Pakil / Kalayaan, Laguna, the Philippines
June 26, 2010
Filipinos had a penchant for turning piety into a party. Just as the sight of Filipinos mugging for the TV cameras during a natural calamity, it was not surprising how a supposedly solemn celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows had turned into an annual street-dancing extravaganza called Turumba. I had not seen the festivities first hand, but I could very well imagine the glistening costumes and borderline sacrilegious gyrations. Catholicism in the Philippines was not all penance, it sometimes lapsed into a street party.
My friend Meister, a budding church historian, told us the tale that led to the Turumba festival in the town of Pakil. In 1788, during the Christianization of the islands, heavy tropical winds rocked a boat carrying Spanish missionaries traversing Laguna de Bay, the largest lake in the country. A small oil painting of Mary fell overboard and was eventually fished out by local fishermen. Some women found it abandoned by the shore but could not lift it; soon the whole parish showed up and the priest carried it to the church. People started chanting joyously and flailing themselves to the ground – viola, the first ever Turumba.
Today, the original painting was on display in an adoration chapel in the convent of San Pedro de Alcantara Church in Pakil. It was surprisingly tiny – small enough to completely press on one’s bosom. It was dwarfed by the retable that contained it. But the imagery was striking. It showed Mary, the mother of the crucified Christ, stabbed at the heart with a dagger (which, I gathered, is the sword of sorrow), her eyeballs upturned in profound agony. How this severe image compelled the parishioners into a festive frenzy was beyond me, but perhaps they celebrated its miraculous waterproofing – it was dry and untarnished despite its stint as flotsam.
A carved image of Mary, reverently called Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, was enshrined in the church and taken out on a procession during the festival. This Marian statue was a fashion plate, the Evita of religious icons. Its wardrobe consisted of about 300 embellished gowns, some of which had turned a convent corridor into a walk-in closet.
The church and convent were well-maintained, considering how these things usually went in this country. Top-notch artistry and legendary anecdotes made the bas-reliefs, niches, wooden statues, and paintings memorable and meaningful. I attributed this eye-opening appreciation that transcended mere aesthetics to Meister, who painstakingly explained the artistic merits and narrated the stories and histories of each piece of religious art.
The revelry of Turumba extended beyond its festival dates. Every day was Turumba day at the Turumba Pool a few steps behind the church. The spring water was said to be curative. I didn’t expect an entrance fee (minimal though), tiled pools (there were two) and, gasp, tropical-themed thatched cabanas. All that was missing was a welcome piña colada! I had imagined it to be a small pond or a peaceful healing spa for the sick. But more shocking was the raucous resort vibe among the swimming crowd: kids diving, adults having riotous fun. A young man was even soaping himself! Indeed, nothing could dampen the spirit of Turumba. If I missed the festival, I caught a glimpse of its spirit here.
Over at the next town, Kalayaan, we found ourselves in a more meditative milieu, relishing a bird’s-eye view from the campanile windows of another colonial-era Catholic church. The view revealed all shades of tropical green: chartreuse rice paddies laid out like puzzle pieces dotted by dark-green groves of coconut and palm, the bucolic panorama framed by the aqua blue of Laguna de Bay and forest green of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Only the galvanized iron sheets used as roofing materials, inexpensive but unsightly, vitiated the verdant view.
Scaling up the belfry of San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) Church in barrio Longos was actually a crazy idea. It was a scene straight out of Vertigo, claustrophobia with acrophobia in one experience. But Stewart and Novak had the luxury of racing up the bell tower; we had to claw up in pitch-darkness, Sadako-style. The amount of dust alone told us no one had made it a habit to go up the tower in a long time. The circumference was not politically correct. Plus-sizes, mind your midsections and make this mental note: Winnie the Pooh stuck in Rabbit’s front door.
That was just the bottom third of the bell tower. There were three levels like the levels of purgatory. The second flight of winding stairs was a notch more precarious. Four horizontal metal bars made up a step; rung spaces were wide enough to send your leg a-dangling should you slip. Like a game show task, the last stretch was the clincher: an ancient-looking wooden ladder with either missing or creaky rungs – and look ma, no railings!
Once up, looking down could be Hitchcockian: your vision could zoom in and track out with a sensation I called a faux fall. Cue in swelling orchestral music in your head and you’d have an actual vertigo. The belfry was no larger than a parking space, almost wholly taken up by the humongous bell. We had to gingerly move around the bell on unstable plywood planks in slow-mo.
The aforementioned view was fantastic, but was the bell worth all the trouble? Suffice it to say that it was the third (other sources say second) oldest church bell in the Philippines. The Longos bell was cast in 1642 but was still formidably in one piece, and surprisingly green. I asked Meister to ring it – just softly so as not to alarm the entire barrio. Seeing an object from history up close and personal felt as if I had gone through a wormhole of time, but hearing a sound that reverberated through the centuries rendered the moment timeless.
Our guide was an altar boy with a cherub’s face. He was quite knowledgeable, dropping tidbits of information about the church and seasoning it with celebrity dish (he outed a famous child actor who filmed scenes of a primetime soap in the church).
Despite having a historic bell, this church was one of the poorest in the province – and it wore its poverty on its sleeve. Time and natural calamities had not treated it gently; its roof was blown away by a strong typhoon. A temporary roof (galvanized iron sheets, of course) had been in place too long it seemed permanent. Other parts were crumbling, blanketed by dust, and strewn with trash. Ongoing repairs had been protracted it looked abandoned midway through its renovation.
Still and all, it was a charming church set in front of ruined terraces that ascended to a stone grotto. Insulated from the bustle of the town plaza where most churches were, the Longos church offered some peace and quiet associated with off-the-beaten-track chapels. Even its canine parishioner couldn’t resist dozing off by the main portal, oblivious to the inquisitive and camera-toting visitors.
We capped the day with a wonderful dinner at Exotik Restaurant, also in Longos. The menu delivered what the name implied: exotic food, such as frog, snail, eel, snake, and shark. I was too exhausted to be gustatorily adventurous so I went kosher and had regular Filipino cuisine, nothing too fancy like a salamander. Whether or not you had the palate for their specialties, this restaurant should be a de rigueur stop in any trip to Laguna. The owner also kept a humongous pet anaconda in the premises. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on where your taste lay in the exotic scale), you could not order it Chinese-restaurant style.
In this short visit to these two towns, I came away with an insight on our Filipino-ness: our penchant for pageantry and the coldness of our complacence. I realized that that facetious exuberance, the irrepressible and sometimes irreverent expression of joy, was intrinsically Filipino. Regardless of religious affiliation, we could totally dig the piety in a paean without contradiction. Conversely, this carefree attitude could easily be given to an insidious disregard for things already possessed in the face of lack. Our collectivist spirit could easily fall through the cracks and get entangled in the cobwebs of our forgotten historical treasures. If only all Filipinos could hear that bell tolling through our history, we would wake up to embrace and value our heritage. That would be one more reason to take to the streets in over-the-top costume and choreography.