“Lock the door at night so that the Diwata (bad spirit) cannot surprise us in the dark.” “Have fun trekking in the mountains, but take care of the trolls and fairies!”
Yes, Filipinos have superstitions — a lot of them. I couldn’t count how many times during my eight-month stay that somebody told me to avoid certain places or take care in some particular way.
In the hospital where I volunteered, superstitions were especially common since many of our patients came from the upper mountain barangays (villages), where they still live somewhat nomadic lifestyles. When a woman gave birth, they would pin a piece of ginger on the baby’s clothes to keep spirits away. And in one case, a woman gave me a bracelet filled with spices and leaves for protection against spirits.
But all of these tales and beliefs lead back to the enchanted island of Siquijor. Filipinos believe that all of the creatures, spirits, and black magic that exist are strongest in Siquijor. The fear of this place is striking; nearly half of the people who live in the Philippines would never set foot in Siquijor.
I used to laugh when I heard stories about Siquijor, and my interest in this strange island only grew as I read more about it.
I was fascinated by the preparations local healers would make during Holy Week, the largest event of the year, because 90% of the people are Christians. During Holy Week, all the healers meet and produce death, and revival, potions. One of the ingredients is human bone, which is why you’ll find open graves scattered around the island. I’ve heard that attendees have to block their noses during these ceremonies — at the last festival, the town mayor didn’t, and he blacked out.
It was clear that I had to go and see for myself; so off I went.
The island is easily accessible by boat from Dumaguete (southern Negros) or Tagbilaran (Bohol). My travel buddy and I stayed in Larena, on the northern tip of the island, which was also the site of a weekend festival.
The morning after we arrived, we decided to hitchhike south, passing abandoned white-sand beaches and clear, turquoise water. Our only plan was to explore. Once we arrived in San Juan, on the westernmost region of the island, we realized that we only had 70 pesos (about $1.50) between us for the day. And the only ATM was in Larena — a 45-minute drive back to where we started the day.
We decided to keep traveling and visit the centuries-old Balete tree located somewhere between San Juan and the next town of Lazi. Hitchhiking was our primary form of transportation, so we held out our thumbs again.
Unsurprisingly, the old, supposedly-magic tree was legendary. But I was most impressed by the little lake beneath it. It was filled with tiny fish that would eat dry skin right off your feet like in fish spa. It took a while, and lots of Filipino laughter, to get accustomed to the weird tickling sensation.
After we splashed in the lake, we waited for someone to take us to Lazi, a charming town featuring an ancient church. There, a Filipino family recommended the nearby Cambugahay Falls as their favorite natural spot in Siquijor. We had accepted that we would be walking four or five kilometers to the falls when a police car suddenly drove by and my travel buddy shouted, “Oh, look! Let’s ask him if he can take us!” But before I could even turn around to roll my eyes in her direction, the policeman opened his window and asked us if we needed a ride.
As we got closer, I grew more and more excited. Then, before I knew it, we were there. It felt familiar for some reason, as if I had visited the falls many times as a kid.
The water was light blue — so pure and refreshing on what was such a hot day. It was packed with Filipino children who had built bamboo cottages, rafts, and swings. We had good fun with them, even though we couldn’t understand a word they were saying. We stayed for hours until it was time to leave and there was only one more mission to accomplish.
We had wondered how we could get in touch with the magical healers of Siquijor, and I feared that a tour would lead to an intentionally staged experience. But over the course of the day, we hadn’t seen or heard anything associated with magic.I realized that finding a healer would be up to us, and I also knew that we had to go to San Antonio, a mountainous town where all the healers gather. Someone on a motorcycle dropped us off at the main road, where we waited for a ride back to Siquijor City.
We waited and waited — unusual in the Philippines, where people move mountains to make space for you in their cars. I started to get nervous. Even if we found a car, how would we get back from San Antonio once it was dark? Then, around the corner, came our knight in shining armor: a pickup truck filled with five men and a couple of cupboards and shelves in the bed. We waved excitedly, noticing that the guys in the car were visibly irritated. But within moments, my backpack and friend were tumbling into the truck ahead of me. We were off.
The thing is, you can’t really visit a healer if you’re not sick. So we were happy about an unlucky, lucky occurrence right before our ride back to the city. Because we had run out of carton, I plucked the biggest leaf I could find along the road to write our destination in capital letters. But the liquid from the stem made my hands burn painfully. We decided that when we got to San Antonio, we would see a healer, he or she would heal my burning hands, we would chit-chat and later that night we’d fall asleep with incredulous, satisfied smiles.
The astonishing thing was, as soon as we arrived in San Antonio, after our squished but scenic drive up the bendy road in the middle of a bunch of cupboards, my hands stopped burning. Simply arriving in San Antonio seemed to do the impossible!
After we were dropped off in the town center, we had to think of a new strategy. After telling a local woman that we wanted to visit a healer, she pointed to the opposite side of the street. “Look over there,” she told us. “He’s a healer.”
There he was. An old lollo (grandpa) with short hair, wearing basketball shorts and a gold chain around his neck. He looked like everybody else, and I was confused, having expected a healer to look somehow different than everyone else.
His name was Vicente. He lived in a corrugated-iron hut surrounded by all kinds of animals a few minutes from the town center. He invited us to his house, and we began to quiz him about his work.
Most of the time, his daughter translated for us: “He’s a master of different methods of healing, but the herbs and other plants he collects are always involved. If people are in pain, he massages them with self-made oil. He also produces love potions and potions that protect you from evil people.”
I am very interested in the power of our minds, the placebo effect, natural medicine, and traditional healing plants. But I cannot relate to these kind of things. And I can’t help but wonder how they fall in line with Christianity.
Intrigued, I decided to engage in a healing session. Vincente mixed charcoal and herbs in an empty pineapple can. He lit the charcoal and put it underneath the chair I was sitting on. Then he stood behind me, whispering quick sentences in a foreign language that was definitely not a Filipino dialect. This, he noted, would drive all the bad spirits out of my body through sweat. To accelerate the process, he gave me a large blanket.
I didn’t know what to do. The whole scene was utterly bizarre. I closed my eyes and forced myself to feel some sort of magic. Instead, I felt like I was going to burst into laughter at any second. Though I felt no tangible difference, my friend suggested that we were changed on the inside.
When we walked out of his house, it was nearly sunset. Vicente’s village was illuminated by golden light, and it looked more beautiful than ever.
I turned to my friend. She sighed and said, “What a day.” I nodded, and we both laughed with everything we had. We were in a better mood than we had felt in a long time — because of this trip, Siquijor, and the little paradise we found.
For me, that day was the epitome of the freedom and heedlessness I felt in the Philippines for the first time in my young life. I would do anything to go back to that moment.
Back in Larena, we ate eggplant frittata, my favorite, for dinner. We were back to real life. We fell onto our beds, exhausted, with incredulous but satisfied smiles.