Ilocos Sur, last holy week, was sure surreal.
The old house stood somewhere between antique and Yet To Be Finished. Grandmother’s presence is still there, but she’s gone together with the other elders of Angkileng. Gone are the solemn days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. All’s left is Black Saturday, and it was pitch black, starting with the black out late Friday right after the procession when the whole of Ilocos Sur submerged in a darkness that nobody can’t penetrate. Beside the famous old Catholic church of Sta. Lucia, the plaza was a canvas of black with dots of yellow and gold from oil lamps and candles on the tables of halo halo court and popcorn stands and rice cake stalls and vendors of scramble (flavoured ice shake), balloons, trinkets, beads, rosaries, prayer books and sculptures of mga Santo. The town moved in agreed upon silence with sweet murmuring on the side. Shuffling feet disappeared into the night minute after minute. The scent of creamy bibingka sent us home in a dreamy pleasure.
The path from plaza to the compound, if anything, is darker. The bridge on the way home is the darkest. Rumor has it that spirits and ghosts (sometimes in the form of a lady in white, sometimes a big black dog) appear in this bridge hidden in that dangerous blind-spot curve in the highway. Houses built in the Spanish era lined the highway, their huge empty windows stared at two passersby holding each other’s arms for fear of the unknown. The only source of light in this universe of surreal is the lonely car or motorcycle that passes by as quick as a dream. Stopping in the middle of absolute darkness is the only way to survive the long blind’s walk, moving only whenever a savior of a vehicle comes by as a reminder that this is 21st century Ilocos Country, and not 18th Century, Other World.
Darkness stretched throughout the night the same time the big boys of Sta Lucia put the table out, under the mango tree and spread of stars. Cold bottles of beer were easily drained in the sinners’ mouth. (The next day, this becomes the cause of oversleep and late beach bumming). After plates of steamed peanuts, a plate of ata-ata was served. This is an Ilocano specialty, said one of the big boys, which is half-cooked beef in the style of beef steak but more flavourful as it is dipped in specially prepared spicy Iluko vinegar with bulbs of onions. On top of all these is the kwentuhan (story telling) of all topics, from funny ghost stories to the darkest family secrets.
After more than 20 years of coming home almost every holy week to Ilocos, this is the first time that the province had a different feel: no longer stiff, no longer stoic, no longer dogmatic, but a little more relaxed and so much more exciting. For the longest time, Ilocos is all about long hours of prayer and vigil and church masses and abstinence with grandmothers and aunties. Always, children are held in hands by the elders from house to church and back. This is not the Ilocos this holy week saw. It was different, it was slightly crazy, but exciting. Coming home to Ilocos with a boyfriend on a long car drive (c/o a tito) was a different start; a sign that since the start, traditions have been challenged.
The effect of turning up grown up and independent in a place full of childhood memories is nothing less than surreal. Like conquering childhood fears in a dream.