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Pilgrimage and Tourism

Last weekend, our research team, which is composed of Kristian Sendon Cordero, John Sherwin Acampado, Rustom Pujado, and this writer have been travelling to certain towns and villages in the province of Camarines Sur. The research is about patron saints and visitas or chapels, an undertaking under the auspices of the Mother Butler’s Guild Mission.

For that particular weekend, we covered three mountainous areas, which included the Balatan area. The trip brought us the Shrine to the Lady of Tanda-ay, one of the few chapels with a well, from which water believed to possess curative power could be fetched. We stayed overnight in Baao. The next morning, we drove to Tambo, the shrine to Soledad, or the Lady of Solitude, in Buhi. Along the way, we passed by the chapels of San Benito, the Patron Saint with a big, mystical cult following and the two chapels of Salvacion.

From Buhi, we took the mountain trail that led us to Hanawan in Ocampo. We then decided to skirt the lower slope of Mt. Isarog to check on the kind of Patron Saints prevalent in the other places we visited.

Before reaching Tinambac, we passed by green, deep rivers. We took photos and posted them immediately on Facebook. While Buhi had chapels that were sturdy and well-preserved, the chapels on the mountain areas, perhaps because of isolation and distance, were in bad conditions and various levels of disrepair. Aside from occupying tiny lots, these chapels looked like they were not in use at all for a long time. This was not part of our study but we could not avoid taking note of the physical over the metaphysical, the latter composed of beliefs (“folk” as they were labeled for a long time) and reinterpretations of a religion clearly different from its manifestations in the bigger churches in the center of the town or a city.

We began developing indices to ascertain the active life of an ermita. Simple to the point of being close to naïve, our indicators included the following: cleanliness of the chapel and the surroundings, votive offerings like flowers and candles, and pristine conditions of the icons, especially their clothing. Validating our observation were notifications on the doors of chapels announcing the schedule of Masses. Something, however, united all these chapels and this was the readiness of people to help us find the caretaker that would open their doors for us.

It was on this fieldwork that another unintended consequence of our research came up. This was the notion of pilgrimage and tourism. The thought came to us as we were navigating our way out of Tinambac and passing by a bridge where vendors were selling marine products, like shells and big fishes. To the side where the sea was, we would catch glimpses of a bay and through overgrowth and tall trees, estuaries and small bodies of water locked in by stones and grasses. We wanted to stop by and take photos again but we realized too quickly that we were on a precipitous curve or a cramped stretch of the road. Stopping would be dangerous. A few minutes more of driving and we could see a small crowd gathered, behind them a crag and below the magnificent, quiet sea dotted by islets. The sun about to set fulfilled the splendor of the pale yellow light casting a net of gold across the horizon.

We stopped by and asked where we were. Cagsao or Kagsaw (everything depends these days on the politics of your orthography!) was the name of the place. We took photos like crazy and, like any slave to the social media, began posting the images online. Whereupon, comments started pouring in: Where is this? Beautiful! What peace, what serenity! And then came the disbelief: Where are you now? I did not know Tinambac was beautiful? Is that near Calabanga?

I had to tell those responding to my pictures that this was the first time for me to see these views. And yet, there was another reality, and that was the fact that around us were some of the poorest communities in the province.

Our travel also proved that the “isolation” of some places, like Balatan and Buhi, are senseless myths. Buhi can be linked to Partido. Breaking the age-old notions that highways serve only the cities or centers, one can travel in one day from the shrine to Our Lady of Salvacion in Buhi in Tambo up the other icons of Salvacion on the mountain villages in Goa and Tinambac, and down to Calabanga, where the great Hinulid or Dead Christ is. Has anyone connected these sites of faith before?

I remember the o-henro, the Japanese word for “pilgrim.” I saw this in my last Japan Foundation research fellowship in Shikoku: a pilgrimage to some 88 temples. At each temple, you stamp a page in your booklet. Sometimes, the pilgrim spends a night in a temple. In this practice, the pilgrim becomes a tourist; the tourist becomes a believer. In our case, let us not count out the bikers and motorists and the trekkers. Perhaps, this project could help rehabilitate not only the chapels but also those isolated towns and villages. Perhaps, this is the new meaning of a visita.


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