Saints and Cheeses in the Philippines by Tom Sykes

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In 2010, I moved to the Philippines to work as a journalist, taking my then partner Donna and four-year-old stepdaughter Daisy. Our first day went a little something like this…

 

When I was booking a room online at Sir William’s Hotel, I thought the name had a Vegas ring to it. I imagined a mock castle staffed by buxom Nevada wenches and page boys with perfect teeth. But the moment we arrived, that expectation vanished. On the reception was an axe lodged in the head of a zombie. Daisy burst into tears when she saw it. I’d have burst into tears too if the thing hadn’t been a plastic Hallowe’en decoration.

 

We checked in and headed for our room. The rest of the hotel kept up the spooky theme, though not intentionally. The corridors had big black stains on the wallpaper, creaking noises came from below and there seemed to be no other guests.

 

Our room had one small window with bars. It reminded me of the cell Hannibal Lektor lives in before he does something really naughty and they put him in that cage. As we were unpacking, I noticed a gruesome effigy of Christ on the cross and you could barely see him for blood.

 

Before I went anywhere near the Philippines, I knew all about its visceral Catholicism. Every Good Friday in the town of San Fernando, ten locals volunteer to be mock-crucified while thousands of others whip themselves with chains. In their own way they are re-enacting the last three days of Jesus’ life in a part of the world he had no idea existed. Squeamish about such things, the official church disowned the festival a long time ago.

 

Every January 9th, the Black Nazarene, a dark-skinned, life-sized model of Jesus, is carried from a church in the Quiapo district of Manila through masses of people holding candles and pieces of cloth. In the fevered rush to touch the Black Nazarene for its healing powers, people are trampled to death, expire from heat exhaustion or are strangled by the flailing ropes used to transport this relic. But the risk is apparently worth it. Nick Joaquin, perhaps the Philippines’ greatest writer and a tireless chronicler of Manila life, describes the ceremony’s appeal thusly: “What one finds in Quiapo is religion in the raw: primitive, passionate, undisciplined and unashamed … When they worship they transcend church creed and ritual and approach ecstasy”. Influenced by Aztec beliefs by way of the Mexican viceroyalty that ruled the Philippines during the Spanish era, the God of the Black Nazarene is both hedonistic – “as stark and wild as an element” – and socially subversive – “not the polite Sunday-finery Sunday-missal religion of the upper classes.”

 

While it’s easy for outsiders to condemn these rites, you can, of course, find crowd hysteria all over the world. Later on, I was to meet Filipinos who were disturbed to hear that, in the part of the world I came from, people could riot at a football match. They were even more disturbed when I told them how, a few years ago, some of my compatriots were injured in a stampede at an IKEA furniture store. But who knows, perhaps a football hooligan or a committed shopper is tapping into a similar kind of primal rapture to that of a Manilan holy Joe?

 

I was just about to cover Jesus with a pair of my boxer shorts – so Daisy wouldn’t be freaked out by him – when a gaggle of giggling maids appeared at the door. Hands pressed to cheeks, they stared at Daisy.

‘You’re so beautiful, bay-bay,’ one of the maids sighed. ‘You’re a gift from God.’

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I suppose I am.’

Nobody believes me when I tell them this now, but when I was Daisy’s age I too was worshipped like some child-deity. In the early eighties, my dad took me on a road trip around France in an old van, and every time we stopped in some pious little village with crucifixes hanging at every window, old women in black mourning dress would flock towards me, crossing themselves and eyeing the heavens. ‘Il est un petit ange!’ (‘He is a little angel!’) they would cry. I guess, for these tanned and raven-haired women, there was something rare and divine about a pale little boy with golden blonde hair.

 

‘Non, il est un petit diable,’ (‘No, he is a little devil’) my dad would reply, and the women would look horrified. Much as I hate to admit it, my dad’s judgement was probably more accurate than theirs.

 

Another maid massaged Daisy’s head and said, ‘You are, like, a doll from heaven, huh?’ Daisy rolled her eyes. Another asked, ‘Can I take a picture of this angel?’

 

‘I don’t think so,’ I grimaced.

 

The staff pulled themselves away from Daisy and got on with their jobs.

 

Donna had a bath while Daisy and I went down to the hotel restaurant. I was surprised to find both spam and prostitutes on the menu. There were Polaroids of girls in sexy poses with whom you could have a “pyjama party” for a few hundred pesos. I hid the menu from Daisy.

 

‘Dad?’ she asked. ‘Who’s that man what you wanted to put your under-crackers over?’

 

‘Jesus,’ I said.

 

‘Cheeses? What does he do?’

 

I paused. Every so often Daisy liked to raise a tricky topic like this. Previous ones had included why her biological father had died, how babies are made and what the exact definition of “boyfriend” is. Being new to the parenting game, I never knew what to say.

 

In this instance, I didn’t want to influence her one way or another. It was up to her what she believed in, and I hoped she would make that decision when she was a bit older and wiser. So I tried to answer in as balanced way I could. ‘Most Filipinos are Christians,’ I explained. ‘They believe that Jesus was, basically, a nice bloke. He helped poor and sick people. He liked, um, sharing and being kind, I think.”

 

‘Why was he all bleeding and looking angry then?’ asked Daisy.

 

That was a tough one, and I think she knew it. I didn’t really want to get into the gory details of the Crucifixion with a four-year-old. But she was asking a good question: why do people have to celebrate a man of peace in such violent ways? Surely Christians would be better off remembering the mellower moments of Jesus’s life rather than his horrible death? I was reminded of the comedian Bill Hicks’s line: ‘A lot of Christians wear crosses round their necks; you think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a f—ing cross?’

 

I changed the subject slightly. ‘You know that in the Philippines they worship all kinds of saints? There’s Martha, the saint of duck farmers, whom people offer eggs to bring them luck. Blessed Martin of Porres helps people who have had car accidents.’

 

‘Noooo,’ frowned Daisy.

 

‘Honestly,’ I protested. ‘Then there’s St Therese who’s a young girl and they call her “The Little Flower”. You’d like her.’

 

‘Are these people real?’ Daisy frowned.

 

‘No,’ I struggled. ‘I mean, yes. I mean, some people believe them to be real, others don’t. Or rather, some of them were alive a long time ago, or people thought they were alive a long time ago but we can’t be entirely sure if, uh, they actually were. But even so these saints are important to people – Christians – now.’ Daisy’s frown grew deeper. ‘Anyway,’ I continued, ‘in a city called Batangas near Manila they cook pigs-’

 

‘Horrible!’ said Daisy.

 

‘You eat sausages don’t you?’ I objected. ‘Where do you think they come from? Anyway, they cook these pigs called lechons then dress them up as saints.’

 

‘What clothes do they wear?’

 

‘Shirts, jumpers, wedding dresses. Some people even try to take a bite out of them while they’re being paraded around.’

 

A South Asian man with Bollywood good looks sat down next to us. He was in full Islamic dress: an ankle-length shalwar-kameez and rounded taqiyah cap.

 

Daisy cupped her mouth with her hands, so the man couldn’t lip-read her. ‘Tom, is that man Cheeses?’

 

I shook my head vigorously.

 

‘Hello my friends,’ said the man in a flirtatious tone. ‘Guess where I am coming from?’

 

‘India?’ I ventured.

 

‘No, Pakistan.’

 

‘Sorry. What brings you to Manila?’

 

‘Actually I am being on my way to Maguindanao.’

 

I was surprised to hear that. Located in the Mindanao group of islands, Maguindanao is caught up in a war between Islamist separatists and the Filipino state. 120,000 people have been killed in the last forty years. But the grievances go back further than that. When the Spanish first came to Mindanao in 1578, they were dismayed to find advanced and heavily-fortified Islamic sultanates. The Spanish failed to conquer them and named the people who lived there Moros after the Moors of Africa, a completely different group of Muslims that the Spanish had managed to conquer. Four centuries later, the United States took on the Moros, their “civilising mission” explained by President McKinley:

 

There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and
to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize
them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as
our fellow men for whom Christ also died.

 

(Quoted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States)

 

For the first – but by no means the last – time in their history, the Americans had to contend with suicide attacks. Although the phrase “running amok” had entered the English language some years before, it took on a new urgency in the Philippine-American war. A Moro assassin would work himself into a state of amok (literal translation: ‘insane rage’) by, amongst other things, spending all night with a piece of copper wire tied around his testicles. When he was sufficiently miffed, he’d charge at the nearest American soldier. The Moro would be armed with a sword, the American with a small arsenal of firearms. For this reason, Mindanao was soon absorbed into a united colony of the Philippines.

 

Since the 1970s, the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) has been fighting for independence for all Moro lands, despite already having been granted a small autonomous state. While some argue that Manila has become the new colonial oppressor, others say that the MNLF doesn’t help its case by suicide-bombing the capital so often that the police now search the bags of everyone who enters the subway system.

 

The conflict in Mindanao has made it one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work in. I was glad I wouldn’t be going there – not unless the term “travel writing” meant something very different in this part of the world.

 

So why was this stunning Pakistani going?

 

‘I am wanting to open a beauty parlour,’ he winked. He brandished his phone and showed us a picture of him standing outside a five star hotel. ‘I was working in Dubai and meeting Filipinos there who say come to my country and you will be prospering.’

 

But had he understood them correctly? Did they mean Maguindanao specifically or one of the 7,106 other islands? I didn’t have the heart to ask him.

 

‘Time to be catching the aeroplane,’ he said, springing to his feet. He beamed at Daisy and disappeared.

 

‘Does that man like Cheeses?’ asked Daisy.

 

‘No,’ I said. ‘I think he likes Mohammed.’

 

‘What did he do?’

 

‘He was, you know, a nice bloke. Thought we should share things and be kind to people, that sort of thing. I think the same goes for Buddha and other religious figures, but I’m really no expert.’

 

‘What happens if the people who like Cheeses don’t be kind?’ asked Daisy.

 

This was getting tougher and tougher. “Err, well they believe – only they believe that you go to a really horrible place called…’ What was I about to say? ‘A place called hell.’ Why did I say it? I have no idea to this day.

 

‘So if you did something like what you did to your granny,’ said Daisy. ‘You could go to hell?’

 

‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘What I did to my granny was naughty but not that bad.’

 

A few months after that road trip with my dad, my family and I were living in a village in Lot, southwest France. As children tend to, I had picked up the new language faster than the adults around me. One day, my granny wanted to know how to ask for groceries. With a smirk on my face, I told her.

 

That evening, my granny returned from the shops empty-handed and upset. She said that the shopkeepers had stared at her and had rudely gestured her to leave their premises. Unable to keep a straight face, I had to confess: the phrases I had taught my poor granny – and made her rehearse for half an hour – were not in French, but in some nonsense language entirely of my own invention. My granny now had a reputation as the village mad-woman. No doubt my angelic looks saved me from too harsh a telling-off.

 

‘Do you like Cheeses or any of them other people?’ asked Daisy.

 

‘I don’t follow any of them, if that’s what you mean.’

 

‘But you still think people should be nice and share and be kind?’

 

I looked at Daisy with curiosity. I couldn’t decide whether she’d figured out the concept of secular morality or the interconnectedness of all religions.

 

 

Tom Sykes is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth