04 November 2009

A Heady Mixture Of Religion, Community & Consumerism.

Here's a short essay I wrote for my English class earlier this fall. The goal was to describe a location to someone who hadn't been there before. My hope is that I did it justice.

Quiapo Church Courtyard, Manila, Philippines.

The heat is the first thing one would notice. Actually, “notice” is too gentle of a word; the strength of the sun’s rays seems to beat everything into submission with a glaring sheen, smothering the entire courtyard with a breathless, oppressive force. Not even the feeble shade provided by the occasional banana plant provides much relief. It’s as if God Himself had opened a piping-hot oven in heaven.

The religious reference seems almost appropriate here, in the side Courtyard of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, a market district of Manila (“Quiapo Church”). It’s an expansive site, clean and wide, and open to the cloud-dotted sky. The church and its associated buildings form its northern and western walls; various shops and department stores topped with small, dingy apartments border the remaining sides. Telephone and power lines stretch and dangle overhead. Several statues of saints have been mounted in between the entrances to the church, hands upraised (Kaemena). It’s easy to imagine them welcoming you into the cool interior of the Basilica to seek protection from the blaze.

Despite this constant intense heat, thousands of churchgoers whisper their prayers and attend their novenas, then venture into the courtyard after Mass. It’s a perfect venue for street vendors. Arriving early in the morning while the courtyard is being swept clean, they set up shop. They hawk everything from flip-flops to fragrant wildflowers, from balloons to t-shirts, from fried fish to umbrellas. Needless to say, business is brisk as the courtyard is packed for most of the day. Children dash in and out of crowds and gather in groups, chattering about playing their next game of pick-up basketball. Elderly women in faded housedresses fan themselves under storefront awnings. Food vendors swat flies away from their sizzling kabobs, shouting the names of the food so that they can be heard above the din of the crowd. High school students stroll by laughing, backpacks slung across one shoulder and hoping to spot their friends. Young mothers hoist their toddlers higher up one arm and hang plastic shopping bags from the other. As if in celebration, every hour the church bells clang from their towers and add to the cacophony below.

The courtyard only gets busier in the afternoon as people leave their offices and fill the streets. If one pauses in the middle of the courtyard, closed your eyes and simply listened, one would catch snippets of English words and sentences interwoven with the Tagalog dialect predominant in this part of the Philippines. Potential buyers haggle comfortably and easily with vendors over the price of children’s sandals. Strains of American and Filipino pop music intermittently float down from the apartment windows above, or blare from passing vehicles idling in constant traffic the next street over. Melodic, seven-note car horns frequently interrupt conversations.

Accompanying the orchestra of street sounds bouncing off the church walls is an olfactory bonanza. The faintly sweet scent of sampaguita, a popular native blossom, pervades the air; the flower is thought to promote well-being and health (“Sampaguita”). Sampaguita strands hang around the necks and wrists of passers-by and churchgoers alike as they congregate around the portable food booths under large, inviting rainbow-colored umbrellas, from which rise the rich aromas of fried bananas, steamed peanuts, eggrolls, sweet potatoes, and fried fish covered in dipping sauce. It all makes for an extremely unique combination of mouth-watering smells.

There is also shopping to be done here. Two main avenues, leading out of the courtyard to the bustling city beyond, are lined with small clothing shops, fast food restaurants, larger department stores and tiny mom-and-pop grocery outlets. More often than not, these pedestrian streets are so completely packed with shoppers that the pavement below their feet is invisible (Kaemena). Even the stoops and storefront entrances are occupied with people taking up almost every available space. It seems as if the only other places to sit are inside the Basilica. The businesses found here in no way cater exclusively to the upper class; those boutique stores containing higher-end items are located in massive air-conditioned malls in other, wealthier districts of Metro Manila. No, the courtyard is where someone would go after church to buy a rubber doormat and undershirts, and then snack on a couple of quail eggs.

The courtyard of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene is one of the most ideal places to catch a glimpse of urban Filipino culture. The odd, heady mixture of religious devotion, community and consumerism finding a common denominator and packed tightly into one space is on full display here, and it is truly a wondrous experience to behold.

Works Cited.
  1. Kaemena, Willy. “Quiapo Church Panorama In Philippines.360 Cities. Web. Ed. Jeffrey Martin. 13 Sep 2009.
  2. Quiapo Church.Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 June 2009. Web. 27 June 2009.
  3. Sampaguita.The Flower Expert. Web. 13 Sep 2009.

0 comment(s):

Post a Comment