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RAPPLER | Sinulog: To Flow with the Current

Sinulog Festival 2014

This narrative and photo essay was first published on Rappler.com on January 19, 2015. 

CEBU, PHILIPPINES—“Every year, my Niño comes back,” shared a middle-aged man holding a small replica of Sto. Niño. His must have lost its cross before, now replaced with a rolled-up chocolate wrapper. He was one of the passengers I saw holding a Sto. Niño on our flight back to Cebu from General Santos last Friday.

Our flight was packed, and so was Mactan airport. I thought Cebu would not be as crowded as it used to be, with Pope Francis’ visit and Typhoon Amang hovering over the Visayas.

But faith is stubborn. The crowd during Pope Francis’ mass at Quirino Grandstand looked like a protest from afar. From Fuente’s skywalk, the procession last Saturday transformed the city into a river of umbrellas. A prayer is a kind of protest.

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

Thousands sang “Bato-Balani sa gugma,” the magnet of love, and waved their hands in the air. The sight of these hands reaching out to the horizon beseeching the child version of Jesus is rather humbling, always dramatic. Everyone looked so small, like dots, ant-sized in a crowd.

I came across a quote from my IG feed: “There are those who feel smaller in a crowd, but I felt part of an intuitive intellect, each of us driven here by the impulse to gather and be given access to something I could not name.” The quote was accompanied by a photo of spectators waiting for Pope Francis: the Pontiff, the messenger.

Sto. Niño is a messenger.

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

In the past years of walking, documenting, and observing – albeit amateurishly – the workings of Cebu City, I thought its faith would eventually dwindle, but rather it has strengthened its grasp. (READ: Cebu: Tales of a City-Walker)

Sinulog is a time of the year that everyone must walk regardless of color, religion, status. Everyone is equal, stripped from one’s selfish complacency. It is the time of the year when the human body does what it is designed for: move.

I learned a new word yesterday amidst the shoving of photogs in the cordoned streets: kalivungan, the name of North Cotabato’s contingent.

“It means gathering,” shared a staff member.

Sinulog then is kalivungan, a gathering. Three of the Kalivungan dancers are Muslims. Misrey, a proud Muslim, an 8th grader from Alamada High School, said it was fun to be part of the celebration. North Cotabato is a province of the Christians, Manobos, and Muslims.

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

Otik | Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

The misunderstood, the beautiful Mindanao has gradually showed its presence in this annual celebration.

True faith knows no religion, or I stubbornly believe so.

In Sinulog, we all have our fair share of being shoved and shoving someone. On the cordoned streets where dancers performed, it was the stubborn photographers who have to be pushed backward.

“Sorry po. Trabaho lang po (Just doing our jobs),” apologized a contingent staff member.

“I understand. Ginagawa rin lang naming yong trabaho namin. (We’re also just doing our jobs.) Sorry,” I replied. We both smiled.

We paid a hefty price to document the street dance up close. My Sinulog in the past years had been limited within the rope.

I could tell if the higante or the contingent’s costume was rehashed from last year’s. It would not be serendipitous at all to meet Tatay Gilbert or Otik in the parade. They are two of the resident faces in the grand parade: Tatay Gilbert with his eccentric costume and antics and the short-statured Otik walking along the higantes.

Otik would then joke that photographers have won prizes from the paradox of his dwarfism and the giants, yet he never received anything at all. I would just smile and say year after year, I never joined the contest. I am too much of an amateur against the giants of photography.

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

Sinulog was surprisingly organized this year. Spectators flew in and out the designated entrances and exits properly scattered throughout the grand parade route. While the police force was somewhat lenient in the past years, they were rightfully strict in letting someone in the roped areas.

After hours of chasing contingents, running backward, crouching, shoving, being shoved around, I walked my way back to my quiet nook with aching calves and spent mind.

But Sinulog is beyond the solemn procession and grand parade. I find it ironic sometimes that it is the celebrities who get the loudest applause, or that most of the spectators along the streets were there to wait for the local stars’ floats to pass by.

Normally, the flood of Sinulog street parties ebbed by 11 and would concentrate in some places. Mango Avenue would be passable once again. But last night was beyond my expectation.

General Maxilom Avenue, J. Osmeña St., Escario St up to a portion of Jones Avenue were forking rivers of confused, contrasting currents. Once you got into the flow of the young, it would be hard to go out. This was the generation of the hashtag pretitit, a sound imitated from a popular Sinulog tune. Everyone had the right to touch and paint your face. It was a happy ruckus of Pit Señor; house music I am ignorant about; of short shorts, navels, disheveled hair; of water, alcohol whisked in the air.

Along J. Osmeña, everyone wore the face of a happy kid with the words C’est la Vie faintly lit in the background. Such is Sinulog for the young, the youthful. Such is life.

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

By midnight, traffic was a standstill along Mango. I escaped the crowd and exited through Ramos, where the crowd thinned out. Sinulog does not encourage you to walk. It forces, demands you to. This is a truth a city walker loves to accept.

After a shot from fellow writers camping outside their office along Kamagayan, I walked the stretch of Imus Avenue and heard a familiar voice; Ate Teryang’s.

She is one of the forces employed to clean the rubbish left by the 2.5 million Sinulog crowd. The city has to strip its Sinulog face and must resume its everyday character by dawn. Street vendors dismantled their shacks. The makeshift benches gradually disappeared. Exhausted people like me slowly found our way back home.

Perhaps I am simply getting old because my preferred Sinulog narrative is this: the stillness jolted by the loud grandeur, the superlatives.

Passing moments the camera would find dull: dancers and their crew squatting on the very streets they had to perform for lunch; a festival queen feeling awkward to feed herself with some people sneaking a picture of her; a kid wearing orange shoes in a green-shoed contingent; random faces mouthing kapoy, tired countless times; the lovely gay crew lightening the situation up; Jane Arreza murmuring her prayers while dancing.

sinulog essay

Sinulog Festival, Cebu, Philippines. All photos by Jona Branzuela Bering for Rappler.com

The night of the third Saturday of January, I would find myself strolling the familiar streets downtown – my personal pilgrimage: observing lives, absorbing the quiet: sleepy candle vendors offering Sinulog prayers past midnight, vendors prepping the clothes of their Sto. Niño in varied sizes, kids cleaning and painting an old, battered Niño.

It is the Sinulog’s befores and afters I find endearing. Ate Teryang must be snoring by now. Mango – devoid of the mounting trash – rings with the clinks and clanks of the dismantled metal benches. The middle-aged pilgrim I met onboard must be on his way to GenSan. Pope Francis left the Philippines already.

While writing this, along J. Osmeña Street, below the faintly lit C’est la Vie, two people with their backpacks and spent faces awaited a ride back home.

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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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