reprinted from South China Morning Post, April 17 2003
Beneath the bright sunshine, the great city lies deserted. A slight breeze blows through its empty streets, barely disturbing the silence that prevails over the once-bustling metropolis.
A vision of the apocalypse? No, Lent in Manila.
To those who have never experienced Holy Week in this Catholic country, Curiously, Manila as a dead city is at its most liveable: all the shops are closed, there are no newspapers, no TV or radio shows. Just a calm silencewhat happens to the Philippine capital between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday is almost miraculous. Vehicles vanish, people become scarce, buildings shut down, nobody does business. Manila peaceful? It is a combination of words so contradictory, it is surreal.
Yet it occurs. Every year. Tomorrow, which is Good Friday, Manila will be an ideal city, with no noise, minimal pollution and only the occasional car on the road. It will be as if some celestial being had parted the angry, slow-moving waves of vehicles, allowing astonished citizens to see what the avenues actually look like.
Except there will not be too many astonished citizens. Most of them will be far away, compulsive adherents to the belief that Holy Week, the country's most important holiday after Christmas, is the best time to head for the provinces.
Ostensibly, they are taking the time out for religious reflection. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced she and her cabinet would be in a 'spiritual retreat' for Holy Week, and that they would all turn off their mobile phones for the duration. Presumably she is trusting heaven not to spring any emergencies until after Easter.
Her ostentatious piety is divorced from reality. Most Filipinos view Holy Week as a chance for the family to escape the blistering heat and head for the beaches of Boracay or Palawan, or the cool highland city of Baguio. The country's oligarchs used to jet off to Hong Kong and Macau, but Sars has now put paid to this form of Catholic devotion.
Just this week, a Manila church commission finally concluded what everyone has known for decades: Filipinos are not sad or sombre at all during Lent. 'Exuberance is a good word to describe it. Catholic life never seems to be as vibrant as during the Holy Week,' it said.
This Lenten migration of millions of Catholics always leads to huge crowds at the city's airport, bus terminals and train stations. On the highways outside Manila, travellers face colossal and maddening traffic congestion under a baking sun. Filipinos are not daunted by these torments - they queue up with the resignation of martyrs.
Of actual aspiring martyrs there is no lack, either. One renowned Good Friday spectacle is that of devotees in central Luzon allegedly following Christ's example by having themselves whipped with barbed cords, crowned with thorns and then, as a piece de resistance, nailed to a cross. The sight might be enough to send many into a spiritual retreat all the way back to Manila.
Curiously, Manila as a dead city is at its most liveable: all the shops are closed, there are no newspapers, no TV or radio shows. Just a calm silence eerily broken here and there by the monotonous chanting of the pabasa - a non-stop recitation of the life of Christ that starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday.
Otherwise the capital is almost serene, with no indication of the violent energy that will return on Easter Sunday. It is proof of what many have suspected all along: only God can clean up the capital's streets. And even then the miracle only lasts a day or two.