"Which way to the crucifixions?" Our driver leaned out the car and directed the question at some auto rickshaw drivers, lolling around in the mid morning sun. To get to the site where three crosses awaited three sinners, we had to proceed slowly -- making way for trails of black hooded men, slapping their naked backs with leather whips, blood spattering over their bodies.
Three hours out of Manila, San Fernando has now become internationally known for its Good Friday blood spilling and nailing. The city takes on a festive air as masses arrive for the spectacle. In typical Filipino style, it's a mixture of pure devotion and Mardi Gras.
This annual ritual started as pure penitence about 40 years ago, but now, with ice cream sellers, souvenir hawkers and kids offering to carry your bags for a few pesos, it's more of a festival -- an enjoyable day out -- a curious Biblical side show.
A neighborhood basketball court is the home of one part of the festival; exhausted flagellators rest under the hoops and free throw line, and have a quick soothing cigarette -- after handing their whips to local school boys only too happy to continue the rhythmic flogging of raw weeping flesh. Media are hustled onto a rickety creaking platform to the right of the crosses for optimum viewing pleasure. Medics tense for the inevitable wound dressing.
The tannoy loud speaker rumbles into life with atmospheric music and the crowd falls silent. Jesus arrives through the crowd, dressed in a simple kaftan, cross on his back. Centurions are with him, roughing him up and pushing him further onto the ground. The press surge forward and break the rope barriers, and are waved back by guards with t-shirts that read "Annual Lenten Rites - Good Friday - Security".
There are already two sinners hung high. The historial and biblical effect is somewhat diminished -- they are both wearing jeans and have watches strapped to their wrists. (After some very unholy hanky- panky with an Australian comedian being filmed on a cross, this year the Department of Tourism has a strict evaluation procedure for anyone wanting to be crucified. And yes, I am well aware how odd that sentence reads).
Jesus was then really nailed onto a cross. Everyone rubbernecked, but we couldn't see or hear -- the cross was lowered for him to be hammered onto it and then lifted upwards. The crucifixion only lasted a few scant minutes before a Keystone Cops formation of volunteers jogged up on a rescue mission. As a Jesus-laden stretcher was trotted at a fast clip to the medical tent, an announcer told us the show was over and he hoped "to see you all next year!" Jesus had his bloody hands seen to (iodine and gauze) then he grabbed his backpack and disappeared into the amenities block.
In the bathroom Jesus had transformed to Bonjing, struggling with hammered and bandaged hands to put on his cargo pants. Bonjing is a 55 year old welder and native of Pampanga. For the past 13 years, he has had himself hung to a cross on Good Friday. "The nails don't go in very far, only a little," he told me through a translator, who was trying to find him a cigarette.
In truth Bonjing didn't seem to be transported onto a spiritual plain by what he had just been through. The rock star reception when he emerged from the loos must have been fun though. Puffing on a Marlboro Menthol, he was the guy who everyone wanted to be photographed with, even if he was now dressed in a t-shirt and cargoes.
Over my shoulder on the Golgotha re-creation site, families were posing for photos by the crosses and drinking Coca Cola. The Calderon family from Pulilan stood smiling with their arms round each other and made sure the crucifix was in shot. "Yes it was good," said the eldest son. "We might come again next year."