Return to Faith

“We would you like to invite you to travel to Socorro again this year!” Ate Daisy declared. I was on my way to work that morning when she saw me. I was a bit surprised to see her in the neighborhood. Although her family lives only a couple of houses away, I knew that she currently works in Socorro in Surigao del Norte. I didn’t know she was back in Cebu.

The trip was going to be from February 5 to 9. Honestly, I was on the fence. Mainly because I have work on weekdays and partly because my experience last year was one for the books. But while I was bent on telling her that I’d still have to give it a really long thought, I heard myself say the words “Yes. I’ll do it!” instead.

“Great! We will have your tickets ready!” she beamed.

Returning to Socorro wasn’t one of my top life priorities. Traveling to some remote municipality and allowing myself to suffer tremendously isn’t what I’d like to do on a long weekend. And let me just emphasize that by agreeing to do this assignment, I just easily put myself in harm’s way. I mean, I could get so terribly ill from all the puking. Or our boat could capsize and I’d drown. You know.

But here I was, lugging a heavy traveling bag and a solid 2-kilo camera tripod, and racing through the squeezy corridors of the Basilica.

I reached the Cofradia office at exactly 5:15 pm. I was fifteen minutes late but I wasn’t worried. Last year, we left the Basilica for Pier 1 just before 6 pm. So I didn’t really see any reason to panic. When I reached the office, however, I saw only one person there. “They left about 5 minutes ago,” the lady behind the counter said.

Oh, shoot!

I raced towards the back gate of the Basilica hoping that I’d still catch them. I was thinking that if I don’t see them there, I could easily exit through the back gate and grab a cab. Or I could just head back home. At this point, I didn’t really care what happened next.

I guess it’s safe to say that fate knew exactly what to do with me that day. Because as I emerged from the narrow alley which led to the Basilica’s back parking lot, I heard a familiar voice calling my name. “Leylan! You made it!” It was Mam Loreta.

Looking back, I guess I could say that I got extremely lucky that day. Imagine all the good things I would have missed, all the opportunities I would have lost, and all the wonderful people I would never have met.

Ready to start our very long journey. A Cofradia member prepares to board the port shuttle with the pilgrim image of Señor Santo Niño de Cebu.

Finally boarding Cokaliong’s Filipinas Dumaguete bound for the city of Surigao with a stop-over at Maasin, Leyte.

By 6 pm, we were all already sitting on our beds inside the boat and eating our very early dinner. The delegation was composed of three Cofradia members (headed by Mam Loreta,) a priest, a psalmist, a simple professed friar, and of course, me.

Here’s a view of the very busy Cebu harbor before the boat left for Surigao. See you later, Cebu!

The boat left Cebu at exactly 7 pm. We arrived safely at the port of Surigao in Surigao City around 9 am the following day.

From the port, the group proceeded to the cathedral at the city center. After a quick breakfast, a short service was held.

The service was attended by members of the Cofradia as well as local devotees of the Niño.

A young Surigaonon kisses the image of the Niño after the short service.

After the mass, it was time to leave for the town of Claver where our boat was waiting. The land trip from Surigao City to Claver was almost two hours long. Last year, I almost started puking inside the van during the last thirty minutes of the trip. This year, it was a little different. I guess sleeping during the whole trip really helps.

The group arrived in Hayanggabon, Claver around noon. We had enough time to relax and eat our lunch. So, the dizziness that I was starting to feel completely went away. After eating, the group got on a small outrigger boat for the final leg of the trip. We were finally headed for the town of Socorro in the island of Bucas Grande. We have to be there by 3 pm.

Just to be safe, I decided to not sit in the passenger section of the boat. (If you want to know exactly what happened last year, check out my account of last year’s trip.) Instead, I sat at the very back of the boat right next to the restroom. I didn’t care about the cramped seating or the stinky toilet. I didn’t even care about the fact that I was sitting so dangerously close to the water. I just really wanted to be able to puke comfortably in peace and quiet. Haha.

Truth be told, I expected that I’d throw up at least two times this year. Last year’s experience was truly unforgettable. And I thought that this year would be no different.

It was really fortunate that I got to sit next to a lady who was only hitching a ride because the regular boat couldn’t leave. The lady and I chatted during the entire ride so I got a little distracted and it got my mind off the whole puking business. She shared that she’s not Catholic. She’s a member of a different group which is basically the biggest in the island. She said that she grew up with some of the people who are now part of the small Catholic population in Socorro. She shared with me her thoughts on various issues. She asked questions about the image and the Sinulog and the religion as a whole. She even asked about Magellan and Lapu-Lapu and why Cebuanos are generally very religious.

“I don’t really know much about your religion. But I respect it. And I know that the Sinulog is a dance offering,” she said.

The journey was unexpectedly smooth this year. The water was calm, the wind was mellow and cool, and the sky was cloudy but bright. Pretty weird considering that the weather in these parts of the country is normally very rough.

We arrived in Socorro a few minutes ahead of schedule. Thanks in huge part to the lack of nauseating waves that make sea travel slower.

Like last year, the Catholic population in Socorro had assembled at the port to welcome us and the pilgrim image of Señor Santo Niño de Cebu. And I quickly realized how much I missed this lovely little island.

Father Exu sets foot in the island of Bucas Grande with the pilgrim image.

The head of the local chapter of the Cofradia welcomes the image with a kiss.

Socorro’s Cebuano parish priest Fr Leomar welcomes and kisses the pilgrim image of Señor Santo Niño.

These local kids prepared a short dance presentation in honor of our arrival. How cool is that!

Despite the scorching heat, the kids kept the smile on their faces as they danced for the Niño.

The presentation was immediately followed by a short but very solemn procession.

Catholics in Socorro set up altars outside their houses along the procession route. In this photo, Father Leomar is seen blessing the image of the Virgin Mary on a small table along the road.

Walking ahead of the procession, I reached the church compound first. A lot of things have changed since last year’s celebrations. The perimeter fence, for example, had been fixed and improved.

The image finally arrives in the town church of Socorro.

A solemn mass followed the short foot procession. In this photo, the parishioners are seen waving their hands as they sing the traditional Santo Niño hymn “Batobalani sa Gugma.”

After the mass, the local parishioners were given a chance to hold the image and dance the traditional Sinulog dance. It was both a fun and moving sight.

We only got a couple of hours to rest and relax before the next activity started. The day before the fiesta (called bisperas) is usually very busy in Socorro.

The translacion started at around 5 in the afternoon. During the translacion, the pilgrim image is paraded through the streets of Socorro and later taken to a barangay called Pamosaingan.

I observed that the number of attendees this year had risen tremendously. There were definitely more motorcycles and more people who joined this year. It was great!

The long parade snaked through the dark roads of Socorro as the Batobalani hymn blared from the speakers.

Finally, seven kilometers later and in pitch darkness, the parade arrived in Barangay Pamosaingan. The seaside barangay of Pamosaigan (Pamo for short) is one of Socorro’s busiest and most populated barangays. A considerable number of Catholics also live in this little barangay.

Pamo locals welcome the returning pilgrim image of Señor Santo Niño.

A special mass was held at the barangay chapel following the translacion.

The mass ended at around 8 in the evening.

After the mass, we were informed that dinner was waiting for us at the local covered court just a few paces from the chapel. This is excellent news because everyone was starving!

The set-up at the covered court was something I wouldn’t soon forget. They’d prepared a boodle fight (meal) for everyone! How awesome!

So what exactly is a boodle fight? In a boodle fight, banana leaves are placed on top of a really long table. Food is then placed on top of the banana leaves and arranged to make sure that everyone gets fair and easy access to the dishes. The idea is pretty simple: find a spot and eat whatever you want to eat using your bare hands.

Here are some of the dishes on the table. You can see pancit, pork belly, and afritada.

I also saw beef cutlets, humba, fish, and root crops like balanghoy.

And check out this really ingenious idea at the hand-washing area! Really cool!

After the really filling feast, it was time to travel 7 kilometers back to the poblacion to call it a day.

Very early the next morning, we came back to Pamosaingan to take the image back to the town church for the fluvial procession. In the past, fluvial processions begin in Pamo (yes, they do have a wharf) and end at the main port of Socorro. However, since the weather in the islands tends to be really unpredictable, the parish decided to hold the procession near the main port, instead.

In this photo, the image is taken to the vehicle which would take it back to the poblacion.

As the vehicle slowly moved towards the town church, the Sinulog theme played on the huge trompas or speakers. Although most people looked out of their windows to investigate, only the Catholics waved at the image and shouted Pit Senyor!

Upon reaching the town port, the image was then taken to a waiting boat for the fluvial procession.

Everything is finally set for the 2016 Fluvial procession.

Last year, I remember that only 4 boats joined the procession. This was a fantastic improvement from the very first procession which only had 1 boat.

This year, a total of 8 boats joined the procession. This, by far, was the largest fluvial crowd in Socorro!

The fluvial procession made a quick circle around the area fronting the busiest part of the island before finally docking.

After docking, a small procession was held to take the image back to the town church.

The procession was immediately followed by the fiesta mass which was officiated by the parish priests Father Leomar and Father Exu and visiting priest Father Benjie.

Devotees touch and kiss the pilgrim image after the feast day mass.

As per tradition, churchgoers then proceeded to the church office after the mass for a small but delightful feast. Everyone was invited!

We only had several minutes of rest before the streets were busy again. It was finally time for Sinulog sa Socorro!

Sinulog sa Socorro, like the original Sinulog sa Sugbo (Cebu) is a yearly festival in the island of Bucas Grande. Unlike its counterpart in Cebu, however, the festival only lasts several hours.

Still, Catholics in Socorro are very proud of this festival. The participating contingents practice hard for their performance and even spend on their costumes and props. Although the festival is not a contest, you can see that the participants still give their all when they perform. This year, all barangays in Socorro were able to send their own representatives.

Here are some shots of this year’s beautiful Sinulog sa Socorro lead dancers.

Each sayaw halad or dance offering lasts only a few minutes and is accompanied not by live instruments but by recorded audio.

Performing on the street in front of the town church, performers have to make do with the narrow two-lane pavement which doubles as their performance stage.

After their performance, the contingents then walk towards the community gym for their final ritual presentation.

The event is witnessed by hundreds of Socorronhons. Attracting even non-Catholics, the Sinulog sa Socorro is slowly becoming one of the town’s most exciting yearly events.

Check out these photos from the final ritual performance of participating contingents.

By 5 pm, the program was over. In this photo, the remaining people inside the community gym scramble for free candies and coins.

It was a pretty successful event. And I think it’s pretty obvious that we had a lot of fun.

Tired and hungry from a whole day of walking and taking photos, I walked back to the church office on my own. As I struggled to reach my destination, I thought about the reasons why I decided to accept the offer. I knew that the trip was going to be tiring, but something deep inside made me decide to take it.

I was lost in my own thoughts when I reached the church compound. The church grounds were practically empty. And the main church was quiet. Realizing too late that I didn’t have a key to our room, I decided to enter the church, instead. For the very first time since I arrived in Socorro, everything was still and silent.

I sat right in front of the pilgrim image. I stared at the image and studied its features. Although we traveled together from Cebu, this was the very first time that my sight lingered on it for more than 10 seconds.

I stared at the Niño long and hard. I didn’t look away. I just stared. Then suddenly, I thought about all the problems and anxieties I had in the past year. 2015 was a tough year. A lot tougher than I could care to admit. I thought about my problems at work, my problems at home, and the problems that only I knew. These were the same problems that I prayed that the Santo Niño would fix. These were the same problems that I wished were gone the moment I stepped out of the Basilica every week after Sunday mass.

But no. Prayers just don’t work, I realized. I soon started missing Sunday masses and Saturday Basilica visits. Sometimes, I’d miss saying a quick prayer before I go to bed at night. I even stopped caring whether or not my small Niño replica was in my travel bag whenever I took long out-of-town trips. I used to think that the small image would keep me safe whenever I’m on the road. And I never left home without it.

Eventually, it turned into a full-blown blame game. I blamed him for my problems at work. I blamed Him for my problems at home. I blamed him for the problems that I knew I created.

I was a perfect example of what failed expectations do to a person who believes so much. Too hard.

The next day, we were up early for our island-hopping trip. We wanted to do this last year but the weather was crazy and sea travel was almost impossible. I’m glad that we’re finally doing it this year.

Our first stop was a beautiful island resort which couldn’t be seen from where boats normally pass. Believe it or not, it’s called Hidden Island Resort. 🙂

One of the resort’s key features are these fish cages which hold some of the best-looking sea creatures on the planet. And these cages are right in front of the rooms! Jaw-droppingly gorgeous!

And of course, one of the resort’s main come-ons is this long covered walkway which offers an impressive view of the Bucas Grande islets.

Our next stop was the world-renowned Sohoton Cove. The Sohoton Cove National Park is a protected marine park that features caves, limestone formations and lots of interesting islets. What makes the cove unique is the fact that it is accessible only via a small cave. Boats can only get inside the cove if the tide is low or if the water if low enough. Fortunately, the water was perfect when we got there.

Our Sohoton Cove experience was truly memorable. We swam inside a completely dark cave, we saw some really interesting-looking rock formations, we did a little caving and most importantly, we tried platform jumping. I don’t know how to swim but our tour guide managed to convince me that it was a perfectly fine idea to jump into the ocean without a life jacket on.

Our last stop was Kanlanuk Bay.

One of Kanlanuk Bay’s most popular spots is the Kanlanuk Falls – a small waterfall system that features a 25-foot drop, a deep pool, and a school of hungry but friendly fish.

After our trip to Kanlanuk, we took one final boat ride to the Pamosaingan Wharf (remember that wharf I told you about?) where our van was waiting for us.

Before we went back to the church office, however, we dropped by the Catholic Cemetery that the Diocese of Surigao recently acquired. Socorro is getting its very own catholic cemetery.

That night, we went to bed right after we packed our things. We were finally traveling back to Cebu the next day.

The next morning, at exactly 5 am, our boat left Socorro for the city of Surigao. Since it was a direct trip, it was understandably longer. Good thing the sea was perfectly calm and we reached the city of Surigao safe and sound 3 hours later.

Here is a photo of the huge wooden boat that took us to Surigao City. It carried several motorbikes, various supplies, and over a hundred passengers. It’s that tough.

The team at the Port of Surigao. So great to be back on land once again!

From the port, we went straight to the Bishop’s Residence near the city center where a thanksgiving mass was held for our safe arrival in the city and for our safe departure later in the evening.

Around lunch time, a short solemn blessing and prayer was held at the residence that welcomed us and the image.

In this photo, our host is seen praying with her new-born son to Señor Santo Niño.

It was at this moment that I realized just how misplaced my worries were.

The Basilica is only 15 minutes from my home but I always try to come up with reasons to not drop by. And then we see these people. They have no easy access to the Niño. But their hearts are open and their faith is unwavering.

I realized during the long, quiet pauses during the prayer that it was never Him. It was me. That at the center of all these problems and worries, and anxieties was not the Niño but me. And because I was so busy setting my eyes on the things that make life difficult, I ended up not seeing the beautiful things that make it worth living.

I have problems at work because I didn’t believe in my own capabilities. I have problems at home because I always want things to happen my way. I have problems because I prefer wallowing in my own misery instead of doing something to make things better.

It was never anybody else’s fault. It wasn’t the Santo Niño’s fault.

It was all mine.

That night, as our boat sailed back to Cebu, I unzipped my bag and noticed one small compartment that had been left untouched during the whole trip. When I opened it to check what was inside, I saw a small red bag which contains the small Niño that I always carry whenever I travel.

While I wandered away and blamed him for all my shortcomings, I forgot just how good He has always been to me. And that at one instance of difficulty, I was so ready to let go. But He has always been there. He was never gone. No, not for one second. He never left.

I kissed my Niño, like I always do, clutched it, and quietly settled into my cold tourist bed. And before I went to sleep that night, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I prayed .