference to him in the
Easter story of months past. As we were leaving the church, one of the
church ladies said, "Hey, what's that in your pocket? Is that your
celphone?" I replied that it was my camera and my celphone. She was
giving me a body check to make sure I had nothing on me. Libret
assured her that we would deposit it with his friend before we entered
the fray. We took a short walk to the train station. We got on the
LRT at Carriendo.
The scene reminded me of Warriors where all the gangs of New York were
going to a big council meeting to take over New York borough by
borough. All around us were barefooted men in red shirts with pictures
of the Nazarene on them. Some looked as though they came straight from
the province, and others were wearing their �colors� identifying them
from various chapters of devotees of the Blackened Nazarene. Libret
never stopped his eyes from surveiling the crowd making sure no one was
going to accost me. Accosting passengers is normal, but the police
seemed to have a good control on this day. There were at least two
policemen at each station, and many in Quiapo itself.
We stopped at his friend's rented market stall, where she sells an
amazing array of products at reasonable prices. There we met Endering,
one of the church lay workers and members of his family, a couple of
whom (Kokoy and Alex) accompanied us. We were a team of five. We sat
around and talked about nothing. We heard a commotion nearby and
ignoring all conventional security wisdom we went to look. It was a
group of blind musicians playing for money. There were all sorts of
people in the crowd, from businessmen to lady vendors grooming their
children�s hair. They sang many folk songs, but when someone asked
them to play Mr. Suave, they declined.
Libret had cautioned me the day before on how to dress and carry
myself: I should be barefoot (to be discussed after), and be without
jewelry of any type. So if I wanted to do this, I would have to take
off my wedding ring (first time is 13 years...), and take off my watch
and shoes. Okay, I can live with that. I was cautioned not to take my
wallet or celphone either. I did not realize that crime was so bad, but
this was not the reason. We met at the church the eve of this day and
he gave me more information and guidance: "When they say OCHO, that
means the rope is moving so hold it loosely and get the slack out of
it, and if you want to leave the line just say PALIT or IKAW NAMAN, and
someone takes you place. To get out of the rush of people you say PASO,
and people will open the path much like Moses and the Red Seas and help
you get through. If you are able to get on the float, and then want to
get down, you say PABABA AKO and the people will catch you and help you
to the ground much (like they do at rock
concerts when you do The Dive...)"
We had some water and then got on our merry way after I sent a few
final messages and deposited my celphone with his friend. It was as
short walk to the Basilica, but it was a long walk as well. I had
watched the news at 5:30AM and already there were estimates of 5,000
There were cameramen all around, a grandstand for celebrities and VIPs
and thousands... THOUSANDS...of people, many in red or white shirts.
Red is for whatever reason the color of this event. White is also
good. People were milling around the area in front of the Basilica
waiting for 2:00 to arrive, that magical hour which was not too hot and
not anything else that I could see. The crowd did NOT grow restless.
The enormity of the crowd is difficult to describe. Best seen on TV to
understand. More people than at Easter Mass in Vatican City. Imagine
the last concert of the Rolling Stones at Rizal Stadium, and free
admission... there were that many people there. If you were to faint,
it would have been impossible to fall.
When we moved about, it was as you see blind people walk, or UFC
fighters on their way to the ring, with your hands on the one in front
of you, so you don't get lost. It would have been easy to lose them,
but not me. I was the only forenger there...We moved around, and the
crowd seemed delighted to see a non-Pinoy there. Every so often Libret
would shout out �Hey, let us pass, we have an import with us, he is
going to pull the float.� The crowd loved that. They cheered us on,
and made way for us.
Finally the hour had arrived and the doors opened amid a lively cheer
and people clapping and waving their towels. Personally, I grabbed two
from home (Sorry, Gigi), and bought another two there. These were
OFFICIAL FEAST OF THE BLACK NAZARENE COMMEMORATIVE TOWELS at only 20P
each...a bargain at twice the price. They were safely tucked away in
my pockets, around my neck and on my back. Remembering my desert days,
I had worn a tee shirt to help keep me cool. Libret gave me a birthday
present and it was most apt: a red Nazarene shirt that I eventually put
on over my tee shirt. We watched the float come out, and then we took
a shortcut to the place we would use to join The Rope...
Libret and his friends gave me last minute advice on how to hold the
rope, how to turn my head, where to place my hand, and how to place my
legs. All confusing and of course I promptly forgot it all. The
procession looks like this: two long ropes about two inches thick each
and I guess 150 feet long. There are two rows of people between the
ropes and the two rows of rope holders. For something so chaotic as
50-100,000 people in this small area, there was so much order in the
activities. As the procession proceeded (it did not move all the time;
when it did, the crowd roared) the ropeholders swayed back and forth.
It seemed as though they were enraptured. When they swayed too far,
pushers pushed them back into place reminiscent of those people pushers
in Japan whose job is literally to stuff passengers into the bullet
trains. We walked alongside waiting our turn. It took a while to get
close enough to join in. Again, it was literally a wall of people.
You had to push your way up to the ropeholders.
I could never figure out what the signal was but they often cried
�OCHO�, since one line of people would move as a different rate, and
there would be extra slack in the rope. That signal meant that you
should let go of the rope, but stay in formation, since the people
inside the rope would pull the slack out and give it back to you. You
should never hold the rope too tightly or you might lose a hand!
We were alongside the ropeholders and someone said, "Ooo. Isang malake
dito!" ("Hey, got room for a big guy here!"), so my friends pushed me
into it, and I grabbed the rope, and held on for dear life. I looked
to the left, and the guys inside the rope said, "Look the other way",
and I turned by head the other way, and someone helped by positioning
my head in the correct direction. I didn't have my hand correctly on
the shoulder of the guy in front of me, and someone quickly corrected
It is difficult to describe the sense in that line. It was a bit
stifling (now I know why they had asked if I have a strong chest...) It
was worse than Standing Room Only, it was Pancake City. We were closer
than sardines! We were literally jam packed on that line. There was
no room between me and the guy in front or the guy in back. If I had
fainted, I would have fainted in place and stayed there. I think I saw
a couple of guys life that. You will see in the pictures...
Libret got in behind me and guided me more. He reminded me "Spread
your feet" so I had balance. And we stayed in the line for about 10
minutes, or it might have been only two minutes and seemed like ten.
It was an experience. When we got out of line, there were not only
people to replace us, but people to help guide us when we got out of
the rope line and into the crowd. When the line was moving it was
dangerous. If someone had fallen, then he would meet the Creator a
little quicker than most. It would not have been possible to save him.
Now I know how they felt at Walmart clamoring for those DVD players...
One thing I was concerned about when we went there was how people would
feel about a forenger in their midst, and saying, "Who are you and what
right do you have barging in on our ceremony?" There was none of that.
In fact there was the opposite. People cheering me on and coaxing me
with words of encouragement, and making sure I was all right. They
were more concerned with my comfort and safety than my intrusion. To
them, it was no intrusion, but a sense of brotherhood in this religious
gathering. If I screwed up (I did several times), they did not yell at
me and say "pu... freakin� Americans can't do anything right, always
thinking they know everything", but rather "Here, do it like this...are
you okay?" Filipino hospitality has no equal.
You remember that I mentioned that I was admonished not to bring my
celphone, and they did not really like the idea of my camera. Had I
had that camera in my pocket, it would either have caused great pain to
me the person in front of me since we were pressed together so tightly
that a hard object would leave a bruise. I thought that that was a
wise idea and glad that I had no the camera but at the same time sad
that I would not have any pictures to commemorate the event. All the
pictures would be in my head.
Once we were all out safely, we walked back like the blind being lead
and stopped along the way and got some boiled corn and some water. I
had brought some energy bars with me, but apparently the Filipino
palate has not lowered itself enough to eat them...they are grainy and
with not much taste. Plus not the easiest thing to chew. Libret asked
me if I liked it. My thoughts were "Yeah, like my Peace Corps
experience and my evacuation out of Rwanda: glad I did it, but not sure
I want ever to do it again..." but I belayed that thought and said,
"Yeah, it was great!" He said, I am glad you liked it...we will rest
and do it again!" I was smiling only on the outside...
We rested and I sent out a few text messages to friends and said we had
done it; it was an amazing experience, etc. Then it was time to do it
again. This time I brought my camera. As the whole day was a
sacrifice, I figured the pain on my leg or the other guys as the camera
left its searing bruises on us would be just another sacrifice...
We walked around and found our place (just somewhere not sure how it
was picked) and stood for a while watching the crowds. The procession
had not yet reached us, but there were other floats of the Black
Nazarene and a few of Mother Mary, and the Infant Jesus of Prague. We
watched as people threw towels shirts and other cloth to the minders of
these statues on their floats. The minders would rub the statues with
these items and throw them back to the people. It is said that these
will bring good luck and miracle cures. Amazingly they did this even
as the procession was moving, and it seemed that everyone got their
towels back. It was a time of merriment for us all.
I took a few pictures here and there, and Libret cautioned me to save
pictures as I only had 27 shots. I tried to heed him, I really did.
As we prepared to get back on The Rope, I gave Libret my camera and
showed him how to shoot it. I waited my turn in line, and pushed my
way in there, and Alex got behind me. As I mentioned before, I screwed
it up, and this time was only slightly different. I got the head
right, but not the hand. People kept changing the position and again
asking me if I was okay. Libret was able to snap a few photos of us,
and I think that I got one of him.
This time it was a bit easier holding on and pulling. It seemed a
little better coordinated, and we moved quite a bit. Sometimes the
crush of people would prevent us from moving, but once we got started
and moved wither two feet or fifty, the crowd roared. Mind you the
crowd was lined up all over Quiapo to see this, so it was a good thing
they had re-routed traffic all over the city. There was even a "no
parking" ordinance that was enforced. Every bit of space was needed
for the procession. After a bit we all got out of the line and
proceeded further into Quiapo.
We ended up meeting Benjie at a little hole in the wall called Juan
dela Cruz� Special Balut and Suka Joint. Balut is that fertilized duck
egg hardboiled that Filipinos are so fond of that many others find a
bit...disagreeable. It brought many a person down at one of the Fear
Factor shows... Suka is vinegar that you use to season the balut...Hmm
what on Earth can you add to improve that taste? I had always avoided
balut after having a disagreeable experience once before with it, but I
figured When in Rome... I told them I would try it. It seems that
someone else had already told them that I did not want to try it, so
they would not let me...imagine...someone being talked out of eating a
balut, by a Filipino! So I settled for penoy, which is a duck egg
cooked in soup. Not sure how they make it, but it was okay. I got up
to pull out some money to pay for it all, and be a good guest, but
Libret shot me down yet again. He told me it was all right, he would
cover it. Wow! There goes that Pinoy hospitality we hear so much
about. Actually it was concern for my safety that prompted this. He
did not want others to see this forenger pulling money out. It would
just make me a target. I promised myself to settle up at the end of
We walked around a bit more and waited in one area and let the food
settle. We chatted a bit, but did not talk a whole lot. People looked
at me but did not stare at me, per se. Once they looked at me with my
pale skin, rather than think "Great, another tourist turning hippie in
out midst", they immediately looked down, then smiled and congratulated
me. I had passed the test! Why????? Because my feet were black. Not
pieds-noirs like the Algerian French, but black from the dirt and mud
and scum on the street that had been planted on top of my feet from the
man in front of me on the rope line. No, I was no dilettante, but a
For our third time at the rope, we wandered somewhere and just joined
in when a space opened up. And it was hard. Everyone wanted to do it.
It�s not like you can go up to someone and say "Hey, you been on the
line for an hour, give someone else a chance", because some of these
people are devotees of the Black Nazarene, so it would be sacrilegious
to do so. We got near by helping push the swaying ropeholders, who at
times seemed as though they were in trances. The people who were
between the ropes were amazing. They stayed there the whole day, and
they were constantly looking left and right, giving direction to
everyone on the line.
We got back in and were able to make great progress, perhaps 200 yards.
That does not seem like a lot, but you try it: stand like paper in a
ream of copy paper, and try to walk any distance barefoot, while
holding a rope on your shoulder and pushing on the shoulder blade of
the person in front of you, with your head to the right. I remember
watching the people as they looked at us: they were looks of
incredulity, awe, jealousy, and wonder. They were all smiling and
giving words of encouragement to us. It was strange to see a forenger
there but they took it in stride. That made me feel good. As I carried
the rope, I got a slight rope burn. Got my red badge of courage.
Another reason to call me a Redneck! I was not too worried for a few
reasons. The big red mark would be gone in a few days, and the skin did
not break, so I did not have to worry about infection from all the
sweat and germs on that rope. Besides it would be a holy infection and
probably heal by itself. Reminds me of that scene in Lawrence of Arabia
(I think) when the guy's leg gets infected and he wraps it in pages
from the Koran. Except that he ends up getting his leg amputated.
Libret had told me to make sure when I was in the line to pray and that
it would come true. The first two times I was so overtaken by awe that
I forgot to pray. Maybe that was why I decided to do it the third
time. I did remember to pray this time. Someone asked me what I
prayed for, and I told them that prayers are like confession, between
that person and God, but I assured her I had prayed for people that
I had all my towels ready to be rubbed, and kept asking Libret when we
would do this. He ignored my impatience, but responded each time
"Later.� I wanted to make sure that I did it, since I had promised
people that I would bring them towels that had been rubbed on the
statue. He finally said, "Okay, let's do it here", and as we approached
a Black Nazarene float we tossed out towels up to the minders and they
rubbed them and threw them back to us. I am not really sure what
someone would want with a towel that even though it had been rubbed on
the statue, was also covered with my sweat, and the sweat of others.
Ours is not to question why, but to follow.
We found a place to wait and to regroup; Endi and Alex and Nonoy had
separated from us after lunch somehow. We were in front of the Minor
Basilica of Saint Sebastian. We just sat around (the only time during
the day we took a break) and watched the crowds. People selling
candles, pancit, gulaman, lumpia, balut, etc. It seemed like the float
was late. But no one was too concerned. Except I who remembered the
sign at the LRT "Ticket sales stop at 9:02 PM" (why 9:02 and not 9:03
am not at all sure...) About 6:30 PM, word went out that there was a
problem: the float had broken a wheel and they were making a detour.
People were concerned because the procession always makes the same
route. I secretly questioned how it happened that a wheel had never
Others were upset because (horror!!!), the route had been changed. This
never happens, and besides, people were upset that they might have
waited in vain. We were walking here and there since each time the
story had changed. Finally it was decided that the route would remain
the same, and that made everyone happy. We returned to San Sebastian
and waited. It showed up, and we got in place to participate one last
time. It took a while to get up there since the end was near and there
were still many people who wanted to do it, more out of curiosity I
think than devotion.
We got it, and it went pretty smoothly, but it was more dangerous now
as it was dark. We went quite a ways with it, and then Libret said
let's get out now, and we said "PASO!" and people cleared a path for
us. He explained that we were coming to the bridge of one of the rivers
in Quiapo, and it is very dangerous going down the bridge because it
takes much coordination, and nimble feet to do it without injury.
Gravity works against the crush of devotees at this point, making the
float race towards them sometimes faster than they can pull it. Libret,
ever concerned for my safety. As we walked by the procession (it was
not moving too much) I noticed some women in the procession and I asked
him about it, since everything I read had mentioned interdictions of
women joining. He said again that it was a concern for safety and
comfort. A woman in that crush of people might get bruised and hurt
more easily because of her general physique The word �groping� came to
mind. In fact, as we walked by some other women who had pulled the
rope, he told me they were complaining that their chests hurt terrible.
As we waited for the float to catch up to us, I found another towel
vendor and bought a couple of more towels: you can never have too many
miracle-ready towels lying around. As the float got to us, I tossed
them up and got them blessed. At this point, the float had stopped. The
broken wheel was causing a difficult journey, so people had to push the
float itself. We volunteered to get up to the float, and we were
buttressed against the rear corners of the float and we pushed it
along. It was slow going and much more difficult given the fact that it
was not possible to spread our legs and balance, nor was it easy to get
a purchase. Believe it or not, was contemplating the use of the word
�purchase�, and how no one uses it anymore for "grip", but I did just
there. Amazing the things you think about when you are pushing an icon
down the street.
I took advantage of my proximity and tossed up all the towels to get
blessed. I figured more blessings by more icons could not do any
harm�triple-blessed??? After a few more minutes of progress we
abandoned the push, and others quickly joined to take our place. We
felt it only fair since we had been on the procession five times
already and the people here had not yet had the chance.
We neared the church, but never met up with our friends. We got close
so we could be in position to enter the church with the Black Nazarene.
We got there and waited...and waited...and waited. We were again jammed
like sardines, but people were peaceful. No one complained about the
heat, the odor or the difficult conditions...we must remember that
taking part is considered a holy sacrifice.
When some of the different "chapters" of the Black Nazarene showed up
with their banners (much like the Romans going to war), they began to
bang on the doors so the church would open up. Mind you the church was
already full, so it would not be able to hold many more. After about an
hour, the fireworks started, and we could feel that the icon was
approaching. Finally the doors opened and we rushed in. Actually we
moved as one into the church could sense that I did not even have to
move; I could have just lifted my feet and I would have been carried
into the church we were packed so tightly.
We waited a few minutes and made sure that the icon got back into the
church, and we departed, back to our friends' stall. On our way it was
slow going, and the reason showed itself quickly. A couple of people
had set up tables of towels and candles for those who wished to get
towels or burn candles...great! Just what we need: burning candles,
flammable materials and a crowd of 50,000 people...where is the logic
in that? Again, as we were walking home the street vendors with their
tables on the sidewalk made it impossible to go any more quickly than a
Endering's family was waiting there with a bag, and gave it to me. I
took it gracefully and planned to take it home and open it, as
Filipinos do, never opening up a gift in front of the givers. They
said Happy Birthday and looked at me and the bag. It was evident that I
could no longer play Filipino and take the unopened gift home; I would
have to open it then and there. As I did tears almost welled up in my
eyes. It was a mug with an inscription to me wishing me a successful
birthday and Nazarene Procession. How touching! All of a sudden a
vendor of (what I am sure are) legitimate music CDs played the Happy
Birthday song, and everyone around began to sing happy birthday. No one
outside of our small circle knew me from Adam's cat, but they looked at
my feet, saw my black badge of courage and cheered and sang.
On the way home, I had time to reflect on this day: everyone was there
in a spirit of fraternity with a single goal of reverence and
adoration. People were all around happy, congratulatory, intrigued, and
amazed that I took part, and they all encouraged me rather than
discouraged me. Maybe I have grown too cynical and always expect less
and am (pleasantly) surprised when things turn out nicely. I had a
great time, participating in not only a cultural event, but also a
religious pilgrimage if you will. Someone asked me later if I "felt"
anything, if I was at ever in a state of rapture� I did feel something,
but only time will tell�
Body count: Aching feet, torn toe-nail, sore legs, sore arms, rope
burn, sore chest�not bad�Can�t wait till next time!!!!
Pictures are at this shutterfly website:
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