Virgin on the Hill

Always the way - when you don't make plans, it's more likely to push through.
I was wondering where I'd be come Holy Week.  Home, most likely.  It was too hot to move but I had to get away. My brother has been lighting up two to three mosquito coils at a time to kill the darn pests, oblivious to my discomfort (asthmatic bronchitis).  Luckily my friend invited me to stay at her place.  Her house is set on a hillside in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan. The air up there is a lot cooler.
There's also the old nudge to do something for my spiritual health.  Solution? Go on a pilgrimage the weekend before Holy Week. My friend's mom decided to bring us all to Regina RICA in Tanay, Rizal.
Run by Dominican sisters and a bevy of volunteers, Regina RICA is basically a place of prayer and contemplation, with the 70 foot Virgin Mary at the top of a hill the main focal point. You can see the Virgin for miles around.  It was sculpted by artist Jose Barcena, Jr. There seems to be a trend for massive, gigantic religious symbols.  I assume it's because people tend to forget and to see these looming over Creation brings to mind the existence of a higher power.
There are 308 stone steps winding up the hillside, bordered by sunflowers and bougainvillea.
Incongruously, here and there are flowering Poinsettia. Christmas and summer flowers, together.
You walk up steps of rectangular fired clay bricks (clay dug up right there I suppose) firmly wedged and hemmed in with bamboo stakes pounded on the ground. For a small fee, you can have your footprint impressed on a clay brick for posterity.
The walk (or climb) up should give you enough time to recite the rosary, which is really the idea. 
No, I didn't get to pray the rosary at the steps.  It is rather difficult to do so with everyone else moving forward.  Plus I could never keep up without rosary bead in hand.
Also guilty of taking pictures!
I did manage it very very quietly, without holding up the line.
It is important that everyone goes in one direction only - up - and go down the other side of the hill. No two way traffic!
Only the elderly are excused from not completing the walk up. The rest of us should consider it a worthy sacrifice (Jesus endured way more) and a test of faith.
Common sense and propriety dictates dressing conservatively in long skirts, pants, sleeved top or cover-ups. Like the volunteers and the nuns at the orientation said (one held right before you go up the hill and the other right under the seraphim studded cloud at the Virgin's feet), you wouldn't want to distract the pilgrim behind you. No jump shots and no selfies either.
You can take pictures quietly, discreetly along the way but not when you get inside the prayer room under the Virgin's mantle. It is big enough to accommodate fifty people at a time. 
You are asked to leave footwear before you go up to the inner sanctum.  I simply tucked my slippers in my jeans' back pocket.
There are 16 smiling angels on the cloud and a 17th angel in an area of the inner sanctum, that one with a wing covering sad eyes. See that picture of the angel in profile, seemingly trying to fly out of the cloud? Kind of reminded me of the terrible angels swooping out of the Ark in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Inside the chapel, there's a cross with a "smiley" like cutout (or a host with a crescent).  At orientation, the nun said something like surrendering your worries to the heavens and leaving the chapel with a lighter heart and a smile.
I'm a little cross though, at all those people who can't keep their kids quiet or from calling out to people in their party for a "wefie".
What did make me smile is seeing a lamb straying from its flock (the sisters keep body and soul together with organic veggie gardens and farm animals) to nibble at a clump of grass right in front of me.
Along the sides of the hill are stations of the cross.  At the bottom on the left side is a beautiful church.  The exit path takes you to it, your last prayerful stop.
You may catch your breath in one of the rental cottages tucked among the trees. The day is a scorcher and I got an effortless tan.  I didn't have sunblock on. Walking along the treeline was a relief.
You can bring food to the cottage or eat a modest, organic meal at the restaurant/canteen. Clean as you go, of course!  We opted to go to lunch at a resort we passed on the way to Regina RICA.

Best to visit the Virgin on a regular day so you get a full sense of contemplative peace.
It could be a little off putting to see some parts of the hill barren, almost scarred looking to me.

The place is a work in progress though.  There are patches of land and hillsides dug up for a future facility.
It is the vastness, the rolling hills, clumps of pompom topped mango trees, tall stands of a birch like tree and open sky that's as awe inspiring as the Virgin that reigns above all.
As a reminder that God created awesome creatures too,  a peacock stopped me in my tracks.  He allowed me to come nearer and stalk him.
What can I say, animals love posing for me hehe.
P.s.  There should be food at the end but I went on a modified fast.  Don't worry, part two comes soonest, with food! :)







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