Updated: Jul 13, 2020
The three teenagers emerged from the throng of humanity around us. “Pit Señor!” they yelled in unison before taking turns to rub brightly coloured paints onto my face and clothing; given the lack of other westerners, and my 6’5 height, I had quickly become a prime target for these colourful attacks. We were in the city of Cebu in the Philippines, just two of a reported 3.5 million people attending the Sinulog Festival. Held annually on the third Sunday of January, this colourful religious event celebrates the local acceptance of Christianity over Paganism and was the reason we had flown halfway around the world. Pit Señor is a Cebuano phrase meaning “to call, ask, and plead to the king.”; stood peering over the masses for the nearest stallholder, I decided to call, ask, plead but, ultimately, pay for some paint. It was time to fight back.
As I bought my paint I took a quick moment to reflect upon the events of the last 24 hours, which had been eventful, to say the least. After a wonderful few days on the nearby island of Bohol, things had taken a turn for the worse in the lead up to the festival.
We quickly discovered that things are often delayed in the Philippines. Quite often in fact. Any kind of time table provided should be viewed as a rough guide rather than gospel. Despite knowing this, our frustration levels rose gradually through each of the five hours we spent waiting for our ferry from Bohol to Cebu. We had been keen to locate our accommodation and spend some time exploring the city in daylight prior to the festival the following day. This five-hour delay meant it would be night time when we arrived. Our mood wasn't helped by watching every other ferry depart on time but, with so many people heading to the festival, they were all sold out. We had no option but to wait.
Kim had taken the reigns and had booked most of the accommodation for this holiday. I had just one task, book a hotel for the festival. Due to the popularity of Sinulog things book up well in advance and I was left with only 2 options: a hotel located several kilometers away from the action with good reviews, or a centrally located, privately owned, flat with no reviews whatsoever. I went with the flat.
Arriving in Cebu late at night, tired and grumpy, we discovered that the city restricts WIFI and mobile signals throughout the festival. This is to deter potential terrorist activity by reducing their ability to communicate. Sadly, this also meant we had great difficulty calling the number provided for our accommodation. Any calls that made it through went unanswered. Other than a street address we had no further instructions, the security guards at the complex could not help. Kim helpfully pointed out that I might have contacted our host a few days prior to check the booking was ok and for check-in instructions, of course she was correct. I had effectively stranded us and I was not the flavour of the month.
Our Swiss saviour.
With every hotel we approached fully booked, it was a relief when we succeeded in getting through to the booking provider we had used. Thankfully, they saw this as a fault on the part of our host who had not provided adequate arrival instructions; I decided not to highlight my own lack of pre-planning. Having also been unable to contact our host, they somehow succeeded in locating, securing alternative accommodation for us. Albeit with great difficulty.
We jumped in a taxi and arrived at our new accommodation, also a flat, fifteen minutes later. It was a little further from the action than hoped but I wasn't in a position to complain. The man renting this particular place happened to be a Swiss man, he looked to be in his 70's. Slim and balding he bright wore bright sports attire, including shorts and running shoes. He looked sheepish as he greeted us.
The flat was double booked. Apparently his wife had just let it out to a Dutch couple an hour earlier, he had not known this when offering to accommodate us. I couldn't believe it.
“Do not worry” he said, “you may stay with me and my family tonight, early tomorrow I bring you here. They must catch an early flight”. Given the late hour and our near exhaustion, we decided to go along with it. Thirty minutes later, after being introduced to his much younger wife and their son, we lay in a small bed in his windowless box room. Thankfully it had airconditioning.
A different attitude.
Our Swiss host greeted us early the following morning. I can't say either of us felt refreshed.
We drove across a city in the final stages of preparation for a major event, roads were closed, stallholders were setting up, people rehearsed. Frankly, it was a fascinating journey.
We arrived at the flat around 8 am. I was surprised to see it had somehow already been cleaned after the departure of the Dutch couple. It was much nicer than the flat i had booked. We were given a brief tour of the facilities and then his attitude changed. He wanted payment in cash. This was a surprise because he had already agreed to receive payment from our booking provider. He was demanding a far higher rate than the one he had agreed with them. We found ourselves in a tense standoff.
Clearly, he had not anticipated our levels of stubbornness or tiredness. We held firm for a good thirty minutes before he finally accepted that we had no cash and no intention of paying. He left but promised to return the next morning for payment. We'll never know if he did because, just like our Dutch counterparts, we had an early flight to catch. We were off to Palawan.
Should you ever have an opportunity to attend the Sinulog festival, do it - but book far in advance. I have never experienced anything like it, the press of happy humanity all around will live long in my memory, although, if you don't like crowds it is probably best avoided. If you are a westerner, be prepared to become a target, I think i counted less than 10 other western faces that day and each appeared to have suffered a similarly colourful fate. Also, if you are tall like me, you are going to appear in a whole load of Philippino photo albums; never have I been pointed at, stared at, and forced into so many group pictures with strangers.