Located in the pulsing heart of the capital, the Quiapo Church is a decades-old reminder of the strong presence of Catholicism in the Philippines. It is known as a place of faith, fanaticism, filth, and occasionally, petty crimes.
I am not kidding when I say that you can find just about anything in this area, even the most unexpected combinations.
For decades now, Quiapo vendors have been peddling abortion potions right next to rosaries and prayer booklets in spite of the Church’s strong stance against ending unwanted pregnancies. Recently, vendors have also started selling anti-Tokhang invisibility amulets that can help give suspected drug users protection from the bloody drug war.
It’s also where card-shuffling psychics share the spotlight with priests who promise salvation through faith.
“Yeah, you can record, but you’ll hear nothing but cat’s meows when you play [the recording],” said a 58-year old fortune teller who agreed to talk to me on the condition of anonymity.
After taking a good look at my palm, he said, “You don’t need to have your fortune read. You’re going places.” According to this guy’s pitch, he’s been telling fortunes for 35 years and is supposedly renowned amongst the Filipino community in Abu Dhabi.
As he shuffled his cards, I listened to him lay out the milestones I could expect in the following months. He told me to watch out for something life-changing in April.
Was it part of his job to make me feel good about myself? I wasn’t sure, but I continued listening to him just for the heck of it.
I nodded when he said that I would make my parents proud when I graduate. (I already graduated in 2008.)
I nodded when he said that I would marry a guy whose name starts with a letter D. (I am already married — to a Daniel!).
I nodded when he said I’ll have two daughters (I am perfectly happy with one I’ve got, thankyouverymuch)
“How about the Philippines? What will happen this year?” I asked.
His answer was a curious mix of predictions and wishes with a few news snippets thrown in for good measure.
“I am one hundred percent sure that the Philippines will be okay if no one touches Duterte,” he said. He was no longer looking at his cards.
He shared that people in Quiapo have been feeling considerably safer since Duterte took office last year. With conviction, he promised that the tough-talking president would change the Philippines, but warned that the road ahead would be bloody. He declined to go into specifics.
“You can now walk on the plaza with jewelry on, and no one will touch you,” he said. “We feel the change … small people like us.”
His advice for President Duterte? Take care of his health. He added that the president might declare martial law if his health gets really bad, but I couldn’t tell if that was an actual prediction, or something he heard on the radio.
“He needs to stay strong,” he added. “He shouldn’t let the noise of the Church and the noise of his enemies get to him.”
It felt like he believed every word he said: from his promise that I would be super rich by forty, to his assurance that things will be better for the Philippines in 2017.
He accepted his PHP100 fee after our 20-minute session. I added in an extra fifty. He had entertainment value even if there was a notable absence of a funky crystal ball and beaded curtains.
Moving on, I met a female fortune-teller from Negros, also 58. “When you decide to stay here in Quiapo, you’ll learn a lot of ways to make money,” she said. After months of independent study, she started telling fortunes in 2011.
Prior to becoming a fortune-teller, she had already tried many other jobs like cooking and working as a nanny. Reading tarot cards, however, helped her send her kids to school, so she stuck to it. Her eldest is due to begin high school soon.
I had originally wanted to ask her about Donald Trump, but she didn’t recognize the name.
I asked her to tell me about her life in Quiapo instead.
On busy days (Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays), she told me she could make up to PHP1,000 peddling predictions. “It’s enough for those who don’t have vices, such as gambling or drinking.”
Just recently, the Quiapo fortune tellers were supposedly issued permits from the Manila mayor’s office. However, she wasn’t sure if the permits were authentic. She pulled hers out and showed it to me.
In spite of the permits, the fortune tellers still get bothered by authorities every so often, especially if they don’t give bribe money. Most of them shell out PHP200 a day for a peaceful day of business.
“We have no choice. They treat us like we’re garbage,” she said.
Again, the subject of Duterte came up.
“I like him,” she said, “but I hope he can do something to really help us.”
A woman was using clear tape to laminate her dilapidated tarot cards. When she saw me watching her curiously, she invited me to sit down.
“If you think about the future too much, you’ll go crazy,” she said. “Our predictions are just guides, you know.”
Unlike the first two psychics, this woman had a more extensive resume. She said she could also make love potions for PHP2,000 (late Valentine’s day date, anyone?) and does feng shui for a minimum of PHP25,000 for Manila clients.
This 48-year-old psychic with perfectly-manicured nails even told me that she has a client in Hawaii who calls her for predictions and advice every night. I asked her how the client pays. “Cebuana,” she said referring to the local money transfer company.
She said that most of her clients are people in need of help.
She’s a believer of the Black Nazarene, a life-sized statue of Jesus Christ believed to have miraculous powers. Every year, she joins the frenzied Quiapo procession to show her devotion.
She saw absolutely nothing contradictory with her day job and her strong Catholic faith. In fact, she sometimes even tells her clients to pray.
“You know, I’ve met desperate people. I always tell them not to worry because problems will end,” she said.
“Always be thankful. When someone throws you stone, throw him a piece of bread,” she added, rephrasing the famous Bible verse.
Speaking to the Quiapo psychics was strangely inspiring, not because I was promised a good fortune, but because I witnessed their enduring hope in spite of the daily grind in one of the grittiest areas in Metro Manila.
If they say that the future is going to be just fine, who am I to argue?