Saturday, May 10, 2014


“HALOK (kiss)” on Fridays, the feast day, usually entails lining up behind many visitors of the replica of the original image of the Sto. Niño at the Basilica.

“Kissing the image” is not the best translation for the practice, pursued by different people for different reasons in different ways.

The image is encased in glass, stone and wood. Unlike other life-sized icons whose paint is worn away by years of penitent rubbing to reveal dark, stained wood, the Holy Infant image is still mint, bestowing on visitors a smile lurking in its eyes and half-tilted mouth.

Only the marble tiles that have sunk to the ground in front of the image tell tales about the feet shuffling over the years.

To hear oldtimers describe it, the practice of “kissing” the image used to be so convoluted and drawn-out, the visitors spilled outside of the Basilica and snaked round the block. The “halok” was in itself a pilgrimage, with visitors from outside Cebu spending a day or more to keep their “panaad (vow)”.

Today, guards keep the line moving by asking visitors to abbreviate their “halok” (often pronounced as “hawk” in keeping with the city practice of shortening a word to ease pronunciation). The longer personal prayers can be uttered at the sides of the shrine, whose glass panels allow visitors a glimpse of the left and right profiles of the image.

In the queue is a mixture of locals and tourists. Clothes and conversation are not the only way to tell apart the two groups. Tourists are attached to their cameras and smartphones. Their casual attire says that the “halok” is just another stopover, perhaps between getting dried mango in Guadalupe and dried fish in Taboan and cooling in the beaches in Mactan.

The young man in front of me took several selfies during the 15-minute queue last Friday. I did not want to spoil his selfies or end up on his Facebook wall so whenever his arm raised the smartphone, I ducked away, weaving side to side like an old boxer trying to stay in the game.

My “drunken master” routine amused someone. When I ducked, I felt someone touch my behind. Turning, I saw a man long past middle age. In the airless corridor, he looked even more wilted than my collar.

But when the touch was repeated, I could no longer dismiss the “accident”. Quickly turning around, I caught my tapper red-handed: a small girl in a shiny pink dress that looked new except that it was halfway down her waist.

Either she was a late child or a granddaughter of the couple behind me. The girl just can’t stand still, her grandmother apologized.

I forgave this tiny creature for mistaking my substantial behind for one of the balloons vendors carry around the Basilica. Balloons, popcorn, snapshots by a roving photographer: when I was a girl, a day in the Basilica meant all these three.

Today’s kids can choose fatter, nicer balloons that resemble popular cartoon characters. I’m glad the practice of releasing balloons to bring petitions skyward has lost favor. If I had a Dora the Explorer balloon that escaped to the sky and later, ended in the sea, it would be the end of the world for me, as it would be for the sea creatures unable to dive back or eat after swallowing the deflated balloon.

The salty yellow popcorn in its cellophane bag is gone. The frenzy of finger-licking and greasy stains left on new clothes were reasons why wise parents always posed their children before photographers as soon as they got to the Basilica, not later.

Yes, in the age of digital cameras, the “maniniyot” survives. Roaming the Pilgrim Center, these men and their cameras may be vintage curiosities to the selfie generation. Watching a photographer coax a human whirlwind into standing still and flashing several missing teeth that will end in a family album (another curio), I think the “maniniyot” documents down the ages what sets apart the devotion to the Sto. Niño: its attraction for children and families.

When it was nearly our turn before the icon, the little girl was cradled by her grandfather while her grandmother took from her bag two hand towels for wiping the glass panel. These will be shared with folks back home, a form of “extended” kiss.

During their first visit to the shrine, the grandmother remembered that she had carried the infant: “Now, she’s walking.”

Some kisses do linger.

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 11, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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