“Atras! Atras! (Move backward! Backward!)” someone would shout. But the crowd often dismissed the futile attempts. It necessitated a figure of authority mounting a gigantic motorbike equipped with a wangwang to send the crowd backward.

Every time a gust passed through, the banderitas fluttered. From the gaps of the wavering banderitas, jots of cumulus clouds meandered along the horizon. The shy showers that punctuated the third Sunday of January in the past years blurred my memory.

Four million visitors were expected at this year’s Sinulog. And the police officer on his humongous ride was one of the ten thousand police personnel and crowd control staff manning and guarding the grand event.

With all major city roads closed, everyone was left with their own two feet. Walking became the language, the religion common to everyone—the rich and the poor, the young and the old. It is the only day of the year that Cebu city becomes the home of millions of street children—it becomes the nation of “the citizens of the streets,” as Rebecca Solnit put it.

One of the contingents’ introductory placard had “Dancing Pilgrims” attached to the place they came from, but are they not all dancing pilgrims?

Pilgrimage is “walking in search of something intangible.” At the Sinulog, it is both dancing and walking. I convinced myself that contingents from different regions of the country spent hours street-dancing amid exhaustion and unforgiving heat as a tangible act of something intangible and that spectators walked to witness varied displays of faith; and by doing so, they manifested their own.

Donned in efflorescent or equally striking costumes and props, each contingent’s journey—colorful and entertaining in the spectators’ eyes—was challenging.

A pilgrimage is often tough on the human body and mind.

“Are they even Christians?” a renowned photographer questioned as Tribu Sarimanok from Lanao del Norte performed in front of the judge’s station.

I want to believe that Sinulog does not limit itself to one belief, that there is faith transcending the confines of a certain religion, a faith that unites, a faith that does not distinguish and separate. Perhaps with the growing presence of contingents from Mindanao, this might be true.

There is something different and interesting with Mindanao’s colors evident in the props and costumes of the participants: the shades are a degree richer than the rest. They danced with the colors of their land telling their stories, they danced to be heard. Perhaps for them, participating in Sinulog is more than dancing a prayer.

Other out-of-town contingents, alongside the Mindanao contingents, were Masbate’s Tribu Himag-ulaw and Leyte’s Tribu Lingganay who received some of the loudest wows and whistles from the spectators.

Sinulog transcends race. An Indian-looking man wearing a turban and a sherwani joined the parade, danced, and entertained onlookers who wanted their pictures taken with him. Foreign photographers joined the mayhem of photogs who swarmed festival queens and moved forward along with the others when someone from the contingent’s staff shouted “Abante! Abante! (Forward! Forward!)”

While resting and waiting for the next contingent, a group of Turkish people occupied the space beside me. They talked in a foreign tongue; but when the guy nearest to me answered a call, he answered in a neat Bisaya, which I found rather amusing.

Fuente and Mango Avenue became hotspots as the rope-restricted lane loosened and eventually opened. Two Europeans unhesitatingly accepted and gulped a drink from a street partier. A middle-aged American apologized when his paint-smashed arm brushed my white t-shirt.

Everyone looked at home on the streets. Nobody looked lost.

It was an hour past midnight, the day of the solemn procession of the miraculous image of Sto. Niño and the eve of the grand parade. The pilgrim’s site fronting Basilica del Sto Niño was stripped of its daytime sophistication. Stylists were busy arranging flower after flower: calla lilies, white lilies, yellow roses, which were shipped from Baguio.

Past midnight, the altar looked empty except for the replica of Sto. Niño looming above. But I knew beautiful flowers would gradually consume the spaces. The altar would be ready for the first mass at daybreak.

The solemn procession is one of those rare moments when the city streets echoed the pleading “Batubalani Sa Gugma” (The Magnet of Love) as devotees swayed their hands in the air while crooning. The streets became rivers of people flowing.

“Di gyod nako makita ang dan ay (I could not see the road),” said Ate Teryang, my housemate who happens to work as a street cleaner. As rivers of people flowed in the procession and the grand parade, garbage flooded the streets.

As I rode the jeepney at four in the morning, hill after hill of trash lined up along the streets, waiting to be collected. Ate Teryang said that they completed their tasks last year as the sunrays teased the peaks of the skyscrapers. But the aftermath of this year’s grand celebration left them sweeping later. The sunrays kissing the street looked like twigs of their brooms.

Jona Branzuela Bering scales mountains, treks rivers, combs beaches, hops towns, takes photographs and searches for stories. She always travels with a backpack, books, pens, and notebooks. She blogs at backpackingwithabook.com.