Candlelights flicker from every window and sometimes on the fences as they faintly brighten the unpaved dusty streets where people peacefully await the approaching procession called libut. The priest surrounded by religious elderly approaches leading a crowd of people praying fervently in unison and singing church hymns to the beat of drums and trumpets from the rear of the formation. As the procession passes by, some people on the street inconspicuously march in when they recognize friends among the scattered formation, or simply trail behind the statues that devout men carry on their shoulders. They walk for miles around the town, stopping momentarily at intersections where a ramada, a tall shed-like structure adorned with foods, stands. The crowd prays and continues on to its final destination - the church in the middle of the town built probably generations earlier.
That is the picture that I still can clearly visualize after 27 years of being gone - the scene during the Holy Week in the town where I grew up. The picture is still clear but some details have faded, perhaps the result of my long absence and my failure as a young adult to really understand the real significance of the rich religious tradition that occurs during the last week of Lent in Magsingal.
The Holy Week starts with liturgical services on Palm Sunday, which were so drawn out that sometimes people would doze off listening to the priest. I was one of them whenever Sister Remy or Sister Mary was not looking. The observance runs through Holy Saturday, but I personally consider Easter Sunday as the culmination of a religious period marked with solemn observances. Holy Week observance is a fulfillment of our religious obligation but for a young adult like me, it was more of a veiled youthful anticipation of the events that would take place - the nightly prayers at church, the libut, the ramadas, and the egg breaking competition we know as tinnuktok or sinniko - all good reasons for everyone to meet friends and hang out late.
I can vaguely recall of the nightly prayers at church, a good excuse for my friends and me to hang out late at the plaza playing ball on a poorly lighted basketball court or just waiting bashfully for some of our friends to come out of church and walk them to their homes. I also remember making a quick dash to Pagsanaan beach late one night with my friends. It was also one of these nights when I did not worry staying out late because many people were out on the streets walking from church. We all have heard of horror stories about apparitions or alleged ghosts appearances on places such as on the steps by the Banyan (Baliti) tree north of the church or by the bell tower along the highway, both of which were the main routes if you live in San Vicente like me. Not that I believe in evil spirits but I always felt creepy each time that I passed by those places at night. Needless to say, I never took those routes alone.
The ramadas were the main attractions in Magsingal during the Holy Week, and probably still are. These structures are very unique in that they only exist in our town (as far as I know). Volunteers built these structures using only raw materials and without the help of machines that we normally use today. Tall sturdy bamboos on four corners supported the roof structure, which I believe were covered only with coconut leaves. The top sections facing the streets displayed a religious image hand-painted by many talented folks like manong Carling (Mr. Battad), whom I watched each time he touched up his masterpiece.
What made the ramadas extraordinary was the display of foods that hanged from the ceiling. The exhibit included a variety of vegetables, pickled and fresh fruits and drinks; there were others that I can no longer remember. Some ramadas occasionally displayed unusual delicacies - a goat or a dog roasted from open fire, something that would have provoked protests and anger from other cultures, but made me drool smelling the aroma of a burnt crunchy skin. Aside from the display of foods, on one side of the ramada was an altar. Partitioned behind it was a section where older women can be heard wailing with a single tune of a guitar on the background. The musical background sometimes stopped when the guitarist paused to take a small sip from a glass next to a bottle of Ginebra San Miguel. I never understood a word that that these weeping women uttered except that I only felt the expression of sorrow from their wailing.
When I remember the libut, there are few images I still can recall - the statues and occasionally naughty kids, which brought levities to an otherwise somber occasion. Nothing amused me more than seeing the statue of St. Peter holding a rooster as if he were a seasoned soltador. The image depicts his role in the Bible as the one who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to portray him wearing a hat and holding a cane similar to that of the Pope's; after all, Peter was the first Pope. There was also a statue of an angel spearing the heck out of Lucifer and then of course, the saddest image of all - Christ lying dead in a glass coffin. Joining the libut was a great way to see and judge the best display among the ramadas, but sometimes it was a bit annoying to become a target of a mischievous person hiding behind a fence aiming a solbatana (a small bamboo blowpipe with plant seeds as bullets).
People headed down to church early on Easter Sunday to witness a re-enactment that we call Domingo Sabet. This is one of the occasions during the year when a few young men go to church sporting their newly tailored gabardine bellbottoms; faded blue jeans in later years. They woke up early to witness a re-enactment that I now have a difficulty remembering exactly what took place. However, I still have a faint picture of the flea market that took place in the afternoon on the open field by the church. This is where some men did what we call tinnuktok or sinniko, which was a competition to see who had the hardest egg - chicken egg, of course. The loser would give up his cracked egg to the winner. Winners have some secret in choosing a hard egg. Some claim that the first-laid egg is a good one. Others did some unconventional techniques to harden their eggs. I buried mine under rotten banana root and cow dung at one point to keep it cool. I'm not sure if there was any scientific explanation but I can only now guess that the cool moisture fills up the air bubbles inside the egg. I won maybe once or twice, but no one else wanted a greenish smelly egg after that. Playing with eggs on Easter Sunday represents a new life just like the resurrection of Jesus, but it also ended the festivities of the season.
These pictures are just now reminiscences but are more memorable than the 18-hour drive my family and I took from Heidelberg to Lourdes, France; the trip to the Vatican; or the occasional mad rush on the autobahn to Oberammergau, a sleepy hamlet nestled along the Bavarian Alps outside Munich that re-enacts the Passion of Christ once every ten years. The image of the Holy Week in Magsingal will always be more meaningful because of the tradition, the people I know, and my friends whom I grew up with. And, although I may not be able to go back to that time, I hope to relive the experiences by paying a visit to my beloved hometown someday.