“I was frightened before I first visited Siquijor. My friends warned me about the island.” Amy had heard the scary stories of sorcery and supernatural activity. I was having a coffee, chatting to this confident, intelligent woman on the island that many Filipinos are too scared to visit. Aren’t I brave?! I had travelled to the Philippines’ ‘witchcraft island’ to learn more about the myths and meet a traditional medicine woman, reputedly with special healing powers.
Amy moved to Siquijor (pronounced sik-ee-hor), the third smallest province in the Philippines, 10 years ago. Now she knows that stories of spells being cast when you look a local in the eye are just folklore and fantasy. In fact, you could argue that the infamy of being one of 100,000 Siquijornians brings advantages. When Amy returns to see her family in Cebu, her friends are especially nice to her because they’re worried she’s learned sorcery skills in her new home!
Like all gripping folklore tales, these stories have been shared for generations. They started in the time of the Spanish conquest. Siquijor was on a major sea-trading route and sailors who became ill during their voyage were put ashore. Some men defied the odds and recovered. That possibly fuelled gossip about islanders’ special powers. Locals were also keen to spread these stories to deter would-be invaders and pirates. Who would want to attack the island if supernatural forces were at large?
But Amy is 30 years old. Why does her generation still believe that the island is dominated by the dark arts? She told me that most Filipinos have seen the 2007 horror movie Siquijor – Mystic Island that dramatizes the history of the place. Now, you might think that this mystical reputation would be a good tourism marketing tool, like the Loch Ness Monster or Dracula’s Transylvania, but the island’s Vice Governor, Dingdong Avanzado, believes the tales are harmful and they dissuade domestic travellers.
He joined me over coffee to discuss the island province he represents. In his trendy Panama hat, white shirt and shorts Dingdong looked more like a boy band singer than a statesman. And that shouldn’t have surprised me. He’s one of the Philippines biggest musical stars. Three years ago, this household name pressed the pause button on his pop career to move into politics.
Dingdong says he has never experienced supernatural activity in his time in Siquijor, a place that he has been visiting since childhood. But he does believe that the island has special qualities, which should be the focus of tourism promotion. “This is Asia’s healing island,” Dingdong said. “I mean that in a holistic sense. People need somewhere to relax, to get away from the stresses of city life.” Dingdong believes the island’s attributes of good air, a relaxed vibe and exceptional fruit and veg from fertile volcanic soils combine to create a better experience for the body and soul. “Have you tasted our mangoes?” Dingdong enquired through an engaging smile.
This all made sense to me. Already, after 24 hours on the island, I’d appreciated the slower pace of life, the safety and lack of congestion. I’d noticed the friendly waving and hellos of locals as I passed by too. But Dingdong thinks that Siquijor offers more than just a chance to ‘chill out.’ He told me, “Local healers have been able to concoct ‘so-called medicines’ to aid the body to heal.”
The joint-owner of the Danish Lagoon resort was living proof of some islanders’ understanding of the medicinal properties of plants and herbs. 60-year-old Johnnie Karstensen told me that he’d been hospitalised for ten weeks in Norway with crippling psoriasis. The doctors’ prognosis wasn’t good – he’d been warned that he’d end up in a wheelchair. It was Dingdong’s dad, Ling, who suggested that Johnnie visited an island medicine man, known locally as a manambal, for a ‘bola-bola’ diagnosis. It was the best advice Johnnie ever received and had given him what he described as his “second chance.” He was clutching a mineral water bottle containing a bright orange liquid when he joined me at the table. Johnnie explained that it contained a solution to tackle psoriasis made from the bark of a local tree. The medicine man had ‘prescribed’ it and Johnnie was now cured.
Personally, I’m very open to people pursuing any alternative avenues when science has failed to find a solution. If it works for you, why not? After all, aspirin is derived from a compound found in the bark of willow trees and ginger settles upset tummies.
Another local joined us. The impressive, long mahogany table in the Danish Lagoon’s bar and restaurant had become the most crowded spot in Siquijor! I shook hands with Ling Avanzado, Dingdong’s dad. He looked like a man who commanded authority even though he was dressed down for our Sunday morning meeting. The former island mayor grew up in a household that embraced both modern and traditional medicine. His father started the island’s first medical practice in 1949 and opened the first hospital. But Ling had a stronger belief in the power of the local medicine men.
He believes the size of the convent at Lazi, on the south of the island, shows that the priesthood had put faith in Siquijor’s healing men back in the 19th century. He told me that most Roman Catholic convents would have offered ten rooms at the time, whereas the impressive structure in the islands’ interior, which I visited, was built in 1857 with a 134-room capacity, making it the largest in Asia. Ling said the church knew Siquijor was “a healing place.” When questioned about the choice of location for this significant building, Ling said a church spokesman had stated, “There’s something in your pueblo that makes priest get well.”
Ling also explained how the wife of a prominent Filipino politician had defeated the doctors’ diagnosis of terminal illness following a bola-bola consultation. And then our discussion skipped from the healing powers of herbs towards what many people would consider witchcraft. Ling spoke about a local who sustained a spinal injury in the United States. The patient was repatriated but he was paralysed from the neck down. The medicine men buried him each day in the white sands to the left side of the Siquijor town ferry terminal pier. Apparently, the man has regained movement and now rides a motorbike again.
It seems that there’s a bit of a generational divide over how much of these witchcraft stories people accept. Dingdong wanted to promote herbs and holistic holidays. His father Ling expressed a strong belief that some islanders can achieve things that cannot be explained by science. And sorcerers can still sort out anyone who conned or cheated locals, he told me. It’s called ‘barang paktol’ but this practice was generally used for good or to send back spells to hex any outside sorcerer who tried casting them.
I was keen to find out more by visiting an island manambal for a bola-bola ‘cleansing.’ You don’t find them in Yellow Pages and the two established practitioners of this craft who had lived nearby had died recently, said Johnnie. It took some detective work by Danish Lagoon staff in locating one. Because of the potential for communication problems, Jess from the hotel accompanied me on our hired tricycle – a small Honda motorbike with a covered sidecar bolted on.
After riding for 40 minutes into the countryside we reached a simple wooden bungalow set back from the road amongst deep, thick undergrowth and tall palms. An old woman came to the door of the shack and told Jess that the medicine woman was away. But she knew the location of another practitioner. We continued down the road for a few more miles and pulled off the highway again. It was a similar scene, a cluster of breezeblock cottages with plywood patches and corrugated roofs. But there were signs of the 21st century – a TV was blaring away on a music channel in the background. Outside the cottage was a makeshift waiting area of benches. Two tall, fair-haired twenty-somethings, possibly Swedish backpackers, were leaving after their consultation. It felt almost like an alfresco doctor’s surgery – minus the out-of-date magazines.
Jess explained that some locals went for a check-up, others wanted cleansing or had specific problems that they hoped could be remedied with potions or healing power. The doctor will see you now. A 30-year-old woman emerged from the house carrying a glass jar, water jug and bamboo straw. Jenny-Loo greeted me in perfect English. I suspect she honed her language skills from watching US TV imports, if her accent was anything to go by. She said that she’d been doing this since she was 14. Her grandfather had chosen her to carry on the tradition and she deputised for him when he was tired. It was the weekend, so I guess I should have expected to see the locum.
Jenny put a special, round, black stone, her granddad’s, which she called a ‘luggig’, into a jar of water. She then rubbed the jar of water around my back, face and head whilst continually blowing into the straw. The noise from the bubbles reminded me of my childhood misbehaviour with a straw and a can of fizzy pop. But the motion of the cool jar massaging my back was quite soothing. On three occasions Jenny-Loo stopped and showed me that the water was clear. “That is good,” she said. When it turns cloudy it indicates a problem. She emptied and refilled the water twice between more bubbling – the clarity remained. I’m going to live forever. Clearly.
It wasn’t such good news for the tricycle driver. During his treatment, the water in the jar turned opaque. Jenny-Loo spoke to him in local dialect. I assume she wasn’t advising him not to drive, because minutes later we were on the road again.
You’ll have your own views on whether there’s any substance behind claims of special powers or potions. What I can tell you, and I’m not a scientist, is that Siquijor is an oasis of calm in a country that can be chaotic and confusing. And when you factor in the scenery, genuine warmth of welcome, delicious food and wonderfully comfortable accommodation you’ll find at the Danish Lagoon, you’ll probably agree that there is something quite magical about this island.
Getting to Siquijor:
You can take a ferry from nearby Cebu, Dumaguete or Tagbilaran, which are all accessible by domestic flights from Manila.
Go for the business class or aircon ferry ticket if available. It won’t cost much more, but there’s space for your legs and you won’t feel like you’ve been in an oven for the one to two-hour crossing. It is best to buy tickets beforehand, as you’ll queue amongst chaos if you turn up just before your departure.
The Philippines love bureaucracy and travel operators are neither professional nor organised by Western standards. Be aware of this. You’ll also have to queue to buy a port departure ticket – less than 25p – after you buy your travel ticket. There’s no concept of European health and safety practices. As you board the ferry watch out because lorries reverse into the hold approximately a metre from where the queue is standing. Hold your breath if you don’t like diesel fumes!
From 2017 it is hoped that smaller 60 seat aircraft will fly direct from Cebu Airport to Siquijor.