It had only been ten minutes since alighting from the Jeepney, and I was already soaked with sweat. Tita L joked that this was our ‘penitensya‘, as we trekked under the baking, unrelenting sun up the long uphill path through the forest to the peak of Kawa-Kawa Hill.
Penitensya, or feeling regret or sorrow for sins or offenses, often includes self-inflicted suffering to mimic Christ’s experience in his last days. It is a known practice in certain, mostly rural, parts of the Philippines during Holy Week, and for those who participate, it is a sign of their deep devotion to God. These devotees will be voluntarily flogged in the street, their backs covered in welts and blood, bound and bagged, and some, who want the most authentic Jesus Christ experience, are crucified, nails and all (though this is far rarer). This ritual is even visited by tourists.
Tita L’s off-hand joke seemed to gain unexpected relevance as we ascended. Upon turning a corner I found a life-size statue of Christ, kneeling in prayer. Ten minutes later, a statue of Christ and his desciples. I had known nothing of Kawa-Kawa before we came here, but now I was starting to get the gist: situated along the hill and in the park proper stood life-size statues depicting scenes from story of Easter (the statue of the Last Supper at the base of the hill should have tipped me off). In all, there are fourteen Stations of the Cross, and the trail encourages visitors to see them all.
After what felt like a mini-pilgrimage in near 40-degree heat, we finally reached the top and collapsed onto the wooden benches in the shade. We’d made it to a rest stop. To our left, a woman sat at a refreshment stand, fanning herself while checking her phone. The Titas bought us some cold drinks to help us recuperate, while a hen and its chicks pecked around near our feet. In front of us, a large, pink heart had been erected for couple photo-ops, or possibly for wedding photos for those who tie the knot in the church that was to open in the near future.
Kawa-kawa is a hill without a hilltop. As I looked down into the valley, I felt as if I were looking into a volcanic crater, its concave shape and the circularity of its rim reminding me a bowl. Indeed, Kawa means ‘cauldron’ in the local dialect. Down in the valley, a grove of sunflowers were in bloom. Moving specs in the distance hinted that other people were out there, but from where we sat, everything was perfectly serene, and our group sat in solitude, chatting away, while Tita L and one of my relatives took photos of themselves ‘sa Pacebook‘. This was my first time I had expereinced such rolling greenery while in the Philippines. I knew it was out there, of course, but it had just appeared as an image flashing past a bus window, and despite the stifling humidity, the air sure tasted fresher and sweeter here.
There were eight more Stations of the Cross to find. While the Titas stayed put under the shade, Jen, my cousins, and I, ventured along the path that ran around the valley’s rim. The palms along the edge of the path provided us with a little shade, but I can’t blame the Titas for staying put in the cool. We came to what appeared to be an indoor viewing platform, which provided us with the sundrenched vistas beyond Kawa-Kawa Hill. Looking further into the countryside, we could see Mt. Masaraga, which I mistook for Mayon, as it was the only natural landmark I was aware of.
The final station, at the hill’s highest point, across the valley from where we entered, depicts Christ on the Cross, and can be approached from three directions, depending on which path you choose. For me, approaching from the steep steps leading to the peak, rather than circling around on the path, provides the most powerful image of the trail, with the viewer looking up at the emotional scene through the frame of the palms.
Admittedly, I am not a religious person. Whenever I return to the Philippines, I feel slightly out of place in ‘the most Christian country in Asia’, where over eighty percent of the population considers themselves Catholic, and over ninety are Christian in some form. Still, I can appreciate the comfort it brings people, and as I noticed my cousin’s gaze linger on the statues at each station a while longer than mine, I could see how the trail at Kawa-Kawa could be a spiritual journey for those who made the trip here, especially at the time of our visit, just a few days removed from Holy Week.